Meeting the Challenge: Sit Down & Read

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From Mary:

A few weeks ago I accepted Kristen’s challenge to read this month. I confessed that it’s actually more difficult to find the time to read when the kids haven’t started school yet (and they still haven’t), and I mused that I would have to set an alarm and get up early to find quiet time to read.

HAHAHAHAHAHA!

Oh! Whew. Sometimes I slay myself. I love sleep. And while I did get up early some days, it was to get out and hike a bit while the world was quiet. It’s much more difficult to fall back asleep when I’m hiking than when I’m reading.

I did, however, carve out some time during the day—not every day, but most days. In many homes, mine included, there is no end to what could be done. There is always cleaning, organizing, meal prep—there is no point at which everything is finished and I look around bored, wondering what to do. (Perhaps this changes when all the kids are independent? I’ll let you know when I get there.) Thanks to Kristen, I forced myself to reevaluate what absolutely had to be done, and what could wait for 30 more minutes while I grabbed a book and took a break.

I’m so glad I did. I reconnected with some old friends, including tracking down a book that made its mark when I was young, but I had nothing more to go on than “I think it’s about the world ending or something…there’s a boy in it, unless it was maybe a girl…at one point he (or maybe she) sees a cow.” The internet really can be a useful tool.

I also made some new friends, including a lovely and horrifying little graphic novel that I thought would be for kids but definitely is not. I’m currently in the middle of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell, a book that’s been on my wish list for years and I’m finally making time to read. (Russell is the keynote speaker at the conference Kristen and I will be speaking at in November.) So far it is engrossing, and I find myself mulling over its mysteries at all times of the day—nothing makes my brain happier.

From Kristen: Yes! I love that feeling when a book really consumes me, even when I am not reading it.

As I was laying down this challenge, I knew I was doomed to fail. I returned to teaching in the first week of August, and I began two summer graduate courses. I did not have nearly as much free reading time as I had in July. That was partly why I wanted to take on this challenge.  I wanted to push myself to read. It was more of a struggle than I expected, though. Like Mary, I REALLY had to work at carving out any time for reading (that wasn’t for my coursework. I read hundreds of journal articles this past month!) Beyond that, though, I realize now that I also just frittered away good hours of reading time mindlessly scrolling through screens.

Still, I did have a summer romance with books. I made regular trips to my local library. It is such a beautiful space, staffed by delightful women–many of whom I know, because it is a small town–and it is a real treasure trove of resources. To preprare for this coming school year, I reread many of my favorite children’s books, and over all, they stand up to the test of time. I am especially smitten with Pippi Longstocking. I’ve been reading the book to my preschool class. Their obvious delight with the ridiculous adventures of the young Swedish orphan makes me love the book even more.

I had a quick little fling with an old flame, Stephen King. When my daughter was born, my long-time love affair with Stephen King soured. I simply didn’t get the same thrill from being scared anymore. Being a first-time parent was terrifying enough. About ten years ago, I started reading King’s writings about baseball, and on the craft of writing, and other non-scary subjects. Mary loves horror stories, and talking about that with her rekindled an old passion. Coincidentally, a friend gifted a group of us Library Book Sale copies of Richard Bachman’s (Stephen King) Thinner to read for our poorly organized (but the snacks cannot be beat!) “Book Club.” What a great romp that book was!

I have several other books started, but not yet finished. I have piles of books all over the house that I haven’t yet begun. The month is over, and I am disappointed in myself. I am disheartened by my time-and-brain-sucking screen habit. I want to do something about that.

On a bright note, though, I remembered how much I love talking about books with people. So, I want to keep reading, just so I can talk to Mary about what I’ve read.

 

 

Are We Done Here?

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Are We Done Here?

I have spent much of the last week nauseous over the revelations of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury’s report on sexual abuse in several Catholic dioceses. If you have somehow missed the news, the report revealed credible accusations against 300 priests and bishops, detailing either direct abuse or the cover-up of the abuse of over 1,000 children over the course of decades.

You can read the full report here . Warning: the report is detailed. I tried to only scan the appendix of the accused for names, but mixed in with the names are descriptions of their alleged actions. I could read only a little, and it gave me nightmares. Several times over the past week, my husband walked into the room to find me crying and shaking because I’d tried to read more. The things these children suffered are unspeakable, and I have begun praying daily for whatever healing they may be able to experience. They are first and foremost in my mind.

