Sunday, April 30, 2006

And the Music Will Set You Free

Today is a great day for music. Neil Young has done it again. Just as his "Ohio," written after the massacre of Kent State students by the National Guard, set the tone for protest in the 1970s, he has produced a musical broadside against Bush's disaster in Iraq, called "Living With War." You can hear it on your computer for free by clicking here. And if you go to the Neil Young blog, you can see a TV interview on "Showbiz Tonight" with the normally reticient singer in which he explains very articulately, and pasionately, why he wrote the songs and rushed the package to the public. "Living with War" ends with a very moving interpretation of "American the Beautiful," and it made me feel like a patriot again. Maybe we CAN take back our country from those who would destroy it.

The second triumphant musical moment today is the release on the internet of a version of the "Star Spangled Banner," translated into Spanish as "Nuestro Himno" ("Our Hymn") and performed by Mexican pop diva Gloria Trevi, Puerto Rican reggae stars Ivy Queen and Tito El Bambino and other Latino artists, to support migrant rights, the immigration reform debate in Congress, and the huge "Un Dia Sin Inmigrantes — A Day Without Immigrants" national boycott planned for tomorrow. You can listen to it at the Urban Box Office site here. I was very moved by the music, and, as with Neil Young's effort, felt once again free to love this country and think of myself as a patriot.

Typically, Bush declared he thought it was wrong to sing the national anthem in a foreign language. And the jingoist nativists like the Minutemen were up in arms, hollering something stupid like "American for the Americans." It doesn't seem to bother the Canadians who can sing their anthem in either English or French with no trouble at all.

I find it heart-warming and inspiring to hear the music of Canadian superstars and Latino immigrants who love this country so much that they will stand up and praise its values while condemning those who would trash them. This is my America.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Is there anything lovelier than peace?

Today is the feast day of St. Catherine of Siena. She carries the titles of both “virgin” and “doctor of the church.” While there are no doubt numerous virgins among the saints, there are only two other women saints considered worthy by the church to be called doctor: Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux. St. Catherine has also been named patroness of Italy and co-patroness of Europe.

Born in Siena in 1347, she was the 24th of 25 children -- her twin died in childbirth – and she lived in very turbulent times. The Black Death was decimating Europe. There were armed conflicts between the city states of Italy, and Pope Gregory XI had fled from Rome to Avignon in France.

Dedicating her virginity to God at the age of seven, Catherine joined the Dominican Third Order as a teenager, and for three years she lived in seclusion in her own home, fasting and praying. But then she received a vision of Jesus in which he told her: “The service you cannot do me you must render your neighbor.” So she began to care for the poor, serve the sick, and comfort the dying. She also earned a reputation as a local peacemaker and in time gained the ears of the Pope and other powerful men of the late 14th century.

Catherine is exemplary for us because in her short lifetime of 33 years she was able to able to realize the life of a contemplative in the world. Contemporary writers have called her a “social mystic” or a “mystic activist.” She was not afraid to give blunt advice to Popes and Kings, as well as to the readers of her book of spiritual reflections, The Dialogue.

In one of her many letters (almost 400 of which have been found), Catherine wrote: "Even if it should cost you your life, never hold back from speaking the truth because of any fear." Her example of fearless discipleship should inspire us all.

Reflection for Prayer & Communion Service, April 29

Fearless Discipleship

When the disciples look out of their boat on the dark and stormy sea and see Jesus walking on the water toward them they are scared out of their wits. In Matthew’s version of the story, they think they see a ghost. And this can’t help but remind us, in this Easter season, of the account of the appearance of the risen Christ in Luke – which we will hear read tomorrow morning – when the disciples, who are “startled and terrified, “also think they are seeing a ghost.

In both cases, the response of Jesus is to try and calm their troubled waters. “Do not be afraid,” he says in this morning’s reading from John. “Peace be with you,” he says in the reading from Luke. Since Easter we have heard these phrases in several different Gospel readings. It is almost like a mantra, the sacred word or phrase used in different religious traditions to help still the mind during contemplative prayer or meditation. It also occurs in the beginning of the Gospels: “Do not fear,” Gabriel tells Mary at the Annunciation. “You have nothing to fear!” the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds. “I come to proclaim good news to you.”

