Thursday, April 29, 2010

The oasis in my day

It has been a long time, as usual. The end of the semester means lots of things to be read and written, but hopefully also some things emerging that might not be out of place in this forum. A very dear friend just sent me this poem entitled "Ithaca," and it was for me this afternoon a small oasis of reading and rereading and letting the words play on my tongue, with the attentiveness and care of a wine tasting. (*The fact that Ithaca is only about an hour down the road from Syracuse made it all the more relevant for me as I am looking ahead to the chance to get out on the road a bit soon.*) Simone Weil said, prophetically for our sound-bite era, "Absolutely unmingled attentiveness is prayer." I hope these words might be a small oasis of attentiveness for you as well...


When you set out on your journey to Ithaca
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the angry Poseidon---do not fear them;
You will never find such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclops,
the fierce Poseidon you will never encounter,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not set them up before you.

Pray that the road is long,
That the summer mornings are many, when,
with such pleasure, with such joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time;
stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber, and ebony,
and sensual perfumes of all kinds,
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
visit many Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from scholars.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
and to anchor at the island when you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never set out on the road.
She has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what these Ithacas mean.

---Constantine Cuvafy

Sunday, April 11, 2010

mercy and bodies

Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who is also a Syracuse native and a well-known peace activist, is famous, or infamous, for having said (and I hope you will pardon the colorfulness of this metaphor), “Faith is not where your head is at, and rarely where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!” Today the church celebrates “Divine Mercy” Sunday – typically celebrated in remembrance of the devotion of St. Faustina – you might recognize the pictures of Jesus with the red and white rays of light coming out of his chest. Anyway, the way she talks about mercy is mostly about getting plenary indulgences and eliminating purgatory time, and believe me, I’m all for forgiveness, but mercy in the life of Jesus is way too focused on people’s bodies to reduce it to something that happens only in your head or your heart, let alone after the grave. When we talk about Jesus as the presence of God, we use the term “Incarnation” – coming in flesh. When we talk about Easter, we don’t say his spirit goes to heaven – we talk about the resurrection of the body, the transformation of this fragile stuff. So today I want to talk to you about bodies; for a church that talks about Incarnation and eating the body of Christ and being the body of Christ, we are awfully good at acting like Jesus just came to save souls. How many of us think that spirituality is about feeling it in our hearts rather than living it with our bodies, or imagine that having faith means believing the right things, or think that religion and politics (which is all about people’s bodily reality) don’t mix? Nothing is more embodied than Christianity done right.

And look at the readings – there are bodies everywhere: What does mercy look like for the disciples in the gospel? It looks like a body – the body of Jesus, three times offering them peace, making himself available to Thomas, breaking up the fear that has paralyzed this group of people since his death. What does mercy look like for the people in the first reading? It looks like being healed: these bodies that had been hiding with fear have become so saturated with the mercy of Jesus that even Peter’s shadow has power to heal these broken and diseased bodies. I think I have mentioned before that the Greek word for compassion literally means that the person’s guts are churning inside them, and the Hebrew word for compassion, rehem, comes from the same root as the word for womb, rahamim – mom love, I-carried-you-in-my-body-for-nine-months-and-this-is-the-thanks-I-get kind of love. Any mother knows that mercy is not just in the head or the heart - any mother knows how bodily mercy actually is.

We are all familiar with the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, and I don’t have any particular need to slam that reality in itself, but the biggest danger I see among both “spiritual” and “religious” people is that when people say, “Well, I believe in God/a higher power/whatever,” they mistakenly think that what you BELIEVE is the most important thing. Belief makes no sense at all apart from where you put your BODY. Now, that doesn’t mean that just showing up for church, your body being in the seat, is all it is about; it’s about the commitments you make and what “belief” actually looks like when it is written in human flesh. We miss the point of that because we hear the word “believers” so often in the readings today – believers in the Lord were added to the community, happy are they who have not seen and have believed. The words they are using in Greek are cognates of the root word pistis, which doesn’t mean faith the way we think of it as “what you believe,” so much as faithfulness in the sense of fidelity, “being there” for people, being “count-on-able.” I am so happy that we greet one another at the Catholic Center, but I hope that none of us treat that moment as a formality. I hope there is an actual community, an actual body being created here, the body of Christ, that we are coming to know one another and be available to one another – to take care of this body, not just that “I’m going to church,” like a blip on our radar screens, but to celebrate and strengthen what we are trying to be when we leave this building, for each other and for the people we will meet who need mercy. Augustine is remembered as having held up the consecrated host during the Eucharist and saying, “Christians, see yourselves”; that is, become the body of Christ, individually parts of the reality that is greater than any one of us.