Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Annunciation: A Modern Retelling

Australian Catholics asked me to write a piece for them imagining what if the Annunciation happened today. You can find the link to the actual piece here. I've done my best to paste it below, too.

(Lingo note: 'The Chaser' is a TV program in Australia that specializes in pranks on politicians and others. And a "galah" is an incredibly loud and obnoxious parrot to be found all over the country.)



HOW I MET YOUR FATHER 


(SETTING Perth, Australia. A home in an outer suburb. Today. MARY, 17, is on the phone to a GIRLFRIEND.)


MARY
It is not weird.

GIRLFRIEND
(on speaker) It's weird.

MARY
It's not like we're getting married today.

FRIEND
Still weird.

MARY
You just don't like him.

FRIEND
He wants you to get married when your lives are just beginning. Of course I don't like him

MARY
Well, I think we're going to be very happy together.

FRIEND
Maybe for the first two minutes.

(The doorbell rings.)

MARY
I gotta go.

FRIEND
Just one word to think about.

MARY
Is it 'weird'?

FRIEND
Yep.

(Mary hangs up and hurries to the front door. Opening it reveals AN ANGEL, tall, three sets of bright multicolored wings, stands at the door, barely fitting under the awning.)

ANGEL
Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee!

(His voice booms through the neighborhood. Mary stands there, dumbfounded.)
ANGEL
(more normal voice) You are Mary, right?

(The angel checks a map he has.)

ANGEL
It's very hard to pick out the right house in this neighbourhood.

MARY
Uh...yeah, I'm Mary. And you are...?

ANGEL
I'm an angel of the Lord, sent to tell you...

MARY
An angel.

ANGEL
Look at me. What else would I be?

(Mary stares at him, then looks past him outside.)

MARY
This is a bit for The Chaser, isn't it?

ANGEL
It's not.

MARY
I don't believe you.

ANGEL
Really, it's not. Although funny story about the Chaser boys, not long ago they got past St Peter at the Pearly Gates and shot a hilarious bit following Jesus around.

MARY
'Jesus'?

ANGEL
Whoops, sorry, putting the cart before the horse. Jesus is the son you're going to have.

(Mary stares at him, dumbfounded.)

ANGEL
Mary?

MARY
Get off it.

ANGEL
Do I look like I'm having a laugh?

MARY
Have you seen yourself? You look like the world's biggest galah.

ANGEL
Silence!

(His voice echoes through the neighbourhood. Trees shake.)

ANGEL
Look, I'm sort of squished out here. Could I come in and explain?

(Mary steps aside. His wings knock things left and right as he walks.)

ANGEL
Whoops. Sorry about that. Was that expensive? God will pay for it.

(Mary sits on a couch. Angel stands before her and cracks his neck.)

ANGEL
So much better. So here's the thing: Mary, God loves you.

MARY
Okay...

ANGEL
Like, a lot.

MARY
Isn't that his job?

ANGEL
Yes, it is. He loves everyone. But you're his favourite.

MARY
Seriously?

ANGEL
Yes. And he's sent me here to tell you he loves you so much, you're going to conceive in your womb, and you will...

MARY
Wait... what?

ANGEL
I know, the language is a little stilted. But that's what he told me to say.

MARY
You know I'm engaged, right?

ANGEL
Oh we're talking to Joseph, too.

MARY
I bet that will go well. 'Hail, Joseph, full of whatever, your soon-to-be wife is going to be having God's baby.'

ANGEL
We're pretty sure he's going to punch the angel in the nose. But then he'll calm down. Slightly.

MARY (sarcasm):
Oh well then, I guess it's no worries.

ANGEL (misunderstanding):
Ah, good. So, here's how it's going to work: the Holy Spirit is going to come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

MARY
That sounds absolutely terrifying.

ANGEL
Yeah. God really doesn't know how to put things sometimes.

MARY
I've never even had, you know, relations.

ANGEL
I know. It's a lot.

MARY
It is!

(Mary paces)

MARY
You could choose anybody. Choose Princess Kate! Or even Pippa!

ANGEL
They're not you.

MARY
Me? I'm a kid. I don't even know how to do my own laundry yet.

ANGEL
You're a kid getting married. Which tells me, you're already willing to take a big leap of faith. Think of this as just leaping a little bit more.

MARY
Just a little bit more? We're talking about the Son of God!

ANGEL
Okay, how about this: since he's the Son of God, maybe he'll grant you three wishes.

MARY
What, like a genie?

ANGEL
Exactly.

MARY
Does it work like that?

ANGEL
Actually, no. For most of his life he'll actually be pretty ordinary.

