Tuesday, December 6, 2016

This complicated, imperfect world: An essay

This essay was originally posted on the blog: Messy Jesus Business

I have always been hesitant to rock the boat; to challenge another’s opinion. As much as I would like to think otherwise, I don’t often get my feet muddy or my hair wet. The dirt splattered across my pants comes from my daughter jumping into a rain puddle, not me. I am usually complacent, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.

This was made clear to me after a pre-November 8 conversation with a friend.

We had only been driving together for a few minutes. It was close to midnight and the street lights illuminated the road. My daughter Clara and I were visiting family in Milwaukee, and my parents had offered to put her to bed so I could see a movie with a friend. Adam and I had left the theater and as we drove down the road, our conversation turned to the upcoming presidential election and social policies directed at the poor. Adam works at a bank in Milwaukee.

Almost immediately he began to share with me his frustration over customers who receive government benefits: people, often minorities, for whom he cashes government-issued checks.  He’d recently counted out money–income she receives without working for it, worth more than his own paycheck–for a woman he assumes is a single mother who “chose to have multiple kids by multiple fathers.” Adam continued to provide example after example of people rewarded for poor choices, supported by his tax dollars with no incentive to change: a system, he sees, as broken.

In that moment my mind flooded with memories of our collective past and stark realities of the present. I thought of white privilege: of how blessed we both were growing up each with two parents in stable homes in safe, affluent neighborhoods; regularly attending Mass (and actually, to be honest, he more so than I). I thought of my own stories of encountering the working poor while living at a Catholic Worker house in La Crosse. I thought of socioeconomic studies that demonstrate racial and economic disparity.

In the end though, all that I managed to say was: “Yes, it doesn’t always make sense, but every person has dignity and is deserving of dignity.”

“Michael,” Adam quickly retorted, “You can’t honestly tell me that woman is equal to you in any way. She’ll never be. I love you Michael, but you just don’t understand how some things in our society work.”

This is where the true test comes in. No matter how much I disagree with his statement, to him it’s absolute truth. There will be other examples from Adam’s work and stories in the media to confirm his bias, and new life experiences and encounters to affirm my own.  He is tired of being labeled racist for “calling it like it is.” I will not change his opinion, and he will not change mine.
And yet we still plan to see each other the next time I’m in town; still plan to share our beliefs; still plan to disagree.

So does this mean we live in a broken, polarized society; one that is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility, impassable and unforgiving? Yes and no. I believe we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flashpoints erupting and boiling over in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces; lead-tainted water; Standing Rock Reservation; “Lock her up” and ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks.

But what we have to be mindful of and profusely share is that we’re also immersed in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy. Sometimes it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective. In a 2012 TEDx Talk, Father Gregory Boyle, founder and executive director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, California, remarked, “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”

We are called to stand with compassion and not hesitate to step out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world … this complicated, imperfect life.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

This complicated, imperfect world

The Handmaid’s Tale, is a dystopian novel written by Margaret Atwood, in which a monotheocracy has replaced the tradition of democracy in the United States following a period of social unrest and declining birthrates.  The country, renamed the Republic of Gilead, enforces a strict system of government control that follows a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis.  A Puritan structure of punishment and state-sanctioned repression is put in place, and each citizen is bound by a strict code of conformity and interaction confined to established gender roles.  For those of you familiar with George Orwell’s book 1984, or Nathaniel Hawthorne’s ever popular high school classic The Scarlet Letter, similar questions and commentary arise.

 At times it would seem that we live in our own metaphorical Puritan-type communities, where cohesion and conformity—be it liberal or conservative—are absolute truth.  Stereotypes of one group or another (immigrants, evangelicals, tea party activists, transgender students, Muslims, etc.) become factual identities, rather than challenged assumptions; and legitimate concerns—employment, security, immigration, global warming, etc.—lead to divided opinion.  Fortunately, unlike the citizens in Atwood’s novel, we neither live on that city on the hill, which some would like to return to, nor in the darkened alleyways of Gotham city that some would have us believe. 
Instead we live somewhere in the middle, immersed in the messy and difficult conversations and realities that have become flash points, erupting and boiling over, in nearly every news cycle: Black Lives Matter, the anger directed at police forces, lead tainted water, Standing Rock Reservation, the chant of “Lock her up,” or ISIS inspired terrorist attacks.  We are also immersed though, in subtle reminders of that which is good and holy.  Sometimes, it simply takes an encounter or the reframing of a question for us to change our perspective.  In a 2012 TEDxTalk, Fr. Gregory Bolye, founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, remarked: “How can we achieve a certain kind of compassion that stands in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than in judgement for how they carry it?”  The poor though, could just as easily be replaced by any individual or group which threatens or challenges our idea of who is deserving of dignity, or of whom the Gospel directs us to embrace.

