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For Groundhog Day, I imagine Catholic bloggers everywhere are weighing in about the movie by that name. It’s so Catholic! How can we resist?
I love this movie, and only regret that it’s not quite appropriate for young kids. It’s an extended metaphor for coming to grips with life’s terrible daily-ness. The main character – a jaded, worldly bachelor doing the obligatory annual report on the groundhog for his TV station – finds himself inexplicably trapped in one day – living it over and over with, apparently, no way out. As the horror of it dawns on him, he tries suicide. When even that doesn’t effect his escape, he turns to despair’s other alternative, hedonistic abandon. When it seems nothing can ever enter his alternate me-verse to lighten its burden, something does.
The human beings around him – formerly mere objects – begin to awaken him to the possibility of finding himself in the unending day by stepping outside himself for their benefit. As he purposes to fill that day with responsiveness to them, the day becomes more bearable. The one thing that can change from day to day, is the self. He gets to retain experience in memory, learn to play the piano, memorize poetry. Whatever else happens in the cramped limits of that day, he is becoming and cohering in increasing dimensionality outside the reach of the trap that holds him in time.
Love for the station’s beautiful producer awakens his desire not merely to serve, but to know and love another person. To plumb her mystery, to be worthy of her, to love her for her sake and not to manipulate or use her, become the goals that lift his unending day into something that approaches transcendence. Alas, though their time together partakes of eternity, it always ends with the day and is lost to the one who has no memory. Two kinds of ‘newness of life’ are in contrast: a horrible, memory-less, ever-new-ness which traps a person in an endless, impotent, fruitless childhood, and a marvelous freshness which by the power of memory coheres within a person, as person.
Into the now moment of chronos he seems fated to endure, kairos bubbles in through this person, in this person. The actuality of a love from beyond enters time, raises itself up within the very being of a man, and in his willingness to detach from all but love (all expectation of reward, fulfillment, future, pleasure) becomes the power that breaks through an awful magic that sought to unmake that man by tempting him to despair. Self is seen and followed to its destiny in the gaze of an Other. Life is acknowledged to be a gift, however hard it is to bear. Mystery breaks in through personhood to trump a lower and limited reality with its super-reality.
Sounds Catholic to me!
After a baby’s birth, Mom becomes the ‘womb’, the context for his continuing development. This is so much more than just making a safe home, or choosing the best food for him. The womb and placenta, like Mom, are mediating structures meant to link the child to his wider environment through a bulky, messy, murky mass that impedes flow even as it facilitates flow. I’m not calling Mom names here, just pointing out that all attempts to do away with this design, this ‘inefficient’, personal, slow, messy process are dis-integrated, wrong-headed, dangerous.
If I wanted to teach a child, I’d give his mother rich opportunities to learn, to ingest great materials, to practice skills, to discuss whatever she finds delightful, wondrous, or interesting. I imagine she’d do the mediating for that particular child better than any artificial womb I could create. Fr. Luigi Giussani wrote, “I am an educator if I communicate myself.” Unless I can be a real part of your child’s context, mediated to him through his mother’s wisdom and discernment about his needs and capabilities, I cannot truly communicate my self, or anything else, to him.
We need more people in children’s REAL LIVES and fewer contrived, artificial kiddie activities, classes, and play-spaces. It does take a village, but that village better grow up organically around the home to serve the child and his parents in truth. I’m hoping to be part of the village for the families I love, but I don’t want to abstract the children from those wombs in order to give myself to them.
Does this make sense to you? I’d love to hear your feedback on this one!
One of my favorite talks is about Mom understanding herself as this sort of continuing context for the child: Building the Bridge.
Don’t waste the food! Don’t waste the oil pastels and the good watercolors! Don’t waste the expensive fabric, the nice paper, the good wine! Above all, don’t waste time playing, chatting resting! Have you ever thought about the paradox of forming the highest things?
To learn to turn ideas into works of art, we must indulge a bit – not recklessly, but with some daring – in wasting art supplies. Give a kid the kind of art supplies you don’t care if he wastes, and I’ll bet they’re also not satisfying to use, either. Interest will wane. To learn to cook, we need to take some risks with foods.
