All posts by Dena Hunt

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.

Pentecost and Babel

As Christ Incarnated restores to human dignity the first man Adam, so Pentecost restores human unity to the disruption of Babel. Language, that means and measure of human communion, was the undoing of humanity at Babel. Again, just as in Eden, the motive was the aspiration of humankind to its own deification. The response from Heaven is to destroy the attempt. For, as God knows, as Satan knows well, and as man himself knows in times of truthfulness, in sobriety and humility, nothing is so calamitous for man as the loss of God. But in pride, drunk on self-worship, we forget what is most basic to our existence: We cannot both have God and be God. We must choose.

At Pentecost, miraculously, every man understood the word of God in his own language, for at Pentecost, the Apostles were endowed with that power to speak to men’s hearts in the language of Heaven. And those who had ears to hear did indeed hear.

And what does this mean on this plane where we live now? Locally, we have a young Polish priest in our parish, who took on the difficult task of learning our language. He speaks English fluently. He also speaks Spanish fluently—because we have a large Spanish-speaking population in our parish as well. He intends to be our shepherd and knows that he must speak the language of the sheep if they are to hear and know his voice.

On a broader plane, our popes have learned many languages and have spoken them fluently, albeit with the accent of their native tongue. They want to be our shepherd. Benedict XVI is multi-lingual, and I read somewhere that Pope St John Paul II spoke 14 languages! They never spoke to their sheep in a tongue foreign to them. The exception is Pope Francis, who refuses to speak English even to audiences composed entirely of English-speakers.

But those who want to deny Pentecost and embrace Babel have more than one means at their disposal. There is also the homicide called “stone-walling.” As everyone now knows, the real horror of the priest scandals, apart from the abuse of minors by priests, was the stone-walling by the bishops. Concerned entirely with self-protection and the maintenance of public image, they refused even to hear the cries of the victims; they denied them their very reality in order to deny the truth. What is that but to consign them to non-existence? And is that not murder? Strong word—but not to those who are victimized by this evil.

That works on a local level too. So many parish priests run from their parishioners, refusing to hear them, to talk to them, to engage with them. They deliver homilies from their safe distance, and they consent to hear confessions when they’re forced into spending the time for it. Otherwise, they keep to themselves, they socialize with each other, or with a small group of parishioners who, for one reason or another—it doesn’t finally matter—manage to be in the priest’s circle of friends. Few parishioners actually know their priests at all. They are stone-walled by their priests—whose habit is to pretend they’re not there so they’ll go away, they’ll disappear, they’ll cease to be. Buffered by deacons, sundry assistants, they claim overwork and intimidate those who seek them out and make them feel small.

And indeed, how many of us do that to each other? Ignore someone who’s a problem, who presents a difficulty we don’t want to deal with, or someone who has something to say that we don’t want to hear. And then, if they’re persistent, we can always find self-righteous reasons to condemn them for speaking…. accuse them of gossiping…or, down where I live, of not being “nice”…accuse them of anything that will allow us to shame them into silence.

Babel continues.

Jigsaw Puzzles

I don’t know how old these puzzles are, but I’d guess that jigsaw puzzle metaphors are nearly as old as the puzzles themselves. People are always “putting the pieces together” or saying something like “all the pieces fit,” etc. The picture appears, enlightenment occurs, or an epiphany is experienced.

A jigsaw puzzle a good time-killer, patience-builder, and perseverance exercise. I see them in nursing homes a lot. They sharpen cognitive skills and improve manual dexterity. Plus, they can be completed alone; one doesn’t need companions or fellow gamers. They’re popular with old people. And that’s probably why I’ve taken to them now. The only difference is that I complete them on an iPad. Every morning, right after morning prayer, I turn to the daily jigsaw puzzle. And I noticed a few things:

You complete the border first. Whether your puzzle is small or large, what you’re doing when you complete a puzzle is bringing order to chaos. And the first step in that process is to set boundaries, limits, laws, rules, edges. You may also call these conventions or traditions. What you may not do is disregard them, consider them irrelevant, or attempt to complete the puzzle without them. Eventually, they will rule whether you like it or not.

Every single piece has its place. Regardless of how un-matching it appears or how misshapen, it has its place. And it’s absolutely necessary. Its place may be beyond your view at the moment but it will appear, sooner or later. Don’t get obsessed with finding its place; work on what you have and at the right time, the piece will fit perfectly in the place designed for it.

If a piece doesn’t fit, set it aside. You may notice that those pieces which surprisingly don’t fit are usually those you were so sure of. The more often that happens, the more quickly you learn that certainty about your judgment may need to be modified. You make fewer mistakes then.

There are no missing pieces. A piece may indeed be lost, but it doesn’t not exist. You just haven’t found it yet. Keep looking, especially at those pieces that appear unlikely. There are no mistakes in the puzzle. You must have faith in the designer of the puzzle.

And that’s the most important thing: No one assembles a puzzle of a blank, empty page. When the puzzle is completed, it will actually be something. It will not be nothing.

