Saturday, September 30, 2006

Hard Truths

Tomorrow's Gospel reading (Mark 9:38-48) is the old "if your hand (or foot) offends, cut it off, and if the eye offends, pluck it out" lesson... Eeeyewh!

Visualizing severed limbs and gaping eye sockets as a means to eternal life gives me the creeps. ..."better to enter the kingdom maimed or blind, than to spend eternity where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched." Creepier still, like something out of a Stephen King novel. It's the kind of Scripture that makes me want to tell a joke... picture a cartoon of some poor schmuck sitting in heaven with nothing but a trunk... no arms, legs or eyes. Too many offensive body parts.

Okay, so I get it. Intellectually. But worms that never die do not meet me on an intellectual level. They hit me at my squeamish gut level, at the flying-cockroach-level, where I screech first and then go eeyewh! Ickh! Get it off me!

On the one hand Jesus says "If you're not against me then you're for me." I like that part. That encompasses a whole lot of people, not just the fervent believers. I especially like the inclusive words of Jesus. They give me hope for myself on my most sinful days, and hope for my friends who are still in the imaginary dead guy phase.

But he's not all sugar and spice, my lord and savior. He tells it like it is, and one of the hardest truths is that anything that separates us from God is bad for us. Bad for us now, and worse for eternity. So forgetting for the moment the body parts, what is it I do that separates me from God? What activity must be severed from my schedule? What behavior needs to be plucked out and thrown away? The instructions are pretty clear. No cutting down... quitting cold turkey is the only way to go.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Types and Stereotypes

I've had two brushes with the concept of labels this past week.

Labels: adjectives that give descriptions, whether direct or implied, are used and misused in our language daily. The first conversation centered around the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs personality profile. It's hard enough to know that others think and act differently than I; having to live with them is a another story. With the Enneagram people are assigned a number from one to nine, characterized according to their personality's dark side. It's an interesting twist. It has helped me to study the various numbers of the sisters I deal with daily, and knowing my own number has been amazingly humbling and enlightening. But one person in the group didn't believe in labels. She felt that labels divide people, focusing on their differences rather than their similarities. A good point.

But that is the point, right? We are different. We don't like that. (We don't like it when we're all the same either, but that's neither here nor there.) If I'm neat and you're messy, there's a problem if we inhabit the same space. It doesn't necessarily mean I'm a neatnik and you're a slob, although it could. Labeling you a slob won't help our relationship. But understanding that you don't notice the paper clips on the carpet might.

The next concept of labels came from the sermon given at the ordination the other day. The preacher threw out four words: fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative and liberal. With great skill and humor he defined each one with a new spin and in so doing, convinced us that these were all admirable adjectives to describe our life in Christ.

If a label stereotypes a person and stashes them into a neat little box, then it is difinitely devisive. If, however, it explains a type and a subsequent behavior in a way that creates compassionate understanding, then the description is worth its weight in adverbs.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Who wants to be first anyway?

"... whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35)

I can't remember ever wanting to be first. You're too conspicuous, too vulnerable. The higher you climb, the harder you fall... and all that. I used to like being second in command... sort of behind the scenes helpmate to the one on the front line, occasionally getting to be queen for the day, but never having to get stuck in that position. Never having to shoulder the responsibility for real.

I have had to be first on occasion. The pay was good, but I didn't like the responsibility and didn't do so well. If leadership is thrust upon me then I'll lead, but I'd much rather follow. Not everyone thinks like I do. Not everyone is by nature introverted and fearful of failure.

On the other hand, who wants to be last? Being last stinks. Last in line gets the dregs, last in chapel has to shuffle through her books to find the right page, last to the meeting means all eyes bore into you when you sit down. I don't want to be last either. Give me a nice place in the middle somewhere, maybe a little left of center, towards the front.

Our celebrant this morning preached on this gem from Jesus. His words were "...whoever wants to be first in God's sight..." Oh. That's different. Never mind.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

No priest shortage today

I've just returned from a three-hour ordination service at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Normally these ceremonies take about two, but there were eleven ordinands this time. it takes a long time to present, examine, consecrate, lay hands on, and anoint eleven people individually. Our bishop took his time, giving each one the honor due. Today was the first formal affirmation for years of hard work, study and sacrifice.

As my mind wandered, I was reminded of how lucky (blessed) I am to live in this incredible city. Even under renovation, the scaled down space of the cathedral is imposing and beautiful. One thing our church does well is pageantry. From the stately processional (St. Patrick's Breastplate—my favorite hymn of all time) to the inspired liturgy, sermon and litany, it was a celebration of pomp without being pompous. Humor, applause and shy waves from some of the newly vested made for a celebration that was not only regal but real. I am also blessed to be a part of this confused and chaotic time in our church. Events like today's remind me.

