Saturday 27 June 2020

Marie Martin Hoyer, RIP

I don't know what made me open my eyes from my meditation in that moment and reach over for my phone.

An instant later, in a chat box:


No happy or easy conversation ever begins with my name. Ever. I knew my Baz Luhrmann moment had arrived - that I was about to be blindsided at 18.23 on some idle Saturday.

"I have something really terrible to tell you."

In that instant I knew. Because any of the other horrific possibilities I could imagine would have come from our mutual friend, that girl who had been my lab assistant and the baby sister I never had, herself...and I would have been able to hold the space, to hold her in love and comfort.

The internal screaming into the void began as I watched those three dots, desperate for them to form the words, yet willing them not to, bargaining with G-d to put me in a universe where this wasn't true, where I had another chance to drop her a message saying hi, kiddo, love you, drop me a line.

The dots morphed: Marie was killed in a car accident last night.

NO NO NO NO NO. But there is no getting away from the yes.

What happened? How's Ellie? How can I be here for you? Would you send me a programme from the funeral?

Getting everyone possible to pray for her and the family.

Now, to find pictures and stories for her girls. And the first story begins with my name.

Marie was introduced to me as someone who was going to help me with setting up labs for my classes. She looked older than her 15 years, so I put out my hand and said, "Call me Irim."

And indeed she did, from that day to my birthday, a month ago today, though while I taught, she called me 'Miss Sarwar' in public. I can hear her now - from getting my attention to amused to that head tilt when she was saying, 'Don't try to get that one past me.'

I met her as a young, confused, open-hearted teenager and saw her grow into the whip smart, funny, loving, generous, warm, take-no-crap woman that she became. Our conversations, no matter how far apart, never wasted time in the shallows, but headed straight for the depths - of our lives, of the world's situation, of our theology and spirituality. Who is G-d? What does it look like to love Him? How do we live our lives? She was one of the few people from whom I hid nothing.

Oh, except for one thing, which you now know, hon: that every time you asked me to pray for you and it was answered, I lit that candle to Our Lady. Catholic win. 😝

Just a couple of days ago, I saw she was on Messenger and meant to type: Hi, kiddo, love you, drop me a line. I got distracted and forgot, but didn't worry about it because I thought we had all the time in the world.

We didn't. You don't. Drop someone that line, tell them you love them, forgive them, hold them tight.

Because you never know when your 18.23 on some idle Saturday will come.

Thursday 18 April 2019

Maundy Thursday 2019: Father, into Thy hands, I commend my spirit

Here we are at the end of the road: the end of our 40 days in the desert of Lent, the end of the Via Dolorosa, the last of the seven words from the cross.  And now, we stand at the foot of the cross, waiting, desolate, lost, expecting nothing more after His words, ‘It is finished,’ but He speaks one last time, to the Father He so recently accused of forsaking him: ‘Father, into Thy hands, I commend my spirit.’

Christians often treat that sentence as if it is novel or peculiar to Our Lord and the cross, but that isn’t, in fact, the case. The exclamation is a strong reminder of His Jewishness, drawn from Psalm 31 and woven into the piyut, Adon Olam, said on Shabbat and often, before bed: B'yado afkid ruchi - To Him I commit my spirit.

Also quintessentially Jewish is His relationship with G-d, able to encompass ‘What, you’re going to just leave Me hanging here in the dark?’ as well as that cry of the trapeze artist to the catcher, ‘Into your hands…’ and everything in between: from the agony in Gethsemane to the tenderness of ‘Father, forgive them.’ It is the intimacy and depth that comes from the familiarity of everyday togetherness, of sharing the little things as well as the large; the pain as well as the joy. A more modern example of this Jewish closeness to G-d can be found the late Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker:

Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name
Vilified, crucified, in the human frame
A million candles burning for the help that never came
You want it darker
We kill the flame
Hineni, hineni – I’m ready, my Lord

Shocking as those lyrics may seem to us, they are underpinned by the sentiment: I trust you so much, I dare to say this to you, I dare to challenge you, as Martha did to Jesus when she said, ‘If you had been here, my brother wouldn’t have died.’ Though I’ve yet to get there, it’s a relationship style I strongly resonate with, since my spiritual life can be summed up by a favourite quote: I live my life between ‘Jesus, take the wheel,’ and ‘Oh yeah? TRY ME.’

It was my relationship with G-d I was pondering this Lent, as I walked or led the Stations at least once a week. The idea of surrender had popped up many times in various situations, heart to heart discussions – with Jewish or non-religious friends, and in various materials that would just appear: cards, books, even gravestones. I worshipped a G-d who became human and died for me, so why was letting go so hard, even AFTER I’d worked on my stuff; why did it feel like that resistance was woven into the very fabric of Christianity I was trying to live?

The answer came unexpectedly when Lynne Hutchings of Wyoming defended the death penalty by saying that without it, Jesus couldn’t have saved humanity from its sins. We don’t have time to get into just how deeply heretical that is, so let’s just say someone should have checked her mushrooms before she ate them. I, of course, couldn’t resist putting it out there, posting it with the headline: When substitutionary atonement goes too far. Anyone who really knows me will be able to guess just how much earthy language & first class snark hit that thread. But it was my theologian friend, Sara, who summed it up for us all when she drily noted, ‘Substitutionary atonement overreaches simply by existing.’

