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Today, Holy Thursday, begins the Triduum, the three days that recollect and celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. Most of us know this story well. We’ve pondered that journey. But how often do we think about the people who walked the path with Jesus?

Simon of Cyrene was picked out of the crowd to help Jesus carry the cross. How and why was he chosen? Well, we know he was from Africa. He might have been a person of color. Or the Roman guards simply noticed he wasn’t Jewish — he was “other.” Or he might have expressed sympathy for Christ. Whatever the reason, he is an outsider, someone from the fringes — the type of person Jesus favored in life.

The women of Jerusalem wept for Jesus and were comforted by him. Women weren’t exactly valued commodities in Jesus’ day. They were mostly seen as possessions, with no voice or agency of their own. Yet Jesus turns to women again and again in his life and along the road to his death — he listens to them. He values them. He speaks to them. Again, Jesus chooses the outsider.

Veronica wipes Jesus’ face. Again, a woman does the unthinkable, and Jesus rewards her with kindness.

The penitent thief (sometimes called Dismas) is crucified next to Jesus. What do we know about him? People were crucified for all sorts of crimes in Jesus’ day, but to be crucified for mere petty theft would have been a long shot, unless the thief was from the lower classes, or worse, a slave. Or the theft was far from petty — it was violent and extreme. There is some conjecture that the “thieves” were more like terrorists. Once again, it someone from the fringes, someone most unlikely, who responds to Christ’s call. In radically changing his heart, Dismas is promised paradise.

Women. Foreigners. Criminals. These are the people who walked the way of the cross with Jesus. Not his apostles. Not religious leaders. It was the most unlikely of people who shared the journey.

People are always amazed when I tell them that SueBE, Ruth and I have never met in person. Yet in my dark nights of the soul, they consistently walk with me. This Easter, take some time to ponder who walks with you. You just might be surprised.

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We lost our boy. Jaspurr was nineteen — that’s a long time to know a person, much less a cat (which is what Jassy was). His name (pronounced Jasper) stemmed from his loud and enthusiastic motor. He was a lover, a cuddler, a lap kitty. He was, as our dear pet sitter described him (and like Frankie whom I wrote about last week), the matriarch of the family: It was because of Jaspurr’s loving instincts that we were able to have eleven cats in our home at one time. He took care of everybody. Now he is gone, along with the rest of his adopted kin. He was, as my mother would say, the last of the Mohicans.

Sometimes terrible doubts grasp me: What if there is no heaven? It’s not fear for myself that motivates me — the idea of oblivion is terrifying, of course, but I don’t mind so much for myself as for Jaspurr and our other lost pets. Surely there must be a forever place for him? He did nothing but love with his whole heart every day of his life.

I find myself arguing transitive qualities, like a proof in geometry: If I love Jaspurr and God loves me, then…. But it’s useless trying to wrap my brain around it. Jaspurr was good, and if good survives beyond this life, then surely he does, too.

There is only one way to deal with this grief and it is to walk through it. I have to imagine Jaspurr in paradise, a paradise he understands, filled with dishes of cereal milk and all his friends. Here’s a haiku to celebrate:

A pause in heaven —
gentle tiger-striped rumblings —
a cat has come home.

Let me tell you about Frankie, of whom I’m terribly fond. I just saw him on Sunday, and though he slept through my visit, I could tell he was content — after all, he was where he loves to be, in a giant pen with a bunch of horned beasts. Frankie’s a llama, by the way. He lives at an animal park just outside of town where he spends his days raising generation after generation of pygmy goats. (Exception: For a brief while he was employed in pulling train-fulls of children around a track. It broke my heart — and his. Thankfully, he was quickly reunited with his foster children.) Frankie doesn’t know he’s a llama among goats. He’s just doing what he loves to do — gently guiding and nurturing his hoofed pals, lying down so they can climb him like a furry, brown mountain, policing caprine shenanigans.

No one has ever told Frank that he cannot be a goat mama, both because he is male and the wrong species. I’m glad they haven’t. So many of us are discouraged from doing God’s work, from being our fullest selves, because the world tells us we can’t. We’re not important enough. We’re women. We’re out of our depth. Those people are wrong. If a male llama can tend to goats, if a stutterer (Moses) can speak for the people of Israel, if an illiterate fisherman (Peter) can head a church, then why can’t you do what God is calling you to do, however unlikely?

To call myself a spiritual poet in a world where poetry (much less spiritual poetry) isn’t wanted, needed or read is as ridiculous a calling as a llama aspiring to goat-tending. But Frankie’s doing his thing. And I’m doing mine. Maybe no one will ever notice us much, but neither of us cares. The goats know. I know. God knows.

