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How do I process my grief?
Does suffering have any meaning?
Do we live in a random chaotic universe?
Is it time to re-evaluate my understanding of “God”?

This book is for anyone who has suffered a loss – of safety, of one’s home, of health, of a loved one or a relationship, or of one’s faith … and found themselves asking, “Why?” And then wondering, “Who am I asking?” and hoping they were not alone.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275

traces of hope

Over the past few years I have used the opportunity offered by this blog to reflect on many questions about Catholicism – my faith home. Along the way I have left my career as a Catholic religious educator and more recently I have left my home in the Catholic Church for a new faith community in the United Church of Christ. It would be inappropriate to continue to comment on the Catholic Church as if I were a member, and so I will be changing the blog’s name to Christianity in the 21st Century.

I have a new book coming out that tells the story of my faith journey and my journey through grief and loss, if you are interested in my full story.

http://www.amazon.com/Traces-Hope-Surviving-Grief-Loss/dp/1937943275/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1426982211&sr=1-1&keywords=Mona+villarrubia

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A friend died yesterday. Death is always an event that raises existential questions. And so I have been thinking about God and meaning and I wonder if perhaps the reason we need to believe in a God is not so much that we need to believe in an all powerful creator, and a grand design and purpose for the universe, but rather that we simply want to believe in “I.” We want the Self that we experience to be a reality, and, for that to be true, our Self has to be important to someone or something beyond ourselves. We don’t want to believe that we are just an anonymous part of a chaotic universe in which neither the universe or our Self has a purposeful beginning, history, or future. We don’t want to believe that our actions and reactions are just a matter of chemicals and neurological responses. We want to believe in the I, the Self, and the power of free will. For our individual Self to be real, we have to believe that there is something intrinsically different, ontologically different, between our species and other species: our ability to create ideas from nothing, not just imitate; our ability to love selflessly; our ability to recognize and respond to the Divine. And so we are drawn to the notion of a God who created it all from nothing, the universal Thou to our personal I. A Being who created us, chose us, knows us, loves us – and not just us collectively but individually.

I attended synagogue services Friday evening and prayed for my friend’s recovery. But I find the Reform Jewish service unsatisfying. It identifies the concept of a God, a creator, the name above all names, but without a re-enactment, without God’s words being spoken directly to us in some ritual drama, we never quite cross the threshhold of an invitation to believe in God and move into an engagement in communication with God.

In a Christian eucharist the words and acts of Jesus at the last supper (in so far as Paul remembers them) are re-enacted. We enter into that drama through our responses, and we participate, allbeit in a theatrical fashion, in a relationship with a God who knows us and loves us – each of us individually in our very Self – loves us enough to die for us. There is great power in this experience. It can bring about changes in a person’s life, elicit a decision to pursue a vocation, bring about conversion, provide relief from despair. It doesn’t matter who takes the role of Jesus, there is no magical power bestowed at ordination and no significance to gender, what is important is that someone speaks in Jesus’ place, addressing us in the first person, and that that someone believes in what they are saying. If you like, they have to be a good actor. If you love live theatre and live music as much as I do you will know the power of a good performance: for a while you can be completely drawn in to an alternate reality. The Eucharist is live drama and at it’s best it has the power to draw us in to an alternative reality to the one presented by society. And what it teaches us is that this alternative reality – a God centered universe – is the Truth.

Love relationships have a similar power to affirm the Self. We are known and chosen by another, our Self becomes more real because someone else acknowledges it. One level of devastation in a break-up is the loss of that sense of Self, our I. Without someone to love us how do we know who we are? Or even if we really exist. People will even comment, She seems lost.

It is common knowledge by now the degree of damage done to an infant that does not have its existence affirmed, that does not bond to a caretaker, that does not experience loving eyes and touch – statistically they have a harder time simply staying alive, and certainly they will struggle to thrive. But that need does not end in infancy. Without the love of parents and close friends and partners and children to identify us, who are we? If we at least have faith in a God, we have a chance of believing in our reality, our existence as an I, a separate Self. But without belief in the love of God and without the love of intimate relationships? It is easy to understand the descent into hopelessness and despair of the isolated and depressed individual who faces a world in which he seems to be invisible.

Does technology help here? I don’t think so. People do not encounter us as who we are through social media, so our identity, our I, is not affirmed. There are layers upon layers of deception and secrecy on the internet that we use to shield ourselves from others. So it does not really help in our quest to affirm out existence, our identity, our uniqueness. Encountering our true Self requires real interaction in person with another, and seeing and experienceing their acceptance of us as an I that exists and is unique and worth knowing.

