All posts by Dena Hunt

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:

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2016/04/22/norways-church-to-seek-vatican-permission-to-stop-officiating-at-civil-weddings/

 

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:

http://www.spiritualdirection.com/2015/09/28/can-i-trust-father-thomas-keating

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:

http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2016/04/what-is-modernism.html

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.

Leaving New Orleans

For five years, I taught English at the University of New Orleans. It was pre-Katrina, 1980-85. When the end of my five-year contract arrived, I had to decide whether to leave or stay. I left.

Many of my colleagues would do anything to remain. They loved the city. If their non-tenure teaching contract expired, they shopped around until they found some other kind of employment that would allow them to remain, even if it meant changing professions, for New Orleans is addictive. Travel outside the city for visits, conferences, vacations, etc., was minimal, and they rejoiced to get back to the city, to good food and sensual indulgence—to jazz, and to a culture that mimicked as closely as it is possible for life to mimic a sound, a tempo, a tone—jazz. It was a brothel morality, a place where any sort of ethic was viewed with deep suspicion, and where corruption was a way of life. It was decadence, smeared over with a thin disguise of the righteousness of tolerance, a religion that rejected religion. It was “drowning in the sweet and pungent scent of a magnolia blossom,” to quote an English expatriate I met there.

He had lived there for fourteen years when I met him, having arrived in his adventurous twenties, following the pied piper sound of jazz, which he’d discovered in his native Nottingham. Like many others, he hadn’t intended to stay. But he was still there when I left and showed no sign of leaving. It was there he discovered an irresistible lure to a transvestite pastime.

People discover things there. Tennessee Williams discovered his homosexuality there. Mark Twin said the city was an aquarium; you find out “what’s underneath” in New Orleans. I arrived there a rabidly socialist anti-Christian; I left as a conservative Roman Catholic.  (Who knew?)

I know I make it sound like a den of iniquity, and that’s not fair (even if it’s largely true.) It’s a place to visit—if you love jazz, if you would love to live, at least temporarily, a jazz lifestyle; or if you love an adult theme park—or maybe if you just love good food, or the charm of hidden courtyards, and old brick trimmed in iron lace.

That’s what tourists go there for. But if you live there, it’s a different story. And if, after years of residency, you have to decide whether to leave or stay, you find yourself weighing things with a scale you didn’t have when you arrived. I was surprised by my reason to leave—another discovery, I guess. I craved red clay and tall pines, hidden violets in the woods, and wild lilies. I craved nature, and not art. For like Paris, there’s no nature in New Orleans, just art. Plant however many crape myrtles and oleanders in however many quaint little courtyards you want, there’s no nature. The city is underwater—and I love earth. I didn’t know how much I loved crops and fields and farms and such, and strait-laced Southern Baptists with their well-scrubbed children congregating on country church lawns for an Easter egg hunt. So I went home to Georgia.

And I haven’t been back. Now I’m writing a novel about New Orleans, titled Beatitude. And I’ve picked it up and put it down so many times that friends have stopped asking how it’s going. I’ve abandoned it, returned to it, until I’m sick of it myself. I know why: Because I can’t write any more, can’t put another word on the page without going back. The city does not beckon, but the novel demands, and so it is now a simple pragmatic necessity to go and smell that musky river smell again. I doubt Katrina changed things very much. New Orleans isn’t so much a place as a state of mind.

“I Desire Mercy, and Not Sacrifice”

Recently, I had the third medical scare within a six-months period. I had to notice the increase in frequency. After all, it had become embarrassing to ask my friends to pray for me so often. “Is God trying to tell you something?” asked a friend after the last scare.

Well, maybe. Or—as my doctor said when I received the “all clear” after the last alarm, “When we get older, we get the serious scares more frequently because we’re preparing for….”  Somehow, I didn’t find the explanation comforting.

But whether there’s a message intended for me, as my friend thinks, or whether there’s a mathematical statistic at work, as my doctor thinks, I don’t believe this increase in frequency is personal to me. We’re fond of quoting the maxim: “Nothing is certain except death and taxes,” but the truth is that only death is certain. It’s the single experience common to every human being. Nothing else is certain—only death. There’s no way to avoid it. There’s no diet, no fitness regimen, no “lifestyle,” no herbal supplement—nothing will protect us from the single absolute certainty that every one of us will die.

During the Middle Ages, philosophers, alchemists, those given to pondering the mysteries of God and the meaning of life, kept a human skull on their writing desks. We see renditions in woodcuts, sometimes comic-macabre, with the skull in use as a candleholder. This gruesome bit of décor had a serious purpose: Thinkers should be reminded continually of their mortality. These days, we call such a point of view “morbid,” “depressing,” or that universally popular condemnation, “negative.”

But is it? Dying is the only unifying human experience. It is the only event of which we can all be dead certain. (Sorry.) If we didn’t regard it as untouchable, it could bring us together. And of course, it is the great leveler: Naked we came into the world, and naked we shall leave it; You can’t take it with you—etc.

Lent is the time for such thoughts. The other day, our priest put ashes on our foreheads and said, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” Nothing wrong with that, but is it a truly potent admonition? Lent is a time for prayer, fasting, and alms-giving, but there is no mention of the really heavy stuff. I can remember receiving ashes with the recitation of “Remember, O Man, that dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return.” Very negative, that was.

For the desert to be a real desert, we would have to know, far more deeply and more certainly, our helplessness before God, the kind of knowledge briefly gained as we wait for the outcome of medical tests, and the kind lost almost immediately afterwards when we get good news and return to our little illusions of power. While we wait for what is beyond our control, we have to depend utterly on him, but what is undertaken of our own volition knows no such humility, and has no way to teach us that necessary desert virtue.

A deacon friend told me that he’d visited a lady in the hospital who declared that her broken hip was God’s punishment for not attending Mass. That might make us smile, until we realize that she thinks the way all of us think when we choose to give up this or that. What we must (and will) someday surrender is the choosing. I don’t mean to diminish our Lenten practices, but perhaps we’d do well to risk being a little “negative” and imagine the skull hidden from us inside our bodies, and the mortality we’re too positive to think about very much.