Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent Week 3: Newtown, CT

This weekend I drove to northern California. I was on the I5, about as barren a road as you can imagine, lifeless hills followed by endless grey ribbons of road.  And I was listening to Christmas music. I've been doing a lot of that this Advent.  Some nice religious stuff like "Silent Night" mixed in with many of the great standards.

It's the sadness of them that's been helping me, oddly.  I don't know if you've ever noticed, but so many Christmas songs are either overtly about longing or have an undertow of something much more wistful than what the words seem to be saying.

And today all I could think about was the parents of the children killed in Newtown, what it all must be like for them these days. I think there are a lot of us all over the world who are doing that, and praying for them and letting our own hearts be broken, too.

I listen to the President and the talking heads respond, and I've heard it all so many times before. In the last two years we've had a Congresswoman shot in the head, we've had at least 4 different mass shootings that I can remember, almost all of them involving the death of children, and still we've gotten no closer to gun control.  There's something almost fundamentalist about the American devotion to our Constitution, as though the fact that there is a second amendment somehow denies us access to common sense. Common sense, which tells us that there is no good and legitimate reason to have an automatic weapon in a peaceful society. That there is no good and legitimate reason to have a concealed weapon. And that the argument that gun violence proves the need for guns is circular reasoning, the snake eating its tail.

So much of the the current debate has collapsed into sides shouting crazy at one another. And so little of it seems grounded in actual people, the ones who have lost their lives, the ones who have had their lives permanently altered as a result of gun violence.

Like Olivia Engel, 6. 

Noah Posner, 6.

Principal Dawn Hochsprung, 47, who died trying to stop the shooter.  

The superior of the community I've come to visit presided at Mass for his community of Jesuits today. He said to them, the problem with being a Jesuit is that we're so terribly insulated from the day to day hardships that families face. We don't know the first thing about having to make ends meet, worrying about kids, and on and on and on. It's an enormous gulf of experience.  Our lives are in some ways terribly, terribly comfortable.

He told his community, I want you to pray that God will help us overcome that gulf with the families in Newtown, and help us to be deeply and profoundly affected by their grief, their irresolvable, unassuageable loss.

Maybe that's what we should all pray for -- that we all, as a country, may be profoundly and permanently wrenched, traumatized, devastated by what's gone on in Newtown.  That our lives, too, may never be the same, that we can feel that hole that is now a part of their lives and that we will ache, too, now and forever.

I leave you with Saturday Night Live's cold open, a memorial to the victims.



Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent, Week 2: How to Pray

Found on Facebook: 

A nonbeliever pal asks how to pray, I say imagine in one bright spot all the love you've ever given or received; the luck you've had; talents you inherited (straight teeth, height, great smile, smartness, smart-assness); the french fries, the fried oysters, the chocolate; the moments on wonder, i.e. dancing to "Twist and Shout".... Eliminate (for the sake of this moment) all the bad shit, all doubt, blame, fury, self loathing. Then look at the good stuff and say, simply, Dammit that's good stuff. And acknowledge your fortune. And try to hold your mind on only those parts. As my friend Bob Hass said once, "I think I shall praise it." It's an exercise. I try to do this with what washes over me every day, and it flips my head from dark to light. It's a decent psychological exer ise for the dark minded.

-- Mary Karr, writer

Friday, December 7, 2012

Advent Reflection: Grief and Loss (and Comic Books and Jimmy Fallon)

Seems like most Christians I know love the Advent and Christmas seasons more than any other time of the year.  And between the stories and the liturgies and the symbols, there's a lot to love.

The funny thing is, this is also one of the hardest seasons for a lot of folks. When I was a dorm counselor in college, we were told to expect more students to suffer family tragedies between Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of the year.  And it's really true, isn't it? Deaths, divorces, catastrophic accidents or illness -- you name it, and 'tis the season.

Some people try to explain that stuff away -- it was God's plan or whatnot. I understand the impulse.  If we can explain our pain in some way, it's as though we have some control over it. But when you're sitting at Christmas and somebody's not there, I don't know, I think all those sorts of explanations melt away and leave you to be savaged by the sense of loss.

And you know what, maybe that's how it should be.  I was reading a great comic book not too long ago in which a main character realizes he is about to be killed, and there's no avoiding it. And he stands there seeing it coming and he tells himself "Don't run.  Be present to this.  Let yourself experience this moment in full."

Maybe we're meant to experience loss like that, to let it run us over like a train and shred our hearts. Really, how could it go any way other than that when it comes to those we love?

At Christmas we imagine the 3 Kings bringing gifts to the baby Jesus. It might sound odd to suggest it, but if what we carry with us this year is loss, then maybe that's what we're invited to lay down before him, our shredded razor hearts.  If God can turn water into wine and death into new life, surely he can bless us in our pain, as well.

