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Tag: care taking the world

sometimes, amid a dystopian summer, it’s a book that brings hope…

IMG_0094the barrage of bad — and horrible, sickening, gut-wrenching — news this week seems endless. bad compounded by worse. dozens gunned down. the souls of two cities shattered by semi-automatic assault weapons, weapons of war brought home to the land of the free. children gasping through sobs, coming home from the first day of school to find their parents taken away, handcuffed, locked into jails. alone and afraid: a child’s worst imaginable nightmare.

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magdalena, wiping away tears

the closer you looked, the uglier it got: the two-month-old whose fingers were broken but whose life was saved when his mama shielded him, fell atop him, nearly crushed him, as she took the bullet so he didn’t. the harder you listened, the uglier it got: 11-year-old magdalena gomez gregorio pleading, “government, please show some heart. let my parent be free.” begging: “i need my dad.”

weeks like this, i picture myself running to the airport, catching a plane to wherever the ugliness is at its worst, and cradling children, lifting them out of the nightmares that haunt them. being the warm, soft chest whose heartbeat they hear as i pull them in close, wrap them safe in my arms. aren’t we all wired to wipe away hurt where we see it? isn’t that the job we put into action day after day, year after year, when we’re people who love?

sometimes i imagine that all this mothering might have been merely rehearsal, that the real work of doling out love, of sopping up hurt, just might come in the chapters ahead. when i just might be able to jump on a plane, or hop in a car, and get to where the hurt is immeasurable. maybe, instead of watching the news, gut-punched, i might be able to put my whole self — my flesh, and my voice, and my heart — in a place where just one drop of  love stands a chance of snuffing out even a drop of some form of suffering.

suffering is never in short supply. suffering begs compassion, begs love, begs whatever ministrations our hearts and our souls, our whispers and wildest imaginations might offer.

maybe that’s why i loved robert ellsberg’s a living gospel — my latest pick for “book for the soul” — so very much.

when you run out of hope, and some days i do, oh i do, there is little more edifying (just another word for putting oomph in your spine) than hunkering down with an author who takes you deep into the heart of lives that remind you how magnificent any one of us might be. lives who remind us what it sounds like when we dip into courage, speak out against injustice, share a table with those who are not only hopeless but penniless too. lives who remind us what it looks like and sounds like when we follow a call to holiness.

follow a call to holiness.

to living and breathing the code of love — selfless love — preached by every sainted seer through the pages of history.

here’s my review, as it ran in the chicago tribune (in the actual paper yesterday, online as of august 2):

In ‘A Living Gospel,’ Robert Ellsberg finds the thread connecting the saintly

By BARBARA MAHANY | Chicago Tribune

‘A Living Gospel’

By Robert Ellsberg, Orbis, 192 pages, $22

In “A Living Gospel,” Robert Ellsberg has written perhaps the most essential illuminant for these darkening times. No farther than the introduction one realizes the uncanny hold of Ellsberg’s fine-grained focus. This is an indelible meditation on living, breathing holiness.

Ellsberg is a self-proclaimed saint-watcher of unorthodox bent; publisher and editor-in-chief of Orbis Books; and former managing editor of The Catholic Worker. He was once chosen to edit the selected writings, diaries and letters of Dorothy Day. Here he opens the book with a quote from the 18th-century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “The Holy Spirit writes no more gospels except in our hearts. All we do from moment to moment is live this new gospel …. We, if we are holy, are the paper; our sufferings and actions are the ink. The workings of the Holy Spirit are his pen, and with it he writes a living gospel.”

So begins Ellsberg’s decidedly anti-hagiography — “My aim was first of all to take the saints down from their pedestals,” he writes. In fact, he’s penned a manuscript best etched into our hearts, kept off the bookshelf and within easy, daily reach.

For the stories gathered here — the lives of some half-dozen not-yet-sainted but certainly saintly, among them Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Flannery O’Connor, and Day herself — are presented with such nuance, in all their complexity and shadow (scrubbed of neither sin nor flaw nor foible). Ellsberg has more than met his hope of making saintliness a participatory endeavor, one open to any and all.

Ellsberg, the son of Pentagon Papers’ protagonist Daniel Ellsberg (revealed here to have enlisted his young son, Robert, 13 at the time, and even-younger daughter, in the surreptitious photocopying of those top-secret Vietnam War files in 1969), weaves his own roundabout trail toward holiness here. Ellsberg credits his father with ushering him into the world of “dedicated peacemakers,” certainly a synonym for “saint.”

