Saturday, November 30, 2013

a constant intercessor before you

No longer forsaken and hated, with no one passing through,
Now I will make you the pride of the ages, a joy from generation to generation.
You shall suck the milk of nations, and be nursed at royal breasts;
No longer shall violence be heard of in your land, or plunder and ruin within your borders.

My family sat around the Thanksgiving dinner table, the light in our kitchen was reflecting off the warm yellow walls, and shining through the wine glasses, darting off the cream table cloth.
Through the dazzling light, I looked across at my younger siblings, the most glorious human beings I know.
Possibly because I was first introduced to them just hours after they entered the world.
When my mom guided my hand to her stomach, I could feel them kick along with her.
I fished coins and small Lego pieces out of their little toddler hands, I helped them learn to walk, and I picked them up when they overcame the baby gate, and tumbled down the stairs.
And now, they are all of them smarter than I, shining like little suns, hilarious, strong-willed, and articulate.
I asked my mother how difficult it is to make a human being but not to mold a person in your own image and likeness.
She pulled out one of her stock modest and wise answers, with a demure smile that doesn't explicitly say: you'll understand someday; but I know that's what's implied.
My curious mind demands to know how things work, how people tick.
Frustratingly, it is often confounded by mystery.

I looked up at the starry rafters, finding that the angels and saints were singing in tune with the music.
I sat in the back of my adoration chapel, writing down a list of blessings.
I found myself sitting next to a large, glossy, Barnes and Noble coffee table book of John Paul II. I wanted to pick up John Paul, and peek inside the book, but I refrained.

I half-lounged at my kitchen table, head-bobbing, chair-dancing, and singing along with Tina Arena's crooning:  Not long agoo I got to knowwww my loneeely sidee//Just me and my pain with no where to hiiddeeeee.
My sister's kitten entwined herself between my legs, mewing loudly, begging for breakfast. Unsure of how much paté to serve her, I ignored her, insisting I didn't know how to feed her. She pawed insistently at my leggings, and opened her little pink mouth wide, to show off her sharp little whites, and little pink tongue, eager to lap up her dish of food.
So I opened up the can and guesstimated how much food to give her.
She plopped down on her regal haunches and started to eat.
I bumbled around the kitchen, trying to find the leftover French Silk Pie, hindered by a kitty rubbing up against my legs with purrs of gratitude.

I was searching for a book, and I found it in the emptiest spot. A spot I hadn't expected.
If only I'd attended more to you, I thought, I'd have found what I had been looking for.
I sat in a large, cozy chair, feeling tears I couldn't help streaming out of my eyes, embarrassingly.
But, I'd found a book. And that was a start.
Three things I hate:
losing things.
overlooking things.
tearing things.
But, in the end, I have found I've ended up being grateful for all three.

Our car DJ turned on Tip Toes, and I started dancing in my seat as I drove down I-494. The lights of the Mall and airport lit up the night sky, and I was riding in a wave of laughter and the music.

No longer shall the sun be your light by day, 
Nor shall the brightness of the moon give you light by night; 
No longer will your sun set, or your moon wane; 
For the Lord will be your light forever, 
--Isaiah 60:15-22

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

piękna poezja

Oh. Romeo? Oh, I used to have a scene with Him.
-The Killers, Romeo and Juliet

One thousand miles east of London, and nine hundred eighteen west of Moscow, there is a metropolitan medieval city of seven hundred and fifty-five thousand five hundred forty-six, which is roughly the population of Charlotte, North Carolina.

This city is called Kraków, and it is the cultural and spiritual heart of a country called Poland.

Caught between the Baltic and the Carpathian mountains, Poland has not recently grown in stature, but her girth has changed multiple times throughout the centuries.
She is a country who mourns the fact that she is "too small and yet too big."

Me too, Poland, me too.

Kraków, like many European cities, grows more modern the farther from the center you travel.
But if you stay in a guest house near the more modernized Borek Fałęcki, near what used to be the Solvay Quarry, then take the tram to Poczta Główna into the heart of Kraków.
There, you will find a magnificent old-world city, preserved pristinely, like an insect in amber.
The medieval merchant town, the thriving metropolitan center of culture that was here has not disappeared. 
A touch of the renaissance still hangs about Stare Miasto; the overwhelming cloth merchant's hall holds thousands of goods 
Right on the edge of the Stare Miasto, there is a massive, elegant basilica.
Named after Notre Dame our mother, this beautiful church features two asymmetrical towers.

The taller of these towers has, close to it's summit, a circle of windows at the top.
Every day, every hour, a man climbs the stairs of that tower, and plays, on his trumpet, a haunting little hymn called the Hejnal.
From these windows facing each of the four corners of the world, his short little tune sounds four times.
His short little trumpet call always ends abruptly, mid-note, in honor of the original trumpeter of Kraków, who sounded the alarm from St. Mary’s tower when an army of Tartars launched an attack upon Kraków in the 13th century. 
This first man never got the chance to finish the piece. He was shot by an arrow of the enemy invaders mid-song.
To this day, the trumpeter's song ends in mid-note, a haunting reminder of the first trumpeter, who gave his life for the life of the city.
And his life, and his story is immortalized in the hourly song, an hourly memorial of the cost of freedom.
During the Nazi occupation, the playing of the Hejnal had been outlawed.
When the Red Army swept into Kraków at the end of World War II, a man grabbed his trumpet, and ran up the stairs of the St. Mary’s tower, to sound the Hejnal, to sound the call of freedom.
That man back in 1945, and the man who played on Monday the 21st of October both played to honor something so tangible to them: their freedom.
The town square that St. Mary’s Basilica now dominates hardly looks like a battlefield.
When I stepped into the square, I reveled in its atmosphere of oldness.
I had never visited a place before that was so secure in its own culture.
 It had stories seeping out of the flagstones, and years of histories hanging in the air.
 During the day and during the evening there were an entire army of vendors, situated either in the covered market hall, or set up in the tents out in the open air.

One evening, as we all wandered around the square, shopped, or ate at the little street stands or the many restaurants that line the square; a rowdy crowd surrounded a band shell.
As we gathered behind the Church of St. Adalbert –the smallest church in Kraków, which is nestled comfortably in a corner of the square, quite close to the massive basilica—a group of young men started break dancing, to the tune of the laughter and applause of the crowd that surrounded them.
Every evening we spent in the square, I was delighted.
Here, in this square, an energy and life, a palpable sense of community thrived.
That old, wise square was the heart of the city.

As the trumpeter finished his final note, its incompleteness hanging in the air, instead of feeling the sting of a Tartar arrow, as his predecessor had, the merry trumpeter leaned down and waved cheerfully at the friendly faces waving back at him.
Tears welled up in my throat, as I had never so keenly felt what a large price tag freedom has.
The ability to dance and gather in the streets, to simply play a trumpet in a tower is such a costly gift.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

porta fidei

But I still wake up,
I still see your ghost.
Oh, Lord, I'm still not sure what I stand for.
--Fun., Some Nights.

Churches, chapels, and sacred spaces seem to have music wrought into their very walls.
In the simple whitewashed chapel in Kolkata, I hummed music in my head that seemed to burst out of the monstrance.
As we stood on the altar of the Basilica on Friday night, I looked up at the starry vault, painted with angels and images of saints.
 We were singing Mozart, and I could have sworn we had stolen their song from their very lips and were singing the music along with them.
The music seemed to swirl around the image of the Virgin, and as she looked up to the clouds where she was rising, the music enveloped her and lifted her up.
This was the music that was carved into the columns of this building and we were bringing it alive.

I am not an expert praiser.
My praise is usually half-hearted and haphazard and sloppily done.
I do my best, but like most of my art, it strives for perfection, while falling far short of its mark. 
Mozart, it seemed to me Friday night, was an expert praiser.
The violin parts sounded less like wooden instruments bound with string and very much like nymphs sighing mournful sighs mournful sighs or angels dancing in the firmament.
The oboe played along with the soaring notes of the sopranos, and I thought my heart would break.
Mozart teased out, somehow, the essence of each instrument: the alto's voice, the cello, the horn, and made it truly sing. 
Made it sparkle and dart about under the dark blue welkin of the basilica's painted ceiling.
Mozart found the heart of each piece of music and laid it on the gilded altar of sacrifice.
I think he is an expert praiser.
Chills ran up and down my spine, as I heard my voice mingled in harmony with the dozens of voices of others. 

