Saturday, August 01, 2015

Reflection for Feast of St. Alphonsus

Medicine for All

The scripture readings for this solemnity honoring St. Alphonsus de Liguori are so fitting. From Isaiah; “… He has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…” And from The Gospel of Matthew; “…He saw the crowds; he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” These embody Alphonsus’ inspiration received during time of retreat in the rural hillside settlements beyond Naples. While one could fairly trip over priests on the streets of Naples no one came to the remote villages to minister to simple souls. This inspiration was to become the guide for Redemptorists, an anthem of service to the poor and most abandoned.
It is beyond me to understand how this inspiration morphed into a Redemptorist reputation some of us still remember,  those parish missions preaching hellfire and brimstone. However that may have come to be, today we can offer praise and thanksgiving to God for the fruits of post-Vatican II renewal in the Redemptorist Congregation and its return to preaching the true message of Alphonsus.
           Alphonsian spirituality had three legs, the crib, the cross and the Eucharist, each one supporting its preeminent platform – God’s supreme love. Each leg is the expression of that love; the crib of the Incarnation, the cross of the ultimate sacrifice and the Eucharist as the love gift that keeps on giving. Alphonsus spoke of God not as Lord or King or Father but rather as friend, brother, mother, spouse, and lover. His God, the God he begs you and I to love and trust as our intimate companion, is a God insanely in love with us. This is the God he called “Iddio Pazzo” the crazy God, the crazy God of love, who is insanely in love with us. He wrote, “Heaven for God is the human heart.”

But here is another thing that is hard to understand. This preacher of God’s love, this theologian who bucked the popular tide of rigorism and Jansenism, who opposed sterile legalism because, according to him such rigor was never the true teaching of the Church; this was a man who was plagued all his very long life of 91 years by a sometimes crippling scrupulosity. He ran through spiritual directors. The successful ones had to forbid him to even think of not celebrating Mass because he questioned his worthiness to do so. In the matter of his inspiration to create a new congregation to serve the most abandoned he went from one person to another with his self-doubt and uncertainty. Maria Celeste’s enthusiasm and sense of right direction for her own foundation and strong encouragement for his seems to have moved him at long last into decisive mode. 
All his life Alphonsus bore the weight of high expectations from both his father’s military bearing and his mother’s thorough piety. He never ceased to be hard on himself. He even made private vows never to waste time and to persevere in his vocation. The antidote for his scrupulosity was meditation on the lover God, Iddio Pazzo, who expressed infinite love in the mystery of the Incarnation, the sacrifice of the Cross and gift of the Eucharist.  Alphonsus allowed himself to bathe in the warm waters of that meditation. And it would seem that part of his treatment was to turn his whole life into an effort to communicate that love to the world. The antidote for his addiction became a gift to be poured out for others; not merely in the form of good deeds but in the effort to guide people into their own acceptance of and growing relationship with the God who is pure love.
I ask myself, “Can I, like Alphonsus, turn what the God of love speaks to me in my own struggles, into gift for others? Can we apply God’s medicine received in our struggles to the healing of others even as we continue to endure personal challenges?
 I can never be perfect.  Alphonsus was never perfect. He was a holy genius who must have been a trial to live with. But he wrote instructions to others to see to it that brothers had their treats and he walked the Stations of the Cross bare foot in the hallway so as not to disturb his sleeping confreres. He worried about them during their missions and welcomed them home. He warned them not to be highflootin’ in their preaching and railed against those who would deprive people of Holy Communion. He took money from diocesan coffers to buy food for the poor during a time of famine. He must have been so proud of his son in the congregation, Fr. Bernard Haring who said, “The heart of moral life is charity to one’s neighbor.”
            Alphonsus de Liguori shared the medicine he found for his soul with all who would listen to his mission preaching, those who would read his 110 books. He shared the medicine which was the infinite love and mercy of God. This Doctor of the Church, dispensed medicine in the hospital which is that Church, the healing, forgiving, merciful hospital spoken of by Pope Francis. In this regard, Alphonsus is a theologian for our times, inspiration and guide for the Year of Mercy.
            Can we pray with Alphonsus:
My God and my all, I will resist you no longer. I will leave all to be all yours. I will no longer live for myself… Your claims on my love are too great. My only desire is to love you now and forever. My love, my hope, my courage, my comfort; give me strength to be faithful to you. .. O love of my soul, I offer myself completely to you to satisfy the desire which you have to be united with me… Give me strength to think of you, to desire you, to seek you, my beloved and only good.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Prep Reading for Those Nuturing Children