I don't want to end on that note.  I know we're still weeks away from Christmas, but Jimmy Fallon, Mariah Carey and the Roots did this great Christmas song.  I know you're going to love it.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Room Tones and Tuning Forks

Last weekend I had the great fortune to be a helper on the set of a friend's web series.  As screenwriters we spend most of our time buried in our rooms or coffee shops (or Facebook), dreaming up (or avoiding dreaming up) these complex worlds.  But we don't often get our hands dirty lugging the C-stands and lights and watching as the same scene gets shot again and again.

I was especially struck by a moment called "room tone".  Everyone in the room would be asked to completely still for 30 seconds, and the sound guy recorded that silence.  When you shoot a scene from different angles, the ambient sound can change, which makes the edited piece sound poppy and weird.  To combat that, you lay in underneath the room tone, and it makes the problem go away.

The thing is, normally on this set there was lots of energy and chatter and activity. To switch from that to absolute silence -- it was like discovering a whole other layer of existence all around us, a spiritually deeper, more profound place present in our midst.

We talk about Advent as a time of waiting, of hope. But maybe it's also a season of presence, a tuning fork season in which we allow ourselves to get in sync with the quietly nourishing presence of God all around us.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing

One of the constant refrains of Advent is Come, Lord, Come.  And last year I discovered a fantastic cover of "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing" by Sufjan Stevens. You can listen to the original here. Or I've posted a great live cover of it below.

If you're looking for some inspiration or just a few moment's peace and connection, a song to carry you.

Advent Week 1: The Waiting of Francis Xavier

Today is the feast of St. Francis Xavier, one of the 10 men who helped formed the Jesuits in the 16th century, and the one who in many ways inspired the Society's missionary activity with his decades of work in Asia.

If you ever go to the Gesu Church in Rome, and you happen to wander back into the sacristy, which sometimes functions as a daily mass chapel, you can find this painting:

It's Francis Xavier on his death bed on an island, just 14 kilometers off the coast of China. It had long been a dream of Francis' to do missionary work in China.  But when he finally got the chance, he only got as far as this island. He was to meet a boatman to take him to the mainland, but the man stalled, and Xavier fell ill from the cold and a lack of proper nourishment.

He actually died close enough that he could see China.  From the painting I can imagine him looking out on that distant shore, as his life gave out, the dream he had sought never to be achieved.

It wasn't the first moment of powerlessness in Xavier's life.  At age 10, he watched his father get pushed out of his job as President of the Royal College of Navarre by none other than Ignatius of Loyola's future employer The Duke of Najera, who was systematically replacing all the Navaresse in his operation with Castillians.  Supposedly, Xavier Sr. died of heartbreak.

At age 12, the year before Ignatius arrived in Navarre, Xavier watched his castle home bulldozed by Najera to make way for a fortress to protect the Castillians against the French and other foes (aka the Navaresse).  The very beams of the Xavier castle were used in the construction of the fortress.

Xavier's brothers fought in 2 rebellions against Najera and the Castillians, including the rebellion that would lead to Ignatius' cannonball wound (and conversion).  The brothers were imprisoned at various times, threatened with death.  Xavier's mother would sign her letters to him, "Dona Maria, the sorrowful." (Best signature ever.)

Xavier consequently went to school in Paris with much to prove. When he decides to do Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises (a decision that took him quite some time), as a mortification he bound his limbs so tight he cut off the circulation, and almost got gangrene.  As a Jesuit he accepted the call to leave Europe and go to India within days of receiving it.  He worked in difficult situations in Asia, in the midst of conflicts, and yet he never stopped pushing, moving, looking forward.  And yet there he was at the end of his life, alone on an island, the thing he wanted most of all just out of reach.

As Christians we often hear ourselves called in the Scripture to build the Kingdom, to be restless in the best sense, never satisfied, always seeking to do more.

But the Kingdom is also God's project, ultimately. It involves a surrender to a big, broader concept of time and success. I always thought the Xavier painting involved Xavier looking out at the coast of China.  But if you look close you discover he's looking not out but up toward God. He's given up the hunt and placed this dream, his whole life in God's hands.

As we enter into Advent, we talk about waiting in hope. When I hear such readings it usually triggers some concrete sense of waiting, that is a waiting for something -- a better world (or a better me).

But waiting can also mean a surrender to that bigger sense of time, to a God who is mysterious as well as loving, and to a sense of self as being small, weak, not in control. Which might sound awful. But if you've ever gazed up into a nighttime sky full of stars, you also know the sense of wonder and dare I say relief that comes with realizing our place in the scheme of things.   We are small, and yet we are also a part of the gorgeous, mysterious whole of creation.

And to wait is to let yourself be taught how to become at home in that mystery.