My friend was with my husband and me for four months in Houston after Katrina, part of an uprooted high school community from New Orleans. We all became friends and I discovered in him a brooding, anxious, angry side that made me afraid for him. But after Katrina he married and had a baby. He was more mellow, his existence had been affirmed, his identity had been acknowledged: he had been singled out and chosen above all others. There was less anger, more real joy. I’m so glad he had that experience – of being (re)created, of his Self being affirmed – before he died at the young age of 39. And if there is a God, my friend will now know for certain who he is and how much he is loved.

God had nothing to gain by the death of Jesus. Jesus was willing to suffer death but for what? There is no Gospel tradition that suggests he believed he was going to be better off, or that his death wasn’t a real death just a temporary state. There is no mention of a quid pro quo deal with God. Jesus chose to die, but really what choice did he have if he wanted to show his followers what integrity, truth, courage and faith looked like, to show them that his preaching, his ministry, and his leadership were not meaningless, and that the truth was worth dying for. To have fought back would have made a lie out of everything he had said and done.

Did he think he was “opening the gates of heaven,” that he would be the “first born into the kingdom” I don’t think so. This was theological interpretation after the event. What I do think is that he truly suffered. I don’t doubt his anxiety, his panic, his dejection, and how better to express it than by quoting the scriptures he knew and loved: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me.” Psalm 22. Jesus wasn’t in this for a reward or a “return.” This was the gift freely given, the grace freely offered. God freely gave us his son. Jesus freely gave us his life.

“…biblical authors often used humor and the absurd to alert their readers that something very important is about to happen. The births of Isaac and Jesus were my two examples. The idea that either a woman in her nineties or a virgin can give birth is, I said, absurd, and the authors knew this to be so. They never expected their readers to take them literally. Rather they were saying, look these births herald the coming [of] something new into the world and hence break with the normative ways of producing offspring.” Rabbi Rami Shapiro, http://rabbirami.blogspot.com/2012/11/stand-up-theology.html

We all love Thanksgiving dinner and all its trimmings – a beautiful family tradition that brings our families together and mends and heals and nurtures. Now, just a few weeks later we are immersed in the Christmas story and all its trimmings. And, once again, we prepare for family gatherings and for opportunities to renew and reclaim, to nest and remember. But what is it as Christians that we are called to remember? What is the Christian heart of our Christmas story?

Obviously, it’s not Christmas lights and fir trees; it’s not snow men or reindeer. It’s not Santa Claus or even Saint Nicholas – he came much later.

Is it the angels singing in the fields, and the shepherds? Is it wise men from the East and their gifts? Is it Herod’s slaughter of the innocents – that’s hardly festive? Okay, what about the stable and the ox and ass and manger? There has to be a manger because of the song, right? And everybody loves the scene of the angels and shepherd and the baby!

Everybody loves a story of a baby, especially one in which there is danger and pathos and heroism and compassion and beauty and a happy ending with angels singing and a star from heaven guiding a family to safety so a baby can be born under a starry sky….ahhhh! Cue the heavenly chorus. Then add the mysteries and treasures of the Orient and a baby lamb and some portentous dreams. What is not to like about this story? But we still haven’t gotten to the Christian heart of the story. We are still in the Christmas Story. And that is where Christmas stays for so many people it seems, and not just children.

In my experience, adult Christians who have become disenchanted with Christmas have become disenchanted with the Christmas Story not with the Christian Story. In fact they may not really know the Christian story. And here we get to Rabbi Rami’s point.  The Gospel writers, writing decades after Jesus’ death, were not historians of his life; they were not biographers. They were tellers of his Teaching, Death, and Resurrection – and only as an afterthought his birth, and only because, after all, he had to have had one.  In telling about his birth their main concern was to say that God was involved, and that from the very beginning the Jesus Event was a God Event. Not just from the moment of his baptism (Mark), not just from the moment of his announced conception (Matthew and Luke) but even from before the moment of creation (John).

The Gospel writers, when addressing the issue of Jesus’ birth, were giving us theology not biology.  They weren’t interested in eggs, sperm, uteruses – they didn’t know about such things. They weren’t interested in the human person as evil matter versus a good spirit, that idea was a Greek idea that didn’t have any influence on the Gospel writing, obviously, because Jesus clearly had a body in all the Gospel narratives.  The Gospel writers weren’t concerned about Original Sin either; Augustine would create that idea a few hundred years later.

