Sunday, June 28, 2009


I’ve been back in the Navajo Nation for a few days now, and lots of fun things as well as some important things have happened along the way.  First, the 20-ish hour drive from New Orleans to Klagetoh was more or less uneventful, except for the travel center sign that read, "Eat here.  Get gas." (I can only presume they knew what they were doing) and that the 35-hour-long audiobook of The Brothers Karamozov that I brought with me has been disappointing so far; I know it’s a classic, but the writing style that spends entire chapters discussing someone’s appearance or some feature of the landscape just doesn’t do it for me.  Maybe that is me being impatient, but 6 CDs into the book, there has not been very much actual plot development; I’m still not quite sure what the plot actually is.

Thursday we (my friend and former co-worker Ben) went to St. Michael’s (the high school I used to teach at) to help the maintenance folks break up an old sidewalk – they had said we would be able to use a jackhammer, which was the main reason I wanted to go, but they had decided to put off getting the jackhammer until later on.  Anyway, they handed us sledgehammers and told us to go to work; not as much fun, but still a good way to spend a day.  We did get help from one of the maintenance guys with a Bobcat, so we broke up and hauled a lot of concrete that day, to the point that we were pretty wrecked that day and still not quite back to 100%.

Today (Saturday) was a trip to Canyon de Chelly, followed by a sweatlodge at the mission.  They asked me to be the fire man for the sweat, which means nothing more than that I got to dig white-hot rocks out of a blazing fire, close enough to scald me all over.  I spent a lot of time in there thinking about what has kept me coming back here all these years – certainly I love the landscape, the ritual life, the pace, and so on, but I think that the mentoring I get from Br. John, who runs the mission here, is something I crave.  John exudes what I would call Grandfather Energy – that unhurried wisdom that comes from a lifetime of living the religious life well, and even while I admit he isn’t perfect (and he wouldn’t be upset by me saying so), he gives young folks like me a space to “apprentice” with him.  That is, I spend my time here going with him to visit families, working with him to prepare meals for groups coming in, making trips into town for supplies, and other seemingly menial things that let me learn his way of doing things by directly watching him do it – something one does not do so easily as a teacher or a person working a desk job.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

19 June 2009 - Feast of the Sacred Heart

Walter Brueggemann does a lecture on today’s reading from Hosea 11, imagining it to be rather like a parent who has to go to the police station at 3am to pick up his/her child. The selection in the Catholic Lectionary cuts out parts of the whole pericope, but the mood of the poem starts almost wistfully: “When Israel was a child I loved him, out of Egypt I called my son.” I kept reaching out to them, and they kept going further and further away, it continues, as if God is thinkning back on when Israel was a little boy and wondering where God went wrong as a parent. Somewhere between verses 4 and 5, Brueggemann says, the child says something smart-alecky while they are driving home from the police station, and the parent loses it: “God, though in unison they cry out to him, will not raise them up.” But then, and this is what I love, God finds new depths of compassion in God’s own self between verses 7 and 8: “How could I give you up, O Ephraim?” “I’m not gonna do this anymore,” God seems to say, aghast at seeing God’s own potential for violence revealed. And Brueggemann concludes that on the day Hosea wrote that, he went home for lunch and told his wife Gomer, “I wrote one hell of a poem today, and it’s going to help God out a lot.” That conflicted, heartbroken inner life of God is a far cry from what we usually expect to find in God in the Old Testament, but in its own way, I think it is more there than in the New Testament, in which God is much more of a behind-the-scenes kind of character. Today is the Feast of the Sacred Heart, so I think that reading fits pretty well – a God whose heart is torn apart by the sufferings caused by the people’s infidelity to a covenant of justice and mercy. Much of the devotional stuff regarding the Sacred Heart has been pretty sappy, but insofar as the Heart is broken by solidarity with those who suffer, it remains a viable symbol. I have suggested elsewhere that what makes Jesus’ heart different from ours is that we characteristically try to avoid pain and vulnerability via denial, numbing, and whatever other means of keeping the suffering of the world at arms’ length, whereas Jesus faces it all head-on and doesn’t run, doesn’t deny. The Heart of Jesus is sacred in that it is open to (and opened by) the unspeakable sufferings of the world. We as Christians (myself very much included) have somehow accustomed ourselves to glazing over a lot of suffering, and to silence in the face of a lot of injustice. Perhaps because our media are so loaded with the myriad atrocities of the world on a daily basis, or because of the ambiguities of so many of the moral issues presented us, we can get saturated, so we turn off, tune out, distract and deny. I have been reading a decent amount of Holocaust literature of late, and I can say from my own inner reactions, I understand the desire to push away. Every time I think I have seen it all, humanity surprises me with its capacity for inventive and sadistic means of inflicting pain and death.

