And you will find rest for yourselves

July 9, 2017

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 100

IMG_9555.JPG

Weston Priory

Do you know the hymn based on today’s Gospel? I’m sure there are many settings of it, but the one that I learned growing up is the folksy post-Vatican II-type hymn that really speaks to me. My mom plays hymns like this on her acoustic guitar. Some people are purists for Latin chants, but this is the music that I associate with real, pure faith.

On July 9th, I actually went to Weston Priory, the community that composed this setting. The Benedictine community was celebrating the feast of Saint Benedict, so the mass was full. Aside from a few kids with their parents, my friends (another prospective div school student and her religious studies boyfriend) and I were by far the youngest people at the service.

Weston Priory is nestled in the woods of Weston, Vermont, a town on the edge of the Green Mountain National Forest. I’d driven past it as a child but never visited. Monks? I’d imagined stodgy bald men in long black robes who never smiled and only sang in Latin.

Times have changed, though, and now I’m a weird theology feminist Catholic nerd who absolutely adored the Priory – because it turns out that these monks aren’t exactly the somber grumps I’d imagined. The community is quite radical, actually, and the service actually reminded me of base communities that I’ve visited in Nicaragua, where I almost cried at a service co-led by an elderly woman.

The service is not a traditional mass. The language is switched up, adapted in beautiful ways (like the misa campesina, much of it is sung). Instead of a typical homily, a handful of monks offered reflections, popcorn-style. The Eucharist was perhaps my favorite part: the monks officiated all together, speaking in unison and performing the sacrament as a call and response with the congregation. That felt like real communion. (I’m pretty sure it was open communion, though I’m not positive.) And at the end of the service, the monks danced. It was a gentle dance, as most of them are elderly: they held hands in a circle. They had an acoustic guitar. It just made me happy.

(What made me almost as happy: the bookshop. Feminist theology, ecology, anti-apartheid stuff… I bought The Inclusive New Testament, a translation of the NT, and a book called Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel, which looks super cool.)

I’ve had the hymn (and through it, the day’s Gospel) stuck in my head:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

It makes me happy. Yes, I could talk about how these words can be used to tell people that they must accept their oppression, but I don’t want to – because all I can think about is the hymn and the dancing monks.

Last spring, I was talking to my mentor about my critical engagement with religion, how I’m always wrestling with God and the Church. Most people don’t want this from religion, I said. He agreed right away. I know that many people find comfort in faith. I usually don’t. I often wish I did, but I usually don’t.

But in hymns – hymns like this – for me, there’s an unmitigated glimpse of holiness there. And when I think of the monks dancing and smiling and using feminine language to describe God, I feel comforted. I feel like God is reminding me of all that is beautiful about faith. She’s reminding me that yes, I will find rest for myself – I am not the only one in the world looking for holiness between the lines – and beyond the Church’s walls.

Advertisements

What is love? (Probably not nationalism)

July 2, 2017

Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 97

 

Okay, so I opened the reading for July 2, saw that it was this Gospel, and said, oh, God, why the hell am I doing this before I get a theological education? (Then I had to go reread the blurb in my “About” page that basically exists so that I can reassure myself.)

Because this – this Gospel – is one of the hardest ones for know what to say about! It makes me so uncomfortable! It makes me sad and frustrated and it seems to defy everything that I understand about Christianity and radical love and all that good shit.

Jesus said to his apostles:
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,
and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me;
and whoever does not take up his cross
and follow after me is not worthy of me.[1]
Whoever finds his life will lose it,
and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

I just want to yell, what is love? My initial (scattered) thoughts:

  • I hate it when people today claim to love Jesus more than anyone else, because that love for Jesus is so abstract, spiritual, insubstantial, one-sided. Unless you believe that you have a mystical relationship with Jesus in which he appears to you or speaks to you (which I certainly don’t have), how does that work?
  • If you believe that you encounter God through other human beings (which I do believe), how can you separate God from that human form which embodies/images her? Like… how? We can’t know God except through her creation. Besides, the whole point is that Christians are supposed to love people in their brokenness. We have to love their God-parts and their not-God-parts.
  • Finally, if God is love, how the hell can you rank love? Isn’t that just straight-up blasphemy? Not all love is the same, but how can there be better love? Maybe you can have more or less love, sure, but… I don’t know, I feel weird about the implication that some love is more important than others.

