Wednesday, November 29, 2017

offer it up

That point came for me one Saturday afternoon when I overheard my daughter (you know, because I was three feet away) telling Tom that "dads do the fun stuff, and moms do the boring stuff." Because for all of my soaring speeches about how girls can do anything and the future is female, what she saw was her mother constantly putting herself last. Doing the boring stuff. As James Baldwin wrote, "Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them." —Jancee Dunn

In her Christ the Key, Kathryn Tanner articulates an incarnational positing of the atonement, which she demonstrates, is sympathetic to feminist theological concerns. In order to weave through the tangled nexus circling the central image of redemption, Tanner examines our contemporary conception of sacrifice over and against an ancient, cultic image.

In thinking of sacrifice, we tend to imagine a moral sacrifice: "a sorrowful act in which what is sacrificed is not offered to anyone but is considered simply a necessary cost to oneself of doing what is right." Thus, self-sacrifice takes on a moral weight, a mark of intense dedication, a sign that one is disinterestedly invested in sincere efforts towards another's good.

Conversely, ancient cultic sacrifices from Israel and Greek cultures, which provide the typological images for Christ's passion (e.g., the passover lamb, the lamb of God), are not about self-abnegation for the sake of the other, a moral isolation caused by extreme self-denial, but rather "celebrate joyful communion." The animal is offered up is a sign, not of any loss or lack on the part of the worshipper, but rather "a return to God of what is already God's." Thus, this act of gratitude, by which the believer acknowledges that the first fruit of his harvest are not "lost" to him by being immolated, because they were never his in the first place, is not beneficial because it deprives the worshipper. It is beneficial because it restores right relationship. The cultic sacrifices related in the Hebrew scriptures (Ex 24, Lev 23:19) instantiate relationship, they are a joyful restoring of communion and community between ruptured parties (God and the human, the human and her neighbor).

Rowan Williams warns against any utopian ideas of an ideal self that eliminates difficulty. We somehow are aware that our ideal image of ourself that never encounters any stressors is in fact utopian—there is no place for it in reality.

But there is a difference between growth in virtue and moral character, and this idea of enduring lack of flourishing as somehow a conducive path to holiness.

Life certainly brings suffering, there's no way around it. But there's a difference between an embrace of the pain of life as part of life's beauty, an inescapable drama of the narrative, and a suffering that is proscribed as one's lot and portion by a power structure that is not of God, which abuses the image of sacrifice as it commands you: offer it up.

I found Dunn's essay compelling, especially as I thought of everyone's favorite active-contemplative pair of sisters: Mary and Martha (the subject of so many pointed homilies and the apotheosizing of the Introvert). The point which I think Dunn is trying to make is that being busy, Martha-like, with the many concerns of caring for others, running a household, filling in the gritty details of Christian hospitality, is not a sustainable way of life for a soul.

A soul needs, like Mary at the foot of Christ, time to refresh herself. Time to focus on the one thing that is needful. And this is not the privilege of contemplatives, priests, or Carmelites. This is the fundamental vocation and necessary posture of each Christian: to sit at the feet of Christ, to receive the gaze of the Other who gives himself to us in love, and gives our own self back to us as well.

I write these reflections from the privileged and naive place of pre-childbirth, so I imagine that my understandings of this would be transformed in a new way by such an event.

But, I hope and believe I would never relinquish the idea that one of the greatest gifts I could give my future children is modeling for them what it means to live life fully and deeply, drinking it all to the dregs; finding lots of joy; pursuing wisdom, beauty, and God first and foremost, and inviting them into that quest for joy. Our vocation to be human, an imitation of Christ, is the ultimate vocation of our lives, and any vocation to be a mother, I assume, springs out of and is subservient to that, rather than the other way around. This does not, I think, diminish the utter gift of self of motherhood, but rather elevates it. A mother is not sacrificing her own well-being for her child, but rather welcoming that new person into this life of grace she pursues.

And that any and all sacrifices I make, however uncomfortable or difficult I find them will, ultimately, lead me not into isolation, but into community, into right relationship with God and with neighbor, and to the abundant joy that comes from sharing in abundant life.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

dumpster fire love

Your love, Oh Lord,
is like fire subsuming all the trash
charred in the dumpster out back—
discarded love notes and Natty Lite cans.