I am not a good praiser.
But, through the skill of Mozart, for that moment, I was.

In the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Darjeeling, I found these words: fiat in fides.
Say yes in Faith.
They came on a day I was looking for answers.
The thing about this command: To say yes in Faith is that, at first glance, it doesn't seem to give you the answer. 
I stared at those words and thought: say yes to what?
But that was a moot point.
A fiat is a daily offering, a daily practice of living. 
As the angelus bells ring, we practice offering our fiats along with the Virgin's.
Our fiats are what keeps our faith alive. 
The daily business of faith is to whisper a fiat, to open one's hands to receive.

One who loves deeply simply needs to believe. Boundless love demands boundless possibilities--and that invites an endless increase in Faith.
--Fr. J. Anthony Giambrone

Saturday, November 23, 2013

lunting in the lumming twitter-light

One of my favorite moments of fall break was October 22nd.
October 22nd, as an entire unit was quite superb.
It was, in fact, a day to celebrate John Paul II.
We cannot call it his feast day, because he is not yet a saint, you see.
That's alright. 
To the Polish and to most of the Catholic Church, he is already a saint.

Thus, October 22nd was a day to celebrate him.
And so we did.
We started by being very not-lost.
We spent our entire day at Wawel Cathedral, which is beautiful.
It is magnificent, historical, overwhelming, and rich. 
You feel that it is very deep, that each picture, each statue, each carved piece of wood or stone has years and years of story inside of it.
It would take you eons to plumb the depths of Wawel.

I did not bring a watch with me (oops).
And my phone was not working, so I never quite knew what time it was the entire week of fall break.
Precision of time was not my forte; I became an artist of approximations.
At Wawel, I wandered around the maze of chapels and altars until I found the one I was looking for: I found the adoration chapel, marked by a guard, and a sign that sent: "for praying only." 
I smiled as I thought of my adoration chapel in St. Peter's; that has a man saying the same warning, and a sign with the same words, only in Italian, not Polish.
And I was content. 
I was content to be lost in a chapel that was new and foreign but old and familiar at the same time.
I had never felt so cozily at home.

Later, that evening, we visited the Sanctuary of John Paul II. 
Like his canonization process, it is not yet complete, but it is beautiful.
Inscribed above the cavernous entrance are the words:
Nolite Timere
Aperite Ianuas Christo
Inside, the palatial church sparkles with light and mosaics.
It was there that we got lost on our way home.
We took the road less traveled, and it made a whole heap of difference.
We were a ragamuffin gang of pilgrims, completely lost, without a head.
In stressful situations, I usually content myself with remaining quiet and observing the reactions of others, and usually laughing about them with whoever is not worrying and willing to chat and laugh.
There was the classic person-trying-to-take-command, and the classic person-cracking-jokes-to-relieve-tension, and the classic professor-taking-out-his-pipe-and-smoking-it-to-make-the-best-of-a-bad-situation.
They say that in crises, people show their true colors.
But I don't know if that's true.
But I think crises, like the twitter-light at the end of a day, can reveal something new and different about a human being that no other situation can reveal.
Being lost is usually the best way to find something new about yourself.

And that cheesy little line is really all I had to say.
I hope you found it worth the reading.
Now go get lost.
Good night.

Friday, November 22, 2013

can the human heart refrain

My eyes were not always bloodshot and red-rimmed.

On a bright, crisp October Friday--my favorite sort of day--I found myself at Auschwitz.
On a bright, crisp October Friday, the year before, I had sat on a tree that fell down in a windstorm, and fed my breakfast to a squirrel.
On a bright, crisp October Friday, twenty-two years before, my father was almost late for his induction to the state bar, because I was born at just after 6:00 in the morning.

Twenty-two years later, a little after 8:30, the new morning sun sparkled with freshness and its rays were crisp and clean as it shone through the dingy metal gate of the concentration camp.
I walked under the letters Abrecht Meich Frei like an unimaginable number of other humans had once done. 
Although, unlike them, I had the privilege of walking back out through that gate whenever I wanted.
Quietly, turning our heads from side-to-side to take in the dismal yet gently lit scene around us, we walked through the gate, as millions of people had done before us.
Fall leaves, muffling the sound of our footsteps were sprinkled across the damp ground. It was an eerie moment: a radiant autumn day—the perfect weather for a birthday—at one of the deadliest places in history.
And I thought of all those humans who would have been celebrating their birthdays, except they found themselves in Auschwitz.
I knew that when I got back home, I would have cards and flowers and love and hugs waiting for me; but there was nothing left of them here, but sorrow and the smell of great sadness, and nineteen iron plaques, which have written on them:

Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity.

These words are repeated in nineteen different languages on nineteen different plaques as part of the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism, located between the ruins of the two large gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Those words were steeped in an emotion deeper than sorrow.
The despair in those words would be shocking, but after a walk through the graveyard that is Auschwitz-Birkenau, despair seems to be the only reasonable response.
For who, after witnessing the horrors that humans can inflict on other humans, would not despair?

    I could barely stomach reading those words.
According to those words, as long as Auschwitz-Birkenau stands it will serve as a warning of the hate of which human beings are capable.
And that is all: a cry of despair and a dreadful warning.
There are so many monuments throughout the world that testify to human beings’ astounding creativity and aptitude for beauty.
We walk into churches that celebrate what gorgeous architectural marvels a human being on fire with love can achieve.
It is impossible to look at St. Peter’s, Sagrada Familia, Brompton Oratory, or Notre Dame de Paris in the same way after witnessing Auschwitz.
A human being’s ability to create beauty, to reflect beauty, their desire to add to the beauty of the world becomes a little ray of light in that darkness of despair.
I thought of all the people who may have also had celebrated their birthdays at Auschwitz.
And I felt very keenly what a gift it was that I was alive.
It seemed so radically arbitrary that I was alive and they were dead.
As we walked through the stark bunkers, each doorway we walked through was the entrance to a crypt.
The weight of all the suffering at Auschwitz was palpable.
 Auschwitz was one of the closer encounters I've ever had with death.
Death pervades that place, it hangs in the air, it's embedded in the ground, it seeps into the scent of the bricks.
There lingers a faint antiseptic smell, the attempts of succeeding generations to purge the hateful legacy from those ugly barracks.
It was as though we had stepped into some ghoulish graveyard.

 Yet, we walked out of Auschwitz I, we walked along a path that was littered with yellow-gold leaves, shining in the mud. I thought of the passage from the book of Wisdom: “In the time of their judgment they shall shine and dart about as sparks through stubble.”

As we walked towards the International Monument to the Victims of Fascism, at the end of the railroad tracks, I felt how easily, how reasonably, without the “hope full of immortality,” Auschwitz would be a cause for despair.
Auschwitz seems to be a victory of evil. It seems to be a victory of death. Just there, in that complex, over 1.5 million people lost their lives.

"I am a worm and no man,"
We prayed the words of the psalmist in front of the ruins of the gas chamber.
 And as we walked back along the railroad tracks, my heart leapt for joy; a load was suddenly lifted and I almost laughed aloud.
I was appalled at myself for feeling so.
As an immense joy and gratitude at being alive overwhelmed me, a breeze swept along the tracks, blowing away a bit of the heavy sorrow in the air.
I felt my hands fly open, lifted of their heavy despair.
My life was not my own; my life was a gift I had received--a gift to give away.