In the midst of this recent presidential campaign, it may seem that society is stitched together as a patchwork of conflicting ideologies and beliefs separated by intolerance, discrimination, righteousness, and hostility.  I myself have been hesitant to venture outside, confined to the rigid knowledge of my own truth.  But I encourage each of us to stand with compassion, and to not hesitate in stepping out into the mud, alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world.

This is a complicated world,
              but not for the sake of trying.
But how do we respond?  What is it that I have done?
              Have I tried to lay in the long grass,
              to wake early and see my breath?

When did I last wait to hear,
Not answer, not voice, but a bird,
              the woodpecker’s sharp tap outside the bedroom window.

I don’t remember when I last walked in the rain
              to look up and see the downpour.
Am I afraid of getting wet, of tracking mud?
How quickly I forget my coat, a pair of boots
              Do I even remember where in the closet they are stored?

I must go out this next time.
I must remember that it is expected of me
              to not remain dry
              to track mud onto the floor boards.
It is expected that I do not remain a stoic philosopher forever.

Good reflection never came from sitting at the altar.
Unless I propose to be a monk,
              but even the monk must laugh
              and he does look up into the rain.

This is a complicated world
              but made less so because I am not a monk
              however much I would like to be.
And although not a religious
              I will still pray.
Perhaps I will even pray tonight.
Perhaps my words will carry hints of the sacred.

It is a sacred found in the ordinary;
              Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect world.
              Alive and riveted by this complicated, imperfect life.

And my feet have been introduced to mud,
              my hair drips rain.
Maybe I shall yet live
              or at the very least I will try.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Happy Feast of St. Francis of Assisi!

Francis of Assisi dictated these words shortly before his death in 1226, describing them as "a remembrance, an admonition, an exhortation, and my testament." Though almost 800 years separate us from his time and cultural context, his actual words (albeit translated from the original Latin, and with one section removed here for length) enable a uniquely direct and personal encounter with Francis.

Dancing Francis statue at Viterbo University (La Crosse, WI)
The Lord granted me, Brother Francis, to begin to do penance in this way: While I was in sin, it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. And the Lord Himself led me among them and I had mercy upon them. And when I left them that which seemed bitter to me was changed into sweetness of soul and body; and afterward I lingered a little and left the world.

And the Lord gave me such faith in churches that I would simply pray and speak in this way: "We adore You, Lord Jesus Christ, in all Your churches throughout the world, and we bless You, for through Your holy cross You have redeemed the world."

Afterward the Lord gave me and still gives me such faith in priests who live according to the manner of the holy Roman Church because of their order, that if they were to persecute me, I would still have recourse to them. And if I possessed as much wisdom as Solomon had and I came upon pitiful priests of this world, I would not preach contrary to their will in the parishes in which they live.

And I desire to fear, love, and honor them and all others as my masters. And I do not wish to consider sin in them because I discern the Son of God in them and they are my masters. And I act in this way since I see nothing corporally of the Most High Son of God in this world except His Most holy Body and Blood which they receive and which they alone administer to others. And these most holy mysteries I wish to have honored above all things and to be reverenced and to have them reserved in precious places. Wherever I come upon His most holy written words in unbecoming places, I desire to gather them up and I ask that they be collected and placed in a suitable place. And we should honor and respect all theologians and those who minister the most holy divine words as those who minister spirit and life to us.

And after the Lord gave me brothers, no one showed me what I should do, but the Most High Himself revealed to me that I should live according to the form of the Holy Gospel. And I had this written down simply and in a few words and the Lord Pope confirmed it for me. And those who came to receive life gave to the poor everything which they were capable of possessing and they were content with one tunic, patched inside and out, with a cord and short trousers. And we had no desire for anything more. We who were clerics used to say the Office as other clerics did; the lay brothers said the Our Father; and we quite willingly stayed in churches. And we were simple and subject to all.

And I used to work with my hands, and I still desire to work; and I firmly wish that all my brothers give themselves to honest work. Let those who do not know how to work learn, not from desire of receiving wages for their work but as an example and in order to avoid idleness. And when we are not paid for our work, let us have recourse to the table of the Lord, seeking alms from door to door. The Lord revealed to me a greeting, as we used to say: "May the Lord give you peace."

Let the brothers beware that they by no means receive churches or poor dwellings or anything which is built for them, unless it is in harmony with that holy poverty which we have promised in the Rule, and let them always be guests there as pilgrims and strangers. And I firmly command all of the brothers through obedience that, wherever they are, they should not be so bold as to seek any letter from the Roman Curia either personally or through an intermediary, neither for a church or for some other place or under the guise of preaching or even for the persecution of their bodies; but wherever they have not been received, let them flee into another country to do penance with the blessing of God.

