Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!!

May your Christmas be blessed.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Later Advent Spirituality of Where's Waldo

Today I drove around a mall parking garage for 20 minutes without finding a spot. In the end I actually gave up.  There were just no spots to be found.

This evening I was looking on Facebook.  Seems like a lot of the updates are about baking cookies, bribing children, wrapping gifts...bribing children, traveling. Busy, busy, busy.

These last days before Christmas -- aren't they crazy? And the attitudes you get (or give) -- honking, yelling, grabbing, gesturing...sometimes all at once.

How do you find God in the midst of all that?

I'm not sure I know, but it reminds me of a story.  My first year as a priest I worked at this parish in Milwaukee, the Gesu.  And every week we would have these 2 or 3 hour staff meetings to talk about all sorts of things.

As the months wore on and my very limited patience with meetings wore down, I found myself asking where is God in all this? And I wasn't asking in a judgmental, this-meeting-stinks way; I really wanted to know where the Spirit was at work, where it was inviting us. I just had no sense.

And this image leapt to mind: we were seated around an office table, facing one another.  And in another part of the room, a little girl who I knew named Sophie played with a toy.  We paid absolutely no attention to her, so intent were we on our conversation.  But that girl, that was the Holy Spirit, playful and imaginative.

From that point on, I used to try and step out of the fray of our meetings from time to time and "look" on a gut level for Sophie.  I know it sounds odd; there never was really a girl playing in the room. But somehow physicalizing the Spirit like that helped me to be more open to its presence.

Another image, which I think I've written about here before: Star Wars, Luke and Ben on the Millenium Falcon, Ben trying to teach Luke how to use the Force. Luke's terrible at it when his eyes are open; but when the blast shield on his helmet -- that is, when his eyes are effectively shut -- he begins to "see" in a whole new way.

These latter days of Advent may be filled with distraction, even with horrible, frustrating, no good distractions.  But the Spirit's still out there amidst it all.  If you have the wherewithal, in the midst of it all stop for a moment, step back from all the busy-ness and see whether somewhere She might stand out.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

O Christmas Tree

One of my favorite things to do at Christmas time is to go sit in the dark in front of our Christmas tree, and just enjoy the pretty lights.

And the other day as I was doing this I found myself wondering, wait a second now, where the heck did this tradition come from? And is it even Christian in origin, or is something more recent or secular?

Well, it turns out the tradition has a couple different pieces.  One is the choice of tree.  You never hear about people getting a Christmas maple, do you? Or a Christmas elm.  No, the traditional Christmas tree is an evergreen, like fir or pine. The reason is in its name -- it's ever green. That is, even in the darkest, coldest days of winter (like today, the Winter's Solstice, for example), it lives.  A great little symbol for Christianity, with obvious origins in early pagan traditions, too. (Ain't nobody that's been through a bad winter that doesn't want a little green to remind them that this won't last forever.)

There is also a Christian tradition regarding evergreens involving St. Boniface, patron saint of Germany and born with the really unfortunate name of Wilfrid.  In 722, rather than allow some people to sacrifice a child at the base of the oak tree -- the oak of Thor (!), he had the tree cut down.  When a fir tree grew from its base, Boniface declared the fir a holy tree, a symbol of the everlasting life Christ promises.

Is it me or does Boniface look like a very old George Harrison? 

And yet, probably the idea of a Christmas tree had secular origins -- the earliest practices of having a Christmas tree seem to be in Estonia in the 15th century. They would put up a tree in the public square before Christmas and have big dances there. It was like their sock hop or

When it comes to the lights, things get fuzzy.  Apparently Martin Luther used to hang lit candles on his Christmas tree -- I know, it sounds like a really, really bad idea.  You have to think his family would smile, nod their heads, and then immediately blow those wicks out as soon as he left the room. "Crazy bugger." (This also explains the original use of the tree snuggy, too. It wasn't to hide the tree stand or catch the little pine needles; it was to catch the hot wax.)

Seriously: Craziest Idea Ever.  

