Monday, 27 July 2009

Walking on the water

Bear with me, since I've been doing exegesis most of today, and am very tempted to share every element of this. Frankly, I refrain only because, 'tortoise' that I am, I have a thousand ideas and have yet to organise them. I was focussing today on the 6th chapter of the gospel of Mark. I heard a brilliant sermon on that passage yesterday (for example, though the Creator God and Trinity dominate my spirituality, it was the first time it occurred to me that the spirit of God across the waters in Genesis had its parallel in Jesus' walking on water.) Since I'm in one of my 'dull' spiritual periods, I thought I would latch on to providence and ponder the passage further.

Perhaps it is summer complaint of some sort, but I found myself slipping, as the old saying goes, from the sublime to the ridiculous. (That last word is inappropriate exaggeration, but I'll not strike the reference.) Occasionally, however well trained I was (so don't blame the Dominicans and Jesuits), I slip into the colourful, loose associations which are my Franciscan birthright. I'm going to ramble a bit about a totally homely idea that struck me.

In a trace of exegetical mode, I'll marvel that the apostles (whose 'hardness of heart' keeps them from the faith Jesus' seeks to inspire in them) saw all the wonders of chapter 6, then mistook the Master for a ghost. Aside from that I'm terrified of ghosts, I'll concede that I'd probably have gone into shock at seeing anyone walking on water, and, though we literary types are undoubtedly less durable than peasant working men, they wouldn't be inclined (as many of us are - momentarily, after which we usually realise it's a shadow or a tea sachet we didn't realise we dropped) to see ghosts, faeries, and so forth. I'm not at all surprised, let alone scandalised, at the apostles' bewilderment. (In fact, I'm afraid to open my eyes during the night sometimes, since a New Age upstairs neighbour told me, with fascination rather than terror, that she saw ghosts of those who once lived here. She can entertain whomever she wishes, but I hope none of them visit me.)

I know, of course, that the Christology which the passages set forth underlines "Who is Jesus?" Yet moving from seeing him as a great prophet and healer to witnessing nature miracles and the like must have been staggering for the apostles. "Just who are you?" must have been a perplexing question. I've noticed that, for many who are devout, moving from more familiar images to any deeper realisation can inspire fear as much as awe - I can only imagine if I began to catch on that a companion of mine had a divine nature. We cannot understand much of the divine in any case - but nothing would have prepared the apostles for the Incarnation (which certainly goes beyond images of the Messiah with which they might have had familiarity. Lord have mercy, as well all know, they had all the worse with which to deal shortly...)

Is it any surprise that, at all times of theophany, whether in the Old Testament, in the Annunciation, wherever, that a 'fear not' is standard? Fear and awe are a delicate balance. The sermon to which I referred yesterday included an exquisite reference to how the apostles "cannot tell nightmares from mystery."

The quickest glance at chapter 6 shows that the apostles had much of both awe and fear about them. They are commissioned to preach, heal, perform exorcisms - and indeed they do all of these things. (I'll preach any time - but not without preparation, and I dare say that fishermen and tax collectors, et al, might not have as much background, the more because the NIGTC was not published at the time. I think I'd pass out if I found that I'd laid hands on someone who recovered - and I wouldn't go within a light-year of anyone possessed by demons!) That in itself must have inspired both awe and fear. It hardly made their prospects better that John the Baptist was executed in the interim, or that their longed for rest period was interrupted by 5,000 men who needed to be fed (and were!)

I've seen many situations in my life when I truly believe divine providence was at work, but have never witnessed miracles. It must be utterly exhausting, and troubling because it is the unknown. I can't imagine how confused and overwhelmed one might be if the miracle happened at one's own hands. But 'nature miracles' such as the multiplication of bread and fish, or the walking on water, must have left the apostles puzzled and afraid. (I am inclined to think they actually had very strong faith, considering they accepted a commission of healing, preaching, and exorcism, successfully.)

