Following sister Simone Campbell and the “Nuns on the Bus” has given me hope in our political system. I believe sister and the nuns, are our modern day Isaiah and Jeremiah, calling us to stop worshipping false idols (money, power and prestige) and to start worshiping at the one true God’s altar, the altar of love, compassion and care for all of creation. Thank you Sister Simone and the Nuns on the Bus.
Dan O’Donnell, a layman has covenanted with the Chicago Community. In addition to the standard covenant, Dan promises to work at connecting all partners known and unknown, to a conscious following the the way of Jesus, the way of the cross which Dan believes transforms all failure, democratizing the human journey
Most of us like stories, especially when we are young. And we like stories that begin at ground O and ascend on up toward 100. An upward climb from low to high is preferable to a downward slide from high to low. “High” usually represents success, while “low” represents failure. So when a boy or girl brings home a report card, he or she wants to report to inquiring parents: I got a high grade, rather than admitting: they gave me a low grade.
That mindset is behind a lot of good films that record the hero or heroine of the story proving to be a success because they moved from low to high in their life passageway. Few films achieve success if they depict the central character of a film in a downward spin, ending in disaster or failure.
True though this be, many of us carry the burden of failures in our lives. They may not be obvious to others. In our youth we had dreams of successes in what we set out to achieve: happy marriages, lucrative business ventures, children of whom we could be proud, fine reputations, the house of our dreams, early retirement followed by the pursuit of enriching past-times about which we had always dreamed, associations with the rich and famous, reputations gaining us access to the pinnacles of power and prestige. But, instead we may wake up each morning facing a day in which we have to drag ourselves from morning to night: faltering marriages, troubled children, collapsing business ventures, failing health, distrust from among colleagues, constantly being overlooked in the arena of promotions, being the butt of jokes, disdain among collaborators, reputation for being a loser, etc.
Early dreams of being climbers, that is, those who have effortlessly moved from the lower echelons of life upward on a constant climb toward goals that I have pursued all my life, thrill and excite us. EXCELSIOR! has been a dream to be achieved. Who would not want that to be emblazoned on our life story! The counterpart of that, of course, is LOSER. To be regarded in this way is a dampener difficult to bear outwardly, and inwardly depressing and deflating. Undoubtedly many suicides terminate the lives of those enshrouded with a constant sense of their inability to escape the sense of being enclosed in a hole in the ground from which no escape is possible.
It makes an interesting comparison to present a counter situation in which the dynamic of upward and downward is changed from downward to upward, and presented as movement from upward to downward. As depressing as some of the above description appears, at least the theme of upward and onward pervades the description of the scene presented. But there’s another way of describing movement between down and up, in which the predominant mindset is from upward to downward. Using the terms found in the title above, there is also the experience, less frequently experienced, thankfully, that might be suggested in these terms: From riches to rags. It would be the contrary of the situation just described, where the motion from rags to riches is the dominant driving force, and instead plays out as a downward, sinking sensation of moving from riches to rags.
In this setting, one comes into this world with a silver spoon in his/her mouth, where all of the elements making for success, are at hand, so that a high-energy effort at reaching out to achieve and acquire the building blocks of success are already at hand, but, through unforeseen events, such as the Great Depression in 1929 and the succeeding decade, calamitous losses befell the makers and shakers of society, leaving them and their families deprived of all their assets. They became “losers” of all the benefits they owned—property, financial instruments, lives of leisure—and found themselves at the bottom of the upward ladder toward success, and inexperienced in the struggles needed to move upward.
So the question is presented to us: what is the more devastating experience to undergo: to move from rags to riches, or from riches to rags? And though the more common sequence is the former alternative, instances of the latter are not lacking. And should we ask ourselves: which is the more difficult situation to sustain (even though each scenario contains the same elements, but in a differing sequence), the answer seems obvious.
This leads us to the figure of Jesus Christ, and to the unique experience He underwent: from that of heaven itself, downward (so to speak) to a penurious life in this world of ours, followed by a brief but highly successful three year period of untold success, followed by a calamitous ending in shame and ignominy, but concluding with an unprecedented upward movement into His heavenly home. How do we understand His “life”: from rags to riches, or from riches to rags, or might it be both? Do our lives bear any resemblance to this?
Mothers Day is a special day on the American calendar, joining Thanksgiving Day and Christmas and maybe the 4th of July as similarly important days. Not far behind is Fathers Day, the birth of one’s first child, the marriage anniversary, and then other special days, cherished by us for their significance to us.
Mothers Day: might we regard it as a holy day? Like a holy day of obligation, on the Catholic calendar? Well, maybe yes, or possibly so. It’s a holy day because it concerns one of the truly sacred things near and dear to our hearts: our own life, and that special person who, in conjunction with God Himself, has brought us into life, and nurtured us to the point where we can provide for ourselves.