Where did Luther get this idea? History is unclear.  Some say he wanted the lights to reflect the starlit heaven over Bethlehem on the first Christmas.  But if that were the case, why not simply go look at the stars?  Another account I read suggested on a hike near Christmas sometime around 1500, Luther saw a bunch of evergreen trees close together, and the snow on them glimmered.  So he not only brought a tree home, but put lights on it. And the lights represented the light of Christ.

It seems pretty clear that the tradition of having a Christmas tree was pretty much a German thing -- the Rhineland area, actually -- until the 19th century.  And, given that it sort of started with Luther, it was a Protestant custom, not a Catholic one.  Catholics accepted it because they couldn't really stop it.  (And hey, who doesn't like pretty lights, no?)

As for other decorations, they, too, seem to begin mostly in Europe.  Delicate blown glass ornaments began in Germany in the 19th century. Tinsel came later -- and in Europe they tend to use plastic rather than the metal we use.  And children's tree decorations began one Friday when the kindergarten teacher finished her whole day's lesson plan in 2 hours.  True story, probably.

Not every country gets into the Christmas tree.  Mediterranean countries tend to favor the Christmas creche, and in some places think of the tree as an unwelcome distraction.  (Although, speaking of distractions -- did you know in the Catalonia region of Spain the Nativity scene generally includes a red-capped defecating figure (yes, you read that right, I did say defecating) called "el caganer".  I'll leave the translation to your imagination. But if you want a visual...)

No matter what the history, those pretty lights -- oh, how they can quiet you down.  One more invitation into the expectation, the stillness of Christmas.

Rockefeller Center  

(The New York Times did a great piece recently on the choosing of the tree for Rockefeller Center, and how hard it is for people to let their tree go.  I highly recommend it; it's very sweet.)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas 2.0

Ever wonder what the story of Christmas would be like if it happened today? Look no further...

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Life Line

Last year Sherie Rene Scott, Broadway goddess, put together "Everyday Rapture," a musical based on her life. Scott grew up a Mennonite, then came to New York in the year her faith tradition allows for members to leave the community, see the world and decide for themselves whether to return to the group or leave forever.

It's an interesting story, and Scott used a lot of music written by other folks to tell it.  Among them a great great rendition of Henry Nilsson's "Life Line."

"Life Line" is a great song for the darkest days of Advent.  I really want you to have the chance to hear for yourself. I spent about an hour searching for an easy way for you to get to it; it's actually really not that available online, which is really unusual these days.  But if you click on the link below, you should be able to hear it, though the sound quality isn't perfect.

And if that doesn't work -- well, it can also be found on iTunes and Amazon.  But hopefully it won't come to that.

If you're knowing darkness these days, this is the song for you. A great hymn of yearning.

The final days of Advent!  May they be a time of blessing for you!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Christmas Letter Rant

So the other day a friend on the phone was telling me that they didn't have time to do their normal Christmas cards this year, so they were just going to send a mass Christmas letter.

Between you and me, as soon as I heard "Christmas letter", two things happened. First, my skin crawled. Second, I tuned out.  It was all Charlie Brown's teacher after that.

Christmas letters -- my friends, I just don't get them. Or the single-space-page-of-text-that-makes-my-eyes-bleed variety, anyway.  Who wants to read all that? It's not that we don't care, but come on, a typed page or more with nothing but text? Are you for real?

Ironically, these letters take a lot of work.  So the writers put a lot of effort in, and at best most people skim it.

Three things I've been taught that are helpful in crafting a Christmas letter (if you want people to read it).  

1.  Consider the page. 

Day one of film school is this lesson: if you put too much description on a page, your readers are going to give up on you and never see what an amazing story you have to tell.  Long paragraphs intimidate busy people. So don't do that.

Tell me you haven't gotten Christmas letters like this. (I don't care if it is on pink stationery and with a garland trim, it's still a nightmare.)

Think visually. Have short parargraphs. Offer a photo or two that tell a story or evoke a feeling just by looking at them.

So, for example, how about this stunning shot from my friend Tanya's trip to France? 

You want to make it big so you can really appreciate it, but that could be great.

Or if you like comedy...

Had I known the fun I'd have with my nephews and nieces getting a photo done, I would definitely have sent this out. Aren't they adorable? (My inspiration.)