And maybe, just maybe, someday I’ll be as good at poetry as Frankie is at raising goats. Not a bad goal, wouldn’t you say?

My left eye is trying to tell me something. Apparently, I have displeased it. The lid is red and swollen, probably signifying an allergic reaction. Into the trashcan went the mascara; I decided to go nude-faced until the displeasure ceases. Which posed a quandary — can I really go out in public without makeup?

I don’t wear much makeup, but without something on my eyes, my face tends to disappear, especially since I let my hair go “natural” (read: a mixture of brown and — to put it politely — silver). I’m one of those ghost-faced gals who needs a little color. Without makeup, I look old and tired. Not that I’m not old and tired — those are true things — it’s just that it’s not what I want the public to see. For their own sake. Being inordinately tall is one thing; being tall and preternaturally pale is bordering on spooky.

Nonetheless, I went out, makeup-free, and you know what? No one seemed to notice. It’s a funny thing. People look at you a lot less often than you might think. And what they conclude about you from a glance isn’t worth worrying about. In fact, most people are so self-conscious, they are likely not thinking about you at all.

Still, it made me wonder: What kind of mask am I putting on when I face God, and don’t I realize God can see right through it? My naked soul is certainly more frightening than my naked face. I can dress my soul up in formal prayers, modulate my manners and voice (“see, God, I’m being patient!”), yet God sees every wart, scar and defect. It’s like those x-ray specs they used to advertise in the back of comic books, only these actually work. And God’s got the only pair.

I’m a little ashamed that God can see me as I am. Maybe that’s a good thing. Anything that motivates me to improve the actual quality of my soul is a plus. And maybe — like my eye — my soul will become less unsightly with time.

Can I turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse? Unlikely. Luckily for me, God loves sow’s ears. And tall, pale people. Just as they are.

My friend Marilyn, at age 83, is afraid of changes in the Catholic Church. Not because the Church is moving forward, but back — to pre-Vatican II thinking and acting. She doesn’t want to go back. Neither do I.

I don’t remember the Church pre-Vatican II; it was over before I was born. But I know the Church of my childhood, and it is the Church I love: open, welcoming, modern. Enough with the pomp and circumstance! Let the people be a true part of the celebration of their faith! Primacy of conscience! Right to legitimate dissent! Sensus fidelium!

Many parishes, alas, are regressing. There is a patina of lost glory around things like Latin masses, altar boys in red cassocks with censors and incense, and the clergy being elevated to a pedestal unreachable to the rest of us. Funnily enough, this pining for the old days occurs less in older people — who remember those days well — than in younger people, particularly younger priests. They like the idea of being cloaked in mystery, of being above and beyond the people of God. It makes them more important.

I read some comments by a German nun this week questioning, again, the regulation against women priests. (Here’s a hint: It basically comes down to “the wrong plumbing.”) You should have read the responses on Facebook from the so-called faithful! “Your job is not to doubt; it is to obey.” “The bishops and cardinals know best.” Do they? Is it? Primacy of conscience. Right to legitimate dissent. Sensus fidelium. All of these things back the nun, not the Facebook commenters. Is no one being taught the lessons of Vatican II?

I am hoping this regression to the “good old days” will lapse into obscurity. Just as the ‘80s brought back the ‘50s — and then promptly forgot them — I hope that the shine will come off the apple of the pre-Vatican II church and that the precepts of Vatican II will come back into the spotlight again. Because going backward has never been the answer, in any human endeavor. We can only move ahead. Even if that means leaving some people behind.

By now you’ve heard about the college admissions scandal that’s rocking both academia and Hollywood. It’s just another example of what privilege affords in this country — and in this world. Where can we look for justice, equality, fair play? Revolution? Revolutions erupt into bloodshed. Maybe there’s a different way, a gentler way….

I used to wish for a burning bush,
all roaring heat and choking smoke,
too hot for ignorance to withstand:
it would burn, blackened twigs snapping.
But now I think: Perhaps a campfire,
burning low, welcoming, warming.
As each stranger sidles up to it,
there is a murmuring, you are home.
As the feeling comes back into flesh,
we realize that we can pick, together,
the weeds of injustice.
Small love, over time,
will do the work of wildfires.
And anyone can light the match.

Little darlin’ (as the late, great George Harrison might say), it’s been a long, cold, lonely winter. Even if you don’t believe in global warming or climate change (you should; it’s as provable as gravity), you must admit that it’s been a wild wintery ride — so much rain in California, there’s no longer a drought (in fact, some towns have turned into islands), bitter cold and snow throughout the Midwest, tornados down South. Dark days, folks.

