Of Popes and Ayatollahs

December 24, 2009 at 11:02 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Well, while we were burying Mom, the world went merrily on. In Iran, a very brave dissident, the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, died, and crowds of Iranians turned out to mourn his passing despite the government’s having forbidden them to do so.  Originally a supporter of the Iranian Revolution and the designated successor of the current religious leader of Iran, the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Montazeri saw the error of his ways and began what political scientist Nader Hasemi calls an “uncompromising criticism of the Islamic Republic.” His outspokenness resulted in the trashing of his home and office and eventually his being placed under house arrest for five years. Yet he continued to call for democracy in Iran, criticizing the recent fraudulent elections, and condemning the human rights abuses of the current regime. At a certain point, Ayatollah Montazeri even issued a fatwa on nuclear weapons, urging Muslims to “take the lead in banning legally and practically all such weapons for all countries.”*

At about the same time, the Vatican announced that it had deemed Pope Pius XII a candidate for beatification as soon as someone receives a miracle through his intercession. This announcement resulted in an outcry from the Jewish community, since Pius has been much criticized for not speaking out publicly against the Holocaust.

Now myself, I’ve always felt a little sorry for Pius XII. With his  extraordinarily hidden, diplomat’s personality, he was as unsuited to leadership during World War II as Franklin Roosevelt was suited to it by dint of his privileged optimistic view of the world.  

On the other hand, as I think I said a week or two ago, the Vatican under the current pope does seem to have serious public relations problems. According to the New York Times, the Vatican doesn’t want to upset the Jews by authorizing the beatification of a pope who failed to speak out against the exterminations of European Jewry while it was taking place.  It’s just that, as Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, put it, the beatification process evaluates “the Christian life” of Pius, and not “the historical impact of all his operative decisions.” I trust you get the clear distinction being made here between Christian virtue and historical actions.

And then, alas, it is not possible for the Vatican to open its archives, the contents of which might clarify Pius XII’s  actions in relation to the Jews during World War II and especially the deportation of the Jewish community from Rome. The archives are apparently just too massive  to be put in order quickly. Though the Vatican itself revised its guidelines for the canonization process in 1983 to include (for the first time) the use of the historical critical method in the evaluation of candidates.

Too bad we can’t just beatify Ayatollah Montazeri. Blessed Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, patron of religious leaders who are confronted with the great crises of history, pray for us.

*Apologies to my readers. The op-ed piece by Nader Hashemi from which I draw the information in the first paragraph of this blog appeared in the New York Times on December 23, but for some reason I can’t access it. Perhaps you’ll have better luck. It’s called “A Dissident Ayatollah.”


The American Way of Death

December 20, 2009 at 9:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Keith and I got up very early last Tuesday morning (December 15) and drove down 95 past Philly to Media, PA, for my mother’s funeral. I had already gone down on Sunday to see her, but it was good to be with friends and relatives to tell Mom good-bye one last time.
I think maybe there were fifty people there, which was about forty more than I anticipated. The last living relative of Mom’s generation, her first cousin Howard Turner, whom we had been unable to locate, actually saw the death notice in the Delaware County Daily Times and came (in case you have ever wondered , as I have, what purpose is served by death notices). Three of the four grandkids were there; Emms flew in on the red-eye from San Francisco. And one of my father’s great nieces, Jan, brought her year old baby, making for quite an extended genealogy.
I was also  astonished to see Veronica Barbato and her sister Til Mack; Veronica introduced me to the Grail by giving a talk at my high school in 1965 and we hadn’t the faintest notion how long it had been since we’d last seen each other. My Baptist husband led the service for my Episcopalian mother in a room full of Philadelphia Catholics and former Catholics. There were lots of poinsettia.  