I was also surprised by how many people I knew in this large congregation... people from St. Bart's (who celebrated two new priests) as well as a wider group from the Cursillo community in the diocese. Some had not seen me in habit before, even though I'm now in my fourth year, so there was lots of catching up to do.

Of the eleven ordained today, eight are women. That struck me too. If our church had not changed canon law and ordained those first eleven women in 1974, how much more of a priest shortage would there be?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Look at her now

College was such a relief. (No homework) And... I was away from home for the first time in my life... really away, not away for a month at camp where you had to write home every week.

Of course I still had to write home every week. It was a requirement to receive my allowance. (Very shrewd, my mother) If I didn't write to say thank you for the money and this is what I did this week... then I didn't get any money the next week. Sometimes I didn't write. It was a novelty to be broke; not that much of a novelty.

But... I was lonely, and that first semester I felt abandoned by the love of my life. He had moved downstate to start a new job, and was swamped with all his new responsibilities. I checked my mailbox two or three times a day, even though mail only came once. His letters were infrequent, brief and informational. Boring. I was sure he couldn't possibly live without me, and once he realized it, the very next letter would be a proposal. But he could. And the proposal never came. Eventually I looked around, joined a few clubs, actually studied.

My roommate didn't like me. I didn't like her either. She was from New York, and sophisticated and bossy. We were both art majors, and she'd had more training than I. (Which doesn't say much, since I'd had no training.) Hard to believe... that I arrived at a state teachers' college, with a declared major in art education and I'd never taken a formal art class. My instructor was appalled. We were told to bring our portfolios the first week of class. What's a portfolio?

"Your portfolio... samples of your art, projects you did in high school." I didn't do any projects in high school. "You've had no training?" Uh, no. "And you want to be an art teacher?" Yes. Well, I really wanted to be a commercial artist, but my guidance counselor advised that's too competitive a field for a woman. She said I could be a nurse or a secretary or a teacher; So yes, I guess I want to be an art teacher. "And you've had no art training?" Right.

He threw up his hands and stalked off muttering. But he let me stay in class, and apparently I did okay, because a year later he would point me out to visitors and say, "And here is our Miss Johnson, who came to us with no art training, and look at her now."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

He was the adult.

Having a boyfriend made life worth living, but having a boyfriend who was not exactly boyfriend material made it complicated. The relationship was even more conflicted by the fact that he was an honorable man, experiencing his own confusing mix of guilt and affection. As long as I was in high school, we never went on a real date... he took me skiing, to afternoon concerts, hiking... all public, and many group activities with the church. Never anywhere after dark.

It was a small town. Everyone wanted to know everyone else's business, especially if that business didn't conform to acceptable norms. Anyone with a perceptive eye could have guessed there was more between us than necessary. His boss, (whose daughter was in my class) in passing, once asked whether or not he might be cradle robbing? His own family issued an ultimatum... no girlfriends under the age of twenty-one. My own friends just wanted to be included in any juicy details. There weren't any. We were attracted, but we weren't doing anything about it, except kissing. Boring.

That didn't mean that my imagination was bored. No siree. My hormones were raging and I was already fantasizing picket fences, four children and a washer/dryer combination. He was adamant that I needed college, life experiences, and time to grow up. His heart may have been singing yes, but his head was shouting NO!!! And he was the adult. He won.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

First Crush, First Love

You know how there are some periods in your life that you'd just as soon forget?

High School was one of mine. I was mostly bored, certainly unmotivated, and as far as my mom was concerned, a royal pain in the a--. Keeping me out of trouble (in a small town with four churches and one bowling alley) was not the problem. She responded to her burden of raising a child alone, heavy workload and subsistance paycheck, (not to mention no love life) by drinking. I responded to her drinking with fits of rage and sarcasm, and an unwillingness to be who she expected me to be. She imposed rules which I begrudgingly followed. No phone calls during working hours, clean her beauty shop every weekend, appropriate curfews.

She never asked if I'd done my homework. Just as well, because I probably would have lied. I hated homework. To me it was busy work and had nothing to do with learning the material. I took good notes, I listened in class, and was able to get by with a cursory glance at the textbooks. I probably would have had a higher grade point average if I'd turned in homework. All those zeros counteracted the A's on the tests. I was lucky to receive two scholarships my first year of college... one because we needed the money, and one because of glowing recommendation letters. (Obviously not from my mother.)

