All posts by Dena Hunt

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.

“Free at last.”

On this Martin Luther King holiday, I find myself thinking more about Jimmy Carter than about King. These two fellow Georgians wouldn’t seem related in the sense that thoughts of one should evoke thoughts of the other, but they do. Why? I think the cause of their seeming to be connected lies more in my memory than in any similarity they may or may not share with each other. That is to say, they evoke very different responses within me, a native Georgian old enough to have lived through the rise to notoriety of both of these men. I have known the times before them, during them, and after them.

A while back, I saw Jimmy Carter at a press conference announcing his cancer. He was planning to undergo treatment at Emory. He said, with his customary graciousness and his famous smile, that he was “at peace,” and that he planned to continue teaching his Baptist Sunday school class. He’s well into his nineties now, I think. One still sees the charm, the idealism, and the niceness. Jimmy Carter is the embodiment of post-civil war gentility, the kind that was modified from its original antebellum cavalier character to that which was created by the great fundamentalist revival that swept the South during the crushing poverty of Reconstruction, creating the cultural result known today as the “Bible belt.”

I don’t intend here to delve into a civil war discussion of any kind. That’s been done to death. But no one can understand the South, represented by the faces of both Carter and King, without recognizing a single fundamental truth of the war: it wasn’t about slavery, but about freedom. I believe that Martin Luther King would acknowledge that; I don’t know that Carter would. And that accounts for the different responses within me that each man evokes.

The war was a success insofar as it is quite possible to beat a free people into total submission; it was a failure in that it’s impossible to free anybody. Subsequent wars in other countries, like Viet Nam for example, have proved that truth repeatedly, though neither war-makers nor law-makers seem able to accept it. An entire U.S. (white) army could not free slaves in the South. But a people, nation, or race, can be led into freedom by someone like Moses, Ghandi, Mandela—or Martin Luther King, who understood this fundamental truth about freedom in the light of Christianity rather than political philosophy. For whatever else he was, he was also theReverend Martin Luther King, and a Reverend who, despite his personal flaws, did not leave his faith behind in pursuit of political and social aims. Thus he did not “confront” white America with violence, or even the threat of violence—he was not concerned with white people. Instead, he helped black America recognize their freedom as children of God, to accept it, the burden of it, and the dignity of it. Such acceptance is by its very character and nature, non-hostile. It commands respect; it does not demand it. True freedom is always characterized by the absence of anger and blame.

I heard a story once—I don’t know if it’s true—of two southern men who had lived in the same houses all their lives. The white man owned the property on which the black man lived. The latter came, once a month, to the back door of the white man’s house to pay his rent. They were always very polite to each other. (This ubiquitous politeness rings true to my memory, truer than trashy films and novels.) There came a day after de-segregation when the black man arrived to pay his rent, and the white man told him to come to the front door. The black man walked around the house and the front door stood open, waiting for him. The white man apologized for the years the black man came to the back door, but the black man said, “Never mind. The truth is that neither one of us knew any better.”

I don’t know if the story is true, but I’d like to believe it is. Neither of them knew any better. I’d like to believe they sat down on the front porch and shared a little bourbon. I do know that some of the black students and colleagues, friends and lovers I’ve known since those early days had some forgiving to do. And I understand that they couldn’t even begin to do that until they were free—free from blaming, and from self-blame. Because the truth is you didn’t know any better. And as long as blame rules, there will be enslavement. Martin Luther King was a free man.

A recent news story reported that Carter’s cancer had been cured by specialized treatment at Emory, a series of injections that cost more than 150,000 dollars each. He is said to be totally cancer-free now. That’s wonderful—if wonderfully expensive. I saw him elected, defeated, and then rise again like a phoenix of righteousness in his pursuit of good and noble deeds, like Habitat for Humanity and other endeavors for which he continues working, just as he continues to teach his Sunday school class in his nineties. That’s admirable. Indeed, Carter is above criticism; he is, like all Southern gentlemen, worthy of admiration, respect, and emulation. I’ve never met him personally, yet I feel that I know him very well. But I don’t know if he’s free. I hope so.

Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall

An acquaintance accused me of stereotyping “gay” people as fastidious. I hadn’t. What I’d actually said was that I thought a man I once knew might have had repressed same-sex attraction. “Why?” she asked. Several reasons: for one, he worshiped from afar (i.e., without physical affection) his unhappy wife, though he had ardently pursued before marriage. For another, he lived in a strict fastidiousness. In my distant memory of Intro Psych, excessive fastidiousness generally signifies anxiety, a need for self-control that becomes focused on one’s person or environment. But before I could make the connection, my acquaintance asserted, “Not all fastidious people are gay,” completing skipping over my association of the characteristic with denial (not with homosexuality). “You are stereotyping.” Well, no, actually I was analyzing. “That,” said my acquaintance, “is what stereotyping people always say.”

 

Admittedly, this is just an anecdote, an example of a certain kind of humor, the name of which escapes me now, but the projection it exemplifies is seldom funny.

 

Long, long ago, back when I lived and worked in New Orleans, I dated—very briefly—an African-American poet. We had a mutual acquaintance and colleague, who was, as it happens, a white woman from Atlanta named Carol. She was raped and stabbed by a man who broke into her apartment and attacked her. She barely survived two punctures in her lungs, broken ribs and other serious injuries. Her description of the man, given to the police from her hospital bed, was that he was black, about six feet tall, and heavy. The man I was dating visited her in the hospital and demanded to know how she could call her attacker “black.” He said she was assuming that all rapists of white women are black. My friend Carol was no racist, but my poet friend certainly was.

 

This would be just an ironic story, as the first story was humorous. But Carol was deeply hurt by his accusation. She called it another assault, as indeed it was. It exposed the poet’s own racism, which, as far as I know, he continued to conceal from himself by seeing it in others.

 

Projection may be the most common psychological problem of our time—perhaps it’s symptomatic of culture wars and competing ideologies—I don’t know. How is it that people can look at another person and see not who is there, but that part of themselves they deny exists. They don’t see the other person at all. They don’t see events as they actually happen, either; rather, as they “need” to believe the events happen.

 

It could also be a cause of the scourge of “political correctness” which may destroy us by making us deny reality. It becomes truly dangerous when we take such correctness so seriously that we become unable to think for ourselves, fearing our un-policed thought. Distrusting our own judgment, we rely on those we think are superior to us, creating a peculiarly unearned elitism in secular culture. E.g., there are no radical Islamic terrorists killing innocent people in Europe, the U.S., and the Middle East. But there were awful Christian crusades to re-take the Holy Land many centuries ago (as our president informed us at a prayer breakfast).

 

The potential is there for serious consequences. The condemnation of an innocent brutalized victim as a racist is an example. Or, on a more historic scale, Hitler justified his attack on England by saying that Churchill was an “insane incendiary” who wanted to set Europe ablaze. He also said that the Jews, who’d been living in Germany quietly and unassumingly for 900 years, were bent on a lust for power over the Aryan race.

 

In extreme forms, projection is a form of insanity that can have dire consequences for whole nations, cultures, and peoples. On a lesser scale, it destroys our ability to deal fairly, openly, and honestly with each other by providing an excuse for a refusal to listen, erecting barriers to discourse. Then, because we need to excuse our behavior toward each other, we produce these reflexive projections. Thus it’s the intolerant person who sees intolerance in others; the racist who sees racism in others, etc. This may sound like a mere psycho-social dysfunction, but it’s far more important and more dangerous than that—not only in the harm we do to others but in the harm we do to ourselves.

 

Here’s an exercise. Whatever unkind, or just unflattering, thing you might think about someone, accuse the person in the mirror of exactly that. It’s really true that “it takes one to know one.” Re-cognition has the prerequisite of cognition. How can you recognize what you do not already know? It is self-honesty that protects us from self-deception, just as it is the Truth that protects us from the “father of all lies.” But no sort of truth can save us if we refuse to acknowledge it.

 

It’s an exercise at least as worthwhile as sit-ups.