Childhood memories of the Edwin Hawkins Singers blasting on Sundays as we cleaned the house… Crying 25 years later just from the sound of the harmonies on “Let Us Go into the House of the Lord“… That rising ecstasy of the music, that first experience of the idea that art must embody what it describes. Deeply sorry Hawkins is gone.
Category Archives: spirit
Hi friends: Had the personal grief and cosmic honor of being present and holding my dad’s hand as, after a six-year journey with prostate cancer, he died at home.
I’m feeling, still, the terrible intimacy of final illness and death— a second infancy out of which, if we’re lucky, we can be midwifed by our loved ones and caregivers.
My dad was my first teacher, someone who was thrilled to learn anything new about the world. One of my first memories is of him passing me his tinted sunglasses on a drive so I could really appreciate the mountainous pileup of the cumulus clouds out the window; in the last month of his life, he couldn’t wait to ask my brother what he’d learned in lab about how a mess spectrometer works. He loved being a parent; he also believed that learning is moral work. He largely turned away from the privileges his Ivy League diploma offered him to instead provide legal aid and safe spaces to GI’s seeking conscientous-objector status; to work for free clinics; to organize medical supplies for victims of our Latin American guerrilla wars; to do mental health work with poor and struggling kids; and to devote thousands of hours to supporting community media. And he took notes on every damn book he read after turning 25, so if– as he urged me ever since I committed myself to liberatory politics– I ever read Marx’s Capital (“especially chapters 24 and 25”) and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, I’ll have his voice as my teacher.
I’m feeling so much love and gratitude for Kathy, his companion and wife for his last decade and more, who was devoted, imaginative, and tender as a caregiver in the months of 24-7 labor needed as my dad became less and less able. Love too for Charlotte, the caregiver and CNA who was here to give him his last bath and diaper change and sponge of water, and who called us over, as his breathing slowed and thickened, to hold his hands and tell him it was OK, tell him he could go.
After eighteen months and seven days, I’m again mourning a parent, feeling like an adult, feeling like there’s nothing now between myself and the sky.
(My dad’s obituary ran in his hometown paper on November 26; here it is.)
Photos: My dad in his last week; my dad with scowling newborn me; my dad politely enduring the 1940s.
Here is the reflection I gave at St. Mary’s about a month ago, on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, on Christ’s Parable of the Tenants (Matthew 21:33-46).
I almost didn’t have the heart to complete this reflection. After a 6-year journey with prostate cancer, my dad, Sanford, moved to hospice care in June and is near the end of his long goodbye with his wife Kathy, his family, his years of reading and thinking, and the birds that come to the feeder in his garden. A sudden death is a painful shock, but a slow death grinds us down: this loss erodes my strength, drains my hope, and isolates me from my usual gifts and comforts. My grief has more often felt crushing than illuminating. But, in praying on this gospel and writing this reflection, I re-learned a lesson that I’ve gotten over and over as a parent: it is comforting to give comfort. Seeking the soul-nourishing meaning I could uncover and share here in Christ’s parable nourished my own soul.
I re-read this week’s gospel on a sunny early morning in our neighborhood’s P-Patch: a community garden full of squash, greens, tomatoes, huckleberries, a beehive with a few last bees circling, and a sweet hanging smell of jasmine. It was easy, in that garden, to feel close to the love and labor of the prophet’s friend in Isaiah, or of the landowner in Christ’s parable: the P-Patch was busy but quiet, charged with its own inner life and eager for the care of its gardeners.
In one of my favorite books, Kathleen’s Norris’s memoir The Cloister Walk, a Benedictine nun tells the author that the “enemies” spoken of in the Psalms and the parables—the unbelievers and mockers and military foes who humiliate or overpower the psalmist; the “wretched men” in today’s parable—are best understood not as external enemies to vanquish, but as aspects of ourselves we must overcome. Hearing this relieved the troubled feeling I’ve often had at the harsh, and final, punishments the psalmist asks God for. The psalmist is speaking of an inner struggle.
This reframing also gave me a clearer understanding of today’s parable. In the beauty of the morning garden, I had no problem understanding the vineyard in Christ’s parable as our magnificent creation. This world is a free gift of God, and we’re called to be grateful stewards of this gift. But I see now that Christ is also speaking to us of our inner garden. Our humanity is also a free gift. As Father Armando said last week, we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having, for the duration of our lives, a human experience. How might we tend these spirits of ours if we believed this?—If we felt the incredible good fortune of receiving this magnificent inner garden to tend?
I don’t know about you, but I can identify with the “wretched men” of this parable. I’m often painfully aware of the wretched, possessive, fearful, jealous sides of my spirit: my love hesitates, my courage falters, my faith flows out under me like sand, my sense of solidarity shrivels.