I loved to read and had a secret love life. Those two activities kept me sane. I say love life... the love was real, the object of my affection was real, the reality itself was a bit more complicated. The guy was older (eleven years to be exact) and an authority figure who was counseling me spiritually, helping me cope with my mother's alcoholism. Nobody called it alcoholism. To the day she died, my mother only vaguely referred to her possible drinking problem and blamed it on my puberty.

The man of my dreams was intelligent, (MIT grad) and shy (especially with women his own age). I was a kid. That we fell in love is not so hard to understand. I needed a father figure, he needed a non-threatening female. I worshipped him from afar until one evening, as we sat talking in the dark, he confessed he had something on his mind... something he'd been thinking about for a while. (We always had our best talks in the dark, don't ask me why.) Anyway, he asked if he could kiss me. I didn't know the expression does a polar bear slide on the ice? but if I had, I would have used it. I was sixteen. Wahoo!

Monday, September 18, 2006

more on those same lines...

More thoughts on that same sermon...

One of the things not mentioned in yesterday's ramblings, was that in some new translations, the question what will it profit them... is interpreted at the end... if they lose their true selves? That gives it a different twist. Because everybody loses his life eventually. We already know that. From the day we're born we start dying, some of us just do it faster than others.

But one of our values as humans seems to be: to BE true to ourselves, and the self we long to be true to is always better than the one we generally exhibit. It's an exhausting process, being true... no wonder it's easier to cop out and be somebody else's self. Especially when somebody else's self has more money, prestige, and fun in life. Been there, done that.

Yet, the longing is not easily (nor permanently) silenced for most of us. Guilt, remorse, regret begin to creep into our daily mix of emotions and the money, prestige and fun lose their luster.

Some will ask "But why is a relationship with an imaginary dead guy so important? Can't you be true to yourself on your own?" I'm sixty years old. I haven't been able to do it on my own yet. I haven't even been able to do it that often with help from the imaginary dead guy, although His statistics are better than mine. I need help.

One of the best approaches to God is the realization that individually we're helpless in the long run. (It's one reason AA has worked for so many for so long. It's the required first step in the 12-step process.) So when I accept that I'm helpless, then I have to look outside myself for a helper. The Christ... the Jesus... (to some, the imaginary dead guy) is the key. His example, his teaching, his mystery and irony all combine to unlock the secret that my helper comes from within, not without. My true self is already encoded in my DNA. Child of God.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Another piece of the puzzle

Some people love doing jigsaw puzzles; I'm bored stiff. I don't have the eye for shapes, or the patience for tiny accomplishments, especially when the puzzle has a million pieces and half of it is clear blue sky. Yet today's lessons, prayers and hymns came together exactly like a jigsaw puzzle: suddenly a huge area of the puzzle of my life fell into place from one phrase here, another line of hymn there. Amazing. No wonder people sit for hours looking at all those tiny pieces!

The Gospel reading, (Mark 8: 27-38) one I've heard so many times before: Jesus asks his disciples "Who do you say that I am?" and then later... "What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?" Couple that with the lesson from James (2: 1-5, 8-10) about discrimination between our welcomes of the well-dressed and those who are obviously poor... and the combination gave our celebrant a whole new spin for her homily.

She talked about a situation from life, an embezzlement scandal that involved a man she knew, someone she had thought of as "one of the good guys." What had happened to make him change from being Christ-centered to world-centered? Could it have been the circumstances of living alongside a wealthy environment... the need to wear the correct apparel or be turned away as one of the poor... a growing sense of entitlement in a world where everyone else had more to show for themselves than he...? All were possibilities. All came back to the question Jesus asks of his disciples: just who am I to you?

If my identity is hard wired to my relationship with Jesus, as opposed to what the world expects of me, then my questions will be different, and my decisions will be based on a different reality.

Both the opening and closing hymns echoed this same area of the puzzle:

New advent of the love of Christ
shall we again refuse thee
til in the night of hate and war
we perish as we lose thee?

and finally:

Give thanks for those who made their life a light,
caught from the Christ flame, bursting through the night,
who touched the truth, and burned for what is right.

One of the questions I've been asking God lately is: "Where do you want me to do your will?" Maybe that's the wrong question. Maybe the question ought to be "Where can I nourish my relationship with Jesus?" Another piece of the puzzle...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Resistance is futile

Any Star Trek fans (and yes, I am one) would recognize the phrase: resistance is futile. The Borg, an interesting combo-species of organic and machine, with a composite brain network, have one goal in life... to assimilate. They seek out other life forms and advanced technology and add to their own, improving themselves as they go along.

