Friday, November 28, 2008

The day after Thanksgiving

Yesterday at dinner we were explaining to a guest what we do here on the day after Thanksgiving.

We take the day as a silent retreat day. For some sisters that means catching up on sleep, for others reading or meditation, but for all of us it means no chatter in the elevator or in the hallways. Except for Morning and Evening Prayer, we spend the day in silence. One sister described it as a blessing and a privilege of the monastic life. She's right about that.

Unlike the frenetic shopping days of my past (especially when the kids were small), when hitting the K-Mart at 6:00 AM was the first order of the day, I have mostly puttered about in my office and cell. I am cleaning up, since I leave Sunday afternoon for my annual eight-day retreat at Holy Cross monastery. Packing, organizing and a last minute "to-do" list have taken up most of the morning, as I decide what books to read and creative projects to work on while I'm there. For me, retreat days always involve some sort of creative project, even if it's only knitting a few rows on a scarf or baby bootie. I will probably take some knitting with me to Holy Cross, along with my laptop and a slew of images I've collected for a Book of Hours project I want to work on.

But old habits die hard, and the day after Thanksgiving used to be the day I tackled my enormous Christmas card list, sometimes drawing and water coloring my own cards. My list now is less than a dozen, but I still think of today as the day to start. 

Thursday, November 27, 2008

To all my family, far and near,
blood of my blood, heart of my heart...
wishing you Blessings today and forever...

Monday, November 24, 2008

minor rant

When companies buy each other out, often the consumer is the one who loses. A few years ago, the great printer/copier mogul Xerox bought out another printer company Tektronics. I happen to be a huge fan of Tektronics printers. In the mid 90s I used a wonderful solid-wax printer at the ad agency where I worked, and when I began a free-lance business of my own, I bought the exact same model. That was January 1998. Each year I purchased the service agreement, because parts have a habit of wearing out and breaking down, and when I joined the convent I brought that printer with me. 

I was working on a project for one of the sisters when it had a major meltdown, and the technician, although he got it running again, advised me to buy the new and improved model. He explained that the model I used was not new when I bought it, had been discontinued. Parts were hard to come by, and eventually it would die. That was the summer of 2002. Since the technology had improved and prices had dropped, (don't you love when that happens?) and I still had money in the bank, I followed his advice and purchased the new printer. 

Then Xerox bought out Tektronics. Xerox has kept up the service agreement on this printer until this year. When the renewal didn't come in the mail I called them to ask why... and was informed they no longer offer a service agreement on my printer because it is obsolete. 

Just like that. The printer works fine. But six years is the limit. My apple computer (a Power Macintosh 800) from 1998 still runs like a champ. I don't use it now for anything except scanning cartoons, but when I crank it up, it works. That's ten years of faithful service by a product who's company is still apple. Not that they would fix it if it broke today... probably not.

So what's my point? I'm not sure exactly, except that we expect our products to break, to have a limited shelf life now. And I still have tools my grandmother gave me that still work after a hundred years of service.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christ the King

Our celebrant mentioned that she felt it was fitting that Christ the King Sunday come at this time of year, when the nights are long and the days cold. "We need some hope, some light in the darkness—to be reminded of who is actually in charge", she said.

This week is the end of the church year; next Sunday we'll start all over again with Advent, when we focus directly on the bleakness of our world and our hope for some heavenly intervention that will bring us comfort and joy.

Wars still rage in several parts of the globe, starvation and disease are commonplace, if not here in the United States, certainly in Africa and other third world countries. Our own economic recession-going-on-depression is reason enough to look for meaning that doesn't come from money or possessions. 

Today's Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46) speaks of a God who values acts of kindness and charity to the least likely suspects in which to see the face of Jesus. To serve those we don't even recognize as Christ... that is what God values. 

Friday, November 21, 2008

growing old is hell

My mother used to look me in the eye and say "Growing old is hell." She had been one of those heavy duty wonder-women in her youth, could lift heavy furniture with the best of them. Once a cousin marveled at how strong she was and called her "Tarzan" for the rest of his life.