It is an odd paradox. The divine always is mystery - and it frightens us (even as it inspires awe). Creation cannot be explained or understood. We always know how very little control we actually have of circumstances. Yet, whether in the first century or now, people will turn to the soothsayer, or medium, or (often charlatan) magicians, precisely out of fear. We long for some kind of power and control - and many do not fear approaching those in the occult arts for assistance, where we are frightened by awareness of the divine that is the source of our existence, Perfect Love, total Truth.

What is Love, Truth, Creation? What is 'hardness of heart', and how do we move beyond this? Can we even distinguish awe from fear, or what is unknown because it is beyond our understanding from an 'unknown' that inspires terror? Why did those who touch Jesus' hem receive healing, where we spend our lives in confusion wondering if the divine is indifferent? (Oh, yes... I know some of you care only that God's will be done... sorry, I failed that course.)

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Christmas in July: "It's a Wonderful Life"

One may wonder why I am thinking of this film (which I really don't like) in the heat of summer. I suppose it's because I'm recalling a friend of mine who recently died, and whom I had known since 1975. We weren't much alike, but both of us had indeed 'done for others' a great deal, and Grace used to tell me that, when she first saw James Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life," she tried to encourage herself, thinking that indeed we do not know what good we may have done for others, or benefits thereof. Later, the same film gave her the impression, to lapse into New York dialect today for effect, that George was the 'sucker of the world.'

Of course, had George been unmarried, it would have been worse still, I suppose. (Neither Grace nor I ever married. I do not envy my married friends, for various reasons, but the down side of being unattached is that things one does are appreciated even less because, even when one is holding two jobs, others assume that 'singles' have 'nothing to do,' and that they are doing one a favour by letting one care for family, as Grace loved to do, or offer endless volunteering, as I once did...) Grace and I, as is true of many people, indeed were deeply grateful for what others had done for us (and I'll add that real generosity makes me feel Christ is near, even if it is extended to me by an atheist.) It is only in later years of life that one realises that, for some unknown reason, others dote over some nasty old bitch (and I don't mean the faithful dog since, even if I much prefer and love cats, most pets offer unconditional love on a par we humans would envy), and toss the 'giver' into the rubbish bin.

Back to "Wonderful Life"...

I suppose that, the first time one watches this rather excessively sweet film, even the most hardened cynic would shed a tear at the ending, when George is revealed as one who has a matchless wealth of friends and support. James Stewart indeed portrays George Bailey superbly, but I found that, beyond the first viewing, this becomes rather an annoying film.

Of course, the contrast between George (the sort of man anyone would like on sight, and love all the more with acquaintance), and the dreadful Potter, who makes the pre-converted Ebenezer Scrooge look cuddly, provides much of the action - the trouble is that the premise really is not realistic. The idea that being good-natured, and having a spirit of self-sacrifice that goes from heroic to excessive, benefits one's community is taken to far too great an extreme. The Baileys are always on verge of bankruptcy, yet manage to be the saviours of all of the rather poor people who want to fulfil the mid-century dream of owning their own homes. Intending no blasphemy, I found it annoying that George becomes something of a Christ figure (though the Son of Man had no place to lay his head... he may have if George's miraculous building and loan existed in 1st century Palestine) ... yet never is allowed to think of himself or his family in the process.

George seems a wonderful man, but it became difficult to see his as a "wonderful life." It seemed that everyone was entitled to fulfil their dreams except George... indeed, that he had to make certain that he sacrificed every aspiration (university, honeymoon trip, travelling) entirely so someone else could have something. Considering how, when George sees what the town would be like had he never lived, everyone is in miserable straits, the 'saviour' business is rather macabre, as are the people resident in Bedford Falls! I never saw a worse bunch of low lifes... and, considering some of the ministries in which I have been engaged, that is notable.

That must have been some honeymoon trip - to provide money to rescue a town from the bank failures. But of course, had George never lived, the young, pretty girl he married, who seems vivacious, adorable, and popular, would have ended up a dowdy spinster...