The Gospel writers were telling us, using hyperbole and using Old Testament allusions, that the Jesus Event was a God Event, and that it had always been a God Event, since the beginning of Jesus’ life, or even since the beginning of all time. Moreover, the Jesus Event had been prefigured by many different stories in the Old Testament, showing that Jesus was indeed the true Messiah of Jewish expectation. For example, Micah prophesied the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

The author of the Gospel of Matthew especially took great pains to connect his version of the Infancy Narrative, as it is called, to prophecies in the Old Testament. For example he connects the family’s trip to Egypt, and the ensuing slaughter of the innocents – two stories no other Gospel includes – to prophecies in Hosea and Jeremiah respectively. It is generally agreed that Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish-Christian and in his use of Old Testament quotes and allusions he may simply be using a literary device to make his theological points: the Jesus Event was a God Event; Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah.  The early Christians hadn’t gone any further than this in trying to figure out Jesus’ relationship to God yet, other than the basic language of Father, Son, and Spirit. The debate about the Trinity took nearly four hundred more years to settle (Council of Nicea 325, Chalcedon 451).

So what then is my point? If we are suffering from Christmas ennui, maybe it’s because we simply have lost sight of the Christian Story.  My solution? Let’s give ourselves the gift of a LITERARY GOSPEL CHRISTMAS. Let’s do some reading of the Gospel narratives with a footnoted Bible translation and/or scholarly commentary at hand and really attempt to understand the Christian Story beneath the Christmas story before we call Bah Humbug to it all!

Fellow Travelers? Four Atheists Who Don’t Hate Religion

Paul J. Griffiths, Commonweal Magazine, October 26, 2012

My Comment in response to his article:

Paul, I want to thank you for providing such an informed review of the apologists for the Church without Christ (and the Synagogue without Yahweh).

     To put it more bluntly, the secular self-understanding of the liberal state can no longer motivate its citizens to act self-sacrificially in the service of justice. Its failure to find a way to mark death is mirrored by its failure to make passionate collective action a real possibility.

I am currently ambivalent about God, but find myself longing for a Catholic faith community without the Church. What the Catholic Church has come to represent to me is not God but human corruption, self-serving arrogance, and power-hungry pope mongers. The answer is not to give up on God but on the structures of power that inhibit the values of love and self-sacrifice, beauty and reverence, honesty and penitence from becoming present and visible to the Catholic community. The Catholic faithful need to take ownership of these values, take responsibility for their understanding of the message of Jesus, and take over the practice of faithful witness.

I don’t want any priest at my funeral. I may want a particular priest friend of mine, or perhaps a Rabbi – also a dear friend, because each of these friends exemplifies the values of compassion, tenderness, integrity, and justice rooted in a life of reflective, religious faith that I recognize as truly “of God.”

As a victim of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, one of five in my immediate family, the worst way to mark my death for my family would be with an anonymous representative of the organization responsible for our suffering. Even an empty Church would be painful – the context of our abuse. But what about a house with a gathering of loved ones, and the Catholic prayers and rituals of a funeral rite led by those present?  There could be priests, rabbis, druids, agnostics, atheists, as long as each one was a friend representing only his or her own faith in God and/or love of me.

Perhaps one thing of value that can come from the sexual abuse crisis in our Church is that it might make “passionate, collective action a real possibility” among Catholics who are still faith-travelers in search of God, Love, Truth, and Justice. Then maybe more of us can forestall the rejection of God that would bring us, finally, to that empty church and a memorial with no blessing.

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It seems that I have fallen under the spell of magical thinking. Although clear about the nature of priestly ordination NOT making any kind of magical, ontological change in the persona of a priest, I apparently still harbored similar ideas about religious vows.

I have treated my brother James as if his capacity to bear the burdens of others was deeper and wider simply because he was a professed religious. It didn’t help that he was indeed more compassionate, gentle, patient and tender than most brothers, or Brothers. This in fact made it harder to recognise how we all in the family were taking advantage of him and expecting him to bear burdens beyond those of ordinary mortals or even ordinary friends or siblings.

The truth is he has borne those burdens, often juggling one parent’s or one sibling’s needs against another – often more than just one other in fact. And he has borne them alone. Unlike the rest of us – with husbands, wives, children, grandchildren – he has had no permanent presence in his life. No daily confidant or consoler. And he has lost many of his dearest friends in the last few years, reducing the number of support people in his life and increasing the pain and loss in his own relationships.

I have shared these reflections with my brother and our siblings, but I felt the topic was worthy of public comment also.

For those who are committed to going forward in the community of the Catholic faith it is vital that we reconsider our view of religious and priests, and most importantly our view of the vows that we have taken. Yes, all of us are under vows (solemn promises to perform an act, carry out an activity, or behave in a given way) taken for us by our parents at Infant Baptism, renewed by us at Confirmation, and reaffirmed by us every time we recite our creed and pray the Lord’s prayer. Implicit in these sacraments, faith statements and prayers is the promise to live by the beliefs expressed. We are not promising to support priests and religious as they live out their “calling,” we are acknowledging that we, too, are called, that we, too, are committing to live out this common calling, this shared vocation.