Then she aged. Her health was poor, her strength was gone, her ambition went with it, and all the activities that had once been fun were gradually an ordeal. I would come over to her apartment to visit and end up washing the stack of dishes that were sitting in the sink. She had enough energy to cook, but not clean up afterwards. When she died, I found two dishpans full of dirty pots and pans under the bed in her guest room. She had not wanted me to know just how frail she was becoming.

I'm not there yet. I have a trick knee that gives me trouble from time to time, and a hip that rejects the cold damp weather, but mostly I'm healthy and still full of myself. I see small changes though. Irksome changes. Just recently I've noticed I've lost strength in my left hand. I can't open jars like I once could, not even with all the tricks I know. Damn.

As I've mentioned before, we have four elderly sisters living in the city, in varying stages of ability. One needs help just to walk around: to the bathroom, down the hall, to chapel. She uses a walker, but even with that she's wobbly and careens off the walls. So she is supposed to beep whoever is on duty, even in the middle of the night, to come and help her. She hates it. It upsets her to be a burden to her sisters... to have to wake them out of their rest to help her take seven steps to the toilet. So... she sometimes goes by herself and just doesn't tell anybody. We can tell in the morning if her walker is in a slightly different position, that she's been up in the night without help. Then the lectures begin. It's one of those lose-lose situations. Nobody's happy.

In December we will qualify for 24 hour care for her. It may help and it may not. Her sisters will sleep through the night, but she, who must rely on someone to watch over her, will still not regain her independence or sense of productivity. She will still think she is a burden.

I often get up in the night to use the bathroom... it's one of those growing old things. But I don't turn on a light. I'm barely awake, and have no trouble falling right back to sleep. How different that must be when it becomes a major production with a cast of characters. My mother had it right.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

the low-risk spiritual life

Today's Gospel reading (Matthew 25:14-30) is yet another of those parables I never liked. (You might wonder, if I hate so many of Jesus' parables, why I'm even a Christian...) Yeah, I know. Just consider it a Gospel mystery.

Our celebrant this morning gave one of the standard explanations for this parable. I've heard it before, but it's always good to be reminded of truth. I sometimes like to forget the truth, stretch the truth, bend it, make it suit my own desires. (What... nobody ever does that but me?)

"Why do you suppose," our celebrant asked, "Jesus was so rough on the one-talent-person?"
He went on to describe a typical one-talent-person... and came to the conclusion that most of us are exactly that. There are not so many gifted people in the world that are going to make the cover of Time, win a Pulitzer prize, or be remembered into the next century. Most of us are average. That's what average means. But the anonymity of being average can lead to the incorrect conclusion that whatever we have to offer is so small, it won't be missed.

I won't use my talent badly, but neither will I risk it. (After all I only have one.) So we play it safe, don't hurt anybody, keep a low profile, get by with minimum effort and minimum trust. He talked of the low-risk spiritual life: "where we neither sin nor love much, acting not with faith, but with prudence." These are the people Jesus is concerned with reaching in this story.

For myself, I always figured the poor guy got a bum rap. If telling your master you think he's "a hard man, reaping what you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter." isn't taking a risk, I don't know what is. "I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours." That sounds pretty gutsy to me. But after all, he's backed into a corner by the other two highly successful (and talented) servants, what does he have to lose now? 

I was afraid... That's the crux of the problem. We have too many tales of a wrathful and vengeful God that we forget the part about mercy. (Not that this story shows much mercy either.) But God is essentially saying that our faith in His mercy is what will produce it. That rings a bell, doesn't it? How many times does the word faith play a part in Jesus healings, stories, and rebukes? O you of little faith... if you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you faith has made you well. Seems like he's trying to tell us that faith, in and of itself, is mighty important.

