Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

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The Prayer of Quiet

For the past several months, I’ve been reading a lot about a form of prayer that is variously called contemplative prayer, centering prayer, the prayer of quiet, or the prayer of the heart. There are many of you out there who also know about this prayer form. The last three terms I’ve listed above are all subsets of “contemplative prayer”; they’re not all identical because they can have some differences in method among them, but they all refer to the type of prayer in which a person sits in quiet, with eyes closed, and listens for God “at the center.” 

Rather than talking at God and assuming that real communion with God is impossible — and thus never listening for God — contemplative prayer is silent, and begins simply with letting oneself feel a pure love for God. If we begin this way, sitting in quiet, with our minds quiet and not following a thousand distractions, and open ourselves up to the love of God, we can feel that love meeting us and emerging right from our center. It grows from our center because that is where God is, waiting for us within — in the “interior castle” inside ourselves, as Teresa of Avila put it. 

This is not some complicated technique reserved for the spiritually adept. It’s open to everyone who is willing to let go — just some, not all, of the time — of the often unfulfilling practice of praying at God, and simply focus on love. Without experiencing such love of God (which Christ repeatedly told us to do), we become cut off from what God might want to do with us, and our spirits don’t have a chance of getting clear of the weeds. As others have said, God is a rich wellspring within us; we just have to go to that well and start drawing water from it.

There have been many people who have written about their experiences with this quiet form of prayer. They span from the early desert Fathers in the first few hundred years after Christ, to the Christians of the medieval period (such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and the anonymous English author of The Cloud of Unknowing), right up to the present day. Just in the last forty years or so, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating, this prayer form has spread again on the wind, across citizens of many different countries and across Christian denominations; it’s even practiced by some Jews and Muslims, with a slightly different orientation. 

Here is a very helpful and accessible passage on exactly what this prayer of quiet is, from Finding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering Prayer. It’s a collection of simple essays by M. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, who helped bring fresh knowledge of this fundamental prayer to the modern population of anyone wanting to experience more fulfilling, more communing, more productive prayer:

“One: At the beginning of the prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith and love to God dwelling in our depths…We move in faith to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwelling in creative love in the depths of our being. This is the whole essence of the prayer. ‘Center all your attention and desire on Him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart’ (Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 3). Faith moving towards its Object in hope and love—this is the whole of the theological, the Christian life…In a movement of faith that includes hope and love, we go to the center and turn ourselves over to God in a simple “being there”…That is what St. Paul was talking about when he said, ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself prays for us…’ (Romans 8:26).”

What does this kind of prayer produce? Judging by my own experience (which seems to be similar to what I’ve read in the experience of others), it produces a greater love and an increased peace that had formerly been inaccessible, even unthought of. We find ourselves thinking less about ourselves and more about others. We want to increase our charity and concern to include those outside the circle of people we know very well, especially the needy, no matter who the needy may be or whether we’ve ever met them. 

We find that this feeling of new love, unlocked and watered by God, spreads out on its own accord to include others — even those we don’t know very well, and eventually even those we don’t like particularly well — and gives a measure of interior peace we didn’t have before. It’s certainly not yet a perfect peace and not yet a perfect love; if we can get to that rare point, it would be from doing this prayer for years, even a lifetime. But it’s an ongoing, unfolding, productive process. It doesn’t make us perfect; it makes us better.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

“All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well…”

“He [God] shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God. In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.” 

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

These quotes are from an anonymous young woman we call Julian of Norwich, living in 13th century England. While ill, she experienced a series of visions, which she then tried to put into writing. Her efforts became the book Revelations of Divine Love. The overarching message of her writing is the infinite, longsuffering love God has for Creation. I find myself thinking of these quotations often.