I’m also wretchedly aware of all the ways I participate in what St. John Paul II called “structural sin”: how, by my silence and inaction, I too often consent to a society that pulls apart families based on immigration status; sells bombs to the world’s warlords; degrades and excludes women; robs the dignity of LGBTQ people for how they express their love, their gender, and their sexuality; riddles poor communities with opioid addiction, joblessness, and despair; and consigns young men of color to police violence and mass incarceration.
To work for justice in our relationships and in our society is to labor in the vineyard of God’s creation. But to do so is also to tend our inner vineyard. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine a natural thing you find beautiful: a bed of jasmine, a field of undisturbed snow, a great blue heron, a sleeping cat, a clear forest stream. Now imagine that, in God’s eyes, each of our small acts of courage, tenderness, or solidarity are that beautiful. These are the fruits and blossoms of our inner garden, and God sees them and loves them and loves us for them. To cultivate these qualities in ourselves is to lead a more beautiful life. But it is also to say thank you to the first gardener, of whose work we are the stewards.
is Laniakea, measureless heaven in Hawaiian: the 500-million-light-year-wide fibrous structure which contains the Milky Way and 100,000 other galaxies in clusters like knots in a spilled skein of yarn.
It’s a structure so vast that no one thought to look for it—to look past the Virgo supercluster which contains the Milky Way for any sort of larger shape or order governing the movement of our galaxy—until 2014, when astronomers in Hawaii and Lyon announced their discovery. Its name, chosen to honor the Polynesian navigators whose astronomical knowledge guided them across the Pacific, was suggested by Nawa’a Napoleon, a community college professor of the Hawaiian language.
(Speaking of Hawaii and astronomy: a word about the struggle of indigenous Hawaiian people against the construction of a giant telescope atop Mauna Kea, the most sacred mountain to indigenous practitioners of pre-conquest Hawaiian religion. Arrests, public actions, court conflicts, and the experience of years of repression of indigenous spirituality are at work here. For now, a judge has ruled that construction can go ahead, with “mandatory cultural and natural resources training” for the telescope’s employees. This is small comfort for communities who have seen their sacred lands despoiled and occupied for centuries, and certainly not the challenge activists were hoping for to the colonialist presumptions of many American scientific institutions.)
One of my favorite categories of discovery is the one which changes our sense of cosmic scale. Edwin Hubble discovering that the Milky Way wasn’t alone in the dark but was one of at-the-time-uncountable galaxies; the 1964 hypothesis and then discovery of quarks; the 1998 discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating over time. We feel a change like this in our body, a tug at the fibers that constitute our sense of self and place. The feeling is awe. One of my favorite Jesuits, astronomer (and former chair of the Pontifical Sciences Council) George Coyne, was asked, “When you pray, does it make any difference that the universe has 10,000 billion billion stars?” Coyne replied:
Absolutely. When I pray to God, it’s a totally different God than I prayed to as a kid. The God that I pray to now is a God who not only made me but brought me to be in a universe that is dynamic and creative. The universe is not itself a living being, but it is a universe that has thus far given birth to human beings who can pray to God.
I pray to a God that, from my scientific knowledge, has made a universe in which people have come to be and are still coming to be, even from a scientific perspective. The universe is continuing to expand. Just in the past 50 years, look at what the human being has come to be.
The awe of these sorts of discoveries is sublime, but it’s not exactly comforting, especially considering the mounting scientific evidence that worlds like Earth, congenial to life, are not common as once thought, but are probably very rare in the Milky Way, in Laniakea, and in the universe as a whole.
Why are Earth-like planets rare? (I sponged up much of this information is from two popular-science books I adore, Peter Ward and Don Brownlee’s beautiful downer Rare Earth and John Hand’s breathtaking summary-of-everything Cosmosapiens. Hurry up and read them both.)
First, our sun is in perfect galactic real estate—far from the crowded, explosive environment of the galactic core and the sterilizing lashes of radiation that emanate from the black hole at the Milky Way’s center; far too from the obscuring clouds of unaggregated cosmic dust at the Milky Way’s edge—and it’s stayed in this sweet spot for its full lifespan. The Sun is a G2 star, not too big or small, and stable (few flares, no surprise expansion) over its multi-billion-year life. Both of these factors mean that life has has 4 billion relatively undisturbed years to flourish on Earth.
Earth also had a lucky collision early in its existence: fewer than a billion years after it was formed from loose rock and dust, our young hot planet was struck by a meteor the size of Mars.
