Friday, July 29, 2016

answer me

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, which she poured on His head as He reclined at the table.

When the disciples saw this, they were indignant and asked, “Why this waste? This perfume could have been sold at a high price, and the money given to the poor.”

Aware of this, Jesus asked, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful deed to Me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me. By pouring this perfume on Me, she has prepared My body for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached in all the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”
--Matthew 26:6-13

The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have Me.

Recently, I was mulling over that confusing and disconcerting statement of Christ's. The poor you will always have with you. 

It's a statement, first of all, of resigned realism: despite our attempts at creating a kingdom of justice on earth, it is clear that there will always be sin, there will always be broken human relationships, there will always be systems of injustice and inequality. There will always be those who are the victim of these unjust systems and broken relationships. There will always be the poor.

Yet, complacency is certainly not the correct response to this cruel reality, nor can it be the response that Christ is advocating.

It also strikes me as odd that Christ, the suffering servant, born among shepherds and sheep, is drawing a delineation between Himself and the poor. He, who certainly would count Himself among the poor, who says: that which you do for the least of them, you did it to me, usually suggests that He is found in the poor, rather than apart from them.

Maybe what Christ is rebuking here is a false concern for "The Poor." C.S. Lewis says [somewhere] something [to the effect of] that it is quite easy to love Humanity, in the abstract. But not so rarely, those who profess a love for Humanity do very little to love the actual, particular human in front of them. Humanity, The Poor, these are abstractions that have no meaning.

It is easy to say: we could have helped More People! Something better could have been done with this perfume for the sake of the Greater Good. And Christ dispels this notion for the self-satisfying little pipe dream that it is. There is no common mass of humanity that we can play savior to: there is only our neighbor in front of us. Our task is to concretely love that neighbor, not imagine how we might hypothetically love that neighbor best.

All of our charity must be placed at the feet of Christ. All our self-righteous social concern must meet the crucified one. And we must anoint his feet with our most precious possession. We must offer not just our resources or our money, our material possessions and worldly goods. We must offer Him our very selves.

Christ is always unexpected. This is certainly a statement that seems jarringly out of place. It seems to be at odds with the portrait of Christ as a tamed do-gooder. What Christ is calling us to is an act of worship. This act of worship and reverence that the woman at Bethany performs is the correct action. It is an action of love for our Creator and Savior. This is an action that fulfills our deepest vocation. And all of our actions of love for one another must spring from this attitude of reverence.

Christ calls us to a life of service. Christ calls us to a radical commitment to serving the poor, to serving our brothers and sisters, to lay down our lives in love. But, even more than this call to serve one another, Christ calls us to Himself. How can we feed others if we do not (quite literally) feast on Him? If we are not nourished by our relationship with Him, how can we enter into life-giving relationship with others? Christ thirsts for us, for our love, for our gift of tears and our very heart. He will not stand to be anything less to us than our all-in-all.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

lessons about status I have learned from geese

1. There is a flock of geese that reside at a particular spot in my running path. Or, rather, I could say that I usually go on a run right through a geese family's front lawn. It's all about perspective. From their perspective, I am an annoyance, an intrusion, and a daily reminder their safety is an illusion.

2. Be that as it may, I encounter an impassable flock of geese each time I run. If I do not have my dog with me, I have to turn around, for they are many in number, and they are unafraid of me. They are afraid, mostly, of my dog. But not of me.

3. This most recent time we ran towards them, the geese did not move for a very long time. They stared at my dog and me running towards them and did not move. Perhaps they are learning this routine of ours: the run through their front yard, and leave, and no one is the worse for wear. Perhaps they are become habituated to us.

4. This, for some reason, irked me. As my dog moved towards the geese, I goaded him on: get 'em, Pippin!

5. I am not a violent person. One time, my dog brought an injured bunny to our back door as a gift, and I tended to the bunny, crying.

6. For some reason, seeing these complacent geese, totally unafraid of me, brought out some violent streak in me.

7. For I am human, and they are bird, therefore they ought to fear me. I am larger than they are. I am predator, they are prey. They ought to be afraid of me, and to get out of my way when I am running at them, or at least let me pass, instead of hissing and snapping at me, and making me afraid.

8. I am upset at not being at the top of the pecking order, and therefore, I want to see violence done to these geese (mediated by my dog), because I am furious that they--my natural inferior--have power over me. I want them to learn their lesson, and to fear me once again.

9. I am afraid of them. I, human, am afraid of those geese, avian.

10. Surprised at--and disturbed by, disgusted by-- the unusual desire for violence that popped up inside of me, I pondered what those geese have taught me by upsetting the food chain cart.

