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“So make up your minds not to worry about your defenses beforehand…” Luke 21:14
It was a beautiful fall day, clear blue skies, warm sun shining through the autumn leaves, which is why my mother allowed me to walk home from piano lessons with my two younger siblings rather than pick us up. Halfway home, my palms started sweating, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end, and I could sense someone walking behind us whose footsteps matched my own in pace. With a flip-flopping stomach, I willed whoever this person was to pass us. I was walking with a five and a seven year old, for goodness sake; any reasonable adult would politely step around us and be on their way. But the footsteps continued, until blessedly, we crossed a street and they stopped. In a panic, I ducked up the alley that led to our house, taking the shortest route to the safety of home. Right when we reached our garage, I was grabbed from behind. I pushed my siblings toward our house, screamed, and then, blessedly again, was let go.
This incident, suffered at age ten, shattered my sense of safety in the world. For the next few years, I refused to walk anywhere alone. I had a sophisticated typology worked out in my head that told me whether I should be concerned about a passerby on the street: women, especially with children, were safe, single men were not. Each night I anticipated the call to bedtime, so that I could scramble upstairs ahead of my sister to check under the beds and in the closets without being seen.
Fast forward twenty years. I am a new mother, and my husband is traveling for work each week. My fears, which have come and gone over the years, are back in full force. Each night, I put my son on my hip and walked him through the whole house, checking under beds and in closets, double checking the door and window locks, before putting him down to sleep.
A few weeks into this routine, I started to think about what I was teaching my son by our nightly walk around the house. He was being habituated into a world of fear, and while I certainly wanted to protect him, I also wanted him to grow up unafraid. And deep down, I wanted to be unafraid, too. So, I made up my mind not to worry. Or rather, I started praying nightly to have the strength not to worry, to have the trust to give up my routine. Turning to God made it possible for me to move away from my worry and fear, which is not gone completely but does not dominate my life in the way that it once did.
One of the things that Jesus tells us in this week’s gospel is to make up our minds not to worry about our defense beforehand. This is not a recommendation to be foolish; there are still times and places where I will not walk by myself and I always keep my doors locked. But it is an invitation to put our trust in God, to turn to God in prayer with all of worries. For it is in this that we can find freedom from our fears.
What is it that worries you? What is it that you fear? What would it mean to bring these worries and fears to God in prayer?
Over the last several months, people have asked me what I think of Pope Francis. On March 13, 2013, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a cardinal from Buenos Aires, Argentina, was voted the 266th pope of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the first Jesuit, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first from the Americas to be named pope. He has said some really interesting things, but I am most intrigued by his actions. He seems to wear his power with a great deal of grace and care.
In his first month as pope, Francis won widespread acclaim by gestures such as stopping to pay his own hotel bill, dressing down, choosing to live in the less fancy Vatican guest house and riding the elevator with the cardinals instead of by himself. Already this is sending a message of a less formal interpretation of his papal role, mirrored by his mode of speech in addresses to the public and during worship. He is not afraid to break convention in the name of simplicity. “This choice indicates about all a style for the church: simplicity, poverty, rigor,” said the Rev. Antonio Spadaro. On Holy Thursday, Pope Francis washed the feet of twelve inmates at a juvenile prison in Rome. Two of the inmates were Muslim women. This, again breaking convention since the pope’s ceremonial foot washing traditionally has only included men since in the biblical story Jesus washed the feet of twelve male apostles. Then, on Easter Sunday, Pope Francis’ address showed deep concern for the poor and marginalized among us, quite in line with his chosen name.
Bergoglio chose the name Francis upon his papal appointment, many are saying after Francis of Assisi. Francis of Assisi was raised in a rich family, went to war, was imprisoned, and became very ill. Upon returning to Assisi, Francis eventually denounced his wealth and worldliness to work to imitate Jesus in his own life. Francis of Assisi was never ordained to the Catholic priesthood, but lived among beggars in Rome and worked to end the Crusades. He is the patron saint of animals and the environment and is associated with peace, poverty and simplicity. An interesting namesake choice for Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
I tend to include Pope Benedict in my short answer of “It is an interesting season for the Vatican” as well. Pope Benedict XVI decided to resign, becoming the first pope to do so since 1415. It’s very interesting to me that Pope Benedict stepped down from his post when he did. It can be a position treated like the monarchs of Europe- God ordained and appointed power that can only be ended by death. Benedict’s resignation paired with Francis’ posturing of power together are radically changing the face of the papacy as a post.
In his Huffington Post article “Pope Francis and the Power Myth,” Dylan Ratigan finds it extraordinary that Francis has “tabled social issues based on judgment in favor of the unique power stewardship accorded to a man in his position…But this Pope seems to realize that while exclusion reduces vulnerability, it also reduces empathy and compassion. Among other effects, this can lead to reduced experimentation and abundance, which is where my decidedly non-Catholic interests are piqued.”
Benedict showed respect for the position of papacy and his own human limitations by resigning. Francis is showing that he is aware of his imperfections yet is moving with the careful, empathetic movements of someone respectful of the position he has been placed in. What do I think of Pope Francis so far? Well, I agree with Ratigan as he concludes, “Regardless of your religious affiliation (or non-affiliation), isn’t it a breath of fresh air to witness the emergence of someone in power who cares deeply about the gravity of his or her position?”