And whoever shall have observed these things, may he be filled in heaven with the blessing of the most high Father and on earth with the blessing of His beloved Son with the most Holy Spirit the Paraclete and with all the powers of heaven and all the saints. And I, little brother Francis, your servant, inasmuch as I can, confirm for you this most holy blessing both within and without. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The Way of St. Francis Today

One of the touchstones of Donald Trump’s speeches is that it’s a dog-eat-dog world: eat or be eaten. Everyone is looking to cheat everyone else and win by any means necessary. By way of explaining his favorite Bible verse, “an eye for an eye,” Mr. Trump put it this way: “...you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us, and how they scoff at us and laugh at us. ...and they’re taking our jobs, they’re taking our money...”

Trump’s supporters, quite understandably, view this as an example of his truth-telling. They look around and see the world he is describing. In such a world, strength and even ruthlessness are needed to protect what is rightfully yours. Mr. Trump’s apparent prowess in grabbing and securing success and happiness is therefore respected and considered an example worthy of imitation by many.

Denouncing Mr. Trump’s worldview does little good. We need to know and live a different way and show it to others, as St. Francis of Assisi showed it to his time. The Gospels taught him to let go rather than to secure , to receive good things as gifts from God rather than to grab. Life during Francis’s time was very different but no less violent and competitive, no less of a struggle than it is for us. Yet, by all accounts, he was no less happy than a billionaire.

Peter Maurin presented the message of St. Francis to the struggling people around him during the depths of the Great Depression. (Note that he wasn’t in a bubble of comfort and ease as I often am. He wasn’t primarily presenting this radical vision to well-off but bored people longing for adventure and meaning. He had lived as a wandering laborer for years and spent each day with people out of work and lacking even basic necessities like food.)

What St. Francis Desired
A tunic worn by St. Francis of Assisi
(consistent with carbon dating)
According to Johannes Jorgensen,
a Danish convert living in Assisi,
St. Francis desired
that men should give up
superfluous possessions.
St. Francis desired
that men should work with their hands.
St. Francis desired
that men should offer their services
as a gift.
St. Francis desired
that men should ask other people for help
when work failed them.
St. Francis desired
that men should live
as free as birds.
St. Francis desired
that men should go through life
giving thanks to God for His gifts.
- source, no copyrights reserved

St. Francis lived this way for months and years before a few of the people of his town finally stopped mocking him, unexpectedly finding themselves wanting to join him. Years later, when hundreds were following him, people in those cities no longer looked around and saw a world in which everyone was trying to take advantage of everyone else. Instead of being lured into resentment and a hamster wheel of diversions, they were--and we can be still today--drawn into the joy and creative power of the living God.
Fritz Eichenberg wood engraving

Sunday, July 31, 2016

MCW Updates and News

Hello friends of Madison Catholic Worker,

I know that it has been quite some time since we’ve updated you on MCW progress.  What I would like to do with this letter is share with you some of these updates, offer opportunities for involvement, and thank you for your continued prayers and support.

In the past couple of months, Sam and Daniel, two young men whom we met through St. Paul’s Catholic Center at UW, have continued to dialogue with members of MCW around the possibility of forming an intentional community that would receive support from MCW.  After several meetings and ongoing conversation, we have reached an agreement with them that beginning in mid-August, MCW will become part of their support community for the coming year – a one year commitment.

Sam and Daniel are two fine, committed young men who embrace the spirit of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin.  Although both of them have jobs, and go to school part-time, they would like to dedicate a portion of their week to outreach work in downtown Madison.  They are seeking the support of a faith community that is willing to accompany them, support them, and provide a small amount of financial assistance.  We are in the midst of drafting a covenant agreement in which we will detail our mutual hopes and expectations.

Essentially, here is the plan.  Next month, around August 17th, Daniel and Sam will be moving into a three bedroom apartment on the first floor of a two unit house on East Johnson Street.  Sam and Daniel hope to host regular MCW community gatherings at their place, including weekly prayer, open to the MCW community, which will take place on Wednesday evenings from 7-8PM.  They will also look for ways to provide hospitality in the neighborhood, as well as supporting local outreach initiatives, such as Friends of State Street.  In addition to spiritual and community support, members of MCW have pledged to provide a small monthly stipend of $300 to help them with rent or other expenses related to their outreach.

In order to provide support to Sam and Daniel, four members of MCW have agreed to form a provisional board.  The board is still a work in progress, and if you would like to serve on it please let us know.  In addition, we have spoken with a local attorney who has provided guidance on how to best receive and disperse the anticipated funds that will help Sam and Daniel with their outreach expenses.  A financial appeal will soon be sent out detailing MCW’s status as a non-profit, how to donate, and how any financial donations will be collected and dispersed.

