Author Archives: John Donaghy

The Epiphany – Eliot and Ferlinghetti

The feast of the Epiphany fills many people with wonder. There are these wise men from afar, a star in the sky, a babe in a manger, and extravagant gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (whatever that is).

Though we know nothing about their number, their race, or their names, the mythic story unfolds. They arrive on camels. There are three of them, though the Gospel doesn’t mention a number. They are of three different race and bear the names Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.

dscn5409

But, seemingly indifferent to the message of a savage king, Herod, and the tales of his household priests, they find themselves amazed at seeing a star. But, when they enter the house, there is nothing amazing there – just a mother and child. Yet they fall down and worship.

It’s a story that arouses our wonder, that amazes us.

As I was preparing my homily today, I came across two poems that, in very different ways, plumb the depths of this day.

T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi: is a classic. It’s worth your while to listen to the poem being read by T. S. Eliot himself or Sir Alec Guinness. The text is here.

Eliot speaks in the voice of one of the Magi, years later, recalling the journey. After recalling the hassles, he notes, in an almost nonchalant way:

…and so we continued,
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon,
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Not splendid, not overwhelming, but “satisfactory.”

But then Eliot reflects that this birth was “like Death, our death.” For this birth changes something in us and makes us uneasy with our old gods, our old ways. And so, “I should be glad of another death.”

The second poem comes from an unlikely author, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. “Christ climbed down,” which you can read here has five stanzas that have Christ coming down, “from his bare tree,” and running away from the trappings of Christmas, especially the tinsel trees, the Santa Clauses, the department store nativity scenes, and the winter wonderland caroling. But the last stanza opens up to us where Christ might come down:

Christ climbed down
from His bare Tree
this year
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
an unimaginable
and impossibly
Immaculate Reconception
the very craziest
of Second Comings

Christ comes in anonymity, as he did to the Magi, so that we can reconceive the coming of Christ – in our souls.

And so I recall the words of the Dominican mystic, Meister Eckhart:

“What good is it for me if Mary gave birth to the Son of God 1400 years ago and I don’t give birth to God’s son in my person and my culture and my times?”

A missing verse in the Christmas lectionary

The first reading from Isaiah for the Christmas midnight Mass (9:1-6) has consoled me for many years. It includes this promise of the end of repression and war against the people:

For the yoke that burdened them,
the pole on their shoulder,
and the rod of their taskmaster
you have smashed…
For every boot that tramped in battle,
every cloak rolled in blood,
will be burned as fuel for flames.

I especially remember one year, perhaps it was in 1989 after the massacre of the Jesuits at the Central American University. As I heard these words, I began to cry, thinking of the many deaths wreaked on the people of El Salvador (and many other lands) by an oppressive military, funded by the United States.

As I prepared this morning to preach at Mass tonight in Dulce Nombre, I read the lectionary in English and in Spanish. I plan to read the first reading and the Gospel in several different translations in English and Spanish (and look at the Gospel in Greek) to try to capture the details.

I am rather upset, though, to find that the fourth verse of the reading from Isaiah is omitted in the Spanish lectionary and that people in Latin America may not hear the verse that prophesies the destruction of military boots and bloody cloaks.

The verses may refer to not taking booty in a holy war, but I hear them more as a promise that violence and war do not have the final word.

In a continent ravished by violence, in a country with a high index of murder, I want to hear this promise. I want to share this promise that the newborn Prince of Peace brings. I want to say to those who have seen their neighbors slain – by gangs in the big cities, in vengeance killings throughout the countryside, by government and death squads – that God’s vision is different, that God is Peace, who comes as a poor baby, born in a manger, visited by shepherds, outcasts of their time.

Maybe I’ll just have to include this verse in my homily – announcing the Prince of Peace.

plowshar

Bearing Jesus

Today I went to Buena Vista Concepción for a Celebration of the Word with Communion. This is the first time I visited this aldea and so, if I hadn’t had a friend with me, I’d have landed somewhere up in the middle of nowhere.

As I preached on the Gospel of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, I mentioned how Mary carried Jesus in her womb to her cousin and the child, John the Baptist, in Elizabeth’s womb.

DSC00489

All of a sudden I realized that I had been bearing Jesus to these people, bearing Jesus in the Eucharist. This became even clearer to me when I returned to Plan Grande and visited a gravely ill eighty-one-year-old woman. The woman was barely conscious, but opened her eyes as I prayed. I had a consecrated host with me, since I went directly to the house of Doña Raimunda. I didn’t give her communion but still, in some sense, I bore Jesus with me.

This is the mystery of bringing Communion to the sick or to distant communities. We are following in the footsteps of Mary who brought Jesus to her cousin.

Even if we don’t bring Communion to the sick or to distant communities, all of us can bear Jesus to others as Mary did – coming to serve her cousin, a person in need.

Merton and Barth

On December 11, 1968, I woke up in my dorm room at the university of Scranton to see the New York Times cover. On the front page were the opening paragraphs of two obituaries – Thomas Merton and Karl Barth who had died on the previous day. The world had lost a great Protestant theologian and a great Catholic monk and spiritual guide.

Though Merton felt closer theologically to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he had an appreciation for Barth, whom he quoted several times in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. As he noted in the preface:

I simply record ways in which theologians like Barth have entered quite naturally and easily into my personal and monastic reflections, indeed, into my own Christian world-view. To put it plainly, the book attempts to show how in actual fact a Catholic monk is able to read Barth and identify with him in much the same way as he would read a Catholic author like Maritain—or indeed a Father of the Church.

