All posts by Dena Hunt

Grendel Among Us

I taught Beowulf to my gifted high school seniors for many years. My students’ reaction to Grendel was immediate, predictable, revulsion. The first image to ponder is Grendel’s rage as he is excluded, night after night, from the singing and laughter in Hrothgar’s hall. Excluded. Night after night after night. As his rage grows, so do his atrocities.

It is not difficult to transit from that image to a more familiar one: someone seen in the halls and classrooms every day, someone who is the butt of cruel jokes and ridicule, someone who reacts to his peers’ rejection of him with adopted bravado, with feigned indifference, with boastful lies and posturing—all of which serve only to increase their contempt, their exclusion of him.

It’s also not difficult this morning to look at the face of the young man named Cruz and see Grendel—once again.

Last night, a newswoman with ashes on her forehead referred repeatedly in righteous anger to this young man as a “monster.” We create our own monsters.

I don’t do Christmas trees

I don’t do Christmas trees.

It’s not a bah humbug thing, and it’s not some kind of protest about the commercialization of Christmas or a supposed paganization of it. It really has to do with that happy sadness of memory.

I was the only child of a single mother, and we were very poor. I remember one Christmas in Atlanta when I was ten. She was working two jobs as a waitress and we had a one-room apartment with a kitchenette. There was a bathroom downstairs that we shared with a basement apartment. I remember sleeping in my coat. Mama bought one of those little plastic gumdrop trees and set it on the dresser, filled it with colored gumdrops and wrapped my Christmas present – I think the landlady gave her some paper. It was two pairs of panties. They were so pretty; one was pink, and the other blue and they had a bit of lace trim. They were nylon. I’d never had anything but white cotton panties before. They were beautiful. I don’t remember being unhappy. It was Christmas and I was ten and I was loved.

Much later, not so poor and a lot older, we were still like children together at Christmas. She loved decorating and giving presents. I always had a lot of gifts; she’d even wrap a can of coffee she knew I liked and put it under the tree. This continued after her divorce and after my own. I always made it home for Christmas. It would have devastated her if I didn’t. It was Christmas and she was 70 and she was loved.

The last couple of years of her life, it was a struggle for her, especially that last Christmas, but she tried for my sake, and I tried for hers.

Mama made the most beautiful beaded ornaments and gave them to everyone she knew. I had a zillion of them, and in the first couple years after her death I decorated a Christmas tree with them. But it wouldn’t do. I gave them all away.

A few days ago, I met a friend in the parking lot at church. She lost her husband almost two years ago, and she was crying. “You said I’d get to a place where it wouldn’t hurt so much. Well, I’m still not there. It’s the memories. I hate them!”

“You will get there,” I said. “You’ll know you’re there when the memories don’t make you cry, but make you smile. And then you won’t hate the memories but cherish them.”

For the past several years I haven’t bothered with a tree; after all, I have no ornaments now. But this year, I think I’ll put up a small tabletop tree in the living room window with just some white lights. I’m pretty sure it will make me smile.

Hurricanes and Raptures

I am in the emergency room waiting for the second injection in the rabies vaccine series. (I tried to rescue a squirrel during the hurricane on Monday, and he bit me.)

A lady, who said she was 65, stopped me as I walked to my seat in the waiting area. She wanted conversation, but she often started to cry when she spoke. When I asked her if she was all right, she said, “Oh, yes, this is just tears of joy—because of my Savior.”

She interjected Scripture frequently into her conversation about the hurricane, her family, and her grandchildren—of whom she is very proud: “She got a full four-year scholarship to the University of Georgia. I thought my heart was going to burst when she walked across the stage for her diploma. Praised be Jesus Christ in whom we live and move and have our being.” She referred to the rapture a couple of times. This went on until I was called away, and as I left, she said, “We will see each other again. This world is not our home.”

She is what some people call a “fundamentalist.” The doctrine of “the rapture” is not universal among fundamentalist Christians, and judging by the small number of her references, it’s not of paramount importance to her. What was important were the passages she chose to interject, those that occurred to her as she spoke; they were all passages of praise, gratitude, and deep faith.