I’m sure that many of you will have questions.  Some of them we can answer.  Others we cannot at this early phase.  I’ll attempt to address a few of these questions below:

Q: Will this community function like a typical Catholic Worker House?  Will it be open for overnight or day guests or both? 

A: We hope to move slowly and carefully in order to build trust with our neighbors.  Because this is a rental property and not our own house we are bound by certain stipulations and regulations.  The lease allows for overnight guests to stay no more than 3 consecutive nights.  Sam and Daniel have agreed to this in their written contract.

Q: How much financial support will MCW provide?  

A: A few of us on the board have given our personal guarantee to raise $300/month to be used for rent and outreach projects.  Originally, the idea was that MCW would contribute enough money to support an extra bedroom in the house or apartment that Sam and Daniel would be renting.  We will be making a financial appeal very soon.

Q: How will decisions be made? 

A: We are currently putting together a covenant agreement in which we detail these points.  Daniel and Sam have expressed their desire for our support and guidance.  We have also set up a provisional board.  If you would like to serve on the board, please let us know.  We each have various talents and strengths that would be an asset to our community.  If you are interested in participating, we just ask that you also consider joining us during other events throughout the month, some of which are listed below.

Q: How can I help? 

A: First, please let others know what we are doing.  Since hosting the Good Friday Stations Walk this past March, we are excited for this next chapter of entering into deeper relationship and outreach as a Catholic Worker community.  Second, consider helping Daniel and Sam move into their new house.  In order to save on additional moving costs, if anyone has access to a truck and/or trailer that would be available on August 12th and August 20th that would be greatly appreciated. They will also likely need a few additional household items and furniture; we will have a better idea of their needs after they have gotten settled.  Next, plan on visiting them for community events such as: Friends of State Street on Tuesday nights, weekly prayer, shared meals, and other outreach ministries.  We will be posting the times and dates of these events more consistently on our website and Facebook page.  Toward the end of August or in early September we will be hosting an open house that you are all invited to attend. 

And finally, pray that we all may hear the cries of the poor and respond with intelligent compassion.  

On behalf of the MCW community and Board,

Michael Krueger, Board Chair

Friday, July 8, 2016

Responding to Tragedy

In the wake of the two most recent shootings of black men by police officers, made all the more visible by the immediate release of videos on social media, I am shocked and saddened by the loss of life.  I am frustrated that this has become a repeated event; I am unsettled that I am not more outraged or affected by these deaths; and I am distinctly aware that my life, even with its many difficulties and struggles, will never have the same level of uncertainty or fear that those of a different skin color experience.  We talk of a society that is colorblind, but in reality we are blinded by color.  My color blinds and binds me to my own experience and community, and I sit idle, uncertain of how to respond, despite the repeated bang of the drum, the call for justice, and another loss of life. 

As I wrote this last sentence media reports came in of eleven police officers being shot, five of whom were killed in Dallas, TX.  These officers were stationed at a protest, protecting those who marched and called for justice.  Five lives lost, now added to the two lives lost before.

On Good Friday of this past year the Madison Catholic Worker organized a Social Justice Stations of the Cross around the state capital building.  The 4th Station – Jesus Falls took place in front of the Madison Police Department.  In remembrance of Alton Sterling (7/5/16) and Philando Castile (7/6/16), and in remembrance of the five officers killed in the line of duty and six who were wounded (7/7/16), I would again like to share the readings and the litany of names that followed:

Station 4 - In front of the Madison Police Department

Station 4: Jesus Falls

Leader:             In our city and across the country there has been a national conversation concerning policing and its impact on the community.  A level of mistrust and pain has arisen, as those weighed down by violence, poverty, racism, and a lack of opportunity stumble and fall under the weight of the cross.  We are called here to recognize the underlying causes of suffering within our own backyard.  We are called to respond through relationship and forgiveness.  We are called to remember the names of all those who have fallen victim to violence.

Leader:             Tony Robinson – March 6, 2015

All:                     Presente

Leader:             Police Officer David Stefan Hofer – March 1, 2016

All:                     Presente

Leader:             Daily, members of the police force, the sheriff’s department, and all other branches of public safety confront the brokenness of our community – responding to calls of domestic abuse, mental health crises, exploitation, drug addiction, and verbal assault.  They are witnesses to the very worst of the human condition, but are also provided with the opportunity to offer a hand to those who have fallen down.

Leader:             Police Officer Allen Lee Jacobs – March 18, 2016

All:                     Presente

Leader:             Trayvon Martin – February 26, 2012

All:                     Presente

Leader:             We heed the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as we seek to make whole all that has been broken, as we look toward healing instead of fracture: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice.

