Loving the Elders

May 30, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

By now, you’ve probably figured out that something has been up. I haven’t blogged for a while. The thing is, my esteemed companion, Keith A. Russell, has convinced me that it’s not a good idea to announce in advance that we’re going on holiday, lest somebody drop by our Flatbush apartment while we’re gone and clean the place out. So I just disappear and ask your forgiveness later.

Ten days ago we drove out to southwest Ohio to visit with a number of members of the International Grail Movement–women seventy to a hundred years old–who had flown in from all over the world for a gathering of “Grail elders.” Some of these women had an enormous impact on me when I was in college and in my twenties and thirties. At the risk of sounding morbid, I was a bit afraid that if I didn’t get myself out there, I might not have another chance, especially to see the ones who had come from Europe and South Africa and Australia.

I “met the Grail,” as we say, when a Grail member gave a talk at my Catholic girls’ high school in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 1965. I began going to meetings at the Grail Center in Philadelphia, and then I visited Grailville, the Grail’s farm and program center outside Cincinnati, and then I went there for several summers while I was teaching the fourth grade, and then I joined the Grailville community and lived on the farm for four full years. There’s no way I would be anything like the person I am if I had not done so. And a number of Grail women who were in their late thirties and forties when I was in my twenties were the most astonishing role models a working class Catholic baby-boomer could ever have hoped for. Somebody was always suggesting that I compile and edit a prayer book for the community, or go take a grant-writing workshop, or work up a feminist version of the Easter Vigil to celebrate during Holy Week. They helped me to believe that anything was possible.

Forty years later, some of these women have left us. I walked down to the cemetery behind the Grailville Oratory one morning to have a chat with them. But lots of others were at the elders’ gathering, so I got to visit with them, and pray with them, and recall a wide range of amazing experiences we had shared. With Francine Wickes, my dear friend from Bangor, Maine, I recalled dancing to Pachelbel’s Canon during a liturgy in the Oratory, and I resolved to go up soon to interview her about the twenty years she spent with the Grail in Indonesia. With Carolyn Gratton, the gifted spiritual director and psychologist from Toronto, I recalled running a summer program at Grailville in 1975 where several of the participants who had come up from Louisiana played Miles Davis music on the loudest setting of their tape recorder for the entire month.

I sat next to another old friend, Alice Dougan, during the Trinity Sunday liturgy. The priest, the Grail’s dear friend George Wilson, SJ, announced that instead of giving a sermon, he wanted us to talk with one another about an experience we had of the mystery of God. Al shared with me that her senior year in high school, she had been so deeply moved by Thomas Merton’s Seven Story Mountain that after graduation, she joined the Poor Clares, a contemplative religious order. She only lasted a year and a half, she told me–by then she had discovered that she was a “doer”–but in that year and a half, she learned how to pray . Something that came in handy during her six decades of Grail service in Africa and the US, I’d warrant.

Another person whom I had not seen in a very long time was South African Grail member, Anne Hope. During one of our conversations, I told her the story of how a Grail member who had influenced both of us enormously, Eleanor Walker, had become a Catholic. While she was a Ph.D. student in French at Columbia during World War II, Eleanor read a lot of French medieval literature, and decided she wanted to join the Catholic Church. This can sound pretty crazy now, but in those days, and for decades before, Catholicism’s medieval vision of the world attracted many people who were searching for an alternative to the increasing violence of modernity and industrialization. Eleanor went to the rectory at Corpus Christi, the famous Catholic parish at Columbia where Thomas Merton also was received into the church, and said she wanted to be baptized. The priest asked her if she knew a Catholic who could be her godparent, but she said no, she didn’t.  Probably because she was a student in French, the priest at Corpus Christi  gave Eleanor the phone number of Jacques Maritain, the famous French neo-Thomist philosopher who had fled Paris with his Jewish convert wife, Raissa, to escape the Nazis. Maritain did, indeed, serve as Eleanor’s godfather when she was baptized, and she went to the Maritains’ apartment for tea (well, wine, probably) every Sunday afternoon thereafter until the Maritains moved to Princeton. Anne Hope had never heard the story, and urged me to write my memories of Eleanor, who died in 1979. Anne herself had just finished her memoirs, including the story of how she had been forced to flee South Africa under apartheid because of her work with Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid hero.

There were sixty women at the meeting, which means there are many more stories I could tell  you,  but it’s time for me to go slice the collards for supper. I’m sorry to have been AWOL for so long, but probably you can see that it was worth it. I’ll write another post soon.

So What Does This Make Me?

May 16, 2013 at 4:46 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I have, from time to time, mentioned my working-class Irish-Catholic upbringing in a county immediately south of Philadelphia. I was actually born in Chester, a ship-building city on the Delaware River, south of Philly on the way to Wilmington. We moved to Collingdale, a few miles north of Chester, when I was two-and-a-half.

Some would call Collingdale a suburb, but I never do, at least not since people started thinking that suburbs are full of 12,000 square foot houses with hot tubs in the back. Collingdale was a whole like the Northeast section of Philadelphia, row houses and “twins” built after World War II and occupied by the families led by shift workers like my father–people who were excited out of their minds that they owned anything. The bedroom I shared with my brother till he was seven and I was fourteen was so tiny, you could hardly get between his bed and mine. The dresser (which I still own) was out in the hallway.

There are a number of things I could tell you about my neighborhood, and the street we lived on, Juliana Terrace. The people were decent, and we felt safe enough to play out on the street. (We were all white, of course; it was the 1950s.)