I do not anticipate it,
so I do not notice it.
And I do my utmost to avoid it.

Oh Lord, to whom shall we go?
How can we appreciate what we do not understand?

A semester's worth of taking the other sidewalk,
pausing at the front door on a Tuesday,
timing texting so our gazes do not meet,
dodging stilted encounters
(before breakfast is too early in the day for awkward).

Today the sun shines brightly,
I squint into it.

The thing that usually squirms inside me
rests today—
An embarrassment evaporates.

I smile, secure in a safety
I hadn't felt before.
Thinking, that this, yea, e'en this,
is purgation, is it not—

Is this what love feels like?
November grass suffused in sunlight,
stray ruby leaves clinging to the trees,
deep waters quelling deep within,
turbulence calming into stillness—


which leads to:
Nothing has changed,
except my hands—
clinging less to self and
more to you.

And my eyes,
which look ahead
and smile.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

optimism of the present

"Let us press onward whenever the path, however uncertain, seems to lead upward."
—Ted Hesburgh

As I drove through Hudson, Wisconsin, I passed a sign on the freeway.
America! (it said with an exuberantly sincere exclamation mark painted in blue paint) Let's gather together! Our best days are still ahead.
Immediately, I was struck by the blatant optimism of that sign, and how radical such an assertion is. Who talks that way? Who believes that the American project is not fundamentally flawed, corrupted, and careening towards disaster? Who believes that we are not on the brink of multiple crises that will destroy us from the inside if not from without? Who believes that Apple or Amazon will not take over our lives, turning us from happy, radiant individuals into mindless consumers of goods we do not really want, living in a technologically dictated society that we can only respond to, but never escape.

The underlying assumption of all of our radical partisan not-communication seems to be: well, we're pretty much all screwed, isn't that so? All narratives are a narrative of decline. Pessimism is the currently trending zeitgeist. Ironic pessimism, tragic pessimism, nihilistic pessimism, all are permissible, provide you are on board with the idea that everything good is mostly dead, and we are simply trying to scratch by in the shadows of a formerly civil society.

I thought of how nostalgia was inherently anti-Christian. Pessimism even more so. For, to the Christian, now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation. God's love is here, in the present. Not yesterday, before we sinned, or two years ago, when we were more charitable, or before our hearts were broken and we were more trusting. God's love is here. And as long as the present continues, then will not that moment be the best of all possible moments, for it is a moment in which we can taste heaven?

Optimism, I suppose, is not a Pollyanna-ish belief in the sunshine of the future, but a sincere gratitude for the present, and a belief in the love that comes to greet us in each moment.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

raining days they aren't so bad

Homegrown rock to the rhythm and bop to the beat of the radio
You ain't got the slang but you got the face to play the role and
You can play with me

Monday Bud Lights and wine and cheese with dinner,
(to lighten a cold day).
Cotton candy, My-Little-Pony-colored sky,
flossing through the clouds at sunset.
I think my lover is angry.
He doesn't look at me,
but our lips meet all the same.
I am the only woman in a mass of all undergraduate men,
the priest is laughing at me.

And all the bros
Try for the courage and try for charity tight clothes
She's got a hat and all the hat says is asshole
She'll be bobbing to me

laughter in our prayers
laughing in our inability to sing, our off-key psalming
laughing at this man-boy flopped on the floor,
laughing as he sings Neanderthal love songs.

Pretty hairdos and those lipstick kisses blown yeah that's the right move
Make me feel like I'm the one who moves you
The only one you see

Golden hour,
golden fields,
90 on I-90
[Wisconsin, in other words]
Blessed Be Your Name apparates on
my ancient iTunes.
Simple song of praise streams
over golden hour ground,
and hallows the sunset shine.
though there's pain in the offering.
Another bite of almost-mealy apple
and put my knee up on the door.

Take it down and don't you let those tears quench the thirsty ground
And don't you be so scared that you can't make a sound
Make a sound for me

Can Christians be in love?
is the post-lunch question posed
while we're digesting.
Crawford leaps for the answer—
which is the Charles Williams book on the shelf—
flipping to the final page, where it is clear
Dante's love for Beatrice,
a 14th century courtly love song to a T,
is also a type of Christ.
If Dante can love Beatrice,
surely we can love sundry beloveds,
because we have first been loved.
Digest that.
Surely we can love them,
surely as we drain these china coffee cups.