Because he’s a natural-born storyteller, the lives he captures here feel not too out of reach, pocked with familiar stumbling blocks, temptations and potholes. Because he shines a light on human capacities for grace, for forgiveness (of self and other), for pacifism in the face of indignity (or worse), Ellsberg stands a mighty chance of stirring in his reader the hope of serious emulation.

The chapter on Holy Women is especially indispensable. In drawing into focus a litany of blessed women — modern-day and otherwise — Ellsberg argues against the erasure of women in a church where men decide who is or is not invited into the country club of saints. In the end, he asks what conclusions are to be drawn from the chronicles of women saints, whether canonized or not.

“There are of course as many types of saints as there are people,” he writes. “Each one offers a unique glimpse of the face of God, each enlarges our moral imagination; each offers new insights into the meaning and possibilities of human life.”

It is Ellsberg’s closing sentences that won’t — and shouldn’t — be forgotten. He quotes a Mormon missionary who once wrote: “There is a thread that connects heaven and earth. If we find that thread everything is meaningful, even death.”

Ellsberg adds, confessionally, “Sometimes I feel I have found that thread, only to lose it the very next moment. It is a thread that runs through the lives of Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and many of the saints, as it does through each of our lives — whether we acknowledge it or not. It is reminding us to be more loving, more truthful, more faithful in facing what Pope Francis in his ‘creed’ calls ‘the surprise of each day.’”

Barbara Mahany’s latest book, “The Blessings of Motherprayer: Sacred Whispers of Mothering,” was published in 2018.

Twitter @BarbaraMahany

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this is what pages look like when what’s in a book is worth inscribing to heart

how do you fight back against hopelessness? sow love where there’s cruelty, injustice, or everyday, insidious hatred?

chill wind…

first day plate

like that, the rhythm changed in this old house. turn around, they call it in the land of jazz. disambiguation, yet another fancy word for when the two-beat turns to more. or less.

porridge poti call it “the day the little blue pot comes out of hiding,” the porridge pot, the one that starts the day with swirls of spoon and percolating simmer. it so happened that the chill winds blew in just as the school bell rang around here for the first time of the year.

and, like that, with arms now slid into woolen sleeves, but bare toes refusing to submit to leather confines, one season has shuffled off, cowering in the wings; another now pirouettes under klieg lights at center stage. ah, but autumn isn’t like that. autumn — the autumn i love anyway — is quietly robust. doesn’t make much noise. no clanging, rattling. just an elegant sashay into our midst. enveloping in amber light and jewel-toned hues: garnet, copper, gold.

autumn at once speeds up the daily whirl, and weaves in quietude. the morning rush — with school bus not dawdling at the curb, and school books and shoes forever escaping in the night, nowhere to be found by dawn — is not insignificant, enough to make your hairs turn pewter, but that’s followed by the between-the-brackets hush. suddenly, the middle of the day is on its tippy toes, daring not disturb. and those are the thinking hours, the deepening hours, when time invites me into its depths and nestled burrows. when i can type whole sentences, turn pages, wipe a bathroom sink and wander back hours later to find it still glistening. no wonder i love the rhythm of the autumn. it draws me in.

the change of light and tempo is just enough to make us all stand up and pay attention. and that, i think, is the big idea behind the twirl of earth against the sun. as we move from full-on-light to dappled shadow, the world around us — the garden, the woods, the starry night — shifts too. gone is the bold, stand-up-straight of summer. the basil withers on its stem, the dill is nearly toppled. but i, for one, feel little pang for the season fading in the rear-view mirror. not if truth be told. sure, i’ll miss those fat tomatoes — sliced and salted simply — but imagine the zaftig squash roasting in the oven, and the treasure chest of spices — cardamom, cumin, nutmeg — soon to offer up their fine and pungent notes.

give me a long day of concentrated work. give me a chill morning to nip my toes, and a sweater in which to wrap my goose-bumped arms. give me autumn’s golden light. and a sky of roiling off-in-the-distance clouds. i’ll make holy work of it. i promise.

i found it hard to write this morning, what with all the news squawking from the little white box tucked in my kitchen cove. once i clicked on the news, which is often my first move, even before the coffee’s on its way, i stood there frozen, wondering if i’d clicked on some sci-fi station, what with reports of massive earthquake (worst in a century), and yet another killer hurricane barreling through island after island, charging toward the mainland. i get scared, truth be told, worried that the whole universe is convulsing, rising up and telling us to mend our ways, pay attention to our brokenness. be gentle, for God’s sake, i hear the heavens telling us, in no uncertain words. be gentle with this blessed orb of Earth. be gentle with each other. be gentle, i suppose, even with our blessed selves. 