Leader:             Eric Garner – July 17, 2014

All:                     Presente

Leader:             Officer Ashley Marie Guindon – February 27, 2016

All:                     Presente

Leader:             Violence is a cyclical event that does not cease unless we are willing to take a stand and speak out on behalf of those who are most affected.  We must commit ourselves to the Gospel’s radical call for peace, and not stand idly by when confronted by injustice.
Leader:             Deputy Sheriff Carl A. Koontz – March 20, 2016

All:                     Presente

Leader:             Michael Brown – August 9, 2014

All:                     Presente

Leader:             We recall the recent shooting deaths by police of individuals within our communities, specifically individuals of color. 

                             Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, LA) – July 5, 2016

                             Philando Castile (Falcon Heights, MN) – July 6, 2016

Leader:             We recall the recent shooting deaths of police who were killed in the line of duty.

                             The five officers killed and six wounded (Dallas, TX) – July 7, 2016
All:                     Be still and know that I am God.


Monday, June 13, 2016

In Response to Violence

In times of national tragedy or during moments of senseless violence it can be easy to accept divisive rhetoric or the condemnation of one particular group over another.  It can be easy to uphold or tepidly respond to forceful opinion, or to retreat further from the challenges of difficult discourse.

 As we remember though, the faces and the personal stories; as we ponder, question, and attempt to understand; as we clamor for justice; as we embrace, but also appear unsettled; it is important to not let relationship be overshadowed by limitation; it is important to not let an identity based upon mutual respect and love be overtaken by an acceptance of violence and hate.  The Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi is a reminder of this call and of our commitment toward peace.

Dancing Francis sculpture at Viterbo University, La Crosse

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood as to understand;
To be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.