Why does the form of atonement we believe in matter? Because it is the lens through which we view our faith and so, it becomes the way we live our lives. Substitutionary atonement is problematic for a whole host of reasons, but the ones I want to point out today include how it diminishes G-d’s nature by imagining the Almighty can only forgive sins when someone (Christ) is punished for them and how it turns relationship into a series of transactions – debt, payment. It makes unforgiveness, cruelty, and transactional relationship a feature, not a bug, of Christianity. Donald Trump is supporting white supremacists and grabbing women indiscriminately? That’s ok, he’ll give us the judges we want to impose the Christian version of sharia law. Children being caged then trafficked through adoption agencies such as Bethany Christian to white saviour parents? Substitutionary atonement – their parents had the nerve to show up at our border asking for asylum (which, for those of you inclined to think otherwise, *is perfectly legal*), so we punish their children.

I’m supposed to surrender to a G-d who enables that? Hard pass. Lucifer’s got a party in the basement that looks like a better option, thanks. And frankly, I don’t think Jesus would surrender to a Father like that either. Substitutionary atonement reduces the cross – and Jesus’ life – to the unremarkable: debt owed & paid, rather than a sacrifice of love. Through that lens, the life that we know Jesus lived and the relationship He had with His Father makes no sense at all, not least His teachings on forgiveness. And though this may be a minor point, I find substitutionary atonement lazier than a three-toed sloth on Ambien and, as an Enneagram 8, that just irimtates me.

And so it was that I discovered that my resistance to surrender was based in this sense of transactional relation – debt, payment – that made trust difficult.

Peter, a Dominican friend, and I had long discussions about models of atonement afterwards, but nothing settled for me until I thought, ‘Wait, what if we’ve got the question at the Trinity Redemption meeting wrong? What if the Father wasn’t asking, how do I get satisfaction, but rather, how do I bring them home? And the big J’s response was, well, what if I go down and show them how to live a fully human life – which can only be lived in you? We know what that will mean, but I will gladly accept that price for love.’

The kaleidoscope shifted and it all made sense: the Incarnation into a vulnerable human baby, living with his parents – and talking back to them, a ministry of healing, challenging teaching, miracles, and unutterable love, and finally, the sacrifice upon the cross and those words of complete surrender to a loving father who wants to bring his children home, a father whose arms are always open: to catch His Son – and us. If we start from *here*, then we are meant to live our lives as Christ lived His.

Now, there’s no doubt that the imitation of Christ is much harder than the idea we’re paid for once and all: for one, it means my fantasy of rounding up Jacob Rees-Mogg, Donald Trump, and their hate-spewing authoritarian buddies around the world, dropping them on an uninhabited Marshall Island to live Lord of the Flies style, and restarting nuclear testing in the area…is off the table. Instead, I have to learn to love them, to see G-d’s image in them, bearing in mind that love doesn’t mean just being nice and letting them do what they want; it means finding a way to prevent them from further hurting themselves and other, from going deeper into sin.

How in the universe am I supposed to do that? Jesus told me: Father, into Thy hands, I commend my spirit. But I’m human and I can’t let go of the anger, the hurt, the need to control, to let my spirit operate through my own good but twisted nature. It feels impossible. Perhaps that is why we are told:

Enter ye in at the narrow gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction, and many there are who go in thereat. 

Far too often, we use that quote to impose whatever set of rules we want on others, meaning that narrow gate is for us and those like us, but I suspect that’s not the case. The gate is narrow because we have to let go of everything, to let go of our lives, to walk through:

He’s hurt me; I want him to pay.       Father, into Thy Hands, I commend my spirit.
I can’t do this.                                     Father, into Thy Hands, I commend my spirit.
I can’t live w/o this thing/person.       Father, into Thy Hands, I commend my spirit.

We often talk about closing our eyes and breathing in G-d. But the only way through the narrow gate is to let G-d breathe us – to throw ourselves back on Him over and over again, despite our Gethsemanes, our Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani moments, our broken humanity.

I was in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral last autumn, on my knees during the Eucharistic prayer I’d heard thousands of times, when I heard these words for the FIRST time: May He make us an everlasting gift to you, and was yet again overwhelmed by His sacrifice of love and the Father’s commitment to bring us home. In that moment, I understood that surrender meant not loss of self, but a return to communion.

All I know is that I’m light years away from being that gift and right now, the best that I can do is to make a vow, perhaps best summed up as follows:

For as long as I shall live, I will testify to love,
I’ll be a witness in the silences when words are not enough,
With every breath I take, I will give thanks to G-d above,
For as long as I shall live, I will testify to love.

But I know there is no way I can do it on my own merit, without grace, and so…Father, into Thy hands, I commend my spirit. 

Wednesday 31 October 2018

Sermon for 31 October 2018 (Wednesday chapel)

(Readings: Psalm 31: 15-24; John 12: 23-32)

You all got lucky today. Not by getting me as your speaker, that’s pure dumb luck, but because when I told my priest friend Peter (yes, Durban surfer boy, for those of you who were here last year when he preached or who ate his sourdough bread yesterday) I was talking to you today, he said, in no uncertain terms, “Just so you know: you're not allowed to produce a broomstick or a cat.” (promptly produced) I think we all know how good I am with authority.

So, what’s the story, morning glory? For the younger among you, that phrase may conjure up memories of Oasis’ smash album from 1995, but in my circle, it was in use long before. It usually meant, ‘Stop lying to me and telling me you’re fine, you’re as prickly as a porcupine and standing on my last nerve. Dish – what’s the REAL story?’

The *real* story? What does that even mean in a – dare I say it – postmodern world, where the notion of objective reality is questioned and many of us sound like Pontius Pilate in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’:

So what is truth, is truth unchanging law
We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?

We live in a world where neo-Nazi violence is equated with peaceful protest; where blatant, easily fact-checked lies are diarrhoea out of the mouths of those who lead us, feeding the rabid fear and hatred of those desperate for easy solutions of ‘us and them’, terrified of navigating the complex, nuanced world we live in. A world where polarity threatens to destroy relationships, nations, the world, as each side cries:

My times are in your hand;
Rescue me from the hand of my enemies,
And from those who persecute me.