The tears that blind my eyes bear witness that I say the truth when I declare that I had never known before what love God has infused into my heart for all He has entrusted to my care.
--Edward Sorin

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

lust is as lust does

She kept saying:"I want you"; but I was right there.
What of me did she want? 
I was open, and waiting, and there for the taking.
But she didn't want me, not really.
She kept saying that, because--
Because she was looking, not for me, but for her.
She wanted to find herself inside of me.
But that's not how human beings work.
They don't exist in your mind,
To cavort inside your endless imagination,
They exist in the world outside,
A world which never belonged to you, and neither do they.
I am not a vehicle of self-discovery.
I am another I, to be discovered.

And maybe that is the definition of lust.
An unconventional definition, perhaps, but I am maybe halfway convinced that lust is when we seek to make ourselves intimate with another human being for any other reason besides the fact they are a human being there to be loved.
It's like forcing a secret out of someone.
When someone shares a secret with you, you gain that intimate knowledge of them that accompanies a shared secret. Because a secret is, by its very definition, and intimate knowledge that lies deep within one's heart, one's soul. It is your story—the essence of your heart that you share with only those you allow into your circle, into deepest circles of your heart.
But a secret that is forced to be shared is a violation of one's heart.

The horrid thing about lust is that it fools you into thinking that the capabilities you have for loving can only be used for lusting.
So you must see what a problem it is when you believe that your creative capabilities are destructive capabilities.
Human beings destroy with their hands as easily as they build with their hands.
The only way to teach your hands how to be creative is to create with them.

There is a cure for lust, and we call it love.

The only way to teach your heart how to love and to not lust is to love with it.
It is difficult, because the external actions sometimes look the same.
You cannot tell the difference sometimes between grasping and receiving from the outside.
But maybe the thing about being a beloved, you allow the lover to be closer to you than you are to yourself.
Perhaps lust is regarded as so insidious, because it seems to be so close to love.
It's like those poisonous herbs and plants in fairy tales that always look almost exactly like the herbs and plants that will heal you of all ills.
The kind sage always says: make sure to pick the red flowers with pink streaks and orange spots, for these are a medicine that will instantly heal your dying father; make sure never to even touch the red flowers with pink streaks and deep golden spots--these are toxic, and will cause your arm and face to wither off just with a single touch.
And you're like: thanks, Kind Sage, for making my job so easy.
[And then you roll your eyes, because that was sarcasm, and you are apparently a very angsty fairy-tale hero.]

Just like these healing flowers, lust can look so similar to love sometimes, but it is the exact opposite.
Instead of happening upon pleasure from the intimacy that comes in finding yourself so unbelievably close to someone else, the goal is to find pleasure for yourself, through happening upon someone else.
In lust, pleasure is the good sought, the human person the byproduct.
When you are in love, the human person, the intimate knowledge of them that lies in the deepest circle of their heart, the ability to actually be close to an eternal and unfathomable mystery incarnated in a physical being is the good sought, and pleasure is a natural accompaniment to your quickened heartbeat, clasped hands, and eyes that have come alive.

When you are in love, you do stupid things.

For example, the great monastic saint, Benedict, once threw himself into a brier patch, because he found himself thinking of a woman from his pre-monastic life, and he knew exactly what good would come of these thoughts, and that would be the same amount of good that my mother always told me happened after midnight: aka none.
To prevent himself from wandering further down the path of temptation, Benedict threw himself into the aforementioned brier patch, and rolled around in the thorns there, for I'm not how sure long. My source didn't specify; and I am absolutely unaware of exactly what amount of time is regarded as the correct length to roll around in briar patches.
Perhaps the fashionable psychologists would have plenty to say about the extremes to which ascetic monastics such as Benedict would practice repression of their sexuality.

But, imagine your beloved throwing himself or herself into a briar patch at even the first inkling of an imagination of a thought of another woman or man.
And now it becomes not an act of extreme repression, but an extreme act of love.
Perhaps an overly extreme act [although you probably aren't allowed to call something "overly extreme" just like you're not supposed to say something's "very unique." The modifiers are already implied in the meaning of the word itself]; but ultimately a very powerfully convincing display of love.
 I do believe that any doubts I had as regards to my beloved's faithfulness, or the depth of their love would probably be put to rest for quite some time.

People do crazy things when they're in love.

Not crazy always as in "jumping into briar patches" but things that, to those not in love, do not make much sense.
Such as living for someone other than yourself.
That is craziest of all endeavors.
If you are in love with someone, you move yourself out of "number one" slot, and put them in there.
Which is not a singular moment in your life, but a movement of the heart which must happen each day, until it becomes habit, which will make it easier, like breathing, but never, I would think, automatic.
For a human being's auto-pilot has been damaged, and was bent into grasping mode, rather than receiving.
Cultivating a habit of reception takes time, effort, a daily string of fiats, and most importantly, a daily effort to remove from out way the primary roadblock that keeps us from fully encountering one another.
That is, ourself.
Our self is our Sisyphean boulder that we must keep rolling out of our way.
And, perhaps it will always roll back down the mountain.
But virtue consists in the effort to keep rolling it out of our way constantly, every hour of every day.
Because, to paraphrase Mother, "We are not asked to succeed, we are only asked to try."
For we are all Beloveds, and our Lover is knit more deeply in our souls, is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Where there is great love there are always miracles. 
--Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


There is in an inevitable chain of causality:
Mother Teresa states it like this:
The fruit of silence is prayer
the fruit of prayer is faith
the fruit of faith is love
the fruit of love is service
the fruit of service is peace.

All of us want peace. Peace and harmony among all men and all women, all human beings everywhere--the absence of violence and disharmony, the presence of a tangible love and good. We all wish for and hope for that.
Well, in order to achieve that, you must work for that. You must live in a way of service--of giving to others, of seeking to make yourself the servant of the servants. To give to others, without thinking of yourself.
And you really can't do that very well/at all if you do not have love.
Without love, I am nothing says the Apostle Paul. Meaning that, yes, if you built an entire plumbing system, filled with clean, potable water for an entire continent, and didn't have an ounce of love flow out of you.
But also, I think Paul may mean the reverse: that building an entire plumbing system is impossible without love. Even if hidden within the action is just the tiniest, smallest spark of love.
Love must be there in some way for true service to take place. It must.
And you cannot love without faith.
Mother connects faith back to silence.

It all comes down to being silent. To learning how to shut yourself up--to learn how to quiet your heart and your mind.
It isn't so much about outer silence as about inner.
I found myself in the quietest chapel, quieter than the roaring din that invaded the MC's cozy-yet-cavernous chapel.
But my voice shook the peace of that place, roughly shaking the air with clammy echoes.
I have never yelled with the intention of shredding the atmosphere until that day.

“This most excellent canopy, the air, look you,”
Presses down upon me
At fifteen pounds per square inch,
All I get is a thin stream of it,
A finger’s width of the rope that ties me to life
As I labor like a stevedore to keep the connection.
--Mark O'Brien

With the theme song of the Wicked Witch of the West pounding in my ears, I biked up Notre Dame Avenue like the Hounds of the Baskervilles were at my heels.
I was wearing pointy black pumps and my face was folded up into a concentrated frown, so I realized at that moment I must have looked an awful lot like Almira Gulch.

Biking to campus is one of the most enjoyable activities that I have discovered in my short twenty-two years of living. [Ed. Note: this post was originally penned before the Great Bicycle Theft of 2013. RIP, Little Bike.]
You can gear up (no pun intended [okay. fine. pun most definitely intended]) for your day as you dodge the small but steady stream of commuter traffic that makes its way towards the Golden Dome. 
The morning sunshine buzzes with that noise the air makes when a really hot day is on its way. But it's still morning, so you bike along, feeling the breeze of a self-perpetuated wind.
The only thing better than biking to campus is biking back from campus.