There may have been a time when we took life for granted, primarily because we had not reached the point where we could step back from life and look at it from some distance away. In our early years we were engulfed and swallowed up in our life, with no way of disengaging our self from our dependence on our family. It was like being on a ship on the high seas, living our entire existence on that vessel, unable to distance ourselves from that ship so as to think of our life apart from it. Of course, it was a pleasant and comfortable life, from the early phase within our mother’s womb to the later frightening experience of stepping out of our front door and walking through the entrance to kindergarten. Till then our family, and especially our mother, was like a ship on the high seas of life where we found security, care and comfort, day in and out. Those on shore could observe us at a distance, sailing by, with our mother at the helm.
An even more graphic example of this sense of being enveloped by our mother has been the development of space exploration and the manufacture of space craft to traverse outer space, from where we can look back safely at earth and see for the first time what the world out there looks like, from our vantage point within the space capsule. Though we would soon join our earth home, for the present we can watch the world go by, having all we need for a comfortable life.
These examples are how it is with our mother. Early on we were so embedded within the folds of our mother, first, within the womb, then outside of it, that we had no sense of living our own distinct life. She was our ship on the seas of life, and our space capsule, within which all our needs were handled.
But once the first sensation arrived of having a life distinct from hers, I became able to focus on this person who was a mother to me, and develop a sense, as I grew in age, that I was my own person, so much so that I forgot the early sensation of being one with her. Life then entered a new stage where very personal adventures occurred for me as I began to live a life separately from hers, but never to the point where I dismissed her from my self-awareness completely. That early bonding between us never disappeared, forming a linkage unlike any other in our experience, regardless of the geographical distance I put between her and myself.
This is what we celebrate on Mothers Day—an experience of life in which she was intimately involved, so that I can look back on it, as if from outer space, and marvel at the wonder of what I now see, which I could not see earlier on. It is a profound feeling that borders on our sense of the sacred. And as sacred, it is holy, and for this reason is aptly regarded as a holy day. Corresponding to Mothers Day is my birthday when for the first time I can reach land and look back at the ship on which I have spent my life, to this point. Or similarly, my birthday lays out the possibility of appreciating Mothers Day like the opportunity provided the first astronauts of looking out the porthole of their space craft, back at the earth from which they just separated themselves, and for the first time fully observe it teeming with the white cloud cover, the blue seas, the dark-hued earth, and can fully appreciate it as mother earth, where life unfolded and blossomed.
This is why we should regard Mothers Day as a holy day on our Catholic calendar. We can look at it as a day of appreciating my dependency on the nurturing elements of life I earlier relied on, and can begin to feed myself, as with the eucharist. It’s a day when the factors comprising our traditional holy days, such as the sense of awe before the mystery of the sacred, converge into sentiments of reverence and respect before a sense of something religious. For life is sacred and to be revered as Godlike. Life is how Jesus identified God in His dealings with the Sadducees: “He is not God of the dead but of the living”. (Mk 12.27)
Years ago—decades ago—there was a poor farm family eking out a living on a government-regulated tobacco farm in the Appalachian foothills of Kentucky. The amount of tobacco raised on any given farm was government controlled, and there were frequent flights by small government aircraft over these farms, taking photos of the land being tilled, to certify that the regulations regarding land under tillage were being honored.
There was one such farm, barely eking out a living, with the husband badly crippled, and the wife forced to do much of the heavy work, including the tilling of the land, to make ends meet. There was, at the time, a child in this family, out of wedlock from an earlier liaison. Her name was Etha Mae.
There was an extended family involved in this scenario—a large one—and among this group were two boys, cousins of one another, and of Etha Mae. Both of them were from “the city”, up north, but would spend some time each summer “down in the country”, to maintain contact with the relatives down there, and to get a taste of how the other half lived.
The boys were the same age, though themselves from different parts of the Midwest. They weren’t enthralled by the relatively primitive way of life lived in this part of Kentucky—no electricity, no running water—but there was Etha Mae. Etha Mae was 6 years or so older than they, but a fascinating figure for these boys, on the verge of adolescence. She was a pretty girl, with long blond hair, and would move about on the rugged terrain, roads and pathways running barefoot through the abundant woods bordering the small farms. She ran like a deer, her hair blowing in the wind, over rocky terrain, with facility and ease. And she fascinated her two cousins. She made an indelible impression, so different from the city girls they knew, with no pretense at all about her.
She lived just long enough to leave an indelible memory with them. Unfortunately, she became pregnant out of wedlock, and totally unaware in those days of what abortion was all about, died in childbirth (the child lived into adulthood). She and her family attended a small Methodist church, with a cemetery attached, and her grave is there, looking out over the woods so familiar to her, some seventy years later, but periodically visited, each in their own separate ways, by her two admiring cousins, who wonder: whatever happened to Etha Mae?