A world in which the story we are weaving seems a nightmare without end.

Stories. The fabric of our world: we weave them and are woven into them; they are our process, our way of making sense of the world and how to interact with it; the narrative we live individually and collectively. Stories we tell ourselves and stories we interpret – from ‘what did she mean by that?’ to ‘Wait, what does that mean for us all?’ – lead us to decisions and actions that direct and unfold the story further. Our loved ones’ pain and joy is a story. Our history is a story. Our theology is a story. Your thesis – quantitative or qualitative – is a story. But stories do so much more than form the stream and sense of our day to day living - there is a deeper reason we almost obsessively read, listen to, and watch stories, why fairy tales, myths, fiction, and reality hold such sway: they hold up a mirror in which we can see what we might otherwise be unable to see, and they offer us a way of approaching truth when we might be unable to do so directly.

There’s that word again. Truth. What is it?

Truth is defined as ‘being in accord with fact or reality’ and can be as concrete and simple as ‘I am standing on a floor; the sun is shining; Bill Berger will smack his head on one of my office doorways at least once this week.’ But reality encompasses so much more than the sensory, most truths may be less clear: ‘No one is ever truly self-made,’ string theory (go to Damon!); the sudden, definite realisation: ‘I cannot do this any more.’ It’s also worth noting that truth, in more modern parlance, means authenticity – or being genuine, real.

Perhaps we can find a hint in the oldest known etymology of truth from Proto IndoEuropean, deru or dreu, meaning firm, solid, steadfast as an oak – there is a definite sense or tie to wood, and is also the root of words like ‘durable’ and ‘endure’. And in whatever form it comes – concrete or abstract – one thing we recognise about truth is that it endures. When someone tells the truth, though they may add details or offer different angles, their stories endure; over time, someone will act true to their nature in all kinds of ways…but like the oak, they are not immutable – the truth has room to grow, evolve, reveal different facets – though its nature remains the same, just as the oak’s, from acorn to full grown tree.

What is true endures in its nature, even if it changes form.

And that is the core of all ‘real’ stories: over and over again, in infinite forms, they point to the truth: about love, about suffering, about life, about the nature of creation – in your methodology, you might refer to that as ‘triangulation’.

And those real stories in their infinite forms are the heart of this week’s feasts of All Saints and All Souls – from San Juan de la Cruz’s burning, mystical love for G-d to Teresa de Avila’s salty practicality, the stories of the saints point us again and again to a single truth: 
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. While that doesn’t always mean physical death, it does always mean dying to earthly attachments and surrendering to G-d: we see that in the story of the rich man who goes away sad; the Lord’s pronouncement on a camel walking through the eye of a needle; in His warning that the gate is narrow – you’ll have to put everything down to get through.  

Our Lord does not ask us to detach out of punishment or to deny us joy and pleasure; He does it because he knows that as surely as the stories we live can heal, nourish, and transform us, stories can also bind and imprison us, often spun around a single grain of untruth: I am unlovable, I must be the strong one, I must be certain, I cannot change.

He does it to set us free, so ask G-d to let it fall to the ground and die, so it can rise to bear much fruit, and so that you can become free to become the person G-d dreamt you would be when He created you – someone free to serve Him and be where He is, like the newest saint we will honour tomorrow – Oscar Romero.

So many of us think we know Romero’s story: a radical, left-leaning, liberation theologian who caused trouble for decades. Yeah…no.

Romero was born in 1917 to a carpenter and his wife, one of eight children. His father was against his desire to become a priest and trained him to follow in the family business…until Romero went off to minor seminary at the age of 13, continuing to ordination in 1941 to become a conservative cleric with an inclination towards Opus Dei spirituality who defended the Magisterium, supported the government and the oligarchy. I suspect you could hear the chorus of ‘No me digas!’ from liberation theologian priests around the country when he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador in 1977 because he was considered a safe pair of hands. At nearly 60, he no doubt expected to live an uneventful life to his retirement in 15 years.

But G-d had other plans.

Some of the earliest intimations of change came when he welcomed some workers into his church alongside a priest friend of his and was told that they were paid 1.5 colones for a day’s work. ‘Wait, but the going rate is 2. I know [the landowner], he wouldn’t undercut wages like that. How about X, down the road, he certainly wouldn’t.’ ‘He only pays 1 colon.’

That openness, that willingness to understand that perhaps his friends weren’t who he thought they were, in addition to his commitment to inner spiritual transformation, opened the door to change, to the Holy Spirit moving in his life.

On 12 March 1977, 17 days after his ascension to Archbishop, Romero stood over the bodies of one of his closest friends, Rutilio Grande, an advocate for the marginalised, and two others, knowing he would have to walk the same difficult path, take the same risk. Perhaps he even thought,

‘Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—“Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’

Within weeks, at the age of 59, this bookish, conservative archbishop became a voice for the marginalised and a powerful critic of the government and ruling class he had, only a month ago, supported.

3 years and 12 days later, he was dead, shot by an assassin as he finished his homily and moved to the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist. 3 years. 12 days. 5% of his life.

But what a 5%, when given to G-d.

A real story. And what does his real story tell us about ours?

·         Real stories are never that simple. The term ‘hagiography’ has rightly become an epithet in many circles because it sanitises saints’ stories to the point of meaningless: no saint is perfect and godly from birth: there are explosive tempers, lots of dissolution, stubbornness, attachment, plenty of privilege. Romero started on the side of the oppressors. The strict Opus Dei spirituality that I wrinkle my nose at is what most likely gave Romero the anchor he needed to become the man he became in those final years.

