Thursday, March 1, 2018

Why a conservative from Texas up and joined a labor union...

I am a PhD student in Comparative Literature at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. For the past four days, normally introverted little me has been, instead of teaching my elementary German classes, marching around in circles, banging a five-gallon bucket and yelling at the top of my lungs at passersby, sometimes in the rain. Teaching assistants at UIUC like me have been working without a contract since August because the university administration wants us to agree to a contract that leaves them the right to cut the tuition waivers of certain graduate employees in the future. Now, before you accuse me of asking for a handout, as several undergraduates have done, listen to my story. It is just my story, not empirical data, but it’s what I have to offer right now.

I grew up in East Texas, a bastion of the Republican party, for which I’ve voted all my life until the last election.[1] My dad (whom I love dearly and of whom I have always been proud) is a self-employed mechanical engineer, and I grew up hearing how unions wrecked the American auto industry and compromised the quality of German cars. I don’t have the facts right now to prove or disprove that—unions, like any human institution, can become corrupt, or carry an initially good thing to excess. I also grew up with my dad as a model of a passionate work ethic and strict financial conservatism. Living within my means was a law—I was in my 20’s before I dared use a credit card, and even now I pay my balance in full every month. A huge part of the reason I am striking comes from that same fiscal conservatism. My dad has passed on to me an abhorrence of loans or buying anything on credit—the only loan he ever took out was from his own father, to start up his business. At a time when graduating college with huge amounts of debt has become the norm, someone has to start saying no at some level. The undergrads tell us to pay for our own education—all of us graduate students have already done that at least once, if we are not still paying for or our bachelor’s (or master’s) degrees. Sending an entire generation out into the world burdened with debt before their careers even start cannot be good for the economy, unless you’re only looking at the loan business. I say now to all undergrads that I would be willing to pay more in taxes if the money would go to fund public higher education so that they wouldn’t have to take out loans. But even public schools these days rely more on tuition than on public funding. This needs to change! Declaring war on student debt is the primary reason I am out there on those picket lines!

The value of higher education to society and the ways in which it should be funded is a question unto itself—I’m taking a whole class on this and might write another blog post about that at the end of the semester. But my issue in this post is unions. I was very suspicious of our Graduate Employees' Organization (GEO) when I first got here to UIUC. I heard they’d try to trick you into joining by offering you a free t-shirt and such things. Therefore I am very glad that I was not forced to join the union in order to teach. Neither was any member forced to go on strike, which I also appreciate immensely. However, it has become clear to me that many of the benefits that I have as a graduate employee, such as tuition waivers and low-cost health insurance, are the result of GEO bargaining. My own personal situation is good at the moment, and I want future graduate employees to have the same—it’s called solidarity. I have also realized that many of my fellow grad employees do not have it as good as I do. Some even have to take out second jobs to make ends meet—I wonder when they have time to be students!

This year I have started learning Yiddish, the language of many East European Jews and Jewish diaspora communities, especially in New York. Our class has been meeting on the picket lines this week, singing labor songs about workers who had it a whole lot worse than grad students today. What we have today is in many ways a result of their efforts. These songs have renewed my awareness of how indebted I am to the workers of the generations before me, especially in my own family. My grandparents were German farmers who came to the U.S. without even speaking any English. Others in that generation and the one before were bakers, gardeners, seamstresses and cleaning staff. They worked hard for everything they had, and that is what I want to do too. When I was admitted to UIUC, I specifically asked to teach, both because it’s what I ultimately want to do and because it is immensely satisfying to be able to my bills by means of my own labor, rather than relying any longer on money that those before me have earned. I couldn’t do that without a tuition waiver, though.  My dad payed for college in the late 60’s and early 70’s by cleaning the local Catholic church. That’s not possible anymore today. Fighting for accessible and affordable education is not a betrayal of the values with which I grew up, rather, it is necessary to maintain their viability. The American dream became reality for us, and I want to be able to extend that possibility to as many families as possible.