Other presentation ideas: cut your paper in an interesting shape -- don't use the full page,  cut it to 2/3rds, or half.  Trim the edges in some weird way.  Stamp it with reindeer prints. Whatever.   

Consider the page.  

All of this leads to the second thing, which is probably the most important. 

2. Consider your audience. 
(Which means: BE ENTERTAINING.)

This is why most letters fail, in my opinion.  The writers have a lot to share, but they don't think write with an audience in mind. You would never sit down with a friend and speak to them in whole pages of text -- at least, not if it wasn't important.  So why would it seem okay to do that on the page?  

You shouldn't make the Christmas baby angry.  You wouldn't like her when she's angry. 

Don't be like that. Think about it.  Who are you writing for? And what are you trying to offer them?

And if your answer could be summarized as, I'm trying to offer them information about my last year, DUDE. Think hard about whether it's worth doing.  Because that's a goal that has very little to do with your readers.  

And it usually results in letters that are not only long, but filled with long lists of of people and places. This year we went to X, Y, Z.  We saw this friend, and that friend, and that friend. Horrible, horrible letters.   

It's Christmas. Your letter should be a gift of some kind -- it should make me laugh or make me think, make me feel.   

Two great examples: 1) When I was a Jesuit novice, one of the guys in the class behind me took a photo from some event in his year, I think some kids he worked with that he really loved -- and he mass produced it, and then on the back he wrote a little story about those kids.  It was probably 7 sentences long. 

We love stories.  We don't have to be told what they mean, we don't need it to connect exactly to Christmas -- we're all just hungry for meaning, you know? So a teeny weeny story that offers a little substance -- that is a HUGE gift.  Those are the kinds of Christmas letters I look forward to.  

2) Some of my friends let their kids offer their own comments. Let me tell you, especially when the kids are young, that is 110% gold every time.  The things kids say -- they're wonderful and fresh and even when they're saying, this Christmas I give thanks for Santa, somehow it's a new perspective that makes me happy.

An audiovisual example:

Who cares that it's a commercial? The kids start in and it's adorable. Here's another.

Be funny. Be engaging.  Be creative.

This is the busiest (and for many people the worst) time of year.  So consider them.

Be entertaining. 

(And part of being entertaining: Be specific.  If the substance of your comment is, I went to Rio and I liked it, what am I supposed to do with that? There's nothing there for me, really. I'm happy for you, but you know what would be cooler? Some little story about Rio that I can think about or laugh over.  Something you observed.  Be specific.)

3.  Be brief.  

10 words is better than 20.  I don't care who you are or how you write, it just is. (And yes, I will now invoke the parents' golden rule: Do as I say, not as I do.)

In a spiritual season like Advent, things that we invest so much time in, like a Christmas letter, are important. A Christmas letter is an opportunity to travel back through and relish again the things that were important in your year.   However you imagine God (or even if you don't), you had some gifts this year.  You had some surprises.  You had some important moments.  Honor them by taking the time to savor them.  

And honor your readers by thinking of yourself as trying to give them a little gift.  If you're really serious about the letter, that's what you're doing anyway. So be intentional about it. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Enormous Blow Up Lawn Santas: Work of the Devil, or Instrument of Grace?

You know what's weird? My dad.

Yep, that's him, with my mom and all their grandkids in this year's Christmas photo. He seems normal enough, doesn't he?

When we were growing up, I guess maybe he would put up outdoor Christmas decorations, but if he did I don't really remember them being all that elaborate. My Aunt Eileen and Uncle Paul, they were the ones that had the lawn pieces that looked like they moved (or did move), the bright candy colors, the whole 9 yards.

But then, I don't know, a couple years ago -- probably as the enormous blow up pieces came into vogue in suburbia -- my dad suddenly lost it.  I'd come home and the lawn was covered in gigantic blow up figures.  For real.  Here's this year's display, from two weeks ago:

I understand it has gotten more elaborate since. And that Santa is 12 feet tall.  Really. That is not an exaggeration.

My sister and I have made a full contact sport of making fun of decorations like this.   When she lived in Illinois we used to drive around the neighborhoods laughing at people's front lawns. (Yeah, suburbs of Chicago, circa 2000, that was us.)  And I guess we always wondered, what in God's name motivates people to do things like this to their lawn?