·         Real stories aren’t linear. Stories unfold in multiple dimensions and meander – there is no clear, straight line here. On his way home from doctoral studies in Rome, Romero stopped in Cuba and was placed in an internment camp before coming home. In his parish at San Miguel, Romero started an Alcoholics Anonymous group, started construction of a cathedral, promoted devotion to Our Lady Queen of Peace…and yet, despite all he must have seen, he backed the status quo.

·         To unfold, real stories require those three most important words – I don’t know. If we are certain in all things, believing them to be immutable, then the stories we live are more likely to bend around our certainties and close us in, than unfold naturally and open out. Romero knew those landowners, trusted those landowners to pay a fair wage. But he was open when he saw evidence that they didn’t, to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know,’ which allowed the story he was living to change.

·         Real stories are unexpected; they challenge us. Remember that collective groan when he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, with the rich expecting him to keep the status quo, and the liberation theologians groaning collectively? So, how did that work out for everyone? If a story constantly follows a path that fulfils our expectations and props up our beliefs, without even challenging the GPS, it’s suspect.

·         Real stories reveal to us the true nature of things and bring us closer to our own true nature. When he saw the body of Rutilio Grande, even though it had been creeping up on him for years, Romero knew, in that instant what was real and what he had to do. Oscar Romero became a voice for the voiceless, a microphone for G-d, the man G-d always intended him to be.

·         Real stories are always so much bigger than we can imagine. There is no way that young priest, diagnosed as OCD and over-scrupulous, with a PhD in ascetical theology could have dreamt what G-d had in store for him. But he took the road he knew to be true and found Jesus there.

That all makes sense, doesn’t it? Because creation shows us a profligate G-d, a universe writ large with everything from violets to huge galaxies, from black holes to oak trees in countless forms, not just the one repeated over and over again: diverse, dynamic, prodigious…granted, with a few ‘G-d, go home your drunk moments’ like the platypus and the moose-leopard-camel with a 40 foot neck we call a giraffe. It’s no wonder real stories are wild, large, anything but tame and predictable.

But then – and how very postmodern of me to close this way – what if that means every story is real? If, as Rabbi Arthur Green posits and as I’m coming to believe, ‘G-d is the innermost reality of all that is, and that G-d and the universe are related not primarily as Creator and creature, but as deep structure and surface is key,’ then G-d is woven into everything, and every story has the potential to point us to truth and bring us home – even the ones that keep us safe or the ones we tell ourselves out of fear.
Then every story can be writ large, G-d in the world, such as the one of the Jewish surgeon who worked on the Tree of Life murderer spitting anti-Semitic abuse at him, responding that he was honoured to work on a human being who was wounded.

In the midst of the nightmares we create for ourselves, there is light. There will be an end – we are promised that, even if it won’t come easily:

Be strong and let your heart take courage, *
all you who wait for the Lord.

So what’s your story, morning glory? Whatever it is, keep it real.

Tuesday 7 August 2018

The original conversion story...

This will soon be published in an anthology of Catholic women's stories. It got heavily edited along the way, and while it's a voice that fits the book, it's not MY voice. It doesn't flow in the same way, it doesn't quite capture what I mean (I'd never call my parents' faith 'lukewarm', that's *not* quite what I mean by 'their Islam was cultural at best', the editor put an exclamation point when I meant the tone to be dry), but it will do. 

Don't get me wrong; I'm incredibly grateful - I know that's part of the editing deal when someone's bringing together a compilaton. I am thrilled to have the story out there to a fairly wide audience: but anyone reading it will never quite catch me. An author friend who read both versions noted that it seemed as if it was edited to cut out the strong emotion, to feel more neutral. I think she's right. But my feeling is that the messiness is part of the story; it's part of the human experience. And I think sharing that messiness is necessary if we're going to be real, to connect, so that others don't feel alone. To quote a song from The Greatest Showman:

I am brave, I am bruised,
I am who I am meant to be - this is me.
Look out because here I come and I'm marching on to the beat I drum:
I'm not scared to be seen, I make no apologies,
This is me.

So if you're interested in the abbreviated tale full of messiness and transformation, tolle lege:

“Daddy, daddy, you left Mommy in there!”

No response from the head I could see resting against the driver’s seat, so I repeated myself relentlessly as he drove off unheeding. As the cry reached its desperate crescendo, my 5-year-old eyes popped open and I found myself staring at my bedroom ceiling.

 A dream. Of course. Even my kindergarten self knew how unlikely it was that we’d stop at the Catholic church that fascinated me every time we drove by it, let alone my mother getting out to actually walk in. However, none of that stopped me from telling my father, every time we drove past the church for weeks afterwards, that he had left my mother in there. 

He finally turned to me in exasperation, “We’ve never been in there. We are NEVER going into a Catholic church or any church. Ok?”

Speak for yourself, Father.

As time passed and the dream receded into the background of study, Islamic Saturday school, struggling with a deeply dysfunctional family, an uncle’s sexual abuse, one might think that the fascination with a strange church might disappear into the depths without a trace or hope of return.

Instead, it turned out to be the faint, early glimmer of my road home.

No matter how far away I seemed, seeds of Catholicism found me. My paediatrician mother would get copies of Bible Stories to put in her waiting room and I would devour them before they left the house.  In 1978, young me rejoiced when John Paul I was elected and sobbed when he died. Oscar Romero and Denis Hurley were my first clerical crushes, causing a subsequent priest friend to wryly observe, ‘No wonder the rest of us have disappointed you.’ But above all, even as a child, it was where I found home – my closest friends were Catholic, and the love I received from them became my first taste of sanctuary.