Then, usually the evening is suspended between twilight and dusk, with one or two very forward stars who have eagerly burst into the deepening blue sky. The sunset peeks out from behind the houses on your right, joyful beacons of violet and fuchsia fire.
With each breezy pedal of the bicycle, you feel yourself slipping out of the bubble of stress and emails and duties of the day.
This was not a breezy, stress-free bike ride. This was "I am the Wicked Witch of the West" bike ride.
As the wheels rolled over and over upon one another, I felt my brain imitate their rotor-ing motion, as I thought over and over: ugh. ugh. ugh. ugh.
My Mother once told me one trait that I've inherited from her the incorrigible ability to speak my mind, and simultaneously, the incredible flexibility of planting my feet squarely in my mouth while doing so.
This is a fancy way of saying that every time I open my mouth, there is a 500% chance I will make a fool out of myself. Or bring unending shame upon my self, my family, and our whole house.
Shame upon youshame upon your big fat mouth, shame shame shame the bike wheels tsked.

One day, I vow I will learn to think before I speak. But that is not this day. 

There were people crowded en masse in a dorm chapel for Mass. This dorm chapel accommodates large numbers, but at a price.
The price is comfort and sanity.
Great, I thought. Other people. I love being around other people when I'm in a foul-Wicked-Witch-of-the-West mood.
(Thankfully, I just thought these words, and didn't actually speak them aloud. Maybe there is hope for me.)

And then Peter's words came crashing into my grumpy little mind:
Depart from me Lord, for I am a sinful man.
Peter knelt at the feet of Christ, and cried out for his unworthiness.
Christ didn't listen, but instead showed him two small pilgrims standing in the center of the Basilica,
their necks craning around in circles as they read the seven-foot tall inscription: et super hanc petram ædificabo ecclesiam meam, glistening against a background of gold.
From the heavens, Peter , President of the Open-Mouth-Insert-Foot Club, was still a rock for those below.

I don't know where we get these great ideas that The Saints were somehow super-humans, little demi-gods, when they really were just little screw-ups who fell in love with someone.

I feel like Joan of Arc may have been really difficult to talk to and get along with in general, Martha sounds like she sometimes may have had shrewish tendencies, and Benedict seems to have been obsessed with The Rules. There's a beautiful story about Benedict being a stickler for the rules and almost cutting short a conversation he was having with his sister Benedicta. Benedicta wanted to keep talking with him, and so she started crying, and as she cried, she prayed. Her prayers were heard, and the heavens started mimicking her prayers. The rainstorm continued all night, and so did her and her brother's conversation.
And Peter. 
We forget so easily what an absolute idiot Peter was. 
So many saints in the years to come would face more palpable danger than Peter, and they would do what Peter could not do--all three times he was given the chance.
They would give their life for someone they loved.
Peter knew Jesus; he had lived alongside him for three years, and yet, when asked to stand with him, Peter denied him three times. 
That is, as I often like to say, rull dumb.
I get injured if I think my sibling takes my mom side's over mine.
That sort of betrayal wounds me.
But Peter's brand of betrayal is on a whole 'nother level. 
We are too easily not-heartbroken by it.
For, like all sin, it merits our tears.
And yet.
And yet.
It is Peter who has been chosen to lead the little Baby Church for its first few decades of existence.
See, the saints, I think, just happened to fall in love with the right Someone.
And as any of you who have ever made a friend, or ever fallen in love, or ever found yourself spending gallons of oceans of time with someone, they irreplaceably shape the mold that forms your self.
Remember Nietzsche, the man famous for proclaiming that God is dead?
Malcolm Muggeridge commented on this quote in his beautiful biography of Mother Teresa:

the only way God ever could die would be if we retreated so far into our egos and our flesh. Then and only then would God be dead and the curtain would fall for ever on us and our tiny earth.

People like Peter, and Mother Teresa, and John Paul II are proof that God has not dead, rather, that human beings have maybe perhaps learned how to die to themselves and be alive in Him.

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.
--Yasutani Roshi

Monday, November 18, 2013

dance around the kitchen in refrigerator light

The Christian in the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.
― Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible

I hate the days when your teeth feel like chalk; when the inside of your mouth feels perpetually dry, and no matter how much water-avec-electrolytes you chug, there is no hope of ever satiating the yawning, unquenchable desert of thirst within you.
Dehydration is quite annoying, because it persistently reminds you of its presence.
You feel the water slide into your mouth and down your throat, without leaving its mark, as if it had never been there.
About a month ago, I checked in on my imagination and noticed it was looking a little dehydrated.
It had just run a marathon, and was simply exhausted, so I understood.
But, still, it made me a little sad to find my interior landscape looking so barren.
In a place I am accustomed to finding stories: stories flying through the mind, colliding up against one another, little snatches of potent phrases floating through the atmosphere, and ideas sprouting, weed-like, out of the rich loam faster than I can tame them, it was a bit jarring to find a world that looked like my father's garden in the fall.
In the fall, the garden, which was so full of vibrant life, bearing fruit after fruit, bursting with sprouting life, falls dormant, and the stalks shrivel up into an unbecoming dusty brown, they wilt into a fragile layer of dead foliage encrusting the earth.
I felt like the garden had been in this state for several weeks, I just never noticed.
Because, in the midst of this miniature organic disaster zone, I found many little gems.

For example, one day, I saw the most beautiful sight I have ever seen.
I was in Hobby Lobby, looking for kaleidoscopes (which, surprisingly and unexpectedly, are very difficult things to find), and instead happened upon an ocarina.
I went up to the front counter, to purchase my ocarina, of course, when my peripheral vision espied a man behind me.
He was an elderly man.
Not a short man, but he had lost a bit of that cocky stature that young adulthood carries with it.
My trusty peripheral vision again surveyed the scene behind me, and noticed his one purchase which he had laid down on the counter.
My eyes stopped their roaming, transfixed by that one small little piece of wall art, a small little canvas which read, and I quote:
"It is never too late to live Happily Ever After."

I stared at the sign; I looked back at the man.

I checked out my ocarina, sliding from feeling like a powerful young adult to a foolish child in mere milliseconds.
I felt my youth very palapably. For me, "Happily Ever After" is something, despite brief moments of despair, self-pitying wallowing, and angst, that I take for granted.
Because, for me, it is off in The Future, and The Future, comfortably shrouded in the midst of dreams, hopes, nebulous plans, and castles-in-the-clouds will take care of itself.
To me, the words "happily ever after" have no meaning, they are a glib cliché, one I can laugh off, dismiss, and ignore as I explore and delight in the happily-ever-here-and-now.
And I assume one day I will arrive into a Happily Ever After, whatever those words actually mean.
I wonder what it means to believe in Happily Ever After, from the other side of life's disappointments and failures.

I wondered then what it means to believe in Happily Ever After when you find yourself past the endless horizons of youth.
It must be quite another thing to believe that your Happily Ever After is still possible when everyone around you sees you as someone who is done. Finished.
It must be quite more courageous to say: "And they all lived Happily Ever After," when one just simply has to live out the rest of their days in whatever state of life in which one finds oneself.
When complacency is so easy, you could choose not to participate in happily ever after.
But this man decided to still participate, which takes insane amounts of courage--amounts of courage to a degree which I do not possess.
Just this simple act of checking out a cheesy piece of wall art was a witness; a witness of this man's strength, and faith.
You still hold onto hope and onto faith, which by their very nature beg us to hold onto love.

By faith we can consent  to being loved, because by faith we know what his love means. 
In his loving look upon us, and our loving look upon him, everything that faith can say is said.
--Douglas Bushman

Sunday, November 17, 2013

a light in the icebox window

You call me up again just to break me like a promise.
So casually cruel in the name of being honest.
--Miss Taylor Swift

The awe-ful thing about watching human beings onstage is that they are so atrociously easy to love.
Human beings onstage will drive you mad with their beauty, ineffable loveliness, vulnerability, passion, sense of mission and gorgeous expressiveness.
They are so open and emotive, it makes me want to cry.
Onstage, a human sparkles. When they sparkle, they inevitably succeed in dragging me into their beautiful story.
I cannot help but fall in love with them.

Young people are always searching for the beauty in love.
-John Paul II

If you ever declare that you are in love, you should beware.
Because the beloved will instantly make you prove that your money is, in the common parlance, where your big mouth is.
You will proclaim that you could not possibly love them more.
That is probably the definition of foolhardy.