Grateful as I was for all this love and support, burying my mother brought home to me again the utter weirdness of the American way of death (Somebody–Jessica Mitford?–wrote a book with a title close to this decades ago and probably said much of what I am about to say, but I was young then and had no interest in such things!) My parents had gone into a “retirement community” fifteen years ago, in large part because my father had had several small strokes. Riddle Village is a “continuous care” community, which means you pay a lump sum up front and then they take care of you for life, moving you from independent living to assisted living to skilled nursing as the need emerged. My parents would have gone bankrupt if they’d had to pay retail for the two years my father spent in the nursing home at Riddle as a result of the big stroke he did in fact have six months after they moved there. And the place was pretty good for Mom as long as she continued in independent living. She made a lot of friends, took painting and writing classes, baked cookies for the grandkids in her kitchen, drove herself to church and to visit relatives. 

“Continuous care” is something of an overstatement, though. I decided that it was more like three ways of life separated in each case by the Grand Canyon. My mother began taking falls in her independent living apartment, but nobody notified my brother and me about them because there’s some law against violating the privacy of the residents (FITO? PICO?). The fact that it didn’t occur to the staff to offer my mother the option of signing a waiver of this dubious form of privacy, tells you a lot about the whole operation.

And this was a sign of things to come. The care from then on was well-intentioned but modest at best.We ended up hiring an aide from the outside, Christine, to come in several hours a day to supplement the care my mother was getting. We were lucky we could afford it. Very often when I came to visit, there was a member of the nursing staff sitting in the hall outside my mother’s room playing a hand-held computer game.

But what struck me most forcibly were the circumstances around my mother’s actual death. She died in the early hours of December 15. Riddle telephoned my brother immediately, around 3 AM as well they should have. But a major reason for the call was to tell my brother that he had to get out to Riddle and deal with the body and get my mother’s room cleaned out. I would really have liked to see my mother one last time in her room, surrounded by her pictures and things. But there was no question of this. It would take too long for me to get there from Brooklyn. In her ethnography of religious life in Congo, Sister Joan Burke reports that when someone in a Congolese village dies, the family puts the body outside their dwelling so  people sit around and grieve with them. My mother had been at Riddle Village fifteen years, but that body had to get out of there pronto. Two people from Riddle came to the viewing that preceded the funeral. I know from experience that a proper and hygienic picture of my mother with a notice of her death…oops–of her “passing”–will be set up on  a table in the common area at Riddle. God forbid that anybody in that “continuous care” community should have to look at the dead body of a member of that community. Or consider for more than a moment, as they walk by, that they’ll be getting wheeled out of their room pronto too before long.  

Mom Died

December 14, 2009 at 9:19 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 20 Comments
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Well, my mother died. Early Sunday morning. She was ninety-three  and had needed to die for a long time. Some people still have good lives at ninety-three,  but Mom, who’d been in the nursing home in her retirement community for several years, couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, couldn’t walk, and was increasingly demented, which meant, in her case, that  she was frightened a lot, and could hardly recognize anybody. Last March one lung filled up with fluid and she was hospitalized; we thought it might kill her then and there, but it didn’t. What the week in the hospital did do is scare her almost to death, so that when she came back to her room at Riddle Village, she was hardly there. Nine and half months later, the rest of her has followed the part that left in March.  

It’s very different having someone die by inches than it is when they die quickly. My friend Claire McCormick, a Sister of Notre Dame de Namur whom I’d known since high school, died a while back. She got a stress fracture, got pneumonia, and  then was gone, at (I think) 83. And I didn’t make it to the funeral. I suspect Claire had no interest in getting hyper-old and helpless. But once in a while it occurs to me to telephone her; part of me just doesn’t get it that she’s gone.

Mom (and Dad before her) died very slowly. And yet I’m always struck by how different a dead body is from a breathing one, even one as radically diminished as my mother’s was, with blood leaking from her deteriorating blood vessels and her body getting thinner and thinner. And Mom’s passing is the end of an entire generation, something that wasn’t true thirteen years ago when Daddy died. So I’m grieving for all of them: Dom and Poppie, (my grandparents), and Dede, my mother’s sister whom I adored. And I’m grieving for my brother Joseph and me, who are now the elders, whatever that means.

My mother’s life was very different from mine. She and Dad grew up during the Depression and suffered from it. Mom once told Emms, my brother’s oldest girl, that the saddest day of her life was the day she graduated from high school, because her education was over. And the working class world she lived her life in didn’t encourage her to change that, even years later when she might have. I sometimes think my thirteen years of graduate education was an attempt to make up for that deprivation, but of course, it didn’t.   It may have even have made that deprivation more apparent. 