Merton notes that Barth played Mozart every morning before writing, perhaps – speculates Merton – “unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros.” Or, as Barth himself wrote, ““it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.”

Merton suggests that it is not theology that will save us but the encounter as a child with Christ.

And so I wonder how Merton and Barth would greet each other in the presence of God. I think Merton would repeat what he wrote:

“Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.”

And so we are called to be as little children, approaching the Lord who loves us.

The world does not want to cry

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Happy are those who weep, for they will be consoled.

DSC08634

Pope Francis, in Gaudete et Exsultate, 75-76, notes how the world wants to avoid crying at all costs. We seek diversions to escape from the pains and the sorrows around us. Not only do we seek to escape pain with medicine, drugs, and alcohol. We try to ignore the pain: Don’t worry; it will pass. We want to deny the suffering.

As Pope Francis says,

“The world has no desire to mourn; it would rather disregard painful situations, cover them up or hide them. Much energy is expended on fleeing from situations of suffering in the belief that reality can be concealed.”

We want a life without the cross. “But the cross can never be absent.” When we let the pain of others penetrate our hearts, we become “capable of touching life’s depths and finding authentic happiness.” We let the pain tear our hearts apart – opening them to the healing power of a God of love, who suffers with us.

Pope Francis is eloquent:

Those who open themselves to weep “are unafraid to share in the suffering of others; they do not flee from painful situations. They discover the meaning of life by coming to the aid of those who suffer, understanding their anguish and bringing relief. They sense that the other is flesh of our flesh, and are not afraid to draw near, even to touch their wounds. They feel compassion for others in such a way that all distance vanishes.”

In such situations we learn and live what the English poet John Donne wrote in Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions*:

“No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thine own, or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

Sharing in the pain as Christ became human and shared in our pain is not easy. But I find that when I face the pain and others and try to be present – sometimes in silence, sometimes with an embrace – then I feel the power of God’s love among us, comforting us. In this way the distances between us, even the distances between enemies can be breached.

And even more.

“Knowing how to mourn with others: that is holiness.”


*  Please excuse the non-inclusive language.

Blessing those who mourn

Blessed, filled with joy, are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

In the beatitudes, Jesus does not let us rest secure. Mourning is a place of blessing. How counter-cultural and counter-intuitive.

DSC01469

Today I recall those killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue about a week ago. But I also recall the deaths we experience here in Honduras – from poverty, from lack of medical care, from violence engendered by the lack of a functioning justice system or from alcoholism or misuse of alcohol.

As a deacon I have accompanied a number of funerals. It is not easy, but they often are for me times of grace.

People often need to be given a place to mourn, to let their pain, their wound, be healed by the light of day and the presence of loved ones. I never tell people not to mourn.

I hope, though, to offer them a place where they can experience the comfort of God – in the hope of the resurrection and in the love of those around them.

One of the passages of the Bible that sustains me in the midst of all the pain and death I see is this passage from Revelations 21:4, which is a citation from Isaiah 25:8:

He will wipe every tear from their eyes…

If I can be there to wipe the tears from their eyes, sharing in their pain and suffering, maybe God can make of me an instrument of his comfort.

Saints and the spirit of the poor

Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When I tried to think of holy men and women who exemplified poverty of spirit and even actually poverty, I found myself overwhelmed by the vast majority of saints who exemplified this virtue. But today I want to mention two holy women and a man.

DePorres

Today is the feast of Saint Martin de Porres, a Dominican lay-brother who lived in Lima, Perú. Born of a Spanish nobleman and a freed black woman, he was disinherited by his father. Trained as a barber and a surgeon, he entered the Dominicans. There he served in the most humble task but soon his gifts of healing were recognized. But he also cared for the poor and sick outside the Dominican friary. He would bring them to his cell and care for them. But his superior ordered him to stop this practice. When Martin continued caring for the poor in his cell and was reprimanded, he responded: “Forgive my mistake, and please be kind enough to instruct me. I did not know that the precept of obedience took precedence over that of charity.”

He was truly, as his contemporaries noted, a “father of the poor.”

The second saint I thought of was Saint Clare of Assisi. Though she was from a rich family, she followed Christ, in the footsteps of Saint Francis, much to the consternation of her family. She was soon followed by other women who lived together by the church of San Damiano outside Assisi. These “Poor Ladies” sought to live in poverty – by the works of their hands and begging. They did not want to take up the practice of benefices and property that many convents of nuns had. She fought for this all her life and only shortly before death did she received confirmation from the pope for the Privilege of Poverty.

She not only advocated poverty but lived it. When the sisters came back from begging, she would wash their feet.

Clare-washing-the-feet-of-the-nuns

The third exemplar of poverty is not yet officially canonized, though Pope Francis spoke highly of her before the US Congress when he visited the US. Dorothy Day started out living a radical and bohemian life, but a life committed to justice. After her conversion, she sought to find a way to live out her faith and her commitment to the poor. After meeting Peter Maurin, they formed the Catholic Worker, first of all starting out with a newspaper. Later, they welcomed the poor. Catholic Worker houses of hospitality still dot the US landscape, serving the poor and marginalized in many ways.

Meditating on the lives of these three holy people of God, we may be able to discover how we ourselves may be called to live out the beatitude of the poor in spirit.