All posts by Dena Hunt

Be Where You Are

This old dictum can be deceptively simple, rather like “Home is where the heart is.”

When I first considered becoming Catholic in 1984, I went to the local church, only a block or two from my apartment in New Orleans, and talked to a very young priest, whom I’ll call Father Francis. He was fresh out of seminary in Ireland. In RCIA, I wondered what became of him. When I asked about him, the deacon in charge of RCIA told me that Fr. Francis was homesick for Ireland and was suffering from depression. He stayed in the rectory a good deal.

Well-meaning people tried to introduce him to New Orleans culture, but the attempt was a failure. He just didn’t want to be there. One of the parishioners said, “We’re just not good enough for him, I guess, not white enough, maybe.” Sympathy morphed into resentment.

Finally, one day, he was over it. “You have to be where you are,” he said, as though he’d stumbled on a discovery—and maybe he had. If you are where you are, you won’t understand the difficulty of not being where you are. It’s not a matter of geography. It’s a matter of being. There are all sorts of accoutrements to go with that being—being where, being with whom ….

Having lived all over the place when I was a child (17 school changes in 12 years), and having attached and detached from numerous “fathers” (I had a very romantic mother), I learned very early on that it’s not a matter of where you are, or with whom—all that matters is how you are. If you are self-alienated (another term for this condition), you can project that discontent in any direction you want, and change locations/mates/jobs/situations, and be repeatedly surprised by the smallness of the improvement you’re able to make, even with the most radical changes. Until finally, one day, you may discover that it’s not a matter of where you are. It’s only how you are that counts. And that how comes from the inside out, not from the outside in.

This discovery may seem unimportant. But that’s where the deception lies. The significance of young Fr. Francis’ discovery can’t be overestimated, for, consciously or not, he had decided: “I shall not want.” Even if he forgets that decision, even if he resumes emotional dependence on the world around him, a reference point is made. And the soul remembers what we do not. Wherever he is for the rest of his days, whatever the conditions of his life, he has chosen the better part and his cup runneth over.

What Are You Giving Up for Lent?

Common question among churchgoers after Ash Wednesday. I’m a vegetarian, so I can’t give up meat. Of course, there’s a lot more I could “sacrifice.” Years ago, however, I thought about what to give up—daily wine with dinner, desserts, etc. But every way I turned this in my thoughts, it just came out silly. Foregoing ice cream did not seem anything more or other than a minor nuisance, more likely to make me irritable than to make me holy.

Instead, I decided to give up one specific thing, so I could focus on it, and I decided to give up complaining. This may not seem credible, but it’s true: The difference was remarkable. Complaints come to mind before they come to lips, so it was necessary to counter a complaint mentally. I had to notice the good in every complaint-evocative situation—I had no choice. Here are a few of the more minor examples (There were also major ones):

Thank you, Lord, that I have a friend to meet me for lunch. She didn’t show up on time, but, because I’m not complaining, I am free to enjoy our lunch together, without having to harbor a nagging resentment that her quarter-hour tardiness might have caused me.

Thank you for this unexpected bill. It makes me conscious—again—of my good fortune in having a pension that enables me to pay it. Many people are not so fortunate. For so many, an unexpected bill can be a budgetary crisis.

Thank you for the Mass this morning, for the loud pianist/cantor who seemed to regard the Mass as his personal concert—he was there, not somewhere else. And in his way, he’s participating in Mass. Thank you for reminding me that Mass is not my personal path to holiness, but everyone else’s too. (Mental note: Think more about Mass as shared. After all, we share the one bread, the one cup.)

Thank you that the doctor has kept me waiting a half-hour so far—it’s a wonderful opportunity to sit in quiet meditation, one I might not have had without this delay.

Thank you for this wonderful young priest we had among us for this short time. He’s leaving, but he was here long enough to remind some of us that we are Catholics, not members of some socially-acceptable progressive culture. His departure will break some hearts, but we must be grateful for that too, lest we become dependent.