It’s a lot like Lent. As we walk with Jesus through these forty days, we walk a path of self-awareness. What is keeping you from being a fulfilled, self-realized child of God? Do you lack something in your life or do you suffer from a surfeit — too much of a certain bad behavior or unhealthy way of thinking? Whatever is out of balance, Lent is the time to take strides toward fixing it.

I’m not going to lie and say it will be easy…in fact, it shouldn’t be. You should expect to struggle. True change doesn’t come easily. But at the end of this winter-of-the-soul, there will be Easter. Spring. Renewal, regrowth, new life. In other words, here comes the sun.

Instead of wishing away winter, let’s hold on to its lessons. Being flesh is hard, scary and lonesome. But as anyone who’s ever snuggled with a warm puppy (or kitten) knows, being flesh is also lovely. Embrace your dark days, but look toward the light. It’s coming, as sure as Springtime.

I had a migraine Sunday night. That’s not unusual; I’m prone to migraines. But this one was different. It bowled me over, the pain exponentially worse than any migraine I’d suffered before. I prayed a lot that night and was genuinely surprised when I woke the next day, fragile, but alive. With the cessation of pain came a dawning — every one of us is so special. We are wonders.

God made you of star-stuff,
sky and earth together,
fueled by fire, awash in water.
No one can do what you do,
not as you do it. Not exactly.
You were sent to fill a you-shaped
crack; there is no one else to fill it.
Your body keeps the dam from breaking,
keeps gravity from failing, moves musically
as planets round a sun. Your individuality
is a gasp in a world of weary sighs. Stand up.
Walk. You will get there. We all will, if only we
lean on the star-singularity of each other,
wheeling through life like a night sky on fire.

They’re meeting at the Vatican right now. They’re calling it the Protection of Minors Summit. And they’re addressing the elephant in the room — or, more fittingly, the sacristy — sexual abuse by priests. So far, the Catholic Church has addressed this scandal in fits and starts. There has been some transparency, as various dioceses publish lists of “credible accusations.” Nuns, too, are finally having their #MeToo moment. There have also been some bitter disappointments, like cardinals who blame homosexuality for the crisis, or the leaked regulations governing priests who break their vows and father children.

Will this summit do anything to really address the grotesqueries that have occurred in the Church? Maybe. But only if true root causes are examined. Chief among them? Clericalism. You know, the whole attitude of “only I can make bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ; only I am special; therefore, whatever I do cannot possibly be wrong.” It’s a poison that too many “men of God” have swallowed whole.

I am waiting to hear the results of the summit, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m also not leaving the Church. My faith isn’t in people. It is in God. The community I choose to practice my faith with is, by and large, a good group of people. Bad priests don’t represent my faith any more than Hitler represented patriotism. But I want to see my Church do right.

Jesus set the table at the Last Supper, and I know Him to be inclusive. It’s time to add a leaf to the table. Let clerics eat humble pie, and allow new voices to be heard. Invite married folks, women, LGBTQ. Let them speak. If not, the Church is sunk. And no summit on earth will bring it back.

 

 

Valentine’s Day seems the ideal time to contemplate the meaning of love. Not to be off-putting, but I think most people get it wrong. Love is not what you see on TV — passionate kisses, travel, excitement, diamonds the size of grapes. Or at least that’s only a tiny bit of it. Love, real love, is a whole lot grittier…and a whole lot more mundane. Here are just a few of the ways my husband says, “I love you”:

Love is giving me the last bites of his cake/cookie/pie, despite the fact that he would like to eat it himself, because he knows how much I love sweets.

Love is helping me slow my breath when I’m having an asthma attack.

Love is private jokes, a secret language, references only we know…but love is also taking the time to learn my family’s secret language and odd references, and using them like a pro.

Love is indulging my whim to try every taco place in town in search of the superior taco.

Love is always saying, “Thank you” after I’ve prepared a meal…no matter how inferior.

Love is massaging my shoulders as he passes through the kitchen, squeezing my hand in church, touching my cheek as I watch TV.

Love is accepting that our lives are not glamorous and being happy with simpler pleasures.

Love is going to Mass with me every week for years and years, despite being (at the time) an agnostic, and then surprising me with the happiest possible shock — becoming Catholic himself.

My husband’s love — much like God’s love — is always right there before me…if I take the time to look. Wherever you are this Valentine’s Day, whether in a romantic relationship or not, take time to search for signs of love. They may be simple, but they abound.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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