Just when you find yourself at rest, at peace, you are thrown into the sweetest of storms, a mad, delightful unrest of being stretched to love more than you thought possible.
On Wednesday, around 2:45pm, but perhaps a little bit after, or maybe a moment before, I felt a surge of restlessness shake my very bones.
The tectonic plates of my heart were shifted and rustled around by a gentle 2.0 Richter magnitude scale force.
Gentle, but insistent.  
Suddenly, the soles of my feet felt itchy; my heart felt upside down, words I could never say wound themselves up in my brain, but refused to make their way to my tongue.
I was inundated by a tsunami of wanderlust; caught up in a storm of discontent; and yet no moment was sweeter than the sunlight Wednesday afternoon in which I was sitting.
In the tempestuous seas of my inner world, I alighted on a sandbar of calm.
I dug my feet in, to settle in there.
Then, pulled by a cascade, a torrent, a tsunami of words, I found myself back in the rough seas, the sandbar completely washed under the water.

When one finds oneself washed out to sea into stormy waters, the only sensible thing to do is to arm oneself with hot chocolate, and go on a walk with a friend.
We found a bench and looked across the lake, it's blue water so clear and vibrant it hurt my eyes.
Sitting on that bench, sipping hot chocolate, the sun streaming behind us, we both discovered clarity.
The seas did not grow less stormy, the waters' roughness did not abate, but somehow, the light shone a little bit clearer.

God gave us chocolate and the Eucharist, and that's really all we need to be happy, I suppose. 
And also, I guess, people to share them with.

Everything was quite normal in my little office.
The skylight was shining, the conference rooms were humming, and the snack bar was fully stocked.
From the rotunda, the glorious rotunda, came a plaintive intonation.
A man was singing the "Kyrie" of the Mass of the Angels.
Sometimes, my feet go places without thinking.
Like when they start walking towards the Grotto, like when they walk down a sidewalk and run into the right person, like when they jumped out of my chair without another thought, and ran to the balcony.
I looked down, and saw the man crying out, in the most gorgeous of tones, for the Lord to have mercy on us all.
It is not common for someone to cry out to the Lord to have mercy during a Thursday afternoon at the office.
But, perhaps it ought to be.
I looked over the balcony, the entire rotunda, from the painted mural on the rounded ceiling to the sparkling mosaic floor at the bottom, was caught up in iridescent afternoon sunlight.
Joy, echoed in the melancholic tones of the man's song, was in the air.

Joy is a shout of affirmation that no matter how much suffering there is in the world, it was good that I was here.
--Professor Cyril O'Regan

Saturday, November 16, 2013

say yes bigger

I want to redeem my life so that I am not remembered for the very worst thing that I've done and 
that maybe somebody would look at the totality of my life and maybe have the scales 
balanced. That, to me, would be a form of redemption for me.
The ones who need mercy the most deserve it least. 
--Leonard, a convict in the Kentucky Correctional System, and Antonio in Shakespeare Behind Bars' 2003 Production of The Tempest

Being a limited human being means that sometimes all you can do for your brother or sister is offer up your prayers.
Continually offering up another person doesn't so much change them, as really and truly transform you. Because you may be more broken, more grasping, and more in need of transformation that you would wish to believe.
So you pray, which means to bring before God, because, like leaves caught in candles, our prayers and our offering, our sacrifice fuels the flame of love.
A sacrifice which is a form of redemption.
Redemption means to save lives.
Yesterday, I witnessed two very different forms of redemption.
Firstly, there was the heart-breakingly beautiful and hopelessly sad tale of the men in Shakespeare Behind Bars, men at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility who create a piece of Shakespeare per year. We watched them create The Tempest, a tale whose very heart is vengeance, redemption, and forgiveness. 
Forgiveness, as Red (who plays Miranda), tries to work out, is offered not so much because the other person needs it, or you need it, but because without it, something will go awry.
Not because it is deserved or merited or earned, but for some other, sort of numinous and nebulous reason.

Because forgiving all injuries done to you is a work of mercy.
And I've often wondered if the neat little list of works of mercy (divided cleanly into corporal and spiritual) are really a sort of secret.
Everybody loves secrets. Secrets are delightful. It is strange and wonderful to see into the heart of a mystery. To possess the key to unlock the entire puzzle.
And I think these works of mercy are acts of love that, if you perform, will transform your heart, so that your transformed heart will want to do nothing else but them.
If you have received a love that can redeem you, that can break you out of the prison of your heart, I think once the prison of your heart is broken, then the inmates will spill out of yourself.
Your heart would begin to love in ways like these works of mercy.

Bury the Dead.

The world today was a funeral.
The sky was grey.
There was one solitary drop of rain that fell on my head.
I marched in a long procession from the basilica to the open grave.
I have never accompanied a human being along that walk before. 
It was strange to think their body was going to disappear from the world of men. 
And it seemed so right for a long train of people to look so solemn, even the little girl in front of me had sincere and serious eyes.
For most of us will most likely continue on with our day, relatively unfazed.
But a human being is so worthy of our undivided attention, and our solemn accompaniment. There is no reason to show up and bury one's dead in that fashion, except that there is no good way to usher a human being from this earth.
Except to offer them up to the hands of the One who brought them here.
And trust that He who has brought them to you will gently bring them away.
I watched the elderly gentlemen see their brother off, watched them bid him adieu.
They looked sad, and yet not with a raging sadness, but with a tragic, beautiful sadness that always seems to accompany the ravages of time.
It is the fate of a human to be a victim of time, of our lives being inescapably stretched out over a frame of time passing.
This band of friends knew their brother had lived out the fate of all humans, which is to fall prey to time.
They stood so nobly: for human beings insist on achieving so much before their time is spent, and they execute their bold feat of living with much courage.
Most importantly, they did not seem afraid.
Death is a much larger secret than I think I could ever imagine.

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, 
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, 
Leave not a rack behind. 
We are such stuff 
As dreams are made on; 
and our little life 
Is rounded with a sleep.
--Prospero, The Tempest

Friday, November 15, 2013

ragamuffin on the loose

Do not mistake yourself for a guardian, or a muse, or a promise, or a victim or a snack.
You are a woman
Skin and bones, veins and nerves, hair and sweat
You are not made of metaphors
--Sarah Kay

She knows. She knows.

I am working this year in an office in the golden dome
One day, as I walked to work, I looked up at the statue of Mary, that I have walked by every day of every school year on my way back home.
I no longer live right behind her, but I work right under her, so it's a fair trade-off.
She looked very frozen and stilted in her gilded glory.
All I could think of was these statues of Mother Teresa that populate every street corner in Kolkata.
They are, bless their souls, the last word in absolutely atrocious.
Mother looks wan, wasted.
Or her smile tends towards leery, creepy, and definitely not saintly.
And they're trying, bless their hearts.
I'm sure each artist is really trying to convey their love for their Mother.
But the product of their work is sort of ostentatious and uncomfortable.
And I felt exactly the way I felt when I saw those statues of Mother as I felt as I looked at Mary on the golden dome.
I have not felt like that since then.
But I felt that way then.
So I tootled around back to the bike-stand, and parked my bike that has the sticky break.
(How I miss my bike, and it's noisy, sticky break)
I walked into work, wearing my power heels and a "I am business woman, hear me roar" attitude.
I walk into an office that is air-conditioned.
Air conditioning.
Air conditioning is a strange, blood-chilling magic.
Air conditioning is the strangest sort of enviornment.
It's an enchantment that pervades a building, and you're fooled into thinking that the outside temperature is not much different from the indoors temperature.
And I think for a moment: what if one day I become a business person, and do business things, and care about copiers and always wear a business black skirt and heels and start flying business class on airplanes?

I flew business class on our flight out of Kolkata to Mumbai.
I was in a modified, cleaner version of our classic ragamuffin uniform-- my blue India pants and a brown India shirt.