Indeed, thank you for every deprivation, every loss, especially those that are great. Every loss is a grace, for it is the removal of yet another veil, bringing us ever closer to you.

When I gave up complaining that Lent, I found that gratitude filled the void without any effort or will at all on my part, almost without my even noticing the exchange at the time. Only later, during Easter, did I notice it.

This Lent, I’m giving up criticism. I don’t know what the fruits of that surrender will be, but so far, it looks a little like humility….

Have a blessed Lenten season.

So—At What Point Is It Person Enough?

The recent passage of New York’s radical new law permitting abortion up until the beginning of labor was shocking, but more shocking still were the cheers of the lawmakers when the governor signed the bill into law. Even people who were barely lukewarm in their pro-life sentiments were horrified by such an enthusiastic reception of the law. I could not help but wonder, however, at the pro-life horror as much as I wondered at the pro-choice cheers.

When I was teaching debate, I always allowed my students to choose the topics, no matter how controversial, with one exception: abortion. I had to explain that the topic is not debatable. Why? Because the morality or immorality of abortion depends entirely on a judgment about when life begins; otherwise, it’s simply a debate on infanticide. Nor can the issue be decided solely on the basis of religion: The Catholic church says that life begins at conception, a position that makes most birth control methods infanticide, but the Union of American Hebrew Congregations says that life begins when an infant first breathes outside the womb of the mother, a position that makes abortion legitimate up until the very last moment. That is why the Supreme Court refused to make a judgment and that is why the whole issue has been—and will continue to be—so impossible to legislate.

 “Well, then, Ms. Hunt, what is your position? Should it be legal or not?”

“I don’t want it to be illegal—I want it to be unthinkable.”

 And so the outrage that pro-lifers expressed at New York’s lifting of virtually all restrictions on abortion is as troubling as the cheers of the lawmakers. What is it that governs pro-lifers’ thinking when they consider human life in the womb? Is it the relative development of the baby? Is a baby not as fully developed as one about to be born somehow less a person than one more fully developed? There is something askew in that point of view. Either that’s a human life or it isn’t. Can any human be more or less a person? Once conceived, it’s either a human or it isn’t. The cheers are indeed horrifying, but the hypocrisy of those who were outraged is just as disturbing.

Possibly most mysterious of all is how we have borne our grief in all these decades of legally disposable babies. There’s only one way: by denying the infant’s personhood in earlier stages of pregnancy. Not only has that denial made it possible to bear the reality of the mass murder that has become a part of our culture, it has also allowed so many of us to continue our own systematic murder in the devices we use to prevent birth. It is our reaction to the cheers of the lawmakers that exposes our own hypocrisy.

From the moment a woman knows she is with child, she is answerable to God for the life of the person in her womb. If that is not true, then there is no life-creating God. And that is where the real debate lies—and always has—and no legislation can answer it. That debate is not between us, but within us.

The Joy of Worship

Last Sunday on the way out of church I noticed a lady sitting at the end of the pew on the far side of the church, turned slightly away from the departing crowd. Clearly, she didn’t want to be noticed. She was weeping. I sat down on the other end of the pew, nearest the departing parishioners in order to shield her from view as much as possible and give her a bit of privacy.

 I suspect that our church is much like most Catholic churches in the country. As soon as the recessional hymn is half-way over and the priest is no longer in view, people start leaving, and as they make their way to the vestibule, they talk, visit, laugh. Children, having behaved well during Mass—at least for most of the time—are happy for the release and run toward the door. I’m sure that in some churches, there is a great deal more reverence and decorum, and people either stay a while in prayers of thanksgiving or leave a good deal more quietly, but not in our church.

I had seen the lady in the communion line and she wasn’t weeping then. As I sat there, turned a bit away, with my back to her, I could steal a glance at her face once or twice; there was no anguish, grief, or even sorrow—just embarrassment by her apparently uncontrollable weeping. Eventually, when nearly everyone was gone, she stopped crying, stood to leave, and whispered “Thank you” as she left. I smiled at her in return.

