Mary and I are both knackered by current events in the church and our nation, and we know we aren’t alone. A few days ago, I started looking for a sign—any sign—of hope in my fellow humans. You know, one tends to find what one is looking for, eh? It felt good to recognize a small demonstration of kindness here, a step in a positive direction there. We thought we would continue seeking signs for a while. We welcome you to share your signs of hope with us, too, in the comments. We are all in this life business together, after all.
Today’s sign: I chapereoned a parade today. As we arrived at the marshalling area, I was struck by the sheer number of people assembled. This is a big 10 division parade. In the one parking lot we were in, there were easily 10 high school marching bands, not to mention representatives from dozens of community groups (Scouts, dance schools, sports teams, local service clubs…), fire engines, classic cars, some stilt walkers, a pair of gorgeous older ladies in a fiery red sports car representing the local Red Hat Society, and even a t-rex. It was a visible sampling of good stuff going on all over my community.
Then we started marching. There were thousands of people along the route. All ages, all races, all socio-economic backgrounds. All of my neighbors were all out with their families enjoying the parade. Dozens of times my fellow chaperones responded to praise for our student musicians. Not to mention the people who knew me from my work in the community who called me out by name, and reached out for a hug or wave (and one unexpected demand for a selfie!).
Each month, we extend a challenge aimed at teaching us something about ourselves, our community, our faith, or maybe just to amuse us!
How can it be October –the twenty-sixth week of ordinary time–already? I haven’t finished planning my July 4th barbecue, and now the entire countryside is sprinkled in pumpkin spice!
This month’s challenge is one that Mary just might be giddy about. She loves all things October and Halloween and horror.
Me? Well, I have to confess that along with cutting ritual and symbolism in an attempt to be more practical or something, I also knocked the mystical out of my spiritual life. After I had my first child, I found that I had lost my stomach for horror movies and books. Being a mom was terrifying enough for me. That I spent two decades in a Pentecostal church that believes that all spirit beings that aren’t the Almighty or the archangels are demonic, and that celebrating Halloween is courting Satan sort of sealed that deal for me. After talking with Mary, and some other thoughtful, smart, creative people (I’m looking at you Sick Pilgrim folks!), I’m willing to consider maybe thinking about revisiting spooky stuff.
During last month’s exploration of ordinary sacramentals, I was surprised to recognize some thin places between, well, between my coffee cup and the heavens. I think I’m ready to venture a little further down this road, and what better time than the days leading up to All Hallow’s Eve?
For September, I challenged Kristen (and myself) to identify current or establish new habits in our daily lives that connect us to God—what we labeled as Sacramentals.
After that we pretty much went silent for the month.
September hit us both a bit like a cement truck, and our carefully laid-out schedule for posts was an early casualty. But the seed for sacramentals was already planted—so how’d we do?
I have not filled my days with magic and mystery or anything. Still, I was surprised to recognize some ordinary everyday sacramentals I already have in my life.
I start my day, every day, pouring a cup of coffee while the dogs are out doing their morning business. Like most of the people I know, I have a ridiculous number of coffee mugs that I have collected over the years. I only use three of them, though. My number one choice is the mug my kid brother gave me for Christmas my freshman year in college over thirty years ago. It’s ringed with Boynton’s quirky animals at school desks. It says, “The little joys of teaching are without number.” It makes me smile every single time. Sometimes, though, it is missing (read that as “it’s in one of my sons’ bedrooms becoming some sort of frightening lab experiment.”) Then I grab the St. Damien of Molokai mug I got at the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Retreat Center. The retreat center is a beautiful place that never fails to bring me peace and some sort of enlightenment. And I always had a thing for Father-now-Saint Damien, the priest who risked—and ultimately lost—his own life to care for the lepers on the island of Molokai. What kind of love must that be? I want it. The mug is always a good reminder.
The third mug is the one that made me realize that my three coffee mugs are sacramental objects.