11. I wonder, if we are people used to status, used to defining ourselves by who we are above and who we are below, but mostly by who we are above, are we, too not more prone to violence? If we become too invested in our status, then we become more prone to violence that keeps those below us afraid of us, in their place. Those of us in positions of power, of privilege, are afraid of losing our status, because we do not love those below us on the social totem pole--we are afraid of them. We are afraid of what they can do when they have power over us. We cannot imagine them treating us any way other than how we treat them. We cannot see how the world would look, free from the logic of fear and power that we place on it.

12. Violence, status, power: these are all woes that result from a lack of empathy and love, and ultimately, from a lack of imagination. We cannot imagine a social order free from a pecking order.

13. If we were to live with the ascetic discipline of constantly reverencing the otherness of our brothers and sisters, even the most lowly and avian among them, we would, perhaps, find a way of living that is more beautiful, less violent, and free from the fear that plagues us.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

pulling freight to morning

God grant me a memory that is long,
that I may be slow to react,
quick to question,
cautious of conforming,
ready to restore what is missing,
reform what is misshapen,
and heal what is broken.

Grant me a memory that is rooted
so deeply in time,
that it reaches back past centuries,
not blinded by Victorians,
or Enlightenments, by Romantic movements,
Red Scares, Baby Booms, or Colonialism,
a memory impervious
to rhetorics of Fear or Progress,
of evolving aways and freedom froms,
nihilism and despair.

Grant me a memory that is free from fads,
and the fickle narratives of fashions,
that can look past glamours and glosses,
that can read the present through the logic of the past,
and the past through the lens of the eternal.

And, Father, grant me a hope that is not mired
in the bog of nostalgia,
who looks to human past for answers
to questions that have never been encountered,
a hope with an imagination strong enough to
see the persistent flaws in human undertakings,
with a vision that perceives the Achilles' heel
in each rose-colored utopia.

Grant me a hope that looks to the future,
who knows that whatever key
will unlock the cure for human suffering
is found not in conserving systems of the past,
or resisting the passage of time,
but in the One who makes all things new.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

lured me to seven lonely seas

My little cousins were visiting this weekend, so our basement looks like it did when we were younger: like little tornadoes have rifled through the boxes of toys and the colorful bins of dolls.

Now that I am home, in this in-between time, my mission is to organize and arrange all the pieces of life. Organizing the doll box seems to be a part of this mission.

I start with the little stable with the horses inside of it. I lovingly place each horse back in the stall that I still remember designating theirs. I put the hay bales away in their loft, and tuck the tack into their appointed slots.

For a moment, I am the ten-year-old again, who played with those horses. I can feel her living inside of me. I feel her face and eyes looking at these horses, and her heart beating inside of me.

In Google Maps, if you are in street view, you can click the clock in the corner, and see the house, apartment, or street corner as it looks today, in July 2016, and as it looked a year ago, two years ago, three, four, five years ago. You can go back and look at this one particular place, caught in time.

It was as though this stable and horses had pressed a clock inside my brain, and reset me to Renée at ten-years-old.

I picked up the colorful plastic village and small dolls that the cousins had strewn about. I put each doll back in her home, remembering where each one lived less by conscious thought and more by some distant muscle memory.

As I put away miniature cakes and tea cups, smoothed doll hair, and sorted dresses, I felt all the old settings of my brain re-emerge. All the toys reminded me less of particular memories of playing with them, and more of the person who played with them: what it felt like thinking with her brain, looking at the world through her eyes, the logic of her heart, the concerns of her daily life.

The child who played with those toys still lives inside of me, very much alive. Just not given much of an opportunity to emerge, perhaps.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

so goodbye to all that

Stay where you are. Find your own Kolkata. Find the sick, the suffering, and the lonely right there where you are — in your own homes and in your own families, in your workplaces and in your schools. You can find Kolkata all over the world, if you have the eyes to see.
---Mother Teresa

When I first arrived in Kolkata, so many moons ago, I hated the city.
I hated it so much.
I distinctly remember seeing a goat walk in front of me in the thousand degree heat, and hating that goat. That one, particular goat was a sacramental of discontent and despair, and I hated that goat furiously and unabashedly.
I hated the sweat that covered me like a second skin, the feeling of droplets dripping down my back.
I hated the dirt, which was uncleanable.
I hated the injustices I couldn't heal, that left the gutters populated with families.

Slowly, of course, Kolkata lived up to her name: the City of Joy.

Kolkata has become shorthand for me for a place where the heavens kiss the earth, where Christ is so clearly visible in the face of the poor, in my brother and sister workers, in the Church, in the Eucharist, even in myself.