This house, it looks like you have to do the limbo to even get the door.

But then lately I've been thinking, that's really not a bad question.  What is it that we're doing when we decorate like that?  I suppose for some of us it's just another form of stimulation -- as if smart phones, the internet, demanding bosses and crying children aren't enough.

But I wonder if sometimes what we're doing is trying to create our own little sacred space -- that is, a little place which draws us in and focuses us.  The Nativity creche is our own version of this -- whether on our lawn or under our tree, it creates a little world of its own that we can enter into, a place removed from the ordinary hubbub.

Am I crazy to think that more secular decorations might emerge out of the same impulse?

Ok, maybe not this.  (Seriously, this could give people with pacemakers a stroke.) 

But maybe this?

It's still busy, but there's something, isn't there?

The horrible thing about the Christmas season is so much of it is stressful and hurried through.  If we would just slow down a bit, maybe take a night to drive through the lights of our city, even amidst the Santas and the Frostys and the Rudolphs we might very well find that quiet space that we so desperately seek.

Ok again, maybe not here -- which looks like a photo from the end of the entire delegation at the end of  an animated G20 summit.  But you know what I mean.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Are You There God? It's Me, Blogging.

So, I've been sitting in front of the blinking cursor for a while now, and nothing much coming.  Which undoubtedly means God has something much more interesting in store for you. I can't wait to hear about it!

Jason mentioned his favorite Annunciation in the messages yesterday.  I found the painting he's talking about. It's really interesting.  Enjoy.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Advent Online

I saw a note this week that the New England Province of the Jesuits is sponsoring some reflections for Advent.  For each week they have a little audio meditation, done by some of the great men of their province.  Some of it's a little less meditation-y than informative, but there's a lot of good stuff there. (There's also a beautiful painting by a retired Jesuit, Bob Lindsay.)

Discovering the New England material made me wonder what else might be out there.  I found a couple other nice sites.

Creighton University offers Advent thoughts and prayers. (If you don't know the Creighton University Spirituality site, you should definitely check it out. They have all sorts of online retreats and meditations.)
Here's their Advent page.  They have links to the different weeks on the left hand side (and if you go there you can find little prayers for each day); on the right side of the main page they have a list of different Advent topics.

The page is a little busy; if you want to check out just one thing, try one of Fr. Larry Gillick's audio Advent retreat reflections. (He's one of the great spirituality guys of the Wisconsin Jesuits.)

And here's another site I found with reflections for each day of Advent by men and women.  Looks like some wonderful stuff.

And if you're interested in more video material, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, did this little meditation a few years ago that you might like.

Even in the virtual world, the spirit moves!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Other Annunciations

When it comes to the Christmas season, there are plenty of moments represented in the history of art, the nativity itself foremost among them. 

But from the season of Advent, far fewer moments have inspired artists.  There are plenty to choose from: the annunciation to Elizabeth, the annunciation to Zechariah;  Zechariah's inability to speak; the annunciation to Mary, the annunciation to Joseph; Mary's visitation to Elizabeth; the birth of John.   [There's a lot of annunciations, aren't there?]

And yet, it's mostly "the" annunciation -- that is, the Annunciation to Mary -- that has been the subject of creative work over the centuries. This medieval rendering, by Fra Angelico, is one of the most famous: 

Usually in artistic portrayals, the young Mary is demure, humble, eyes downcast, maybe even begging off on account of her felt unworthiness:

If there is a challenge with these portrayals, it's that they're so familiar that we don't really "see" them. And we can't get to the person of Mary behind the presentations. 

That's why I'm always in the hunt for versions that somehow jolt or jar, make the familiar strange and interesting once again.  Megan Marlatt's upside down angel is one such cool variation. I've got two more for you today. 

The first, below, is a very modern version of the Annunication. Mary is dressed like a contemporary day school girl, reading a book, and Gabriel stands before her not colorful, not dazzling, but in a muted choir robe, and as a man.    