The third mug came from the gift shop at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. About twenty years ago, one of my husband’s coworkers-become-closest-friends-who-then-became-part-of-our-family came back from a visit to his folks’ with the mug, along with a cedar cribbage board and a balsam filled pillow from Sequoia National Forest. It just tickled him to give us such goofy tchotchkes from tourist spots. His laughter was booming and infectious. It was one of the best things about him. When he died tragically a year later, the mug became my way of remembering him. This past week, I discovered that one of my sons accidentally broke the mug, leaving the pieces on the kitchen counter for me. He (whichever he it was) knew that the mug was too important to just throw out. At that moment, I realized that I treated it—and the other two mugs—as sacramentals.
The other sacramentals in my life are more transient. On my meditative walks, I have a habit of picking up some small natural objects—stones, shells, acorns, feathers… I will put them on my desk or in the small dish on my nightstand for a time, eventually swapping them out for new collections of objects. Last Sunday, while making my first visit to the series of meditation gardens and labyrinth at a local Episcopal parish, I was especially touched by one small space that is nestled under a huge oak tree. A square of pea stone marks off the area. There are two benches across from each other to sit at while praying. In the center of the square was a stone that had been worn away on top, so that it loosely resembled a bowl. In each corner of the square were planter pots filled with small stones. A sign at the entrance to the space encouraged people to take a small stone and hold it while they prayed, imagining their intention being put into the stone. When the prayer was complete, the stone could be added to the stones in the center stone bowl. It was a lovely way to think about our collective intentions and prayers. And it has given me new insight into my practice of collecting as I walk.
Just today I realized that I have another garden-related sacramental. Spring bulbs. For the past thirteen years, since we moved to this house, I have planted tulip, daffodil, and crocus bulbs. Looking back over the years, I realize that this has become a ritual for me. Planting bulbs in my yard is a radical act of faith—the soil is iffy, the weather is unpredictable, and the moles are voracious. Every fall I plant them, not knowing what will bloom come spring. It’s a tangible act of hope and faith.
I honestly thought this month’s dare would be easy for me. I like tangible reminders of faith, and it felt like a logical way for me to remain connected to God while the politics and scandals of organized religion keep buzzing around everywhere I look. I just purchased a used copy of the Liturgy of the Hours that I was excited to delve into, and I was going to carve out time to finally sift through The Catholic Box—the various religious keepsakes of my parents that my brother gave me after my mom’s death, since I was the last sibling still Catholic.
I grossly underestimated the depth of my own anger and sorrow.
When I thought of plunging into the eternal current of prayers of the communion of saints, I just felt cold, like a stranger. And when I looked in the direction of the Box—well, I cried.
Words failed me this month, and as someone who relates to the world largely through words, and who considers them the closest thing I have to an art form, that’s a scary and isolating experience.
The one thing that did comfort me this month was playing the piano. Revisiting pieces I played growing up, pieces that were my mom’s favorites, or that dad always commented on, or that I remember my piano teacher pleading, “No, with more feeeeeling” with a pointless sigh because my 15 years on the planet had been blissfully free of the depth of feeling she was looking for—playing them to an empty house allowed my heart to speak through my fingers without having to engage my brain. I do not play piano well, and I do not play for an audience. But this month I was able to pray the notes directly to God when words just could not suffice.
Sacramentals intrigue me. I never thought of my habit of filling my pockets with stones, or my muttered prayers while doing repetitive gardening chores, or anything outside of church as a sacramental. I totally see it, now, though.
So, yes! I accept your challenge.
I will pay attention to my personal habits that perhaps are more like rituals. I will seek to identify the ordinary objects that could actually be sacramentals in my day-to-day life. While I am at it, I will see if I can find spaces in my day that NEED a ritual, or maybe could benefit from some sacramental object. I feel like I have got something missing. Maybe sacramentals are it.
Once upon a time, I was a girl who saw the magic and the mystery in the spiritual realm, and honored it through ritual and symbols. Somewhere along the line, though, I purged all of that out of my life. It was impractical and unnecessary and foolish. Or something like that. I don’t even know anymore.
I don’t know if a few weeks of intention will answer my questions, but I have to start somewhere, right? I’m going to go light a candle and get started.
I have written and deleted several versions of my response to the Church Sex Abuse Scandal. I have been struggling to write something that doesn’t sound like either a melodramatic diary entry or a dry technical manual for using a stapler.