So the point of the parable, then, is to use what we have, whether we have a lot or a little. Hoarding won't work in the Kingdom of Heaven. In fact, it will get you thrown out.

Friday, November 14, 2008

fifteen seconds of fame

Yes, I know I didn't tell a soul what we were doing. (It was a secret sort of) But yesterday we helped celebrate Whoopie Goldberg's birthday on the TV show The View.
You do remember the movie Sister Act?!?
They were nice enough to send us a picture. Here we are:

If you want to see the show here's the link. We're in segments 2 and 5.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Choose Today

Our celebrant on Sunday took his sermon from the Old Testament Lesson (Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25), rather than from the Gospel. I, for one, breathed a sigh of relief. I'm sick of that Gospel about the five wise virgins pitted against the five foolish virgins... I don't care how you spin it, there's just something wrong there. 

I'm currently reading The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault. She mentions this Gospel and describes it as more of a koan than a parable, explaining that these teachings are not about the outer activities they describe, but are about inner transformation. Of course the wise virgins couldn't share their oil, she says, because the oil stands for some quality created inside us "by our own conscious striving." She also goes on to explain that we wouldn't get that connection unless we understood that Jesus is teaching from a specific Hebrew Wisdom Tradition.

Interesting. That falls right into place with another book I'm reading by John Shelby Spong: Jesus for the Non-Religious.

Both authors assert that Jesus cannot be fully understood until we place him in the Jewish context he was born into. Okay, I'm game for that. But... both books are also difficult reading for different reasons. Spong, already in the first chapter, has eliminated the wise men, the virgin Mary, Joseph, Bethlehem and all the singing angels. Just think of all the Christmas carols we'd have to scrap if we all agreed he's accurate in his assessment. Just think of all the amazing music and artwork over the centuries, not to mention my own lame attempts to portray these miracles. We'd probably have to eliminate Christmas too... and that's my favorite holiday. 

Not that I don't believe Spong will give adequate and excellent examples of why Jesus should still be revered as God's son; I have complete faith that he will. I'm just too blown away at the moment by losing all the lovely mythology around the birth of the Christ, (whether it's true or not.)

But back to Sunday's sermon. Joshua charges the people of Israel: "Choose for yourself whom you will serve." And he gives them a lot of choices. There were nearly three thousand minor deities available to them in that time, a time when they believed that the power struggles in the heavenly realms directly affected the outcomes on the earthly plane. The more worshipers a god could command, the more powerful he or she would be. As I was listening, I realized just how awful a choice Joshua was asking at that time. The God of Israel, by His own admission, was a jealous God. God was a green-eyed monster? You read some of the Old Testament accounts and that's not too far-fetched. Makes you want to think twice if this is the one you will serve. Yet they all agreed. The faithfulness of Israel, whatever their motivations, has given us the world we now inhabit. 

We too, have that choice. The words choose today ring the truest, though. It is a daily choice. Every day. Day-in and day-out. Saying yes once won't cut it. It has to be a vow renewed with every breath. Choose today whom you will serve.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

High Hopes

The words History in the Making have been true for much of my lifetime. Civil Rights, Viet Nam, a Man on the Moon... pocket calculators, the internet... and now another chance for a nation, our nation, once thought to be great and noble, to prove itself again to the world.

The country voted in droves. I even voted, and I have not felt the desire or need to vote in fifteen years. In my mind, Hope is what this election was and is about. We hope we can regain the dignity, the purpose, the ideals we say we uphold. 

Time will tell, of course. But without that hope there is only apathy. And we (I) have been apathetic far too long. Did I mention this is the first election in which the candidate I voted for has actually won? That makes a bit of a difference in my attitude towards voting.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

All Souls

We have a tradition in our community on All Souls Day, (which we are observing today instead of two days ago): we read the names of every sister who has died in community, beginning with our founder Mother Ruth. Next come the names of all our relatives and close friends who have died... for example, my mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, etc... and finally the names of all who have died in the past year for whom we have said or sung requiems. 

It's a long list.