What, then, is the point of not denying, if we are so drowned in violence? Speaking out seems to either be ignored (if we are lucky) or bring repercussions into our ordered little lives, but the Sacred Heart is about permeability to suffering – being hurt is less important than the demands of love for the wounded Other. In his book Torture and Eucharist, William Cavanaugh talks about how torture atomizes people, both because they are rendered too fearful to speak and because pain at that level is beyond verbal sharing, so people are isolated in their pain. The antidote, he suggests, based on the experience of the church in Colombia, is Eucharist: a re-membering of the Body of Christ by telling the stories of tortured, broken bodies, and not letting silence and fear have the final word. What that looks like in an affluent, safe church like our own is worth exploring, but some part of it has to be about solidarity that includes saying, “Stop torturing. Stop silencing those who suffer.” If we Brothers of the Sacred Heart can figure out some piece of that, we can reclaim the spirituality of the Heart of Jesus for a world that desperately needs it. Happy Feast Day, Brothers and friends. Ametur Cor Jesu.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

summertime, and the living is easy...

After a couple of weeks away from St. Louis, I am realizing that this is a much less structured summer than I have had in a long time. I have been spending a few days at a time here and there: Mississippi, Alabama, New Orleans, Baton Rouge. I’m off to Arizona in a couple of days, and I’ll be there for about 3 weeks, but even there I don’t have a lot of stuff planned, and once I get back, there is nothing on the agenda for almost three weeks. I like that a lot, it’s just unfamiliar to me. There are about 2 dozen books that I had assigned myself to read this summer, and I have gotten through about 6 of them so far, so that will be a big part of my task in the next couple of months. I just finished Kite Runner this afternoon, after having it on my shelf for months, and when I finished it I went right to Walter Brueggemann’s The Message of the Psalms. I mention that because it was an interesting connection to read Brueggemann’s comments on psalms of lament and see the line, “grievance addressed to an authorized partner does free us…we do not move beyond the repressed memory unless we speak it out loud to one with authority who hears.” (58) Given the tenor of Kite Runner, a fitting juxtaposition.

Elsewhere Brueggemann is talking about the Biblical presupposition that praying prompts God to do things that God would not do without the prayer. In one of his conferences online, he discusses how the faculty of a theological school, upon hearing him address them on this issue, got all worked up, with the Biblical folks on his side and the systematics folks unable to handle the idea that God was prompted by the act of praying to do other than God would have done had the prayer not happened. I’m interested in that, because most Christians seem to believe that God doesn’t change, but they act as if God does change (e.g. via intercessory prayer). I am well aware that the Biblical God-image is quite malleable, so prayer in the Biblical tradition can naturally operate this way, but most Christians I know seem to have a much more Platonic than Biblical God-image, so they don’t see God as mutable like Judaism would. Of course, in many of the lament psalms, the implication of why the person is suffering is “because of Yahweh’s irresponsible absence, which is regarded as not only unfortunate, but unfaithful to covenant.” (59) Jon Levenson’s book Creation and the Persistence of Evil pursues that idea, that life is good when God is attentive, but when God turns God’s attention away from us, chaos rushes in, so the task of the sufferer is to call God back to attentiveness. Again, something that I suspect most Christians would not necessarily know what to do with.

So, I ask, not rhetorically, how do you understand what you are doing when you pray? I don’t mean that in a dismissive way, but to pursue how people understand their own actions, since presumably people could do the same act (prayer) within very different theological frameworks. Do you expect that what you pray for will actually happen? We know how often we pray for people who are sick, for example, yet how often they still die, so are people numbed against the expectation that their prayers could actually be efficacious? Yet we keep on praying…Is prayer simply the acknowledgement that we have done all we can, an acknowledgement of our creatureliness, an act of humility against the self-importance of our managing minds? Is it some sort of psychological trick we play on ourselves? Mere social convention, done without thought or theological expectation? For the three or four people who actually ever read this pitiful attempt at a blog, please let me know what prayer, particularly prayer that seems oriented to "asking for stuff," means to you.