That last choice, making Gabriel very clearly a man rather than a woman (as in the paintings above) or something hermaphroditic, creates an unsettling feeling.  What is he going to do to this girl? Yes he has his head down, in a somewhat reverential pose, but still, if we didn't know the story, I'm not sure it would be clear.  It reveals in a way most paintings don't the radical, almost heart-breaking vulnerability of Mary. In this painting, she really is just a kid. 

The other more modern rendition that I like is this one: 

Unlike most renditions, here the angel is not anthropomorphized at all; it's just a golden light that glows before Mary.  And Mary herself -- what is she doing? Her head's cocked down a bit, and yet not in that reverential, "do with me as you will" way we're used to.  She doesn't seem scared, either. She's just...interested? Waiting to see what happens? In the middle of a silent conversation?   

I look at this version and wonder whether it doesn't capture the dynamics of prayer, that sense of silent dialogue and complex receptivity.  Perhaps our every conversation with God is a sort of personal annunciation.

This week if you're looking for something different to do, you might try googling different events from the Advent season, and see what sorts of images you discover.  Find a couple that speak to you, and sit with them, one by one, full screen, just letting your eye wander over them and allowing your attention and affection to go wherever they want to go.  Rather than thinking or talking to God, you can just be present before a good image, and let it speak to your heart. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

An Interesting Annunciation

A few years ago while I was working at America, I read about an unusual depiction of the Annunciation at the former chapel of Rutgers, in which the angel coming to Mary is upside down.

Here's the image (and as always, click on it to make it bigger):

Mary's there in the blue frock, leaning over the table.  And the angel hangs before her, her head slightly above Mary's. Can you see it?  There are words the angel's speaking, too, but you can't really see them.  Which is too bad, because fun twist, they're backwards!

Now, you know how I like to riff on things like this.  But, in this case let me take you to the source. Megan Marlatt painted this work.  And again, lo those many years ago, I wrote her to ask what was her inspiration for this painting.  And this is what she had to say:

Why the upside down angel?  Well, pulling from my education as an artist I would tell you that anything is possible on the picture plane.  After all, its just a flat piece of paper, canvas or wall and it follows no verbal logic whatsoever.  Pulling from my inner Catholic child I'd say, why not upside down?  God did send an angel from heaven down to earth to tell Mary she was with Child, so who's to say he came feet first?  No, better to think that he dived in, head first, into a pool of mortality.  Its the same visual quandary I was in when my eldest sister had died from breast cancer 15 years ago.  Because I could not reconcile on a very primal level the fact that my sister was buried in the ground but was still in heaven, my pictures began to split in the middle between a strong underground and above ground.  This strong horizon line began to dominate every image I made.
And, really, if you think about it, this annunciation thing has got to be scary.  Many images of the Annunciation in the early stages of Christianity have Mary hovering in the corner, which certainly would have been my reaction.  I remember a Greek student of mine showing me an image of his Eastern Orthodox Church's vision of a Cherubim.  This wasn't our Roman, Western European one with its cute little baby face and little cheek wings.  No, this was a ball of eyes with seven wings and all I could think of is if I saw that thing I'd be scared out of my wits.  I guess the point I'm making here is while we all think we would like to experience something spiritually miraculous, do we really have the courage to see a glowing ball of eyes sweep through our living rooms or a trumpeting angel tell us we're pregnant when we don't even know what sex is?
My annunciation angel at St. Michael's is very close to Mary's face, and their faces are the same height as the face of a viewer who would enter into the small chapel.  The space in intimate, and I wanted the relationship between the angel and Mary to be intimate as well.  Almost as if they were lovers, because, this angel is the vehicle God used to inform Mary of her pregnancy and he was going to have to be very kind to her if he wasn't going to frighten her.  He appears more ethereal than Mary, because he is formed out of the plaster of the wall and she is painted in full volume.  However, the irony is that in reality he has more mass in lime plaster than she does, as she is only a nth thick of paint.  So, she is really more the illusion than he.  His words are backwards only because he is upside down and I had to spell them out as if they were coming from his mouth, not hers.  Hence, the standard reading from left to right wouldn't work here. 
Some great things to think about, no?

Megan runs a blog about her work.  And she has her own website, too!  Among her really interesting works there's this really cool image of St. Francis and an angel, too.