So, finally, I return to the title of my post. Am I still a conservative if I join a union? Do I still want to identify as such in the era of Trump? I should clarify my understanding of conservatism. For me, that has meant strong family values and personal responsibility, and still does. My views on the role of government may have changed somewhat, especially after studying in Germany for three years, but that’s another post again. Supporting workers and their families definitely builds on the values I have always held! While handing out flyers about the strike to furtive undergrads hiding within the world of their earbuds and cell phones (though many were also supportive—thanks a million to you!), I was reminded of my own undergrad days, during which I (peacefully and with a smile, not a judgement!) passed out leaflets about crisis pregnancy counseling at various abortion clinics in Dallas. Supporting workers means supporting parents who might otherwise feel economic pressure to abort their children. It means supporting those children by helping them have access to education and health care. Many graduate students are also married with children, often by deliberate choice. Tuition waivers help them make that choice for life. I too would love to marry and have children—many of us grad students are in our late 20’s and early 30’s, the perfect age for starting families. Tuition waivers help us transition from being dependents to being providers.

In the end, political labels are more of a hindrance than a help. The year I gave up the words “liberal” and “conservative” for Lent was one of my best Lents ever. This past week especially, I’ve also been very grateful to my more liberal and left-leaning professors and non-tenured faculty, who have been incredibly supportive. As the years go by, though deep disagreements on some issues will undoubtedly remain, I’ve realized I have more in common with them than I thought, and I hope we can continue working together toward the common goal of improving higher education and society as a whole. This week has been a very interesting experience in solidarity, and it is not over yet.  Join us!!!  J

[1] In 2016, I voted American Solidarity Party, which seeks a third way between the two major parties, based partly on the example of Christian Democratic parties in Europe. Here is their website for more info:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Koinonia 2: The Redemption is Real!

It’s funny how certain themes can follow you for weeks at time, speaking to you in the most unlikely ways. A little more than a month before I went on my first Koinonia retreat, my English class was discussing a scene in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury which involved a sermon given on Easter Sunday. My professor said that some people saw this as a scene of Christian redemption. He said he was a materialist and didn’t believe in redemption, but that he saw how people who did believe might interpret the scene that way. Now, as far as Faulkner’s novel goes, I don’t see one bit of redemption. I feel like that concept would be foreign to the story. However, this class discussion got me thinking over the next few weeks: Do I believe in redemption?

Googling the word “redemption” gave me the following: the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil. Jesus died to take away our sin. How many times do we speak and hear this phrase in a day? It rolls off the tongue without even a thought. In another unlikely moment, my fellow teaching assistant (who is from Russia) told me after class one day that she had never understood why Jesus had to die on the cross. It was a sad story and all, she said, but what did we humans get out of it? I told her very basically that Jesus paid the price for our sins and that because of his death and resurrection we humans could go to heaven when we die, as could all the righteous people who died before the time of Christ, who had had to wait in the realm of the dead for him to free them.[1] This was all so basic to me—I couldn’t imagine how anybody knew anything about Jesus without understanding the central point of what he did for us.

Without understanding, I say. Yes, I understood. But did I really? Looking back on what have been the things that have kept me Christian (specifically Catholic), over the last few years I would always say the Eucharist and the Resurrection. The idea of being freed from my sins was always there, always present, but apparently not as central to my faith as other aspects. But not to worry—I soon found myself in a situation which reminded me to better appreciate this central message of the cross.

I am a pretty regular confession-goer. I try to make it a routine (in the sense of a good habit) and never stay too far away from this sacrament. Over the past year, however, confession had become sort of a routine for me in the negative sense. My most absurd point was once when, according to my schedule, I needed to go to confession, but my mind was drawing a blank on what to confess. Always the same old stuff. Finally I ended up confessing not petting my cat enough! The priest laughed at (with) me, though as a cat lover himself, he understood how those lonely meows for my attention might plague my conscience…

A couple weeks before my Koinonia retreat, however, I actually confessed something of which I was very deeply ashamed. So ashamed that I would not go to any of our chaplains, nor to any priest face-to-face. That was the hardest confession I’d made in a long time, and the priest was actually quite stern with me. I came out of the confessional and sobbed through Mass, hating my guts—knowing I’d been forgiven, but not quite feeling it yet, and wondering where to go from here. I remember just staring at the crucifix in the chapel and thinking, God, you can change me. What else did you die for except to change me? What I had confessed was more of a sinful attitude than an isolated action—attitudes can be very stubborn, and I knew I couldn’t change it on my own. All I could do was dump my mess at the feet of the cross and beg God to transform it somehow.