But those seeds could so easily have fallen by the wayside, on stony ground, or amongst thorns, where they could have been easily lifted, scorched, or choked. It took a long time to realise that I drew the road to me as much as the road drew me to it.

My parents believed in God because they were told to. From the time I was very young, I could feel God brushing against my skin in all things – I’d even talk to dust particles as if they were sentient. That sense of an immanent God clashed with the Islamic concept of a God far above us who required submission.

That wasn’t the only point of discord. I grew up in an immediate family that viewed other people as objects: to use and discard, to step over on the way up. At best, my parents’ Islam was cultural, but was far more often a means of control, especially over a girl who had the nerve to yell back at her raging father. Somehow, in the midst of it all, I had an unshakeable sense that ‘this isn’t how you treat people’, that you sacrifice yourself for that which is greater than you are: a child, the many, to end the suffering of others, for the One. Even before I had any clear idea who He was, I understood why Jesus was on that cross. He felt like a kindred spirit.

Eventually the rift between Islam’s theology and my innate understanding became too great, and in my adolescence, I lapsed, with all the requisite snark of a Generation Xer. It wasn’t until I moved out after my mother juxtaposed ‘arranged’ and ‘marriage’ in a sentence (I didn’t tell them I was leaving, but I did leave them a note on the fridge) that I felt safe enough to do something other than rebel.

The path picked up with my lab colleague, Janice Briscoe, a convert to Catholicism, who, on hearing my childhood dream, muttered, ‘He DID leave your mother in there.’


‘Never mind.’

I worried at that throwaway remark for years, during which time the two final parts of my journey slotted into place: my time as a teacher at the Hebrew Academy, a Modern Orthodox Jewish school, and my friendship with Anni.

In September 1992, I walked into Hebrew Academy with great trepidation because I knew it was reasonably obvious I’d been a Muslim. I need not have worried: it felt like home within a week. For four years, my work world was a school in which the sound of prayer punctuated the rhythm of the day; wonderful, warm staff who invited me to their Seders, Purim services, and cantorial concerts; cheeky students who patiently explained rabbinical commentary; affectionately shaking my head as I passed rabbis who argued in hallways and became good friends. I became immersed in a religion that was grounded in daily life, one that was a way of being, not just an identity ritual or something to learn on a Saturday. To this day, this homegoy™ (my friend Dorothy’s term for her non-Jewish friends) can feel the rhythm of the Jewish liturgical calendar in her bones.

I joke that I nearly converted to Judaism, but bacon and shellfish got in the way. That’s not quite true: it was that kindred spirit, Jesus, who did.

October 1992 brought the final step in the road, befriending my sister from another mister, Anni, a fellow Renaissance Festival dancer, whose parents took me in as if I were their long lost eldest daughter. Wrapped in that love, I learned that American Catholicism was as much about boisterous affection, fuzzy toilet seat covers, pictures of Our Lady and the pope, and ‘tuna casserole Friday’ as it was about going to church. It was with Anni that I discovered the joy of Latin mass in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception’s crypt church, where I was able to articulate my sense of the sacraments as being Heaven kissing our lives on Earth, invisible love made visible. It was about telling Anni, ‘The guy I’m dating just asked why I don’t become Catholic,’ punctuated with an eye-roll.

I could have saved my eyes the exercise. When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 1993, I suddenly realised that I needed a spiritual community, somewhere to fall. In one of our numerous phone calls, I said to Anni, ‘If only I could become Catholic.’

‘You can,’ she said.

My squeal of glee left her ears ringing.

RCIA had already started for that year, so I joined the next one in September 1994, becoming Catholic at St Michael’s, Mt Airy, MD (USA) on 15 April 1995, baptised by Fr Mike Ruane and confirmed by Bishop Frank Murphy (RIP).

That’s all, she wrote? Hardly. As a wedding is to a marriage, so is a baptism/first communion to a faith journey. Eighteen months after that, I left the cosy world of being a Eucharistic Minister at  St Mike’s to come to Oxford for an MSc and stumbled over a church which had a Sunday 11am Latin mass. I rejoiced – a seamless transition, a church that would be a home here.

Let’s just say it was about as smooth as a Himalayan mountain road.

English Catholicism’s victim mentality jolted me, coming from an unselfconscious American Catholicism, as I noted most of those who played the victim were not recusants, but converts whose ancestors had been on the right side of history. The victimhood led to insularity, leaving parts of the Church suffocating. The reactionary right wing baggage that accompanied the Latin (and later, the return of the Tridentine) mass went from a stream to a tsunami, leaving those of us who were committed to Catholic social teaching yet loved a smoking (only incense, I hasten to add) high liturgy betwixt and between. The ‘male servers only’ and ‘no EM’ rules left women out of the sanctuary except to read. Any argument was met with a mocking ‘You’re just an angry feminist.’ Shades of my emotionally sadistic father were omnipresent.

But as with a butterfly beating its wings against a chrysalis, growth needs resistance, and that resistance turned out to be a blessing – the space to push against the patriarchy as an adult with the resources to do so helped heal the child who couldn’t. Whether it was in my particular church, or more broadly with the growing neoconservative traditionalist movement encouraged by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, staying and pushing forced into clear relief what mattered, stripping my faith right back to the essentials: my relationship with God, my unshakeable faith in the events of Holy Week, my belief in the sacraments (particularly the Real Presence) as emanations of the holy into the mundane, my commitment to our social teaching, the oneness of G-d’s creation.

That faith keeps my feet on the pilgrim road, my conversion new every morning, my prayer one with Charles Wesley’s:

Ready for all thy perfect will,
my acts of faith and love repeat;
till death thy endless mercies seal,
and make the sacrifice complete.

