All posts by Dena Hunt

Just One Line

The last time I saw my aunt, she off-handedly said something that has stuck with me all this time. She was talking about a bit of financial advice she’d given her daughter, nothing more than that, but she said it with the kind of conviction that comes from a long history of testing and proving. It resonated with me—it stuck—and I think that’s because it’s more than a casual remark; it’s a simple and profound truth that goes way beyond something as mundane as budget-keeping. Without further ado, here’s what she said: “It’s not how much you have. It’s what you do with it.”

She and her husband, my late beloved uncle Chuck, worked very hard all their lives. Through thrift and good common sense, they retired with no debts and a comfortable enough income to do quite a bit of traveling before he died. Then, she was left well provided for, and their five children will be provided for when she’s gone. Neither of them went beyond high school, neither played the market, they just worked hard and steadily—running a filling station, operating a storage facility, or freelance tax preparation and bookkeeping, and even Wal-Mart maintenance work. It wasn’t what work they did; it was that they did work. Really. I don’t think either of them was ever “out of work,” not even once. I always had an admiration for them that I couldn’t have for others on the basis of mere wealth accumulation.

That’s why her casual remark was so significant. It didn’t just say something; it said everything. She was talking about money management, but I see that it goes way, way beyond that. At least, it does for me. Just think about a few other contexts:

An obese girl in a check-out line using food stamps and complaining that they don’t cover beer or cosmetics. She feels very victimized by a government that doesn’t supply all her “needs.”

A woman—any woman—who demands that taxpayers cover the costs of her promiscuity. She wants us to finance her birth control, her killing of her children, her maintenance of those children she did not kill. She says she has a “right” to expect that of us. She sees no obligation for her own self-control.

But all that is trite, superficial. There are deeper meanings:

“My parish is so irreverent I don’t go to Mass there. I watch it on television or go out of town once in a while to a church where there is more tradition and more inspiring music.”

“There is no love in my marriage and no point in my staying in a unfulfilling relationship.”

“I can’t do any volunteering; I’m on disability.”

“I don’t pray any more. There’s never any sort of consolation. It’s like talking to thin air. God doesn’t love me.”

And lastly, “To him who has, more will be given. To him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” It’s a passage not so difficult to grasp when you understand that it has nothing to do with justice, or with the haves versus the have-nots, but it has everything to do with personal choice. And there are a million contexts.

“It’s not how much you have. It’s what you do with it.”

Hindsight and Foresight

Joseph’s post at the Imaginative Conservative

tries to make sense of the chaotic situation in Europe. I don’t know what it’s like for those who live there, but from this distance, it looks almost shocking for those of us who are old enough to remember that once upon a time, there was England, France, Germany, et al. No more. These are not “countries” now in the sense that we used to understand the term “country.” They are more like administrative provinces. One travels from one country to another in much the same way an American travels from Georgia to South Carolina. We will understand Europe better if we think of it as the United States of Europe, regardless of what it’s called.

Historically, a country loses its sovereignty by conquest. But what happened in post-war Europe is different. For the English, after centuries of blindness, they looked at their German enemy and finally recognized their own imperialism and nationalism. They never recovered from the shock and set about dismantling their empire and beginning this slow national suicide. Yet in the evil stew of nationalism, racism, religious intolerance, and imperialism, there always survives a small, struggling element of genuine love of homeland, and those who have this love are suffering.

Here, an American of southern heritage can sympathize. We too have a great evil in our past, and we have paid a very dear price for it. But some of us still love our homeland, though we know we shouldn’t…and though we know the futility of defending that love, for defense, as we know well, is useless, and only leads to more condemnation. It is required of us that we despise our heritage, that we despise our ancestors. We are required to self-hate by law.

This isn’t bitterness. That would be nostalgic, at best; more likely, it is comic, as befits the humiliation of a defeated people. Actually, it’s simply resignation. I have no more desire to fly a Confederate flag, now contraband, than an American one. Great heroes, men and women and children, have died trying to protect what both of those flags (or any others, for that matter) represented to them—not a country, never that obscure abstraction, but the earth, the trees, the sky and the soil, the rivers that flowed through the land of their birth. It is an irrational love, as all real love is. But history is written, we know, by the conquerors in rational terms, and the truth of a defeated people dies with them as they are mutated and transformed by conquest into whatever their conquerors need them to be. I’m an American.