Romantic though I am at heart, the cynical part of me sighed, knowing full well that, no matter how good anyone was to others, the first accusation of embezzlement would be more likely to make the others think, "now we know how he really is!" (My many years in business also told me that a lost bank deposit would not land a partner in jail, but I always try to forget that phase of my life.) Miserable though Potter is, it does not ring true that one with his resources could be totally unsuccessful in acquiring potential home-owners as customers because a good-hearted, impoverished sort simply was more pleasant. (A Potter would do what was profitable - and the lovely little homes in "Bailey Park" would be more to his advantage than being the total slum lord.)

Certainly, watch this once... but don't go back for repeated viewings, since the memory of the first viewing will be far more pleasant than the cloying effects of repeat performances.

I, to a large extent, do have a more 'wonderful life' than many, and I'm grateful for this as well. Yet benevolence, even that based on strong religious principles, would more often lead to one's being thought a fool than being loved and supported. Most often at all, it only means being forgotten.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Having just read "Don't Chew Jesus"...

Before the title to this post gives the impression that I am irreverent (much as that often is perfectly true, though I'm always pious), "Don't Chew Jesus" is a book which was among those I review for Amazon. Some readers may find it highly enjoyable. It is a collection of mostly brief recollections of Catholic school days, from those who, like myself, remember when teaching Sisters wore long habits, had huge classes (...not exclusively populated by innocent little cherubs), were largely secluded from others, and could be strict in a manner which would not be in accord with current political correctness. (Political correctness was not the norm in any school or home in my youth, and I frankly sympathise far more with the nuns than some of the kids I knew!)

I personally found the book disappointing and rather trite (though I'm sure many readers would not agree. I must say that it was very positive, and contained contributions from those grateful for their Catholic education, as I am - this is not a collection of miserable or sweet memories, neither of which would be accurate.) Considering the vast number of contributors, the tales were rather boring and often trite. I could tell any one of you twenty funnier or more insightful tales in half an hour (...brace yourselves, since I just might.)

One observation which surprised me was that most contributors remembered all Sisters as being very old. Then as now, it is true that religious Sisters often continued teaching past the age when other teachers may have retired, but, at least in my experience, even when I was a teenager most of the Sisters who taught me were in their 20s and 30s, and I could count on the fingers of one hand how many, even at university level, were over 50. It was not unusual for those who taught the primary students to be fresh out of novitiate, managing a large class when they themselves were hardly past girlhood. I do remember one retired Sister I knew in childhood, a former Mother General who now ran the small library and assisted children who needed special help with reading - a lovely, brilliant woman with the sort of presence and dignity I wish I could ever hope to have.

The Sisters who taught me as a child were excellent teachers (even if their approaches in spirituality could tend to be a bit on the morbid side.) The Dominicans who provided my later education ranged from super-competent to utterly brilliant, and were a highly delightful group - if RC women could be ordained, I could easily see a few of them occupying Peter's throne. Perhaps I see things a bit differently from those who contributed to the book I mentioned because I had a church career and a continued association with many Religious. (That also may be why I have far more stories I could tell, most of them much funnier. Recollections of childhood can be distorted.... it is only just occurring to me that the 'old' nuns a six year old remembered may have been all of 35...)

Most of the stories in "Don't Chew Jesus" concerned children, not older students. Looking back for a moment, and even allowing for that I have no addiction whatever to children, I think I can appreciate the multiple burdens the Sisters, many new to the classroom, probably many not yet in final vows, were carrying. Teaching is no joy ride in any case, but the semi-cloistered Sisters who provided my early education must have been combining a monastic schedule with this - I think it is likely that the boring tasks such as "write each catechism question five times each" stemmed either from a desperate need to keep young kids quiet or from a Sister's need to recite seven hours of the Office. I would learn, in my brief purgatorial period of teaching children of 10 (...I was lucky... for them it probably was more like hell...), that many parents and those in administration care more about whether a teacher 'controls the class' than whether young minds and creativity are stimulated (...I'll save the bedlam that can result from a lack of structure and encouragement of creativity for another day). Young Sisters, I'm sure, not only had to worry about proving themselves as teachers - determination of their suitability for religious life may have hinged on whether they could keep 50 restless kids, half of them looking for the distractions of mischief, quiet and orderly.