This meteor’s iron core sank and was absorbed into Earth’s, enlarging and strengthening our magnetic field, which protects our planet’s surface from the scouring, cancerous effects of solar radiation. The rubble blown off from this collision also collected into one satellite: the Moon. The Moon’s mass considerably slowed Earth’s rotation (its day), so our nightside surface can shed heat that could otherwise collect into a planet-wide greenhouse effect. The Moon also stabilized Earth’s axial tilt: this means our planet is spared what would otherwise be a violently wobbling axis periodically turning the Arctic tropical and vice versa. Tilted now at 23.4 degrees, our planet instead enjoys steady, regular seasonal change: great for life.
Earth is also blessed with a helpful big brother, Jupiter. The immense mass of Jupiter draws in most meteors and comets that come charging through our solar system. Instead of crashing into Earth, these meteors and comets collide with Jupiter. It’d be much harder for life to flourish on Earth if our planet was struck every few million years by a dinosaur-killing-sized meteor.
Our earliest ancestors likewise got lucky with where and how life first appeared. (First learned about this from, of all places, the appendix of a wonderful Natural Geographic book my dad got for Finn.) As simple proto-algae creatures spread throughout the ocean, they absorbed CO2 (which further limited the greenhouse effect), and breathed out oxygen. This oxygen rose from the ocean and was fused into ozone, creating an additional buffer against the Sun’s radiation for the life that did eventually creep onto land. If life had appeared on land first, solar radiation through Earth’s early ozone-less atmosphere would have introduced mutations so severe that evolution over time may never have taken off.
No one knows exactly how life itself first appeared, but it now seems likely that there are billions of near-miss planets in the universe: nice, temperate worlds with liquid water that never got a chance for life (or where life could never spread) because of galactic or solar radiation, a too-short or too-long day, a veering axis, or meteor bombardment. We now have strong enough telescopes that we can find evidence of planets around other stars. We can detect their mass and movement by how their gravity causes stars to wobble, and by how their transits slightly dim the stars they circle. The vast majority of the planets we’ve found are not even near-misses: they’re just no good for life. They’re “hot Jupiters,” gas giants squeezed up closer to their stars than Mercury is to the Sun, or they’re rocky but tidally locked, with the same side facing their star (and cooking into lava).
As a kid who read a lot of science fiction, I drew comfort from the idea of a universe as busy and amicable as a beehive with intelligent life. This dream now seems unlikely. Some scientists argue that any civilization that develops sufficiently may not choose to explore and populate the planets of other stars; but, in any case, our galaxy seems quieter than my kid self had hoped, and less congenial to life than we’d thought.
So, is Laniakea still beautiful in a universe full of stone and fire, radiation and rainbow dust, but largely empty of life? Yes, but it’s a beauty more like a thundering waterfall than like a garden: a beauty that doesn’t comfort us, but one that, for now, “serenely disdains to annihilate us.”
How does it change your perspective and life to find yourself at home in Laniakea? Or, put in terms closer to me, what prayer is appropriate to this scientific knowledge? The king-and-parent language of my own tradition feels impoverished before these discoveries, but I feel myself drawn toward the simple root prayer of the Orthodox: kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy! Or the open-palmed confession of human smallness and contingency in Islam: allahu akbar, God is greater. Or the recognition, central to Hinduism, that our being and will themselves are grounded in God: “What cannot be thought with the mind, but that whereby the mind can think: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore… What cannot be indrawn with breath, but that whereby breath is indrawn: Know that alone to be Brahman, the Spirit; and not what people here adore” (Kena Upanishad). This prayer says that God–whatever that bare, wonderful word means to you–is the condition, the ground, for our questioning, smallness, curiosity, and fear. Our planet’s cosmic improbability and fragility might provoke the same questions as we face when we think about our own mortality: If it’s so delicate, so brief, what was ever the point? Did it matter that we ever lived if our planet will be boiled by its dying Sun and our universe stretches the fabric of itself into a fizzle of loose, dead particles? Questions like this resist an answer, but demand a response. How do you live, having absorbed knowledge like this into your body?
Reflecting on a responsibility to myself I’ve failed to fully keep: living my full self candidly in all my communities.
Part of my reverence for Catholicism, my embrace of it as a worldview, has to do with the deep importance of the body in Catholic faith life. The standing and kneeling. The dousing with holy water and the heavy earthy reek of real frankincense and the real flowers wilting and the real bloody sweetness of the wine. The weak and emaciated body on the cross instructing us in God’s willing embrace and redemption of all that’s bodily: our physical infirmity, our historical contingency, our subjection to arrogant power, our radical weakness, our possibility of freely-chosen solidarity and our passage into death: death the darkest shadow of all those cast by this beautiful and bleeding creation, the shadow twinning all its light, and God passing through it. I revere communion as a foretaste of our unity, body and soul, with God. We know God in our bodies: our bodies are not a shell or a sinker dragging our featherweight spirits into temptation: they’re braided up with our souls.
