Thursday, December 14, 2017

Tactus Divinus and the Feast of the Incarnation

I was a math-phobic high school freshman.  My fourteen-year-old self enjoyed and excelled in social studies, language, and art classes, but was much more hesitant with to quadratic equations and trigonometry.  In the evenings, I settled into the living room couch with my heavy textbook, notebook, pencil and graphing calculator to tackle math homework. I sat next to my father, who offered me patient assistance with my polynomials.  Each evening, I grew more confident as I went along with the assignment, needing less and less help from him.
“You don’t really need my help,” Dad told me once as we sat side by side while I worked through a page of Algebra I problems.  “You just need my shoulder.”  
“Dad’s shoulder” became our shorthand for the reassurance of his physical presence beside me, calming my algebra anxieties.  He was right:  for the most part, I didn’t really need much assistance with the math itself, but his quiet accompaniment bolstered me, especially during my first weeks in high school.
 I remember the powerful presence of “Dad’s shoulder” in the preparation for Christmas, the coming of Emmanuel, God with us.   The formal title of the celebration we prepare for in Advent is “the Feast of the Incarnation.”  Incarnation means enfleshment.  It’s the same Latin root as the Spanish word for meat, carne.  At Christmas we celebrate God becoming human, flesh, meat.  God, in Jesus, has skin in the game.  Christians worship a God present not in abstract philosophical ideas or solely through sacred texts, but in human form. 
Gina and I learned at a lecture by Fr John Vidmar, OP about the particular significance the Incarnation has for us Dominicans.  St. Dominic preached against the Albigensian heresy’s strict dualist ideas.  For the Albigensians, matter was bad, spirit was good.  The body was bad, the soul was good. Earth was bad, heaven was good.  In contrast, St. Dominic preached the Gospel, emphasizing the goodness of creation.  It is said that Dominic walked barefoot and singing – I like to imagine him glorying in the beautiful French countryside, the pleasurable exertion of his muscles as he traversed the Piedmont, the simplicity of a hearty meal after a day of walking and preaching.  In contrast to the Albigensian heresy which denied the body, Dominicans have inherited a tradition which appreciates it and affirms the Incarnation.  The body is not an impediment to encountering God, but rather a gift which mediates our encounter with God. 
These Advent musings on the Dominican appreciation of Incarnation took on another dimension after hearing my co-novice Gina, wonder out loud about using touch in prayer. She coined the term “tactus divinus” – holy touch.  In one of our classes, we’d studied lectio divina (literally “holy reading”)– meditatively praying with Scripture.  I had facilitated a reflection day which included prayer prompts on visio divina – (literally “holy seeing”).  So, Gina said, why not tactus divinus?  
Jeannine Pitas prays with a mosaic of Our Lady of Perpetual Help (photo: Rhonda Miska).

Both Gina and I enjoy spending reflection day time at the Basilica Cathedral, which is just a short walk from the CDN and is filled with stunning religious art which inspired Gina’s reflection on tactus divinus.  The first time I attended Mass there, I was deeply moved to see a woman praying with great reverence before a mosaic image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.   Her arm outstretched, she had her hand flat across the Mary’s heart.  It was as if she connected her own unspoken intentions to Jesus and Mary in that image, transmitted not through words but through touch.
That same day at the basilica, I walked past a large bronze statue of the Pieta – Mary holding the crucified body of her Son.  Another woman had her hand in Mary’s hand and she stood, head bowed, in silent fervent prayer.  It was a moment of great reverence and intimacy. The woman united her grief with Mary’s grief.  
"Pieta" at the Cathedral Basilica in St Louis (photo: Rhonda Miska)

After she left, I stood where she stood, and placed my hand in Mary’s hand – still warm from the woman’s touch.  I prayed for the mother of Heather Heyer, who had recently been killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, and for all mothers grieving children lost to violence.  Since that day, I realized there are several places on the statue where the metal has been rendered shiny by touch: not just Mary’s hand, but the wounds on Christ’s side, hand and foot.  The Basilica Pieta statue has been a place of tactus divinus prayer not just for me and the woman I witnessed, but for many, it seems.  
"Pieta" detail (photo: Rhonda Miska)