Not such a bad goal, unless you happen to be human, with a pronounced preference for individuality and free will. In Star Trek, the Borg are the evil villains. They have no understanding that other life forms might prefer not to be assimilated, nor do they care. And anyway, resistance is futile.

Until they meet the human race. Suddenly resistance becomes a viable alternative, as humans struggle to preserve their right to be less-than, flawed, and annoyingly individualistic. Eventually the Borg lose the battle against humankind. We are too stubborn and unpredictable to be conquered by Borg power and logic.

Hauntingly... this story could be told just as easily about our relationship with God. God has yet to succeed in assimilating His creation gone haywire. We are too stubborn and unpredictable. You could argue, of course that God is not the evil villain here, we are. If that's so, how come all this resistance?

I'm thinking a lot about resistance these days (my own to be exact). I'm in the last year of my discernment to this whacky life called religious. What an oxymoron. We are no more religious than anybody. We just have a better sense (sometimes) of our less-than-perfect measuring up. I get that part. I like that part. What don't I like?

I don't like the idea of having to surrender. That's probably it in a nutshell. Obedience (for its own sake) leaves me cold. I don't want to be assimilated. But I also know this about myself: my increased resistance in any given situation is directly proportional to my ability to surrender. I will stay in denial, I will fume, I will rant and rave, and eventually I will embrace whatever it is I'm resisting.

So of course eventually resistance will be futile.

Monday, September 11, 2006

9/11: Five years and counting

I used to watch Sesame Street with my kids, and one of my favorite muppets was the Count. He would come sweeping in and boom in his terrible accent, "I am Count Dracoola, and I love to count."

We are a species that loves to count. We tally up our anniversaries, good and bad, anticipating the celebrations, carefully orchestrating the memorials, reliving the memories these ceremonies invoke. Even when we forget the events (or try to) they have a tendency to creep up and slap us anyway, with a gust of unexpected emotion. For years after my mother died I would find myself depressed on Memorial Day weekend. It was the holiday she had her final (and fatal) stroke.

Today, five years after 9/11 the emotions are still raw. Movies came out this year and my reaction to the trailers was unexpected pain. Too soon, I thought. Someone asked me if I wanted to see one of them, and I said "Yes, but not in the theater." Maybe at home, in the privacy of my living room... not in the theater.

What were you doing when the towers fell? Where were you? People asked that same question when Kennedy was assassinated. I remember exactly what I was doing and where I was in both instances. I was shocked and saddened by JFK's death, but I was coming out of my gym class at college. Someone had shot him far away in Dallas. It wasn't my business.

9/11 was different. I was here, in New York. I was standing in an airline satellite terminal at Grand Central, trying to exchange a ticket for a trip the following weekend... a clandestine trip, to meet a man for the weekend, someone I'd known and loved off and on for many years... someone who just happened to be married to someone else.

The events of September 11th changed my life. Not that day perhaps, but later, in response to it. It didn't happen far away, it was right here... it was my business. I say the events changed my life, but that's not exactly right. God used them to get my attention, to turn me upside down and set me on a different path. Oddly enough, that path led to a convent. Oddly enough I can't help but think of it as one of the good anniversaries.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

No good deed goes unpunished

I've been blessed with a whole week of priests who showed up on time... on the correct day... to celebrate mass for us in the early morning hours. One even mentioned how comforting it was to him to realize that no matter how early he thought he was getting up, there was already somebody already up and already praying when he awoke. So for one week, at least, life was golden.

Today's Gospel from Mark (7:31-37) speaks to that. Jesus had just healed a deaf man with a speech impediment, and the crowd is amazed and zealous. "They were astonished beyond measure, saying, 'He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.'"

He has done everything well. Of course this is the same Jesus who will later be reviled, betrayed and crucified. And some of these people praising him may be the same people rejecting him later. We don't know that. What we do know is that the weather changes. And it happens to all of us. My blog is called flavor of the month for that reason. Some days I can do no wrong; others... everything is wrong.

Our celebrant this morning used the phrase "no good deed goes unpunished." Her questions centered around why, in the face of such obvious signs of goodness, do we look for the catch. "Where's the hidden agenda?" we ask. Our cynicism is well earned in the culture we inhabit. "It's too good to be true," we say. Jesus was too good to be true for many of his followers. They allowed him his fifteen minutes of golden fame, but were looking for a way to debunk the myth and get back to their lives.