On my retreat I was honored to hear some of the most intense stories of spiritual struggle and ongoing conversion I’ve ever heard in real life. At this point in the weekend, I became very aware of the fact that faith is not just a game or pastime, and that the message of the cross is not just an inspirational quote. (Actually, this kind of made my retreat.) As luck or the Holy Spirit would have it, I was scheduled to lead a discussion section on St. Augustine’s Confessions the very next Friday. I don’t think any TA was ever so on fire while writing her lesson plan! I wanted desperately to convey to my students the immediate relevancy of Augustine’s story of conversion, which is so completely contemporary despite the fact that so many of the students found his writing style boring because of the many bible quotes and “repetitive” exclamations praising God.

To adapt our discussion of confession and conversion to the secular classroom, I referred to the confessions of politicians, TV personalities and nationally known convicted criminals. I asked my students how believable they found these confessions and (sometimes) subsequent conversions, and whether or not they believed that personal change on the scale of the Confessions was possible. One section was more optimistic, the other more skeptical. I also asked what society’s reaction to certain conversions said about our collective belief in personal change. While we discussed the story of Kelly Gissandaner, for example, who was executed in Georgia last year for plotting her husband’s murder but who experienced a conversion through studying theology in prison, one of my students exactly stated the point I was implicitly trying to make with that example: a society that supports capital punishment is not one for whom redemption and conversion are real, because it would kill even those who have reformed their lives (supposedly the point of the prison system). This, however, is just one of the many ways by which we can measure our belief in God’s transformative power. Every day we are met with plenty of less dramatic opportunities to forgive others and to work with God in bettering ourselves. To every Christian (including myself) for whom the Cross is in danger of becoming a mere ornament, I would ask the question inspired by my atheist English professor: Do you believe in redemption? How are your actions, choices and attitudes formed by this belief?

[1] For a solid introduction or a rich refresher on the redemptive aspects of Christ’s death, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 599-623. For his descent to the dead, see paragraphs 632-637.

Koinonia 1: Paroles de Dieu

I recently had the opportunity to attend my first “Koinonia” retreat here at the University of Illinois. “Koinonia” is Greek for “community” and a key aspect of the retreat is for the participants to feel God’s unconditional and boundless love for them through the community that is created before, during and after the actual weekend of the retreat.

I love retreats. In high school I tagged along on every class’s confirmation retreat because I liked my own so much and because there were no other retreats offered. As the years pass, though, I tend to expect more from every retreat I attend. Some deeper theological insight into my faith, some knowledge I didn’t have before, some emotional revelation during adoration, some intellectual puzzle finally solved. I’m not sure if I received any of these things on this retreat, except maybe the knowledge of some new Greek words. Reflecting on what made the weekend so special, then, I resolved that it was the fact that I was in that specific place at that specific time with those specific people.

The linguist Ferdinand de Saussure once made the distinction between langue and parole. Langue is the system of a language—its grammar, its rules, how it works. For example: the knowledge that adjectives describe nouns. Parole is a single act of speech: unique, in time, unrepeatable. For example: I tell my little sister “Happy Birthday!” at 9:47 am on the morning of her sixteenth birthday. This is the (admittedly nerdy) distinction that came to my mind as I thought about my experience of the retreat. Basically, I know that the Eucharist is the body of Christ. Transubstantiation etc. But what I didn’t know was the longing for the companionship with Jesus offered by Communion that a friend felt while going through a difficult time while she was still finishing RCIA (classes to become Catholic).