No skill at words is acquired without long practice tossing away and rewriting ‘wasted’ words. No friendship is strengthened without great ‘waste’ of time together. No love is proved by other than life poured out in service. To turn feasts into practice for the Eucharist, we need to taste the finest wine (Note: the ‘finest wine’ I’ve ever been able to afford cost $26 a bottle, but it’s the thought that counts, and paisano is great for most meals. As fans of Rumpole, we call ours ‘Chateau Kaw Embankment’!)
We must learn to value and to give what is of highest value. There’s the paradox. Only a child can give, or use up, or waste with complete abandon, and only an adult can rightly value things. It is the work of growing up to become able to bear the tension of doing both. To give without knowing the value does nothing to honor the recipient, and to value without giving communicates no actual good.
A priest once counseled that if time is our greatest asset, the best gift we can give Him is to waste it. Since I write and speak about Holy Leisure, this was great reinforcement! Sabbath rest is all about learning to be, to be acted upon, to be whole and offer that wholeness to Christ. It can be very, very hard in our goal-oriented, product-producing, efficiency-loving culture to let go and give God some simple leisure time. Even our Christian culture tends toward purpose-driven lives and accomplishing great things for God.
I hope you’ll learn to waste boldly where the great thing being accomplished is YOU!
How can I become small enough to ‘fit’ the narrow range of perception of a person with whom I share so little experience, philosophy, language, or understanding. Only love can make a way where there seems to be no way, no bridge of commonality. And what does that look like?
I often say, “Love condescends,” as shorthand for this process of smallifying the self in order to be in unity with someone younger, or with less receptivity for what is being given, being communicated. Our example? Christ’s own condescension when He “emptied Himself of all but love” on the Cross.
Chiara Lubich and her Focolarini had a huge influence on this teaching, for which I’m grateful.
- First, I love because God first loved me. I cannot go into a ‘tight spot’ without awareness of my dependence upon His loving mercy to carry me, to make up for all that is lacking in me as I try to communicate with and engage them.
- Second, I must do only what I can do in true freedom, otherwise my gesture may violate the other person and will not be an invitation to freedom. If I do what I feel I must, do it with an interior demand for a response, or act without consideration of my own reality (limits, aspirations, resources), I may (sigh…how often have I done this!) clunk in like a bull in a china ship instead of slipping gently through the crack in their defenses.
- Third, I need to empty myself of contempt, resentment, irritation toward this person. I must erase all the mental labels by which I have distanced myself and protected myself from identification with him. I must open myself to the mystery of this person and approach his delicate being with reverence. Loving condescension is not looking down my nose at him, but descending toward him in love, believing I will see Christ through this encounter.
- Fourth, present and attentive toward this person, aware of but not impatient about my hopes for him, attuned to God’s love for me that wants to pour itself through me into this ‘smaller’ vessel, I wait (Yes, actually stop and wait; be still and wait upon the Lord!) for the dawning of creativity. When the Spirit moves upon the whole of the factors I am embracing, some form will take shape as a response, a gesture, an act of freedom by which I can love this person and, thus, invite him to freely respond.
- Fifth, I will know the mot juste, the Right Thing, the perfect gift, the path to take, because it will be beautiful!
This talk starts and ends with a mystery, so I can’t tell all without spoiling that surprise. In the middle, I talk about why it can be so hard to receive the love of God. Can you think of two different ways to avoid each of these ways of being loved?
1. Know Yourself
2. Receive the Person
3. Accept Loving Discipline
I can! And those two ways help show us the way back to that Love who awaits us full courteously (as Juliana of Norwich would say). The first group to hear this talk got a poem from me, in addition to that mystery substance. Here’s a taste of “Let Yourself be Loved” :
Like sweet sap yearning out from root to branch, let Love rise in and remain in me. Like patient minerals petrifying wood, let Love transform my substance into love. Like insistent blood prevailing over numbed limbs, let Love awaken me to living pain. Like unimpeded torrents condescending to the sea, let Love wash past and draw me to deep rest.
There’s more where that came from, if you like poetry. I realize it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but there are things that just can’t be said any other way. Here’s a collection of my talks that feature poetry, poems, or poetic formation.