She was experiencing the gift of tears. It’s not uncommon, or at least, it didn’t used to be. Tears are the ordinary human response to the grace of the Holy Spirit when one actually experiences Holy Communion. That’s not the only occasion for the “gift of tears,” but it happens often on that occasion. Or it used to.

We are so self-conscious now. The irony should be obvious: Even as we wear jeans and tee-shirts to Mass, even as we chatter in the sanctuary before and after Mass, even as we wear our informality and casual attitude like some kind of costume we’re proud of, we are so very self-conscious. We are suspicious of anything that looks “religious” and terrified of anything that might be “holy.” The woman was embarrassed with good reason.

I don’t want to be misunderstood. This is not criticism. I love these people. More—I can feel God loving them. The children running in the aisles, all sit-still behavior abandoned—I feel Christ smiling at them. But consider something else. Consider the awe, the wonder, the mystery, that has just happened on the altar. Consider the breath-taking splendor of that moment of divine intimacy that has just made us share in eternal life.

The incongruity is too mind-boggling. We must de-holify it. We must dress down for it. We must engage in idle social chatter in its presence, get it down to miniature size so we can handle it. Our minds are small, our emotions more comfortable with a little teddy-bear Jesus. We smile and wave at each other, sometimes hugging when we make the sign of peace. We are not comfortable with anything else—anything more, or other. It would be too frightening. It would be weird.

I’ll see that lady in church again. I feel a bond with her now, yet I know neither of us will ever mention it; we’ll probably even avoid each other. I wonder if she knows that what happened to her was a gift.

Expansion and Contraction

So much is covered by the over-arching metaphor of expansion and contraction. It is the activity of our lungs as we breathe, of our heartbeat, and some physicists say it is the constant activity of the universe.

But it’s more than merely physical activity. It’s the living of our lives, our relationships, and all our endeavors. It’s even the description of neuroses: Imagine a continuum. On the one end, one is out of control, extreme expansion; on the other, one is out of touch, extreme contraction. In interactions with others, one may be extroverted in a state of expansion and introverted in contraction.

Expanding and contracting is the activity of birth. As it is the activity of living, it might be considered a constant “birthing” of our lives. In the arts, there is a place for creation and a place for performance—for the composer and for the musical performer, the playwright and the actor, the poet and the critic. And both are equally necessary, interdependent. Neither can exist without the other.

In our pursuit of secular vocations, we discover that there is as much need for creative innovation as for maintenance and management. Since both are equally necessary, neither should reject the other.

In our spiritual lives, we follow the paths of service and prayer. God teaches us via our own experience and responses whether we are more active, outward-oriented, or more contemplative, given to inward reflection. Martha serves others; Mary listens to God. Both are expressions of love.

At some point, we might learn our own personal homeostasis on that continuum. The discovery can lead to self-knowledge that will help us to live our lives as God intended. Only following his will for us can lead to fulfillment and the inner peace every human being craves. The absence of that peace is almost always due to the absence of self-acceptance, which causes interior conflict and leads to conflict with others. The disdain sometimes expressed by active people for their contemplative counterparts, or vice-versa, is so destructive, and so contrary to God’s will.

We live at present in a culture that holds contemplation in varying degrees of contempt. In our churches, the condemnation of “faith without works,” when preached from the pulpit by active-minded priests, leads to frenzied competition with politics, rendering unto Caesar what is God’s and ending tragically in joyless works without faith. There is a reason that frantic social action Catholics so often lose their faith, and there is a reason that small obscure parishes where perpetual adoration is established survive and thrive. “We want God!” shouted millions of Poles to a government founded entirely on social action.

Awareness of the motion that governs our souls can save us from frustration and disharmony with God’s will for us and teach us to understand better the tensions of the world around us, and even to accept those changes we struggle with so often. That awareness is faith—which always brings hope and conquers despair.

Happy New Year!

It is November. It is Time….

Last night I went to a visitation and vespers service for a priest emeritus whom I have known for more than twenty years. I wept. And it seemed that I couldn’t help it, couldn’t stop myself. We were not close, and, at 94, he’d been beyond ordinary social interaction for some time.

