Reflections on loving God, being Catholic, being a woman, being ill, loving life and anything else that comes to mind.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Possession - Part 1

My foster father chose a husband for me.

He was a Victorian relict. Of good French peasant stock and attitude but shaped and reduced like a court bouillon by being transplanted to Louisiana at an early age, by living with twenty siblings, by the death of his father when he was eleven, by his mother becoming Baptist after her husband’s death (Baptists were ubiquitous and had been helpful), by his mother’s abuse, by the depression. He romanticized his childhood as well as the age that had begun passing away before his birth and, by the time he was a husband and father, everyone including him had forgotten it: what existed in his mind bore no resemblance to the reality that had been. But he was determined his fantasy would exist in his household. He owned us – such was his firm belief. The children he had fathered, the children he fostered, his wife – all were his possessions to dispose of as he saw fit. He was not only king in his castle but it’s god as well. And not a benign household god like those Rebecca hid from Laban. Rather a cruel, terrifying god – more like Moloch come to life and requiring the souls and personalities of many, many children and one or two wives to maintain his existence.

And I had escaped him. Was, in fact, the only one to leave. I had earned a scholarship to a small women’s college in the east and at sixteen, had fled his house in California. Adjusting to freedom was not as easy as I had imagined and I romanticized about what was behind but after experiencing an horrific Christmas holiday back in California, I realized my fantasy did not exist and that I would be insane to go back. I planned never to return. So, the summer after my freshman year, I visited the families of school friends who lived in and near Colorado and then spent time exploring that part of the United States until lack of money sent me reluctantly back to my foster father’s house for the last three weeks before school began.

At the beginning of that summer, I had not told him that I would not be returning to his house until the last minute, had even tried to exchange the ticket he sent me for airfare to Colorado but was unable to do so without his permission. On the day I was scheduled to fly to California, I called and told him I was not coming back but instead, was going to Colorado. He was extremely displeased, called back and spoke with one of my roommates who gave him the first address I would be visiting. (She was one of those people who delighted in hurting her friends whenever an opportunity arose.) My foster father sent the police to retrieve me but since he had told them I was a college student, they, like so many others, assumed I was at least eighteen and merely asked me to call him. I did and reiterated again that I would not be returning to California. Still, when I ran out of money three months later and did not know what else to do, I knew he would send me a ticket and he did. (I did not even concern myself with getting back to New York. I had three whole weeks to attend to that.)

There were no recriminations beyond him telling me that he could “do nothing with me” but I had long outgrown his various iterations of that particular theme. It seemed to me it was not his place to do anything with me but I was no longer foolish enough to try to silence him by voicing my thoughts. I was simply glad that I needn’t withstand days of his attacks, even dared to hope he would let me be, would allow me to live my own life. But then, I was just seventeen at the time.

On the first Sunday I was back, I realized I would have to attend services at my his church particularly since I needed him to buy me a ticket back to New York. But since I had been accustomed to sneaking out to attend mass from the time I was twelve or so, doing so again was simply a return to the familiar.

I came down on Sunday wearing trousers and he objected until I reminded him that I had a cold. Avoiding a chill (for all Victorians worthy of the name) took precedence over the proper fundamentalist Baptist attire. When we were in the car, he told me how glad he was I had returned in time to meet the young seminary student who had interned for him that summer, that I’d be able to hear him preach that day. I made the sort of noncommittal noise I had discovered years before, the kind that he heard as, Oh, isn’t that lovely and allowed him to continue; my foster father was never interested in what anyone else had to say. No one noticed that I did not pay attention to the sermon. And when my foster father suggested his intern take me to China-town for lunch, suitably chaperoned by the assistant pastor and his wife, it seemed a welcome opportunity to have a good lunch and avoid my foster father’s presence for several hours. Life was unexpectedly good.

It was an excellent lunch. Lots of delicious dim sum. And I seem to recall there was actual conversation and that it was rather interesting as well. But when the assistant pastor and wife left me with the seminarian so we could get ice cream and told me he would see me home, I became a bit suspicious. I did not know this young man. And whereas he had certainly been a perfect gentleman, the set up seemed too much like a date and no one had asked if I was interested. He bought me an ice cream and we ate it as we walked along. (He seemed a bit amazed that I ate the cone backwards but as that has always been my favourite way to eat ice cream, I saw no reason to change for him.) When I saw my bus coming, I told him to run or else we’d have an hour’s wait. I ran and caught the bus. From the window, I saw him standing on the sidewalk with another amazed (or was it dazed?) look on his face.

The next day he returned to seminary. During the following weeks, my foster father sang his praises and repeatedly asked me what I thought of him. I didn’t think much and made more noncommittal noises. When he suggested he would not send me back to New York, that in fact, I should transfer to a nearby women’s college and think about settling down – perhaps with the seminarian who would graduate and return the following summer – I told him that I’d join the army instead and travel around the world. He bought me a ticket and left and never returned.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Time For A Change

After 16 essays on suffering, I’m ready to write about something else (though I’m sure suffering will rear it’s head on occasion). But right now, vocation – particularly being a “long-term” single and remaining or becoming open to marriage – is much in my thoughts ad conversations and, in fact, everywhere I go. (I live in New York. One of our favourite topics of conversation is the lack of a Catholic dating scene.)

