All posts by Dena Hunt

How To Spend Your Summer Vacation

There is a growing trend now in many parishes to give little talks or slide presentations to various groups, CCW, youth groups, or men’s groups. Sometimes the same content appears printed up in church bulletins, etc. I speak of “mission trips.”

Sometimes these “how I spent my summer vacation” reports are given in conjunction with appeals to raise funds for this or that impoverished country; sometimes no money is requested—just sympathy and/or admiration.

I’m sure there are people who can afford to spend their own money to buy a plane ticket, pay a hotel bill, and buy their own food in some Mexican or South American, Carribean, or even African location. I’m sure they go to these places to offer help—though the cost of their trip would have been a far greater contribution than just going there and passing out food and clothing. More often, however, these are group affairs, priced and marketed like any other tour, with group rates for flights, hotels, buses, etc.

Doctors Without Borders and other secular volunteer professionals do a great service. And I know of small Baptist churches around here (they have to be small to organize this) who seem to stay packed and ready to go wherever a natural disaster hits—Texas not long ago, and now Louisiana.

What troubles me is the growing market for “mission trips.” The write-ups and presentations given afterwards reveal motivations and gratifications that don’t strike me as wholly Christian charity.  An African friend who lives here now tells me that these summer-vacation “missionaries” were so offensive and condescending that people in his village finally had to be paid to attend their tour-guided handouts. But it’s listening to the tone of those who want to tell us of their spiritual adventures on these trips—not just about how poor the people were but about how their spiritual growth was enhanced, how much more tolerant and loving they became, etc. It all makes one wonder.

I know how cynical this sounds. A couple I know spent over three thousand dollars on a trip to Mexico recently with other Catholic would-be missionaries (arranged by a “Catholic-owned” tour company.) They do talk about how desperately poor the people were, but more about how grateful they were. They tell about the harrowing bus trip into the mountains, about how they worked all day passing out tee shirts and shorts and sandals, dishing up food and serving the people. They want to impress upon their listeners how exhausted they were as they fell into bed in their hotel rooms at night, but how wonderful it felt to help the grateful needy. I have to think about twenty or thirty tourist-missionaries at three thousand each—how much more help that might have been to the grateful needy, but it wouldn’t have provided that gratifying feeling.

As I said, I know how cynical this sounds.

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.