The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck

 

“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Rosary Mantra and the Saint Bodhisattvas

In Buddhism, mantras are words or groups of words believed capable of creating transformation. They are repeated many times with the assistance of prayer beads, which serve to keep track of the repetitions so that the person saying the mantras can meditate upon them more easily, rather than allocate mental space to counting. Prayer beads are used for similar purposes in many of the world’s religions.

In the Catholic faith, the rosary is not unlike a mantra, and praying the rosary also involves prayer beads to assist the person praying. The rosary begins with the Apostles’ Creed, which is followed by one Lord’s Prayer (Our Father), three Hail Marys, one Glory Be, and one Lord’s Prayer. After this initial part of the rosary comes the main portion, known as the “five decades” of the rosary. This consists of ten Hail Marys, followed by a Glory Be and a Lord’s Prayer. That set is prayed five times, which completes the rosary. When praying the rosary, a person may meditate upon what are known as the Mysteries; in addition, the person may meditate upon a special intention for which he or she is praying.

The rosary, in addition to being a prayer and meditation aid, can also be a sacrifice or an offering, made on behalf of a loved one or in the service of a certain goal. A rosary can be dedicated, for example, to a loved one in particular need of help, or said on behalf of world peace. This is not unlike the concept of the Mass as a sacrifice or an offering to God, in addition to its role as the community’s worship service. In the same spiritual vein is the Catholic practice of lighting a candle for a special prayer or in memory of someone; the candle burns as an ongoing representation of the prayer before God, long after the person who lit it has left the church or indoor/outdoor shrine and returned home. If the candle is lit at home, it burns as an ongoing symbol of the prayer until blown out. Candles are also lit for this purpose in Buddhism, Shintoism, and many other religions.

I recently visited a place called St. Anne’s Shrine in Sturbridge, central Massachusetts. St. Anne’s Shrine is a 35-acre plot of land that is largely woodland, but also hosts a full church, as well as a small St. Anne chapel — in which one can light candles — attached to the church. There is also a separate votive chapel called the Hall of Saints, and a small icon museum attached to a gift shop. The 35-acre grounds are consecrated to St. Anne, mother of Mary, and 10 of these acres hold walking trails. In various places are outdoor shrines and grottoes to Mary and to Anne (as well as a few other saints), and one can walk through outdoor Stations of the Cross. In one place, at the top of a giant stone staircase, stands a life-size white cross with a bronze Christ, overlooking all. The entire area is sacred ground.
Mary of Fatima

St. Anne, as I mentioned, is remembered in tradition as the mother of Mary, and is also my spiritual namesake; at Confirmation, I chose her as a personal saint and assumed the spiritual name Anne. Her daughter Mary, Jesus’ mother, is venerated in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy as the Blessed Mother, the spiritual mother of us all, in accordance with Jesus’ words on the Cross to the apostle John, who stood beside Mary: “Behold, your mother.” When I visited the grounds of St. Anne’s Shrine, I felt a kind of sacred communion as I walked a very small portion of the grounds. The experience set me thinking more about saints, and who they are, and what made them who they are.

St. Anne with Mary

In another interesting confluence between the two religions, Catholic saints are not entirely unlike Buddhist bodhisattvas. In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is a person who is actively on the path to enlightenment, to buddhahood, and who has the enlightenment of all sentient beings as his or her goal. A bodhisattva is not content with only reaching buddhahood by him or herself; a bodhisattva chooses to devote his life to helping others reach it too. Likewise, a saint is not content with private spiritual exercises alone, but is always involved in the betterment of the condition of their fellow human beings, through constant prayer and work with the poor, the ill, the spiritually needy, the average person, or all of the above. In fact, there are three states prior to sainthood: Servant of God, Venerable, Blessed, and finally Saint. Mother Theresa and Pope John Paul II, for example, are both currently Blessed, and on the way to sainthood. In terms of the way a saint-to-be lives his or her life, it is telling that so many poor people around Calcutta, India became Catholic, not because Mother Theresa ever tried to convert them (that was never the focus of her work), but because she and her sisters devoted their lives to helping them — in what was one of India’s most desperate population centers — when even their own countrymen would not.