An English acquaintance told me with pride several years ago: “I’m not ‘English.’ I’m European.” I heard recently that she has written a celebratory piece about London’s new Islamic mayor, elected not on his merit, but because he’s Islamic. How like the way America celebrated the election of a black president, not on his merit, but because he’s black. There are Americans who truly believe that this election proved they weren’t racists. I’m sure the English journalist believes that this London election proves something similar. The irony in both cases is downright pungent. But that old satanic double-faced mirror of projection is always in play, and people will always tell themselves what they want to hear. We watch history at work in Europe now with the detachment of a distance not of space, but of time. It all seems so old, so predictable. History is “the long defeat,” said Tolkien. Verily.

About this Corpus

The Feast of Corpus Christi makes us think about Body, as members of the body of Christ, the corpus—or body—of a poet’s work, the body of evidence, the body that gives us pain and pleasure and presence in the world. All sorts of body. The body that, for the past two days, kept me housebound in pain with arthritis. My friend Betty, who’s 93, is far better acquainted with that affliction than I and far less limited by it. She still drives to Mass each day, attends her weekly Legion of Mary meetings, and makes her visits to shut-ins. But she also enjoys very much the symphony orchestra and attends almost every concert. Whatever our age, our bodies demand of us, give to us, and to some extent are us until this corpus becomes corpse.

You can watch a baby absorb himself in fascination with his toes, see the wonder in his eyes as he realizes that when his fingers succeed in reaching his toes, he can feel the touch. The discovery thrills him, his eyes grow wide as he tries to repeat the experience. Watch the despair in a teenage girl’s face when she looks in the mirror and acknowledges that she is not beautiful, despite all her efforts. She sees her whole life as a failure waiting to happen to her.

Our bodies have astonishing power over us. I think we could sit and count the ways our bodies dominate us all day long and not come to the end of them, as we realize that even the counting, the thinking, is a physical act. The Body is physical, including our hearts and minds, our feelings and thoughts. The body delights and humiliates, limits and empowers. It is physical. Yet … it is more. There is in the body a knowledge of something unnamed, something quite other.

Attributed to Bono: “Religion is what’s left when spirit has left the building.” The limits of one man’s profundity. Well, we all have limits. That’s one of the functions of this corpus—to limit us, our movement, our feelings, our thoughts.  We can never, on our own, go beyond the physical, and all things are physical, even Bono. This keyboard in my hands is physical, merely a dead object until I animate it with my fingers. We are all just inanimate keyboards waiting to be touched into life by animus. And so it is with religion, only, unlike Bono, we regard that as the beginning, not as the end.

It is the very essence of our “religion” that we kneel as our priest raises the physical wafer and utters the words that make a dead object transcend its limitations and become the body and blood, soul and divinity, of Christ. When we believe this, as he told us to believe, to remember, we are able to receive that transcendence, that metaphysicality, and become his body, become Corpus Christi; no longer belonging to ourselves, but to him, we are the body of Christ. Amen.

The Metamorphosis of Censure

Something stunning happened to me last week. My doctor, in whom I placed my confidence for twenty years, invited me to find another doctor. I am still reeling from the experience and it’s as much my reaction as it is the event itself that has caused me to think about the way people interact now, not in intimate relationships, but in wider social and professional situations. When I told a couple of friends what happened, they were not as shocked as I was, but merely made suggestions about finding another doctor. My goodness. How very disposable we all are.

Particulars: I had been waiting an hour and twenty minutes to see the doctor. This was an extraordinarily long wait-time. The longest I’ve ever had to wait is probably forty minutes or so, usually less—twenty or thirty. I complained. Not loudly, rudely, or offensively, but I did complain, especially when confined to the little treatment room (I have mild claustrophobia.) His response was to invite me to find another doctor. I could only answer“What?”  I think my reaction caused him to pause a bit, and possibly to want to retract his suggestion, but I’m not sure—I was too shocked to notice. He said something about what the nurse (who’d received my complaint) had said, but in the end, that didn’t make any difference. I couldn’t get around what he had said. After twenty years?