Thanks to her for her great insights, for permission so long ago to show this piece and for her work! Isn't she great?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The God of Surprises

I owe you guys a post -- and it just so happens, the good Jim Martin and the gang at America have just put up a great little video on the Annunciation. It's got some nice images and ideas in it.  Enjoy!

It's Still Not Easy Being John

(Sorry to have missed out on yesterday -- final exams!)

So, we were talking about John.  And here's a story for you.  In 2004 I took a job as an associate editor at America Magazine.  I had never worked in publishing. In fact, when I took the job I had never even really met the editors. I lived at America one summer during my theology studies, but I had absolutely nothing to do with the working of the magazine -- I was actually a production assistant for a company that did children's television shows and commercials.

Still, when I arrived on some level I thought I was pretty hot stuff.  I've always done well at school (in fact I have often thought, if you could make the world better through standardized tests, I would be your man).  I was an English major and MA, I like to write. Come on.

Plus, I was young. Now, young as defined in the Jesuit handbook is not exactly the same as defined by Webster's. Young in the Society means younger than everybody else.  I was 34 when I went to America; it's not old, but there are younger ages, you know? But at America House where I lived the average age was probably in the 70s.  I was definitely young.

So I start at the magazine, and it's great.  A profoundly positive experience -- if you live in New York and you're ever feeling down, just stop by America.  It doesn't matter if you don't know anyone, the people there will raise your spirits.  Really.  The work of being an editor was challenging in a satisfying way, my boss was fun and also encouraging, the staff was great, the community liked having me there.  A really positive experience.  In retrospect I can't believe how lucky I was to get that job and to move to that community.

Why am I telling you this? Well, there was one weird wrinkle in the whole thing.  There was, and is, on staff at America, another Jesuit named Jim, also pretty young, and hyper accomplished.  Jim Martin -- perhaps you've heard of him. In fact, if you've ever seen a Catholic priest quoted in the papers, or looked up from the dinner table or down to the paper to see a guy with a collar holding his own against Bill O'Reilly or Glenn Beck, or watched the Colbert Report and heard him interview a funny priest, or heard a priest on NPR, or read something by a Jesuit on the Huffington Post -- 9 times out of 10, that's Jim Martin.  Jim's  an incredibly articulate spokesperson for Catholic stuff; he's funny, down to earth and smart as a whip.

He's also extremely prolific.  While I was at America he published this book, My Life with the Saints, a first person narrative of his own life and his take on different saints.   A huge, huge success -- sold over 100,000 copies, which for a Catholic spiritual book, is Godzilla proportions.  He's followed up recently with The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, which is nice how-to book on spirituality.  He's got a great following and also a nice, conversational style.  If you're looking for Christmas gifts for self or others, this is the guy.

Do you see where this is going?  Pretty much my entire run at America -- definitely the first 2 or 3 years -- whenever I would meet people and introduce myself as Jim McDermott, an editor at America Magazine, almost every time this is what I'd hear: "Oh my gosh. I love your stuff."  And I'd be very pleased, because it turns out writing for a magazine is a lot like writing a blog. You put this stuff out there into the ether, and then you really don't know where it goes.  Did they like it? Did they read it? Most of the time you don't know.   And so feedback is always a great thing. (Even, God I hate your stuff.  I actually love when people would write that.  It doesn't matter that they've just slammed you, you still have a connection.)

The conversation would continue. Me: "Wow. Thank you so much." Them: "Oh yeah. I've got all your books." Or, variation: "That article you did on Mother Teresa -- wow." Or even, for the terribly nearsighted: "You were great on Colbert."

And there I was again, still without a verifiable reader, and ego totally popped.  You try to get used to it -- it really has nothing to do with you, after all. But it's tough to live in someone's shadow -- especially someone with the same first name and last initial.  (Somewhere God laughed over that little twist.)  And yet, really, there you are.  Deal with it.

And me, well, I tried my best, tried to keep my head on what I was there for, which was not to compete with any of the other editors or to be a media rock star, but just to contribute.  But that doesn't mean it was always easy.

 We've all got stories like this. And then there's John and Jesus.  I mean, talk about a competition you cannot win.  Oy vey, the complexes that one could give you.  And unlike me, John had lots of groupies of his own when Jesus showed up on the scene.  He had a "fan base".  And yet he sent them all to Jesus.