Here's a visual for you:

Full Ragamuffin Uniform:

Modified Ragamuffin Uniform:

And so, as it approached time to board the flight, as we were waiting in a haphazard semblance of a line, we looked at our boarding passes, and to my surprise, my seat was: 3A.
Row three?
I bet you're in business class, said one of my companions.
So much for solidarity, we laughed.
And then we arrived in business class, and a white middle-aged East-coast businessman was sitting in seat 3A.
I stared like an Indian man watching a gaggle of Westerners amble down the sidewalk.
In my defense, it'd been a while since I'd seen a middle-aged, East-coast businessman.
Thinking that it was probably a misprint on my part, I asked excuse me sir but was 3A his seat?
He got up in a huff and grumbled off, complaining that he should have been in business class.
And I realized he was right: he should have been; and I definitely should not have.
I was, after all, dressed like a modified ragamuffin.
And all I could think of was Sobita, who always looked impeccable, while I always looked like a ragamuffin. And she would probably never fly on a plane, much less fly business class on a plane to Mumbai.
And then they handed me the menu for lunch, and I couldn't help but wonder if all of this was going to end in a lot of mandatory tips, like the dinner on our train ride to Puri.
I had become very wary of any "free extras."
Because you realize that "free of cost" is not anything that truly exists in the "real world."
But that warm August day, I found myself in air conditioning.
As soon as you become aware of air conditioning, your blood begins to tingle, and run frozen inside your veins. You know that you're living in a modified environment.
You feel that the place you're sitting in is not quite natural.
And it felt strange to be wearing a face full of makeup, and clothing that I ironed.


I sat outside the little cafe in the liberal arts building, populated by intellectual hipsters, hipster intellectuals, and that bearded kid from one of my theology classes who is playing some sort of video game on his computer.
Yes, I looked over his shoulder at his screen.
No, that's probably not very socially acceptable.
Yes, I am the nosiest person I know.

And then I stopped watching that bearded kid from my theology class as my favorite song came on over the radio.
And I felt how astounding it was the songs, and places, and people can hold inside of them so many different sorts of memories.
And you so often have to leave those familiar people and places and songs, so that when you return to them, you can rediscover and relearn not only what you knew was there before, but find what you didn't know was there but what was waiting for you to find.

"We cared little for what lay beyond the borders of our land. Songs we have that tell of these things, but we are forgetting them, teaching them only to children, as a careless custom. And now the songs have come down among us out of the strange places, and walk visible under the Sun." 
"You should be glad," Théoden King," said Gandalf. "For not only the little life of Men is now endangered, but the life also of those thing which you have deemed the matter of legend. You are not without allies, even if you know them not."
"Yet also I should be sad," said Théoden. "For however the fortune of war shall go, may it not so end that much that was fair and wonderful shall pass for ever out of Middle-earth?” 
--The Two Towers

Thursday, November 14, 2013

to sing ourselves to sleep at night

For young people, this widespread involvement [in service] constitutes a school of life which offers them a formation in solidarity and in readiness to offer others not simply material aid but their very selves.
-- Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

The summer after my freshman year of college, I spent at home.
Which isn't odd at all, in fact, I feel like spending summer at home is a logical and appropriate use of a young collegiate's time.
Because a young collegiate is:
a) broke. b) dependent. and c) tired.
And being at home means that you can live with your parents who are not (as) broke as you, who are much wiser and able to buy you groceries, and you can relax on your couch after a day of working your summer job, and not worry about what your roommates will think of you, or wonder what sort of evils lurk outside the walls of your little city apartment.
Go home, young man, go home.
But, to be honest, Renee-The-Experience-Hoarder was mightily displeased.
Everyone else was going off to on strange and exotic acronymic adventures: SSLP, NDVI, CSLC, HYSP, SSI, LMNOPQRS.
I wanted to put an acronym on my résumé, too.
Instead, my mother told me: you're coming home.
And so I did, partially because I'm an incredibly virtuous, obedient daughter, but mostly because I was  nineteen with very little agency, and it was still my mom's job to call the shots.
So, I returned to the land of ice and snow and disgustingly humid summers to again take up my high school job.
Which was, of course, this.

Uniqua, our Backyardigan friend, gets a little R&R backstage
Yes. I know. Glamorous.
Despite the fact that that summer was neither thrilling nor exotic, it was the best-spent summer of my college career.
That summer, and in particular my job, taught me was how to pay attention.
When you're sitting in a large, fuzzy costume, looking out of the mouth of an unwieldy face helmet, then you become really good at paying attention to the world around you.
You have to constantly be scanning your field of vision, which is small, and noticing which customers of the mall look like they're up for a friendly encounter with a large, unidentified, pink, fuzzy animal, and which ones could potentially decide it's hilarious to trip you, or pick you up, or punch you in the fuzzy pink nose.
Malls, my friends, are filled with the most eclectic of customers.
You watch different parents interact with their children as they bring them up to you to say hello and take a picture.
You see all sorts of parents, and all sorts of families.
If you pay attention, you can learn a lot from their similarities and differences.

During a summer that consisted of keeping track of all my siblings, and playing mom for the greater part of three months, I learned that caring for a family takes a lot of attention.  
You watch the face of a teenager as she says her day was "fine" and have to evaluate whether it's wiser to let the statement rest with "fine" or to probe with a few more questions.
You have to watch an eight-year-old and evaluate whether his temper tantrum means it's time-out time for a stubborn little will, or snack time for an empty stomach.
You have to know when to interrupt a little bookworm's five hour reading binge with a quick tickle-war, and some impromptu girl-chat, or to just bring her a lemonade slushy, and to let her keep reading in peace.

That summer, home became a school of learning to pay attention.
Usually, it is easy, in a place where we feel at home, to stop paying attention.
As I walked to school on bright Monday, I noticed how as soon as I left the lower-income neighborhood I lived in, and walked across the street into the warm embrace of the tree-lined sidewalke, and the massive stone entrance, I let myself relax.
I paid attention to how I stopped paying attention.
But when I made myself pay attention, I felt as though the familiar path between DPAC and Main Circle was a whole new road I'd never seen before.
Pay attention, I told myself, as I started to slip back into my autopilot dream-space.
Pay. Attention.
We are all in debt. None of us has deserved a moment of a day by our grand achievements.
Each moment is a gift.
The price that we are asked to pay is our attention.
Each moment of giving away our attention is a school where we learn how to turn ourselves outside of ourselves.
We are reoriented to live for the world outside of us, to live for the person who passes us on her bicycle, who we do not know, but if we paid attention to, could probably learn how to love.

One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now.
--Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

no more malice than poetry

He has a mastery of equations which lead into infinities where we cannot follow.
--Tom Stoppard, Arcadia

If language is an equation, if a sentence is a function [ (meaning equals (subject over adjective) plus (verb times adverb) plus (object plus prepositional phrase) ]  into which you insert words for the variables, then the limit of that function is infinity.
Because meaning is not something you discover, label and set aside, like an entomological collection of tropical moths or oriental breeds of ants.
Meaning is infinity.
Meaning is to words as our soul is to our body.

We parse down meanings into definitions and those definitions into definitions, and on and on and on we could go, straight off the limits of the Cartesian graph.
Etymology is the attempt to express a single, infinite Word, by breaking it up into millions of other words.
It is an elusive Word, escaping the furthest reaches of our knowledge and defying all attempts to stuff it into a labeled bottle.
But as our language forever approaches the infinite Word, it turns into what we call poetry.
Poetry is not always a demented alphabet soup of rhyming ABABCDCD lines, or gorgeous iambic pentameter verses, cunningly arranged by the great classical masters.
Nor is it always the lush romantic swells of Hopkins or Blake or Keats.
Sometimes, just like beauty in train stations, poetry is simply an arrangement of words whose simple, unique, or solemn beauty pierces you to the core.

