Notre Dame is Burning, and She Has Something to Tell Us

4/16/19

Photo by Priscilla Fraire on Unsplash

As a Protestant for three decades of my life, I wasn't exposed to much sacred imagery. There were exceptions—my parents did appreciate fine art—but for the most part, the churches and homes I frequented were devoid of any religious representation beyond decorative wall crosses and ceramic angels. I'm not sure why or how the absence of such imagery became a hallmark of Protestantism, I only know that, in my experience, seeing an icon on the living room wall of a Baptist home is rare indeed. This is neither a judgment of good or bad, but merely an observation of a notable difference in religious culture.

Since becoming Catholic five years ago, my experience of Christianity has become exponentially more sensory. No longer content to think my way through faith, I find my heart yearning to experience it also through touch, taste, sight, smell, and hearing. I am made of earth, after all; the only way for me to wrestle with heaven is to physically encounter her clues. 

The Catholic imagination has historically expressed herself in the weirdest of ways, which delights me to no end because, if you ask me, spirituality should be weird. After all, we're talking about humanity touching Divine cosmic mystery here; if it feels palatable, comfortable, or sensible, we're probably getting it wrong. Throughout the ages Catholic art, thought, devotions, pilgrimages, and traditions have been weird, weird, weird—and I love it. Even the parts that aren't for me, I love, because they're doing something for somebody. Be free to pursue what sparks your imagination! It doesn't have to spark mine.

During Holy Week, Catholics traditionally cover our sacred images in purple cloth: our imaginations are left to face an alternate reality where there is Nothing. Not the intangible, unutterable Mystery that is indeed "No Thing" but a true Nothing—an existence with no truth, beauty, or goodness. An existence without mercy and love or a dynamic Energy that ties each of us together and works tirelessly on our behalf. We are forced to look into such an abyss when we look at that purple cloth shrouding everything we know to be True. We glimpse an existence in which there is no Gospel, no Good News; we look within the recesses of our own doubt and waning, if only for a split second before turning away.

Notre Dame burned on the first day of Holy Week this year. One of the most treasured symbols of spirituality on this earth—mother and keeper of the Catholic imagination—caught fire while a crowd of onlookers kept a holy vigil. Some of the most sacred relics and artwork known to humankind were shrouded by cloths of smoke. Imagine, she beckoned us. Imagine if the Nothingness was true. Imagine if Love were not coming for you—relentlessly, tenaciously, determined as a mother lion, every single day coming for you. Such terror in the very prospect; and chills ran through our bones, saints and sinners alike.

Sometimes it takes a demand of imagining the alternative to make us realize what we really do believe. Sometimes it is only a swan dive into our own doubt that has the power to make us sure. Cloak the world in purple, for she is all sacred art, prophesying to us wordlessly that the longings of our hearts can be trusted. It is Holy Week.

Radical Hospitality

3/25/19

Photo by Lukas Martynas Janosek on Unsplash

I wanted to be Dorothy Day long before I’d ever heard of her.

As a teenager, I was volunteering in an assisted-living home while my peers were hanging out in shopping malls; as a college student I was doing internships in African orphanages and mentoring at-risk kids in my community. For as long as I can remember, my heartbeat has sounded like impact, impact, impact—whether from pure altruism or my own pride, I have often debated. But whatever the motivation, I’ve long bristled at the idea of wasting my time on earth.

Around the time I married my husband at a green 23 years old, he introduced me to Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement—both of which I heartily approved, as though the world were anxiously awaiting my assessment. But I didn’t give her much further thought until we began researching Catholic social teaching before our Confirmation into the Church years later. As most who have done so can tell you, you can’t dig far into the social doctrine of the Catholic Church without clinking your spade against this stalwart woman. Our involvement with a local Catholic Worker only solidified my admiration, and Day’s lens of solidarity and hospitality began to deeply form my emerging worldview.

When Kate Hennessy’s book Dorothy Day: The World Will Be Saved by Beauty: An Intimate Portrait of My Grandmother came out last year, I snatched up the chance to explore the more intimate world of Day’s, certain that her granddaughter could provide me with the keys to unlocking the predicament of how to live the radical life I felt called to, even as a mother of young children. Alas, I found no magic formulas or mystical insights: Dorothy Day, it seems, struggled to balance her dual vocations of mother and justice advocate as much as anyone. Sometimes she got the balance right; often she got it wrong.

...

Read the rest in the April 2019 issue of St. Anthony Messenger magazine!

