All posts by Dena Hunt

Image and Likeness

Full Quiver Press is coming out with an anthology of short fiction related to the theme of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I’m pleased to have a short story in the collection, “Pear Trees,” my first venture into fiction, which was originally published in Dappled Things in 2013.

imageandlikeness

Hurricane Blessings

Hermine has come and gone. There are trees on houses. My neighbor has two trees on her house, a 90-foot pine and a smallish oak, about 40 feet tall. We had some minor flooding, not much, but a lot of strong wind, of course, and because this is such a tree-full town, power lines were down everywhere. That was the problem—no power. It’s not just that the temperature was running between 87 and 89 degrees; here, the temperature is not the problem but the humidity. Without air conditioning, every surface is downright tacky to the touch and breathing is difficult. At night, we did not burn candles because they only added to the heat, and as my neighbor said, the humidity was so bad it would have extinguished the flames anyway. Miserable.

And then, after 24 hours, like a miracle it seemed, the power came back on. The fridge was humming, lights were on, televisions blared, internet was back, and a cool breeze flowed from the a.c. vents. God was back in his heaven. Hell was over. I thought, while sitting in the hot dark, This is Mordor. And when the lights came on and the air conditioning resumed, it was a eucatastrophe worthy of the bards.

Less than six hours later, it was as though nothing had happened. Traffic lights were on, and cars were on the streets, cleared now of dangerous power lines; giant trucks had been at work and all the fallen trees were removed from the streets. You could drive around and look at the damage to people’s houses and buildings. But it was all over. The apocalyptic atmosphere that had pervaded the town only a few hours before had evaporated and it was just another day.

It seemed almost unfair. One wanted to say things like “But what about the storm? Where did it go?” It’s an odd reaction to the end of crisis, of catastrophe, of suffering—not matter what the degree. Where did it go? When the power returned and the hot dark was banished, there was an exhalation of relief, a moment of deep gratitude, even joy—but it was only a moment. Everything is normal again now. We are our ungrateful, joyless selves again, oddly feeling a faint, vague loss—almost as though we’ve been cheated of a grief that had been ours and then was taken from us.

I’m reminded of my aunt talking about the day the war ended. The whole country was drunk with joy. But, she said, a week later, it was almost as though the war—with all its suffering—had never happened, and everyone was whining about the rationing, the delay in getting troops home, all sorts of complaining and worrying about looming unemployment. She said it seemed to her that everyone missed the war, when rationing was just doing one’s bit, and when, most of all, there was an anticipation, a waiting and longing, and heroic patience. She concluded that people were better in wartime.

When are we our true selves? During the storms or during the peaceful, air-conditioned calm? Do we secretly crave disasters of one kind or another because we know deep down that we’re spoiled, because we suspect we need deprivation in order to regain a right appreciation of life? Maybe we know that we have no “rights” to any of our countless blessings. Maybe we know we need to lose them in order to find them again. We do this in our relationships—with each other, with ourselves, and with God. Maybe that’s why God lets us wander off and get lost, so that we can experience the joy of being found again. And maybe that’s why we wander.

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

http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/06/what-is-multiculturalism-and-should-we-embrace-it.html

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.