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“What are you doing for Lent?” I’ve heard it in community, in meetings and at gatherings of Young Adult Catholics in the past weeks. Invariably, the answer is something like, “I’m not eating sweets; not watching so much TV; not drinking beer on weeknights, etc.” Me? I’m not eating sugar or it’s substitutes. But, I digress; the question was “What are you DOING for Lent?” not what are you NOT doing for Lent.

Among other more spiritual things, this Lent I felt challenged and invited to do two things I wouldn’t have chosen myself, but which seemed necessary given my ministry, generation and “miss-a-phobic” tendencies. I went to see the movie, The Passion of the Christ by Mel Gibson and I read the novel, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Jesus, one way or another, is the hero of each of these works.

I read Brown’s book primarily because many young adults were reading it. Several had asked me if it was “true.” I had recently finished reading Tobias Wolfe’s Old School and was looking forward to another good novel. Alas, that’s not what Brown’s book offered. I found the writing simple, tedious and predictable. Brown claims inclusion of scholarly research and objectivity in the novel, but the anti-Catholic, anti-Christian tone of the novel caught me by surprise. Friends of mine read it and enjoyed it for the novel it was: I had to keep reminding myself “this is fiction,” in order not to be offended. This was, I think, a good exercise. Not only for my reading of this book, but also for the viewing of the movie. If you are a Christian, it’s worth it to see the movie for a variety of reasons. The movie is an opportunity to engage with others about the events and meaning of Christ’s last hours on Earth in his human form. It also offers, should you choose to engage in it, conversation with family, friends and others who are not Christian about your own faith and theirs too.

What struck me most powerfully about the movie related to its violence. Not that there was too much of it or that it was too graphic, but that violence like this is still a part of our world. While Gibson’s unrelenting violent depiction may be accurate (and we can’t know for sure,) it certainly is effective in helping one imagine the scourging and death of Jesus. And the point of the depiction, Gibson says, is to help us avoid more violence. Asked by Reader’s Digest the headline he’d like to see the day after his movie’s release, the director responded, “War Ends.”

As the movie indicates, we are culpable for the murder of Jesus. Most Christians acknowledge this. What the Passion of Jesus really offers is a glimpse into our culpability for all murders: that each victim of murder is as innocent as Jesus was. Did Jesus deserve to have his life ended so violently? Does anyone? If Jesus’ death showed anything (and it showed plenty,) it showed most clearly how humans who sacrifice other humans for the sake of their own or the community’s welfare are certainly misguided. “Better that one should die for the many?”

Each time we put the death penalty into play; kill an innocent accidentally, or God forbid, on purpose; each time we scapegoat one villain or another, even in our daily lives – those who disagree with us, those who are different, those who live differently, those painful to be around or just plain annoying – each of these times we are re-enacting the sacrifice of Christ. While perhaps technically guilty, the victims are still innocent, still children of the same God, still children.

As I said, I wouldn’t have seen the movie or read the book except for Lent. While I didn’t really like either of them, I am, now, glad to have absorbed them. One because it was a reminder of God’s love and challenge to us as humans and one because it most certainly wasn’t. What I appreciate most, however, is the conversations I’ve been able to have with others — Catholics, Protestant Christians and Jews — about the nature and meaning of the life of Jesus Christ and the movement of God in our lives. Good conversation for Lent and, ultimately, the conversation worth having.

Good Grounds column for the San Francisco Catholic Newspaper
April 2, 2004

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I hope I don’t get in trouble for telling you that my family is a big bunch of cheaters. We love to play games and we watch very carefully to see who’s stacking the deck; who’s sneaking a peek at the cards or moving the little Monopoly shoe a tad too many spaces?

You should also know I’m a big fan of Christmas. (Recently I posted a poll on our family website about favorite Christmas characters. All the usual suspects were there, Rudolph, Santa, Jesus, Ralphie. My sister responded that her favorite Christmas character wasn’t in the list. She meant me.)

So, when a well-meaning soul tells me I should really be present to Advent and not jump right into the Christmas spirit, I suspect they think I’m cheating.