Louie C.K.is on to something here. It’s easier to be mean to people we see as other, and it’s easier to see people as other through a screen. Phone interaction is not the same as human interaction and the former is detracting from the latter, keeping us from facing full human emotion. Being able to sit still and be a little bored is part of being human. The phone is not at fault. The tool is great and should be continued to be used. We can use our tools with intentionality and integrity in a way that maximizes our humanity, but we have to work for it.
I’m an intimate extrovert with a high capacity for connection, friendship and empathy. I get tired at big parties, but leave a great lunch date inspired and stimulated. Needing intimacy, I’m aware and sensitive to the societal shifts away from human interaction toward virtual interaction. As addiction to our phones becomes more acceptable in society, I feel more lonely and tired. I like the art of conversation with uninterrupted momentum and true human, unadulterated presence. When my flip phone broke, dying a valiant death of a beer spill, I bought a smart phone and committed to my own code of ethics wherein I try not to treat my smart phone like a morphine drip. I keep it put away when there is potential of interacting with other people in the flesh, thus finding myself sitting more regularly watching people stare into the vortex of their phones. I am struggling more and more to keep to my code of ethics. But I do believe in building up my health and empathy skills through existing in the world of real social encounters.
This addiction to screens has real consequences. When I taught high school theology, I invited young people to unplug and practice human interaction. I paired them and forced them to have one-on-one conversations. We talked about attentive body language and what to do if there is a lull in the conversation. Young people actually have to practice this. I switched the pairs several times throughout class. Pushing through awkward silence, getting curious, asking follow up questions, and laughing, they talked to kids they weren’t supposed to, according to the unwritten rules of high school. They learned new things about their friends, too, and they seemed to sense intuitively that human connection is sacred. Every time they begged, “Ms. Roscher, when can we do this again?”
I replied, “You can do this at any moment of your day. All you’re doing is talking to each other.” But their normal is making it harder and harder for them to carve out time for genuine human interaction in a way that’s socially acceptable. They wanted me, an adult, to require them to talk to each other, to make them do the right thing. Kids need help creating new boundaries for the changing world. Kids want human interaction, but they need adults to hold us all to a higher standard. Our phones are tools that can be used or abused, meant to enhance our lives, not take them away. It’s the challenge we face in our quests to stay connected as human beings. Preach on, Louie.
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination
And life is a journey
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then, perhaps wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness–
And, often, back again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding–
From faith to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat–
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see that victory lies
Not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage,
Birth is a beginning
And death is a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage–
To life everlasting.
A few years ago a learning styles test confirmed that my highest form of intelligence is bodily/kinesthetic intelligence. People with my learning style like moving, know their bodies well and learn through touch and doing and experimenting. They tend to like sports and dancing. When I have writer’s block, the best thing for me to do is get on my yoga mat or go for a run. Moving my body moves my mind. I think that is one reason I have found comfort in this prayer by Rabbi Alvin I. Fine. There is movement in the prayer. It reminds me a bit of our Prayer of St. Francis. We aren’t sitting still, we are on a life-long pilgrimage.
The prayer acts as a nice corrective to our society that values youth. We are told that wrinkles are to be concealed at all cost. The prayer gently reminds us that wrinkles aside, the movement through life brings with it growth that should be valued enough to strive for. We are moving toward maturity, toward awareness, toward knowing, but we are not there yet. Wisdom is an option, but not a guarantee.
Then Rabbi Fine makes an important distinction in phrasing in the middle of the movements. We are not moving from weakness to strength but from weakness to strength to weakness and back again. We move from faith to faith, from defeat to defeat to defeat. This is life. We are not alone in our suffering. Every person who crosses our paths today is a survivor of defeat and deserves our empathy.
At different points on our pilgrimage, we will connect with one movement of this prayer more than another. Today, I identify most with moving from pain to compassion. Our lives don’t take the path we thought they would. Horribly painful things happen. We sit in darkness and do not know how to go on. There are times on the pilgrimage to rest and there are times to move. We are not asked to move from pain to joy, or from pain to happiness, but from pain to compassion. Being broken helps us connect to others who are broken. Together, we limp on toward the rest of our life together. In the last few weeks, I have come to learn that praying for pain to go away does not work. Praying for pain to be transformed into compassion over time, however, does. It is a validation of the pain, a working with it to get through it.
On the journey, I find it really helps to dig into every stage of life and not wish after another. We can waste time wishing we were older or younger. My students used to make the mistake of wishing they were in college instead of enjoying high school. My friends used to wish to be married instead of enjoying the fun of dating. As we age, we start to yearn for days gone by. Yet every stage is an essential part of our sacred pilgrimage. There are things to notice along the way, people to meet, things to learn right now. Today. Here. Where we are. Dwelling more fully in this moment and taking one step at a time brings peace.
In the first section, my heart sinks a bit when I read that death is the destination in the second line. Then the joy of the pilgrimage unfolds. There is so much to notice and take in on the journey. The work is good. At the end, after we read that the sacred pilgrimage is leading us to life everlasting. How easy it is to forget the good news. Our journey is not leading us to darkness, but light.