Names that were high points of mourning several months ago suddenly bring tears again, even though they have not been specifically on my mind since we laid them to rest. Why go through all that? Why live in the past that cannot be changed, only remembered with pain or nostalgia?

Two reasons I can think of off the bat: one... these people were important to us. My litany of names may mean nothing to the sister standing next to me, but she holds me in prayer and comfort, just as I hold her when her names are read. It's something tangible we do for each other, we remember together, pay tribute together, pray for their souls together.

The second reason was mentioned in the sermon Saturday (the part I never got to in my post yesterday.) We ask the saints to pray for us, and we, in turn, pray for them. Is this foolishness or the mysterious reality of the timeless nature of creation? I cannot answer that for you, of course. (I can barely answer it for myself.) But I know that these people I have loved live on in me... some in my DNA, some in my memory, some in their teachings that moved me forward on my own path to God.

Remembering the dead is nice, but it is not enough. I thought of my grandmother today, who always worked the polls on election days. Both she and my grandfather were working class Democrats and took great delight in announcing at supper "I voted a straight Democratic ticket." If my aunt and uncle, the Republicans in the family were there, there would be heated discussion about choosing a candidate on his own merits rather than his party. I was a child, and listened to these discussions with little interest, yet they stayed with me... even as I voted today. 

When Kennedy won the presidency my grandparents were dead. They would have had to choose between voting for a Democrat or not voting for a Catholic, and I have no clue which allegiance or prejudice would have won out. Today the issue is partly religious, but much more about race. Those who struggled hard in the 50's and 60's to bring Civil Rights to all of America see this election as a culmination of their efforts. My vote will be one that supports those efforts as well. My dear friend Robert Dubie was a freedom rider in the 60's. His was one of my names read at mass this morning. They live on in us. Of that I have no doubt.

Monday, November 03, 2008

reinventing the wheel

I've heard a couple of good sermons over the past few days... 

We don't usually have mass on Saturday, but one of our Bishop Visitors was here last week and it was All Saints Day, a major feast day in the liturgical year. A sermon about saints and prayer and time travel... pretty interesting stuff. 

The lessons for yesterday, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, most people probably didn't get to hear, as our celebrant pointed out. Most people in church yesterday were hearing Saturday's lessons because most churches were celebrating All Saints Day. Yesterday was really All Souls Day, which some will celebrate today, but we (in my community) won't celebrate it until tomorrow, because we have today off. (How's that for time travel?)

The Gospel (Matthew 23:1-12) comes smack dab in the middle of all the "Woe to You" warnings... Jesus warning the Pharisees and scribes about how they will be judged in the Kingdom of God. But in this passage he stops and says essentially, Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Just because the Pharisees aren't practicing what they teach doesn't mean their teachings aren't valid.

It's a good point to remember any time. Not exactly the same as Don't shoot the messenger, but in that vein. The third cliché that comes to mind in all of this is reinventing the wheel.

Both celebrants talked about our church's preoccupation with the past. When we celebrate the saints of Christian history, we dwell in their faithfulness and glories. What does it have to do with us? Our past is pretty flawed, our saints were pretty flawed... why not just ditch it all and start over? 

Some are, in fact, doing this. Starting over. It's not surprising or fresh news that membership in churches and religious communities has dwindled over the past decade. Church attendance is down across the board. Monastic communities are dying out. Yet there are also movements to build new communities, based on new rules, new ideals. There is ample evidence that the hunger for spirituality is as strong as ever. But whatever is on the menu of the institutional church is simply not what people can swallow.

Everything has a life cycle. Joan Chittister wrote volumes about the life cycle of monastic communities. She had some excellent insights and warnings of her own when it comes to the need for transformation of stale and outdated practices and beliefs. 

As a community, we begin again to grapple with our corporate identity, as we also remain focused on individual ministries and obligations. It's a fine line. The company of saints provide not just a background, but a "cloud of witnesses" for our struggles today.