Why, then, are Christians, and perhaps all human beings, so fearful? Can it be that Jesus intended to reverse this, and that his counsel to abandon fear is an indispensable part of discipleship?

Let’s talk of fearless discipleship by saying a little more about St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day we mark today.

A writer for the Dominican journal Spirituality Today described Catherine as “frightened by nothing…she was fearless in speaking [to religious leaders] the truth of the need for Church reform, for justice in their dealings with their people, for peace in their feuds and wars with secular governments.”

In her letters Catherine constantly exhorted her readers to be strong: “Bear God’s word with fire…pour out the truth…Even if it should cost you our life, never hold back from speaking the truth because of any fear”…“Cry out as if you have a million voices, for it is silence which kills the world.”

What gave Catherine this strength? During her contemplative period, Catherine underwent rigorous fasting and prayer, which ultimately allowed her to undergo a total kenosis, or emptying of the self. It is the protective self that feels fear, and that runs from pain toward pleasure. Catherine had abandoned her self. In a vision she said Jesus told her: “You are she who is not; whereas I am He who is. Have this knowledge in your soul and the Enemy will never deceive you.” Her confessor and first biographer is certain that this is the foundation for all her work and teaching.

Catherine believed herself betrothed to Christ, and that his heart had been substituted for her own. Knowing that Christ was a part of her enabled her to serve others fully and without fear. Jesus promised her that her “weakness” as a woman would be full of the power of God, so that proud men who refused to listen to her because she was a woman would find themselves resisting God.

Surrounded by warfare and the poor who are its primary victims, Catherine became aware of the inseparable connection between justice and peace. She wrote to King Charles V of France that “when we see the great destruction that war causes, especially to women and children, how can we help wanting to sacrifice our own material possessions and even our life, if necessary, in the work of spreading God’s peace in the world?”

“It doesn’t seem to me that war is so lovely a thing,” she wrote, “that we should go running after it when we can prevent it…Is there anything lovelier than peace?…How stupidly blind we are not to see that with the sword of hatred for our neighbors we are killing ourselves. “

In many ways, Catherine’s life was a failure. She was illiterate and forced to dictate her writings to others. Despite her letters and exhortations to the powerful, she was unable to prevent the papal schism. Her body worn out from rigorous fasting, she died at a tragically young age.

Not long before her death she was in prayer at St. Peter’s in Rome and looked up to see a mosaic depicting the scene from the Gospels where a tiny ship carrying the apostles is buffeted by a terrible storm, and Christ is walking across the water. As she looked at the picture she suddenly felt that weight of the boat itself, the Holy Roman Church, had been lifted out of the picture and placed on her back. She sank to her knees and was carried home where she died. In icons of Catherine, she is often shown with the boat of the Church on her shoulder.

Nevertheless, this failure for Christ has been called “one of the most extraordinary women in European history, a spiritual teacher of tremendous magnetism who has also been a powerful advocate for peace and reconciliation.” She is for us the very model of contemplation in action, and of fearless discipleship.

Windfall Profits

Gas is now $3.16 a gallon at the Valero station around the corner from my house and George W. is trying to sound like an environmentalist. Sure, drivers pay that much or more in many countries of the world, but that's becaue of taxes that ultimately benefit consumers by financing roads, bridges and other infrastructure need for the gas guzzling economy. Here in the United States the Big Oil companies are reaping enormous windfall profits while attempting to place the blame for rising gas prices on turbulence in Iraq and Iran, environmental regulations that prevent refineries from dirtying the air, and that nasty socialist Chavez in Venezuela.

Meanwhile, the administration is in denial about global warming, out of step with the whole world. Fossil fuels have had a good run, but its days are numbered, and the withdrawal is going to be painful for everyone.

To expect an administration owned hook, line and sinker by the oil industry to solve the problem of rising oil prices, windfall profits and global warming is an exercise in futility. It's obvious to anyone with half a brain that Bush & Co are in Iraq primarily to control Middle East oil. All the propaganda about "democracy" (and just what does that word mean now?) is smoke and mirrors, nothing more.

Before the global economy became a mantra, people used to produce what they needed close to home. Government policies were designed to protect these primary producers and the consumer. Today the fiscal conservatives call that protectionism. They've bet the farm on the global corporation, that fictitious person with all of the rights but none of the responsibilities of an individual. Sure, they talk about the trickle down theory, and how a rising tide floats all ships, but tell that to the farmers in Mexico devastated by NAFTA. These are the people who now want to immigrate here, legally or not, and take our lowest paying jobs. Why not, when NAFTA destroyed their livelihoods?

But to return to oil, the global market needs to ship everything everywhere, and that takes oil, lots of it. Food is shipped, car parts are shipped, books are shipped. Our highways are full of huge trucks shipping stuff from distribution centers in the heartland to big box stores in the population centers. The only resistance I see is from farmers' markets which sell locally produced vegetables and other home grown products. Who buys clothes made in their region, or electronics? All of it is shipped.

Few people can afford cars and trucks in Vietnam and Cambodia where I was amazed to see thousands of scooters, motorcycles and bikes filling city streets when I visited last fall. I assume it's much the same in China. Bangkok, on the other hand, has transitioned to the automobile, and its streets are almost impassable, and the air unbreathable. Automobile manufacturers now are eyeing the Chinese market where already the air is worse in large major cities, from unregulated factories and coal fires, than anywhere on the planet. When China gets SUVs, Hummers and freeways, it's all over.

My own solution is to live close to town and walk as much as possible. A tank in my Toyota truck, which now costs over $30, can last me a week or more. I'm not sure what I'll do this summer when I'd like to take a road trip. That might become a thing of the past. Jack Kerouac must be rolling over in his grave.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bush Cartooned

The current issues of The Nation and Rolling Stone both feature cartoons of El Presidente Bush by New York artist Robert Grossman.

I doubt that the editors of the two publications are very happy about running the same caricature, albeit in different poses, at the same time. But it's a double dipper for fans of artistic buffoonery. The theme is similar: Bush is a dunce.

I wonder, though, whether this widely held opinion (on the left, at least) is true. Is George W. stupid? Or is he rather street-smart and shrewd, attributes his detractors would deny? Can someone really become the most powerful person in the world with the brain of a turkey (those birds famed for drinking the rain until they drown)? Only the most extreme conspiracy theorist would argue thus. Bush may be floated by Rove, Cheney and the Neocons, but he steers the ship. Who knows what evil genes his father bequeathed him. But the combination has produced a monaster, a true believer with the power to destroy the earth.

God help us.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Dead Blogs

A friend, after visiting here, comments to me: "Could you explain to me just what a blog is, and why you have one/what one does with it? Is it to meet women, or like-minded people, or express your ideas for some audience? How would I find your blog if I didn't know you? Do you visit (if that is the correct verb) other blogs? How do you find them?

Good questions. One answer that occurs to me is the same given to the question of why people climb mountains -- because they're there. In the early days of the web a friend enthusiastically told me that having a web page was like having your own radio station. Now, of course, it would be a TV station. (Reminds me of Phil Ochs' comment that not having a color TV today was like not visiting the theater during Shakespeare's day.)

But a blog is more. It's having your own magazine, your own book. It will replace the vanity presses people used to publish their work when rejection notices outnumbered offers. And it's also an online diary that everyone in the world (with a computer and an internet connection) can read. When I was in junior high school, a friend and I broke into a girl's house and stole her diary; it was a major scandal and I was grounded for weeks. Today she would have a page on MySpace for all to see.

After setting up this page, I surfed the Blogspot universe to see what others are doing. It's easy...just click on the "Next Blog" at the upper right. I was quickly struck by the fact that many of the existant blogs are dead. The owners seem to have abandoned their creations, with the last postings two or three years back. I was reminded of the phenomenon at gyms where membership spikes dramatically in January followed by New Year's resolutions to "get in shape." Of course participation drops off gradually as the workouts get more tedious. It's easy to set up a blog, but it can often be tedious to keep it going. Will I keep up?

The other impression I got from surfing blogs was of the incredible variety. There are Blogspot offerings in every language, with every imaginable theme. There also appear to be spam blogs, set up by bots with text that makes no sense. There are commercial blogs and confessional blogs, blogs with photographs and blogs with movie reviews. When the election season gets into high gear, I imagine there will be blogs for every candidate. Maybe even the write-ins now will stand a chance.

Am I doing this to meet girls? Not with the picture I posted, taken in Thailand after I shaved my head. A friend told me that I looked menacing. And I doubt that a 66-year-old with two failed marriages is much of a catch. Many bloggers apparently want to disguise who they are. I went incognito at various times in the past, but now it seems apparently to be real in this place, despite the virtual fog.

This blog, then, is a work in progress. I'm not sure if it will ever be read by anybody I do not know. And that doesn't seem to make any difference.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Go For Broke

This isn't an original idea, but I think President Bush and his cronies want to bankrupt America.

How else can you explain the rapid rise in the national debt and the increasing costs of war in Afghanistan and Iraq without any increase in taxes? The headline in the San Francisco Chronicle today says that war costs are up to $10 billion a month. Iraq is more expensive than Vietnam. Who is making a profit off this disaster? And Bush is raising the debt ceiling to nearly $9 trillion. I can't even conceive of that amount of money. The President's solution to the crisis: Go shopping.

The Republicans have long wanted to downsize government. Grover Norquist, Bush's buddy, famously claimed to want to shrink government to a size where it could easily be strangled to death in a bathtub. Bush's economic policies will surely destroy the goal of the Common Good in place since the Roosevelt and Johnson years. And what will replace it? The vicious hand of the global market. It will make the Depression look like a picnic.

In the meantime, we shop, running up personal debt on our credit cards while our government, practicing a fiscal policy that would demand therapy for an individual, sells our debit to the highest bidders, including China. One of these days a lender may decide our credit is no longer good and call in its chips. I've been to India and Guatemala; I know what third world countries look like. It's not nice.

When will the feeble Democrats in Congress stand up and challenge the Republicans who are destroying the government of this nation? Or have they already sold out to the devil (i.e., the lobbyists and the corporations)?

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Loving the Other

Like many of you, I've been trying to figure out why there is such an abyss in America between conservatives on the one side and liberals on the other, between Republicans and Democrats, and between those on the religious right and Christians who read in the Gospels a call for social justice. This is both a religious and a political divide, and it also touches on sex and the importance we give it in this culture.

One explanation I'm working on is that the difference is based on how we love the Other. Religious conservatives and Republicans (the party that has been hijacked by the right wing) are certainly able to love others. Didn't Jesus stress the importance of loving one's neighbor? But the other for them is limited to family, church and community. The other is not the radical Other that I believe Jesus had in mind when he told us to love our neighbor. Why else did Jesus associate with prostitutes and tax collectors and all kinds of outcasts from his society?
These were HIS neighbors. But the clearest notion of what Jesus meant by neighbor is in his parable of the Good Samaritan. The man lying in the ditch, beaten by robbers, was ignored by his good neighbors. Only the Samaritan was able to love beyond the social walls that divided 1st century Palestine. For this Samaritan, anyone in need was a neighbor. He (or she?) was able to love the Other. And this I suggest is what the Gospels call us to do: Love the Other (not just the nice people, but also the soldier, the sex offender, the abusing priest, even George Bush).

Those on the left, I humbly believe, are more apt to love the Other, the poor, the hungry, those afflicted with AIDs, the woman choosing an abortion, the money lender, the prostitute, and even George Bush. We're not perfect, but our faith (secular as well as religious) impells us toward tolerance and acceptance of the Other, no matter how radical. Can we love even the terrorist?

In one of the Gospel stories, Jesus is inside of a house with a crowd outside. He is told that his mother and his brothers and sisters are outside asking for him. He shocks his audience, particularly those of us who are especially fond of Mary, by telling them that his family includes whomever does the will of God. This tells me that we cannot be partial to our family, church and community, but must love the Other, wherever he or she may be found.

I'm not sure how persuasive this reasoning is and I doubt that it's a powerful argument, since it contains a host of assumptions that show how intolerant I am of the right. But it's a start.