This of course isn’t the first time sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has been made public. I will make a confession here: When the abuse scandal in Boston broke decades ago, I was still able to fool myself into thinking it was a Boston issue. I felt for the victims, I prayed for healing, but it felt isolated. I allowed myself to believe that local conditions had allowed a vein of abuse to fester in an otherwise healthy organism. I can only beg forgiveness from all the victims for being so blind.

The Grand Jury report is only the latest from the last few years. It came on the heels of the scandal involving Cardinal McCarrick, and not long after reports from Chile, Australia, Ireland. It’s clear now that this is an ongoing systemic problem, and what’s worse, it’s been known, documented, and hidden.

The question now for many of us is, are we done here?

The Church, in an effort to save its own reputation, willfully put the youngest and most vulnerable of its flock in danger, in the direct path of its own predators.

While denying the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried, and denying LGBTQ members the ability to marry at all, some of its clerics sexually abused young children and used the fear of God to keep them quiet.

Are we done here?

While telling women they were unfit for ordination, even in the deaconate, its old boys’ club was covering up we-don’t-know-how-many illegitimate children fathered by priests by telling the mothers to abort their babies, a sin that would exclude them from the Eucharist until they confess it to—you guessed it—a priest.

Some laity are calling for the resignation of US Bishops (all bishops in Chile offered resignations after the abuse scandal there as a public act of repentance; the pope only accepted a few of them), while the pope is calling for the laity to pray and fast in an uncharacteristically tone-deaf letter to the faithful (http://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/it/bollettino/pubblico/2018/08/20/0578/01246.html#ingl).

Are we done here?

This is a painful question for many of us. I can only speak for myself, but I am a cradle Catholic. My Catholic identity has always been a large part of who I am, and the church has been a place I felt I could turn for guidance, reconciliation, and hope. I still believe the Creed we recite at Mass, even as my faith in the leadership of the church has disappeared.  I also still have young children at home. The thought of raising them outside the church, without the sacraments, the community, the tradition and art and music, saddens me. It was a legacy I’d hoped to pass on, deeper and wider than ancestral heritage.

On the other hand, I know my children are watching. The homily on the Feast of the Assumption, the morning after the Grand Jury report was released, centered on the hurt caused by the church countered by the hope and healing we can receive from God. I was relieved and grateful that our pastor addressed the issue head-on (our parish, from what I can see, is vibrant and healthy, led by a priest who is outspokenly sickened and angered by the abuse and its coverup). On the way home I had a brief discussion with my youngest two about priests who had done some very bad things, and about how they should never do something they know is wrong no matter who asks it of them—priest, police, teacher, anyone. When they are older they will understand more of what is happening today, and they will know what I did or didn’t do to keep them safe, and what I did or didn’t do to lead them to God despite it all.

I still don’t know yet if we’re done here. My husband and I continue to grapple, pray, discuss. We did not take the family to Mass this past Sunday—the first time we have ever elected not to go for reasons other than illness or travel. We read the readings together instead (well, my husband did—it was the Bread of Life discourse and I had to hide my face and cry). We will be taking the donation from last Sunday and sending it to SNAP—the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests. More information can be found at www.snapnetwork.org. We will not be sending another dime to the Bishops’ Annual Appeal, ever. For however long it takes us to decide, we will give our weekly donations to local charities usually funded by our parish—we don’t want local outreach to suffer because of the sins of the shepherds.

But that doesn’t settle what we’ll do with and for our children. Bible reading around the dinner table is lovely, but not a substitute for the Eucharist. I’ve been driving around all week with the registration form and check for religious education in my car, unable to bring myself to turn it in (it’s due this Friday). The youngest still turn to us first for answers, and we have none to give.

Suggestions are welcome.

Lord, have mercy.

I just don’t know if we’re done here.

 

 

 

 

 

Granite & Blueberry Beads

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Photo by Kristen Allen

     Growing up Catholic, I belonged to a parish that did not put a lot of emphasis on the Rosary. I was taught the prayers, of course, and I knew that some of the old women sat in the back of the church with their beads clicking. It was just not a ritual that was impressed upon me. When I left the Catholic church in my early twenties, I became a member of a non-denominational, Evangelical, Pentecostal congregation. Rote prayers and such rituals were actively discouraged, mocked, even.

Then I was taken in by the Church Ladies. This was a group of women that ran the food pantries in my city’s churches. With the exception of the three sisters from Georgia who were leaders in our community’s predominately black Baptist church, and the world-traveling retiree from the Episcopal church, the Church Ladies hailed from the city’s Catholic parishes. I came to know these women through my work in a local social service agency. Over the years, I have joined them (and their congregations) for special prayer services, holiday craft fairs, concerts, weddings, and funerals. Over countless cups of tea and slices of cake, through sharing our stories and rituals, they persisted in cutting through our professional boundaries to develop personal relationships with me.  They have made me a better woman.