Sit down, armed with patience, with faith in the designer, and a willingness to submit to the design. Then assemble the pre-cut border and begin. Take your time. Don’t force anything. Real order arises from chaos; it is never imposed on it: Your purpose is not to create the design but to discover it.

I have come to see my daily jigsaw puzzle as a continuation of my morning prayer.

One of those Moments

Yesterday as I was returning from walking the dogs, I encountered a young woman walking alone and crying. She was heading in the opposite direction and we met at the foot of my driveway.  This was one of those moments when one might nod, say hello, or nothing at all, avoiding eye contact to alleviate embarrassment, or the embarrassment the girl might have felt about being seen in tears by a stranger. I stopped before heading up my driveway.

            “Honey, are you all right?”

            A feeble attempt to smile that failed. “Yes … I don’t know ….”

            “Wait here. Let me put my dogs in the house. Don’t go.”

            She nodded, started to speak but couldn’t. And she waited. I slipped the dogs into the kitchen and returned. I resisted the strong impulse to put my arms around her.

            “Come and sit down on the steps.”

            She did, and tried to speak but she couldn’t.

            “Where do you live?”

            She pointed up the street.

            “In that apartment complex up there?”

            “Yes. With my sister.”

            “Is this about a guy?”

            Nods. Fresh tears.

            “Did he break up with you?”

            “Yes … I don’t know.”

            “Is he there now?”

            “Yes. No. I don’t know.”

            “Are you a student?” (There’s a college nearby.)


            “How old are you?”


            I did not ask what happened, or why she was crying. I just sat there on the steps with her.

            Presently, she said, “I want to go home now.”

            “Where’s home?”

            She pointed back up the street toward the complex.

            “That’s your home?”

            “Yes.” Her voice was normal now. No suppressed sobs. No tears.

            I walked with her back to the driveway where she turned to go back up the street and I turned to go into my house.

            As she turned, she called out, “Thank you.”

            “Goodbye,” I said and smiled.

            I started cooking dinner and forgot about the little incident, which lasted only a few minutes, maybe ten or fifteen. But I remembered it later, with a little nudge of recognition. I’ve been her. I have no idea what happened between her and the boyfriend. But she felt driven to leave, empty-handed, walking down a neighboring residential side street, in tears.

            And when she left, she said, “Thank you.”

            For what?  For providing the safe space of someone caring, the space needed for her to resume control of her young life. Not a family member or a friend, but a stranger. I’ve had moments like that. I remember 30 years ago flying back from Mexico City to New Orleans, distraught. A flight attendant looked at me:

            “Honey, are you all right?”

            “Yes.” But I wasn’t.

            “I’m going to sit here with you, okay?”


            She never asked a question; I don’t remember her saying a word. Meanwhile, I mastered the internal chaos I was experiencing.

            I would have been okay without that; so would this young girl. She wouldn’t have done anything rash, any more than I would I have done. We would both have been all right anyway.

But that’s not the point.

Who’s Your Daddy?

I read that the UK concerned itself recently about the possibility of loneliness among British citizens and conducted a poll to determine the relative loneliness of the people. The results inspired them to create a Ministry of Loneliness. Yes. Really. Sounds like something from an old Monty Python show, but there it is.  I’m not sure how it works, but presumably, there will be some sort of government-run programs to ameliorate loneliness among the population.

And meanwhile, Iceland revealed that there are no Down’s Syndrome children in that country. The reason is simple: the children are eliminated in the womb. The government really cares about the people, so much that now they have made circumcision illegal. Against their objections, Jewish parents are forbidden to have their male children circumcised.  How easily this most ancient form of Jewish identity is eliminated. Both anti-semitism and religious intolerance are accommodated and disclaimed with complete impunity.

Recently I watched one of the travel programs on NPR. I’ve forgotten the host’s name, but he was showing the viewers Norway. The old wooden churches are museums now. He said, with a shocking casualness, that modern Norwegians, taken care of by the socialist state, no longer have any need of worship spaces and spend their Sundays on recreational activities.

Northern Europe, in its modern wisdom, has found the answer to the question, Who’s Your Daddy?

There is a sad irony here about that modern wisdom. As the parents of any Down’s Syndrome child will readily tell you, their child is the light of their lives, a great blessing. And though it doesn’t match the raucous, hypersexual shows on the telly, loneliness is an almost universal forerunner to personal conversion and the beginning of the greatest love story of our lives, causing many to be forever grateful for the gift that loneliness really is. But these experiences are not a product of poll-driven state bureaucracy, and therefore, presumably, somehow not real, not valid. The Norwegian churches, open only for tourists, tell us what Norwegian faith really was about. A faith that is merely the product of charitable distributions was never really a faith at all. The Norwegians have lost nothing by closing churches for worship. You can’t lose what you never had.

There are, however, pockets here and there, mostly in the southern hemisphere and in eastern Europe, where the answer to that question of Who’s your Daddy, begins with “Our Father…,” and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.