**If you are interested in hearing more about how the Catholic Worker has influenced my life, spirituality, and worldview, you might enjoy my forthcoming book, Embracing Weakness: The Unlikely Secret to Changing the World. Find it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or OSVcatholicbookstore.com**

In Search of an Embodied Faith

2/4/19


Lately my feet have been hurting and I don’t know exactly why but I’m inclined to blame my winter boots. They were a Christmas gift last year and have me looking much more youthful and stylish than I really am, but they’re good boots: expensive, I’m sure, and sturdy. I’ve had no complaints about them until I took a longer walk than usual one morning and paid for it the next day. But other than that, I guess my feet haven’t exactly hurt as much as they’ve just felt uncomfortable. I find myself aware of them a lot, which is not what I’ve found to be a normal relationship one typically has with one’s feet.

In all of this noticing, I’ve realized that I have somehow come into the habit of standing on the sides of my feet when I’m at home and shoeless (which, as a mother and a writer, I am quite often both.) This poor form must be contributing to the discomfort lately, I reason, and so continue catching myself and self-correcting a dozen times a day, like I am my own overeager podiatrist-on-the-shoulder who won’t let one wrong move slide. Or like an ever-present yoga teacher, reminding myself to firmly plant my soles lest I miss out on a full rootedness to the earth.

I like the second imagery much better (because I find Eastern exercise sexier than podiatry), but the problem is I am not actually anywhere close to the earth, and I know it. The earth, as it were, is currently covered in a foot of frozen precipitation—a state in which it will remain for the next two months, at least. I’m not actually interested in putting my shoeless foot into fully rooted contact with the earth anytime soon, and it’s hard to conjure up a deep longing to be one with my linoleum kitchen floor.

Maybe this is the actual problem with my feet: winter.

Because sure, okay, I’m no nature goddess in February but you should see me in July. Some days I don’t even look for my shoes. I acutely remember this past summer wondering in the shower if that layer of brown was ever going to go down the drain or if I should patron one of those sketchy nail salons that shave off your heel with a razor. It did finally wear away around October, which is good because I can’t afford pedicures.

I’ve read in a few places that masculine spirituality leans toward the heavenly and feminine spirituality is more earthy: what we all need (regardless of gender) is a balance of the two, yet Christianity is a religion that tends toward the masculine. This is bothersome, you see, because Christianity happens to be my religion. Had twenty-year-old me spent less time sitting through charismatic sermons about the “third heaven” (I was never sure what happened to the first two) and more time with my toes in the dirt, maybe I wouldn’t have such cranky arches now in my mid-thirties. Maybe I would also know what it means to embody a spirituality.

What I’ve learned about myself this past year—and it was quite a shock to the system—is that I actually communicate with the Divine through and in my body. Fancy that: this thing isn’t just a vessel to get me to heaven, where the real party begins. I discovered this by resolving to notice more. I noticed that my heart rate quickens with fear and distance in response to hearing something I disagree with. God, I need you there. Noticing the tears on my cheeks when I read something that moves me so deeply it can be nothing less than Spirit-speak. God, I hear you there. Noticing what my hips teach me when I stretch, reminding me not to rush away from tension. To not fear it. To welcome it and find that it will not, after all, kill me. That perhaps remaining in discomfort can somehow make me more than I was. God, I feel you there.

This, they tell me, is feminine spirituality, which is not relegated to women alone—that is an important distinction. Male and female both must have masculine and feminine qualities to our spiritual lives. But I’d rather shame my feet for hurting than ask them what they need.

Speaking of feet, I think I’ll go soak them now. I’ll run some warm water and find a clean cloth and remember a man who embodied the feminine as well as the masculine. I’ll wash my own feet because listening to my body is not nothing. Actually, it might just be the beginning of all the somethings.




Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

Childbirth as Rite of Initiation

12/21/18


Lately, in my house, we’ve been thinking about the reality of death. No one is terminally ill, and no one we know has recently died, so I realize this sounds rather morbid. Let me explain.
Last May, my husband joined a hundred other men in the desert of New Mexico for five days to participate in a rite of male initiation. A year ago, neither of us had ever heard of such a thing—at least not in our modern Western context—but when he stumbled upon Illuman and got to know the purpose behind it, he was intrigued. As he researched more on the subject of rites of passage, we were both fascinated to find that some form of such a ritual is present in almost every indigenous culture on earth, and has been throughout history. Clearly, there is something substantial here that our “advanced” Western culture is missing.
His story is not mine to tell, but yes, it is fair to say he was changed—even months later I can see that. He is simultaneously more confident and more compassionate, and there is an awareness of his unconscious that he did not have before. Where did this transformation come from, I wondered. According to my husband, a rite of initiation includes the following:
  1. There must be a loss of control and a reckoning with the truth that your life is not about you.
  2. A confrontation with death that was more mental, emotional, and spiritual, rather than physical.
...

Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, 'what have you done with your life?' & though there are many moments I think I'll remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.

(Brian Andreas, Storypeople)

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