I remember a Christmas in the early 70’s. I got Battleship, the classic naval game of seek and destroy. “You sunk my battleship!” The refrain from the commercial echoes as I remember playing this game with my older brother, Pete.

Pete and I were, um, how to say this, arch-enemies, for the most part during our childhood. Three years older than me, we were perfectly separated by age, if by perfect you mean that he had the upper hand and I was an annoying little sister! This is how we were: he’d punch me; I’d tattle. He’d punch me for tattling; I’d call him a creep. Then he’d punch me and I’d, well, you get the picture.

“Plays well with others?” Not so much with us. So, it’s a rare and good memory our playing this game that Christmas morning.

Anyway, so there we are playing Battleship together: a perfect game for the two warring kids. Sitting on the floor near the tree, we’re wearing blue t-shirts with our first names emblazoned on the front and our last names on the back in white. A classic photo has all six of us lined up against the faux wood paneling wearing these t-shirts from our Great-Aunt Anne. This is what I love about Christmas. For one day, at least, we all try to get along. Pete and I playing a game lounging on that shag carpet surrounded by wrapping paper remnants and empty shirt boxes.

That was also the year my Mom got a Polaroid Instamatic camera. It was magic, maybe you remember it, a photo developing right before your eyes. This was high technology! Mom snapped photo after photo that day. Well, there they are sitting on the bookcase and Pete gets up, periodically, to check out the new ones. I don’t realize until I’ve lost my last two-peg patrol boat that something fishy has been going on. Uh, huh, there’s a picture of my side of that board up there! It’s Christmas, however. So after the brief storm, we laugh and go on to play another game. I still love this memory.

We sing “O Come, Emmanuel” and pray for Jesus to return with justice. Still, Jesus was already born. As we celebrate this season of expectation, I also celebrate that Christ has been born already. I celebrate Advent in the midst of preparing for Christmas. I listen to Christmas music from Thanksgiving on, (if I can hold out that long,) and I pray with Advent reflections. I put up my Great Grandmother’s shiny aluminum tree and I light the advent candles.

When my brother and I played together that Christmas, no matter how imperfectly, we were living Christmas. And that is a treasured moment in my collection of holiday memories. Living Christmas helped us to move on from our sibling animosity; we found a way to laugh and play the game again. I don’t think it’s cheating to celebrate Christmas everyday.

“My deepest vocation,” Henri Nouwen says, “is to be a witness to the glimpses of God I have been allowed to catch.” Here’s one.

I attended mass recently at the Cathedral, and even though the space is lovely and the worship good, since I had been in an ebb time, spiritually speaking, I didn’t expect to run smack into the Holy Spirit.
“The body of Christ,” he said, offering me the Host. Truly the priest before me believed it. I could see the faith, the hope, the expectation in the eyes which met mine. I always like a priest who will meet your eyes when saying to you, “The Body of Christ.” This moment is so intimate. This sharing of what is most essential to our faith. Most essential to our lives.

“Amen,” I said and my spirit responded to the spirit of belief evidenced in this man’s eyes: tears came to mine. These moments are such gifts. When the belief we see in another triggers our own deepest beliefs, our hope and our truth.

What made this most amazing to me was who the priest was and how just moments before I had been trying to figure out a way not to go to him for communion.

This mass was being celebrated with the cardinals of the United States in a prelude to a fundraising dinner for the Catholic University of America. Helping a friend set up for the liturgy, it seemed appropriate to stay and celebrate with those who would come out on a rainy day in support of Catholic education in America.
As the liturgy unfolded it became clear that Cardinal Law was to head the line to which my section of pews would file. Now, no matter what you think of the sexual abuse scandals that are calling the Church to reform, Cardinal Law has certainly been made the poster boy for appalling prelate behavior. And I’m no different from anyone else in my aversion to contamination by other’s scandal and sin. So, as I saw people a few rows up, sneak out the opposite side to another line, I think I know why and I was tempted to join them.