I can’t be completely sure, in a purely intellectual sense, whether the saints (or the bodhisattvas) can hear what we ask or act upon it; whether they can hear the offerings-up of our rosaries or our mantras; whether they know when we are standing before an outdoor shrine in a woodland of God’s creation, thinking a prayer and trying just to do the best that we can. I cannot be completely sure; but the breeze that passes over my face as I stand there, on its way to places I cannot know, and the giant Crucifix that stands at the top of the staircase and embodies the God who made that breeze possible, make me want to think so.

Crucifix Staircase

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck

The Wisdom of the Simple

Recently, I watched a PBS documentary on the tiny country of Bhutan, which is south of Tibet. The people of Bhutan live by the philosophy espoused by their leader, who, incredible as it might sound, seems to be the embodiment of Plato’s “enlightened philosopher-king.” He frequently moves among the poor and is transitioning the country to democracy. The philosophy in which he guides his people is known as “gross national happiness,” meaning that policies enacted in Bhutan should always be enacted with the goal of happiness for all the country’s inhabitants — and not just the human ones, but also the animals and the environs. This will in turn lead to greater human happiness.

Until only a couple of decades ago, Bhutan had no real interaction with the outside world. They also had very low crime, practically no drug use, and a population who overwhelmingly categorized themselves as “happy.” They were happy even though they were mostly subsistence farmers with no extra money to speak of. Then, with the opening of Bhutan to the global world, televisions and the Internet arrived — and with them, advertising. While most of the countryside population still does not have televisions or computers, many of the city folk do, and have begun to report a major decline in happiness. Crime has risen, as has drug use. Fast food joints — though no McDonald’s yet — have cropped up, and there is a higher rate of depression. This seems to be partially the fault of exposure to advertising, and to Western ideals of the “perfect” body and the “perfect” life. Bhutanese women, who previously measured themselves according to the traditional notion of the ideal woman — the strong, capable, wise person who holds her household together — now report feeling ugly as they compare themselves to sleek fashion models with perpetual hunger pains and thousands of dollars of product in their surreal hair. Ads for all the new “must-have” products can be seen anywhere in the urban areas, urging viewers to evaluate the material quality of their lives and find it lacking.

Now you might say: surely the subsistence farmers would be happier with these extra things and the money to go with them, since their lives are filled with backbreaking work and very little formal education. How could they truly be happy under those conditions? However, when the documentarist went to the countryside to interview these farmers who lived in huts with their families, the response seemed universal. They were happy. And they weren’t just saying it; you could see it on their faces. These were people with very little (if any) extra cash, with no modern gadgets or even running water, who spent entire days in rice paddies with yaks. Surprising, then, was their seemingly universal answer to the question: “Would you want more things if you could have them, and more money?” They answered no, as long as they continued to have their necessities and just a bit more for comfortable leeway. They did not want any excess.

More astonishing was their answer to the follow-up question: “Why do you not want more?” Seemingly as one, these simple Buddhist farmers responded, “Because if you have too many things, you’re not happy anymore. Instead you’re always worried about people coming and stealing your money or your things, and you want more. You think you don’t have enough and you become very attached to these things. So then you are not happy; it causes suffering.”

These were not people who had attended some local Buddhist seminary for graduate training. Yet there they were, espousing the quintessential Buddhist philosophy, which as a way of life frequently eludes scholars of religion, and being quite happy about it. They were espousing the philosophy that so many of their urban compatriots had perhaps unconsciously let slip away. Yet this philosophy is by no means limited to Buddhism. It can be found in most religions of which I am aware, including Christianity — or at least Christianity in its purer form, one not watered down by its affiliation with the majority culture in the West.