A Book Review:

The Road to Character
by David Brooks

In the last year I have often posted links to David Brooks' New York Times columns in its Op-Ed pages and gushed on my Facebook Page, "I think I love this man." Such an unlikely romance. Not only am I a contemplative nun but his politics and mine would seem naturally to fall into opposite camps. The obvious reasons for this unlikelihood can be found in the Wikikpedia mini David Brooks bio on Wikipedia. The odd attraction is due to my absolute amazement that his columns concerning discipline, humility, forgiveness, character, human values appear where they do and come from what seems to be a very reflective soul. These essays are sprinkled between more typical political commentary. Judging from comments from readers it would seem that these are not topics very attractive in what often seems to be a consumerist, self-centered, driven, amoral culture. Brooks writes about another value system. And the system to which him points is an ethical, humanist, communitarian and, if I dare say, a spiritual one.

Another factor pointing to our mis-match is that David Brooks is the politically conservative voice on National Public Radio and PBS News Hour. But I have come to respect his brand of Republicanism which is reasoned, open, informed and well-considered.

His recent book "The Road to Character" has been very well-received but is not without criticism. The critics call it preachy and judgmental. They seem uncomfortable with the spirituality that oozes out around the sides of Brooks' columns but generally is not specific stated. Reading the Wikipedia bio indicates that Brooks, evidently raised as a secular Jew, has also been well-exposed to Protestant and Catholic tradition.
This is a book for anyone who is nurturing children and young people: parents, grandparents (aunts and uncles too), teachers, scout leaders, Sunday school teachers, education pundits, the designers of Common Core, school board members, and taxpayers who are supporting our public schools. In other words this is a book for those who are concerned about the development of a responsible citizenry.

The book is composed of chapters covering key features of character each illustrated by the biography of a well-known personality.

The Summoned Self (sense of vocation) - Frances Perkins first women Cabinet member Secretary of Labor during the FDR administration

Self-Conquest - Dwight David Eisenhower - General and President

Struggle - Dorothy Day - founder Catholic Worker Movement

Self-Mastery - George C. Marshall - General, Secretary of State

Dignity - A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin - Leaders in the Civil Rights Movement

Love - George Eliot - author

Ordered Love - Augustine of Hippo - Bishop and saint

Self-Examination -  Samuel Johnson - Author and philosopher

The book concludes with chapter length overview of our society's move into the age of the "selfie', the shift from the communal, neighborhood, family centered being one of a group attitude to hat declares boldly, "Me first."
This is not the screed of the "Tiger Mother". This book calls back to reality; the reality that life naturally has hardships, disappointments, failures and pain as well as joy, relationship, achievement, fun and success. It reminds that part of nurturing children is to help them deal with the negative experiences. To try to deprive them of negative experiences is both impossible and at a same time a real disservice. The second great point is that we will always be part of a community - family, workplace, organization, church, neighborhood, country and the entire world. Therefore, from the very beginning, part of a child's default mechanism development has to be consideration of the consequences of individual acts on those with whom she shares a home, with whom he goes to school, with whom they create a democracy, with whom they share the planet.

This is assigned reading if you love kids.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

A Message for All 'Good Church People': The Truth About Racism

Mother Emmanuel A.M.E. Zion Church
Charleston, South Carolina
June, 2015
Say what you will about Facebook, but beyond the joy of connecting so easily with family and friends I have made the most interesting new associations, had my creativity inspired, and been informed by some really good thinking via this means of social networking.
Reverend Jarrett Banks,  pastor of  the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Farmville, North Carolina published the following essay on his blog earlier this week. Although he writes with a southern perspective each of his five points issues a very important challenge to churches north of the Mason-Dixon Line and across the spectrum of Christian denominations. With his permission I have posted it here because it is vital that we all consider the elements of racism that still poison our society (not to mention our hearts) as we continue to try to live as followers of Jesus Christ in an increasingly multi-racial and multi-cultural nation.
I cannot close without adding that while I agree with current efforts to remove the Confederate 'stars and bars' battle flag from public grounds in various states and municipalities, I worry that this may be serving as a proxy argument, a distraction, from the gun issue. With the President of the United States and victims of gun violence I ask, "When we will we wake up to the extreme need for greater gun control in our country?"
Charleston Wake-Up Call: Five Thoughts

by Reverend Jarrett Banks

I have heard many people call the massacre in Charleston a wake-up call for our country. I believe it is specifically a wake-up call for predominately white churches in our country. As a pastor of a predominately white church in the South, here are five thoughts that have been awakened in me:

1.    We must wake up to the reality that racism is not only a wound from our country’s past, but it is a deadly virus that still plagues us today. White preachers, including myself, have been often afraid to use the “r-word” from our pulpits for fear of “stirring things up,” as if we might reignite some fire that was put out in the 1960’s, or at least by 2008, when we elected our first black president. We must wake up and boldly preach against racism, in all of its current manifestations that are ablaze today: personal racism; systemic racism; and the subtle racism that is prevalent in the workplace, in the marketplace and even in the church, for Jesus could not have been more clear when he said: “Love your neighbor as yourself.

 2.    We must wake up to the reality that preaching and working against racism is not “being political,” but it is being “Christian.” When voting districts are re-drawn to limit poor black votes or when laws are created that make it more difficult for poor black people to vote, we must stand up and boldly proclaim the message of Jesus who came to announce “good news to the poor.”
3.    We must wake up to the reality that hatred in this country is being defended by church folks who are calling it “religious freedom.” In the United States of America, where we believe all people are created equally, religious freedom never means the freedom to discriminate. Slave-owners used the same religious-freedom arguments in the nineteenth century to support slavery. Today, we do not tolerate people who want to own slaves, nor should we tolerate anyone or respect the views if anyone who wants to discriminate.

4.    We must wake up to the reality that “the oppression of Christians” in this nation and the “war on Christmas” that we hear about every December has been manufactured by folks who loathe what makes our country great, that is our cultural, ethnic, religious and racial diversity. We need to also preach from our pulpits that it is this diversity that makes us look most like the portrait of heaven we find in the book of Revelation: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). We must wake up to boldly voice our opposition to the purveyors of fear who are calling on people to bear even more arms “to take our country back.” Furthermore, we must wake up and tell the folks in our pews to please shut up, when they start reminiscing about going back to the good old days of the 1950’s when we had prayer in school. We need to be able to say: “You know, I have many of black friends, and I have never once heard them talk about wanting to go back to 1950.”

5.    We must wake up to the reality that the most segregated hours in our country occur on Sunday mornings. We must find ways to build bridges to bridge the gaps that we have created that prevent us from worshipping and serving together. To stand against racism, hatred and violence, to stand for social justice and equality for all, and to persuasively speak truth to power, we must do it side by side, hand in hand, as one body, one Church, serving one Lord.
Rev. Banks posts to his blog

Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday Reflection

Visualizing Nicodemus

Today I served as narrator for the Passion of Christ according to the Gospel of John read during our Good Friday Liturgy.  I have been privileged to present this dramatic story many times and have heard it read every Good Friday for over 60 years. In this case I volunteered for the task because I know that in trying to read in a clear and meaningful way, allowing my voice to reflect when able the tension, emotion or import of a scene, leads me deeper into the story and can become an occasion of grace.