Thursday 29 March 2018

Maundy Thursday 2018 (Father, forgive them)

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Right now, there’s a lot in the world that seems unforgivable, isn’t there? And isn’t it nice to have that get out clause from Our Lord?

For they know not what they do. But what if they DO know? The Trump voter, the Brexit voter, all who voted their spitting rage, hatred of other, leaning into ‘rivers of blood’ style xenophobia and racism, then disingenuously stood back, claiming ‘economic anxiety’ or ‘sovereignty’ while vulnerable groups and entire nations suffered the consequences.

How delicious was it, then, when they began to suffer? When steelworkers didn’t get those promised jobs? When they suddenly realised they were going to lose their healthcare? When they realised that whoops, much of the funding that held up their deprived communities came from the EU? How tempting to say, ‘No job from Trump? What, now you want a handout from the social safety net you wanted to slash? Here’s a bowl, there’s the street.’ Or ‘Oh, the radioactive isotopes your child needs are in short supply because we’re out of Euratom? Well, they don’t deserve to suffer, but because you decided that they and every other cancer patient should, so you could vote your hate, you deserve every ounce of unmitigated suffering coming your way.’ Or a personal favourite, ‘I wouldn’t cross the street to pour a glass of water on him if his guts were on fire, but if I had accelerant, I might just run.’

After all, Jesus gave us that out, right? No forgiveness because they knew exactly what they did. Never mind that denying them aid and forcing them to beg or using a child’s suffering as a vehicle for revenge makes us uncomfortably like them.

They know what they do. Just like my father did, just like my uncle did. No quarter given. They knew.

Don Henley’s 1989 song, The Heart of the Matter, nudges at that certainty:

These times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
People filled with rage

Times so very like our own. But wait. A yearning undefined? People don’t know what they want? And what do we know about ourselves filled with rage, in the grip of that inferno of anger, aware of nothing but the object of our hate and our need to tear it down, completely blinded to everything else from the people around us to the consequences of our vengeance? Do we know what we do then?

And if not, what about them? How do we arrange those three words? They do know or…do they know? Now not only are the times uncertain, so are we.

Henley goes on:

We all need a little tenderness
Or how can love survive in such a graceless age?

Tenderness, which might lead to compassion and forgiveness? Don, who do you think I am? Our Lady? Jesus? Thanks for the lofty thoughts, but where are we supposed to start?

Let us begin by teasing out what forgiveness actually is: it is not forgetfulness. It does not allow someone to hurt us over and over again. It does not deny that a wrong was committed – for if nothing was wrong, there would be nothing to forgive. Forgiveness does not ignore the degree of the offence or the hurt caused. Forgiveness does not forgo consequences: reparation, loss of relationship, withdrawal of privileges. Forgiveness is not reconciliation, though it may open the door to it.

Forgiveness is rooted in the Latin perdonare, later in the Germanic for and giefan, which mean ‘to give completely, without reservation’. So forgiveness is completely giving release from retribution. Forgiveness is about letting go of the anger and ensuing bitterness about what happened to us. Forgiveness is about, over time, being able to be less angry, then neutral, then perhaps being able to wish the other well, even if the relationship never resumes. Above all, forgiveness is a process, not a fixed point.

Unforgiveness freezes us, locking us in stasis, making it impossible to move or grow. So perhaps if we cannot begin by asking to be able to forgive, we might be able to begin with these words from the Veni, Sancte Spiritus: melt the frozen, warm the chill.

The thaw often begins with allowing feelings beneath the frozen anger of unforgiveness to surface, the moving water of tears of pain, grief, betrayal, loss, but also the water of life: I'm learning to live without you now - but I miss you sometimes. For example, my father is an emotional sadist with a tendency to physically lash out, veering between a complete lack of affect and towering rage. When I told him his brother had sexually abused me for 4 years, he had exactly 6 words: It doesn’t matter; it's not important. Plenty of pain, grief, and betrayal there. Plenty of reason for a hard, frozen exterior to survive him. So it took me decades to come to the surprising realisation that tearing myself away from him was not painless and didn’t bring unmitigated relief and happiness. I found myself grieving, empty, bleeding, and yes, missing - not him, per se, but a father, one who knew and loved me from the moment my arrival on this planet was expected – a realisation that propelled me towards letting go – and healing.

So the first step in the process of forgiveness is acknowledging that we miss what is ruptured, our hurt and its depth, listening to it, making space for it, letting the running water cleanse it, and bandaging – or protecting – it while it heals. The next step is beautifully summed up in the line:

The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I’d figured out, I have to learn again.

We must have the courage to be curious, to be uncertain. To look again at what happened, to wonder what I missed, if what I thought I saw was the whole story. I missed the horror and trauma of Partition till I came to the UK and saw the documentaries. For decades, I didn’t know my father had lost 2 sisters and had been so close to one he never again said her name after she died. That knowledge made me realise how little I understood the man I’d grown up with, which allowed for a sea change in perception when I talked to a friend after seeing a picture of my father at 20:

Me: You know, he might have been saved. Here, he just looks wary, sad – angry, yes, but not irrevocably so. (Friend: Mmmmmm.) That just doesn’t jibe with the man I grew up with. You know what else doesn’t? (Mmmmm?) There was this time my cousin brought her baby girl with her, and my father just grabbed the baby, held her tight, closed his eyes and wouldn’t let go. I was like, hey, I WAS HERE, REMEMBER? WHAT ABOUT ME?