I don't know what you came up with for how he did it.  All that I can think is, he really didn't have his eyes on himself or maybe even on his cousin per se.  Rather, he kept his attention on God.  And as a result, a lot of things like ego or self-esteem had no power to distract him.

It's sort of like, have you ever gone to the ocean or a sunset and been caught up just in looking out on it?   Living in Los Angeles now I have the luxury of wandering down to the ocean from time to time, and for me its great blessing is the way it captivates. The play of colors on the water near sunset, its infinite expanse -- I go to it with many worries or troubles, and yet the longer I stand there looking out, the more all that seeps away.   John keeping his eyes on God, maybe it was sort of like that.  All the darkness fades away, and the right path, the right choices quite clear.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's Not Easy Being John

This weekend's readings centered on John the Baptist.  And it just so happens this fall I've been working on a comedy about the Second Coming, and as part of my research I spent some time thinking and reading about John. He's the one character that occurs at or near the start of all four gospel stories.  Cousin John, desert dweller, eater of the locusts and the wild honey.  I always imagine him old, with wild greying hair, and bugs or little bits of food stuck in his shaggy beard.  Not the guy you bring home to Mom and Dad; more the guy you see under the freeway.

But when I was doing my research, what really hit me is what a drag it could have been to be John.  From the moment he's born -- BORN -- he's living in Jesus' shadow.  His whole life is molded not around any personal goals or aspirations, but on preparing the way for Jesus.  And, true to form, once John's got his ministry going, what happens? Jesus shows up and it's all "Bro, I'll take it from here." In some gospels he still sticks around, but mostly just for the ignominy of having his his head cut off by King Herod.

How do you deal with living in someone else's shadow like that? At not being the top dog, not getting all the credit -- or maybe, not even getting all the credit you're due? And how did John negotiate that?  And what might we learn from him?

An Advent Poem

                               Picture by Tatyana Borodina


We have tested and tasted too much, lover-
Through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.
But here in the Advent-darkened room
Where the dry black bread and the sugarless tea
Of penance will charm back the luxury
Of a child's soul, we'll return to Doom
The knowledge we stole but could not use.

And the newness that was in every stale thing
When we looked at it as children: the spirit-shocking
Wonder in a black slanting Ulster hill
Or the prophetic astonishment in the tedious talking
Of an old fool will awake for us and bring
You and me to the yard gate to watch the whins
And the bog-holes, cart-tracks, old stables where Time begins.

O after Christmas we'll have no need to go searching
For the difference that sets an old phrase burning-
We'll hear it in the whispered argument of a churning
Or in the streets where the village boys are lurching.
And we'll hear it among decent men too
Who barrow dung in gardens under trees,
Wherever life pours ordinary plenty.
Won't we be rich, my love and I, and
God we shall not ask for reason's payment,
The why of heart-breaking strangeness in dreeping hedges
Nor analyse God's breath in common statement.
We have thrown into the dust-bin the clay-minted wages
Of pleasure, knowledge and the conscious hour-
And Christ comes with a January flower.

Patrick Kavanaugh

Advent -- a time of finding newness in every stale thing... 
A time of ordinary plenty...
A time of charming back the luxury of a child's soul...

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Propos of Absolutely Nothing

After posting those pictures, don't ask me why, but a little spiritual nugget from Tony DeMello, S.J. that's been helpful to me popped into my head, and I thought I'd pass it along.

DeMello has this insight that a lot of the time in life we're reacting to stuff around us without ever taking the space to sort of appreciate whatever is going on in perspective.  And it leads to us exaggerating the importance of certain things, or making ourselves out to be more the victim than we are (and of course, less the bad guy).

So he suggests trying throughout the day to imagine yourself watching yourself.   Like, there's the you working and running around and eating sushi -- and then there's like floaty guardian angel you, who's not judging, not interfering, just hanging out and watching it all happen.