We are blessed to have a very scholarly local pastor who is gifting us with his reflections on the presentation of human encounters with Jesus in the Gospel of John. The first focused on Nicodemus who came in the safety of night to see Jesus and ask questions. Our discussion centered on the inherited faith of this Pharisee, his motivations and his fear. We hear little afterward about Nicodemus and any possible changes of heart until the Passion narrative. Here it seems that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, likely onlookers at the crucifixion, conferenced over their need to do something and assigned each other specific tasks. Joseph would approach Pilate and ask for the body of Jesus and Nicodemus would obtain the traditional spices to be inserted into the burial cloth wrapped around it. Although he visited under cover of night when Jesus was alive he could hardly carry one hundred pounds of spices through the streets and remain an invisible Jesus sympathizer.
Today, as I read the few words concerning Nicodemus' compassionate bravery an image of him flashed through my mind; the image created by Michelangelo in an unfinished Pieta begun in the last years of his life. I saw it in Florence 55 years ago. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it:
The Deposition (also called the Florence Pietà, the Bandini Pietà or The Lamentation over the Dead Christ) is a marble sculpture by the Italian High Renaissance master Michelangelo. The sculpture, on which Michelangelo worked between 1547 and 1553, depicts four figures – the dead body of Jesus Christ, newly taken down from the Cross, Nicodemus (or possibly Joseph of Arimathea), Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary. The sculpture is housed in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Florence. [The Duomo is the Cathedral of Florence.]
According to Vasari [biographer of Italian Renaissance artists], Michelangelo made the Florence Pietà to decorate his tomb in Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Vasari noted that Michelangelo began to work on the sculpture around the age of 72. Without commission, Michelangelo worked tirelessly into the night with just a single candle to illuminate his work. Vasari wrote that he began to work on this piece to amuse his mind and to keep his body healthy.
After 8 years of working on the piece, Michelangelo would go on and attempt to destroy the work in a fit of frustration. This marked the end of Michelangelo’s work on the piece and from there the piece found itself in the hands of Francesco Bandini who hired an apprentice sculptor by the name of Tiberius Calcagni to restore the work to its current composition. Since its inception, the piece has been plagued by ambiguities and never ending interpretations, with no straightforward answers available.
The face of Nicodemus under the hood is considered to be a self-portrait of Michelangelo himself.
It is interesting to think about Michelangelo in his last years contemplating his life, anticipating his death, and choosing to immortalize himself in the face of this character. I can imagine him facing in memory his flawed character and his failures in faith but also his last clinging to the suffering Jesus; Jesus who in his humanity also died. In this Pieta Michelangelo is the frightened onlooker brought to faith and completely humbled by what he has witnessed.
In the split second of accessing the image of Nicodemus as I read into a microphone there came the grace to know that I am Nicodemus in this story. We are all Nicodemus; all onlookers standing on the stony soil of Golgotha, having a hard time absorbing the shock of being witnesses. We are all Nicodemus in our regrets, in remembering our flaws of character, our failures in standing up for truth and justice, our fear of what others might say about us. We are pitiful. But we cannot just go away under the weight of our self-recriminations. We especially cannot do that today because we know the end of the story.
Instead we can, like Nicodemus, accepting who and what we are and the mistakes that have been made, choose to move in a new direction, chose to make ourselves useful. We can choose to remember and act upon the words of Jesus that we heard just yesterday in the Liturgy of the Lord's Supper. "Do you realize what I have done for you?.....I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do."

Friday, March 20, 2015

This tribute was first published here in 2012.  

Death of an Urban Saint
       Athalie “Betty” Elizabeth Wimbish, was familiar to residents of uptown Kingston, New York as a local presence from the early1940s to the early 80s; a women of color dressed entirely in black daily making her way from her home on Prospect Street or from St. Joseph’s Church on to London’s Clothing Store at the intersection of Wall and North Front Street where she was employed for thirty-three years. To those who did not know her history she was just “Black Betty”. Betty died at Ferncliff Nursing Home on Good Friday, April 6, 20012 at the age of 95.
She was born on August 4, 1916 at 100 Gage Street, Kingston,
Kingston High School 1934
the daughter of Andrew and Blanche Elizabeth Wimbish and grand-daughter of Hannah “Hattie” Jackson Betty spoke proudly of the African slave heritage of her father combined with the African, Spanish and Dutch ancestry of her grandmother. She recalled that in her childhood a Dutch dialect could still be heard in Kingston. Athalie Wimbish graduated from Kingston High School in 1934. There she wrote interviews for “Dame Rumor” and played basketball. The year book indicated that she was college bound and spoke of missionary work in Africa.