because i care deeply about leaving you with words that just might add a bit of oomph to your friday morning, i’m adding here the rough draft of words i wrote this week when asked to write the intro to a book of women’s stories, women’s stories of reaching across racial, cultural and religious lines to forge deeper understandings out of plain pure friendship. it was an honor to be asked. here’s what i wrote (i’ll wait to tell a bit more about the book till it’s published). may this bring a little something to the whirl of sci-fi all around us…..

much love, and thanks for reading along…..xoxo bam

Day after day I wake up with my chest feeling hollowed. The space in my heart hurts so much, so immeasurably, I can’t fathom how to contain it. I shuffle down the stairs of my old shingled house, look out the windows into the quiet of dawn, into the leafy arbors, and wonder how in the world can I stitch a single thread into the tatters of this world, this oozing brokenness all around?

I walk in a state of grief unlike any I’ve ever known — and I’ve known quite a few. My grief is for the state of this nation, for the body politic, for the sheer goodness and kindness that I see being battered day after day. I shrink from the modern-day public square — social media in all its iterations — because the vitriol is too much, because the divisiveness tears me apart. I don’t believe in a world of us versus them, and yet, every day those lines are drawn more starkly. I cling to the words of wise souls like Father Jim Martin, the Jesuit thinker and author, who writes in his latest book, “For with Jesus, there is no us and them. There is only us.”

But how, I keep wondering, can my one all-alone voice make a dent in the cacophony? How can a whisper be heard? How can I amplify my deep faith in bridging not burning? Where oh where is there a place for a soul who believes so deeply, yet finds herself flailing with so little a footprint?

And then, the stories of this book landed on my desk. This, I knew right away, was where the answer lies: In ordinary extraordinary stories of women who reach across doorways, and hallways, and kitchen counters, who see beyond burkas and veils and prayer beads and venerations. I see and I read and I wrap myself in the stories of human hearts reaching beyond their own private shelters — walls that, always, can go one of two ways: to open into doorways, or seal themselves off, barricades of hard stubborn coldness, otherness, unwilling-to-bend-ness.

Here, in the pages of this book, is the first best draft of humanity moving forward. Here are the blueprints for the great and eternal commandment: Love as you would be loved.

Here is Ayesha, alone and with newborn babe, falling into the bottomless shadow of post-partum depression, who dared to knock on the door across the hall, and found a friend — and earthly salvation — in the form of an elderly widow named Libby. The Indian Muslim new mother befriending the white Christian widow; both finding the solace they sought — in each other. In the simple act of raising a fist to a flat-planed door, and knocking. Knees knocking all the while. The toeholds of courage start small.

Here is Parwin, who recounts the hair-raising story of her escape, at six months pregnant, from war-ravaged Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war. With two young children in tow, and determined to keep their escape unnoticed, she and her troupe traveled by truck and by horse and by foot — 150 miles of fear beyond fear. And in the end, when she delivered that baby just across the Pakistan border, when she found her way to America, she devoted her life to justice, compassion, for living the words of the blessed Koran:

…that you may know each other — and not despise each other.

Here is Dolores, who says she was “marinated, battered and deep-fried in religion,” specifically the black Baptist religion of her youth, and who found herself drawn into a host of houses of worship — mosques, synagogues, churches large and loud or not-so-large and not-so-loud. She was drawn, in particular, to the Buddhist practice of silence — a far cry from the joyful noise of her youth. One night, after a long dry spell in the faith department, she dreamed that Jesus introduced her to his best friend Buddha. Ever since, she’s been a practicing Buddhist. And even more so, a living, breathing bridge between two of the world’s great religions.

Story after story, woman after woman, the leitmotif is always: reach beyond what you know. Reach into the unknown, the foreign, the mysterious. Make it yours through words, and gesture, and deep human touch. Defy the divisiveness. Believe in the power of your own still small voice.

I turn to the holy wisdom of Dorothy Day, who learned from Therese of Lisieux: “By little and by little” — by little acts of kindness, by little acts of courage, we can thread the needle that will stitch the tatters back into whole.

We cannot afford to shrink from the task. We cannot afford to think we don’t matter, that we can’t make a difference. Read these stories of oversize courage and unbounded goodness. Read these stories of faith and justice, doled out in everyday measure.

Be the change you believe in. Be the kindness. Be the radiant light.

Go now, and carve out heaven on earth.

dear chair friends who’ve read this far, how will you carve out a little heaven on earth?