The retired Catholic-school PE Teacher that ran one of the larger pantries in the city with the ferocity of a winning coach also organized her parish’s annual retreat. Every fall she invited me to come with her. Every fall I politely declined. Then there was the autumn that every adult member of my mama’s side of the family was hospitalized, one after another. That year, I accepted the invitation. It was in that peaceful chapel in a forest surrounding a tiny bay on Cape Cod, that I joined a group of women for the Sorrowful Mysteries with borrowed rosary beads. I struggled to remember some of the prayers, but was buoyed by the murmurings of the women around me, as the stars rose in the sky through the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the altar.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

When it was over, the eight or ten of us said our goodnights and split up for our rooms. I didn’t feel like I had experienced anything, well, spiritually impactful, as I often felt when leaving a prayer service from my Pentecostal days or even from my childhood youth group days.  I remember that I was disappointed at that. I sorely wanted the experience to be powerful and transformative.

I did not pick up a rosary again until years later during my second trip to Rwanda, where two of my fellow travelers, devout Catholics, both, convinced our tour leader to make a “slight side trip” (read that as  several hours out of our way through difficult, though stunning,  mountainous terrain) to the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Kibeho.   I have been a long-time skeptic of Marian visitations. Regardless of what I believe (or don’t), this is one of the few places of claimed Marian Visitations in the world that Vatican officials have deemed authentic.

In any event, I was profoundly moved by my day spent there. The stories of the visionaries’ experiences are chilling and compelling. The visitations (between 1981-1983) predicted the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 with horrifying detail. Among the admonitions the “Mother of the Word” was said to give the visionaries was to pray the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows  .  In the primitive gift shop at the Shrine, I purchased a set of these special beads—beautifully  handcrafted out of jacaranda wood–for a nun who is a dear friend. On impulse, I picked up another set for myself, as a remembrance of my day spent in this place.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

     It is now five years later. The set of rosary beads I got at that retreat center, and the Rosary of the Seven Sorrows I got in Kibeho sit together, unused, in a drawer in my bedside stand. Recently, though,  ongoing conversations with friends who do practice praying the Rosary regularly, have me in a place where I now find myself  thinking about a variety of meditation practices, about Mary, and about the Rosary.

I’ve caught myself collecting 10 small stones on my regular hikes along the river, tiny beads of granite that I finger in my pocket as I move through the familiar trail, thinking through the problems—the mysteries– of my day. I’ve taken to reciting under my breath decades of Hail Mary’s while rubbing a restless preschooler’s back to sleep during rest time. Then just last week, when my stress level peaked and worry threatened to drown me, I fled to my garden, where I hoped the ordinary, mindless task of pulling weeds and picking produce would calm me. Getting scratched by the prickly cucumbers was a tactile representation of what I was feeling in my mind.  Balancing the sheer volume of ripened tomatoes was too overwhelming for me to manage, and I left a trail of tomatoes from the yard to the kitchen. It wasn’t until I got into the blueberry bushes, with the steady “Plunk! Plunk! Plunk!” of the berries, one at a time hitting my bucket, that I began get any relief. The feel of the little round berries in my fingers, the repetitious sound they made as they collected, was a prayer repeated again and again. And just like that, I found a bit of peace.

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Photo by Kristen Allen

We’re Going to Need a Minute

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I’m from Massachusetts. I grew up in the Diocese of Boston, and when the Boston Globe broke the Church Sex Abuse Scandal story in the 90s, it hit close to home. Almost thirty years later, this week’s news out of Pennsylvania is a gut punch.

Like anyone who writes about matters of faith–particularly folks like Mary and me writing from a Catholic lens angle–we will surely have some response.  Today is not the day, though.

Today we will weep and pray with and for the victims, known and unknown.

Let us catch our breath.

Accepting the Challenge to Be Cool & Read

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Kristen dared us to find a cool spot and read this month. That’s a little like daring me to breathe or eat cookies, so I was excited. Success was in the bag.

She also issued an “extra credit” dare to re-read something we read when we were younger. This excited me even more–she probably doesn’t know it, but I was voted Most Likely to Do Extra Credit in high school. (Yes, really. I like to hope that I’ve mellowed a bit since then, but I’m going to do the extra credit even if I already have an A-plus and you can’t stop me.) As it happened, by August 1 I was on vacation with my family and had at least five books in my backpack, two of which I had requested from the library because I’d read them as a kid and wanted to reread them. I gleefully spent a few minutes each night revisiting a world that had enchanted me as a seventh grader.