The question that arises is: did she live and die in vain? A virtual unknown, with little or no viable future ahead of her, has her short life any meaning whatsoever? Well, it certainly does for her two male city-bred cousins who periodically, and separately, each in his own way, after all these years, stands at the foot of her headstone some seventy years later, remembering her as a symbol of simplicity, primitive beauty, and unselfish giving of her life for a child whom she would never live to see.
Etha Mae, in her own unsophisticated way, is a replica of the One Whose saving act of unselfish generosity we recall this Holy Week. For Jesus too died at a young age, in a way designed to save us all. He had a choice in doing this. He didn’t have to die; He did it for others, not Himself. He underwent suffering that we might learn how to live. And He did this a long time ago, in a remote and insignificant part of the word: tiny Israel. Yet people such as ourselves remember Him. We haven’t forgotten this act of His, so far away and so long ago. And He did it for us, whom He didn’t know. He did this for us, that we might live.
To the extent that we can interpret what happened to Etha Mae as something beautiful and life-affirming, we do so on the eve of a memory that blends with the memory of Christ Crucified that refuses to regard His premature ending as a waste or a tragedy, but as the prelude to another phase or level of life that someone like Etha Mae now likely enjoys, and which we celebrate as Easter.
In John’s Gospel just before Jesus heals, or is it cures the blind man: “His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.’” (JN 9:2-3)
The common belief in those times was that good fortune was the reward for good works and bad fortune was caused by sin. Many people believe this even today. For those people, God doles out retribution or reward. The god in this story is a restorative god, one that heals for love’s sake only. That is the mystery of the cross. It is restorative and healing even though it may be difficult and painful. “Then Jesus said to his disciples, Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (MT 16:24) This is a uniquely Christian teaching that reveals a restorative and healing God in the embrace and experience of your personal cross. I believe that all healing and growth flows from the hand of God.
Thomas Wolfe wrote a novel entitled YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN. It was published in 1940. It describes the strange sensation of trying to go back home, after an extended absence.
One may think this is not much of an ordeal or a challenge, anticipating that the sensation of familiarity will dominate the experience. But such is seldom the case, especially if the absence has been over a number of years, and if it takes place in the setting of a forever changing scenario that is so typical of life in the United States, where change is happening all the time, at multiple levels of our experience.
The word “familiarity”, of course, is itself related to the similar word, “family”. Something that is family-related is or has become “familiar” to us. For nothing is more “familiar” than “family”. Nonetheless, in a sense, one can never go back to family, as we recall it 20 or 30 years ago. The house in which one lived then was also a “home”. But, of course, not all houses are homes even if some houses don’t change, or, at first sight, after a long absence, don’t seem to have changed. To all intents and purposes the house one recalls from 25 years ago may still be standing when one visits it years later, and notes it occupying the same lot on the block as it did when we left. And this is so, even if it has been repainted in the intervening years, and the big maple tree that dominated the front yard is gone, and a different kind of fence now encloses the back yard. For one can recognize it immediately. But that may be the extent to which an identity can be noted over this extended period of time.
For, should one have the opportunity to enter the house, a strange sensation overcomes one’s experience. In the front room, all the familiar furniture has been replaced. Painting has replaced wallpaper. The former carpeting has given way to throw rugs. The wall pictures now depict totally different scenes. The familiar odors of years ago, emanating from the kitchen, are no longer permeating the dining room area. One feels like a stranger here, in one’s former house, which, back then, had also been a home.
For a home is made up more of people than of furniture or décor. But all the old familiar faces are gone. There are new occupants now, who may be quite cordial and welcoming. But their house no longer comprises the home that was once here. The home is gone. And one’s awareness of this grows as one soon discovers that the neighbors on either side of the house are strangers, different from those who used to live there. And if the opportunity offers to explore the old neighborhood, it dawns on us that one can never go home again. The old barber shop is gone, as is the gas station on the corner. The familiar theater has been replaced by a shopping center, and the school one attended has been enlarged and upgraded.
And so the realization sinks in: one can’t go home again. Things have changed. Jesus Himself underwent a similar experience in His time. For He was brought up in Nazareth by Mary and Joseph until He was thirty years of age, when He left home and began His public ministry in Judea and other parts of Galilee. He was still identified as a Nazorean (Mt.26-71), perhaps because of His accent. He was an almost instant success wherever He went, preaching and performing miracles, and gained great popularity. Then the opportunity arose for Him, now quite a success, to go back home again. This He did, and, entered the familiar synagogue where He had prayed and studied the bible. But when He rose to read the bible and apply a passage to Himself, there was an instant reaction, a very unfavorable one, (Lk 4.16-30), and Jesus learned that one can’t go home again. He seems never to have returned there again.