I noted that she did not ask me whether I was a Christian before she spoke. I was glad she was apparently unconcerned about whether I might be “comfortable” with her Jesus talk. For her, the reality of Christ was absolute; one’s comfort with that was not significant. Indeed. One’s relative degree of comfort does not alter Truth even a little bit.

I am a Catholic living among Protestant Christians. This is not the first time I’ve wished the Holy Spirit were as welcome in my local church as he is in some of theirs. I know there are pockets of anti-Catholicism here, but it’s like white racism, remembered only in the stories of generations ago. I hear about it mostly from my fellow Catholics, who, like some die-hard black racists, seem to have a vested interest in perpetuating victimization.


But hate is like love. Love comes from the lover, not the beloved. So does hate. And we choose. Just as surely as you can choose to love, you can choose to hate. Either way, your choice says nothing about your object—but it says a great deal about you. “By their fruits shall you know them.”

Why Doesn’t Pope Francis Speak English?

In the Catholic Herald this past Thursday, Matthew Schmitz explains the hostile attitude of the Vatican toward the United States:


Schmitz interprets the barely concealed disdain Pope Francis has for the United States in a broader, more historical context that’s much more illuminating than my mere reaction to the Pope’s refusal to speak English. It’s more than disingenuous to suggest that he simply never learned the language. English is the second language of all western countries and most Eastern countries as well. It would be difficult if not impossible to avoid learning English for any educated person, even for those who are minimally educated. No. He doesn’t speak English because he chooses not to.

From the smallest social setting to the largest media-covered event, it is never courteous to refuse to address someone in their own language. It is an insult that expresses an attitude of superiority and a contempt for one’s audience. From the moment Pope Francis first addressed an audience of English speakers in Italian, the content of Schmitz’s article was inevitable.

One and Many on Pentecost           

(On the One vs Many theme again)

Just as the great private event of the Resurrection “began” Christianity among a small handful of persons, the great public event was the Pentecost. Until Pentecost, Judaism was a communal faith, social in nature, a religion for a people. But look what happens at Pentecost:

The Holy Spirit divided and settled on each of them, and each of them was transformed by it. They had lived in fear, hiding in a group in the upper room to pray. But then the Holy Spirit came and baptized each one of them and they each experienced a new reality, and spoke in languages that had been alien, foreign, to them: A revolution of consciousness happened in each one of them: Their faith became personal, intensely so, and Christianity was born.

And so it happened for everyone who was open to it. Imagine being in a place where no one understands you, no one knows you; you cannot communicate with anyone, you are isolated, invisible to everyone around you. And then you hear yourself being addressed personally in your native tongue. You are no longer invisible, no longer alone. No—you are personally known, and personally forgiven—and you are loved, personally.

There are socio-political forces literally everywhere (including the Church) who would have us believe that all things good are communal. That may be so—I don’t know. I do know that communalism is the useful and necessary stuff of political and social theory. I also know that Christian faith is not a faith in political or social theory.

“Good” and “God”

I’m not sure how I got on the mailing list of the newsletter from the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at USC, but many of the brief articles reporting on the Institute’s activities and research are quite interesting.

Take the one-page “Good Without God?” for example. The Institute’s director, Fr. James Heft, SM, has a conversation with the USC chaplain, former Evangelical minister and now secular humanist, Bart Campolo. The two discuss the nature of morality for people of faith and people of no faith. Of course, the discussion depended on one’s definition of “goodness.” Campolo said that being good meant “how we treat our fellow men and women” Fr. Heft agreed but said that belief in Christ helped him to be a better person.

Most Christians with any self-honesty at all, sooner or later, confront the fact that Christians have no franchise on goodness. People of other faiths far surpass Christians in goodness very often; likewise, people of no faith at all, people with just a belief in goodness, whether they call it “secular humanism” or not. The notion that there are Christians and then there are “bad people” is not only naïve and childish but downright destructive, even sinfully so.

Scripture references abound: the Pharisee praying next to the breast-beating tax collector in the temple is not just an admonition against self-righteousness or a lesson in the virtue of humility; it’s also a profound caution against comparing oneself with others. And that’s a much harder lesson to learn in a culture that constantly compares (read: competes in) just about everything—including goodness.

Father Heft seems to think that being “in love … forms the deepest foundation for moral behavior.” Perhaps. But one can be in love with humanity, or even with goodness itself, thereby creating a false god. Many saints have been in love with God and not exhibited goodness in any particular way. Not all saints are replications of Mother Teresa; some live their whole lives in strict enclosure.

It may be that goodness is simply, in secular language, an innate trait of some people, varying in degree and having nothing in particular to do with religion of any kind. In Christian language, perhaps goodness is a grace, a gift from God, who reserves for himself the right to choose those on whom he will bestow it. Rather like rain—another Scriptural reference given by our Lord himself, or the healing of a Syrian from leprosy while many Jews were left unhealed.

I think, for Christians, the notion of comparing is far more deserving of our attention. When we compare one thing with another thing, what is our purpose? That’s a more serious question and far more worthy of meditation: Why are you comparing? Is there some kind of contest going on? Who is the judge?

One Benedict Option

Several years ago, I was repeatedly distracted by the idea of one-vs-many. It seemed to present itself in all sorts of contexts, the way something does when it demands admittance into our consciousness. I even wrote several posts on the subject, seeing the conflict (for that is what it was) in several different guises. When that sort of thing happens, we usually find the source of the disturbance in our own psyche, and so I searched for it there, found its personal manifestation, and set about resolving the conflict in my own life.

But it’s not merely personal. That’s increasingly obvious. It has pervaded our lives, not only in the United States, but abroad as well. It is at the root of the political unease in Europe, the religious intolerance, cultural chaos, and loss of identity. The economic success of the EU has kept the thin fabric of society together, but the edges are fraying. Brexit in the United Kingdom came as a shock; so did the phenomenal unexpectedness of Trump’s election in the United States.

It is also manifested in the Church under our current pope, whose excursions into national political and economic issues outside the Church are unprecedented in the papacy, and whose unusually reluctant and vague incursions on matters of Church doctrine have been extraordinary—as noted even by secular observers. It has almost become a cliché among Catholic journalists to correct secular reporters with “What the Pope really said was … “ His recurring theme is community, sometimes varied by references to unity. The Catholic in the pew is taught that he must not perceive himself a Catholic person, but only a part of the Catholic Church, perhaps with ecclesial, social, economic, political, racial or sexual markers attached to give him his group identity, since there is no individual identity. The notion of selfhood exclusive of these tags is sinful, hence, the reluctance of the Holy Father to refer to matters of personal morality, and his eagerness to talk about group morality.

It seems to be the reigning desire everywhere to dissolve distinction into some kind of amorphous unity. Yet this rush to “inclusiveness” has only bred intolerance, now grown to an alarming degree—such that anyone of a different opinion is not even allowed to speak but literally shouted down. Examples are too numerous to mention. The term individualism is pronounced with a sneer at best; it’s most often used to explain away the apparent evil of withdrawal, non-participation, or even just a different opinion.

This affects us on all different levels—offices and faculties, parishes and families, and of course, all media. There is no escape from the omnipresent demand for conformity, including, sadly, in our churches. Because the gospel of “Community” sounds so Christian, rather like the ease with which the Christian “God is love” was inverted to the secular “Love is God,” and opened the door for all sorts of crimes against the dignity of the human person, all in the name of love.

The many have declared war on the one, and in some way or other, we are all combatants in that war. I remember a teacher who said she loved teaching—she just couldn’t stand the students. And I remember a young assistant priest who was at our parish briefly. He was very popular, “cool,” and older parishioners were thrilled by his appeal to the younger crowd. He often remarked that he loved being a priest. One evening he held a “faith-sharing” group, and an older lady (not one of his crowd), so excited by the long-awaited opportunity to share her faith, talked about her encounter with Christ in prayer. But the priest wanted us to encounter Christ in each other, in “community.” He interrupted her with: “That’s good, Anne, but let’s give someone else a chance to speak.” The hurt on the woman’s face was visible. She didn’t say another word, and neither did anyone else, so the cool young priest was able to light the candle he’d brought with him and play his guitar for everyone. A shepherd loves his flock—it’s just those annoying bleating lambs that get in the way.

And a good pastor is now defined as a good administrator; thus our parishes become just another club we join for family or group social activities, and we are made to feel guilty for the smallest timid request for personal human kindness. We learn to curb our “expectations.” After all, “it’s not about you.” It’s especially not about you if you’re not influential in some useful way that would help the parish grow, or diminish its debt for the new social hall. And it’s most especially not about you if you’re an unattractive, unintelligent, unconnected, old, poor, lost, lonely, sick—sheep. Go away. And many do just that.

Fortunately, some Christians have learned not to confuse “pastor” with “shepherd.” And the result of the painful invisibility that comes from the gospel of community is that we seek—and then are found by—the Shepherd. He always seeks out those of us who don’t matter, for it takes a sheep to recognize the voice of the shepherd. We know him because he calls us by name, individually, personally. He does not call communities—groups, clubs, families, parishes, nations or tribes. He calls persons.

All the foregoing is the local, personal, picture; the larger and more global picture is called The Benedict Option, by Rod Dreher. I haven’t read that controversial book, but I’ve read the reviews, and it sounds as though someone has seen with an eagle’s eye what I have seen with my snail’s eye.

The many have always despised the One. I don’t know why. But whatever their reason, it’s the same reason that Christians are the most aware of the conflict and the same reason that Christians are persecuted now more than any other time in modern history. Ideological totalitarianism is anti-Christian by its very nature, for even though it expresses frequently as the misnomer “anti-Semitism,” it’s always been simply hatred of the Jew.

For Fans of Father Brown

I always enjoyed the PBS series “Father Brown” (Chesterton’s character)—when I could catch it. Scheduling seemed erratic. For other F.B. fans, I’m happy to tell you that Netflix is now showing all five seasons, 60 episodes in all.

The Eden Experience

There are universal experiences everyone has and then forgets, over time, either willingly or willfully. Or maybe the experience sticks with them but they don’t know it for what it is. I remember a friend, an English jazz musician in New Orleans (whom I’ll call Peter) telling me that he’d once been a part of a foursome when he was about fifteen—he and a young friend with two schoolgirls they’d met in a park one day in London. He told me about it wistfully.

“There was an innocence about it, you know? None of us were religious, and we were just sort of playing, as children play at being naughty. I saw one of those girls a few years later in a pub and she wouldn’t even look at me. Until that moment, the moment when she turned her head away to keep from seeing me, I never felt bad about that day. But in that moment, I felt bad, dirty even. It’s not that she did anything to make me feel that way. It’s just that I saw it different after that. I saw myself different, like being naked and finding out that somebody sees you.”

It was the Eden experience. Some people don’t remember it, but Peter did, even if he didn’t recognize what it was. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil is always a self-encounter. I remember my own experience. I used to tell lies when I was a child. I lied to impress people, to get my way, to avoid punishment—whatever. I didn’t feel bad about it. I suppose it was the way I coped with my little life in my little world. I never lied to hurt anybody, thank goodness. I never even thought about it, and yes—there was an innocence about it.

I must have been very good at it because I didn’t get caught until I was nine. And then it happened. My class at school were going on their annual picnic and we were all supposed to get a note of permission from our parents and bring it to school the day of the picnic. I forgot to get my permission note. When I got to school and everyone was getting ready to board the bus, I didn’t have a permission note. The teacher sent me to the principal’s office to call my mother and get permission. I called her at her job but she couldn’t come to the phone. I lied to the principal and said she’d given permission. I went on the picnic, had a great time, and forgot about it.

The following day, the teacher told me the principal wanted to see me in her office. Mrs. Cunningham sat behind her desk and I stood in front of it.

“Dena, yesterday I let you call your mother to get permission to go on the picnic.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You didn’t speak to your mother, did you?”

“No, ma’am. I spoke to her supervisor and she asked her for me and she said it was okay.” (I was good at lying—very quick on my feet.)

Mrs. Cunningham had short gray curls and she wore a navy blue suit with a white blouse that tied at the neck. She was thin and small. She had one hand on her desk holding a pen. And she said, “Now that’s two lies you’ve told, isn’t it?”

And there it was. I had no fig leaf handy. I said nothing. I looked away from her. I understand why Adam and Eve ran and hid. I saw myself naked for the first time.

“Your mother called back after you left. She wanted to know if something was wrong. Now go back to class.” There was no punishment. I wish there had been.


Now, it isn’t that I’d never been made to feel bad before. I had—in fact that was the motive for the lies to impress people, to make myself look good, not just to others but to myself—because we see ourselves reflected in the eyes of other people. Lying was the remedy for all problems. Maybe I’d always believed my own lies—I don’t know. I just know that for the first time in my life I saw myself as I was. It’s an experience of being naked, and of desperately needing cover.

It’s like St. Augustine’s memory of stealing pears from a neighbor’s orchard when he was a boy. It sears consciousness and alters us with the permanent weight of conscience—“with-knowledge.” It’s the Eden experience of seeing ourselves as we are. “Nakedness” is a metaphor. Our knowledge of good and evil comes from a mirror. The girl in the pub was Peter’s mirror, Mrs. Cunningham was mine, and I suppose that Adam and Eve were mirrors for each other.

That was over sixty years ago. I’ve heard other Eden experiences or read about them. People forget, but if the experience “takes,” it’s remembered. Almost always, however, the conclusion is some variation of my friend Peter’s take on it. He somehow managed to blame “society” and religion for creating puritanical notions about sex. Exactly how that accounts for his deeply personal discomfort in the pub is not clear. It was his own knowledge that caused him shame, no one else’s, but he didn’t see it that way.

As painful as the experience is, it is indeed the “Happy Fall,” for it is the door we pass through to contrition and repentance.  “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” is the prayer from the Cross of our Lord, who knew us so much better than we can ever know ourselves. It’s a prayer for the innocent, for those who are ignorant of their own nature, for those who steal pears or tell lies or play at secret unlicensed sex. There may always be people like Peter, who deflect what they see onto “society” or “religion” and who never open that door to repentance, but remain critical, intolerant, and unforgiving all their lives. Clinging to their innocent ignorance, they unknowingly become that which they accuse others of. But those who “look upon him whom they have pierced” know not only what they’ve done but also why they did it, and they pass through that door, and find to their everlasting joy that far greater experience of forgiveness, an ocean of divine mercy.

Faith and Fireflies

In the long evenings of summertime after supper, the grownups would take chairs from the kitchen to the front porch and sit there watching over us children as we chased fireflies in the front yard. It wasn’t the “cool of the evening”; in rural Georgia there was no such thing, but at least work was over, it was deep shade, and every now and then a small breeze did bless us with a brief visit. It was dusk, and it didn’t last for long but we enjoyed it while it did.

The children would run down the steps barefoot and out into the yard, swept clean and clear under Granny’s direction nearly every day, carrying our jars to collect the little glittering stars that flew around us everywhere, teasing us, turning off their lights as we grasped at them to catch them and put into our jars. We squealed and laughed and bumped into each other, not noticing the growing dark. The horizon on the fields across the road grew ever dimmer and the great looming darkness of the pinewoods came ever closer to us.

When one of the grownups would get up and go inside to light a kerosene lamp, we would know that our play was over and we’d have to go inside, wash our feet, and go to bed, but we made the most of the darkness and the play while we could. Sometimes, a little flying star would tease us too close to the edge of our watched-over safety, and we’d hear, “Now, don’t you go past that persimmon tree!” We’d hear that with a child’s kind of unacknowledged gratitude, not with irritation, because it made us know that we were cared far, watched over, and that gave us a freedom that children who have no persimmon tree boundaries can never know.

This image has returned to me many times over the nearly seven decades since then. I’ve learned that freedom exists only within loving boundaries, I’ve learned that we should never take for granted those who wait and watch over us.

When it was time to go inside we released our jarfuls of stars, letting them fly on their way. We never tried to keep them cruelly in their prisons, for we’d had our play and now they should have theirs.

Just after the recent election when people formed mobs and threatened everything from suicide to homicide in their rage and bitterness, a news commentator said, “Well, you have to understand—they have no God, so they’ve made politics their god. Of course they’re passionate. They’re true believers in their ideology.”  In their zeal, these children chase the fireflies into the woods and get lost there. They hold them in their jars until they die and their fire goes out and they have to get new ones to replace them. Because without them, there is only darkness. One so wants to say, Please realize that these are just transient little glittering things. Look at them, enjoy them and let them go. What is real, what matters, is back there on the porch, worrying for you. Where have you gone?