Friend: I’ve wondered about that since you first told me. Do you want to hear what I think? (Of course.) What if it wasn’t that you were unlovable or that he was incapable of loving you? What if he saw this baby girl and didn’t dare love her? And what if you grew up more and more like his sister, then everything came into play – the fear, the grief, the rage, and he had to push you away? Or he had to try to make you not like her?

What if indeed. And suddenly, all the things I thought I knew, I was learning again. That staying open, that willingness to give up the story we tell over and over, that admission that maybe it’s more complicated may feel frightening, even blasphemous, if we subscribe to a theology where we believe G-d has spoken His final word or if we’ve come to religion for the exoskeleton of certainty. But we must remember what G-d’s final word said as He ascended: Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. He is here, working with us, through us, to redeem His creation.

And He redeems us by adding that meltwater, the water of our tears, to our clay and reshaping us, even perhaps making it possible to look at an incredibly painful situation and reflect:

I thought of all the bad luck
And the struggles we went through
And how I lost me and you lost you

Because perpetrator or wounded in any situation, we are all lost. Not one of us, no matter how much we plan, how good we are at looking into the future and gauging consequences, how many pro and con lists we make before a decision, know what we do, because we cannot see it all. Not you, not me, not the Trump or Brexit voter, not the colleague or family member who makes you consider jail time, not my father, not Judas. Maybe a little tenderness, such as that we would give a child, is in order.

To put it another way, as Rachel Remen relates what a rabbi once said on Yom Kippur after his 1 year old daughter grabbed his nose, his tie, and his glasses during his sermon: “Think about it. Is there anything she could do that you could not forgive her for? And when does that stop? When does it get hard to forgive? At three? At seven? At fourteen? At thirty-five? How old does someone have to be before you forget that everyone is a child of G-d?”

And speaking of children of G-d, it’s time to get back to his Son. What a week he has had: adored on his arrival in Jerusalem, betrayed by one of his own, denied by the man he planned to be the rock on which to build His church, agonised by doubt, mocked and spat upon by those he preached to and healed, feeling abandoned by everyone, even His Father. What must have been going through his head as he was stripped, beaten, carrying and then nailed to the cross? I can’t help but wonder, before this first word passed his lips, if it was something very similar to Don Henley’s reflection on the subject:

I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But everything changes
And my friends seem to scatter
But I think it's about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don't love me anymore.

Thursday 13 April 2017

I thirst (Maundy Thursday 2017)

He has sweat blood, he has been betrayed, tried, and scourged. He has carried his cross, fallen, been nailed hand & foot, and been raised up to die in one of the most excruciating ways possible.

He has forgiven his murderers, promised a thief paradise, given the care of His mother to a beloved disciple. And he has, in these last moments, felt the loss of that presence which has been closer than His nearest human breath throughout his ministry.  

Utterly alone. Forsaken. And now, ‘I thirst.’

There is a primal need to thirst, a yearning, a desperation. We are, after all, creatures that are 2/3 water. What those of us who have done a Ramadan fast – especially in the summer – remember is not the hunger, but the desperate need for water. That is why what I call ‘intermediate forms’ of fasting allow liquid as they deny – or curb - our food.

Think about the words we use when we have nothing left: our tank is empty; we are spiritually dry; someone is ‘dried up’. It is no coincidence, I think, that early Fathers sold everything and fled to the driest place on Earth, the place that would keep them right on the edge of death, to face their demons and strip right back to the essence of their relationship with G-d.

Thirst is bone deep; thirst is need; thirst is a desire for life – even from the cross. And Our Lord’s thirst isn’t a passive thing: it is not ‘I am soooo thirsty,’ or the Spanish ‘Tengo sed’ – ‘I have thirst.’ He thirsts – it is active; it is a desire on the hunt.

But for what? He physically thirsts, clearly – Jesus was fully human, and it had been…rather a tough day so far, with the words of the Psalmist to fulfil before it was accomplished.  Thus, the vinegar on a sponge. But, as always with Our Lord, there is so much more.

Just as we use thirst figuratively: we thirst for knowledge, thirst for righteousness, thirst for justice, so does He. But again, for what? Augustine offers us a possible answer in a phrase I saw every year during Lent when I regularly attended the Oratory: sitit sitiri – G-d thirsts to be thirsted for. Perhaps. But there is something unsatisfactory in this – this mutual longing feels incomplete; it lacks connection; it smacks of unfulfilled relationship – and no little emotional manipulation. Thirst for G-d or else YOU are dehydrating Him!

But if we flip back to earlier in the gospel of John, we get a glimmering. Picture the scene: a hot day in Samaria, a well, and a woman approaching it to draw water for her family. A young man sitting there commands her, “Give me to drink.” Left unsaid, “I thirst.” We all know her response, “Seriously? You, a Jew asking me, a Samaritan, for a drink?” (Not quite KJV, but still.) His response is an unexpected one: If thou knewest the gift of God, and who it is that saith to thee, Give me to drink; thou wouldst have asked of him, and he would have given thee living water. Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again: but whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.

The therapist in me loves this line, because when someone tells you what they would give you, more often than not, they are telling you what they want from you. Jesus will give us living water, and there is a not-so-faint echo of the later And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament. 

Our Lord doesn't just thirst for us to thirst for him. He thirsts for us.

The us He knit together in our mother’s womb, the us He dreamt we would be when He created us. The us that not one of us could create, but that these fragile bodies of ours contain. As Dag Hammarskjold said, “I am the vessel. The draught is G-d’s. And it is G-d who thirsts.”

Ah, we may think, great! The draught is G-d’s, I am the vessel, there’s this whole pour your life out as a libation thing. All I have to do is be like the guy in the parable of the talents who puts the talent in the ground and gives it back to the Master unchanged – conveniently forgetting just how well that worked for him.