Obviously I thought he was a good doctor or I wouldn’t have stayed with him for twenty years, but I recognize that my assessment was based on my perception of his medical knowledge, never on any manifestation of his caring. I did occasionally wish he had more to say about flagged test results, more to suggest, perhaps; and I wished that I could find more reassurance than I did in his casual indifference to my questions and concerns, but because I believed in his expertise, when he didn’t worry this or that, neither did I.

I now have to adjust not only my perception of my doctor, but also my attitude toward my own health and well-being. It’s not a pleasant discovery to make at 73 that one has placed all one’s confidence in someone who, frankly, my dear, doesn’t give a damn.

But this is only one element of a change much broader and deeper. What this incident illustrates is the widespread acceptance of the disposability of persons. My doctor’s waiting room had plenty of patients. He didn’t need me. He probably didn’t give a second thought to the incident when I left. Twenty years of trust was irrelevant. Why should we be surprised by the millions of abortions (“I can have more children later”) or euthanasia (“Resources are better spent elsewhere.”) And it was the social indifference toward husbands’ abandonment of their wives and children that necessitated the feminist movement.

Such ignoble actions and callous attitudes would once have been socially censured, but not now. I remember a conversation in the teachers’ lounge many years ago: Several of us had pregnant students in our classes. It wasn’t an unusual situation even fifteen years ago. One of us remarked, “You know, that never would have happened in our day. A pregnant student wouldn’t have been allowed to attend school.” True. She would have been censured by public opinion. We agreed that, while that censure was cruel and often quite unjust, it had to be admitted that just about all children had married parents.  There were very few single mothers and absent fathers. Convention exists for a reason, and censure has its purposes, cruel as its application may sometimes be.

And censure, cruel or not, has not been eradicated; it has only metamorphosed into political correctness. Censure has not changed; only its objects have changed. We condemn preferential treatment of one race over another to the point of criminalizing it. The motive for that condemnation is not different from the motive that would have condemned a pregnant girl in public school fifty, forty years ago, and it’s not different from the condemnation of a man who would abandon his dependent wife and children. Censure is the expression of society’s righteousness, varied by its vision of itself. Everything is different now—and nothing is different.

My doctor was protecting himself from criticism (which is how he perceived my complaint). We interact with each other now in self-protective ways. Such self-protection is deemed justifiable, even advisable. Like “protection” in other, more intimate, interactions, everything professional, commercial, political, and social now seems grounded in covering one’s euphemistic rear.

I will find another doctor, but it’s unlikely that he or she will be any more trustworthy than the one in whom I placed all my trust. What our Lord himself censured was censure itself, whether its object is a pregnant student or someone who gives preference to their own race—both kinds of censure are wrong, because censure itself is wrong. It breeds such fear, such need for self-protection. We are all weak and sinful, but how much better, how much easier it would be just to say with sincerity, “I’m sorry you had to wait so long.”

Festooning Abandonment

Probably everyone has a certain book they regard as a mainstay of spiritual reading, something other than the Bible, something they know will always feed their spirit, will always have something “new” to say to them, regardless of how many times they read it. For me, that’s Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence, by Father J. P. de Caussade, S.J., written sometime in the early eighteenth century in France.

I’m sure there are multiple translations. My own edition, tattered now, is translated by Algar Thorold. Translation is important. Though they are likely all accurate enough, I have to say that the beauty of the prose, with its elegant precision, is part of the joy of reading it. I think it may be out of print—TAN, 1987—and I don’t know if other editions are quite so lovely.

It’s not my purpose to write a review of Abandonment (Not a theologian, I would not be so presumptuous as to attempt a review of a spiritual masterpiece), but to recommend another book—a book about the book—by the ever-readable Peter Kreeft, who is, apparently, also an admirer of Father de Cassaude: How to be Holy, from Ignatius. One subtitle is “A Festooning of Abandonment to Divine Providence.” Anyone who loves Father de Caussade’s book will appreciate Kreeft’s twentieth-century explications of it, which he calls a “festooning.”