The farmers’ statements are also backed up by a major recent study showing that people, worldwide, report being at their happiest when they have enough to cover their basic needs, plus a little more for comfort. In one of the greatest paradoxes, people from all over the globe report that the more excess they have, the unhappier they are. The wealthiest nations have the highest suicide rates.

I believe that all this says much less about Buddhist philosophy than it does about the fundamentals of humankind. One does not need to be Buddhist to experience what these Bhutanese farmers are talking about. My Catholic grandparents experienced it, living out their lives in their small, but very solid, household. I experience it when I don’t feel the need to buy the latest gadget and throw out the earlier version that I only got last year, which still works perfectly. I experience it when I know that I really don’t want a bigger house — even if I could afford one — or a bigger widescreen TV that would mount on my wall, or even cable. (With that last one, I’m often met with incredulity). It is true that in our modern society, one cannot disengage from everything unless one enters a cloistered religious order. I do have my computer, my iPod, my cell phone, and a TV. But we can be content with what we have, and not think we need more because someone we know has a fancy car or an Internet TV. Let’s distinguish between what we want and what we need.

So there is wisdom in simple things. There is also wisdom in a simple approach to life and faith. When we become caught up in ourselves, things go from simple to complicated to a hopeless mess in quite a hurry. Pope Benedict XVI, in Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, writes of St. Paul’s statement that even though he was an expert in the Law, he was ignorant of how God truly worked:

In view of his earlier self-assurance as a perfect disciple of the Law who knew and lived by the Scriptures, these are strong words; he who had studied under the best masters and who might reasonably have considered himself a real expert on the Scriptures, has to acknowledge, in retrospect, that he was ignorant…This combination of expert knowledge and deep ignorance certainly causes us to ponder….Clearly this mixture of knowledge and ignorance, of material expertise and deep incomprehension, occurs in every period of history….Are we not blind precisely as people with knowledge? Is it not on account of our knowledge that we are incapable of recognizing Truth itself, which tries to reach us through what we know? (Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, Part Two, pp. 206-207)

How we work all this out in modern society is anyone’s guess. Certainly no one is advocating that we renounce education. But as we educate ourselves, as we learn and as we seem to acquire more and more things — including, perhaps, a deceptive sense of our own self-sufficiency — we need to remember humility, simplicity, and happiness.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Marias and Mysteries

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research into my ancestry. Just over a hundred years ago, eight foreigners (six of them miserable for weeks in steerage) on different ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started the American branch of their family trees. Six of them were from southern Italy and two were from northern England. They were all my great-grandparents. Some of them brought over some of their siblings and cousins; many more family members forever remained in the Old Countries. In the course of my research, I’ve also managed to reach back a couple of generations into those Old Countries, and have been delighted to uncover the names of many of my ancestors. As I uncovered those names, I was astonished to see just how many of the Italian women – on both sides of the Atlantic – were named Maria. In one branch of the family, all the females carried Maria as their first name, but each was called by her middle name, to distinguish among them: Maria Francesca (the mother), Maria Giuseppa, Maria Concetta, Maria Letizia, and Maria Rosa (all her female children).

Of course, Maria is for Mary the mother of Jesus (Miriam in Hebrew), who is revered and emulated – but not worshiped – in Roman Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. My survey of all the Marias in my family caused me to wonder about the source of widespread devotion to Mary, when we know so little about her. One aspect of it is surely that Mary offers a genuinely needed feminine presence in a religion that, from its origins, inherited male terminology for its triune God. The three manifestations or forms – or perhaps avatars is an effective word to use in this wired age – of the one Christian God are termed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first, even though Catholicism and many other branches of Christianity happily acknowledge that God has no real gender, is termed Father instead of Mother because he is Yahweh, who was male in the Hebrew Bible. The second became incarnate in the form of a male human being, Jesus, so there’s not much option for terminology there. The third, even though the term “Holy Spirit” conjures neither male nor female associations, assumed male pronouns out of convention, and probably also because Yahweh (as I mentioned already) was always thought of as male.