It does help, though, that this reading fell right before the 4th of July. Thinking about this in the context of nationalism helped a bit. It might be a bit ridiculous, but I started thinking about the Founding Fathers. Jesus is likely calling on us to reject the social structures that we accept as given. He’s saying, hey, you need to question the very foundation of who you are. You need to think about why you automatically love your mom more than you love that beggar on the side of the road – or the random rabbi from Nazareth. You need to think about why you automatically love the white American dude in an American flag tank top in that parade more than you love the undocumented worker on the local dairy farm. I don’t think he’s saying that you shouldn’t love your mom. He’s saying that you need to be critical of a world that has socialized you to believe that you must love certain people and not others. Before you worship (God and) country, take a step back to think about who you’re not worshipping.

Because sometimes fathers are not good people. Sometimes (well, always), nation-states are not so great. But even if your parents are the most wonderful people, they alone cannot embody God. That’s why we have to love God the most – we have to love God as imaged in everyone, even the most unexpected people. We have to love God in the stranger (in Jesus). If we will only ever practice comfortable love that society approves (familial love), how can we call ourselves Christians?

I think that if we try to love despite a society that teaches us how love ought to be properly distributed (assigned by race and sex, chopped up by political borders…), we’ll then become worthy[2] of Jesus. That’s my answer for now.

 

[1] I’m not even going to go into this. I recently read Proverbs of Ashes, a feminist critique of atonement theologies, and I feel profoundly unsettled and unable to articulate my own theology of the cross.

[2] Seriously considering what this word even means will have to be a project for another day…

Jeremiah and Horizontal Hostility

June 25, 2017

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Lectionary: 94

 

I’ve been reading Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet, a profoundly challenging and eye-opening text about the need for sustained resistance to capitalism, industrialism, and climate change (the authors specifically name the need for an end to “civilization,” which doesn’t mean an end to humanity, as I might’ve first assumed, but an end to a particular way of living predicated upon endless growth, a way of living which is destructive to life). I would absolutely recommend the book: it’s incisive and brutally straightforward. It names truths that most of us fear but need to name.

I’m writing on the reading from the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 25 (yes, I’m behind), and when I look at the first reading, the struggle for cohesion on the left is the first thing that comes to mind.

 

Jeremiah said:
“I hear the whisperings of many:
‘Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!’
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
‘Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him.’

 

In college, I was a budding activist/organizer. I was involved in the movement to divest my school from fossil fuels, turned out to protests against police brutality, organized for greater accountability and transparency in the school’s bureaucracy, led trainings about people of faith in political movements, stuff like that. And I witnessed the vicious backstabbing and pettiness that pervades left-leaning spaces on college campuses in the U.S. Interpersonal nastiness comes in. Someone decides that someone else is bourgie and fake and decides to talk about them behind their back. Someone decides that their old friends aren’t cool enough and that they’d prefer to smoke with the radder, edgier people. All kinds of ridiculous stuff comes up.

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet names horizontal hostility[1] for what it is: toxic and destructive. It brings movements down. I’d never heard the term before, but when I read it, I thought, yes! This is the problem!

As Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet also names, youth-driven political movements are too-often short-sighted and hot-headed. That’s what I was witnessing in college, of course. We were all riled up with idealism and fervor, trying to figure out how best to do this “activism” thing. Even those of us who claimed to be sophisticated had gaping blind spots (especially frustrating for me was the normative secularism of leftist spaces, which were often flatly hostile toward religion despite their vague commitments to standing against religious persecution).

So I read the first reading and thought, yes! Jeremiah is talking about horizontal hostility! His former friends/comrades are turning against him. Maybe they once shared (or still share) the same noble ideals, but the group is breaking up. Infighting is taking over and they’re trying to call out and bring down the member whom they’ve labeled “problematic.”

I used to think that the right had invented the left’s nasty “call-out culture,” but that was naïve. The left is full of it. The real problem is that while the religious right is open about its religiosity, the left isn’t. The left holds certain ideas as articles of faith. People who question get excommunicated. People manipulate those ideals to target those they don’t like (like Jeremiah’s former friends watching for any misstep). Left-leaning groups are no more exempt from things like reification of personal/individual purity, hero worship, or groupthink than any other culture, but when you’re in those groups, this issues are harder to name because of the ways we understand “secularism” and “religion” on the right and left. So while many college leftists don’t want to talk about religion (and ostracize religious people), they replicate many of its most toxic elements.

Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet presents a better explanation of horizontal hostility than I can, and other writers have surely explored more fully how to combat it. The passage from Jeremiah gives me a bit of comfort, though. I too often feel caught between my faith and my politics, with no real community on either side. People don’t know what to do with me: I’m not Catholic enough for the Catholics but not radical enough for the radicals. I think that people who give me a hard time are wrong. Obviously I think I’m “just”; I’m a young idealist, aren’t I? I think I’m firmly in the right, so it’s tempting to be soothed when Jeremiah goes on to say:

 

But the LORD is with me, like a mighty champion:
my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.
In their failure they will be put to utter shame,
to lasting, unforgettable confusion.

 

But… is lasting, unforgettable confusion a good outcome for anyone? Of course not! I want my former friends to see the error of their ways, apologize, and make alliances with me, not for God my protector to wreak vengeance upon them. I don’t think my “enemies” (those with similar or shared political goals with whom I quarrel) are evil, per se, I just think they’re… wrong? Maybe this passage would be better applied to the global elites, someone I can more justly name as an enemy, not to the former friends who try to trip me up? Because in the end, a lot of the left-leaning people with whom I’ve fought have more in common with me than not. But I don’t think that the passage refers to the faceless evils of power and oppression. It names Jeremiah’s former friends. It refers to horizontal hostility. And it names vengeance.

Vengeance is a problem. Wouldn’t reconciliation be better?

I don’t know how to deal with the LORD’s vengeance. It seems that Jeremiah is saying that his former comrades should be excommunicated and sent to suffer, just like they were trying to do to Jeremiah. And how is that sustainable? How is that any way to build a movement? Maybe this is just his wishful thinking, his certainty that he is right, his idealism and pride reassuring him that the LORD will back him up.

The end of the passage does give me hope, though, the kind of hope that I can cling to without guilt or confusion. This is good stuff. This is something I already understand, as much as any of us can understand it. This is what the authors of the book I’m reading name. This is what I hope to live, the rescue of life from power:

 

Sing to the LORD,
praise the LORD,
for he has rescued the life of the poor
from the power of the wicked!”

 

This makes me take a deep breath and say, hey, okay, maybe God isn’t really a partisan in our petty squabbles, after all? Or if and when she is invested in our interpersonal disputes, she’s really trying to get us to focus on the bigger picture?

 

 

[1] Quoting Denise Thompson, the book states: “Horizontal hostility can involve bullying into submission someone who is no more privileged in the hierarchy of male supremacist social relations than the bully herself. It can involve attempts to destroy the good reputation of someone who has no more access to the upper levels of power than the one who is spreading the scandal. It can involve holding someone responsible for one’s own oppression, even though she too is oppressed. It can involve envious demands that another woman stop using her own abilities, because the success of someone no better placed than you yourself “makes” you feel inadequate and worthless. Or it can involve attempts to silence criticism by attacking the one perceived to be doing the criticising. In general terms, it involves misperceptions of the source of domination, locating it with women who are not behaving oppressively.”

This is my body, which will be given up for you.

June 18, 2017

Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ
Lectionary: 167

 

Corpus Christi (the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ) is a liturgical solemnity in the Roman Rite. This actually means that one Sunday every year is designated “Corpus Christi Sunday” and dedicated to reflection on the Catholic teaching that the bread and wine presented during the mass literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This idea that Jesus Christ is literally present in the Eucharist (known as “transubstantiation”) is one of the biggest sticking points between Catholics and Protestants.

I have my issues with the way that we Catholics usually talk about the Eucharist. It’s not that I take issue with transubstantiation, persay, though there are certainly pros and cons to our unusually solemn approach to the Eucharist (non-Catholics – and Catholics who aren’t in the Church’s good graces – are not permitted to receive the sacrament, but that’s a different argument). My qualms are a little more basic: I think it’s messed up that only men are permitted to administer the sacrament. Only priests are permitted to act in persona Christi or “in the person of Christ,” and since Jesus was male, well…

But! Women are valid!, the sexists whine. Women are endowed with the fullness of human dignity, just as men are! We’re not sexists! We believe that women are just as important as men. Women and men are simply prescribed distinct roles. A woman’s role is no better or worse than a man’s, but it is different. Women are mothers, childbearers, wives, etc, with all the traditional connotations assigned to those roles. And this – this is beautiful. (Insert some Pope Francis quote about woman’s beautiful feminine contributions to the church.) Men are the heads of household – and they are priests (never mind the dissonance of homoerotic bride of Christ stuff)! These feminine and masculine roles complement each other. If men and women fulfill their roles, a beautiful harmony will reign over the family, the church, and society!