A somewhat similar experience awaits us, if not in this life, then in the life to come (2 Cor 5, 1, ff.). For we believe, on the word of God, that there will be a new heaven and a new earth awaiting us, at some point in the future—no longer in time, but in eternity. We don’t know where this might be. But the “place”, if it’s appropriate to use this word for this new setting, will likely be more like “home” than the house to which we may have returned on one occasion, because, even though a lot of changes await us in our future habitat, it will still remind us of “home” as it used to be, for all the familiar faces from years ago will be there to greet us. In this sense, it is quite possible to go back home again. We won’t mind the change of place (“I go to prepare a place for you”, Jn 14.2-3)) because the presence of the faces that made the place of old “home” is again before us.
Jesus too had this wonderful experiences at His Ascension into heaven. He was, at long last, able to go home again and be with His Father in heaven.
Is Christmas a memory? Is Christmas more than a memory? Is Christmas only a memory? Is that what the greeting Happy Holidays implies?
Pearl Harbor: Remember Pearl Harbor! Is Pearl Harbor only a memory? Is it something more than a memory?
Usually, a memory rests on some event of the past. Especially if it’s a long-lasting memory. Perhaps a shorter term memory is liable to be explained away by offering an alternate explanation for its endurance. But when it extends back over a long time, and is fostered within a large group of people, it’s difficult to explain it away. This is certainly the case with Christmas. It is hard to maintain that the many traditions and stories associated with the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem of Judea 2000 years ago lack any foundation in history. Especially when this memory is found embedded in the memories of so many people scattered across the face of the earth.
The influence of this memory has made its way into so much of the music that resounds at this time of the year, coinciding with the shortest day of the year, just come and gone, and when the introduction of a new season, the winter-time, is freshly underway. The lyrics of so many current musical pieces are replete with Christmas themes centering around mother and Child, angels and shepherds, wise men from the east and animals. And costuming, featuring the colors of red and white, dominates the dress and apparel of people across the board.
All of this richness of color and sound and verse and practices and traditions add up to the impact of an historic event entering into the fabric of human life, which is comparable to the scientific forays into the history of our earth suggesting the lasting effect upon this home of ours of some huge visitor from outer space, long ago, crashing upon the crust of our earth-home, leaving its indelible marks, embedding itself into the fabric of our planet emphatically, to the point of shaping our earth-home, with its mountains and canyons, its oceans, lakes and rivers, possibly its elliptical orbit around the sun and its cycle of night and day that has affected the way we calculate the passage of time.
The history of these two events, the birth of the Son of God among us which has refashioned our sense of before and after, so as to constitute a kind of rebirth and renewal among us, and the readjustment of the equilibrium of planet earth following the impact of this encounter with a foreign body from outer space, constitute a combination of shock and awe from which we have never recovered. One occurred within the parameters of human memory; the other antedated it. But, in either case, basic adjustments took place to accommodate the powerful repercussions each have had on us, from which we will never recover.
One took place within the parameters of human history; the other antedated it. So we have a memory of the one, but not of the other. But there is no reason on our part to shed or diminish the eventfulness of either. We can well imagine the dimensions of the sound that emanated from the clash of two gigantic bodies of astral or planetary materials, and the sound-waves that must have inundated this universe over the ages. But, at the birth of the Savior, Jesus Christ, there was also a heavenly sound emanating from the choir of angels singing their hymn of Glory to God. And, whereas that first sound has long since ceased to resound throughout the universe, the angelic hymns have never faded away, but continue to interweave our indelible memories that constitute as much of the Christmas event as their visual counterparts so familiar to us and that together constitute the memory of this significant day. And a celestial body has also assumed prominence in our memory of the first Christmas, assuming the guise of that bright star serving to guide wise men from the east, to the place where the infant was to be found. This star was not bent on an ominous intrusion into the pathway of mother earth, but provided a helpful outreach from outer space along the pathway of the visitors from the east leading them into a friendly encounter with the family at the center of the Bethlehem event, and to the One through Whom all things were made including the lowly space that was His first home.
Christmas is a memory of an event involving the encounter of an extra-terrestrial body with our planet earth, contributing a happy dimension to what we celebrate at Christmas time. It’s a memory we cannot forget. While there are other encounters among heavenly bodies, including mother earth, of which we may have no memory despite their shaping our history, in a very remote way, it is the conjunction of heaven and earth on Christmas Day that persists as a powerful memory shaping our history, whose details we can recall and remember. For that reason the greeting MERRY CHRISTMAS bears much more significance to it than our current HAPPY HOLIDAYS.