No image, mosaic, icon, or statue has power in and of itself, of course.  As incarnational people, though, tactus divinus connects with our transcendent God through our senses, not just through words and ideas. Visual art that we can engage with our own bodies can draw us in to prayer not just with our intellect and heart, but with our flesh.  Like my father’s shoulder which quelled my algebra anxieties, tactus divinus gives a reassuring felt sense of God with us.   And tactus divinus connects us viscerally to the astonishingly good news of Christmas: God is present to us in the Incarnation of Jesus, and present to us in the goodness of our own bodies, created in God’s image. 
From all of us at the CDN, we wish you a joyful celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

As the semester draws to a close, we are busily working on final assignments.

Here is the final preaching that I wrote for my Foundations of Preaching course this semester. The scripture passage is the resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene: John 20:11-18. The focus of this preaching is Jesus instruction to stop holding on, which is a universal directive. NB: My sisters at home are the imagined recipients of this email, but I emphasize that I do not see them as needing this reminder any more than the rest of us need it. Jesus speaks his message all of us!

An email to the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, NJ

Dear Sisters,

I hope you’re all doing well. I could never thank you enough for the support you’ve shown me during
my first few months here in St Louis. Your cards, emails, gifts and, of course, your prayers, have meant the world to me. Thank you!

As you know, I am taking a class on preaching. This class has me thinking a lot about Mary Magdalene. She is, after all, a patron of preachers. So she’s pretty important for us in the Order of Preachers. One thing we’ve discussed a lot in my preaching course is that your preaching needs to have a message. So, what is the message Mary preaches? Her message comes right from Jesus, and of course, the fact that he’s risen is at the heart of it all. But I’ve been thinking about something else. For Mary to preach the resurrection, she first needs to follow the instructions Jesus gives her, and those instructions are, in themselves, a message. The first thing Jesus says to Mary once she recognizes him is “Stop holding on.” That’s the first thing! There’s no “Nice to see you, too”; there’s no “See, I told you I’d rise again!” He just gets right to it: “Stop holding on!” So this instruction must be pretty urgent. And it’s an instruction for all of us, not just for Mary. Not easy! We human beings like to hold on! It’s in our nature. Who can blame Mary for wanting to cling to the Risen Lord that she thought she would never see again? How joyous it must have been, just to lay eyes on him again, much less to touch him. Of course she wanted to hold on! I can tell you, as I spend this year almost a thousand miles away from home, there sure are things that I would like to hold on to, also.

Before I came to St. Louis, I received this statue
of a grieving Mary Magdalene as a gift from my
candidate director.

One: the beach. There is no beach in St. Louis! (And thank you so much for the photos you sent of yourselves having a great time at the beach last summer, while I was here in the hot city, pulling weeds. I wasn’t jealous at all!) I tell you, if I were in New Jersey now, even though the summer crowds are long gone, I would still be walking on the boardwalk, getting my hair blown by the wind, and staring at the ocean. The reason I love the beach is because being near the ocean does so much to deepen my relationship with God. All I need to do is look at the water, and feel that wind, and I know joy and hope, and I know that God is real. I could hold on to my beach time with all my might.

So, the ocean is one thing I need to stop holding on to. What else? My three nephews, ages 5 years, 3 years, and 10 months. You remember, at my reception ceremony in August, you all fell in love with these little guys. When one of them laughs, or when that 5-year-old godson of mine coos at the baby--again--I know joy and hope, and I know that God is real. I could hold on to my time with those kids with all my might.

What about you? Are there places or people or situations that you’re still trying to hold on to? A place where you once lived or ministered? A beloved godchild who’s all grown up and moved away? A loved one who’s gone on to Paradise? Maybe a situation that has to change, for everyone’s good, but you just don’t want to give in to that change? There is so much that we’d like to hold on to, with all our might.