The funeral is Tuesday morning, in Media. My husband, Keith, is a minister, so he’ll do the service. Mom will be buried in Chester Rural Cemetery, next to my father and her parents. Please remember us.

Healthcare, not Warfare

December 8, 2009 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Peace Justice and the Environment Project has posted a short video  on YouTube of people across the country protesting the US escalation of the war in Afghanistan. For some of us, opposing Obama is a discouraging business, but as people of faith, we have to do it. Brothers and sisters model such protest here. Check it out. You’ll be inspired.

Concerning the Mennonites

December 6, 2009 at 8:18 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Since I’m a scholar of American religions, you might think I would know all  about the Mennonites. Initially, though, all I knew was that in the 1990s the Mennonite Central Committee had challenged its members to donate ten percent of their food budget to the poor, and had created a really useful cookbook–More-With-Less Cookbook : Suggestions By Mennonites on How to Eat Better and Consume Less of the World’s Limited Food Resources to help them do so. My copy is ragged from use. We have a batch of Mennonite coleslaw in the refrigerator right now. Great with burgers when I haven’t got the energy to cook much.

I learned more about Mennonites from reading David Harrington Watt’s Bible-Carrying Christians,  a fine book I reviewed a while back. I was so impressed by Watt’s portrayal of the Philadelphia Mennonite Fellowship’s commitment to  congregational equality and other radical social practices, I even fantasized a bit about becoming a Mennonite. Then it came to me that my poststructuralist feminism might cohere less than perfectly with the near-literalist biblical interpretation that underpinned that congregation’s radical practice.

Then, last October, the annual assembly of Pax Christi New York Metro,  the local chapter of the national Catholic peace association, explored the Mennonite-Catholic dialogue and its work on what it means to be a peace church. As you may have gathered from previous blogs,  I (and many others) are not finding this the easiest time to be a Catholic. Hearing about the efforts of some Catholics and some Mennonites to come together around a subject other than abortion and gay marriage, indeed, a subject as important as peace, was deeply inspiring for me. I was especially impressed by Sylvia Shirk, the minister of the Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship who shared with us the efforts of that local congregation to “seek the shalom of the city” in study and action week after week. One of these Sundays I plan to trek over to the five o’clock service of that particular congregation of Mennonites at the Friends’ Meeting House in lower Manhattan. 

And now I have just finished Rhoda Janzen’s wildly popular Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home.  If, like me until recently, you are unaware of this latest hot item, you should check out the 134 ratings and 70 reviews on GoodReads alone to get a sense of the furor attending it.  And the book was published only two months ago!  As bestselling author Elizabeth Gilbert blurbs: “It is rare that I literally laugh out loud when I’m reading, but Janzen’s voice… slayed me.”

Janzen’s narrative of several near-catastrophic personal losses and the healing she achieved by returning to her Mennonite parents’ home on the West Coast (and thereby to her own Mennonite heritage) is an undeniably heartening read ( as well as a considerable relief for someone currently submerged in the social history of French Catholicism).  But there was something about the very laugh-out-loudness of Mennonite that made me nervous, at least until the last sixty pages. In truth, there’s a very fine line between poking fun at the idiosyncratic religious or ethnic traditions in which a number of us, not just Janzen, have been raised, and the exoticization or outright mockery of those same traditions. Janzen clearly loves her parents, but her hilarious portrayals of them can also serve as grist for the mill of those less affectionately inclined. Even between laughs, I didn’t really stop worrying till Janzen arrived, on page 156, at the “wee white bow” that her mother wore in a photograph with her sisters marked otherwise by “Mennonite sobriety.” Jansen takes the bow as an indication of an attraction to aesthetics–“God was in the details”–that had, she previously thought, distinguished her from her mother and other Mennonites:

“I’d long acknowledged my debt to Flaubert, but now that wee white bow suggested a debt to my mother. She was Mennonite, but she was mine.”

Maybe in her next volume Janzen will shift that “but” to an “and.”

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