This is important because, in my experience of sexuality as well as of spiritual ecstasy, I feel brought close to the edge of my finitude. Karl Rahner said once that humans are incomplete beings oriented toward completeness. In spirituality as in sexuality, I feel a deep intimation of a unity that I as an incomplete being won’t definitively achieve in life but I can sense, unbearably close, overpowering and out of reach.
I feel all this wisdom in Catholicism, so deeply that it breaks my heart how deeply dehumanizing church teachings are on queer sexuality (especially queer sexuality, I should say) and women’s reproductive freedom.
Friends who I love– friends who are radically open to God, friends doing the work on Earth I’d call kingdom-building, friends in touch with a profound awe at the mystery of our existence– can’t find a home in my faith community. Who could blame them, when Church teaching calls queer sexuality “intrinsically disordered” and Francis compares the spectrum theory of gender to nuclear weapons for how both harm “the order of creation“? My parish is blessed to be home to an open, affirming, and progressive community; our families look many different ways; our parishioners and pastors were deeply involved with the “Catholics for Marriage Equality” campaign; but the weight of the Church’s own teachings hangs over all of us and our work.
And I, for my part, have made my home in my parish while hedging on a deep part of myself: I’m a queer person in a loving partnership with a woman. I’m queer in my range of attractions, queer in my romance, queer in my relationship’s experience of and agreements around intimacy– a queer person who passes, often willingly, as straight in much of my faith community (plenty of other spaces too). I’ve passed by choice and habit and a deeply internalized fear of exposure: an invisible fear, a matter of adjusting my habits and managing others’ expectations, rather than fleeing or explicitly denying anything.
The consolations of this act of passing– fitting in and tending to others’ expectations– are bogus. Can I pretend my heart is hidden from God? (Thinking of Luke 12:3.) This choosing to pass is also a failure of responsibility to friends who can’t choose to pass: I let them stay other in the eyes of my faith community, even of prospective allies in my faith community. This consolation also can’t compare to the joy I feel when I truly acknowledge and welcome my whole extravagantly sissy, tender, outrageous self. There’s a simplicity in this acknowledgement that I’m taking a deep breath and embracing. I believe doing this will bring me more harmony with the embodied qualities of Catholic faith I love, and more courage in speaking up against the aspects of the Catholic understanding of the body that I resist.
Speaking of which, I’m feeling more and more acutely the cost of being a man in an institution as foundationally sexist as the church. The Catholic church is the church of Mary, Ruth, Miriam, Julian of Norwich, St. Theresa, Flannery O’Connor, Sr. Mary Antona Ebo, Teresa Forcades i Vila OSB, Dorothy Day, Mairead Maguire, Milet Mendoza, Eleanor Josaitis, Sr. Helen Prejean: women on fire with the Spirit. But the Church’s name and might has also been, again and again, a means of controlling women throughout history, relegating them to a smaller humanity than men. The Church’s denial of the priesthood to women is offensive. It’s one of the distortions– like Augustine’s justification of forced conversions from, of all things, Christ’s parable of the great banquet– that come from rationalizing the arrangements of power in the societies where the Church had been invited to share that power.
The practice of church doctrines on sexual responsibility are, I believe, one aspect of this diminishment and devaluation of the female. Instantiated in everything from the Church’s extensive charitable work to its Sunday school, this doctrine falls punitively (and almost exclusively) on women, on the female body as a site of male power and control. For repeating the sin of Eve, a woman’s atonement will be acceptance of a child she may have no means to care for and no support in raising. In my stinging conscience, I’m aware of how my comfort as a man in a male-dominated institution has sometimes dulled my resolve to speak out about sexuality, female empowerment, and abortion to my Catholic spiritual siblings, and my resolve to show visible solidarity with others who do so.
I love Catholicism for the age and weathered grandeur and extravagant patchiness of its cultural and ecclesial life. It reflects many societies, many ways of knowing. The Church’s very human overelaboration– of ritual, artifice, decoration– doesn’t match the grandeur of God. But this overelaboration is, to me, a more beautiful sort of failed attempt than that of the hard-pew, bare-cross Presbyterianism I was raised in. I feel I belong in the Church. I write candidly about sexuality and institutional sexism here not out of a fantasy of reshaping the church to suit my experience, but because it feels poisonous to belie my conscience by omission. “He who acts against his conscience always does moral evil.” My resolution is to risk discomfort more in search of truer harmony and joy, and to give more labor and solidarity to those doing kingdom work in the church itself.
Thanks to A and G who urged me to find the courage to speak all this. Thanks to J for shining a light for me on women leaders, lay and religious, in the church.