The need for a female presence in the religion is not a need felt by women alone, as evidenced by the large number of men who revere Mary. Pope John Paul II was famous for his Marian devotions. It stems, rather, from a sense of the balance in life that is experienced by men and women alike. A triune God with all male terms – even if that God’s intrinsic lack of gender is acknowledged in the theology – is not in balance. This, I believe, is one reason that Christians find themselves drawn to Mary, not as a type of goddess, but as the female balance that she is by nature as Jesus’ mother. It is this maternal aspect that draws mothers and women hoping to be mothers, men young and old alike, to the mother of Jesus in their religious lives. There is a sense that by virtue of being Jesus’ mother, Mary is in some way a symbolic mother to us all.

But it also seems to me that another source for the attraction to Mary is the very lack of information about her that I mentioned earlier – the reason I wondered about the reverence in the first place. She is a mystery. Beyond the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke, we hear almost nothing from her. Mystics, saints, clergy, and ordinary people across the ages have spoken of revelations of her or from her, but such things only increase the mystery surrounding Mary, rather than diminish it. This could be part of the reason that Mary finds herself with billions of people down through the ages thinking about her, sending prayers to her, turning to her for maternal help, and giving their children her name. Mysteries allow us to imagine, to dream, to search for what we need and find it. Beyond being Jesus’ mother, Mary is a page waiting to be filled in. Thus, those who have Mary as part of their religious lives invest in her their hopes, their sorrows – and perhaps, everything they need in a mother.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck

Apophis

Recently, I learned that an asteroid named Apophis, about 1,000 feet long (2.5 football fields), is scheduled to pass disconcertingly close to Earth on April 13, 2029. That’s a Friday, in case you were wondering. If the name “Apophis” sounds like it conjures images of doom, that’s because it is the Greek name for the ancient Egyptian god Apep. In Egyptian mythology, Apep was the god of darkness, evil, and disorder, and was known as the enemy of Ra (the sun god). Apep was thought to assume the form of a formidable serpent, who attempts to swallow Ra each night as the sun makes his nightly passage through the Earth’s middle. Each night, the god Set was the primary defender of Ra, consistently keeping Apep at bay. This is what NASA’s Near Earth Orbit program has to say, on a page entitled “Predicting Apophis’ Earth Encounters in 2029 and 2036”:

“The future for Apophis on Friday, April 13 of 2029 includes an approach to Earth no closer than 29,470 km (18,300 miles, or 5.6 Earth radii from the center, or 4.6 Earth-radii from the surface) over the mid-Atlantic, appearing to the naked eye as a moderately bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. Depending on its mechanical nature, it could experience shape or spin-state alteration due to tidal forces caused by Earth’s gravity field. This is within the distance of Earth’s geosynchronous satellites. However, because Apophis will pass interior to the positions of these satellites at closest approach, in a plane inclined at 40 degrees to the Earth’s equator and passing outside the equatorial geosynchronous zone when crossing the equatorial plane, it does not threaten the satellites in that heavily populated region. Using criteria developed in this research, new measurements possible in 2013 (if not 2011) will likely confirm that in 2036 Apophis will quietly pass more than 49 million km (30.5 million miles; 0.32 AU) from Earth on Easter Sunday of that year (April 13).” http://neo.jpl.nasa.gov/apophis/

Bottom line: Apophis is coming close enough in 2029 to pass inside some of our satellites, but highly-refined projections based on a myriad of factors indicate that the possibility of impact with Earth does not exist at that time. It will return on April 13, 2036, with a chance of impact that NASA says is 1 in 250,000. Those odds are calculated based on the chances of Apophis flying through a gravitational “keyhole” during the 2029 pass. The keyhole refers to a narrow, specific area in space in which Earth’s gravitational field would alter the path of Apophis’ future orbit — if it passes through that specific area in 2029. NASA estimates the keyhole odds to be 1 in 250,000; but if it does go through the keyhole, it will slam into us in 2036 unless space agencies can implement one of the theoretical ways to deflect it. The good news is that Apophis is coming into range to be extensively analyzed by both optical telescopes and radar from Arecibo in late 2012-early 2013. At that time, much uncertainty about its future chances will likely be eliminated.

