The Hungry Spirit

All Along the Way...

The nice vendor who sells aromatic oils in front of Speedy Liquor on 14th Street got stabbed the other day. Word on the street is he “got sliced with a machete.”

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Sojourners Magazine June 2010
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Can Peaceful Protest Stop a Rising Tide?

There are two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time, and will ever continue to struggle, declared Abraham Lincoln in 1858: “the common right of humanity and the divine right of kings.”

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Sojourners Magazine February 2010
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Thank a Sister

Sister Linda Fuselier was my first-grade teacher. It was 1969 at St. Ignatius Catholic School in Sacramento, California. I remember her round, smiling face greeting me every morning, her hair tucked modestly into her veil. She helped us learn how to go to Mass and say our prayers. She was just “Sister Linda,” the teacher I loved.

In January 2009, the Vatican informed the 59,000 American Catholic sisters in 341 religious orders that they would be subject to a two-year investigation or “visitation” into their “quality of life.” Communities of cloistered, contemplative nuns are not officially part of the investigation. (Apparently, it’s the active Christian life that has Rome agitated.) The Vatican has opened a parallel doctrinal investigation into the Leadership Council of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents 95 percent of U.S. Catholic women’s communities.

Due to bad historical press, the Vatican no longer refers to these investigations as inquisitions. Nonetheless, this scrutiny of American sisters undoubtedly is to interrogate women and suppress their perceived heresies. (Some sports just never go out of style.) “When women leaders visited Rome in April,” one Catholic sister told me, “some American clergy at the Vatican and some bishops in the U.S. were promoting the idea of the ‘visitation’ for nuns in the U.S. What is certain is that American Catholic sisters, as a body or as individual communities, didn’t ask for it.”

Catholic women religious were—and still are—my heroes. Sister Sheral taught me the beauty of singing to God, especially while sitting at a Thanksgiving dinner shared with hundreds of homeless men. Sister Joan exhibited Paul’s gifts of teaching and governance in her service to Catholic schools, while also taking in teen girls who needed a safe place to stay. Sister Nora, who taught me calculus in high school, was known as the “Mother Teresa of Sacramento” for her work with poor women.

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Sojourners Magazine January 2010
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A Love Letter from the Pope

In July, Pope Benedict wrote you a love letter. Like all love letters, it’s worth savoring.

I say he wrote it to you because Charity in Truth, his third encyclical, isn’t just for Catholics. It’s addressed to “all people of good will.”

I call it a love letter because the opening word is caritas—love. And because any social change worth its salt must spring from love and pursue love as its ultimate goal.

The media says this encyclical is about globalization, international development, transnational governance, and the financial crisis. It’s about all those things. It’s also about fostering sensitivity to life, healthy sexuality, human ecology, and the way technology reveals our human aspirations. But its bookends are love.

If you’ve watched your 401(k) plummet in the last two years or sweated to make your mortgage payment, then there is something in Charity in Truth for you. If you wonder what good it does to dump billions of dollars in aid money to developing countries while we’ve got 9.7 percent unemployment at home, there’s something for you. If you want to know why labor unions are important and why they have to change, or why families are the building blocks of society, or why happiness is sometimes confused with material prosperity, pick it up. The pope is writing you a love letter because his heart breaks at the burdens you carry. He wants your life and struggles to have meaning.

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Sojourners Magazine September/October 2009
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On the Seventh Day, God Played

It’s summer here in the northern climes—and summer means the swimming pool.

Last weekend, I stretched out on a deck chair at the local public pool and spent a few hours in the splash zone. Kids were squealing in delight. Ungainly games of Marco Polo were played with a group of 25 or more. Spontaneous rounds of “keep the beach ball up in the air” formed and faded. Toddlers, in their bright yellow and blue baby floats, grinned, splashed, and waggled their fat little legs.

Play. We all say we love it. But the truth is many of us don’t do it.