Being on team for one of the upcoming retreats has reinforced for me the importance of every individual on a Koinonia retreat. Since our first meetings were pretty close to finals, I got a little weary of the many icebreakers and getting-to-know-you games, which seemed to take up so much time. But getting to know people really is half the point of the whole endeavor, at least as far as I’ve understood it. Getting to know real people and how they live the sometimes seemingly abstract truths of the faith in their daily lives.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, an early Christian bishop and martyr, referred to himself in his Epistle to the Romans[1] as an “intelligible utterance of God,” which the commentary explains as “an expression of the Gospel; a manifestation of the divine purpose.”   Interestingly, utterance is the word often used to translate Saussure’s parole into English.[2] Catholicism is (happily, in my opinion) a very systematic religion. Studying the theory of this system can be the occupation of a lifetime, and can be quite fascinating for theology aficionados. But staying at this level, which is necessary but, like grammar class, preparatory in nature, would be like studying a foreign language as langue all your life, without ever actually using it as parole. An individual human life is the concrete expression of the theories which form the grammar of our faith, Christ being the most perfect expression of all. In this sense, we are all words of God, spoken unrepeatably into history, and coming to know each other in community is one of the most profound means of studying and contemplating the One Word—good to keep in mind during the next awkward icebreaker!

[1] Translation by Maxwell Staniforth in Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers. Penguin Classics, 1968.
[2] Phillips, John and Chrissie Tan. "Langue and Parole". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 08 February 2005. [, accessed 16 January 2016.]

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Gay and Catholic" by Eve Tushnet: A Review

“I was born in 1978, came out of the closet at age thirteen or so, and was received into the Catholic Church during my sophomore year of college.”[1] In this matter-of-fact manner begins Eve Tushnet’s 2014 book Gay and Catholic. The first part of the book is a memoir detailing her discovery of her lesbian orientation as a generally happy teen growing up in a loving and supportive family. Her conversion to Catholicism while studying at Yale is a short but powerful chapter. Tushnet describes the main theme of her book, addressed especially to gay Christians, as follows:

This is a book about what God might want you to do with your love and your life if you are attracted to and fall in love with members of your own sex—not about what you shouldn’t do and why you shouldn’t do it. […] God wants you to love. He wants you to increase the tenderness and beauty in his world. This book is about the different ways in which that call to love can play out for people who are gay or experience same-sex attraction and accept the historical Christian tradition on chastity.[2]

In describing ways to live out love, Tushnet draws on her own experience and that of others, reflecting such paths as spiritual friendship, vowed commitments, service and intentional communities. The book’s final section offers a critical, though not exhaustive, summary of resources available to gay Christians and those who seek to accompany them. Tushnet offers short evaluations of several books, blogs and faith-based initiatives. She also addresses several frequently asked questions concerning Christianity and homosexuality, as well as suggesting some practical ways of helping gay people feel more welcome in the Church.

Tushnet consciously devotes little space towards attempting to theoretically explain either homosexuality or Church doctrine; rather, she accepts both as the reality or her life and takes them as the starting point in her exploration of vocations. Her acceptance of Church teaching may turn off many potential readers who do not agree with this step. However, even some critics who disagree with many of Tushnet’s ideas have found the book worthwhile; for example, Professor Robert P. George of Princeton University writes that “few have thought as deeply or as creatively as has she about same-sex attraction and its existential significance for persons who experience it. Readers across the spectrum will be informed and challenged by her reflections.”[3] On the other end of said spectrum, “conservative” Catholic readers will alternately feel right at home with Tushnet’s quotations of G.K. Chesterton and be forced (as I was) to do some soul-searching regarding their motives for wanting to reach out to gay people. Tushnet’s Catholicism is by no means uncritical and she humorously warns her straight readers of many common pitfalls, such as the temptation to try and speak for gay people: “you are not the Lorax, and we are not the trees!”[4]

Personally, Tushnet’s book was helpful to me in deepening my understanding of friendship and love. As a single woman struggling to love certain men in accordance with their own and God’s will, several of her reflections on love provided me with a source of healing, though my situation is different from that of a gay or lesbian Christian. I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in the relationship between Catholicism and homosexuality. It is gently and humorously faithful, as well as honest and full of beautiful reflections drawn from real experience. Above all, Tushnet takes seriously the need for gay and lesbian people to love and be loved, as well as the beauty and goodness that can come from love between persons of the same sex.


Bibliographical information: Tushnet, Eve. Gay and Catholic: Accepting my Sexuality, Finding Community, Living my Faith. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2014.