There’s good news, though, thankfully!

The good news is that when Jesus tells Mary to stop holding on to him, he makes an unspoken promise. This promise is that if Mary does let go, in the future there will be new gifts that God will place into her empty hands. I can’t honestly tell you that I’ve fully let go of my own stuff, but as I have slowly opened my hands, I’ve found growing friendships, and I’ve even found some great views of the water, especially the Mississippi River and the fountain pool in Forest Park! And I have found joy and hope again, and I have known again that God exists.

It hasn’t happened overnight. Unfortunately, it never does. God doesn’t fill the holes in our hearts too quickly. So, as you work on letting go of whatever you’re holding on to, I pray that you’ll hang in there. Talk to God. Tell God it’s hard. Yell at God, if you want. God can take it. And God will be there for you. The message Jesus gives Mary for his friends is  “I am going to my God and your God. Jesus’ God is our God too. Isn’t that amazing? The God that loves Jesus so deeply, loves us in the same way. You sisters taught me this. Thank you for that. And so, I remind you, if this God calls us to stop holding on, it must be worth it. 

Sending much love to all of you,


Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Embracing community and conversion at “the Rock”

“Welcome to the Rock Church – where our celebration is long and loud!”  An usher greeted me with these words, a bright smile, and a hug the first time I attended Sunday Mass at St Alphonsus Liguori “Rock” Church in St Louis.  I had heard wonderful things about the Rock Church from past Dominican novices who made it their parish home during their canonical years.  My mind was made up to join the Rock after my first experience of vibrant worship and welcoming community there. 
                Mass at the Rock is, indeed, “long and loud” and is celebrated in the African American tradition. A gospel choir leading the singing of hymns and spirituals, the procession at the beginning of Mass led by a woman dressed in kente cloth bearing a cowrie shell-adorned bowl of incense, the use of ‘call and response’ with the congregation during the homily, African drumming, and the joyful communal shout of “harambee” to celebrate good news or special events are all practices that reflect the Rock’s enculturated worship. 
                The physical worship space reflects this commitment, too.  A side altar bears the image of Afro-Peruvian St Martin de Porres, and there is another corner of the church that honors significant African American Catholics like Thea Bowman, FSPA.  And then there are the images of Jesus.  In the small chapel where daily Mass is celebrated, an image of Jesus Christ Liberator hangs on the wall.  The paper worship aide I was handed by the usher included an image of black Jesus alongside the song lyrics.  
"Jesus Christ Liberator" icon by Robert Lentz, OFM