Thursday, May 26, 2016

Dear Workers, around this same time last year, I finished a one and a half month hitchhiking tour of France with my travel companion Mike Elderbrook and found myself living in a squat (an abandoned building illegally inhabited by non-owners). I discovered it, a place known as Stendhal squat, when I was still with Mike passing through Paris. We had been searching for cheap lodging in Paris two weeks earlier when a friend said to try this address, that maybe some of her friends still lived there. Not knowing anything about the place, the people, the living situation, if they they would have room for us or if they even let strangers stay there, Mike and I went.
The first time I saw the dingy blue doors it was sundown and there was a grinning, mostly toothless, french man of asian descent named Loon smoking a joint and sipping on a beer in front of the “abandoned” hospital. Weary from travel, we had a short conversation in which he noticed my American accent and invited us inside for a break from our journey. He let us in with a quiet reminder to watch our stuff closely and offered us various substances to relax until he could ask the other squatters whether we could stay there. The spacious once-upon-a-time reception hall had scarred concrete floors scantily clad in tattered worn fabric. The unfinished drywall had posters, superb graffiti, and long ago written notes pockmarking its face. There were scattered beautiful paintings and drawings done right on the walls and floors. There were at least thirty bicycles hanging in that room with old refrigerators, old clothes, beer cans, and beat up furniture with a couple of twenty somethings lounging and smoking.
Quickly welcomed and assured lodging, the tour we received of the eight level complex was fairly shocking. Alongside the hallways and rooms resembling the reception area, there were also a home-built stage and auditorium with high tech sound and light systems, a free clothing store, a not so small library, a pristine white dance hall, and an immense labyrinth of a bicycle workshop. It seemed an odd combination of a blooming renaissance and decrepit chaos.
Later that night, we witnessed a borderline bacchanalia of the thirty mostly young squatters (between 20 and 35 years old) in which the dancing, hallucinating, table thumping, smoking, and drinking members celebrated their comrade's birthday. Although it was intense, it was amazing how welcoming and trusting they were with their things. We were given food, new clothes, access to their somewhat working bathrooms, and were offered a variety of substances. That night, we slept in an old hospital room with two stained mattresses and bug infested pillows while the party raged on a few floors below; I have never slept so well.
I decided to come back alone two weeks later to discover more about this lifestyle; I ended up living there for almost a month. The people who lived there were mostly french students, artists, musicians, activists, and scientists along with a couple of ukrainian refugees and me. The life there had a different pace. Some people had jobs and some didn’t but everybody was a freegan (meaning that we only ate “expired” or thrown out food which we found on the ground after markets or in the trash). The love of the earth and a respect for human freedom was palpable. Many in need of home, shelter for a night, or a meal stopped by on a daily basis and were given help freely and joyfully.  Art, drugs, hospitality, music, and coffee were priorities and everyone took part in them. The daily schedule for many squatters was waking up at noon, drinking absurd amounts of coffee, taking various creative drugs to “enhance creativity,” doing some sort of work on a skill or for a business till mid afternoon, then drinking and partying till well past midnight every night. On a weekly basis though,  there were plays, dance lessons, philanthropic/activist meetings and reunions happening there. There were entrepreneurs and scientists living there and continuing their research in the midst of this chaos.  There was a bicycle workshop that involved dumpster diving for old bicycles which were then repaired and given to refugees who otherwise had no other mode of transport.
A complex philosophy structured life there, and if you can read French then you can find out more about it here: http://lestendhal.net. I thought I was encountering a sort of underground left wing rebellion against “the man” and the socially constructed “needs” that suck our soul away. In some ways, this is what it is but there is a different texture to it. I could not understand how such abject hedonism existed in harmony, albeit imperfectly, with a seemingly selfless philanthropic project. Of course there were the inevitable contradictions between philosophy and practice that manifested themselves clearly in the actions and words of my friends. Yet, hypocrisies, which are so rampant in religious, political, and idealistic circles, needed no tortured explanations to keep a false sense of continuity and righteousness within the community, but were regarded as a natural part of working through the neuroses of living in a postmodern world and coping with the seeming purposelessness spawning from the lack of an apparent rival. I couldn’t figure out who the enemy was. Was it the government? The USA? The materialists? I was expecting to find clenched fists but all I found were hugs and kisses. I didn’t get it, they didn’t seem to be fighting for something. It slowly dawned on me over the next few weeks though. There wasn’t so much a sense of fighting back but of letting go and easing into a lifestyle in which they could undergo change.
To use Girardian concepts, there was an incredibly underwhelming sense of having no enemies--there was no revolution of the “poor downtrodden rising up to crush the maleficent bourgeoisie who had cruelly enslaved them,” nor was there a “good chosen people trying to bring truth to the reckless non-believers before they destroy the world”; rather, there was a gradual movement away from systems based around conflict. It was an exodus of the self-proclaimed disillusioned starting to move away from systems that perpetuate various types of violence to give a self-defined feeling of victory once some arbitrary goals are met (most typically, defeating the “other”). And it was in this bizarre intersection of peace and rebellion that I heard about the murders and subsequent events in Charleston, South Carolina.
I watched as we packed the still warm bodies of the slain into ammunition to wage our old political and cultural wars. Hoping to make sense of the cruelty, we framed the events to confirm our pre-existing beliefs so that we could be vindicated and exonerated of blame by identify with the victims. We set up nuance as the enemy of truth because we are afraid of what conceding ground means for us. With the ferociousness of our conviction, we mutually blind one another to the very light we want the other to see. In the vacuum of this fighting we suffocate the possibility of any concessions--that a gun makes it easier to act on the violent and potent impulses that arise from rivalry and ignorance, but also that this same violence can manifest itself no matter whether we can access a gun or not. This pattern is played out time and again in different political arenas: abortion, marriage laws, the death penalty, and even what bathrooms we can use.  
    In contrast, I saw in these hippies a genuine goodness that I hope to see in my community and myself one day. It’s not only their simplicity and generosity, but their openness to change and live in the tension of competing philosophies.  While not advocating that we all become drugged-up, hedonistic hippies, I hope that by gradually loosening our grip on a seamless worldview in which we are the “good,” there can be space for real grief to inform us of our daily collective and individual complicity in a system of rivalry and violence.
Now, almost a year later, I am trying to convince myself that this is possible in our present political climate.  We should ask ourselves who we have set up as our ideological rivals. We spend much of our time decrying the various heresies of competing denominations, bemoaning the falsehoods of our political adversaries, and touting the beauty of our own just and informed ways. How often do we listen to the opposition, truly seeking to understand their ideas and justifications? I believe it is only in this spirit that we can begin the slow, underwhelming process of working through our problems without overcoming them as enemies, but undergoing them as products of our collective/individual human ignorance.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Fix your minds on the things that are above

We will go down fighting, I was about to say. But actually we are not going down, we are going up. We are progressing. In the long run, we win though we may have to go through the agony in the garden, the cross itself, to get to the ascension, to receive the Holy Spirit.
 - Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage - October 1958
Ascension of Christ, Garofolo, 1510s.
We “celebrated” the Feast of the Ascension last Sunday, though I didn't sense much celebration in the air. At mass, the priest greeted us with the words, “Joyful, joyful!” and a huge grin, reminding us that we are celebrating the Easter season. But then his homily centered on the sadness the disciples must have felt after Jesus’s final “goodbye” and the difficulty of major transitions in our own lives. I have also heard many similar homilies explaining that the Ascension is fundamentally about Jesus's absence, about patiently waiting until he “comes again.” Is the Ascension, then, merely something we begrudgingly accept is good for us somehow--akin to “Good Friday”--something we shouldn’t expect to inspire genuine celebration?