[1] Tushnet, page 1.
[2] Tushnet 2.
[3] Tushnet ii-iii.
[4] Tushnet 207.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Impatiently Seeking the One Whom my Heart Loves

5:45 in the morning. The light is still gray, as are many of the buildings I pass on my way through the empty streets. Maybe there is a delivery man, or a street sweeper about, maybe a parked police car. Otherwise, no one. I turn off where two small streets cross, walk under a scaffolding. My destination: the crypt.

On my bed at night I sought him
whom my heart loves—
I sought him but I did not find him.
I will rise then and go about the city;
in the streets and crossings I will seek
Him whom my heart loves.
I sought him but did not find him.
The watchmen came upon me,
as they made their rounds of the city:
Have you seen him whom my heart loves? (Song of Songs 3:1-3)

The night before, I had taken forever to go to bed. Always one more song on YouTube before I turned my computer off, maybe that would be the thing to still the faint uneasiness I felt somewhere in my stomach. Having talked with friends about relationship issues earlier in the day, I wanted nothing more strongly than to fall in love and be swept off my feet, to give of myself to someone else, either in marriage or in the service of religious life, as long as I was called out of myself by some all-consuming passion.

The next morning, I was scheduled for 6 a.m. Eucharistic adoration. Getting dressed, my head was full of random rants about liturgical pet peeves. This was not good interior preparation. On the bus, with my bag full of prayer equipment (Bible, rosary, breviary, iPod with praise and worship music), I wondered about what I’d do when I got there. What Bible verse would I read? What songs would I play, and would an iPod at adoration annoy the others? I finally just said, “Holy Spirit, let me spend this hour in a way fruitful to myself and whoever else is there.” (Whoever was signed up was invited to lead worship during their hour, if they wanted.)

When I arrived at the crypt chapel where the 24-hour adoration was being held, there were already three women there. My first thought was: these don’t necessarily look like praise and worship types. But then another image hit me: three women at daybreak praying at a tomb. Whoa. But unlike the women who came pray at Jesus’ tomb, who came to mourn and were joyfully surprised by the risen Lord, we came already expecting to meet Him. The power of the Resurrection made us able to go the tomb with the certainty of finding life there, and love. At that moment I knew what Bible passages I would read. Having already listened to the song “Set Me as a Seal on Your Heart” the night before in my YouTube surfing, I turned to the Song of Songs.

I had hardly left them
when I found him whom my heart loves.
I took hold of him and would not let him go
till I should bring him to the home of my mother,
to the room of my parent.
I adjure you, daughters of Jerusalem,
by the gazelles and hinds of the field,
Do not arouse, do not stir up love
before its own time. (Song of Songs 3:4-5)

Patience, he told me, recalling my thoughts of the night before. I am here. I am always here, waiting for you. Don’t force love. Now is not the time, nor the place. Forcing any vocation to unfold prematurely is not love. Be patient, come rest with me a while. I won’t give up until you find me. Nothing can keep you from loving me in the way most perfect just for you:

Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm;
For stern as death is love,
unyielding as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away. (Song of Songs 7:6-7a)

An hour of adoration never went by so fast. Towards the end, I read the passage where Mary Magdalene meets Jesus after the Resurrection:

                On the first day of the week, Mary of Magdala came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and to the other disciple whom Jesus loved, and told them, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” So Peter and the other disciple went out and came to the tomb. [The disciples see that the tomb is empty but do not yet understand that Jesus is risen. They go home.]
                But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.” Jesus said her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher. Jesus said to her, “Stop holding on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am going to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary of Magdala went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and what he told her. (John 20:1-3, 11-18)

My hour was up. Of course, I could stay longer, but eventually I’d have to get up and go. I couldn’t hold onto this moment forever. But it wouldn’t really be a parting. The great thing about the Eucharist and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is that Jesus stays intimately with us all the time, while our hands our free to reach out to others. Get up, he said, and go tell the world about my Resurrection in everything you do today! Bring my joy to the street-sweeper, the delivery man, the police officer, and you will find me in them!

Bridegroom: O garden-dweller,
my friends are listening for your voice,
let me hear it!

Bride: Be swift, my lover,
like a gazelle or a young stag
on the mountains of spices! (Song of Songs 8:13-14)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Per Jesum ad Mariam (and back, of course!)