The memory of my summer there stands for me, always, as a marker of conversion: of finding God in each person's face, of witnessing the spiritual wealth of those who possess nothing, only Jesus, and learning that charity means, above all, solidarity and empathy. Charity as less a series of proscribed actions, and more an attitude of reverence and awe towards my fellow beings. Kolkata taught me simplicity, it taught me compassion, and it taught me silence. Kolkata is an assault on the senses, it is a challenge to the self, and it taught me that God can be found in the most unlikely of places.
And that, where God is, there is Joy.

Two years later, I land in New York, and--surprise, surprise--hate it. With a passion. And that hatred continues for a good long while. I hate the stifled feeling of concrete and skyscraper. I miss the beauty of nature. I hate the way people at rush hour on the subway treat each other not like fellow human but like obstacles to be hurdled, or shoved out of the way. I hate the way Park Avenue has empty penthouses and people sleeping on the streets, just ten blocks from each other. I hate that people push each other off the subway platform into oncoming trains. I hate that boys shoot each other, and that girls are trapped in abusive relationships, I hate that children are left abandoned, I hate the drug industry that leaves addicts clinging to park benches like soggy autumn leaves, I hate that people get their faces slashed on subways.

Slowly, so slowly, New York begins to woo me. I look at the faces around me and see in them a spark of life that is undeniable and blessed. Although it is easy to grumble about the many people crowding the streets and buses, really, what they offer me is an opportunity to reverence the image of Christ 8 million times a day.

At first, I cry that New York is a city devoid of God, empty of Joy--a spiritual desert. But then, New York becomes a space in which I live where I am constantly uncomfortable. And Christ is in the discomfort. New York's caustic nature burns away at my stubborn self. It chips away at my pride, at my tendency to withdraw, it demands so much of me, and never lets up. It forces me into relationship with others, and it requires a terrifying authenticity and vulnerability. It taps into courage and strength 'til now untapped. It demands kindness and charity. It demands clarity and attentiveness.

It makes me wild. And I find Christ there.
It teaches me the beauty of sticking around. And I find Christ there.
It teaches me friendship, it teaches me community, it teaches me empathy, loneliness, beauty, and strength.
And, in all these, I find Christ.

And so, I have tattooed this reminder upon my heart (and skin), and branded these words into my brain, that I might remember that, each new place I am led, each new challenge, new city, new community, can become a city of Joy--a city where God makes Himself intimately known, and loves me most intimately. It can (and will) become a part of the story of God's love in my life. Each new place is a place I can find a city of Joy, I can find my own Kolkata.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

blue tents of nights

The face of Connemara, Fr. Brendan was fond of saying, changes with the light.

The first night we got there, I took for granted the light, open sky, mostly free of clouds. The light from the dwindling sun gently lit up the mountains of the national park in our front yard. We sat on a bench near a boggy pond and watched the light trickle down the sides of the mountains.

It was a quiet night, without any weather or wind. As we ceased talking, the world around us settled into silence. No bird interrupted the night with their song, no pine marten rustled through the reeds. Only the bats fluttered overheard, their supersonic cries falling deaf on our ears.

In the uncanny, hypernatural calm, some daily tension felt relieved. The exterior and interior world reached an equilibrium of quiet. The peace inside of me was matched by the silence of the environment surrounding me. The quiet of organs working, heart beating, soul searching, was reflected in the quiet of water evaporating, plants growing, and clouds moving. Unused to such a muted world, my cochleae felt pressure, like they were underwater. My ears began to ring slightly with all the silence. But I felt a stillness that was as comforting as warm summer air on bare skin. It's the comfort of being of a piece with the world around you, no need to adjust to your surroundings, but being naturally at one with them.

The mountains stood silently, beckoning us to immobility and quiet.

Monday, July 4, 2016

love song from a distance

The eyes follow the veins on your forearms,
captivated by their snaking, charming motion,
enchanted by the river deltas
hollowed out below your hallowed skin
by blood,
a dance of oxygen carved beneath your flesh.

They caress, from a delicate distance,
your hips,
slender, slight, and swaying,
elegant in their economy.

The arms envy the eyes' abandon--
who drink you, shamelessly--
while they, hanging impotent,
long to wrap themselves around your waist
as the face nestles into the small of your back
and rests.

The fingers want to brush your eyelashes--
impossibly light, like a butterfly's wings,
fluttering their soft color constantly--
and feel the scales lift off them,
as they tremor in response to human touch.

The eyes seek your gaze,
your lips,
the molded curve of your temple,
the line of the muscles in your neck,
the clean arc of your nose,
the quiver in your hands,
the clear, smooth skin of your brow,
each golden strand of hair--
but mostly your gaze,
and the clear sky-colored light
caught in your eyes.