In terms of a direct response to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, there are countless individual Catholics who have published opinions or otherwise publicly expressed their feelings. My writing partner, and sister friend, Mary Bishop, represented the heartbreak and struggle of devout Catholics so eloquently here a few weeks ago. As I haven’t even been a practicing Catholic –since several years BEFORE the Church Sex Abuse Scandal in the Diocese of Boston broke in the Boston Globe—I feel like I may be a bit out of my lane to even dare add my two cents. I was quite willing to let her words speak for our blog. She and I—and so many of us in so many areas of our lives—keep talking about it, though.
So, while I have not been a practicing Catholic for over thirty years, I have made a career in early childhood education and care. My field of expertise is in family support, and I have extensive specialized training in supporting young children who have suffered trauma. Protecting and nurturing children is my vocation.
Because of my training and education, I know that it is believed that 5% of adult males are pedophiles (there are no good statistics on female pedophiles, though it is generally accepted that it is far more rare), meaning that they are adults that have strong sexual desires and fantasies about prepubescent children. Not all pedophiles act on their urges. I also know that child sexual abuse isn’t always perpetrated by pedophiles. Where pedophiles have issues that are sexual, many abusers have issues with anger, violence, power, and control. The abuse is grossly underreported, but based on reported rates, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of sexual abuse in their lifetimes. Overwhelmingly, children who are victims of sexual abuse know their attacker very well. In many communities, the parish priest would be considered someone a child—particularly an altar server—would know well.
Again, I am not a practicing Catholic, so my opinion is worth what it is worth. I am firmly in the camp that believes that the Bishops should voluntarily resign, and any priest found guilty of criminal behavior should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The non-offending priests, Bishops, Cardinals, Popes who were complicit in the covering up of priests should also be prosecuted. I am not in the business of defending the Catholic church. That being said, it is of small comfort to know that pedophilia rates among Catholic (and Protestant) clergy are only slightly higher than the rates for the male population at large.
Because of my training and education, and well, because of personal experience, I know what sexual abuse does to a child, to their family, to their community, to society. What I can bring to this discussion is my take as a child protector. Here it is: We—as a society, as communities, as dioceses, as parishes—FAILED OUR CHILDREN. We failed. We let men who were charged with leading our sacred communities hurt our children. Repeatedly. We—society, the Church, the laity—failed at holding the abusive priests accountable.
We failed. All of us. And my soul is sick over it. Judging by what I’ve been reading, I am not alone.
So now what?
Mary asked if we are all done. Can we still be Catholic?
Well, again, I haven’t been Catholic in decades. Except for when I have been.
What does that even mean? Well, I was Catholic first. It is my original context for learning about the things of the spiritual realm. Then my view of the spiritual realm expanded through years of Baptist ministries, decades as a non-denominational Evangelical Pentecostal, as a world traveler who has befriended Muslims and Buddhists and Wiccans and others, as an employee of a Jewish university. All that wandering, and I find that I keep coming home again. I keep returning to my friends who are nuns, monks, and priests when I have a tough question. I keep returning to the Church Ladies at St. Charles’ and St. Agatha’s who give up their free time to feed the poor and love others. I keep returning to the rituals and prayers of my childhood.
So, yeah. I lean Catholic. I’m still not sure I can come back, though.
Here is what I am sure of:
There is a spiritual realm. I believe it is a crucially important part of our lives. For as long as I can remember, I have known this to be true.
I believe with all my heart that God is Love.
I believe that Love God, Love Others is the prime directive. I have spent my life trying to do that the best I can. When the priest in my family told me as a teen attending parochial school in his diocese to do what I can to meet Jesus beyond the stained glass windows and the secret handshake that is Catholicism, I took that as permission to figure out how to Love God, even when that meant leaving the Catholic church.
I am not arrogant enough to believe that the hot mess that is humanity has figured out how the spiritual realm works. I am not confident that any one church has THE answers.
And so, for the past eight years (since my father died) I have wrestled with the Big Questions of Life and Faith without a Faith Community to shelter me. I feel pretty good about where I am with God these days, but I sorely miss being a member of a strong Faith Community. Thanks to individual nuns, monks, and priests in my life, plus the quirky, yet very smart and thoughtful folks over at Sick Pilgrim, I was on the verge of returning to the Catholic church and joining my local parish.