Make no mistake: This is definitionally sexist. To say that one’s social role is determined by one’s biology is the definition of sexism. You cannot be a feminist and profess complementarianism (the idea about separate but equally important roles for men and women). It boggles the mind that there are women out there trying to redefine feminism as a movement that makes room for this sexist nonsense.

(You want to be a stay-at-home mom? It makes you feel – dare I say it – empowered? That’s fine! Go right ahead! The problem lies in claiming that personal feelings of “empowerment”=liberation for women. They don’t. Feminism is a movement advocating that women can take on any social roles without restriction on the basis of our femaleness. It’s a movement for the liberation of women.)

I digress. The Church is sexist. “Feminism” is mainstream now, so people co-opt it. What else is new?

Back to Corpus Christi Sunday. At every mass, the priest lifts the host and says those words that every Catholic child learns by heart but never says:

Take this, all of you, and eat it. This is my body, which will be given up for you.

At that moment, Catholics believe that Jesus literally enters our midst.

Corpus Christi Sunday is a celebration of this miraculous moment. It’s a celebration of the tenet that Christ is literally and truly here with us, in body and in blood. I mean this in a gross, fleshy, sweaty, bloody, literal, human way. Jesus in our midst. Jesus in this room. That’s a beautiful thing.

But God, I ask, what the hell do men know about giving up their bodies? Every time I set in a room and watch a white man raise the host to the ceiling, I think about Jesus, a man who was brutally murdered by the Roman Empire. Jesus was the lowest of the low. Jesus was on death row. Jesus knew what it means to literally give up one’s body – unwillingly.

And what do most men know about giving up their bodies?

Women, we who are bruised and beaten and raped and subjugated and given up, we know.

In our bodies, Jesus is physically present in this room. Christ is present in our femaleness, in our gray hairs, saggy breasts, hairy legs, stretched skin, scarred wrists, calloused feet, wide hips, tanned skin, clipped nails, forced smiles. We are the least of God’s people. We know what it is to suffer. And Christ is in us. We know too much about acting in the person of Christ.

So Corpus Christi Sunday rings false for me. Yeah, yeah, I know that Christ is here with us. I see her everyday. And I know that a woman could be up on that altar acting officially in persona Christi, bringing Christ literally into our midst. I know that a woman should be up on that altar. I’m waiting.

Greed is the weed that strangles the garden

June 11, 2017

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Lectionary: 164

 

Walking over to the public library, I saw a panhandler’s discarded cardboard sign tucked behind a drainage pipe: Greed is the weed that strangles the garden, it said in bold sharpie. I repeated that to myself as I walked. Greed is the weed that strangles the garden. Greed is the weed that strangles the garden. It’s hot outside, mid-June in this city where I’ve only been living for a few days, and the trees and grassy spaces are a vivid, supersaturated green. Even the weeds are green. Greed is the weed that strangles the garden.

In this week’s first reading, Moses and the Lord are on Mount Sinai together in one of those foggy, dreamlike, transcendent conversations that are most often set on mountaintops. Moses says to God, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.”

Isn’t it strange that Moses invites the Lord down into the company of his people? It’s a wheedling, eager invitation; I think of Moses as the nerdy kid trying to invite the unbearably elegant upperclassman to his party.

Why would Moses need to invite God? Surely God can just decide to show up whenever she feels like it. But I love his invitation for two reasons. For one, it’s an endearingly human impulse (Moses, too, wants the cool kids to come to his birthday party). But it’s also sweet to humanize God like this. I imagine God as the newcomer at school hanging back, waiting for an invitation to join the fray.

I’m also struck by Moses’s comment about the “stiff-necked people” (presumably he’s including himself in that number?). I love how that’s the condemnation he chooses. Not something about how they’re adulterers or thieves or liars but just that they are stiff-necked. They look down their noses. They don’t incline their heads to listen or turn to the side to help a stranger. Their eyes are focused straight ahead, looking toward their own goals. They never bend to the needs of the other.

Greed is the weed that strangles the garden. A stiff-necked people is greedy, self-righteous, selfish. A stiff-necked people does not bend to see the beggar at the roadside with a cardboard sign. A stiff-necked people walks past the beggar (with his duffel bag and mangy dog) and so perhaps fails to notice that God has already come into their midst. Maybe God’s just sitting by the edge of the hot summer road, waiting to be invited into their company.