Though it may seem that way to us, it was understood very differently by the early Christians, according to the Catholic theologian James Alison (in his book Raising Abel: The recovery of the eschatological imagination):
This can be seen in passages like Romans 8:34Ephesians 1:20Hebrews 1:3,13; and 1 Peter 3:22. We are talking about something which was evidently imbued with great significance for the apostolic witnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus: the happening which we describe when, while professing our faith, we say, "He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God." ... Is that happening in any way significant to us? ... Insofar as it gets talked about at all it appears as a somewhat apologetic loose end to the resurrection stories, as if it were a slightly shameful way of explaining why Jesus is no longer to be found, at least in this form…
However, it seems to have a special importance in the apostolic witness; in fact, in [Colossians 3:2] it seems to be the sine qua non by which Christians understand who we are, as well as being a principle of action. If this is the case, then we are talking about some lost understanding, something that was quite clear for the apostolic witnesses, but which has become so opaque for us that we don't even realize that we're missing out on something...
Alison translates Colossians 3:2 as: “Fix your minds on the things that are above, and not on the things of earth.” In recent days, my mind has been fixed most often on the things of earth to do with Donald Trump, as I suspect is true for many others, perhaps contributing to the gloominess I perceived on Sunday. Even as I write this, it is only with effort that I am able to resist checking the latest Trump news, although there is almost surely nothing new since I last checked an hour ago. So embarrassing--that is not the state of mind I want to be in. Especially now, in the face of all the suffering and vicious cycles in the world and our city, not to mention my sick children and overworked wife, I want to be alive with hope and able to envision the new creation Jesus is bringing about.

Stoning of Saint Stephen, altarpiece
of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice,
by Jacopo & Domenico Tintoretto
I want to have the mind of St. Stephen, who, in a situation much more dire than I will ever face personally, "being full of the Holy Spirit, fixed his gaze on heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said: Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." As he was being stoned to death immediately thereafter, Stephen was able to follow Jesus to an extraordinary degree. He gave up his spirit peacefully and even prayed out loud that God forgive his misguided murderers. The subsequent conversion of just one of those who participated in Stephen's murder, Saul, would go on to transform history.

As best as I can understand (with the help of James Alison's book, a longer excerpt of which is available here), Jesus's ascension to the right hand of God is the sign of his definitive victory, initiating the creation of a new reality on earth as in heaven. A victim of the most shameful failure and death imaginable--a supposed messiah publicly tortured and killed at the request of all the people--is now in the most glorious and exalted place imaginable. As we fix our minds on that, we too can receive the spirit that animated Jesus, the power to act creatively as if death and failure were nothing, and to free others weighed down by shame or consumed by resentment.

Dorothy Day wrote of the ascension (at the top of this post) in reference to being evicted from her New York City houses of hospitality, the city having seized their property by eminent domain. I can only imagine how angry I would feel, and how overwhelmed by the pressure of finding a new way to provide for the dozens of people who had come to rely on her for shelter. She, however, had the grace to write:
We are not at all cheerless and can see quite a few ways out. For one thing we don’t want to borrow money from the city at six per cent interest (our own money, remember, remember!) We know that it is going to take some time to collect from the city the cost of our house and the money we put in for repairs. There is not going to be enough money to buy a house and repair it, as far as we can see, unless St. Joseph wants it that way and sends us the money through the Appeal which also has to take care of all our current bills for our household of over a hundred people. 
Dorothy Day in 1959 (photo by Jim Forest)
So what are the alternatives? We can rent a loft for our office, and for a sitting-around place for everyone. WE can feed them there. We can rent a floor of a hotel for our men and find an apartment for our women nearby. We can still give out clothes, we can still feed the hungry. And all this without any too great outlay of money all at once. We can stall along this way for a year until we find a place suitable and one which the city will accept as suitable and give us a certificate of occupancy for.
The creative, unhurried, and unafraid spirit of Jesus was clearly evident in her. Through her participation in the Eucharist each morning (among many other things, of course), she concretely experienced the crucified and risen Jesus offering himself for her and for all. Let's pray that our hearts may also see Jesus in his glory as Stephen and Dorothy knew him and so joyfully receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit that empowered them. As just one specific way towards that, you could try this prayer of praise composed by St. Francis of Assisi, which he prayed several times a day with his brothers: The Praises to be said at all the Hours