Literally, the very week I had that thought, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out, bringing back all the things that make joining the Catholic church (or any organized church, really) unthinkable. There are legion reasons NOT to return to (or stay in) Catholicism. The sex abuse and the cover up, the patriarchal hierarchy, Natural Family Planning (which reads like a plot of a dystopian novel to keep women in subservience), colonialism of missionaries…
I walked away decades ago. The problems in the Catholic church are not my problems. And, yet, here I am, still wrestling with the Almighty, and hanging in there with my Catholic sisters and brothers trying to find a way through the tough days.
Unexpectedly, it was a Jewish composer who helped me realize that I am still in this fight–alongside Catholics. Seriously.
See, Leonard Bernstein would have been 100 years old on August 25th. That is my youngest son’s birthday, as well. My son is a remarkable young man, who asked if he could celebrate his 18th birthday at Tanglewood with some of his friends at the ASTOUNDING event the Boston Symphony Orchestra hosted to celebrate one of their favorite sons.
Bernstein was a brilliant, complex genius. I love his music. I love his commitment to his art—the way he dared to simultaneously pursue classical music and writing for Broadway; the way he remained true to his faith, writing Hebrew music for not just Jewish, but all audiences. I love that he was deeply committed to civil rights. I love that he was a messy and complicated person, like me, wrestling with the Big Questions.
Leading up to the Bernstein Centennial, I was compelled to learn more about man who grew up not far from me, was trained at Tanglewood (a place I consider personally sacred, my happy place), and taught at the university I now teach at. Notable in a truly remarkable life, I learned that Jackie Kennedy commissioned Bernstein to create a work for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Arts. Bernstein was fascinated by the nation’s obsession with President Kennedy’s Catholicism. In response, he wrote a very theatrical piece, called “Mass” which led the audience through the Catholic ritual, questioning the hypocrisy of the leadership, railing against injustices and abuses of the church, and ultimately coming to a place of hope that God is still God–and is in fact Love and is in fact Good–despite the Church.
Bernstein wrote this powerful piece almost 50 years ago. The struggling against the church (Catholicism, Judaism…) is not new. We are not the first, and we likely won’t be the last to push against all the places where the very human rubs against the holy sacred. That doesn’t make the current day any less heavy to bear. It is somehow comforting, though, to know that others have gone on before us, and held up their weights. We stand on shoulders of giants—or at least steadfast heroes.
So, no, I am not really any closer to returning to the Catholic church. However, I know that I am not done wrestling with the Big Questions. I haven’t given up hope, yet.
In the end, I have to say, “No, I’m not done, yet.”
One thing Kristen and I have shared from the beginning of our writing journey has been a deep faith in God, independent of formal religion. I’ve been particularly grateful for that as the latest wave of sex abuse scandals have rocked my church yet again, and it’s increasingly difficult to know how to proceed as an individual and as a family (I discussed that here).
Kristen’s recent piece on blueberries and granite got me thinking more about sacramentals. Sacramentals within the Roman Catholic Church have a pretty strict definition and intent. There are lots of rules (for example, a sacramental is an object or action blessed by a priest, believed to be backed by the prayers of all the faithful, intended to bring the user closer to God, for starters).
That is not what I’m talking about here.
I’d like to challenge you—and myself—to take a look this month at the objects, prayers, and rituals we use in our own lives to bring ourselves closer to God, particularly in light of the fact that some of us are more suspicious than ever of a traditional patriarchal structure. My husband pointed out recently that faith is in God, while trust is in human beings. So if we’ve lost some of that trust, what can we do on our own to uphold our faith?
The words said during Catholic baptisms come to mind here: “Just as Jesus was anointed priest, prophet, and king, so may you live always as a member of his body sharing everlasting life.” So how are we living as priests, prophets, and kings (or maybe queens) in our own lives?
I love Kristen’s practice of finding stones to finger in her pocket as she walks, or paying prayerful attention to the plunk of blueberries in a bucket.