The Jesus of Vacation Bible School flannel-boards certainly looked more like my European-American self than like a Middle-eastern Semite.  And despite the ministerial and theological education I’ve received since those Vacation Bible School days, those images are still operative for me and I know I am called to deeper conversion.  This is in part why I chosen a faith community where my assumptions will be interrupted, where I am exposed to new images of Jesus and the saints, and where the style of worship is so different from my childhood church experiences.  As a novice with a congregation committed to becoming anti-racist, I share in the Sinsinawa Dominican challenge to address the structural evil of racism at every level, including within myself.  Aware of my own complicity and white privilege, accepting the invitation to join a faith community where I am surrounded by so many African-American brothers and sisters seems like one place to start. 
The importance of such a conversion is not abstract or theoretical, but feels deeply urgent and immediate.  The day I moved to St Louis as a newly-minted canonical novice in August, my adult hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia was filled with tiki-torch-bearing white supremacists repeating racist and anti-Semitic chants.  A state of emergency was declared, and the violence that ensued during and after the “Unite the Right” rally there led to one death and dozens of injuries.  I watched with disbelief and deep sadness as my Facebook feed filled with posts of friends who were counter-protesting.  As I prayed for and reached out to loved ones in Charlottesville during my first days at the CDN, questions of how to live out a commitment to racial justice as a truth-seeking, justice-loving, active-contemplative Dominican-sister-in-training became personal and pressing.  
 Moreover, three years after the popular uprising for racial justice in nearby Ferguson, MO, and six weeks after the acquittal of Jason Stockley, it is impossible to deny the wounds of racial injustice in greater St Louis.  One Friday night as I was praying compline here at the novitiate house in the Central West End, there were protestors passing by outside, bearing handmade signs proclaiming, “no justice, no peace” and “black lives matter.”  Dominican Praise book in hand, before the Blessed Sacrament, the line between the street and the sanctuary dissolved as their indignant calls for justice blended with my own voice chanting psalms of lament. 
Those questions continue to feel important as I move through my canonical year – “apart” from the world with the novitiate’s emphasis on prayer and yet deeply connected to all – especially through ministry.  Once a week, I minister at Marian Middle School, where the majority of the students are African American.  A few weeks ago the school social worker came in to give the standard “just say no to drugs” presentation.  During the classroom discussion after she spoke, one sixth grader piped up: “People think that we are more likely to use drugs just cause of our race.”  It is sad and striking that my eleven-year-old students are already aware of and able to articulate the reality of racial profiling – a reality I was completely clueless of as a white eleven-year-old.  
Another Marian Middle School ministry experience highlighted again the significance of reading and responding to “the signs of the times” in terms of racial justice and images of God.  Recently, I taught the fifth and sixth grade classes about St Mary Magdalen.  My PowerPoint slide show included several images, including an image of an African Jesus and Mary Magdalen.  One of my more outspoken sixth graders looked at the image on the screen, nodded and said emphatically, “Mm hmm!  Thank you, Sister!”         
source: Vie de Jesus Mafa
Reflecting on these encounters with my students leads me to a greater desire for solidarity with my African-American brothers and sisters and greater awareness of the need to repent of our nation’s “original sin” of racism. The Sunday after the Stockley verdict came down, our pastor Fr Rick opened space after the homily for parishioners to share what was in our hearts.  One Rock parishioner stood and spoke firmly:  “We are here.  We are here.  This is our home.  We are not leaving.  And we know God is with us.”  Her words were met with nods, murmurs of assent and a few shouts of “Amen!” 
                Her message was a powerful preaching to me since I, as a white person, have never felt the need to assert that my life matters, that I have a right to exist as an equal member of civil society, and that God stands by me in that struggle.  Her bold assertion of identity – which was enthusiastically affirmed and echoed around the sanctuary – has remained with me in the weeks since.
Yet, of course, worship is not only about intellect, but about our whole being.  Church participation is not a cultural or sociological exercise, but an encounter with the Living God.  Ultimately, our faith congregation should draw us closer to Christ, our Source and All in All.  We go to church to find and be found by God, together in the sacraments, the gathered assembly, the shared experience of prayer.  We go to church to celebrate the mystery of faith: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
And so I worship at the Rock because I experience an incarnated sense of the Resurrection there.  I hear echoes of Resurrection in the worship that has gone on for 150 years, in the face of systemic injustice.  I catch glimpses of Resurrection in that community which has gathered faithfully to pray, to sing, to claim victory in Jesus and their collective identity as God’s beloved.  They have gathered to proclaim, “Jesus is King!”, rejoicing in an authority that is infinitely higher and truer than the forces of empire.  They have gathered to offer a beacon of light to the neighborhood and the city.  This joyful lived witness, this articulation hope feels like glorious insurgency, an eschatological proclamation, gospel resistance.  This is Resurrection in real time. 
I find myself humming or singing, “Glory, hallelujah, Jesus lifted me!” – a common closing song at Mass at the Rock – often now.   I am grateful to be internalizing this song of praise which feels like it encapsulates the joyful Easter spirituality of my new parish home. I trust my participation in this community is part of a deepening conversion in Christ to a richer vision of Beloved Community, one where no one is excluded and each member of the human family is cherished.  
Sanctuary at the Rock Church (photo: Rhonda Miska)