Monday, April 25, 2016

Walking for Mercy, Walking for Justice

Twice, I have had the opportunity to see Glen Hansard in concert.  The first time was a number of years ago at the historic Pabst Theater in downtown Milwaukee; the second time was last June at the Orpheum Theater in Madison.  His singing has always impressed me for its range and due to the sheer volume and raw emotion that he is able to convey through his voice.  Often, his voice emerges as a faint whisper, but then slowly it increases in dynamic to a startling cry which then rises almost to a heightened scream before fading back as quickly into the silence from which it came.  He carries a powerful voice, which speaks to the most intimate moments of life, and he does so as though he were an old friend.  One song in particular, “Her Mercy,” speaks to that most intimate desire of relationship; the lyrics end with the repeated invitation: And when you’re ready for her mercy, / And you’re worthy, / It will come.
In March of last year Pope Francis made the announcement that 2016 would be known as the Year of Mercy.  He made this announcement without precondition, without limitation; not everyone may be ready, but we are all worthy, and it will come.  The works of mercy, much like the beatitudes, are concrete examples of the gospel carried out.  They can be simple and straightforward—such as feed the hungry, or clothe the naked—but more so than the action, we are called to partake in the relationship of mercy that is not always so straightforward, never simple, but always life changing and life affirming. 

This is the identity of mercy that was demonstrated by Pope Francis in washing the feet on Holy Thursday of those who were incarcerated, of his visit to the Greek Island of Lesbos with Patriarch Bartholomew to call attention to the plight of the refugee, and of opening a Vatican conference challenging the notion that war can ever be considered just.  The difficulty of promoting mercy though, is that for it to come, we must also be willing to participate in the pursuit of justice.  And sometimes, it is through the smallest of actions—such as in a walk—that together we begin down this path of mercy, this walk toward justice.

A few weeks ago, on Good Friday, I had the opportunity to participate in a walking Stations of the Cross in downtown Madison.  The entire route for the walk was roughly a mile long; there were ten stations, each represented by a building or an organization that sought to convey a specific theme or issue calling for our attention and inviting a response.  The walk was sponsored by the Madison Catholic Worker group.  It was the first year that we had organized this event, and we had hoped for a small number to participate.  75 people arrived that evening, gathered together in Cathedral Park near the capital building.  At 4:30PM an opening prayer was read, and the first station—Jesus is Condemned to Death—came to a close.  Stillness pervaded the park. 

Opening prayer at Cathedral Park

From that stillness emerged the single beat of a drum.  And then there were footsteps; slowly at first, as we all began to walk across the concrete steps leading out from the park to the street.  Again a drum beat.  The voices of those walking—whispered, hushed, some harmonized, others quietly humming—Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom, Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.  The drum beat continued, keeping pace between the footsteps.  Each participant carried a simple wooden cross, painted white.  Pause.  Stillness.  Noises of the surrounding traffic; continued footsteps.  Until slowly, we all stopped, standing in front of the Dane County Courthouse.  And then, amplified over the crowd, a reader spoke, “The Second Station: Jesus is Given His Cross.”  And when you’re ready for her mercy, / And you’re worthy, / It will come.

Walking past the state capital; a drum beat keeps pace.

Between the reader and those gathered, we spoke of our immigration system, of families who had been separated, of those locked in detention centers.  Just as the simple wooden crosses had names written on them—from a previous procession at the School of the Americas—we sought to identify each station not with the historical Jesus, but with a Jesus whose presence was still observed in the ongoing suffering of the world today.  Eight other stations followed in a similar pattern: drum beat, footsteps against the pavement, spoken verses, and then silence, proceeded by the next reader.  Each reflection focused on a contemporary issue in which the reality of Jesus’ ministry, the physicality of the Gospels, was demonstrated by a modern day representation, whether through a homeless shelter (#9), the state capital building (#6), the police department (#4), the county jail (#3), or a veterans museum (#8).  The stations sought to encourage our understanding of mercy, and to challenge our association of justice—not a straight and absolute path, but a meandering and often fragmented journey into a greater depth of relationship and a wider sense of community.
The 8th Station - The Wisconsin Veterans Museum

I have now participated in a walking Stations of the Cross four times in the last five years; the previous walks which I attended took place in La Crosse, Wisconsin and were hosted by the Franciscan Spirituality Center.  Up until my introduction to this type of walk I had never felt a deep connection to the standard Stations of the Cross that can be observed in any Catholic parish and remembered each year on Good Friday.  For some reason though, this type of remembrance—physically encountering each station in a substituted form—reminds me that the Gospel is and will continue to remain an active presence in today’s society, and that Jesus’ walk to the cross is a walk that many stumble upon through no choice of their own, as represented through these modern day stations.  The crucifixion made clear the sufferings in the world, but it was the resurrection and Jesus’ encounter with the disciples at a later date which would render His presence to the modern world, incarnate in the stations of today.  Through Jesus’ resurrection we are able to encounter Christ in this modern narrative of the Way of the Cross.  What Easter has brought us is an encounter with mercy.  And when you’re ready for her mercy, / And you’re worthy, / It will come.

***This post was also published on the blog Messy Jesus Business, and in the newspaper for the Place of Grace Catholic Worker in La Crosse.