Ok—before you call me a heretic or criticize my admittedly non-existent Latin skills[1], please do read all of this post, written in honor of the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary…

I’ve been wanting to write about Mary, the Mother of God, for a while, especially since a lot of people I’ve met lately (even dedicated Catholics) don’t seem to be able to connect with her. I used to be one of you. I grew up in the Bible Belt of East Texas, where Catholics might well be seen as “Mary-worshipers,” though to be fair, I can’t remember ever being personally faced with this accusation. Even so, I wanted to prove that I did not, in fact, worship Mary, and therefore I kept my distance. Also, I had and do have a very close relationship with my mother—I couldn’t imagine needing any other mother. And, finally, if I did, how was the teenager in a lacy veil whose portrait hung on my bedroom wall supposed to fill that role—she was probably younger than me! For many years I guess I made my heavenly mother a pretty rebellious daughter.

Tightly wound up with the story of Mary and me is the story of me and the rosary. When I was little and couldn’t sleep, my mom would pray a rosary in German and I’d be out. (Sometimes I still try that strategy…) Probably in middle school, I tried saying a rosary every day. I ended up grumbling so much about it, though, that it brought more negative than positive energy into my life, and I decided to stop. When I got to college, however, it seemed as if all my friends were rosary-obsessed! I remember one semester, when my three roommates would kneel lovingly around a little picture of Mary, light a candle and pray a rosary almost every night. I never did feel like joining them, but one night, as I was hunched over some homework in the next room, trying not to listen to the prayers, I realized that this resistance was all pride and that I was being very hard of heart. So, humbling myself, I joined their prayer, eventually making it down to my knees in the warm little candle-lit living room.

The next major part of my journey with the rosary came late senior year. As a German major, I was obsessed with literature and films about the Second World War. It was this kind of torturous fascination—depressing as the stuff was, I couldn’t stop reading it. But being of German background, I often felt immense guilt in the process. One night I simply couldn’t sleep, overwhelmed with the weight of the world and its history, so I decided to pray a rosary in German, like my mom used to do with me. Praying in the language that had been so horribly twisted in the war felt like a wave of redemption as I refused to accept the guilt of other people in other times and places (goodness knows I’ve got enough of my own). I felt close to Mary in a way that I’d never felt before, remembering the kindness of my mother and grandmother and coming closer to peace with my ethnic history.

A major reason my devotion to Mary grew during college was probably the sheer fact that I was separated from my “earthly” mother. Aside from that, however, I remember a few moments that really impacted my relationship to Jesus’ mother. Watching “The Passion of the Christ” during my sophomore year, I was struck especially by Mary’s role in the film. She was older by now, no longer the teenager bravely facing an unexpected pregnancy but a grown woman with many joys and sorrows written into the lines on her face. Her expression throughout most of the film remained one of sorrow and shock, face pale and eyes staring ahead in horror at the torture of her son. People kept coming to her for help, though, asking what they could do, perhaps most strikingly Pontius Pilate’s wife. Almost automatically, Mary would comfortingly hold the hand of whoever came to her, lost. Even in her worst pain, it was still her nature to be there for others.

Another moment occurred in the chapel one day, as I was praying the glorious mysteries of the rosary in the sunlight illuminating the tabernacle. At the mystery of the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven I suddenly (perhaps inspired by all the little kids running around) imagined Jesus as a little boy who has built up a kingdom in his backyard and is proudly showing it off to his mother, thrilled at the prospect of crowning her queen with a little chain of slightly crumpled dandelions that he spent the last hour weaving.

Here would be a good moment to address the seemingly heretical title of this post. In a way, I really did come to Mary through Jesus. When I was little, I’d think of how much I love my mother, and how sad I’d be if everyone else didn’t love her, too. So I’d imagine how Jesus must feel, and I’d ask him to help me love his mother more, to make him happy. Later, as I started growing into the awareness that each of us is called to a Lover-and-beloved relationship with Jesus, I started thinking of how, when I really like someone, I can’t wait to introduce him to my family. So I’d imagine Jesus beamingly introducing me, his beloved, to his mother, and the pleasure he must take therein. Ultimately I’d end up loving Jesus more by loving Mary as well.