I still enjoy saying a good old-fashioned rosary myself. The beads and rhythm are comforting, and I like using one that belonged to my mom or dad. There is connection there. But I also like to hold a stone that a dear friend brought back from Jerusalem, imagining Christ walking by it, kicking up dust. I like lighting a candle before I pen letters to loved ones, focusing on the light, praying for the recipient. I like walking under the moon, knowing that countless saints and sinners alike, in every corner of the globe, through every age, have looked on the exact same glowing face. Talk about being one family.
I offer no rules, and only one suggestion: try to focus on things that draw your attention to the Almighty, rather than drawing your attention to the object or process itself. (It’s easy for ritual to become an end in itself.)
Does this sound a little heretical? I sincerely hope not. That’s not my intent. It’s just a result of a soul still wanting to reach for God while standing in the muck.
Today happens to be my youngest daughter’s Baptism Day anniversary, and she asked if I’d bake her favorite cookies. The smell is wafting to heaven, chocolate incense carrying prayers of gratitude for her own status as priest, prophet, and princess.
Mary and I had been discussing a Labor Day post. She was thinking about transitions. I was thinking about how, as a career educator and perpetual student, that this, the beginning of the academic calendar, is my New Year’s Eve. I’m not really going to write about either of those things, now, though, because my dear friend Bob is in the hospital, and I find I am compelled to write about the hard work of living.
Bob and I have been friends for over thirty years. In this age of disposable relationships, that is remarkable enough. When you realize that Bob was born with large VSD back before today’s effective treatments were developed, and wasn’t expected to live past infancy, you recognize that being Bob’s friend at all is a miracle.
Bob is a testament to the power of a positive outlook and unshakeable faith. His brightly colored wardrobe, that cackle of a laugh, and his obvious delight in everyday living makes him memorable. Meet him once and you will never forget him. It is impossible to stay down when you are spending time with Bob. (Although you may be embarrassed to eat out with him, because his enjoyment of a meal borders on the obscene.)
My children love Bob like an eccentric uncle. So, it did not surprise me at all when my youngest son made sure he was invited for the tie dye party he was having with some of his friends this Saturday. As an aging hippie, making tie dyes is one of Bob’s favorite things to do. It was a fun, messy time, followed by homemade pizza. It was a great way to spend Saturday night. Until it wasn’t.
Very calmly, Bob asked me to call for an ambulance. I was frightened by the sudden decline in my friend—even more so when an EMT announced that his blood oxygen level had dropped to 64. For those of you who don’t know, as I did not until Saturday night, humans typically have 90-100% oxygen saturation of their blood. When it drops below 90% it is considered low, requiring some attention. At 64%, people are typically unconscious—or already dead. Bob, well, he was still walking—albeit slowly—and talking–mostly coherently–to the EMTs. He’s confounding, my dear friend, but he was dangerously ill. So off we go, first to the local community hospital, where he continued to confound medical professionals, and then into another ambulance to send him to his team of specialists at a World Renowned Hospital in Boston.
While I’ve been fretting and praying for my friend, I had the realization of how much hard work it takes Bob to keep going each day. To a great degree, I have been fooled by Bob’s amazing outlook and joie de vivre. I mean, I have always known that he is greatly challenged by his heart defect (and the complications that have arisen after over fifty five years of treating it). I just never realized how much of a challenge it really was for him to get through his days. Yes, even though we’ve talked about it, often. Dang, but his life is really, really hard work.
He’s told me many times, though, that it’s not so bad, because he just enjoys his life so much. He does, too. I mean, sure, he complains about housework, and paying bills, and all the same things that we all complain about. At the same time, he understands how precious it is to even be around to be able to complain about these things. This guy knows how to appreciate his life. Every meal is delightful. Every band is great. Every truck or motorcycle he sees is awesome. Every person he meets tickles him. He doesn’t find living to be hard work, because he loves it so much.
This Labor Day weekend, as I reflect on work and play, productivity and rest, I find that I keep coming back to Bob and the lesson he teaches me over and over again. Perhaps this time I will finally master it:
Living is hard work, but it is all joy when you love it.
Whatever you labor at, I pray that you come to appreciate it, find the joy in it, and ultimately learn to love it.