Too good to be true carries the undercurrent of resistance for the need to change. If Jesus was speaking the TRUTH, then who could continue living their self-centered, powerful, holier-than-thou lifestyles? When I look inside my own heart for my own cache of resistance ... my own unwillingness to change my perceptions, my attitudes, my behavior, I understand why no good deed goes unpunished.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Time is Your Friend

One of our Bishop Visitors was here over the past few days. We have three, and they alternate their visiting. I hadn't had my annual Bishop chat with this one since I was a postulant. Now we don't even use the term. Lots of changes.

Being visited is a little like going for an annual physical. He (or she) takes the pulse of the community, by listening to each sister, one at a time, as she reveals her life, her dreams, challenges, her worries. He then condenses all that information and more or less regurgitates the final results. The EKG, the blood work and the general sense of health are reported.

This year I was first on his list, and neither of us could remember what we'd discussed that first meeting three years ago. I suspect it was more about my former life than this discussion. After three years in formation, I actually had a few things to say about my life as a monastic. I realized that I actually have one, with opinions and preferences and a vision for myself and my community. Where did that come from? (I'm never really sure from one day to the next whether I will ask to take life vows.) How had a vision crept into my heart with all the other confusion and wishy-washyness?

Time is your friend. When he made his assessment of the health of the community, he gave us a few phrases from his home diocese. Time is your friend was one of them. He was speaking directly to our transitional state as a community, but indirectly he was speaking to each of us... to those of us who need more patience with the feet-draggers, to those of us who need more tolerance for the speed-demons. Chaos is the womb of creativity. Nothing worthwhile comes into being without blood sweat and tears. Time creates a vision inside a wishy-washy heart, and time gives the heart room to get used to it.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

God's gopher

I love it when we can't get a priest on Sunday. (I should be careful saying that, because I'm charged with scheduling the priests to celebrate for us. If I come up short, the sisters may suspect I did it on purpose.) I tried to find one for today, but it was Labor Day weekend and short notice, and I couldn't cajole, bribe or beg anyone I called.

On Sundays, when we have no priest, we go out to mass. Each sister may choose where she wants to worship and I gravitate to St. Bart's on the East Side, where the music always soars to heaven and I sometimes run into old friends.

The sermons are usually good, too, and when you have a Gospel like today's to work with, what's to ruin? it was the passage from Mark, where Jesus is called to task because his disciples haven't washed their hands before lunch. He of course turns the rebuke inside out and proclaims that it's what's inside coming out that defiles, not what's outside going in.

When my kids were growing up, we had the "thirty-second-rule." If you drop something and it stays on the floor less than thirty seconds, it's still clean (unless you can see that it's got dirt or hair or dust bunnies sticking to it.) My grandmother had her own version of this rule. She'd say "You have to eat a peck of dirt before you die." I didn't know what a peck was, but figured out early on it was a lot. It's not what you put in your mouth that's dirty, it's what comes out. My grandmother was also one who thought nothing of washing my mouth out with soap if I said things that weren't allowed. She only did it once that I remember, but the taste stayed with me the whole day.

Of course Jesus was speaking about more than saying dirty words. This teaching encompassed the entire gamut of ritual piety for its own sake, especially when it's practiced to exclude others, and at the expense of loving kindness.

The preacher threw in a lot of translations and word derivations, interesting tidbits I never knew. The word piety, for example, has the same derivation in Hebrew as loving kindness. I didn't know that. Also that the word worship means to serve. That makes sense. Jesus was very big on service. What he never bothered to mention was what a magical and life-giving activity service would be. Maybe he wanted us to figure it out for ourselves.

Our preacher took a brief tangent on the service thing... saying how important it is to serve God by doing what God actually needs, not by doing what may feel good to us. He mentioned specifically running errands and carrying messages. I got stuck on an internal image of God's gopher... or gofer... Go for this, go for that. It made me smile to think of being a gofer for God.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Happy Birthday Dear One!

On September 4th, (NOT the 2nd as I originally posted) my very first (and only) granddaughter was born... That was twelve years ago. The darling girl I had always wanted, she came home from the hospital dressed in frilly pinks and bows. My son and his wife named her after my mother, so she has inherited all the "Helen" things I kept when my mom died. She also got what was left of my once precious doll collection... a doll my dad brought back from France at the end of World War II. I never got to play dolls with Helen, though, because I moved to New York City just three months after her birth. Now she's too old for dolls. She's into ballet and boys and already looks like a teenager. But what a beauty... Happy Birthday, dear one. Your Grandma loves you to the sky.