So, what does one do in moments of indecision like this? Well, I sent up a prayer to God to help me. I prayed to be able to approach this priest, this cardinal of our Church, with as much faith in the Eucharist as I could muster. I prayed for the openness to be able to meet his eyes and treat him as I would want to be treated if my sins were made public in the way his have been.

I walked slowly behind the other communicants. I prayed all the way up the aisle.
The host held out under sad eyes, the hope and expectation relayed in a moment’s glance. What is the Body of Christ? Or rather, who is? Surely this priest was the body of Christ in that moment: the wounded Christ. Jesus was guilty and innocent. Guilty of inciting insurrection, of criticizing the authorities. Innocent, however, of any sin that merited death; a final cutting off from the community.

Ah, but that was then, you say. We wouldn’t do that today, of course. Yet, I’m sure if I had been there, I would have been one of the crowd screaming “crucify him.” I’ve got that in me. I’m aware that I am the teeniest bit judgmental. I like to think I’m not, but then I notice myself thinking oh, so negative thoughts about some drivers or people with 17 items in their shopping cart in the 10-item lane.
Jesus said love your enemies. Annie Dillard reminds us, “There were no formerly heroic times, and there was no formerly pure generation. There is no one here but us chickens, and so it has always been: a people busy and powerful, knowledgeable, ambivalent, important, fearful, and self-aware; a people who scheme, promote, deceive, and conquer; who pray for their loved ones, and long to flee misery and skip death”.

Jesus didn’t skip death and what was that all about if not to show us that there can be resurrection after the death; whatever the death looks like?

I’m comforted by words from chapter two of Isaiah: “In days to come, The mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain…. That he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.’” We don’t have the answers yet: the instruction is still to come. I, for one, hope I’m climbing the right mountain. That moment with Cardinal Law – that moment gives me hope that I’m on the right mountain. But who can know for sure?

Good Grounds colum for the San Francisco Catholic newspaper
June 2003

Last Saturday I caught an old TV movie, A Very Brady Christmas. I’m a sucker for Christmas movies. In the Brady’s syrupy Christmas drama, Cindy (the youngest girl, just like me) was maneuvering that change from child to adult in her relationships with her picture perfect family. Ultimately, she had to stand up and say, “I’m an adult and I’d like to be treated like one.” Because she had a script, she also had all the right words, as did the family characters around her. Not so easy in the real world, I think.

A friend of mine recently told me that she was going home (back east) for Christmas. She said it rather wistfully, so I asked if there was a problem. “My faith community is here. I go home and no one will go to midnight mass with me and even if they did, it’s in some church that means something to them, not so much to me.”

This sounded all too familiar. When I was in graduate school, I came to be very connected with the Arizona State University faith community. Yet, each year, I’d travel to my mother’s house to be with family on Christmas Eve and day. I’d attend midnight mass at the local parish and sometimes be joined by a bit of my family. There I’d find myself thinking about the ASU community where I had helped create the Christmas environment, or a good friend lectoring at midnight mass for the first time.

Finally, one year, when I was about 27, I decided I wanted to stay and celebrate mass with my yearlong faith community. I approached my mother (and older sisters –the other power wielders in my family) with trepidation as I hoped to have some opportunity to celebrate Christmas with the family, but also to be appreciated as an adult making a healthy decision about her own life. What surprised me was how easily the conversation was. I had thought they’d treat me like a kid and be upset, however, since I approached the situation as an adult they treated me like one too. Who knew?

So, we celebrated a family gathering a week before the Holy Day. I stayed and celebrated mass with my faith community and a day or so later went to Mom’s. Since then, the question comes up in November who’s going to be where for Christmas. For the kids who have kids of their own and those who live far away, the question is whether or not they can make it out to California, plan to stay home with their own intimate family, or might they travel to their in-laws. Now there is no “command attendance” about our Christmases together. And I think I’m lucky when I can be with my current faith community (my sisters) and my family all in the space of a few days. While I’m rarely with family on Christmas Eve anymore, I’m there, often, on Christmas day.