I'm a poet. I distrust anything that starts with a capital letter and ends with a full stop because people don't think in full, clear sentences.
― Antjie Krog

If a man came to me and said: I desire to learn poetry, I would say: Take up Moby Dick, young man.
And that is not a flippant command; Moby Dick is not an easy task.
Melville forces you to wade through endless accounts about the anatomy of whales and the biological seascape of the globe's oceans. The poor man. I do believe Moby Dick is partially written out of Angsty Traveler's Syndrome. Every traveler arrives back home, having an entire new world living inside their chest.
Reality slaps them in the face when they realize that not everyone wants to hear about their adventures.
When he showed up to Mrs. Dalloway's dinner party, most of the guests (who were generally the polite-but-not-overly-interested-type) probably said: Herman! How was your trip?
And when dear Herman started to tell them all he now knew about sounding the case of the whale and collecting the precious oil from it, and the flurry of chasing down a whale, and the smell of a whaler after a successful catch, and the way the sun crests the Pacific horizon, they probably yawned and said: oh how droll! and sauntered off to the powder room, or if they were caught at the table, turned to their neighbor, begging to be rescued from this conversation.
Thus, Herman wrote a book. Because we, his readers are his captive audience. We are forced to read what he writes.
But when he finally retires his soapbox of expertise, he rewards you with the most stunning imagery, the boldest, most rugged, manliest, vital poetry to ever have been written.
It is woven through with threads of overweening hubris that sting and glisten like glided thorns.
He is a daring writer.
Although Melville claims his work is prose, it dances defiantly along the lines of poetic and prosaic.
He runs the gamut between breathtakingly irreverent insouciance, grand, redolent sentiment, and every biome in between. Always showing off his natural, virtuoso command over lush language to great effect.
He will write out silly little flirts of phrases, as if they just trilled off the tip of his pen:  mingling their mumblings with his own mastications.
Ex officio professors of Sabbath-breaking are all whalemen.
Govern your appetites then you shall be angels. For all angel is nothing more than shark well-governed.

I sat out on our rooftop porch, sheltered from the Kolkata monsoon by a roof of corrugated plastic, and I chuckled when I read these.
And as I sat inside, the fan brushing away the sweat of a sweltering, smelly June afternoon in the city, my breath was sucked out of my body by the lines:
I would strike the sun if it blasphemed me.
Would I could mount that whale and leap the topmost skies, to see whether the fabled heavens with all their countless tents really lie encamped beyond my mortal sight.

Would I could mount that whale, I repeated to myself.
Would I could.
I looked up at the single star that pierced through the Kolkata smog that night.
I looked into the topmost skies, and wondered if I could leap beyond them, beyond my sight.
I found great comfort in the words of Ishmael.
Ishmael, the bold explorer of Moby Dick, uncovered something very true I would not have found myself.
Travel is an aberration.
And aberrations--departures from our normal daily lives--bring with them perspective.
It is often in the aberrations that we find a bit of wisdom, or a vision God.
Each time we step into a chapel where the priest raises up the Eucharistic host we have entered an aberration.
Can aberrations, I wondered, ever become our routine.

Just like a whaling voyage, you must travel light on a pilgrimage.
You cannot bring the weight of the world with you.
But you must bring something.
Like a whaling voyage, you are journeying with a purpose.
You are not journeying alone.
You are going to do the cosmos in a week.
That is my understanding of a pilgrimage.
You go to seek that moment of what some might call transcendence, where you say to yourself: would I could leap the topmost skies.
Transcendence is here defined, perhaps, as when the part of yourself that wants comfort, consistency, familiarity, and ease vanishes, is vanquished by the real you, who looks to the skies and said:
I am made for there.
I am made for the God found in the aberrations.
That moment is poetry; that moment is meaning; that moment is your soul.
Encountering a pure moment of poetry issues a challenge to incarnate the meaning in words and to incarnate the transformation of your soul each day you awake.

The soul without imagination is what an observatory would be without a telescope.
― Henry W. Beecher

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

thou shalt be well-bred

The late Queen Mother was apparently an absolute genius at being able to talk to everyone in a crowded room while giving each and every one the impression that he was the one she had come to see. This quality is called charm, and I think it a very useful quality to have. 

 Good manners are my favorite thing. 
 Good manners and charming manners are just so pleasant to be around. 
But, as Paul is so fond of saying, without love, they are a clanging gong or noisy cymbals, or whatever that quote is. 
Essentially, without love, charming manners are just sound and fury, signifying nothing. 
Charming manners fueled by charity, however, are the recipe for success; those who are charitable and charming shall inherit the earth. 

Upon consulting with my sources, I've discovered it is not the charitable and charming who are said to inherit the earth. 
 It's the meek. 

I am never quite sure what "meek" means. 
And it seems to me that I often incorrectly imagine meek to mean the opposite of courage. 
Courage is one of the cardinal virtues of virtually any society or group of people.
 It takes courage to do more than sit on your couch and sob that the world is going to shit. 
So, we get up and move on with our lives. 
We call this courage, and it seems to me to be fundamentally necessary for any person to get anything done.
So meekness, I feel now, cannot possibly be the opposite of courage. 
Because there is no way that people who sit on their couches sobbing are going to inherit the earth.
I mean, for starters, they don't even want to inherit it, because they believe it's going to shit. 
So I don't understand what meekness is. 
Maybe this is partially because if I were a construction vehicle, I would be a bulldozer. 
 I wonder if a bulldozer is meek. 

 Jesus said, "Blessed are the meek," but I could not be meek at the thought of injustice. 
--Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness 

 Ever since I can remember, one of the staples of our front living room coffee table book collection was a large, glossy picture biography of Pope John Paul II. 
The book journaled his journey from simple, grainy, black-and-white pictures of the young Karol Wojtyla as a boy growing up in Wadowice, to splendid color panoramas of the new Pope John Paul II in white vestments, parting the surrounding waves of the red sea of cardinals that surged around him. 
Between these two bookends were photos and short tales about losing his mother, working as a theatre artist, living in Poland, secretly defying Nazi occupation, entering into the seminary on the sly. 
 The high romance of Karol Wojtyla’s youth struck a chord in my seven-year-old heart. 
 This man captured my imagination. 
 Ever since I was a young child, I grew up spinning stories in my head, and knowing that When I Grew Up I was going to tell those stories. 
This priest had a whole section of his particular biography devoted to his work in the theatre. 
He’d written a play that theatre companies around the world were still performing. 
This man was a full-fledged artist. 
 Growing up with Pope John Paul II on my coffee table, I never knew that there was a divide between the theatre world and the theology world. 
I remember so clearly the picture of John Paul II meeting with his would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, in prison. 
At the time, I accepted this picture so easily, just as I accepted each story I read in the Brother's Grimm. This picture was a part of the story. 
 I assumed it was simply part of the job, and when you were grown-up you were used to handling these things, and of course you forgave them, because you were supposed to forgive everyone seventy-times-seven.

 And then you grow up and you realize that your heart still has just as hard a time forgiving and understanding as it did at age seven.
 And that really, the fact that this man was able to so completely forgive someone who tried to take his life was--and still is-- completely astonishing. 
 But maybe it wasn't so astonishing for a man who said, as John Paul II once did, "The limit imposed upon evil is ultimately Divine Mercy."
 As a man who had come of age during the Holocaust, just miles from Auschwitz, whose faith and vocation were fostered during the cruelties of the Nazi regime in Poland, and who reigned during the highly treacherous and turbulent waters of the late twentieth century. 
 His papacy saw tragedies and sorrows aplenty--he served during the Cold War, 9-11, the Rwandan genocide, and the Apartheid, Pope John Paul II understood how limitless human evil can seem. 

 "This thing called reconciliation … if I am understanding it correctly … it means this perpetrator, this man who has killed [my son], becomes human again-- this man-- so that I, so that all of us get our humanity back … then I agree, then I support it all." 
 --Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull 

 It is dreadful to see the pain human beings inflict on one another. 
It is terrifying to watch them struggle to comprehend it. 
It is distressing to find violence whirling through a story, a perpetual cycle of hate, which leaves a reader asking: how on earth does one stop a cycle of pain? 
 The only option cannot be to inflict more pain. 
 In the face of all the atrocities of the Apartheid, of the Holocaust, of simply one person reaching out and hitting the other, I thought of that picture of John Paul II.
 The limit imposed upon evil is mercy. 
 This incredible truth seemed like second nature to John Paul II. 
 Just as Olympic Gymnasts make spinning at high speeds around little strings of rope look like a piece of cake, this man made holiness look as simple as breathing. 