Work is getting in the way of our play time. As work hours increase and more people “check in” with work during their days off—or work multiple part-time jobs with no days off—exhaustion levels are up. Americans spend half our “leisure time” collapsed in front of the TV. And, unless we are savvy TV consumers, end up wearier than we started.

The new neuroscience indicates that play is a basic biological process in animals and humans. Along with sex, hunger, and “fight or flight,” play is hardwired in us to keep our neurons adaptable and growing. It’s also the foundation of “civilization”—art, creativity, innovation, literature, music, theater, and complex social relationships.

According to Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, there are seven properties that identify play: It is done for its own sake, voluntary, has an inherent attraction, and involves freedom from time, diminished self-consciousness, improvisational potential, and the desire to keep doing it.

Brown has studied animal play behavior, developed “play histories” for humans, researched how lack of play may contribute to anti-social behavior, and most important, examined how play fuels brain growth and flexibilit across a lifetime.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2009
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Stammering Through Dreams

I dreamt last night I was being deployed to Iraq. In the passenger seat of an old station wagon, driven by someone I didn’t know, I headed to an army base where I’d board a plane for Baghdad.

Trying to remember if I’d packed everything, I shoved my arm into the bottom of my backpack. Suddenly (in that way of dreams), I realized that not only was I missing skin cream, but I was totally unprepared for war. I felt sick to my stomach. I could see the gates of the base approaching.

“This was a mistake,” I stammered to the driver. “I can’t do this.” He twisted his head, stared at me, smiled. It was not a nice smile. Without a word, he conveyed, “everybody says that about now.”

I knew right then there was no escape. I wanted to jump out onto the dusty roadside, be free under the open blue. Adrenaline sent my heart racing.

No! I don’t want to go. I can’t go! Finally, I jerked myself awake. I didn’t have to go.

At the moment of relief, I burst into tears. The weight carried by those who’ve been in a similar situation and for whom it wasn’t a dream was just too much. They had to resolve fear and panic by moving forward, not back; by stepping into a violent unknown.

Attentiveness to our dreams is a forgotten art. Twentieth-century rationalism mixed with a stiff shot of psychoanalysis has reduced dreaming to our cortex trying to assimilate random electrical impulses from the neural net. No more, no less.

But the biblical tradition paid attention to dreams. “The ancients understood that the unbidden communication in the night,” writes theologian Walter Brueggemann, “opens sleepers to a world different from the one they manage during the day. The ancients dared to imagine, moreover, that this unbidden communication is one venue in which the holy purposes of God, perplexing and unreasonable as they might be, come upon us.”

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Sojourners Magazine July 2009
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The Woman Who Changed America

When Frances Perkins was appointed Sec­retary of Labor in 1933 by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 25 percent of the American labor force was out of work. Perkins, the first woman to hold a U.S. Cabinet position, is widely credited as being one of the prime intellects and moving forces behind Roosevelt’s New Deal. She was FDR’s “conscience.”

Prior to her Cabinet ap­pointment, Perkins met with Roosevelt privately. According to Kirstin Downey’s new book, The Woman Behind the New Deal, Perkins held a scrap of paper in her hand as she addressed the president-elect. Scribbled on it was her visionary platform for a new economy: Social Security, a public works program, the 40-hour work week, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment benefits, a federal law banning child labor, and health insurance. It would take a complete government overhaul and changes in the Constitution, but Perkins was convinced it could be done. She convinced Roosevelt too.

But there was another side to Perkins. She was a religious mystic in the Anglo-Catholic tradition; when she first moved to Washington, D.C., she had hoped to live simply and quietly with Anglican nuns at a convent in the Maryland suburbs while carrying out her official duties. Though this idea was scuttled when she realized what the press would do with the story and how it might disrupt the lives of the cloistered community, Perkins went monthly to All Saints Sisters of the Poor convent for a day of silent retreat all 12 years she served in the Cabinet. In fact, she drafted our national Social Security program and Fair Labor Standards Act there. “The nuns found her in the early morning hours in the chapel,” writes Downey, “praying on her hands and knees for guidance.”