Even the very vaguest sexual references (questions about what "Virgin" meant, or what the feast of Circumcision signified, were in this category - even references to the liturgical calendar could be troublesome) could lead to outrage from the small but highly vocal percentage of parents who thought every last syllable about "marriage" had to come from them. It could be very hard to tell whether a particular pupil, who asked a question about doctrine, moral teaching, or even history, was genuinely interested or looking to create havoc - and the latter could come about very quickly! (Before this seems an exclusively Catholic or extremely modern phenomenon, recall the first scenes in Robert Donat's version of "Good-bye Mister Chips," and the hilarity about references to the Virgin Queen.) I knew Sisters who were taught to respond to questions with "we don't discuss personal cases," but, cop out though that appeared to be, I can see today that they could hardly risk a kid who was either an instigator or excessively holy sort using a response as fuel for a bit of mischief or self righteous sermon.

It occurs to me, as well, that those in administration (who were teachers for decades, and surely had enough stories of unruly days in school of their own) might forget this if a young teacher let the 'bold' kids get out of line. Some children were 'big trouble' and always had been - yet a newcomer who was teaching them could be in trouble for not keeping order, though they'd been 'out of order' for years and everyone knew this.

I'll admit that the book stirred my memories of many incidents of which I had not thought in years. I hope that the authors, should they produce another volume or revise this one, don't keep the anecdotes so very short. There are far funnier, and far more insightful, stories they could collect. (I'm also inclined to think that lots of the incidents I remember, at which the nuns had to act shocked at the time, probably had them rolling with laughter just as much as did I... though I had the good taste not to laugh in class...)

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Childhood typecasting

A few weeks ago, I had occasion to attend the Eucharist at a small church where I knew no one (it just happened to be in the vicinity of a place to which I was en route.) I smiled at the priest's brief sermon. He spoke of being from a rural area originally - in a close, loving family which sounded like a model from a very idealistic children's book. He is happy that he is soon going to pay a visit to his family, but mentioned how (despite his education, travels and the like), though they clearly loved him to bits, they remained vaguely uneasy with this 'stranger.' It was not that he never saw them or had not kept in touch regularly, but they still had an 'image' of him, formed in his childhood, and couldn't quite deal with any way that he had changed.

Heavens, could I identify with that! I've found that images which our family forms of us, even when we are just beginning to talk, endure forever (and this though they may be far from the truth.) I came from a huge extended family, and my mother and her sisters, in particular, were unusually close (they talked at least four times a day, usually saying nothing again and again.) Some of my cousins were like brothers and sisters to me. Yet both my parents were second youngest of large families - not only was my mother 'the baby' even at 80, but her children (very different, but independent probably from the times their umbilical cords were cut) were and are 'baby cousins.' Considering that my family tend to live to very advanced ages (nearly all pass 90), I (whose maturity exceeded my mother's around the time I was capable of rolling over) undoubtedly will find that, when I am 80, cousins of 90 will still be smirking at my 'precocious child' image. (Others will still be giving me unsolicited and condescending advice, which I always saw as the greatest trial depicted in the Book of Job. After all, there is a 'generation' - perhaps 5 years, or even 'two generations' which adds to ten - between us. Eighty years will not be a sufficient period for them to grasp that I care what they think about as much as I ever did... which is about as much as I care about what anyone else thinks... which is not at all.)

I'll spare you any painful or irritating examples, and stick to the 'safe and silly.' Anyone who has known me for a year would be fully aware that I loathe winter, and thrive on baking in sunlight - I'm unhappy at any time when I must wear a coat - yet my dad would insist, and family members believe, that I 'loved the cold weather.' I have travelled all over the continent, alone, using public transit, yet another family myth is that I'm afraid to go anywhere alone. I spent years as a cook back when I worked with the homeless (and was not present for family holiday gatherings because of this), yet another myth is that I didn't know how to cook because 'my mother did everything.'

What is unfortunate about the 'typecasting' is that, whether with family or friends who knew one from childhood, it can never be eliminated. When the priest I mentioned earlier was speaking, some of the details he mentioned reminded me of how very often, even if one is certainly not doing anything wrong or troubling, it can bother those around us if we aren't fitting the old image they assembled when we were children.