 In that picture, I found what meekness looks like. 
 It looks a lot like mercy, and it looks terrifyingly challenging rather than weak. 
 It looks mild in the face of violence, but with a mildness made of iron and stone. 
A man who seems as tall and great as a giant, dressed in white, looking a very broken man in the eye. Looking at him with the knowledge that they are brothers. 
 This picture seemed to capture the essence of all charming good manners, charity, and meekness. 
 I think I will call it grace. 

 For me, the relationship between the ancient Catholic churches and the young ones is similar to the relationship between young and elderly people in a society. They build the future, the young ones with their strength and the others with their wisdom. You always run some risks, of course. The younger churches are likely to feel self-sufficient; the ancient ones are likely to want to impose on the younger churches their cultural models. But we build the future together.
--Papa Francesco

Sunday, November 10, 2013

we have forgotten how to weep

Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had said to him, 
"Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times." 
He broke down and wept.
--Mark, leaving no detail undescribed in depicting Peter's woeful condition

Caravaggio's Denial of Peter

If there's one story in the Bible that should make us weep, it is the story of Peter's denial of Christ.
It is the reason why at I am writing a blog post at 5:30 AM instead of sleeping.
I am sitting on the shaggy purple rug of my bedroom, and as I go through each account of Peter's denial (because all four of his colleagues for some reason found it necessary to speak about. His poor reputation was shredded to bits), new tears well up in my eyes at each reading.
I am remembering how to cry.
We ought to cry; our tear ducts should be exhausted with weeping.
We should weep for Peter. Poor, weak, Peter.
He knew that he was weak; and yet even the knowledge of his own weakness, not even the armor of self-awareness, could keep him from falling prey to his weakness.
Oh, Peter. Poor, poor Peter.
It is shame for us if we hear his story and do not weep.
He has betrayed the very person that gives his life meaning.
Without the being he has turned his back upon, his identity will be confused and distorted.
And yet, Peter perversely insists on giving into fear.
He allows his strength to dissolve into inconstancy.

We ought to weep for Peter at the very moment after the cock crows, and he bursts into tears.
For that is the moment that is the most horrible of all moments.
The moment right after the sin, when you have finally returned to your senses, and you cry; that is the saddest and most terrible of moments.
You cry because you wish you had found a magic eraser that could blot out what you've done. You cry, because you were so ridiculously stupid as to deny your Lord and Savior.
Why did you do that? You love Him, you journeyed with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem and back again.
You, you alone of all your brothers, you and Martha alone have the conviction and courage to say: you are the Christ. The Son of the living God.
No one else has a love so true or a Faith so lucid as yours.
And so, you cry, because as soon as it was done, you knew it should not to have been.
You feel sobs rack your body as you can already feel the evil you ought not to do eating slightly away at you.

I often wonder if those Gospel accounts would have caused Peter much chagrin.
No sin is ever private, for each little transgression committed in the private of our hearts moves us one step closer to turning us inward on ourselves, making ourselves our own god.
But some sins happen in the darkness, but some happen around the open flames of a courtyard fire.
I wonder if Peter bit his tongue every time someone spoke of that particular account, wishing to leap to his own defense, but knowing that anything he said was going to be insignificant.

As the cock crowed, Peter must have felt the weight and pain of his sin so deeply.
The insincerity of what he did must have choked him.
How cruel the weight of his sin; how dreadful the burden it laid on him; and how pitiable the tears that spring up with the transgression re-remembered. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

perhaps be welcomed back again

we're all homesick--is love the reason?
my hunger led me to your arms.
--Eden, Alli Rodgers

Oh, Kolkata. You devilishly enchanting, overwhelmingly pungent city.

The Minnesotan good-bye (also called the Norwegian goodbye. Norwegian and Minnesotan are often interchangeable adjectives, dontcha know.) is one of the most wonderful and obnoxious of social art forms.
But in an incredibly loving and loveable way.
The art of the Minnesotan good-bye is to squeeze as many forms of good-byes as possible into as short a time as possible. 
Or, conversely, to drag one single good-bye out for as long a time as possible.
The art of a Minnesotan good-bye is to make sure that the process of leave-taking is drawn out for as long as possible.
The art of a Minnesotan good-bye is the art of holding on for dear life.
If you're quite skilled at the Minnesotan good-bye, you know that no farewell is complete without a slightly premature round of reminiscing.
{sigh} Oh, wasn't that lovely?
It was so good to see her!
He is such a sweet man, bless his heart.
It is so good to spend time with friends like them.
The key to any successful Minnesotan good-bye is a healthy dose of nostalgia. You should lay it on thick, for any part of a successful good-bye is wishing that you were already back again.
Today, I have been indulging in my nostalgia by taking a trip down memory lane, and comforting myself with the sweet memories of the simple devotions of childhood.

Those coloring books defined my childhood, nay, they were my childhood. 
These introduced me to saints and stories that I have never forgotten, because I remember reading the story while coloring Catherine Labouré's habit fifty different shades of blue.
And I never had the Our Lady of Lourdes coloring book, and my seven-year-old self wants it so badly. 
But it's going for a cool fifty dollars on Amazon, and that's at least two weeks' worth of groceries right there, so my twenty-two year old self, who's far too sensible to dress up like a hipster and too elegant to make fun of her exes, has decided it would be an impractical purchase.
But nostalgia tugs, whispering to me that I could relive those joyful days of sitting at the sacred, always messy Art Project Table (which is located in the Art Project Area, which I have recreated in my own home, in the form of a Very Cluttered Desk in the basement), coloring in the details of St. Philomena's tunic.
Never mind that in Mariology class, our beloved professor casually crushed my confirmation patroness, with a throwaway "And yes, the Church removed several saints from the calendar who were more legend than fact. Like St. Philomena."
But, nostalgia whispers, if you make a small purchase of $2.51 you can return to the happy land of the Art Project Area and color the story of St. Philomena, and remember a bit of what it's like to be seven years old when St. Philomena was the coolest saint that none of your friends had ever heard of, which gave her a lasting cool caché, a status beyond an overly popular saint like St. Cecilia's wildest dreams.
Everyone liked St. Cecilia; but you preferred St. Philomena, and that gave you ridiculous amounts of street cred, in the Church Basement 'hood.
(St. Cecilia is now the patron saint of our house, so no hard feelings here, Cecilia.)

But no amount of coloring books or Norwegian goodbyes can ever change the fact of change.
Change. Goodbyes. These are the inevitables.

In a burst of providential ill-humor, I packed an odd assortment of books for the summer in Kolkata. 
Like myself, the little library I brought makes very little sense from the outside. 
My literary taste is located somewhere in the no-man's land between Moby Dick and John Paul II's Theology of the Body.
On a whim, I packed a book that I'd never really liked: Sun Slower, Sun Faster, a strange, time- warping piece, full of musty history, and cryptic conversations I had never quite understood. It had never captured my imagination fully.
But something about Sun Slower, Sun Faster I understood this summer was its beautiful exploration of time.
This was a novel whose author was bold enough to write about eternity.

Eternity may be that endless series of good-byes; but it's also an eternity of reunions.
Eternity may be a letting go constantly of what is past. Of allowing yourself to jump out of a ruined past, into the endless cerulean.
Maybe, if you can finally let go, and let your guests get out the door, you'll find that a better time awaits you.
That reunions are the inevitable results of good-byes.
And the joy of reunion is absolutely worth the pain of good-byes.

I felt the joy of reunion palpably on my tongue, felt it overwhelm my entire face, turning it into a beam of shining light.
I could have danced back to my seat. 
I was as weightless as a new soul escaping from his old ruins.