At a meeting with a bunch of young adults the other night I asked, how they had negotiated their adult family relationships around the holidays. The resounding answer from most in the group was “I haven’t.” Whew. Some said that their siblings had made that leap through marriage and children. (That’s a lot just to be seen as an adult in the family.) I was reminded that often the understanding that’s missing about young adults is that the key word in that phrase isn’t “young,” it’s “adult.”

Our young adult model, Jesus, however, never had to negotiate this Christmas holiday dilemma: they wouldn’t have had his birthday party without him, would they? Jesus is, however, a model of one who made this transition with grace and honesty too. Telling us that his mother and brothers and sisters are those who hear the word of God and act on it. Jesus became an adult by acting like one. He named his adult responsibilities and he acted on them, whether or not others understood or appreciated this.

I was able, by grace and intention, to negotiate that move from childhood expectations to adult relationship in this one area of our family life. Ah, still, though, there are areas where being the youngest girl means something by way of expectations and treatment. And more or less, that’s the way I like it: it all depends on whether I have to do the dishes.

Good Grounds column for the San Francisco Catholic newspaper
December, 2002

My mother knits slippers. I’m one of six children (yes, just like the Brady Bunch – I’m Cindy) and I love my mother’s slippers. When I come home, I put them on. I don’t put on shoes until I have to. Knitted slippers are comfortable, warm, travel well and slide over the kitchen floor in a satisfying ice-skating-without-the-broken-ankle kind of way. Also they connect me to my mom.

Last October my mother was re-diagnosed with breast cancer. After surviving (beautifully) for twenty years, her cancer returned in a number of organs. It’s serious enough that chemo is a way of life now, not a temporary treatment. I’m fortunate enough to live just 45 minutes away from her and to have the freedom to spend weekends with her on a regular basis.

I realized one day that if the slippers were going to continue, someone was going have to learn to knit in my generation. So, over one of my weekends, she taught me how to carry on this tradition.

I started with a scarf or two and moved up to the slippers slowly. Over the last year, knitting has become a tremendous gift to me. It’s relaxing, creative, meditative, and comforting all at once. I knit while watching TV, while waiting for my flight (yes, you can take knitting needles on flights again) and sitting in the back of the room at large gatherings.

I knit with Mom whenever I can. We talk, she tells me stories about her childhood; we talk about my brothers and sisters and the changes in their lives, and we talk about me and my plans, the community of sisters I live with that my mom has adopted as her slipper recipients each Christmas.

Turns out there are lots of other benefits from knitting. Knitting is a health booster as it slows down your heart rate, relaxes the body and gets creative juices flowing. When I knit, I don’t snack my hands are already active. That’s a health benefit too!

Whenever I’m knitting in public something interesting happens. Someone, usually a young adult, but sometimes a child or an older person, asks me what I’m making and after we chat for a bit, the comment comes it’s predictable, “I wish I could do that.”

What’s missing for them, sometimes, is someone to teach them. Knitting is an age-old craft, one that has been handed down through generations. Typically done by women, often men find it just as meaningful. Is it a lost craft? I don’t think so. Recently I read that Julia Roberts, Winona Rider, Hilary Swank among others have taken up knitting. It’s “cool” to knit, it seems.

Knitting is tradition. When I knit I feel connected not only to my mom, but to the women in my family who came before. When I was a child, my grandmother knitted afghans for all six of us. After a house fire destroyed some of them my great Aunt Liz replaced them with new ones. I keep that red afghan on my bed to this day. I think now what a gift it will be when I’m able to knit afghans for my nieces and nephews. Connecting the generations, connecting to the past and feeling rooted in the family tradition are benefits I get from this ancient task.

Many young adults, like me, are yearning for tradition. Feeling connected to that which came before, that which roots us in faith and community is a human desire. For a generation that has never known (experientially) anything but a post Vatican II Catholic Church, reaching back into the tradition for meaningful practices and prayers can be seen as an effort to appropriate our ancient richness.