 Yet his departure awoke a dormant love I had forgotten. There had been nothing to bring it to consciousness until his death. At 76, that’s happened to me before, more than once or twice. It’s a shock. Our universe is altered. And then we realize with a painful suddenness, that while we weren’t looking, while we were occupied with other things, a bond was broken. Someone who belonged to us has left us, has escaped our indifference to mortality. Hopkins speaks to this:

To a young child

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Father and I used to go to the symphony together. Afterwards, we had coffee in a kind of strained amiability. I was hyper-conscious of his priesthood, and he was far more understanding than, I think, most people ever knew. He was down-to-earth almost to a fault, a position that gave him detachment, saved him from descending into the squabbling melee of human vanities and agendas. He’d been a priest for seventy years, he’d lived through Vatican II, he continued saying Mass long after he was unable to follow the rubrics without assistance. He was the most unflappable person I’ve ever known.

I took Holy Communion to him for years after he was put in a retirement home. He could no longer walk without assistance and remained seated as I stood before him, disinclined to small talk—I think he was glad I didn’t try to force that smiling nonsense. I knew him too well for that, since our symphony days. All things Vatican II were, as they had been, in full force, and he was obedient. Yet, when I administered the Host, he never opened his hands. He always received on the tongue. He never joined me in the prayers, but always said, “Amen.” My mission, my purpose, my usefulness, was concluded when I placed the Host on his tongue. I could be dismissed. This never offended me, though I know his lack of sociability annoyed others.

I believe he celebrated Mass in the same way: with his attention on What was happening, not on his performance. His homilies were mere reiterations of the Gospel reading. This irritated many parishioners, who wanted to be entertained, enlightened, or affected by words. Their opinion of his homilies was never very relevant to him, though I’m sure he was aware of their disappointment.

I used to write homilies and commentaries but I gave it up. It was too easy to lapse into sentiment or hypocrisy, and too difficult to be relevant for English-speakers who might be Canadian, Australian, American, anyone anywhere who spoke English. One becomes generic by necessity. It is easy to understand Father’s indifference to those who wanted to hear stirring or consoling preaching every Sunday. I think he just gave it up.

He was “giving it up” made manifest. I think now I learned some of the roots of my contemplative life from him. Without ever having a conversation on the subject—for, as a writer, I know what I think he might have also known, perhaps without thinking about it: Truth transcends words. It’s way too big to fit into the small human invention of language, or even into our ideas about it. We gain awareness of it as we permit it, without resistance, access into the cracks and crevices of our constructed brittle and fragile lives, our mortality. And with the grace of our faith, we discern that we win by surrender, by letting go of our bonds so that they don’t become our bondage. And know, with Hopkins, the futility of our leafmeal language.

R.I.P., Father Marv.

A Marian Mystery

This past Saturday morning, on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, I awoke to see at the back of my garden a grotto style fountain with a statue of Our Lady of Grace in the upper niche. Water has flowed from her feet into the basin below for the past 20 years or more. The solid concrete statue, about 30 pounds or more, had toppled and Our Lady decapitated. My garden is completely enclosed with a six-foot fence. There are no animals there and our weather has been very fine.

Time for Silence

A writer friend wrote me: “Never have I had such a compulsion to speak—shout, even. Yet, never have I been so utterly mute, prostrate with grief. I want to scream, but there is nothing I can say.”

 Though I’m not a blogger, as she is, burdened by an expectation from her readers to say something in the face of this most horrific scandal, I do know how she feels. I think her muteness is due to her very real faith. She has devoted her life and her considerable talent to Holy Mother Church. Yet, now it seems she is silenced. Not the silence of Pope Francis, who says he will be silent in the face of “… those who lack good will…with those who seek division…who seek destruction….” That isn’t silence. That is accusation. And not the silence of the many bishops and those in the Vatican; that’s the tiresome stone-walling we’ve come to know and not love.

Catholics who love the Church have an instinct to rise up and defend her when she is under attack. Alas, the attackers are in the Church. This is not an enemy outside the gates, but within.