But there’s a catch. We have this treasure of G-d’s draught in earthen vessels. And earthen vessels have a habit of leaching and changing that which they contain. Every choice we make through the free will granted us changes the draught of G-d’s contained within us for better or for worse, makes it bitter or sweet.

Oh, we think, I’ll ignore the niggle of my conscience just that one time. I can’t forgive him, so I won’t try. I’ll miss out that little kindness. I’ll tell that little lie. I’ll keep quiet about that wrong I know is happening, someone else will take care of it. But those ‘slips’ become habit, and many littles soon become a tsunami of sin. Or, as @absurdistwords once noted in a Twitter thread, you can only play Devil's advocate for so long before you realize that the Devil actually has you on retainer.

And so often, it is more subtle than that, isn’t it, especially when you’re working for the Church? Of course twisting that person’s arm was the right thing to do, it was for G-d. Of course I know what THEIR spiritual path should be, all the while ignoring how far I’ve come off course. I was right to ostracise them, they’re a heretic. The obsession with bums in pews whilst neglecting the souls of those sitting in them. I was right to offer fraternal correction in public, his humiliation is G-d’s will. The creeping spiritual arrogance, the pride that we, at least, are doing G-d’s work. We would do well to remember Hammarskjold’s admonition: It was when Lucifer first congratulated himself upon his angelic behaviour that he became the tool of evil.

Or, to put it in Holy Week terms: Where in our journey do we avoid reaching Golgotha, refusing to get up the first, second, or third time we fall? Where do we demand the resurrection without the crucifixion, or, playing the martyr, refuse to allow G-d to take us down off our cross, so He can move us from crucifixion to resurrection?

So now what? Are we to despair? Is it impossible for us to sweeten this draught? Will we forever embitter it? Again – can you tell I’m currently reading Markings? – Hammarskjold points the way through the prayer Our Lord taught us:

Hallowed be thy name 
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done 
Give us peace with thee
Peace with men 
Peace with ourselves
And free us from all fear.

Free us from fear? Ah, now that might be a way forward, since all sin is, somewhere, based in fear. But how, in these darkest of times? 1st John tells us: perfect love casteth out fear. But how do we poor humans find perfect love? By falling into the arms of the one who spread them on the cross for us.

Relying on our own meagre human resources, we will soon make the draught undrinkable. But through surrender to Divine will, we become the finest vintage imaginable, the one He intended us to be. And then, He can lift up our vessel and quench His thirst: not by drinking as we drink, but by putting it to the lips of our thirsty neighbour – the sick, the poor, the refugee - those lives He means us to touch & heal, pouring out our lives as a libation until it is accomplished. 

Sunday 8 January 2017

Reflections on a high school commencement address & today's politics, or, where a Republican senator hands me a guiding principle for life

I woke up this morning thinking about someone I haven't thought about in decades - John Danforth, retired Republican senator from Missouri. As the morning went on, I thought of him more, not less.

Weird, huh? Maybe not so much, since he was the father of D.D. Danforth, who was in my year at school - so yeah, my dirty little secret, for those of you who might not have guessed, is that I went to a posh private school, alongside the daughters of senators and kings (Hussein of Jordan).

I'll never forget seeing him come to school, taking the steps 2 and 3 at a time from car park to the main door of the school. My 'Hello, Senator!' always met with a smile and gracious 'hello' back, no matter how much of a hurry he was in. I liked him; even in our brief encounters, you could feel the integrity and the calm around him, the exact opposite of my father; I often wondered what he'd be like as a dad.

Those occasional brief encounters occurred for years - then, he spoke at our graduation...and it changed my life. I had that commencement speech on my wall for years, with sections underlined and starred, until it fell apart; I'd love to have it again now. I'm pretty sure he began with congratulating us, telling us how we were all being applauded, and rightly so, graduating was quite an achievement. But then.


He told us that we would be applauded throughout our lives, but our real job was not to seek that applause. *Our real job was to go out and GIVE it - to everyone around us: our friends, lovers, children, colleagues.* His last line was for us to go out there and 'Start clapping. Never stop.' I can't speak for anyone else at our graduation, but I could feel the electricity of truth run through me and, in that moment, I swore I would do that; that I would hold up those around me however I could. That principle was diametrically opposed to my parents' 'People are commodities to be used for your benefit,' but John Danforth's speech spoke to MY integrity; it pointed due North and let me find my way.

This morning, it struck me: *one of the guiding principles of my life was handed to me by a Republican senator*.

And I finally understood - I'm not just incandescent with rage, I am grieving. I am grieving the loss of men like John Danforth from our political scene. The loss of the Republican party that could be home to men like him. The loss of our common vision for a better nation and world, even if we disagree on the how. The loss of our ability to trust and talk to each other, to reach the compromises we need to go forward.

I am a diehard Dem - but had John Danforth run in 2000, I can't say whom I'd have voted for. And had he run and won, my heart would have been happy - because I would have known I could entrust my country to the hands of this man who understood the meaning of service - not just as a senator, but as a priest.

That is what we all need to move back towards, whatever our calling in life - a sense of service, an orientation towards the greater good. Haven't our decades of obsession with ourselves shown us that selfishness leaves us empty and brings disaster upon our heads? That connection and service bring us joy? That we need the balance of turning inward for contemplation and self-examination, then turning back outward to offer the fruits of that contemplation as service to others, to pour out our lives as a libation, and in doing so, move the world towards wholeness?

And where is that sense of service more needed than in those who serve our communities and nations? Even if they differ in the how, the why - the greater good of humanity - must be the same. So let us commit ourselves to unseating those obsessed with exalting themselves and oppressing others and seating those committed to the greater good - whatever their party affiliation.