All of London sing
Because England swings and they sure love the tales I bring

Love's not our own invention,
just a response—
which is our creation.

Homegrown rock to the rhythm and bop to the beat of the radio
You ain't got the slang but you got the face to play the role and
You can play with me

Thursday, November 16, 2017

tears in our voices

Without a tremble,
Conchita stands up before the judges,
absolutely silent.

for what?
For another seven years of education?
For a better grasp of English?
For the confidence that comes with privilege?

She's waiting
until they look at her.
until they see her.
Until they stop their busy scribbling,
until the the cowboy judge—
"the SOB," who tells the
counties that are straight out of
Hell or High Water:
"why don't you raise the money yourselves?"—

She waits until he stops writing.
Until he looks up embarrassed,
Until the entire auditorium is silent,
to her.

Conchita is calm.
She says:
I have a speech.
She folds it up and slides it underneath the podium.
They know who she is.
Who her community is.
Who they've been ignoring.

They don't need a speech to explain.

Conchita: Our water is dirty,
because our tax money has been sucked dry,
and it's funding projects in other places,
but we need it back.
We need it bad.
We need it just as much as other counties.
Because democracy means that we pay our taxes,
so we have a voice.
Democracy means that happens here,
not just in Houston.
Democracy is important for
Fort Bend County, too.
A pause.
I'm not going home to my
children yet again
and telling them that Democracy and the
United States of America
are God's greatest inventions—
but not for the people of Fort Bend County.
God's greatest inventions can't get us water
that won't make our children sick.
We're not asking for a handout.
We're asking for our tax dollars to be used
in our neighborhood.
Because we're citizens, too.

There are no questions.
How can one question a display of this conviction?

The auditorium parts like the red sea,
the team triumphantly calls home, on a payphone.
Conchita did great. We got the money.

Now, they feast. On rich 'n' hot Tex-Mex,
flavors so thick they fill your mouth for hours.

They drive back home.
It's a long drive back to Fort Bend County.
When they arrive,
their neighborhood is pretty dark.
Cuz there aren't many street lights.

Conchita's street is unpaved and unlit.

As the car turns the corner,
it can't move down the street.
Cuz the street is full of people.
Full of neighbors
Full of mothers who need clean water
Full of citizens of Democracy and United States of America.
The entire neighborhood is out
to greet them when they came home.
And hear Conchita give another speech.
This time, en Español.

She doesn't have to wait this time.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

our joyful duty

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again"; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun; and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
--G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

All throughout Dante's Commedia, even in the Inferno, the fire which fuels this poet is praise. Dante writes to praise the love which harrowed even the deepest depths of hell, to praise the virtuous woman who led Virgil to guide Dante, and to praise for the love which burns with purifying fire in on the mountain of Purgatory. Finally, in the glorious flames of light that is the Paradiso, praise becomes the impetus, material, and form of the poem.

I think, perhaps this is one of the reason Dante's words have such staying power. And, along with Dante, I believe there can be no worthier task for words than to offer them in praise of what we see in creation and the God who is creator. No higher achievement than to offer them in praise to the God whose beauty lies above all our language to express it, and the people who we meet who exemplify that beauty.

Crawford and I are currently on a tear about commitment, and all the dour depictions of marriage perpetrated by ~~the patriarchy~~ and by lots of faulty, fearful theologies. Theologies which seem to think that we are meant to be miserable, and virtue means accepting our miserly misery.
Essentially, we have cocooned ourselves in a happy echo chamber of two Romantics railing against these sort of grin-and-bear-it, "virtue means proving you can endure anything and like it" ideas of matrimony. As though marriage is some sort of military boot camp, where you prove your strength by proving how much hardship you can endure, like a man. Love is for wimps, marriage is for men. For folks whose mental willpower can overcome anything, even mind-numbing boredom and existential despair.

Neither of us have ever been married, so forgive us this day our daily snap judgments and what I am loathe to write off as our youthful idealism. But commitment, I believe, at its root, is simply a commitment to delight. It is a commitment to see the face of God in the other, and to fall deeply in love with the divine beauty that radiates through them.

For if we do not love the brother we can see, how can we love the face of God we do not see? If we do not learn to turn our entire selves into a hymn of love for our human lover, how will we ever learn to become nothing but wonder, love, and praise, for the Divine Lover, our eternity and the fount of all our existence?