What we need are people who will sit and talk and share stories and practices. Like my mom who shares herself and her life with me as we knit and purl together, we need companions on the journey willing to take the time to sit down and talk and share the richness they’ve experienced while listening to how we put in words what we hope for the tradition too.

The tradition of our faith is a gift we share. A gift we bring to life when we build upon the past in the new generations. The memories are rich and will be richer still if we take the time to share them together and knit new ones in on the way.

Good Grounds column for the San Francisco Catholic Newspaper
November 22, 2002

“I don’t believe in miracles. I depend on them,” reads one of my buttons. The miracle of gratitude is my favorite one of all. Oh, and humor.

A year after she started chemo, I found myself with my Mom at her oncologist’s office. The newest round of quarterly scans were finished and we were there for the report. The report was fine, in that the cancer hadn’t grown since she started her three weeks on, one week off, regimen. Asking him what would likely happen next, he reminded us that he is not God (and he knows it.) He continued to say that likely the cancer in her abdomen would one day metastasize to her lungs or her brain. Not missing a beat she says, “I’ll take lungs.” He smiled and so did I: chuckling as he noted it wouldn’t, finally, be up to her.

“Brain scan.” A couple of months ago, we started noticing some changes in Mom’s balance and vision. Time to talk to Dr. Cohen about it, we said. We, her hope-filled children, thought, maybe she just needs new glasses, but Dr. Cohen is not messing around when it comes to neurological issues. So brain scan it is.

Early on, I went with Mom to one of her Wednesday appointments. After the blood work was drawn, we sat in the comfortable waiting room. We were discussing her recent dramatic increase in fatigue. “It’s three things,” she quoted Dr. Cohen’s explanation, “the chemo, the steroids…. Ummm, what’s the third thing? I can’t remember.”

“Let’s see… what could it be? Hmmm…. could it be the Cancer?” I asked drawing it out like the Church Lady of Saturday Night Life fame.

Don’t think that joke hasn’t come back again and again: she forgot that she has cancer even as we we’re sitting in the oncologist’s waiting room. Awaiting the harsh chemical treatment that robs her energy but provides time. “Drug induced aphasia” we tease as she continues to once in a while forget things.

When she was diagnosed about two years ago, they said it was pancreatic cancer. Talk about devastation. Not much medically minded, even I knew that pancreatic cancer is commonly heard as a rapid death sentence. My sister and I stood in the hospital corridor and for the first time I can ever remember cried together, helplessly looking into each other’s eyes.

A day later, same sister, Jeanne, comes dashing into Mom’s hospital room where my brother and I are keeping vigil with our drugged and sleepy mother. In a rush she told us she’d run into Mom’s surgeon in the cafeteria. Lunch tray in hand, he’d blurted out to her that they’d been wrong. Not pancreatic cancer, after all. But breast cancer that had metastasized to her abdomen.

Woo Hoo!, we shouted. The happiness, the miracle – like she’d been given a “life sentence” to counteract that deadly one of a day before. We hugged one another and were so grateful, knowing as we rejoiced: how ironic. “Yay! Mom has breast cancer!”

I always thought that the roller coaster metaphor for life was a corny one – feelings aren’t like a roller coaster – except that they are. For the last two years, we’d coast along, the chemo for three months when scans to see if the cancer cells had grown or spread. Then whoosh, the fast exhilarating descent hands out over our heads in joy that it hadn’t. Then three months more chugging up the hill toward the next round of scans. A few sharp sudden turns in the midst – the blood clot that meant no more long distance travel. The change in the cocktail of pumped in poisons. The family side trips towards despair then the whipping back or the gradual gaining of the momentum of encouragement.

So, “brain scan.” What’s that going to do to the whole ride? My niece, living in Mexico City at the time of diagnosis, says she went to her local parish and prayed to St. Jude. And the next day, Mom, her grandmother, got the breast cancer reprieve. Did St. Jude intercede? We all felt the miracle of the change in diagnosis. And the rush of gratitude that follows awareness of God’s gentle work in our lives or the world.