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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A Memory of Paradise

Rachel Carson—biologist, wri­ter, conservationist, Presby­ter­ian, and founder of the modern U.S. environmental movement—never lost her sense of wonder and awe in the natural world. She instinctively rooted for life and was ferocious in its defense. She sought out suppressed narratives in nature, such as the silencing of songbirds by industrial pesticides described in her 1962 classic Silent Spring. She cultivated an affectionate ethic for the natural world and the humans who worked most closely with it. Carson was driven by some “memory of paradise,” as playwright Eugene Ionesco put it.

Carson understood that human dignity was protected by social justice and had its own kind of natural beauty. Though Silent Spring focused on songbirds, Carson also flagged the danger pesticides posed to farm workers. Her research, along with immigration policy changes, gave Chicano leaders Dolores Huerta and César Chávez the climate they needed to mobilize for the rights and safety of farm workers, leading to the formation of the United Farm Workers union.

In a 1963 letter to Carson, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that Silent Spring contributed an “essential piece of evidence” for diagnosing the ills of our technological civilization. “The awful irresponsibility with which we scorn the smallest values,” wrote Merton, “is part of the same portentous irresponsibility with which we dare to use our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself.”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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Just Forgive

Lately, I’ve been wrestling with forgiveness. I suspect that we all reach this point at some stage in our adult spiritual journey. Once we are old enough to start making “adult mistakes,” we inevitably wrangle with the flip side: offering and asking for adult forgiveness. It’s not easy.

The dictionary defines forgiveness as “ceasing to feel resentment against an offender.” I decided to ask elder-prophet-pastor Mary Cosby, who co-founded Washington, D.C.’s Church of the Saviour in 1947, if, at age 86, forgiveness gets any easier.

“Learning how to forgive should get easier the older you get,” she said, “and I think it does. The older I get the more important it is to do things as an act of the will and let the feelings come later. Forgiveness is something that takes time for most people. They can make the first acts immediately, but to really internalize forgiveness takes time. The first act, for me, is just the will—just to say ‘I forgive.’ I don’t feel it, but I am committed to it.”

Robert D. Enright’s book For­giveness is a Choice outlines four steps in the forgiveness pro­cess: uncovering our anger, deciding to forgive, working on forgiveness, and discovering release from our emotional prison.

In my experience, the church has failed most profoundly in teaching us about step one: uncovering our anger. Actually, I think the church has taught—especially to women—elaborate and sanctified ways to cover, mask, and bury our anger, denying us access to the power of transformation and forgiveness.

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Sojourners Magazine March 2009
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Tackling the Unspeakable

On Jan. 20, the United States of America inaugurates its first African-American president and first Catholic vice president. As a nation—and as an ideal—America has reached a watershed point, a kairos moment.

Barack Obama’s election symbolizes a resurgence of what some theologians call a “passion for the possible.” It’s essentially a spiritual experience—even if those to whom it’s happening don’t understand it in those terms. The church calls it “hope.”

However, genuine hope often incites a backlash. If we take seriously Paul’s description of the fallen “principalities and powers” (Ephesians 6), then palpable, prophetic, authentic hope will provoke a response from “the spiritual forces of wickedness,” evil, or “the Unspeakable,” as Trappist monk Thomas Merton phrased it.

In a groundbreaking 2008 book, JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, Catholic theologian and nonviolence leader Jim Douglass probes the role of the principalities and powers in the assassination of John Kennedy, the first Catholic president. JFK is the story of how President Kennedy nearly started a nuclear war, then turned toward peace with the enemy who almost started it with him—and why that turning got him murdered. It’s an old story of prophets, kings, and consequences.

Douglass’ years of meticulous scholarship, including fresh interviews and access to White House memos only released in the mid-1990s, prompted Gaeton Fonzi, former staff investigator for the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations, to write that JFK and the Unspeakable is “by far the most important book yet written on the subject.” Douglass tells the story that, until now, America has not had ears to hear.

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Sojourners Magazine February 2009
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