Looking back, and considering many people whom I've known over the course of my life, there's a bit of paradox involved in our development. In one sense, I believe all of us can see that 'the child is father to the man.' Nor can we pinpoint how certain traits or interests developed - whatever 'parenting' books might say today. For example, I had a strong interest in music, literature, and art even when I was a young child, though my parents had no knowledge of or interest in any of these areas. (I was exposed to literature at school, but the extent of my music training in youth was learning some hymns to Mary, dreadful in their execution, and folk songs in which everyone ended up dead, usually in a war or of TB. My 'art' instruction was of the calibre of drawing a falling leaf.) I taught myself to read music, use a typewriter (I also had a passion for writing then), and so forth - but there are no influences to explain any of this. I was very drawn to prayer from childhood, but it was quite private then (I wasn't the sodality prefect type, and doubt I would have been even had that been an option for someone with curly hair and a big nose.)

Still, if we look back on childhood, things are seldom so obviously 'cause and effect.' Now and then, we can see that someone was either outstanding in some sense (perhaps displayed a strong talent), or was 'real trouble' (when a few fellow pupils of mine, in later years, were arrested, or died in drug related circumstances, I cannot say I was surprised.) Yet the majority of boys I knew who were always up to mischief, always in trouble in school, ended up as police officers, priests, and judges. The girls who were the most trouble in school often ended up becoming teachers. As well, the pupils who were 'best in the class' tended to end up bagging groceries.

There is no 'moral' to the story this time. I'm smiling at some old memories - perhaps you'd enjoy doing the same, so here I am to give you a reminder. (All right... one inevitable example - if one looks over the character and early life of Francis of Assisi, with his radical tendencies, it seems he was destined from the beginning to end up being either a great saint or a candidate for the gallows...)

Thursday, 2 July 2009

No vow of silence here...

From my earliest days, I've always admired those who took initiative (for the sake of true principles), when it 'went against the grain.' It wasn't much later that I realised that, where those who were innovators often are hailed as heroes a century later, when many can enjoy the benefit of the risks the innovator took, they aren't well regarded in their own time. To use a very old and well-known example - confronting the powers that be can lead to freedom, but, initially, it well may mean that one still is in slavery but now has no straw for the bricks. (I think Moses spent forty years wondering if he'd have been better off had he played ball with the Establishment.)

Mine is by no means a head that would seek a martyr's crown, nor would I care to be a public figure. Nonetheless, not only in childhood but to this day, I still can't figure out why many people are afraid to say what they really mean. I've had difficulties at times, because I'll say aloud what I'm fairly certain others would believe as well - my mistake is in thinking that, once someone 'comes out with it,' others will admit they agree.

I shouldn't be surprised, I suppose. Any marketing survey will show that everyone reads The Times, no one the tabloids - yet sales figures would give the lie to these results. I may have caught on to that people shrink from telling the truth if it does not involve 'going along with the crowd' before I was even weaned, but I probably was nearly 40 before my idealistic (militant, actually) self realised that the majority of people do not act on principles, but on what is socially acceptable. I sometimes laugh, sometimes weep, as well because any authority, real, usurped, imagined, or the result of advertising will command action far more than personal ideas. (I'm sick to death of hearing about certain hot topics, but no one would dare admit this. I've seen the few interesting discussions I've been fortunate to find - whether they are about culture, history, literature, when it last rained, or that a continent sunk into the sea - sabotaged by mention of cholesterol, breast cancer, the obesity epidemic which I'm sure the equally trendy 'Mediterranean diet' caused, the evils of television, or anything and everything that has to do with 'our children.')

Before the psycho babble crowd write to me again (they never catch on that I find them to be duped fools), the example to follow is trivial indeed. I often use trivial examples because they are harmless.