The too many to count miracles: two years of them. Some honest conversations six children and one adult grandchild have had with each other and our Mom. A family website that connects us from all the points of the world we’ve scattered.. Visits from an estranged child. Reconciliation, peace and moments of great fun and laughter in Mom’s presence. The calm of a morning after a night of despair. And the humor.

Brain scan? So what. From one day to the next a life sentence can be converted. Can be extended to a real life. Time to live it and know it and best of all to make fun of it. And time to be grateful. And time to laugh about it.

This time the brain scan came back negative and the best response comes from Mom’s favorite nurse at the chemo center, “So, um, congratulations. Your brain scan came back negative,” she teased, “you don’t have a brain.”

There’s a bumper sticker that reads, “Expect a mackerel.” And I do.

“There I was, there I was there I was… in the Congo.” It was the first thing my friend Vinci blurted out after, “Hello!” at our recent reunion. About ten years ago we were roommates and “There I was, there I was, there I was…” was the sound byte we picked up from a cheesy commercial. An avalanche of images came rushing back when Vinci greeted me with that two-second sound byte. Words have such a power to bring back images and ideas.

During my visit we discussed the phrase “Father what-a-waste,” someone had recently used about her Jesuit boss. I know it’s only meant as a joke, but, really, you wouldn’t call your best friend’s husband, “Mr. What-a-waste” would you? As if being a priest when one is good looking is some waste of a perfectly good human being. If only unattractive people became priests how would we ever believe in the beauty of God’s call for each of us? Linguistic political correctness came about for good reasons. Our words do reveal underlying thoughts and feelings.

Introducing me to her coworkers she’d say, “This is Christine. Being roommates with me drove her to the convent.” And I’d protest, squirms in my stomach cranking up a level. What bothered me so much? It was just a joke, right?

On the plane ride home I put two and two together. Her saying she “drove me to the convent” tells like the same joke. As if entering the convent is some a negative response to a difficult world or relationships. Like religious life is where one goes to get away from real life. That someone could “drive” another to it – like someone “drives” another to drink. While I know she doesn’t really feel this way me, the words reveal a way of thinking about sisters and religious life that is common in today’s world.

But, my choice, my response to God’s invitation to be a sister, is a choice for life. As a sister I’m becoming more the woman God created me to be. I’m becoming, I hope, more loving, more patient, more hopeful. I’ve become more aware of the world and other peoples’ needs. I see this happening to my committed friends too. They are growing in the same ways in their experiences as spouses and parents. Their choice enlivens them just as mine enlivens me.

And I’m not alone in making this choice. Last year I attended a conference of younger and newer sisters. Four hundred of us gathered in Chicago for a long weekend. The place was packed; the registration had closed two months ahead of the deadline, there were so many.

I suppose I’m stinging from the perception that, in the words of one current scholar, “our convents are empty.” That religious life is in danger of extinction, just a relic of some other era viewed as outdated and obsolete. This has not been my experience at all. If you compare the numbers of sisters today to the numbers in the forties, fifties and early nineteen-sixties, then yes, here in the U.S. there are fewer newer sisters. If you compare the numbers to the other 1700 years of it’s existence, not so much. In fact, there are more sisters today than there ever have been. The convents are not so empty.

Still, a woman asked me recently why I don’t go “the whole way and get a habit.” When I shared with her that many religious, responding to the Pope’s call to renew their communities in the spirit of their founders, have chosen to wear “street clothes” because that’s what the people with whom they serve wear, she wasn’t convinced.

I am going the whole way in this religious life. In my novitiate class there were a couple of us who commented, “Look, a ‘real’ nun!” when someone in habit walked by. One of our twelve would later share how offensive the joke was to her. “What’s that make us,” she’d ask, “chopped liver? Fake nuns? I don’t know about you, Christine,” she continued, “but this is my real life” And eventually I got it. She was right.

This past April I made my permanent commitment with the Dominican Sisters of San Rafael. Like those who came before me I don’t know where this call will lead. Like my married friends who don’t know where life together will take them, I’m committed to finding out. So, “Here I am, here I am, here I am… in the convent!”

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