Advent, 2018: Reflections on–and of–Light

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The name of our blog came about from a conversation Mary and I were sharing with some writer friends a year ago, as they were discussing their Advent practices. Most of the folks in the discussion were enthusiastic about the season and the celebrations for Christmas. Several had suffered catastrophic illnesses and losses, so were struggling, but still looked forward to the joys the season has always brought them.

Mary noted that for a whole host of reasons, including mothering children who rely upon consistent routine to get through their days, the holiday season has become something she endures, rather than truly celebrates. She quipped, “I guess I’m just made for Ordinary Time.”

To my surprise, I realized that I agreed with her.

See, I absolutely love the trappings of Advent and Christmas—the traditions, decorations, the cookies, the eggnog, the celebrations… I am one caroling-party away from being a character in a Cable Network Christmas Movie. Underneath all the trimmings, though, I have to confess that I am always let down by the season. The extra demands on my time and attention exacerbate my health problems for starters. More critically, though, is my ongoing wrestling with the Almighty to hang onto my faith. Advent forces you to contemplate your beliefs, ideally in expectation of rejoicing in birth of the Savior, and in the promise of the Second Coming. When you wake up on Christmas morning not sure of who or what you believe in, well, it’s a bit dark, eh?

I would like to say that this year, here in this public forum, I will finally figure it all out. I’d like to believe that this year, someone—perhaps a charming-kid-next-door type with an adorable dog—will come into Mary’s life and show her and her family the Meaning of Christmas so powerfully that their hardwired anxieties will be overcome in an hour-minus-commercial-breaks.

This is no holiday television special. That’s not how any of this life business works. We know. So, for this Advent, we share a more modest goal:

Find the bits of light that come this season and pay attention to what they illuminate.

We invite you to join us as we struggle along the way in the dark together.

 

 

 

I Accept the Challenge for September

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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.

 

No. I Don’t Think I Am Done Here.

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I Don’t Think I’m Done Here, Yet.

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.”

 

 

A Challenge for September: Infuse Your Day with Sacramentals

 

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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.