And so, perhaps it is a time not for defense, but for stillness, and for silence. When I was a child, I lived with my faith-filled Primitive Baptist grandmother and her youngest children, Edna and Glenys. Whenever we children might be noisy, playing, squabbling, and a thunderstorm would come up, she would make us stop, sit still and be silent. I can’t name it, but I know it. It’s that kind of silence I’m talking about.

Is It Worthwhile to Mention This?

The new crisis is not news, nor is it new.

Archbishop Viganó is not a saint, but he is a hero. He knew he would be calumniated, and according to the credible journalist he spoke to, he feared for his life, not just his reputation—which, of course, will be annihilated. The guns aimed at him now might make the U.S. nuclear arsenal look small by comparison. I believe his stated motive: He is old, his life is over, and he will face God. He wants to do that with a clean conscience.

Father Dwight Longenecker makes predictions on his blog:

They might make us sad, but I agree with him. Essentially, what will happen now? Nothing much. The pope will not resign, primarily because he likes being pope, and because he has developed stonewalling into a highly developed art form, capable of defeating any criticism—even bald-faced facts. There will be a new commission (ho hum), investigations, and lots of very public breast-beating. The media won’t make too much of it, because it deals with homosexual crimes, and because by now, let’s face it, the Catholic Church and sex scandals is old news.

What are we to do? Fr. Longenecker says that if reform is your vocation, go for it—and God bless you. If it’s not, only the hard work of rolling up our sleeves and getting on our knees remains for us. Which is what my church did last night. Our young Polish priest led an hour of Adoration and reparation with psalms and prayers of penance and petition for the grace of forgiveness. The church was full.

As for Father Longenecker’s predictions, sad as they are, let’s consider the alternative: The sickness of sin and depravity has so pervaded the hierarchy, including the Vatican, that only total destruction could clean it up. And there is a lot of wheat among those nasty tares, as widespread and deeply rooted as they are. Good bishops, good priests, good Catholics. But, most of all, this is what He left us. To whom shall we go? He is still there.

Love and Tolerance

Recently our young Polish priest gave a homily about love. I have to say that whenever someone wants to talk authoritatively about love, I tune out. Too often, it seems that it’s the people who talk most about love who know least about it.

 Love is like dancing or swimming.  It’s learned only by doing. You can read all you want to about swimming, but you’ll never learn to swim without getting in the water. You can study dance steps, but you won’t learn to dance by sitting in your chair. No matter what you read, religious or secular, philosophy, theology, psychology—or even such experts as Hallmark or Nora Roberts—you learn nothing about love by reading.

 So I was not inclined to listen to our young priest’s homily at first. But then he started by saying he would talk about what love is not. And that’s a pretty good start. When he said, “Love is not tolerance,” I decided to listen.

 “My sheep know my voice.” Yes, we do. His is the voice that does not tell us he “respects” our choices. He doesn’t talk about “tolerating” our wishes when we wander wherever we want, into thickets and brambles from which we cannot extricate ourselves. The shepherd loves the sheep. He is not swayed by complaints, by bleating protests. He is not worried about getting his sheep to love him. His concern is for them, not for himself.

 Sheep are not as stupid as hirelings think. They know that “tolerance” is another word for apathy. They know that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.   The hireling talks about “forgiveness” when what he means is “permission.” There’s a universe of difference between the two words. Christ’s forgiveness is endless, but not a “jot or a tittle” of permission is granted. Because he loves us.

  The hireling’s love is the kind that does not try to stop me when I blindly fall into the pit of addiction, that respects my right to pursue relationships that debase me, that permits me to commit the sin that will give me eternal sorrow and remorse, that wants to let me do my own thing (instead of my Father’s). I know that love. It’s toxic.

 And I know the hireling’s voice. I know it very well. It was Peter’s voice when Christ told him to get behind him, it was the voice speaking to Eve in the garden, and it is the political pablum of our time, poured in our ears constantly, like velvet damnation.

It is not the voice of my shepherd.