The Catholic faith community will not survive unless all Catholics accept their role, their burden, their joy of living a “vowed” life. The role of priests and religious should be seen as supporting us all in this life, not the other way around. This is a good time to reclaim  not the priesthood of the people but the people of the priesthood, or even better the people of Christ.

This excites me. This energizes me. How will this look?

I wanted to light a candle for my mother today. The first anniversary of her death. She believed in candles, did mum. Lit several every time I sat an exam. Apparently there were “C” candles and “A” candles! But there are no churches open during the day any more. So I bought a Jewish memorial candle instead; they light them on the anniversary of a death – a yahrzeit candle. I don’t think she’d mind – same God an’ all. And Jesus was Jewish, so was his mum.

Isn’t it tragic though, in a little, poignant kind of tragic way, that the church that got  my mother through so much is no longer there in that way. Even if I were still comfortable doing so. where would I go to offer prayers today? If I still taught in a Catholic school I would  have a chapel, but I work in a synagogue office. People just don’t drop in to synagogues to pray. Take photos maybe, on a historical tour, but pray? Not so much. I do, though, sometimes pray in the sanctuary that is. (It is so beautiful when the rising and setting sun hits the large arched stained glass windows.) Nothing formal just a quiet thank you and a smile ,or a desperate, God help me today,  help me breathe.

I don’t think God minds where we are when we give thanks, or cares for us less if we are bi-religious or religiously undecided. Whatever. If there’s a God then God is wherever I am, always. That’s a comforting thought, today. I hope mum found what she was hoping for, and I hope she’s with her Jim. And today hope is as close to prayer as I can get.

A very interesting blog: Another Voice recently posted an article on Catholic fundamentalism from an Australian priest. Citing two significant cultural shifts – the social upheaval of the 1960’s and the Catholic upheaval of Vatican II –  Father Gerald Arbuckle SM suggests the following:

Catholic fundamentalism is an often aggressive reaction to the anxiety-creating turmoil of these two cultural and religious upheavals. It is an ill-defined but powerful movement in the Church to restore uncritically pre-Vatican II structures and attitudes.

He then goes on the itemize the characteristics of Catholic fundamentalism. One of he points he makes is that the image of Jesus Christ within fundamentalism tends to reflect “an unforgiving and punishing God”  much in accord with the judging image of God in the Old Testament.  But even in the Old Testament there are other images for God. And in the New Testament there is little evidence that Jesus portrayed God, or was himself portrayed, as a vengeful divinity.  Rather,  as Arbuckle points out, fundamentalism overlooks the fundamental characteristics of Jesus: mercy.

Arbuckle is not trying to incite anger in response to fundamentalism. Anger just feeds the fire of their righteous indignation. People are drawn to fundamentalism because of a “sincere, but misguided, search for meaning and belonging.”  So a more effective response would be promoting alternative ways of discovering meaning and a sense of belonging. To that end he concludes: “Our best witness to the truths of our Catholic beliefs will be our inner peace built on faith, charity and concern for justice, especially among the most marginalised.”

So, maybe this Christmas we can reach out to one fundamentalist amongst us and make a connection. Perhaps a shared experience of social action can do more to heal the divisions among us than debates about doctrine and liturgical change.  Many churches and agencies sponsor angel trees, that’s a good way to connect. Look for a program near you and invite someone you have had a disagreement with, over the new liturgy for example, and rediscover the a more important Advent tradition.

Advent is a good time to remember that there is more to Catholicism than the mass: there is the Christian Faith.

The Mystery of Christmas, a quote from a reflection on the Taize site.

“The Word took flesh, became flesh (John 1.14). And so God is linked to a process of becoming. He is not the unchangeable one that the philosophers imagine. His transcendence does not consist in remaining aloof, far from human beings. The transcendence of the God of the Bible is to penetrate human history and to bring newness to it. Where everything was old, worn out, apparently exhausted, with no future, the Word brings freshness, newness, zest for Life or quite simply what Christians call forgiveness. For if John writes, “The Word became flesh” with the connotations of weakness and finiteness that we have pointed out, he does not say, “we have seen his misery”, but “we have seen his glory”.

An intense beauty, which John calls “glory”, shines forth from the incarnate Christ. In his manner of living in the midst of our world, in accepting human limitations, in a total surrender into the hands of his Father, in receiving his existence day by day, glory shines forth. The face of God reveals itself.”

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