As far as I know, there is no new legislation obligating everyone to drink only water - but it seems that, in various circles, one may not be seen doing otherwise. I suppose that no one wants to hear the nonsense from those who see one indulging in a cup of tea, glass of wine, lemonade, whatever. Still, at that alumni gathering of which I 'told' my readers recently, I find it very difficult to believe that, out of perhaps ten people, nearly everyone (excepting myself, of course) didn't want anything but water. (Were I to write an etiquette book, I must add, I would give this rule for dining: order what you want, whatever it is. Boring others is stupid, and the trendy assertions that one can 'have red meat tonight since I didn't have it in a month,' etc., will leave those like myself bored to tears... and leave those who care about 'socially acceptable behaviour' to go home hungry because they fear not showing their undying commitment to fitness.)

Here's a sillier example on the same theme. There is a gym class I attend, aimed at those past their first youth, which I indeed have found had a positive effect on both my arthritis and my poor balance. (Someday, I may even be able to bounce a ball without hitting myself in the nose, and can get my kindergarten diploma. There's still hope, provided I don't have to skip or tie shoelaces.) I go to two different gyms, and, at both, the instructors are young, female athletes with quite delightful personalities. However, there are two key differences. First, Jen at the 'gym A' instructs us only in the exercises - she is not preachy, doesn't keep reminding us that she is CPR certified and also will call for an ambulance if anyone feels overly exerted, and doesn't feel an obligation to talk to us as if we were three years old and needed to be taught that everything we eat, drink, or do is unhealthy - thank God! Second, "Gym A", which is located in a much larger facility with varied activities, has such little social gatherings as simple lunches, which many people attend. (I don't, because I don't eat starchy food - but I gather those who go are pleased with the tuna mayo sandwich or macaroni cheese, after which they have some tea or coffee with a slice of cake.) Gym A therefore is a happy place to be - and many people attend not only for exercise classes and swimming but for the (much needed) truly social element.

Gym B is quite another matter. Cheryl easily is young enough to be my daughter, or granddaughter of some others in attendance, yet she does... all the things I praised Jen for not doing in the last paragraph. Great fun, isn't it, to be working out to popular music and be reminded that she can do CPR? (None of us are hitting the century mark any time soon, I might add.) But I suppose I'd rather be treated as if I were 90 than as if I were in infant school. One of Cheryl's goals in life, I gather, is to (drum roll, please) convince her 'pupils' to drink only water. Gym B does not have social events, but, when Cheryl announced a 'social,' she reminded us, in the voice of one saying, "Now, children, don't forget to bring blunt ended scissors to school tomorrow," "Now remember we're still drinking water! Don't forget your water bottles!"

Balderdash. I was glad Ed said it first, and I seconded the motion - who wants nothing but water at a supposed social event? This is just more 'overly inflated health freak' nonsense - probably intended to 'plug' some other programme at that gym, perhaps nutritional consulting or personal training (which I doubt anyone there could afford.. though someone might go without fuel or food for a month if convinced this girl is going to lengthen their lives...)

To my surprise, aside from Ed and myself, everyone sat there as if they were in kindergarten! (Gym A has the audacity to have such things as coffee ... I'm guessing that, here and there, a few people still have urns and kettles, even if I probably am the only person left who uses loose tea and cosies.) May I speculate as to why...

  • The seeming authority of a teacher, even when she is less than half one's age, demands acquiescence

  • Some of those there read, perhaps on some Internet forum, that everything except water is 'poison,'

  • Ergo, they want someone to force them to be ashamed to drink the poison they've only been consuming for 70 years or so

  • If anyone admits to preferring a spot of tea or some wine, it isn't socially acceptable

  • People like to either be bullied (which I'll admit Cheryl never has done) or be treated in a condescending manner because they think it will 'motivate' them

Yes, this is a highly silly example - but notice that no one there would admit to any feelings other than 'bring on the water bottle,' lest they disobey or not fit in with the trendy.

Were I not being silly, I could spin quite a thread about how all too many people approach principles, Church, society, or God with much the same attitude... It makes it difficult to know what anyone else really thinks. (I can respect varied points of view, but not a lack of integrity.) "Consensus" too often means "I was afraid to talk." (It undoubtedly is immediately clear that this is use of the rhetorical "I"!) In the end, on far more important matters than pretending one wouldn't dream of drinking anything but water, does one even know what one believes?!