One final thought. Since I’ve been living in Germany, about two years now—going on three, I’ve developed an affection towards Our Lady of Guadalupe. This image of Mary, seen absolutely everywhere in Texas, from statues in churches to stickers on oversized pick-up trucks and tattoos on big-muscled men’s arms, is a pretty rare sight over here. So on the few occasions I see this image, like on a pro-life prayer card or on the back of a song book, I feel a little bit of home. (This has also started to happen with hearing spoken Spanish in general—who’d have thought?) When I think of Mary as Our Lady of Guadalupe, I think of the sister in Georgia who was always ready to heal hearts by having a diaper ready to give to an immigrant parent in an emergency, or the sister in Amarillo who taught me how to make tortillas from scratch. When I think of Mary in general these days, I often think of her hands. Not the perfect porcelain hands you see on the statues, but warm hands with short, practical fingernails and chapped skin from washing dishes. The hands of my mom making school lunches at five in the morning every day for years. As I work to transition from a helpless little girl into a capable woman, I am inspired by Mary at the wedding in Cana, knowing what to do and when to do it, taking initiative and encouraging others to follow Jesus.

[1] For my fellow non-Latin-knowers, per=through and ad=to. The real phrase is “Per Mariam ad Jesum”.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

God Takes no Prisoners: Thoughts from the Eucharistic Congress in Cologne, 2013

Last weekend (June 7-9), I was blessed to be able to attend the national Eucharistic Congress in Cologne, Germany. Though a cold and a lack of sleep kept my hoped-for euphoria and spiritual high to a minimum, I didn’t go home without having experienced God.

If I look back and think about how much prayer and praise and perpetual adoration was going in that city for the five days of the conference, it’s pretty amazing. Actually, it should have been Heaven on Earth—maybe for many people it was. For me, this abundance of spiritual light threw into sharp relief much of the darkness in the world and in me. I had prayed Saturday afternoon at Holy Hour that we at the congress might see Christ in the Eucharist and in each other more clearly. All throughout the rest of the day, it became more and more clear how much I wasn’t doing that. Especially with regards to the homeless people on the street. One man asked me for a euro to buy a hot meal and I gave him 50 cents because the alternative would have been a two euro piece. Immediately the verse came into my mind: “the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you” (cf. Mt 7:2).[1]

When I went back to night adoration a few hours later, the light coming from the altar hit my body like a tangible force. Multiple huge candelabras surrounded the altar on which Christ in the Blessed Sacrament rested in a pearly white monstrance that just glowed in light of the spotlight. Faced with all this glory, I felt small and full of darkness. As I knelt I could just hear Jesus saying, “Now you’re kneeling in front of me, but when I asked for a favor you only gave me half.” I was automatically praying Glory Be’s, but my breath felt foul and hypocritical as the prayers crossed my lips. But I kept praying—what else could I do? Ceasing to pray wouldn’t get me anywhere either. All that I could do was to keep getting up again, every single time I fell. I say that every time. Then it hit me that, because of Christ’s love and his sacrifice, this getting up every single countless time is not completely pointless. It’s only pointless when we give up. We can become better people, with God’s help. God wants us to be righteous—fortunately he has the power to make us so!

Later on, I was imagining telling my friends about the incident with the homeless man. (I talk to people in my head a lot.) Being fellow sinners, they may (or may not) have tried to brush away my guilty feelings or justify my actions to make me feel better. Why wasn’t I imagining telling Jesus about these things? Because he would have done none of the above. God doesn’t take excuses, gives no quarter. Yes, no eye, no heart looks upon us with more love and acceptance and mercy than God’s. But God’s love for us is so great that he can’t stand to see us trapped in our sins. His merciful gaze contains an inherent call to change.[2] When we kneel as sinners before his glory, God takes no prisoners—he refuses to let us settle with being prisoners of our weaknesses and sinful tendencies, and gives us the strength to drag ourselves up out of the mud again and again to let ourselves be transformed by his grace.

[1] Whatever you may think of my action here, it’s my often stingy attitude that I’m trying to work on.
[2] This post reminds me a lot of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, though of course the gods in question are quite of a different nature.  J  For the German poem, go here: Here is the best English translation I’ve found so far: