I smiled with excitement as the plane landed on the runway and taxied toward the gate. It was March break (which as a teacher I anticipate just as eagerly as my students do), and I was looking forward to ten days in two cities I love: Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I was to present at my first academic conference in three years, and Montevideo, Uruguay, where I to participate in the presentation of a dear friend’s poetry book, which I’d edited and translated into English. After living and working in Uruguay for nine months in 2006 and returning for an extensive visit in 2013, I was excited to reconnect with old friends in a place that still feels like home
After getting through the Argentine passport control and picking up my bag, I used my bank card to purchase a bus ticket from the airport into the city Buenos Aires. The conference was scheduled to take place downtown at the Marriott Plaza Hotel, located along the famous Florida Street, a pedestrian walkway lined with shops. My bus ticket included a taxi that took me right to the hotel’s door, where I marveled at its elegance and luxury. I began talking with the other conference participants, most of them Spanish professors at various North American universities. That night we enjoyed a welcome banquet which featured live tango dance and music. It was truly a lovely beginning to what promised to be a great conference. Read more…
Maybe because of the areas where much attention has been drawn of late, something stood out to me in the collect of this morning’s Ash Wednesday mass. The prayer begins,
Grant, O Lord, that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service…
The word “campaign” immediately brought to my mind a political or advertising campaign (which have become almost the same thing these days). The contrast made me smile, as I realized we were entering a season of humility and self-denial, something more like the opposite of what the secular world tends to mean by campaigning.
The language that followed suddenly gave the word a more military overtone:
…so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint.
But again, this is a radically different kind of battle. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Ephesus, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Like the self-emptying that leads to the cross (see the great Christological hymn of Philippians 2), it is against the forces that tempt us toward the dark side of our human condition that self-restraint becomes our weapon of choice. It is the only weapon and the only battle that truly be called holy. May this season of Lent teach us to wield it well.
Today’s Gospel reading offers us a clear challenge.
So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6: 1-6).
During the season of Lent, we are called to renew our relationship with God through prayer and fasting while reaching out to others in service and charity. We are called to empty ourselves so as to have more to offer others. And, as we are told in this Gospel, we are to do so in a spirit of humility – not putting our good deeds or prayerfulness on display, but acting in secret.
For me, the great irony of this morning’s Mass was that immediately after hearing this Gospel call to humility, we all walked up to the altar to receive a visible sign of this calling. As I go about my workday, I will be marked as different from the norm. I may receive a few stares and questions from students unfamiliar with this Catholic ritual. Indeed, I will stand out – which, on the surface, seems to be the exact opposite of what today’s Gospel is calling me to do.
A few months ago I took the Via Character Survey, a questionnaire that seeks to give its subjects insight into their various strengths and virtues. (You should try it – it’s fun!) The survey tests for twenty-four different strengths, such as curiosity, kindness, bravery, humor, fairness and prudence. When I took the test, I was surprised to discover that the lowest ranked quality on my list was humility. Repeating the survey a few months later, I received the same sobering result. Honestly, I was initially quite surprised. How could this be? I don’t think most people who know me would describe me as an arrogant person a la Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, or Dr. Frankenstein. When people give me criticism, that is not the issue that usually stands out. However, the beauty of this particular test is that it assesses not our outward actions so much as our internal attitudes toward ourselves. From a young age, guided by my parents and teachers in a Catholic setting, I learned to cultivate the appearance of humility. But now, I have come to understand that for years I was displaying a false modesty that actually concealed a deeply rooted arrogance.
So, how does one grow into a spirit of genuine humility? I honestly am not sure, but I have a hunch that the answer lies in the seeming contradiction between today’s Gospel and the ritual that immediately ensues. By marking ourselves with ashes, we make ourselves accountable for our actions. As I walk around my campus today, I’ll be sending a message to my students and colleagues: “Today is the first day of Lent, a penitential time which I plan to observe. Hold me to it.” I am also reaching out in solidarity with all the other people who are seeking to renew their faith and grow in virtue during these six weeks.
In this way, while Ash Wednesday may initially seem like the very kind of public display that Jesus condemns, a deeper reflection reveals that it is not. By being marked with ashes, we can resist our own hypocrisy by inviting others to observe whether we are actually living what we claim to believe. And we can also grow in solidarity with one another, recognizing that while the journey may feel lonely at times, we are truly never alone.