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Suffering and the Problem of God – Desire

[T]hey heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the evening breeze, and the human and his woman hid from the LORD God in the midst of the trees of the garden. And the LORD God called to the human and said to him, "Where are you?" And he said, "I heard your sound in the garden and I was afraid, for I was naked, and I hid." (Genesis 3:8-10) (1)

On retreat about one and one-half years ago I prayed about my health (actually, I was moaning and fussing at God about it). It had been getting worse and worse and I was not at all happy. After a bit, I saw the face of a young Chinese man and it struck me that nearly a quarter of the people in the world do not know that God loves them. The realization that they could live and die in such darkness was sadder than any sadness I had ever known and far more important than my disgruntlement over my health. Within me there arose the desire to do something so that that young man and all those in China might come to know God.

I heard the familiar voice in my heart, “The price is high.”

“Well of course it is,” I replied. “But that that young man should never know you – that’s intolerable. Absolutely intolerable. He must know you. All of China must know you. The price is well worth it. Lord, with just one like that young man or even a few, you could remake all of China.

“And I want a part, even a little part. I want to help. Maybe you could use this illness. That would be okay with me.”

We are involved in an overwhelming love. It is so great, all the love stories we humans have ever imagined, can possibly imagine are pale shadows, trite fairy tales in comparison. I am convinced that on the sixth day, God took some dust into his hands and said, ‘I will make you like me’ and then proceeded to fashion humans in his image and likeness. In the garden, God shares an intimate relationship with our first parents. Reality for our first parents is truly: “I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine.” (2)

This love is also a great tragedy for when they eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, when they realize they are naked and try to hide themselves from each others eyes, from God himself, they rupture the relationship God has given them. They step outside the community of love in which God has created humans to live and move and have their being. So that Job’s demand: “How long wilt thou not look away from me …thou watcher of men?” (3) only echoes the actions of a man and a woman in scratchy fig leaf aprons trying to prevent God from seeing them.

The love might have ended in that garden except it doesn’t – this is truly the great love and can never end in tragedy. It continues through long, long years, through countless incidents of behaviour so ugly and hateful that long ago, any of us would have walked away. The love continues today and will continue through eternity because we are the objects of that love and our behaviour does not alter the one who has chosen to love us: we must either reject him or stand still and with his help let ourselves be loved.

He wants us. He longs for us. He desires us. To be God is to be relationship, to exist in the mutual desire between the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. To be human is to be offered a place in that desire; it is intolerable to God that we should not know him. We can reject him if we choose, for he values our freedom above our lives, but we will know that we are rejecting his overwhelming, absolute love. God desires us so much, he is quirky.

After the humans eat of the forbidden fruit, God utters the curses that fall upon each of them and their posterity and evicts our first parents from the garden into a hostile world. The story should be predictable from that point but it’s not because God engages in one of his quirky acts, he makes soft, warm “skin coats” (1) to clothes these rebellious humans; fig leaves are terribly scratchy, not at all suitable as protection. Abba has clothed his children, prepared them to live in a hostile world. Betrayal is answered not by destroying the betrayers nor by unmaking their actions. Consequences are as real as the soft clothing and the promise of seed that shall “trample” (1) the beguiling serpent. That seed is God himself whose love for us burns so intensely he will take on our dust, clothe himself with the humanity he has created, abandon himself to the treacherous completion that is foreshadowed when Adam blames him, saying, “[t]he woman whom you gave by me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” (1) (emphasis added) For though God cannot take on the blame, he will in yet another quirky act, take on the punishment.

But he does so according to the reality of what it means to be God, in community with those who love him, with those who hate him, with those who are only doing their job, with those who hang about because they have nothing better to do than be incited against innocence. God enters into our broken communities and allows himself to be broken so as to bring us back into community with him.

Suffering and community go together. From the first breach, to the spectators at Calvary, to the Church’s martyrs who continue to suffer today – suffering takes place within community. Suffering continues to be the means through which God pulls us into the body of Christ, brings us back into community with himself and with each other.

It would be easy if he did it all for us and we reaped the rewards – that’s what we expect – then we could write lovely tales of the battle in the deeps of time, a battle that does not impinge on our lives. But that’s not what he offers because he really is making us creatures of dust like him. When God took on our humanity, he took on our suffering. When he remade our humanity, he remade our suffering. It is the path back into relationship, the means through which we learn to love as he loves, give as he gives, grow into his image and likeness.

I look forward to the day when I shall meet the young man God showed me; I believe he will come to know God’s love and will help bring God’s light into the darkness of his country. Though I do not know his name, he is part of me and I of him: we are in community with each other. I am very, very fortunate. I have no memory of a time when God’s love was not the central reality of my life. Though I have been through great darkness, God has always illumined my path. And now, I have an opportunity to participate in bringing God’s light to those who live in darkness without knowledge that light is even a possibility; it is intolerable that every person in China should not know of God’s overwhelming love, his boundless desire for them. And it is a gift far beyond my imagining that I should be granted even a tiny flickering of God’s desire for the people he has created, that I should have even an infinitesimal part in helping to restore the Chinese to the community God has created them to enjoy. “[T]he sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” (4) The glory of being part of God’s community.

1Genesis – Translation and Commentary, Robert Alter (1996 W. W. Norton & Company) *

2 Song of Solomon 6:3

3 Job 7:19-20

4 Romans 8:18

* I highly recommend this translation as a resource for those interested in serious study of Genesis.