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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Beauty

"Have you written about us on your blog?"

"Yes."

"Did you write about how handsome and strong we all are?" (I think he actually used the word "strapping" in there somewhere.)

"No, actually, I thought there were more important things to say about you."

That's the gist of a conversation between a student and me yesterday. Of late we've been talking and writing about beauty.  Yesterday and today, students have been presenting PowerPoint presentations on their images of beauty.  

Not all the pictures in the PowerPoints were amazing images.  It was the personal significance to the student that pointed to the experience of beauty: 

"This picture of the Camino de Santiago reminds me of the amazing experience I had while walking it."  

"I chose this picture of my friends because they are so important in my life."  
"This monologue  from Shakespeare shows my love for theater.  While some people think Shakespeare is boring, I love the way he uses language."  

"I chose this picture of a detention slip, because things like getting a detention can ultimately lead us to a lesson; learning from experience is beautiful." 

Other images were less personal, but still brought out important manifestations of beauty: 

from http://img.mit.edu/newsoffice/images/
article_images/20120106170039-1.jpg
"I chose a picture of Adele because she is not interested in how she looks, but rather on what she does with her gift."  Beauty is more than skin deep. 

"The gay pride rainbow shows that love is beautiful, regardless of who is sharing it" (images of gay couples followed the flag image).  Love is beautiful, in whatever form it takes. 

"In this picture of the race finish line, you can see the runners put everything into the race. There is something to be said for giving it your all."  Effort and sacrifice are beautiful. 

"I chose this image of nature because I think it is amazing how our eyes see images that are not 'intended.'" The human brain interpreting what it sees is an amazing and beautiful process.


Today's message from my calendar of African proverbs is this: "The state of one's souls is more important than outward appearance."  I am hoping that this is the ultimate realization the boys come away with. Clearly many have already. I hope my short conversation yesterday helped my student know that I don't care much about whether he is handsome or has physical strength.  I'm not in the classroom to improve his outward appearance.  I care much more about the state of his soul. I care about the soul of each experience. I care about the soul of the world, the soul formed by the interconnection of your soul, my soul, and everyone and everything else's soul.  

I care because if his, your, my, our souls are in a good state, that goodness will ripple out, adding joy, happiness, love to the world.  Our collective soul will be the better for the good state of its parts.  Likewise, if he, you, I, we are not doing so well, the pain will ripple out, causing more pain along its path, hurting the state of our collective well-being. 

Early on in our discussions a student defined beauty as "something that touches the soul."  We need beauty in our lives; we need our souls touched, because, as one student put it:

These things open me to the Divine because they teach me something about myself.
I have to see these things as beautiful to see myself as beautiful, and I have to see myself as beautiful to notice the Divine influence in everything that surrounds me.

When we experience beauty, not a surface feeling of pleasure, but a deep connection to something greater than ourselves, we experience the Divine. I hope your soul is touched every day, many times a day, so that you are reminded of the vastness of your own beauty, so that you notice the Divine influence that surrounds you and lives within you. 


Thursday, March 14, 2013

Change Takes Time

I don't have a working TV at my house, so I was excited yesterday to be at my parents' house when the white smoke appeared: there was a new pope.

We anxiously waited and watched to see who he would be.  Cardinal Bergoglio from Argentina.  Francis I, after Francis of Assisi.  A Jesuit, a man who lived humbly, a Latin American: all these things gave me hope.  Doctrinally conservative: well, this was expected.

Today as I've been reading analyses and predictions of how Francis I may lead the Church, I've been swinging from optimism to pessimism. So far, I'm spending more time on the optimism side.

As he rose in the ranks of the Church's hierarchy, his lifestyle in Argentina was humble: he lived in a small apartment, rode the bus, and cooked his own food.  In the first 24 hours after being announced as the new supreme pontiff, Pope Francis declined a number of the privileges bestowed upon a pope. When presented as pope for the first time, he did not wear all the usual vestments and adornments.   While his doctrinal conservatism causes me dismay, his humble actions give me hope.  

Yesterday I had dinner with a friend who was talking about his spiritual journey.  He's in his 40s and he made the remark that he hopes to "get there" by the time he's 80.  He said he's in no rush to completely know himself and is enjoying the journey of growth and self-discovery.  I agreed that the journey is beautiful.

Change takes time. 