My shift-worker father, Joe Ronan, was a hard-working guy who had had a difficult childhood and youth–orphaned at the age of nine, put out on the street during the Depression by the unmarried aunts who could no longer feed him, a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps before joining the Navy in 1939 (because it paid better than the CCC) . Privilege was something he did not have to pass onto us.

What I did get from my father were certain ideological convictions. You see, I grew up thinking that being a Democrat and being pro-union were the most important things in the world, and that they were somehow inextricably linked with being an Irish Catholic. My father would sit at the dinner table and announce, with absolute certainty, that if we ever voted Republican or crossed a picket line, we would go to hell. This was the beginning of my theological education. I was in college before it dawned on me that it was possible to be a Catholic and a Republican.

Things have changed a lot since those days, of course. First there were the Reagan Democrats. After my father died, despite my terror about what she might say, I asked my mother if my father had voted for Reagan. I was greatly relieved when she assured me he had not.

But the big change came when the Catholic Church, or at least the U.S. Catholic Bishops, shifted all their eggs into the sexual morality basket. Time was when American bishops hired people like the great social justice advocate, Monsignor John A. Ryan, or wrote letters on economic justice and peace. In recent years, however, their battles have been primarily, if not exclusively, against contraception, abortion, and gay marriage.

Although I have written at length about the institutional church’s fixation on sexuality and gender since Vatican II, I guess I was still unconsciously operating out of my pro-union/Democratic/Irish/Catholic identity before the last election. I could not grasp why the bishops would launch their “Fortnight of Freedom” attack on a Democratic –and Black!–candidate in a presidential election year. I said this to one of my Catholic friends who was less out-to-lunch than I was; she replied: “Because they’re Republicans, Marian.” I was stupefied. I couldn’t take in what she had said.

Subsequently, a priest I know here in Brooklyn shared with me that the local Catholic bishop, who’s a member of Opus Dei, had told him he had a moral obligation to vote for Mick Romney in the presidential election. My friend bravely replied that as an American, he would follow his conscience about who to vote for.

Since then I have been having something of an identity crisis. I mean, the boys began attempting to roll back Vatican II in 1968, and since I am, at heart, a Vatican II Catholic, I guess my identity has been under assault for decades, at a certain level. And then last year the Vatican went after the Catholic sisters, who were like the grandparents I never had on my father’s side (even if some of them were only ten years older than I was). But now I come to find out that a majority of the U.S. bishops are Republicans, for Christ’s sake.

What does this make me? Or perhaps I should ask, what does it make them?

At Last, A Climate Change Solution!

May 12, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
Tags: , , , , ,

So you already know that climate change is doing very bad things to the planet. People around here, in New York and New Jersey, are still scrambling to recover from Superstorm Sandy. Record flooding has ended the drought in parts of the midwest, but 46.9% of contiguous states are still in a drought, “with water content in the California  snowpack at 17% of normal, an ominous situation for a state that depends on a steady stream of snowmelt to replenish reservoirs throughout the summer.” And last Friday scientists reported that CO2 in the atmosphere had reached 400 parts per million, a level not seen on earth for millions of years, and that guarantees future catastrophic weather events and related problems..

But now there’s a solution. We can just go to Mars–well, some of us, at least.

If, like me, you don’t follow space exploration very closely, you may have missed the fact that in August, NASA achieved one of the biggest breakthroughs in space exploration since the 1970s:  its space rover,” Curiosity,” landed successfully on Mars, and in the months that followed, accomplished tasks that resulted in a number of major discoveries. Basically, the “Curiosity” mission determined that water has existed on Mars, and that therefore certain locations there constitute the first truly habitable places in the solar system not on our planet. A fine article by Burkhard Bilger in the April 22 issue of the New Yorker details the exploratory process and the discoveries that emerged.

It seems unlikely that the average person will be setting off  for Mars any time soon. The “Curiosity” mission cost two and a half billion dollars, but the Great Recession resulted in a significant cut-back in NASA funding; the next two planned missions will be modest by comparison, “NASA technology from the 1960s”, as one scientist described it. Even the missions being planned by private firms like Space X and Orbital Sciences sound like pretty small potatoes.

Yet the entire episode reminds me of learning some years ago that a group of extremely rich men were investing millions of dollars in stem cell research. They were doing so in hopes that near the end of their lives they could be frozen until stem cell research progressed to the point where whatever problem threatened their survival would be cured. They were hoping, in effect, to become immortal.

The prospect of leaving our burgeoning environmental destruction behind and flying off to Mars may soon be equally appealing to those with the resources to do so. Bilger reports a possibly apocryphal survey in which three-quarters of astronauts said that they would go to Mars if the opportunity presented itself, despite the fact that, for the foreseeable future, such a trip would be necessarily one-way. “The pilgrims on the Mayflower didn’t hang around Plymouth Rock waiting for a ship to take them back,” the Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin later told him.

But that was theoretical. Now, a Dutch non-profit organization, Mars One, is actually planning to send a crew to Mars in 2022, according to Time magazine. Thus far, seventy-eight thousand people have applied to go, the vast majority of them from the US. The non-profit is producing a reality television show to raise the six billion dollars needed to fund the expedition.

This all sounds absurd, of course. But so, I suspect, did Columbus’s outing half a millennium ago. At least there are no indigenous people on Mars to have their environments and cultures destroyed.

Meanwhile, those unwilling to abandon the blue planet in favor of the red one are massing in Bryant Park, in Manhattan, tomorrow at 5 PM, to tell President Obama what we think about the Keystone XL Pipeline. We hope you will join us.

Blog at WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.