And you think to yourself, and the point is?  Well, first of all, it's not easy to do, especially when you're busy and/or frustrated about something.  But with practice it has an unexpected way of helping defer reactions and building both sense of humor and compassion.  I was doing it the other week, in the middle of some really busy times, and it gave me this image of myself as like a person strung out on crack, shaky and desperate.  And in my normal life I'd probably move from that insight to judgment or "fixing".  But in the prayer, instead I just sort of held that shaky child part of me as it shook on.  Incredibly helpful.

Again, no idea what prompted the thought. An Advent gift from me to you!

Advent Images

My friend Tatyana Borodina is a fantastic photographer. She was in France earlier this autumn, and took some amazing shots. Here's a couple that for me bespeak that Advent sense of expectation.  (And, please, click on them for a much bigger view.)

PS Tatyana has a lot more great pictures here.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Cringe Exercise

I'm just finishing my first quarter of screenwriting studies at U.C.L.A.  And one of the most remarkable moments in the quarter occurred in the very first week.

One of the directors of our program, a great professor named Hal Ackerman, had us all introduce ourselves to one another. And not just names and addresses, but what did you do before, what brought you here.  A mini-version of what we'd call in the Jesuits a "vocation story".

Then, when we were done, he said this:  "So, we've all shown each other some of the best parts of ourselves.  The public identity.  Now, what I'd like you to do is take out a piece of paper and write a list of everything about your past that makes you cringe.

More specifically, everything you've ever done that makes you feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Write them all down.  And then, we'll share them."

It was that last sentence that got me.  "Share them?"  Hello, we all just met, and we're each going to divulge the things in our past that we really feel bad about?

He was serious.  We had about 15 minutes to write, and then one by one, we read our cringe lists.

Forget cringe. My image was 100% Macaulay Culkin:

And let me tell you, people did not hold back.  In my group of 8, pretty much everything that you could do wrong, one or more of us had done.  The regrets, the embarrassment hung like fruit.

Hal finished the exercise with this question: "Now that you've seen some of the darker parts of one another, is there anyone in the room that you feel like you really can't work with?"

In fact, the exact opposite was true.  Hearing people's mistakes and sadnesses only made us care about them more.  And not in a pitying sort of way, either.  It was like that great image of C.S. Lewis of being torn open and peeled away until all that's left is the naked self. That self is vulnerable and fragile, but also liberated and beautiful.

There is that paradox in Advent of God coming to us in the darkness, wanting to be in the very parts of ourselves that feel like the biggest betrayals of our faith, our compassion, our humanity.  These are the parts we hide away, expect (or perhaps wish) could be rejected.   But seeing it all, God -- like a friend or a lover -- only cares for us more.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Expanding Your Advent Liturgical Music Playlist

Yesterday as I was writing about God seeing the world and being motivated to respond, a song came to mind.  It's not your typical Advent song (although it does have a repeated lyric that could be a cousin to "Pa Rum Pum Pum Pum").  In fact, I'm guessing no one's got it on their liturgical playlist at all.

The song is by pop star Lady Gaga. Do you know Lady Gaga? Here she is in one of her many classic outfits: 

The Gaga, she does like her outrageous fashions.

Well, at the top of this year, she released "Bad Romance", a hit song with a sort of German techno flavor about... well, that's why I'm bringing it up.  As the title indicates, it's a bad romance -- "I want your ugly, I want your disease," the narrator sings.  "I want your love, I want your revenge."  One might think there's something creepy or toxic here.  (And if you ever happen to check out the music video, toxic does not begin to cover it! But creepy might.)

And yet, Lady Gaga herself indicated the song was about someone falling in love with their best friend. And despite the song's title, the song provides no sense of rejection or fighting, a romance gone bad.  If anything, it's a song in which someone invites another to share all their bad-ness without fear.

What if we heard that as Jesus singing to us?  Could we think about Jesus' desire to become human as a "bad romance" --  that is, a love story grounded in a knowledge and embrace of us in all our horror, all our craziness?

You can find the lyrics here.  I highly recommend you read them as you listen to the song. If you look just under the "Bad Romance Lyrics" title on the top of the lyrics page, you'll find a little blue link entitled "Listen Now".  Click there and you'll be able to hear the song.

The Lady, she is not for everybody.  But it's Advent! Something's coming! What better time to try new things?