For one single person to grow into the full embodiment of what God intended for her or him takes a lifetime. Or more.  Do most of us achieve that complete incarnation of God's image in the course of our lives? I don't think so.  Buddhist tradition holds that reincarnation gives people the chance to live through many lives in order to reach enlightenment. 

We Catholics who are impatient to see change must practice patience.  If it takes more than a lifetime for one person to be his/her best self, how much more time will it take for a Body made up of 1.2 billion people to reach its best incarnation?

As I write this, I don't have any salve for the wounds that the Catholic Church has inflicted on people, even its own members.  Recognizing the pain and desiring to heal it is what make me impatient for change.  I hate that many people feel excluded from the proclaimed catholic nature of Catholicism.  Sometimes it is me who feels that exclusion.  Sometimes it is me who wonders if I belong in this Body.

Then I look at the words and actions of Jesus, the heart of the gospels, and I know that I do.  I know that, as a member of the Catholic church, I have something valuable to say. I have something valuable to add to a tradition that both overwhelms me with its depth and beauty and frustrates me with its inconsistencies and hypocrisy.  Sometimes I frustrate myself with my own inconsistencies and hypocrisy. 

Change takes time. 

Conversion is a long process and I hope that the Catholic church will move a few steps towards its best incarnation under the leadership of Francis I.  May God bless him and guide him through the challenges the Catholic church, and he as its leader, face.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Bringing International Women's Day to Young Men

In our world, today is International Women's Day. In my world, it is also Forgiveness Friday.  It seemed only appropriate to commemorate both in the spirituality seminar I am teaching.

Having worked with all boys before, I know that my bringing up women's issues to an all-male audience can be tricky.  Tricky because the message I give is not always welcome; to them, my words may feel like accusations, even when they are not meant to be so. When I gave one class a heads-up about today's class, a student asked, "When is International Men's Day?"  My reply, "Every day is International Men's Day."  The question and short conversation that followed confirmed my suspicion that this group might not take today's activities seriously.  Sure enough, today many students from the class came in ready to make fun of whatever I might have planned for them.  

Before we started, I simply said that the purpose of our activity was to bring them into greater awareness, to ask them to open up to other people's realities, in this case, that of women both near and far, and to try to understand it.  

After our opening prayer, I invited all students to bring forward a photograph (they'd been forewarned to have one) of a woman who was significant to them in some way.  Students brought pictures of mothers, sisters, grandmothers, girlfriends, friends, Madeiline Albright, Jane Goodall, Jennifer Lawrence, Anne Frank, and other women.  

We read from Genesis 1: So God created humankind in God's own image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.

God created all of us in God's image.  

We watched two videos: 



I dropped stones on the table with the women's pictures.  We heard the story of the adulterous woman in John's gospel.  After Jesus challenged the crowd to throw stones at her only if they were without sin, all walked away, leaving the accused woman alone with Jesus, who told her simply to go and sin no more. We noted that the man she'd been with was not in danger of a stoning.  We heard one final story: the story of a young man talking to his sister about when she'd been raped at a party.   

After sharing some of my own reflections on what we'd heard and seen, the next part of our ritual began.  It is never obligatory to speak during our rituals. I invited the boys to come forward, take one of the stones that had been dropped on the women precious to them, and offer some sort of pledge to better support women and girls, either those they know personally or on a global level. 

By this point, the demeanor of my resistant class had definitely changed.  Through the videos, prayers, and stories, they watched, they listened, and they became increasingly quieter. When we do rituals, the first student to act sets the tone.  In this class, the first did not speak.  Most followed his example.  In fact, only one student chose to speak.  About half of his classmates had already silently taken their stone. He stood up, took his stone, and walking back to his desk, said, "I will treat all girls the way I treat my sister."  The fact that he had the courage to speak was testament to his sincerity.  So was the look on his face when our eyes met.  

In the other class, almost everyone spoke during the pledge ritual.  Many, so many, spoke of the support they give and will give to girls they know who are in or have been in abusive relationships. Some pledged to better appreciate their mothers; one said he wanted to work to end trafficking; another spoke of the pain he feels for women who can't be ordained priests.  When we do these rituals in class and they work, I realize anew the responsibility and great privilege it is to be a teacher.