(Mary thinks deeply.)

MARY
Will he have a happy life?

ANGEL
Oh, he'll be very happy with you. You'll do fine.

MARY
No, I mean, if he's with us, will he have a good life?

(The angel thinks about this.)

ANGEL
Sometimes it won't look like it. But yes. In a strange way, he will have the happiest of lives.

(Mary considers this.)

MARY
Well then, okay. Let's do this.

(The angel cheers. Every item of glass in the house shatters.)

MARY
Just so you know, when I've had the baby, you are not to come visit.

ANGEL
Understood.

THE END


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pope Francis, One Year On: Untying the Knots


A year ago yesterday, I was telling people, after 2005, nothing could surprise me.

That should have been true.  I will never forget the election of Pope Benedict in 2005. Me and a bunch of others, huddled around a little TV, waiting, waiting, waiting for the reveal.... who would it be????..... 

....and then the former Cardinal Ratzinger came out, smiling. And the room went silent. And stayed silent.  It was like someone had died. 

Yeah. That was a surprise. 

And for as poorly as it is currently remembered, Benedict's time as pope had some great surprises, too.  He did not turn out to be the attack dog everyone feared. Nor did he continue "the Church is Me" philosophy of his predecessor. Some say Benedict was a shy man; I think he was intent on pulling back from the limelight so that the Church could return to its proper functioning. He and his team made some major faux pas, but even those were at times refreshing. The Pope was just a man, who could screw up just like us. 

But regardless, come Benedict's retirement announcement, it didn't matter who they chose, no one could top the surprise of his election.  


*sigh*

Lots will be written today about Pope Francis, and how much he has accomplished in just one year. (Can you believe that? It's been only one year! Imagine what he'll do with five!)

I don't want to repeat all that. I will say, his papacy has been an enormous boon to my faith in the Church. And also an enormous challenge.  Never have I felt I am falling as short as a priest as I do when I watch him. 

And I take that as a good thing. Everyone needs to be pushed. 

But rather than say much more that you already know about the man, I want to share a story with you about him that fits the season we're in. It's from the book Untying the Knots, a biography of Pope Francis that I highly recommend by Paul Vallely. In fact it's the title story. 

After Jorge Bergoglio finished as provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina, it was unclear what to do with him. His term had been extremely divisive for the province. (Vallely does a great job of laying out different ways of understanding that time, whether the problem was Bergoglio's own inflated sense of self and conservatism or the deep societal conflicts that he was trying to navigate.) And frankly, nobody wanted him around.  

So he went to Germany to look into getting a PhD in theology -- a pretty crazy notion, given the fact that he had already had so much responsibility and was almost certainly too old to really give himself to that kind of a program. 

While he was there, he discovered a painting in a church of Mary untying the knots of sin. It was nothing special, but it captivated him -- so much so, in fact, that when he returned to Argentina, he had the painting reproduced and hung in the cathedral, where it went from a sort of okay painting that no one paid much attention to, to a major object of devotion. 

Vallely says that while Bergoglio served as Archbishop in Buenos Aires, he was frequently seen sitting before that picture, seemingly praying that Mary could help untie the knots of his own struggles and failings. 

In so many cases, we long for answers or resolution or reconciliation. And they're not forthcoming. We try to push through, to force or fix or analyze. And still, the answers elude us. 

They are the knots we try to loosen, but find ourselves unable to undo.  

But Bergoglio found hope in another way. Rather than put all the responsibility on ourselves, we can give those knots over to God, or Jesus, or Mary, or whoever. They're big. We're small. Let them work to untie them.  

On this first anniversary of his election, I rejoice in a Pope wise enough to see his own neediness and humble enough to share that with the rest of us. A Pope whose first act was to ask the crowd to bless him. 

I imagine Mary trying to untie my many, confusing knots, and I am relieved to know someone is going to help me where I can't help myself. Someone is going to help me find my way. 

And as I sit before that image, I also take heart in the idea that far away, amidst all the pomp and drama of Rome, a tall, funny Argentinian man is doing the same thing.











Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent Week 1: Letting Your Heart Break



I think when you come to the spiritual field, if you have a heart, it is sure to be broken. And I think if it is not broken, it is useless. I have always felt that a heart which has never been broken is a useless heart.  I take the example of a taanpura, you know, that instrument for music. Some of the greatest musicians I know, I have known this personally, used to suspend a taanpura from the ceiling, about two feet from the ground, cut the thread so that it falls, and that beautiful thing, that tumdha, is broken. Then, whet it is repaired, that taanpura has the most beautiful tone and sound. Musical instruments have to broken into service like that. That is why we call it ‘breaking into’. Literally, the heart has to break.