Her childhood was spent in Albany Avenue mansions where her grandmother and mother served as housekeepers and her father as driver and handler of carriage horses. One employer was owner of the Fuller Shirt Factory. In these settings and as a precocious child of mixed race she was exposed to a variety of educational influences. Her grandmother provided religious formation at both St. John’s Episcopal Church on Albany Avenue and the AME Zion Church on Franklin Street.
Following graduation from high school Betty Wimbish ventured to the Big Apple where although disappointed in her effort pursue a nursing education she experienced the excitement of the Harlem Renaissance and later her first trip to Europe. Early in the 1940s she returned to Kingston to care for her mother and grandmother, working first at Montgomery Wards where she replaced her mother as elevator operator. Beginning in 1943, she fulfilled many tasks for London’s, including inventory, accounts receivable, shipping aid packages to Stanley London’s relatives in Europe and providing secretarial assistance to Mrs. London who was President of Hadassah, a Jewish organization for women. During this time, London’s was the only white owned business that would hire Black teenagers.  Betty spoke of them as “my boys” and took these youngsters under her wing as a woman of color guiding them in the requirements of a responsible working life. Some remained in contact with her for years. The London family was always concerned for Betty’s welfare and that of her family. After her retirement they provided a security system for her home and continued to send  ‘pension’ funds.
First attracted to the Catholic faith during her time in New York City, she was received into the Church in the 1940s at St. Mary’s Church in Kingston which was very welcoming to people of color. After being rejected in an effort to become a Catholic sister because of her race, she made a decision to serve the Church in every other way possible; as catechist at St. Mary’s; as prayer support to any number of priests including Rev. Daniel Egan known as the “Junkie Priest” who was one of the first to draw attention to the need for drug addiction treatment; as participant in the ecumenical efforts of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement at Graymoor, Garrison, NY, and as a tireless fund-raiser for overseas missions.  She was a member of a world-wide mission tour in 1965 which included stops in Hawaii, Japan, India and the Holy Land. In India she sat on the dais during Mass celebrated by Pope Paul VI.
Around the time of her conversion to Catholicism Ms. Wimbish made a life choice, a preference for personal poverty and simplicity motivated by her deep faith and supported by a lifetime of contemplative prayer. By the 1970s she had assumed this persona to such a degree that she became known only as “Black Betty”, dressed always in black from head to toe with a kerchief or beret covering her head at all times. She was readily recognized on uptown streets as she walked to and from daily Mass and on to work. For more recent residents of the city she merely seemed to be a local character, the woman in black who swept the floors at London’s clothing store.
After retirement in 1976, she became an urban hermit, praying constantly, serving as confidant and aide to the poor and as a conduit of funds she received from more fortunate friends. Agnes Scott Smith, now deceased, who taught at Kingston High School, described her as “quietly pious, an enigma who became a nun without going into the convent.” By 1985 Betty’s daily hikes from Prospect Street to St. Joseph’s became too arduous so a few parishioners began to visit her weekly to bring her spiritual food in Holy Communion and also fresh fruits and vegetables for bodily nourishment. A number also kept her supplied with donations which she, a keen judge of character and need, would pass on to others of all shades of color who came to the door seeking guidance or material assistance.  The women who prayed with her came to know her sanctity first hand. Some even came to know her secrets and her wisdom.
With time her memory of the present failed. Yet, memories of the past never faded. She claimed to know the skeletons in many Kingston closets at all locations on the color spectrum. She spoke of attending as a child a ceremony at the Kingston Academy and of arriving late at Kingston High School and being rushed to class by Kate Walton for whom the field house is named. She spoke of being appalled at Jim Crow Laws in the south when visiting her father’s family. For those who took the time to know her she was a knowledgeable and well-read world traveler. In the end, she became an urban saint, a hermit in the midst of the city, praying constantly.
And Betty would admit to having the humor of a rapscallion. Upon bidding her goodbye, a guest could teasingly say, “Now, be good.” To which she would reply, “Now don’t you threaten me!” But her last words were always, “God bless you.”

I visited Betty once a week for over ten years. We laughed, prayed, spoke of the local news, shared memories and stories, spoke of our troubles and consoled each other. Betty generously introduced me to the Black, African American, sensibility. Her personal history was a revelation and inspiration to faith, perseverance, love of family and personal sacrifice. She taught me such expressions as "The blacker the berry the sweeter the juice" and "What's bred in the bone cannot be beaten out of the flesh." To know her was a privilege, an unforgettable privilege. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Announcing a Debut

This new online presence of
news and opinion from sisters and nuns
has published an essay of mine entitled
Let me know what you think.

Global Sisters Report
a project of the National Catholic Reporter