For an excellent perspective on this question, read Bill McKibben's article on "The Christian Paradox" which was published in Harper's Magaziner last summer. You can find it on the Sojourner's web site.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Taking the Plunge

Here I go, diving into the deep end of the blogosphere.

Why, I wonder, would anyone want to read my ramblings about the three primary subjects of obsession for most people on the globe (here I am doing my best to deny cultural relativism)?

But this is the age of the blog and everyone's opinion is valued and visible. So why not add to the mix?

It's sunny for a change in Santa Cruz although more of the wet stuff is predicted. Where is Noah now that we really need him in California? Sun lifts my disposition. It's the day after Easter and the busyness of the past week. All I had to do today was help Molly with her income tax forms.

One of these days I'll come up with a more clever title for this blog. At the moment, "Religion, Sex and Politics" seems sufficient. It has a nice ring to it and it can serve as an umbrella for much of my mental world (although I often spend more time ruminating about movies and music). Here I'd like to introduce the blog by saying a bit about each in turn.

Should I have used the word Spirituality instead of Religion? That's a more acceptable term these days and covers a multitude of practices. But 22 years ago I decided to become a Catholic after devouring the writings of Thomas Merton and visiting the Trappist monastery, St. Joseph's Abbey, in Massachusetts. To the other Catholics I mingle with at Holy Cross Church, I no doubt seem suitably pious and devout. I participate in a variety of ministries. But what my fellow Catholics did not know was that at Easter vigil Saturday night, as I stood at the lectern to read a passage from Ezekiel, under my suit coat and shirt I wore a tee shirt emblazoned with the word "Heretic." My patron saint is Thomas who said "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief." Catholicism to me is a spiritual practice, much like meditation is for Buddhists (and I also count myself a member of a local Buddhist sangha). It's not a set of rules or answers. Religion for me is a language with which to describe the ineffable Mystery of ongoing creation. The Mystery is one, the languages are many.

Sex is a topic about which I know least, despite my years. I have two failed marriages and not a few unsuccessful relationships in my autobiography. Surely sexuality and spirituality should fit together, hand in glove, but I'm still trying to figure out how. Suggestions will be appreciated. In the meantime, I find myself growing more cranky and cantankerous each day, alone and happy with my own company.

Politics is easy: what's to like in the current situation? Those of us who marched three years ago in an attempt to stop the madness in the Middle East can feel self-righteous. But what good is that? Most of my friends feel like the character in "Network" who leaned out the window and screamed "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more." Venting feels good, but we're still fucked. Santa Cruz is a comfortable place for liberals and anarchists. We vigil and march and protest, and in recent words I've heard talks by Michael Lerner and Medea Benjamin. After Jesuit activist John Dear spoke last year, we started a Pax Christi group and it provides a monthly forum to study the issues, pray, and plan actions. The writings of Bill Moyers give me hope.

I'll certainly write more about movies. I see about a half dozen a week, at the three theaters within a few blocks from my home and on Netflix DVDs. Right now I can recommend "Tsotsi" and "Don't Bother Knocking" as worth seeing. And music is equally important. I set out last year to find every song I ever loved and my iPod now contains over 7,500 songs, the soundtrack of my life. In the 1970s, I spent five years as a PR man in the music industry. My two younger children, Molly and Nick, both have inherited my love of music and are exceptionally talented. Nick makes hip-hop beats and Molly sings, beautifully I might add.

And, finally, travel has been important since I first set out to see the world two years ago. I've been to India and Thailand twice each, and visited Vietnam, Cambodia and Sri Lanka last December. A year ago I spent a month at language school in Oaxaca and another couple of weeks traveling around Mexico. Last April I spent two weeks in Guatemala with Habitat for Humanity. In the summer I went to Europe for two months, visiting cathedrals in England and traveling to Barcelona and Rome, as well as Assisi, Siena, Florence and points north. I'll return to India next December with a group from Santa Cruz to stay at Shantivanam, the Catholic ashram in Tamil Nadu, as well as Ramana Maharshi's ashram. Before then, however, I hope to take a trip to South America and travel in the footsteps of Che Guevara.

Ok, this is a beginning. I'm not sure if anyone will read these words, but let's see what turns up.