                                           Parthasarathi Rajagopalachari 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Get Your Lent On(line): Resources


If you're looking for some online materials for Lent -- well, I can't offer you this nun (and given the look on her face that might be a good thing...), but here are some places doing interesting things.

Creighton University offers a whole bunch of different online Lenten experiences (including, I note, an ongoing group discussion of Mercy in the City, the book by Kerry Weber I mentioned yesterday). Their homepage can be a little overwhelming with the sheer number of different opportunities they offer. But if you poke around on some of the links, you'll find some very good articles, book groups and experiences.

Loyola Press also offers a bunch of online Lenten experiences, including a retreat (which has the somewhat terrifying name of an "Ignatian Prayer Adventure"), day by day reflections, and other resources.  It looks like a rich set of opportunities.

The Ignatian News Network has Sr. Rose Pacatte leading a Lenten film series, in which short films and clips from film and TV are used to talk about themes of the season. If you've never heard Sr. Rose, she's well worth a listen. A warm, funny, knowledgeable speaker who has spent her life talking about media and spirituality.

The Jesuits of the United States are together doing an online retreat from Lent through Easter called Moved to Greater Love.  Each day includes a whole bunch of materials to choose from -- a reading from Scripture, an image or video or song, a reading from Jesuit stuff, some questions for reflection. Some of it might be a little "inside baseball" if you're not a Jesuit, but you might also enjoy it.

Lastly, a great friend of mine from Australia has started a sort of online spiritual community called "Bamboo" that you might be interested in.  It's not specifically Lenten in its focus; it's more an opportunity for people interested in service and spirituality to share their experiences with one another. If you go to the site you can click on reflections and also sign up to become a member (which involves a weekly email update).  Bamboo is very much in its infancy, but it's a really interesting idea.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Resource for Lent: Mercy In the City


Over Christmas I had the chance to have coffee with Kerry Weber, who is the Managing Editor at America Magazine.  Kerry's a Columbia J-school grad who spent a year working as a special ed teacher on the Navajo Indian Reservation with the Mercy Volunteer Corps. And the photo above captures her perfectly -- joy and light.

Over coffee Kerry described how she had decided one Lent to try and live out the seven corporal works of mercy -- feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. (It's a great idea, right? Why didn't we think of that!) And it was such a rich experience that she had written a short book about it, Mercy in the City.

So a couple weeks ago I picked up the book, and I discovered that Kerry is a great writer, with a wonderful sense of humor, an eye for detail. Here's a little gem from early on:
One cold winter night I bought a tunafish sandwich for dinner at CVS pharmacy. I was hungry and late for a meeting and was feeling sorry for myself for having to eat dinner at a place that also sells panty hose and cold medicine. 
I don't know if this is true the world over, but anyone who has lived in New York City has had exactly that experience!

But more than wit, what I love about the book is that Kerry grapples with the same questions that I know I do -- how do I find God in my life? And what does it mean to be a good person? So the quote above continues:
I passed a man curled up under blankets on the street. 'Got anything to eat?' he asked, clearly seeing that I did. I took out half of the sandwich and gave it to him. But as I walked away, doubts filled my head: Should I have given him the whole sandwich? Should I have bought another one just for him? Was he even hungry? It's not easy to determine the best ways to act with kindness and mercy.
For me, the criteria for a good spiritual book are these:
  • It must be short: God forgive me, but save us from the 7 Storey Mountains.
  • It must be inviting: Tell me a story. Make me think. Make me laugh. 
  • And it must be wise: Ask a good question. Speak from an honest, relatable place.  Share the truths that others have taught you. 
Mercy in the City is that kind of spiritual book. If you want a Lenten partner for your own journey (or just ideas for that journey), I really recommend it.




Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday: Let It Go


My favorite part of Ash Wednesday (and probably of Lent) is receiving the ashes and hearing that phrase: "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

I know it sounds grim. But it always brings me such relief. It reminds me that so much of what I worry about, so many of the battlefields I find myself on (or put myself on) are immaterial in the big picture.

And if I don't want to, maybe I don't have to keep worrying or fighting. I can just let it go.

The song of the same name from the Disney movie Frozen has been running through my head the last couple days. Performer/Broadway goddess Idina Menzel did a fierce performance of it at the Oscars on Sunday.  But she also visited The Tonight Show the following day and did this sweet, quirky version with the Tonight Show band and Jimmy Fallon.

"Let the storm rage on. The cold never bothered me anyway."