Vox Nova is pleased to publish the following guest post by Rhonda Miska.
“Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls, to arrive at its destination full of hope.”
This was the refrain repeated over and over as I stood in a prayer circle of about thirty interfaith activists, a few steps from the border checkpoint between Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora. Every Tuesday evening, local activists and visitors to the border gather for a “Healing Our Borders” Vigil to pray and remember those who have died making the journey north. We processed down the street towards the border checkpoint, calling out the names of some of the estimated 6,000 migrants who have died along the nearly 2000-mile US/Mexico border. For those whose bodies were decomposed when they were discovered in the desert – we simply announced no identificado or no identificada. We held up white crosses and named them present – presente – proclaiming their lives as dignified and their deaths as worthy of commemoration. Like John the Baptist, that marginal voice in the wilderness we had heard about in the week’s Gospel readings, we were seeking to speak truth.
Our prayerful remembrance of these migrant deaths happened as day turned to dusk, the crescent moon rose, and streetlamps with their fluorescent glow clicked on. Back home, I knew my Sinsinawa Dominican Sisters – along with all those who follow the monastic rhythm of liturgical prayer – were gathered for vespers, which closes with a supplication for “a restful night and a peaceful death.” My heart carried lament for deaths from hyperthermia and dehydration under the relentless desert sun, deaths not marked by the comfort of anointing oil, words of final blessing, or the ease of a deathbed attended by loved ones. Read more…
A recent World Council of Churches delegation to Iraq reported on the complex feelings and wrenching dilemmas of Christians there. They quoted one woman named Lubna Yusef, who I will let speak for herself here because her voice, unsettling as it is, deserves to be heard.
“What did we do to deserve this? I hate traveling and immigration, but today, for the sake of my children, if I had a chance to emigrate I would,” she said.
“If there was protection for us back home, this wouldn’t happen. But how long can we go on living where we are now? I am young but I feel like my life is over. Yet what about my children? Who can guarantee that something even worse than ISIS will not come along and destroy the life of my children?” she asked.
“Our priests are telling us to stay because this is our country, this is our civilization. But why do we repeatedly have to start from zero? If I go to Europe or the United States, would they accept the diploma that I have from here? Of course not. So don’t bring any material things for us. We don’t want that stuff. I will work hard and I will buy what I need. But I can’t buy my life. I want security. I want to sleep at night without worrying about the morning,” Yusef said. “We don’t want you to help us rebuild our houses. Even more important, we want our dignity back.”
Her story and complaints, like those of many other Iraqi Christians, don’t fit neatly into any ready-made political narrative. This suggests that something may be missed when public discourse remains only at the level of keep-them-out vs. let-them-in arguments. The cry for dignity, in particular, echoes other such demands from surprising places. Then again, maybe it shouldn’t be surprising, since a dignified life is a fundamentally human need (and, according to Catholic Social Teaching, a fundamental right).
Mind you, I come down firmly on the side of welcoming the stranger, as I believe all Christians should. But for this to even be sustainable, there are whole deep webs of intersecting concerns, problems, and outright crises – the circumstances that drive people to the desperation of leaving places they love, often at the risk of their lives, to seek safety in places where they may be made unwelcome; and those that drive people to scapegoat the stranger out of all-too-tangible fears for their own physical and economic security – that need to be addressed at the root.
The social concerns involved are overwhelmingly complex. But somewhere at the heart of it all is the need for dignity.
I’ve been thinking this week about an old movie I saw recently: Born Yesterday, in which a boorish, unscrupulous business tycoon goes to Washington to wreak some havoc and perhaps make a few ill-gotten bucks. If only that pesky press would stop bothering him with little annoyances like facts and ethics…
Oh, and his trophy mistress gets a civic education of sorts and discovers she has a brain. Well, anyway.
With apologies for completely spoiling the ending (the video below is bookmarked at the climactic penultimate scene within the full movie), the dialogue here is gold.
I think my favorite line is uttered by Judy Holliday’s newly conscientious ingénue: “This country with its institutions belongs to the people who inhibit it!” – a malapropism that may at times contain an ironic degree of truth.
This toast is one for the books too:
“To all the dumb chumps and all the crazy broads, past, present and future, who thirst for knowledge and search for truth, who fight for justice and civilize each other, and make it so tough for crooks like you – and me.”