Our Little Group

There are five of us. We’ve been meeting on Friday mornings for over two years now. We began as a Lenten faith-sharing group at our church and after Lent was over, we just kept on meeting to discuss the upcoming Sunday readings, using the Emmaus Journey’s questions as guides (not as required answers). What binds us is our shared love for Christ and for his Church. We don’t talk much about other things.

I think we really are just like the two men walking on the road to Emmaus, talking about our Lord, about our experiences of the Lord, and sometimes, he actually does visit us, I believe, if only to make us realize it is good to have friends who share the faith—not the politics, not the culture, not anything else, really—just faith in him.   From time to time, someone joins us and then falls away, though they are always welcome, but frustrated perhaps by our lack of interest in social things, activist causes, or church politics—or by the absence of koom-ba-yah/warm fuzzies of one kind or another (such as support groups of various kinds often aim to evoke). I can think of one who seemed to want to focus on emotional and family experiences, and another who wanted to dwell on social justice issues. Like the two men on the road to Emmaus, we don’t get into those things. It’s not that they’re unimportant; it’s just that we want to talk about him, that’s all. Maybe we have endured because we love him first, and then consequently, we love each other and the Church—but he, our eternal Lord, is our topic.  All the rest is time-bound detail.

The travelers to Emmaus are nameless. Who they are or what they do for a living is unknown. They aren’t important persons. Neither are we. Most of us attend Mass daily, but none of us has a prominent role in our church.

We are simply friends, but friends in the very best sense of that term—in what is meant by “spiritual friendship,” so often praised by the saints, and I have come to see what a blessing that truly is, just as the saints say it is.

The Church Must Get Out of the Marriage Business

A couple of years ago, before the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a civil right, I wrote a post suggesting that only civil marriages should be legal. In other words, only those ceremonies performed by judges, notaries, etc., should be legal. Religious marriages should not be considered legal. I suggested it was a matter of separating church and state, that clergy should not have the authority to perform binding legal services. I recall several horrified comments. [Legal] power is considered a universal good by some people; the more one has, the better, I suppose. Plus, there were some for whom a legally binding church ceremony was just too lovely and traditional a convention to let go of.

Since then, Catholic adoption services have been forced to close down for refusing to adopt children to same-sex parents. Other legal atrocities have been committed….

Here, Norway’s bishop has got it right:


Déjà vu

Back in my B.C. days in the seventies, I took up transcendental meditation. I paid my $50, attended a few initiation meetings, and then received in private my mantra. The mantra was to be personal to me, not shared with other people. (It was “ohm.” Right. Very personal.) Basically, one sat up straight and systematically relaxed one’s muscles, then systematically emptied one’s mind; and then, for 20 minutes, twice a day, silently spoke one’s mantra, repeating the mantra if any thought, image, or feeling interrupted. Very restful.

Anyway, I practiced T.M. for quite a long while, and found it to have the positive effects that were advertised: my life was more peaceful, I felt more equanimity. I did not pursue the practice beyond that point as some others did, like following a guru, or pursuing Buddhism, etc. The experience was practical and effective, not religious, rather (I suspect) like yoga, which can be practiced to strengthen muscles and gain flexibility—or it can have a “spiritual” purpose. Anything can be spiritual if you want it to be.

I’ve just returned now from a retreat on contemplative prayer at a Trappist monastery. One monk explained and discussed Lectio Divina. He was Christian, Catholic, and he was intelligible. The other two talked about “centering prayer,” as taught by Trappist Thomas Keating in the eighties. It is the same transcendental meditation I learned and practiced in the seventies. It isn’t similar—it is the same in every way. The only difference is that the term “prayer word” is substituted for “mantra.” And like T.M., centering prayer disallows all thoughts, images, feelings, including thoughts of Christ, the saints, or the Father, because, like T.M., one should not think. If thoughts intervene, they should be dismissed by returning to the mantra—I mean, the prayer word. I had stopped my practice of T.M. at the point of “believing” in it as a religion. Centering prayer does not stop there; it’s a religion, and it’s not Christian. One monk habitually began some of his comments by referring to “the buddha.” Another dismissed Mass attendance as unimportant.