Balthasar describes the Father and the Son as eternally surprised at the other. And the best of human loves I have experienced feature this constant surprise. Even as our expectations of the other goes out from our heart in hopes of meeting them, we are consistently surprised by how they are full of a beauty that surprises us. They are what we expect and somehow infinitely beyond it.

It may be that this God who makes each daisy separately each day hopes that we can learn his appetite for wonder. If the world, with its marvelous and endless miracles, its lavish and plentiful species, its ridiculous abundance of roses, strange insects, bizarre rainforest creatures, and waterfalls carved into mountains, reflects in but a small way the creativity and beauty of God, it would seem that it is our vocation as creatures to learn to appreciate each part of it. And by learning to love it, we can learn to love its maker.

Perhaps this is best exemplified in sunsets, which is why they are not a cheap nor meaningless expression of the glory of God or God's beauty. We are meant to have our breath snatched away by their beauty each day; and it is our only duty to never grow tired of doing so. It takes effort, a sublimation of ego, an askesis of attention, to notice the beauty around us and praise it. It is easier to take it for granted and to ignore it. But we are presented each day with an event that demands awe of us.

I would imagine this is also why affirmation ought to flow from us so easily, for that does not cheapen it. It is a terrible side-effect of economic humanity that restricted supply increases demand, driving up price, therefore driving up value (we think). But value is not commodified, and is in no way related to price.

That which is abundant is that which is truly valuable. Affirmation of the beautiful creatures and creation that surround us ought to flow from us like water, we ought to effuse it like light, for is that not our ultimate vocation, is it not? To turn our entire being into praise. Into praise of the creator, yes, and now, in this vale of tears, we cannot see the creator, except via creation.

Next to the Eucharist, Lewis would remind us, the holiest creation which mediates the creator to us is our neighbor. So I would imagine that the best way to practice love of God and the praise of God which will subsume our entire existence after death, is to praise that neighbor. To learn to love our neighbor well, to see beauty even in their difficulty, is this not a school of love which prepares us for the final life of love? Catherine of Siena says that all the way to heaven is heaven. If we learn to give out love and praise to our neighbor so freely, is this not already beginning to sing the final song of praise?

Thus, I would imagine that marriage would be the difficult, challenging, and glorious task of learning to praise the supreme and glorious beauty of another creature each day. A creature to whom you are close enough to see all of their bullshit, their ridiculous posturing, their insecure scheming, and their vulnerabilities.

I imagine marriage is learning to praise them even in their careless cruelty, praise them even in their thoughtless chore-shirking, praise them even in the midst of their selfishness and stubbornness. Praise the goodness present in their small sacrifices, praise the beauty which shines from their eyes each morning, praise the love which flows from them to you, and out into the world. Praise them for the sweet memories, the sad memories, the silly conversations, and the sharing of thoughts, the fights and the kisses. Praise them for the rich tapestry you weave together, building something strong, shining, and eternal, which will itself endure into eternity, and offer itself in love to that love that moves each star and us.

For if we can learn to see the face of God, love it, take deep delight in it and offer it a constant stream of praise, in the hazy thick of daily life, I imagine the result is neither boredom nor monotony, but rather, joy.

Monday, November 13, 2017

what's lacking in Manhattan

the giant cross that hangs over one hunched crying man
and one snotty, sobbing woman.

the clearing of ancient trees,
enchanted in a grey-and-scarlet autumn silence,

the hawk whose tailfeathers match the leaves,
reiging over this quiet kingdom.

the intake of breath that startles the hawk
from his perch,
he glances over his cloaked shoulder, annoyed.

the rain-slicked asphalt of a deserted path
between two lakes, two walls of
shadows of nearly de-leafed November trees.

a cemetery with soft grass, mossy, mildew-ed crosses
washed in cold rain.

standing at the feet (or really six feet above them)
of a mentor or a godfather
or a kindred spirit.

holding you tightly—
for warmth—
is a prayer.

the knock on your door that is
a young woman with the chocolate cake
your grandfather loved.
And you missed him today.

the bite into German-chocolate cake,
laced in buttercream,
washed down with milk almost as thick as cream—

tastes like Gail mixing cake before the funeral,
like birthdays at the kitchen table,
like stealing bites from the refrigerator at the Rancho.