Thursday, December 15, 2016

As In A Dream

a poem for PMcC
[Matthew 1: 19 – 25]

While I tried not to see
                                            to stare

at her stillness    the stone bench

and she   became   one
                                               A voice

she had said   and   a burning flow

through her limbs
                                    and I tried

not to see   but to see

and how   and why   and    now

I have a voice
                             now I am

burning with seeing     just
much she needs my voice

Yes     she told me    was pulled

from her throat
                                  and   Yes

snatched me   from my bed

Care    was all I heard

See where you must carry

it all
                        whose voice

do we   both   hear

Sunday, October 30, 2016

"Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray"

After more than three decades of asking at the beginning of every semester – and often at some point in most lectures and presentations – “Who defines the terms by which we live?” I have recently been visited with a down-by-the-waterside revelation:  Sometimes the definition has to be asked for. Part of the work of the messenger/prophet/healer/advocate is to be awake and aware. That is the simplest and deepest foundation for what our lives must be devoted to. In one of her most valuable (to me) essays, the wandering anthropologist Zora Hurston discusses “Conversions and Visions” and describes how the seeker must be called into the wilderness to receive the vision. And then the seeker must return to the community and share the vision.  Summing up her insight, Hurston says:

The call to preach is altogether external. The vision seeks the man. Punishment follows if he does not heed the call, or until he answers.... In conversion, then, we have the cultural pattern of the person seeking the vision and inducing it by isolation and fasting.  In the call to preach we have the involuntary vision – the call seeking the man.”

(We know that when Zora Neale Hurston was writing this reflection, the prevailing tradition was to use “man” for all human beings. Her very life challenged that gender-restrictive imposition of terms. But she was in good company, then. Nowadays, it needn’t be said....)

In February 2016, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of articles, dealing with the health crisis of post-traumatic stress in children. []

 One of the medical professionals used as a source for these articles was Dr. Kenneth Haller, MD, an Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the St. Louis University Medical School. Dr. Haller is nationally recognized and respected as a child-care advocate. In his service, Dr. Haller proves the point that Hurston makes about someone “seeking a vision” and devoting one’s life to making the vision known. His preaching occurs every day of his life.  His words in this series of articles filled me up with gratitude that someone I have known for over 40 years is living up to his calling.  And he was called by both the ancestors and the “beautyful [sic] ones as yet unborn.” I know this. I know him. I know them.

The most recent cloud-clearing burst of awareness came from listening to one of the true traversers of Jacob’s Ladder, Ms. Ruby Sales. During a long drive on a Sunday afternoon, I was listening to “On Being” with Krista Tippett on National Public Radio.   It was obvious that Ms. Tippett’s respect for her guest was enormous. And then Ruby Sales began to speak. Her credentials as messenger/prophet/healer/advocate shone bright and cut clean. Now or then, listen to the entire conversation. Then ask, “What wilderness do I inhabit. And how do I find my way to where I am being called?”

[Ruby Sales: “Where Does It Hurt?”/ On Being, with Krista Tippett]

Both Ms. Ruby Sales and Dr. Kenneth Haller ask the same question. It is the question that no one in public life, few people in ecclesiastical power, and even fewer people in the academic world ever ask: “Where does it hurt?”

What must we do to be advocates? Listen. What must we do to be messengers? Listen. And listen and listen and listen. To discover, as has been said on this site recently, to the wilderness within our most hidden self. And they asked Jesus, “Who is our neighbor?”  Our radical transformation begins with telling ourselves that we are hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the forgotten, neglected, abused and forsaken.  But that revelation is thwarted on every front, on every level and inside most hearts – even in the hearts of those who most loudly declare that they want to “make a difference.”

Then listen.

The life of the woman Krista Tippett calls “a Civil Rights legend,” was spared for us all when a young man threw his body in front of hers when protestors were being attacked in Lowndes County, Alabama, when Ruby Sales was seventeen years old. All of this background can be found elsewhere. What captures us is the story Ms. Sales tells about sitting down and asking a young woman, “Where does it hurt?”  When I heard her say that, even the muscles of my imagination took note. Where does it hurt?  How would my life have been different if someone had asked when I was five or seven, after being abused, when I was manifesting the pain through the migraine headaches that started when I was seven: “Where does it hurt?”  What deeper sources of strength would I be able to utilize if after my being initially rejected for priesthood and doctoral studies, someone would have said, “Where does it hurt?” and then found the spiritual reserves to simply listen.

One part of the blessing that flowed from this interview was my being able to actually see the gift that the abuse, rejection and diminishment had cultivated in me. I can listen. The advice and counsel may be effective; but the listening is where the miracle of the Spirit is found.

Which brings me to Dr. Haller.

When I was carried to Omaha in November, 1973, with strict orders to rest and recuperate for at least six months, I was invited to see a student production of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” being presented at Creighton. The play has my special love. Years before, my first lead role in a play was as the title character in the Roman comedy (“Phormio”) that is one of the sources for “Forum.”  Besides nothing is more therapeutic than a Broadway musical --just ask Dr. Haller.  He was, I think, a sophomore in the pre-med program at Creighton University. He played, in my interpretation, the absolutely central character of Hysterium (played in the original by one of my theatrical heroes, Jack Guilford). The production was student produced and directed. No faculty were involved. Faculty and students did not work together in theater at that time. That struck me as not only odd, but wrong.

Given the nature of Jesuit obedience – and that is not a given – when I arrived in Omaha my “recuperation” consisted of me already being named an associate pastor of the university college church.  Yes. so much for extended care.  Part of my therapy as interpreted by others was an invitation from Fr. Tony Weber to help him out in one of his theater classes.  I could easily be in “Zoo Story,” he said.  For his class. No real stress. Theater is always restorative. Art. Obedience. Tony Weber. I said yes. Then I was asked to help with a production being directed by the Speech Department Chair. Finally, faculty and students were working together; how could I say no? After all, I was merely recuperating from one of the most devastating and traumatic experiences of my life. So, I said yes. (Refer to the tradition of “Jesuit obedience,” please.) And then the Chair of the Speech Department went on a semester-long sabbatical. Tony Weber then suggested that, even without a sufficient academic preparation, I could easily (oh, yes; easily) step in as a substitute for just one semester. No big deal. “You know enough to keep ahead of the students. It’s just one semester. What could be the harm?” The Chair never returned. Not. Ever.

Five years later, sixteen productions later; two courses every semester, and an occasional trip across a local community theater stage, I left Omaha – after having designed the major in Theater.  More trauma. More disappointments. More betrayals by Jesuits.  A lifetime in six years.

But the students who made the whole enterprise work?  There were many, some of whom will read this entry and wonder why I am singling out only one of the many. And they would be likely candidates for such remembrance, to be sure. But Ken Haller was one of the mainstays of our program, our community, my heart. From “Cabaret” to the infamous “Caucasian Chalk Circle,” he sang, danced and endured. And he was open and honest and generous and determined. After an internship among the Lakota people of South Dakota, graduation from medical school and three years of medical practice for the United States Public Health Service, he called me and said, “I need to be working where the need is greatest. Any ideas?”  That is the Ignatian mission. And putting others into impossible situations was something I had learned to do quite well, since it had been done to me for over twenty years by that time.

East St. Louis. Illinois Physician of the Year. Open. Honest. Tireless. Impatient of petty politics and fear. A friend and healer of many.  “And he grew in wisdom and grace.”  While he was in medical school, he did not perform in any theater events.  And while he eventually found a way to sing in the St. Louis chapter of the Gateway Men’s Chorus, he was busy being well and doing good. Mourning the death of friends, being supportive of so many who were drawn to his wit, talent and generosity, he became the healer he had always aspired to be. In an interview he did as part of a publicity campaign for Cardinal Glennon Hospital he briefly and with laser-like clarity describes his whole understanding of “responding to the vision.”

What pulled me back and forward was this comment: “When I walk into a room the first time I immediately look for the child...”

Ah, “I immediately look for the child.”  And then he asks, “Where does it hurt?” And he listens. As has been said before, the most radical act of intervention is to be able to say, “I see you.”  Ruby Sales knows this. Bob Moses knows this. Sr. Thea Bowman knew it. So did my mother and grandmothers.  “I see you.” I think I can say that much of my own ministry is that simple, also.

What is most beautiful about this one who serves among us is that he has returned to the stage; has been called one of the treasures in St. Louis theater. During this season of performances, he is presenting himself and his journey to becoming a healer. What he learned on the stages of Omaha in the 1970’s he is practicing today: how to be fearless, “on key and in tune” with his surroundings.  And to always be grateful. One of his best “open mic” nights is presented here. He explains it well:

October 31 is his birthday. He listens. He works. He is a doctor without borders. And he is the son and brother and friend about whom we should be proud.

Monday, August 15, 2016

“Go in the Wilderness”

Listen to the song.  The first one, as the beginning. Simple truth.  Nothing could be farther from “metaphor” or “symbol.”  Go in the Wilderness. Leaning on the Lord.

If I had known this song, the morning of August 14. 1962, it might have staved off or at least diminished the occupying enemy that was the migraine that grew and grew, from 8:20 in the morning, when I boarded the train in Beloit, until 7:10 that evening when Fr. Bill Wrenn met me at the Minneapolis train station, so that he could drive me the 30 miles to St. Bonifacius, Minnesota.  The land was reclaimed swamp – or wetlands, today? – and the building whose door we faced sprawled across the land like a true fortress, built of bright stones quarried from the region. It struck me as humorous, even with the migraine, that we arrived just about 9 pm, when the bells rang out “De Profoundis” – “Out of the depths I call to you, LORD; Lord, hear my cry! May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” While I had to have explained to me the monastic significance of the tolling, and the prayer that was to be said during that period, it soon made much sense, that I should hear those bells that night.

Over the next four years the signal for night prayer would be a constant for all of us; and the sentiments of Psalm 130 could very easily have summed up my most constant prayer for those same years.

Fifty-four years ago, this night, I began my journey into the wilderness.

No one provided cross-cultural competency training for the priests and brothers who staffed the house, nor for the other young men who had arrived much earlier that day and with a sense of entitlement bolstering them on this new adventure. No one said much of anything to me when I left my family, except my mother’s embracing last directive, “Pray for your brother.”  The previous six years of my life – which I still cannot write down in any detail – was an intensive immersion in cultural dislocation and re-assemblage.  My younger sister and I probably survived the experience of desegregating a school system by being somewhat innocent of what covert racism was. Only the largest insults were dealt with. The small harms were accepted as something to which we adjusted. Each instructive episode about how easily privilege can be wielded to inflict a thousand tiny wounds into an adolescent’s mind heart and spirit was nevertheless packed into my consciousness; but not as neatly as all the clothes that were packed into my one suitcase.

I walked into a dark and silent building, wishing only to lie still and alone.

And Jesus was waiting to meet me, in the wilderness.

Much earlier in these reflections the gifts from my father and mother have been lifted up. The books. The phonograph records. The letters. The one visit every year that must have cost them so much more than they would have ever said.  How did Jesus touch me, then?  Protecting me with art. The language of Baldwin and King, the sounds of Billie Holiday and Mahalia Jackson. The music that I fearlessly and calmly claimed as my therapy – practicing the flute every day, for only 30 minutes gave me, me. “I will practice. Because I must.”  And so the house rules were changed.  The poetry that had already been my way to hear myself dream was also there, a covenant with my imagination that promised me flight from the meanest times and the most wounding words of the mostly ignorant and sometimes thoughtless men who surrounded me.

But any of those who remain from that time who will read this will most likely say, “But we had so much joy and we learned so much and we bonded so deeply and forever.” Yes. That is true. Not all the “Sorrow Songs” were sad. And not every blues song is filled with existential despair. Being in the wilderness was the great endeavor in which I forged the armor of my faith. Persistence in the face of the shadows taught me steadfastness and resilience. And most of all, at least as I see and feel this memory this night, I learned to listen, to deeply listen, much like any creature dropped into a wilderness that could either sustain or utterly devour.

I learned to listen. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois elevates the folk belief that some special ones are “born with a sort of a veil, and are gifted with second sight.” This folk belief stems from some babies being born with part of the placenta still covering their heads – the “veil” that bestowed a “double vision” on the fortunate few. And that gift, like all gifts articulated in African culture, was given for the benefit of all the community. Prophecy is not the vision; it is the articulation of the vision once the vessel of the word of power has returned to tell “what has been seen and heard.”  In that same way, I had to learn to listen on several simultaneous frequencies. Otherwise, the unfortunate, ignorant and utterly misspoken remarks would have been fatal – to me, if not to the speaker.  I had to learn to hear beyond the depression, the confusion, and the loneliness that rolled into my horizon and often brought me low. I had to learn to hear my grandmothers say, “You gonna be all right, baby. You gonna be just fine.”

But the formation of my spirit, the forging of my armor of resistance, the cultivation of my “dogged strength...which alone kept me from being torn asunder” (again, the words of Du Bois, early in Souls), were my private schooling, done in addition to learning the history, traditions and excesses of community that were the laboratory of assimilation in which we were being reassembled.  “Learning to be a Jesuit” meant in the deepest sense possible, that I had to learn what it would mean to be “a Black Jesuit.”  No one was there to teach that syllabus. Not until one someone too many asked me if I knew Ted Cunningham. Finding out that there was one other Black man in the Society of Jesus, Wisconsin Province, triggered my by-now legendary decisiveness. I wrote to him. He came to visit, along with his other classmates, at the time of their ordination to the sub-deaconate.  We walked. We talked. We laughed. We shared silence.

“And if Jesus Himself shall be our leader, we shall walk through the valley of peace.”

And now I wonder, fifty-four years later:  did anyone else ever learn to listen, as I was forced to do? The half-century of my surviving with my first vision still intact has made me ask that question, more and more. Did any of them, of you, ever learn that my gift to this brotherhood was the fact that I did not assimilate into a culture that was designed to grind me and those like me (including Ted Cunningham a few years after we met) into a fine dust that the slightest breeze would scatter into oblivion. And a further wonder, to be played as the second drumming of this dance of remembrance:  Have those who claim a ministry of service of faith through justice been willing to spend the needed time in the wilderness that is this country’s culture of forced inequality, violence, and degradation toward the automatically inferior “other”?

In order to both survive the wilderness and to grow strong enough to be a wilderness guide for others, I had to learn to listen.  The question for the Church of the United States, for the Society of Jesus in the United States, for every institution of higher learning; for every government agency; every social work office, every police department; every hospital emergency room – the question is this:  Have you learned to listen, to be conscious, to know that what seems like howling threats in the wilderness around you just might be the sound of the whirlwind that precedes the stillness that is the voice of God?

This question is now being shouted with urgency all over the land. But each one must journey to the wilderness, one fearful step after another. And then each will learn the glorious secret in the only way any of us can learn.  Step into whatever death you most fear. And choose to live.

Can you listen to me, so that you can learn to hear the deepest truth inside your deepest self? Can any and all who believe that their obligation is to keep the wilderness at bay, at all costs, ever hear the whispering in the darkness: “Know this: the wilderness is already within you.”  The prayer is always “Out of the depths, I call to you O Lord.  May your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.”

Young men and young women from beyond the walls of cultural sameness will never enter in the gates fashioned to keep them in the wilderness of another’s devising.  These young women and men will not hear the bell calling them, will perhaps never understand that the net being cast to draw them in is firmly in the hands of their ancestors. We need to tell them what only Jesus was there to tell me, all those many years ago: “You are already a Child of God, formed before you were born. Don’t let nobody turn you ‘round. You are just who we need you to be.”

In the wilderness I learned it: may my ears be attentive to my own cry for mercy.  

How did you feel when you come out the wilderness?

August 14

Monday, June 20, 2016

Lord How Come Me Here?

But let us consider this, now. The mythic Jacob which represents our quest to know our truest selves wrestles with more than a stranger at the midnight hour. What is most strange in any and all of us is the demon – or demons -- we carry within. Each human being knows this. And all the teachers of enlightenment and wisdom have taught it. Know thyself. Physician, heal thyself.  Being mindful and honest in discovering the fears and doubts and worries and emotional storms within us is the pathway to acceptance, to courage, to wisdom. “Something within, I cannot explain.” Of course we wrestle with the stranger, daily, if we seek to be made whole – not to vanquish or destroy that which is inescapably within us; but to no longer be afraid, to no longer be in denial; to no longer let hatred and anger fester in us until we need no enemy but ourselves to destroy all that is our good.

No one can escape the journey into the valley of the shadow of death. No one, that is, except...

What began in 1981 as my meditation on my place within my religious community quickly evolved into my meditation on America wrestling with itself. It became the theme by which I read American culture: what those who were busy defining the terms by which all of us would be forced to live actually attempted was to suppress or vanquish the stranger on the riverbank – not seek to face the truth. How else do we explain the notion of privilege, of exceptionalism; of the violent suppression of the other at every twisted telling of the story that comforts some and excludes so many, many more?

As has been mentioned before, the great guardian spirit of humanity, Robert P. Moses, has devoted much of his teaching in the last decade to challenging all of us to discern just who is or is not included in the phrase, “We the People.”  We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish the Constitution for the United States of America.”

[And it was not written, but certainly was implied] And we therefore declare that no woman shall be free of the obligation to bear children so that we may have a secure “Posterity” – and we explicitly assert that none of those who inhabited the lands we have acquired for ourselves shall have the full rights of humanity; nor shall they have any recourse to the laws we shall establish for securing “the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves...” Further we confirm our supposition that those we have imported for the increase of our material well-being and prosperity shall not be considered full human beings, and that they shall have no rights that the State will hold as paramount. We know who we are when we claim to be sovereign and free and blessed by the Creator.

This is the lesson demonstrated by the lives of those who constructed this republic using this Constitution. The only “we” in “we the people” were landholding men of European roots.  And each time the notion of “we the people” manifests itself in that document, the meaning is clear: We have defined – and shall continue to define -- the terms by which all shall live.

For them, there was no, and, as far as they could decide, there would never be any wrestling with any demon.

But those who were demonized enjoined the self-defined hero and have struggled nevertheless. After all (one of them said), power concedes nothing without a struggle. The women struggled and continue to demand autonomy and independence.  The transplanted abused enslaved less-than-humans struggled, claimed godlike powers and strove to upend the fiercely held fantasies that were used to constrain them eternally.  The people who retreated further and further into the swamps, wilderness and forests, never forgot who they were and what they had held sacred. No memory is ever lost.

We hear much about extremism, terrorism and hatred of all that is “America.” We see devastation erupt more and more frequently. And we are told not to give in to fear – by those who are loudly shouting at every turn, “Be afraid, for you know not the time or the place.”  We are, none of us, able to find a place that is safe. There is no home, no refuge, no hiding place.  This is not what was promised on the Day of Establishment. This is not what “the general welfare” looks like. No one can “insure domestic tranquility.” How could the outcome ever have been otherwise?  There has never been liberty and justice for more than a few. We have never been “the People.”  We have been the alien, the stranger in the land, the outcast, the widow, the orphan...And this was never the Promised Land. Nor could it have ever been a “free State.”  Too many died, too many were abused and far too much blood has poisoned the earth upon which we have built homes, factories and temples.

So what has been the fevered response to the impossibility of creating “a more perfect Union”? One sentence has been repeated with hypnotic effect, bringing false hope and security to those who desperately cling to the mistaken belief that they are the “we” in “We the People.”

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Madness has begotten madness. Those who know themselves to be “the people” know the true intent of their sacred chant. “We must protect ourselves from those who would otherwise destroy our freedom.”  Being possessed by a demon means that one is not free. The other, the stranger, becomes a demon only in the haunted mind of one who cannot see the cancerous madness within. How was a sense of security ever possible?

The 2nd Amendment has a context, a history and will always be woven into the madness that is part of the founding of America. Before the writing of the U. S. Constitution in 1787, there were at least fifty-five notable insurrections in the American colonies, beginning as early as 1526 (in what was then the Spanish colonies, and what is now South Carolina). From Massachusetts to New York, to Maryland, to Virginia, to South Carolina, to Georgia, to French Louisiana, Africans and Native Americans and excluded white citizens rose up to destroy the oppressive system of enslavement, indenture and forcible acquisition of land. Some of the insurrections inflicted various levels of destruction of property and death. Some of the insurrections and acts of violence were thwarted by various means, including betrayals.

Every man who assembled for the composition of the U. S. Constitution knew this history – far better than any of us today know it. In order to protect “the security of a free State,” guns must be available in order to exorcise the demons that lurk to destroy our tranquility, our safety, our prosperity. The need for a well-regulated militia that could be mustered at a moment’s notice was to provide safety from those who would march across the bridges, emerge from the swamps, appear suddenly from the forests and wreak destruction and death on those who knew they held their freedom with only the frailest grasp. So they had to put their trust in death.

To exorcise the demons.

Every great heroic myth of America, from its inception as a story that claimed only the exceptional few, guns have been the talisman wielded for protection from all harm – physical and mental.  To hear only one version of the paranoia (that David Brion Davis explores so well in his study, The Slave Power Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style), we bring forth the tortured mind of the most mythic of the mythic heroes: Thomas Jefferson. Only one passage is of particular importance here. (Other scholars and commentators can look at Notes on the State of Virginia and find, for example in “Query VIII”, a foreshadowing of the hysterical and scrambled speculations as to the effects of unbounded immigration to America of people who were born into less-enlightened cultures. There may indeed be nothing new under the sun...)

Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state, and thus save the expence of supplying, by importation of white settlers, the vacancies they will leave? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections, by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained; new provocations; the real distinctions which nature has made; and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties, and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race. –To these objections, which are political, may be added others, which are physical and moral.... (“Query XIV,” Notes)

“Deep rooted prejudices.... ten thousand recollections, by the provocations...others which are physical and moral....”

The enumerations provided by Jefferson’s experience, history and imagination, could serve as an outline for the true examples of domestic terrorism that began in the Colonies and continued to Fort Pillow in the Civil War; to Wounded Knee in the late 1800’s; to Springfield and East St. Louis; to Atlanta; to Tulsa; and on to Newtown, Charleston, San Bernardino, and Orlando. Prejudices kill those who have been defined as other.

But we cannot exterminate the other without eventually exterminating our very selves. For just as the alien and stranger dwelt in Egypt and in the land the Israelites believed had been given them by their God, so too do all of us have to see that we are the strangers in someone else’s mind and heart and dreams – if not nightmares.

When does the murdering cease, so that we learn that whatever is darkest in us is the voice of truth? If the truth is not set free, we shall exterminate ourselves.  And Rachel weeps, everywhere. (Matthew 2:18) “Then was fulfilled what had been said through Jeremiah the prophet: “A voice was heard in Ramah, sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children, and she would not be consoled, since they were no more.”

The child within each of us is no longer safe, if we do not heal the madness that now spills out of this darkness.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Climbing Jacob's Ladder

Memorial Day. 30 May 2016.

On the morning of June 9, 1981, engaging in a pious practice long ago recommended by Ignatius of Loyola and many other spiritual guides, I opened the Bible at random to find a passage that could focus my morning prayer.  The passage that lay before me was the story of Jacob in flight from his brother, resting his head on a stone, dreaming of the ladder that stretched from earth to heaven.  And I read further into the story, being made brand-new to my mind, following the adventures of one of the most disreputable heroes in the Old Testament -- from his creative responses to matrimonial betrayal, to his even more creative measures to ensure that, even while working in an indentured servant’s capacity, he would become economically independent of his uncle, Laban. The part of the story that especially captured me was the story of Jacob wrestling with the “stranger” during the dark, solitary hours while Jacob prepared to attempt reconciliation with Esau, his brother.

That afternoon, on the campus of Marquette University, I was to profess my final vows in the Society of Jesus, before a congregation of more than 300 Jesuit priests, brothers, and guests – including my mother and my sister Arlayne. Just before we processed into the church, the coordinator of the afternoon liturgy (the “master of ceremonies”) said to me, “The other two men pronouncing their vows don’t want to say anything during the Mass. I suppose you don’t want to speak, either.” “Oh,” I said, “I think that this occasion is far too important to pass without a comment. Yes, I will say something.”

The music started. And that was the last of it, until after the rather complicated ceremony of professing vows (some in public, before the altar; others in a semi-private setting in the sacristy). After we had settled into our chairs after Communion, the provincial superior of the Wisconsin Province leaned over to me and said, “Don’t look now, but you are being introduced.” So I went to the pulpit and looked at sixteen years of my own wrestling match with dozens and dozens of men, leading to periods of deep depression; extreme traumatic stress; thoughts of walking away from all aspects of religious ministry and communal responsibilities. I looked at my history. And theirs.

And I said, aloud, how grateful I was to have read the story of Jacob in Genesis (chapters 28 – 32). I made an interpretive choice that has served, for more than 35 years, as the foundational interpretive tool that I have used to build my theories of cross-cultural criticism. I saw Jacob as representative of the men of the Society of Jesus with whom I struggled – struggled to be seen, to be heard, to be accepted, to be confirmed in my several identities. And that necessarily led me to identify myself, in that wrestling match, with the “stranger,” the angel-messenger of God.   “We have wrestled with each other, these last 16 years,” I said, “and we have not ‘prevailed against’ each other. But we have sought to learn, and have sometimes wounded each other; and I now see myself as one who can give you your true name.”

Returning to New Haven, I kept both my comments and the Jacob story clearly in my mind. The next summer, I went to Toronto in order to write my Afro-American Studies M. A. thesis.  Fr Robert Doran handed me a copy of Joseph and His Brothers, by Thomas Mann.  I consumed all four sections of this monumental work, which begins far before the birth of Jacob and creates a world that is compelling and breath-taking. Jacob wrestling with the angel appeared in my thesis. But the most radical epiphany I experienced while digesting this narrative was to go back to the place Jacob named, “Bethel,” after he has his dream about the angel-messengers traveling from heaven to earth, and back.

The song that made everything new and old and simultaneous was “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”  If I could see African Americans as the ones who identify themselves as the angel-messengers, then I would have to develop a strong understanding of mysticism as a foundation post of Black Theology. And if mysticism can be seen as an essential strategy in the performance of theology in the Africana world, then I had found a cultural justification of seeing Black believers describing themselves as the voices of authority in the world of religion and culture. It turned the world of received theology upside-down.

Which eventually would lead me to my simple declaration that we must begin all our intellectual work with the simple question, “Who defines the terms by which we live?”  Sometimes I joke that if a person stood in a large airport or train station and shouted that question, who knows how many people would respond with “Yeah! I took that class too!”  But now there is something more to consider, in order to re-shape what I have known all along.

The question must be doubled. “Who defines the terms by which we live?  Who defines the terms by which we die?”

The motive for this remembrance is a day to “remember our fallen soldiers.” The difficulty of bringing the names of certain of my heroes is this: the three who are especially remembered here would strongly resist any identification with any aspect of military involvement; resist any deed that would lead to the death of any one of God’s children. The only comfort for bringing forth the names of these recently deceased priests is that the song I am singing refers to “soldiers of the cross.”  And one of the basic understandings of “soldier” is “one who serves under any cause.” 

So let us now praise these glorious angels of the Lord, three men who served to wrestle with every institution of privilege and oppression and violence until their very lives, their words, their life-witness would at the very least wound the complacent who are cloaked in denial and fear.

Once again, we let James Baldwin teach us, as he taught Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. And Bayard Rustin and, eventually all who came under his gaze.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.  It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.  One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.  One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us.  [from “Down at the Cross”, in The Fire Next Time]

“For the sake of those who are coming after us.”  This is the wisdom to apply to the life and testimony of Rev. Daniel Berrigan, SJ (1921 – 2016).  One “ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”  This is the life witness of Rev.  Anthony Clark, SVD (1944 – 2016). And the life of the great and humble and fiercely clear servant-priest, Rev. Al McKnight, C. S. Sp. (1927 – 2016), carries this truth, as he continues to bring us the blessing word of God, from beyond the grave: “One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness. . ..”

Praise them.

Listen for them.

They will continue to visit us, healing our dreams, nourishing our faith, and calling us to be faithful to the vision of what must be, as we make our way at the cross(roads) of our lives.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

O, Give Me Little Time to Pray

For Maurice A. Richards, 11 years old.
From East St. Louis. Killed, March 9, 2016

“In the future, these are to be a sign among you.
When your children ask you, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’”
--Joshua 4:6

From the river bring six
stones   and set them in the place
where he was found
                                          let the old
women find their heart-cry   and lament
his finding
                       the old men  shall break
branches from the trees and cushion
his body  with the new  green leaves

do not bring the children
                                                    not one
              all is prepared
                                            then say
to all assembled    Bring the sacrifice

Let each one caress the stones   with
cold hands    and bleeding eyes
                                                             It is
Our heart that has been left to die
Our dream     that was   crushed by
the machine that the darkness shields

Write his name
                              In sorrow
write his name
                                on these   and every

for all to see
                           because he
was never seen until
                                          too late
for us to know
                              how our darkness
condemns us
                               if we do this
we were told
                        your hearts will
live again   and gain time
                                             to learn
to see


another sacrifice

is found
                                                                16  March  2016
[Maurice A. Richards, age 11, was struck by a hit-and-run driver, during the night of Wednesday, March 9, 2016, near the site of Post Place and State Street, in East St. Louis, Illinois. After he was struck he lay in the street, while traffic drove past him, until two motorists stopped. Ms. Willie Beard, one of the motorists who stopped, said that when she saw the driver in front of her stop suddenly, “she saw him go over to something in the road and then heard him scream: “’This is a baby! This is a baby!’”  Ms. Beard and the first driver stayed with Maurice Richards, holding him, until he was transported to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis. Maurice Richards died an hour after he was admitted to the hospital. (From the story in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 11, 2016, A1.)]

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"I've Been 'Buked and I've Been Scorned"

[Luke 22: 63-65. The men who held Jesus in custody were ridiculing and beating him. They blindfolded him and questioned him, saying, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” And they reviled him in saying many other things against him.”]

When my younger niece called and asked me if I knew my mother’s real name, I was surprised that she was surprised. “It certainly is no secret,” I told her. “Everybody knows that Mama made up her name.” In fact, I went on to explain, all of her names were self-constructed, and done at a very early age.  Until that conversation I had not made much of that fact. It was just the way it was. But then, has it not ever been so, in all communities and cultures?  Names are bestowed at birth, or soon after, in many cultures. In some, the name is whispered in the infant’s ear. At some point in the life of the children of other cultures, the name is earned and confirmed by the community. And especially in our American history, the names of immigrants were almost of necessity or out of expediency or disdain changed to suit the interrogator or the individual who wanted to assimilate.

In African American culture, the name of any individual can be adaptive to the extreme. Just who was “Frederick Douglass” can become a challenge to be puzzled out while reading any or all of his narratives. Sojourner Truth. Malcom X.  The central characters in almost any foundation novel in African American literature (with Morrison’s Song of Solomon setting the standard for the naming ritual in hyper-drive).

So my mother named herself. Lolita Arralean Luster – not any element of that name was bestowed upon her at her birth.  And since she was not going to have “LAB” on her license plate, she shifted her name to “Arralean Lolita [Brown]”. Only in becoming reintroduced to her one piece of professional writing has it become clearer to me – this woman removed the signs of victimhood from her identity – if not entirely from her mind and spirit – by calling herself names of beauty and music and freshness.

In the year before the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, my mother, fighting and resisting all the way, finally created a brief memoir about a relative, her mother’s sister, “Aunt Sue.”  The essay was to be part of the series that Nikki Giovanni had been editing, concerning relatives, from grandfathers, to grandmothers, to uncles and then, to aunts. But the upheaval of the times did not permit the publication of the collection about aunts. My mother wrote the essay and, as she handed it to me, declared, “Don’t ever ask me to do anything like this again. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do.”  No. The hardest thing was surviving the atrocities contained in the story from one part of her life. And in surviving the other abuses of the body and soul that she endured before she was ten years old. Physical abuse; sexual abuse; separation from her mother. Whoever the world tried to make her become, she named herself; and in that act, and in many other acts of survival, she made herself into her self.  Her essay is presented here, with a comment afterwards, to complicate with a degree of cosmic irony, some of what followed after the story she put into my hands.
A few things I remember and some I repeat from family conversation about “Aunt Sue.”  May her soul rest in peace.

My mother said Aunt Sue, her sister, persuaded her to bring me, at about age two or three months (in early 1911), to Arkansas to live with her family.  And she could work while Aunt Sue and her family kept me.

Sometime during the “sitting” period, Aunt Sue gave me paregoric to keep me asleep as much as possible.  Also her husband, John White, kicked me off the porch with the statement to her “to get rid” of me as he didn’t want any “bastards” with his children.  Presumably I was about 6 months old at the time. I was born in December, 1910.

My mother found a family by the name of Partee who wanted me, so she handed me over and went back to Tennessee and subsequently I was with Fannie Partee-Wiley until I was 10 years old.  I lived in several cities before that age.

Aunt Sue and her family got down on their luck and although Mother and I lived in a 3-room house, she let Aunt Sue and her family take over all of the house, except Mother and I were sleeping on a roll-away bed in the kitchen.

Aunt Sue had helped to keep Mother and her husband separated by that time, so she took over.  Mother worked in East St. Louis, Illinois, at the “Glass Factory,” and supported all of us.

Mother got a vacation and she and I went to visit her brother Ben in Bemis, Tennessee, and while we were gone, Aunt Sue told the social workers that Mother was not a “fit mother,” so I was taken to the Detention Home and Mother was forced to go to court to get me back.  I stayed in the home almost a year. I was in the seventh grade at the time, and I was in Miss India Maxwell’s homeroom at Lincoln School, in East St. Louis.

Years later, while Mother and I lived with the original family who had taken me in (the Partee-Wileys), she and Aunt Sue got into an argument. I don’t know all the details, but Aunt Sue lived on South 25th Street and we lived on 26th and Tudor, and Mother went to see Aunt Sue to try to clear the problem up and Aunt Sue drew a gun on Mother while she stood on the front steps.  The gun did not fire, which is why Mother lived, but I don’t think the argument was ever cleared up.

Years later, Aunt Sue persuaded my grandmother (Alice Pirtle) to come and live with her, then mistreated her and my grandmother left her and ended up living with Mother and me and my family.  While my grandmother was still with Aunt Sue she “ran away” and was found many miles from home and brought to us.  Aunt Sue came to try to make her return but she refused.  My grandmother lived with us until her death at the age of 101, in 1949.

Aunt Sue had a daughter, same age as me, who had a son who was born blind.  I was told that she would not let her keep the child, but sent him to an institution for the “unfortunate,” where he was educated well enough to take care of himself.  When he left it, he had been a switchboard operator, among other things.  His father’s sister brought him to East St. Louis to live with her.  It is my understanding that he receives a pension, so he is not a financial burden to his aunt.

Many years later, I had major surgery and vowed that if Aunt Sue died before I did I would not be at her funeral.  She died while I was recuperating, so that ended the story. --ALB (2001)
In the past I have honored my father as my primary teacher in all things cultural. It was always my intuition that my mother gave me the real writing skills, even though no one in those days would have been able to tell me that the skill manifested itself in how she used words in the storytelling, not necessarily in the transcription. But, oh, the playing with language. A skill that still circulates at every family gathering. She had the narrative impulse. And she had the pain of life that could never be easily disclosed.

What is the irony? When my family moved back to East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1965, after nine years of extreme hardship in Beloit, Wisconsin, the only house they could find that was affordable, was the house where Aunt Sue had died (in 1954, I think). The major surgery that my mother mentions was the removal of a cancerous kidney. And yes, her recuperation period was long and delicate. Aunt Sue had some condition that did not allow her to lay in a bed and sleep, so she had to sit in a chair, during the night.  Being a child, myself, no more than ten years old, I did not interest myself in such details. I know that my grandmother never stopped visiting her, and taking me and my younger sister on those visits. We walked from 20th Street to Kansas Avenue; and back. And I wondered how the old woman could endure so much pain.

But now I know that it was not about Aunt Sue’s pain, but the radical forgiveness that is spelled out in my mother’s memoir – how her mother walked past the abuse, singing to still her anxious heart. And how my mother went many steps further than the Spiritual that says, “I told Jesus it would be all right if He change my name.”  What radical saints are our ancestors. They told Jesus it would have to be all right because they were going to change their names.

And live as they defined themselves.