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.