Though my reluctant class was quieter during the ritual, it was clear that they, too, were moved.  They finished the prayer service a few minutes early, so I asked them to reflect in their journals on what we'd seen and done in class. Students will often write things they aren't willing to say out loud.  One student said he felt the activity was pointless because all the women in his life are treated fairly.  Another wrote that he felt the statistics we'd seen were exaggerated and that lots of women make false rape accusations.  Several wrote that they had a greater appreciation for the women and girls in their lives and for the struggles of women around the world.  In reflecting on being a man, a student remarked "I think that everyone should have enough self-dignity to not be a presence that's scary to those around them."  One student wrote, "I realized that women are just as guilty as men in living up to stereotypes as defined by a greater culture. I hope for a world in which an activity such as this is not necessary, where people, regardless of gender, race, or other divisions, are appreciated thanks to their own merit."  

I hope for that world, too.  On this International Women's Day and Forgiveness Friday, I ask forgiveness for the times I haven't spoken out when I have seen injustice.  I pledge, through my teaching, through my writing, and through my living to work for a world where I don't have to raise awareness about the plight of others because all people, regardless of gender, race, or other categories we use to judge people, are appreciated for their own merits. 



Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Filling the Holes

Last Wednesday, the last time I posted, was a rough day.  By the time I finished my post, I thought I had sufficiently worked through the pain I was feeling.  Turns out I was wrong.  The feelings hit me in waves that day.  The tears I'd fought when I was writing came back later.  I was a thunderstorm, sobs shaking me as a steady flow of rain fell from my eyes.

Thankfully, the storm passed; it had only lingered within me for a day. I woke up Thursday, soul cleansed by the torments that washed over me the day before; spirit renewed, in part, by you.

Thursday I had to prepare for Forgiveness Friday with students.  I'm teaching a spirituality seminar, a class that lends itself to activities like rituals for practicing forgiveness.  The focus last week was "Who do I need to ask forgiveness?"

Our ceremony would begin with a story about a boy with a bad temper. The boy's father told him to hammer a nail into a door each time he lost his temper.  When the boy got to the point where he could go a day without hammering, his father told him to take a nail out each day he went without losing control of himself.  When the boy had removed all the nails from the door, his father told him to look at the door, at the holes, at all the damage he'd done.

I knew we would do a ritual in which my students would remove nails from wood - a cross - as they recalled some place they needed to acknowledge damage they'd done.  They'd take the nails with them as a reminder.

I was telling a friend about the ritual, and he asked, "But then what do we do about the holes?"

I looked at him with no answer, though I knew there must be an answer.  I knew neither the story nor the ritual were complete until my friend's question was answered.

Yes, we do damage. We leave holes. But we can't stop there or our holey world can never be wholly holy.  The boy's story ended, but it left us without any sense of redemption or healing.  How could I bring those vital elements into conversation and into our ritual?

Without realizing it, I had the answer in front of me.  I'd chosen an excerpt from Matthew's gospel (5:21-24):

21 “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.

23 “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Normally in reading this passage, I would focus on the beginning, on the damage that even anger does in our relationships, but the story of the boy had already covered that.  Instead, we focused on verses 23 and 24. 

We accept the pain that we've caused, try to make amends, and offer our gifts to God.  We offer ourselves as healers, as hole-fillers. 

In the class ritual, each student took a nail out of the cross.  In doing so, he acknowledged to the group or to himself a place in his life where he'd left a hole.  Then in the hole in the cross, he put a piece of paper on which he'd written one of the gifts he can offer for the healing of our world.  

I don't know what my students wrote on their papers.  I told them that if they weren't sure yet what gifts they have that might bring solace to a grieving world, they could simply write "myself." God knows what their gifts are. That's what is important.  I, through the privilege of teaching the class, have the joy of seeing the gifts revealed, in small glimpses, during our time together. 

Each piece of paper was like a gem, making the cross more beautiful and more valuable.  It was only in taking out the nails and filling the holes that the cross became more holy, infused with offerings of the divinity we each have within us.  We filled the holes with precious gifts to give God and our neighbors so that we, individually and collectively, might be whole and holy. 

The cross now resides on a shelf in the classroom, an ever-present reminder of both the destruction and creation we bring to the world, of the holes that call us to holiness. 


I received a number of responses, both public and private, to my last post.  Each message was like a piece of paper in the cross, a gem, a gift, filling holes left from past wounds. Thank you for inviting me into wholeness by sharing your holiness.