But then we came home from vacation. We came back to reality, to piles and piles of laundry, to grocery schlepping and meal planning and back-to-school shopping. Suddenly it was hard to keep my eyes open for a few stolen minutes of reading each day, even in the middle of the afternoon. I’d get through a sentence just fine, the next would blur a bit as my head bobbed, and before I knew it I’d be mumbling “hunh” to a kid’s question, which they’d take as a “yes” and run off to do I’m-not-sure-what with what they presumed was my permission.

In other words, this dare is just what I need to force me to carve out purposeful time to read. The end of summer will get hectic—it always does. My youngest two don’t start school until after Labor Day, so they’ll be wanting to pack in fun activities while they still can. This will take some planning, and will probably require the use of an earlier wake-up alarm for some quiet time. But I am eagerly anticipating returning to the pages that initially captivated a much-younger me.

The Feast of the Transfiguration

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How many times have we heard this story?

Peter, James, and John join Jesus on the mountain, when suddenly everything is glowing white and there is Moses and Elijah! The three men are terrified, but Peter, bless him, though terrified, can’t NOT say something, so he jumps in with, Let’s build three houses—one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” A voice tells them that Jesus is his son. Then, as suddenly as it began, it is over. It was a terrifying, but brief encounter with the power of God.

Well, this week, as the liturgical calendar celebrated the Transfiguration, I was in the middle of something BAD. And for the first time in a long, long time, I found myself–like Peter, James, and John–terrified.

TERRIFIED.

I was sure that my husband, and possibly myself and my children, were in terrible danger, and it shook me to my core. When was the last time you were terrified? Not anxious, not uncomfortable—TERRIFIED.

Let me tell you, fear that is strong enough to terrify you is a game changer. Fear that is terrifying is TRANSFIGURING. So, this entire Gospel story takes on a whole new light to me. I forgot how powerful terror is.

In the story, it is noted that the change in Jesus—his transfiguration—was TERRIFYING. Think about that for a minute. This is not written as a happy little Sunday School story to be portrayed with puppets and a cute song. Something big happened on that mountain. Jesus transformed into “radiant glory”—HE TURNED INTO LIGHT, PEOPLE, WITH RAYS OF LIGHT SHOOTING OUT OF HIM–and was joined by not just one, but two of their long-dead, spiritual heroes. If that is not enough to undo a man, there is this huge voice without a body attached that starts admonishing Peter, James, and John. These three men–Jesus’s favorites, Jesus’ closest confidantes, the folks who knew HIM best–were rightfully terrified by the whole experience.

And then everything goes back to normal, and Jesus turns to his best mates and tells them to not tell anyone about any of what just happened. Only Peter, James, and John will never be normal again. The transfiguration transfigured them.  Perhaps that is the point. All of Christ’s teachings and miracles and advising to this point had not yet changed the men dramatically enough.  They were the closest people on the planet to the Creator of the Universe. Until the Transfiguration, though, they didn’t really get just how big and powerful the Creator of the Universe really is.

I get it now. I get how you can find yourself in an experience that terrifies you, and changes how you look at your life, your normal, your Creator.  I cannot yet articulate how I have changed, but I know that I have. This will be unfolding for a while longer, I am certain.

 

 

 

A Challenge for the Dog Days of August: Find Someplace Cool to Rest and Read a Good Book

The Seventeenth Week of Ordinary Time–John 6:1-15

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Each month, we extend a challenge aimed at teaching us something about ourselves, our community, our faith, or maybe just to amuse us!

 Last month, Mary challenged us to sweat , and we did.   Gosh, did we ever sweat. It has been so ridiculously hot and steamy! This month, stay cool, and feed your mind, and maybe your soul.

I challenge you to step away from screens (AFTER YOU READ OUR BLOG!), pour yourself a tall glass of iced tea, get comfy in a beach chair at the edge of the water or maybe under some trees, and read a book or two or more!

I further challenge you to go to your local library to find that book or two or more. Libraries are the most magical places on earth! There are books about EVERYTHING, magazines about ANYTHING, and newspapers from EVERYWHERE. There are film dvds and music cds and audio books. There are art exhibits and special events. The library is where you can find ALL THE ANSWERS. If you haven’t been to one in a while, GO, and be astounded.

And for you super competitive types, I double dog dare you to spend the dog days of August RE-reading a book or two or more that you read when you were younger. Notice what is different for you this time around. Maybe you will discover new levels to the story. Maybe you will find that you have outgrown the tale. You won’t know until you pick up the book and read it again!

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