Disappointed, saddened, I returned home. I don’t regard the Buddha as an authoritative reference on Christian spirituality. Beyond the body of knowledge I gained in my very good liberal arts education, I have no interest in pursuing non-Christian spirituality. That same education also protected me from believing one monk’s comment that the Church forbade laity from contemplative prayer right up until Trappist Thomas Keating came along in the 1980s and taught it to everyone. I already have a faith. I seek to deepen that faith, amazingly rich, which has had in its spiritual treasure for two thousand years, the contemplative prayer of the desert fathers and Jewish mystics even before that. How sad to find that treasure ignored, especially by those who have vowed to spend their lives learning it. I practiced T.M. ten years before Keating “discovered” it, re-named it, and taught it as “prayer.” But even I had the common sense to know it was an effective psychological technique for the relief of anxiety and depression. Nothing more.

I did a brief google search when I came home and found comments somewhat more charitable than my own at this address:

Modernism is…

…a word that gets bandied-about a great deal, usually without the bandier having much of a clue what he’s talking about. Worse, much content to which the term is truly applicable doesn’t make use of it, the speaker being unaware that what he’s talking about is modernism.

A very worthwhile couple of minutes reading clears this mess up. Joseph Pearce gives a brief overview of the definition and origin of modernism here:

There are a couple of hints, or markers, in the talk of modernists that should alert an audience, but the most obvious is—not so much an overt condemnation of the past, or of tradition, as an implied condescension toward it, a sort of magnanimity of attitude, or an indifferent tolerance. It’s usually implied rather than stated, but it’s always there. I will go further than Pearce does in his defining overview and ask the question—why is it always there? Because the speaker is sure (though he denies certainty about anything) of one thing: He is superior.

The Fair-Haired Child

In today’s second reading, Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, anoints the feet of Jesus with costly perfume in preparation for his burial. I was reminded of my mother’s baby sister.

Glenys was the archetypal fair-haired child in my mother’s family. Literally fair-haired and blue-eyed, a happy, laughing little baby girl, she was nursed until she was five years old. She was the late-life child of my grandmother, her last and most beloved, born when my mother was already a young woman of twenty. Glenys was one of those people who are born to be doted on, adored by their parents and siblings, and loved by everyone. The true mark of the fair-haired child is that no one is ever really jealous of them. The love they receive just naturally belongs to them, like a birthright, perhaps. The fair-haired child is never envied because to envy them is to deprive oneself of the joy of loving them. I knew her as a child, and though we quarreled as all children do, I loved her too.

I didn’t know her as an adult. My mother, however, remained closely bonded with her baby sister. During the last days of her long illness, when I had so much difficulty trying to manage things from the distance my job required, apart from the faith I shared with my mother, my primary source of peace came from the knowledge that Glenys was visiting her. It was Glenys who rode in the ambulance with my mother when she was transported from the hospital to the nursing home, where she stayed for the last ten days of her life. I was making the five-hour drive every week or two during that time, and having to arrange for the nursing home, hospice, bank, and a million other Martha-like tasks. Time by my mother’s bedside was precious. Glenys’s presence was a godsend.

On one occasion, I sat by my mother’s bed watching Glenys applying lotion to my mother’s feet and massaging them. I remember holding back tears of gratitude. My mother said, “That feels so good,” and Glenys replied, “Yes, that Keri lotion is good.” But I know it wasn’t the lotion. So did my mother.

It’s the mission, the assignment, of the beloved to be loved. Glenys performed her mission very well. I once suggested to a Cistercian monk that the most loving thing one can do is to allow oneself to be loved. I had Glenys in mind, Keri lotion, and my gratitude. I’ll add Mary of Bethany. You can’t give what you don’t have. The love Glenys had received for all her life she poured out to others, to my mother, as Mary poured the precious oil on the Savior’s feet preparing him for what was to come.