The heart cannot help but beat
a different rhythm when it is nearer yours,
and want to leap across the boundary
of sundering flesh and inert air,
but knows--the way the mind does not--
that cannot be.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

penned on the subway

Because love has its own grammar,
its own sentences,
some that run-on too long,
others just fragments.
It uses a language
not always appropriate
or too informal,
and often lacks clarity.
--Clint Margrave, To the Student Who Asked Why He Earned a "C" on an Essay about Love

we write our way into being,
and we read our way into loving.
we pray into the dark oblivion,
and cry until we become what we are not now.

the movements of our hearts and minds
happen in the dark inside our bodies.
And we can only guess at what
the other minds around us think,
from the light inside their eyes.

I sit across from you on the subway
and I do not care what you are thinking
because you will eventually tell me
and if you don't, I'll take delight
in all the secret workings of your mind.

the subway ads overhead are the chorus
to the verses we compose with our laughter
and our warm young limbs
in the hot city summer air.

I sit across from you on the bus,
every corner of my body filled
with hot, red rage.
The anger and the liquid hurt
flushing my face with fire.

The conversation of the rich old man
and his young protégé, are a
sickening, saccharine underscore
to the dark drumbeat of pain
thumping my chest, and her dull
echo inside yours.

I sit across from you on the train
separated by not much
except a world of words, and thoughts, and feelings
that can't be crossed by transatlantic flights.

The silence punctuated by the lack of rainclouds
in the sun, and the sheep and Queen Anne's Lace
dotting the green fields like spots of bleach.

I envy the girl with her sandwich:
she looks back at me with a protective
curiosity (perhaps she can sense how
I covet her lunch), and goes back to
her phone and SnapChat faces.

I wonder at the many words and hearts
contained within the confines of
such human public transportation;
the couples silently loving or hating,
the mothers and daughters bickering,
and the children soaking in each moment,
turning the seats into their private playground kingdoms.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

do you think he will just let you by?

a slow and continual falling in love with the spouse who thirsts for her so perfectly.

The sea gull circled above me, above the bell tower, above the sea-smelling tidal river. A marten (or a magpie) crossed the gull's path.

Swirling in the blue sky, across the patches of rainy clouds floating past, the birds darted through one another's flight patterns, creating new pathways in the air.

The hillside was one of those blessed spots that instantly welcomes you home.
There you are at last, it says. Have a seat, here. You know the ground like you know the soles of your feet. The air around you seems to just Fit, like an old sweater or your mother's arms. Your body sinks into its welcome as it sinks into an old, familiar chair or corner of the couch.

From the hill, you can see the city sprawl down to greet the river, and splash around it on the hillsides, as though the houses were washed up by the tide and beached there. And you can see, so clearly, the green countryside hills bordering the city.

My mind does cartwheels, like the starlings in the air. What if, What if, What if, they cry shrilly.

I never understood the draw of the theory that there are multiple different universes, parallel worlds in which all our different choices were contained. It is only in the past few months I have begun to see the appeal of such a system. Decisions made by our September selves are regretted by our May minds. And how can we not play with the ideas of all our different selves, spinning out their in their different galaxies, playing with the lives that might-have-been in our minds?

We meet someone, we hear a word, we are reminded of a place or a position we rejected, we think: oh I could have been there. Or I could have done that instead. Is our present path the chosen path? Or is it a detour that could--and worse, should--have been avoided? What if we had chosen something else instead? Would we have made the same mistakes? Would we be better, more innocent, more kind? Would we never have encountered angry, sad, and lonely sections of our soul that were better left untouched?

What if, what if, what if, the starlings cry.

As the birds fly in unintentional--or perhaps it is purposeful, I do not know these birds' thoughts and hearts-- harmony with each other, I am reminded of all the ways in which my life has woven so serendipitously with the lives of others.

Perhaps looked at, on its own, my life is just a string of choices, a series of switches that could have been flipped any which way. But when looked at in relation to all the other stories my story's thread is woven into, perhaps then, what are simply choices made at random become something meaningful. Perhaps it is the other stories that my story has intersected with that give her movements grace and beautiful design.

The design does not demand. It does not dictate or predestine. It arises from them, like the patterns created by the birds in flight above me. It does not set a course for the bird's flight.  It is created by and through them, and comes from something beyond them. It seems to be a law of nature, or better said, perhaps, nature's gift, or miracle: that things move in harmony, that birds will fly together, or apart, and the ribbons of their motion will weave something beautiful between them.

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all. Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too, just once. And never again. But to have been this once, completely, even if only once: to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.”
--Rainer Maria Rilke