If Apophis were to strike, it would cause major devastation around the general area of impact, but NASA assures us that it is not large enough to wreak global catastrophe (of course, one wonders if NASA is taking into account the global effects of crop destruction). But in Earth’s history, there have been at least a few asteroids that did cause catastrophe on a global scale. The best known is the “K-T asteroid,” its name indicating the boundary of the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods — the Cretaceous was the end of the dinosaurs, and we are living in the Tertiary. Its 12-mile crater was discovered beneath the sea off the Yucatan Peninsula. The K-T asteroid was 6 miles long and eradicated 70% of Earth’s life — due to the initial impact and everything it incinerated, the shock wave, the tsunami, the global fires, the effects of debris in the atmosphere (including complete darkness for roughly 6 months), the acid rain, and the subsequent global temperature drop.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how every natural global catastrophe that we know about in the history of the Earth, while leading to widespread destruction for many contemporaneous species, ended up creating the conditions for other species to emerge, changing the face of global life over and over again. This was certainly the case with the K-T asteroid; before it hit and spelled the eventual end for most dinosaurs (the remaining ones becoming the ancestors of birds), mammals could not have gained a foothold. At the time before the asteroid, mammals were a meek group of small creatures no bigger than rodents; they were dinosaur snacks, and snacks for other large predators. When the effects of the asteroid made life so difficult for large land species that they went extinct, the small mammals had the free rein to thrive, evolve, and eventually lead to the life we see today, including us. Hard as it may be to believe, we are distant descendants of those tiny, industrious mammals that were only able to thrive when the dinosaurs were gone.

As humans, we tend to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of life; we take it for granted that we should keep multiplying ourselves upon the Earth unchecked. If our explosive population growth and the consequent tendency to destroy large swaths of other species’ habitats cause harm, then that harm is ultimately acceptable — because, after all, we’re humans.  Often, religious people tend to think that God instituted us to assume this position, and therefore we have license to do whatever we think is necessary to continue our explosion over the face of the planet; if that means a mind-boggling consumption rate of finite planetary resources, as well as the eradication of species that have been here for millennia, then so be it. We belong here, says this mentality, and the Earth belongs to us. God wants it that way.

But Genesis doesn’t just say “Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28). It also says that humans will rule (radah) over the Earth. This concept does not simply signify “dominion” in the English connotation, which so often is linked only with subjugation. It carries more of a sense of “sovereignty,” which, in biblical thought, included an ideal of wise stewardship. Have we managed our effect on the planet with wise stewardship? I think the answer to that is obvious. Our main concern is ourselves; everything else is several hundred miles down on the priority list.

For a species that is so intelligent, it isn’t particularly intelligent to think that ignoring our effect on the planet and its ecosystems will have no negative consequences for humans  (and I’m not just talking about climate change — don’t forget resource depletion). The planet itself has endured for billions of years and is oblivious to us; it is the life forms upon it that come and go for one reason or another. If any sequence of events leads to the eventual extinction of humans, the planet will still keep orbiting the Sun, and whatever life forms survive will adapt and give rise to new life forms. Just as life has always done on this planet. The sad part of that is having to admit that as of now, the planet’s ecosystems would be far better off without us. We are an incredibly destructive species. We abuse our adaptability and intelligence to act with little regard for species other than our own — this despite a professed belief on the part of most of us that God had a hand in the creation of those other species. Other species occupy only their own niches, without our ability to drive others to extinction, deplete resources, and literally change the surface of the planet. Since we do have those abilities, it becomes our responsibility to control them.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck