Sunday, February 21, 2021

WERE NOT OUR HEARTS BURNING WITHIN US?

I have been working on a poetry chapbook for over two years that tells the story of my marriage, children, and widowhood, interwoven with excerpts from the Song of Songs (or Canticle of Canticles) in the Bible. My daughter Mary has been my chief critic and commentator and has been responsible for clearing out a lot of clutter (including the ziggurat on which the chapbook was originally constructed) which has made it a much better collection of poetry as a whole.  

She kept telling me that I needed a poem for the end that could serve as a bookend for the whole chapbook, that would be comparable to the opening poem, which I've been told is one of the best things I've ever written.  l didn't feel as if I could live up to the challenge. In addition, I told her that the opening sections of the chapbook, which dealt with my life before my husband got terminal cancer, were created on a solid bedrock of faith which all came crashing down when he died.  So I didn't think that a "matching" poem could or should be written because his death was like experiencing a hurricane, earthquake, and wildfire all at once. The landscape of my life will never be the same, and I can't write the same kind of poem. I sent her a couple of poems, but we both agreed that they weren't what she was looking for, and I didn't really think I wanted to try to write what I thought she wanted. 

She recommended a couple of Scripture passages that she thought might help, and I agreed to reflect on them, especially as Lent was approaching.  One of them was the Road to Emmaus, which is not a Lenten story, but post-Resurrection. It is also my favorite in all the New Testament; it is the reason why I always try to go to Mass on the Wednesday after Easter.  That is the Gospel and the First Reading is the story of the man who was lame from birth, whom Peter heals as he is heading into the Temple. The man follows him into the Temple and leaps and jumps about praising God. I always love the sheer joy and excitement of that man and imagine him causing quite a stir in the staid precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Beginning on Ash Wednesday, at the 9:00 morning Mass, I have been reflecting on the Road to Emmaus story.  That evening, I was describing this passage to a friend who isn't Christian and therefore was completely unfamiliar with it. I told him that it is the story of a pair of Jesus' disciples leaving Jerusalem after his death and heading to the town of Emmaus.  The priest who was the founder of World Wide Marriage Encounter told us at some point that he always imagined those two to be a married couple, that they were walking away from Jerusalem in disillusionment after their dreams that Jesus was their Messiah ended on the cross.  He had just been another false prophet and his death ended all their hopes.

As they were discussing their disillusionment with what had happened, a stranger drew up with them on the road and asked them what they were talking about.  One of them, irritated and angry, asked the newcomer if he was the only one who didn't know what had happened in Jerusalem three days ago. They had been thinking that he would be the one to redeem Israel, but instead, he was handed over to be crucified.  In addition, some of the women from their group had gone to the tomb and didn't find his body but had a vision of angels who reported that he was alive, but no one had seen him.

Then the stranger stunned them by saying, "Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!"  He then proceeded to explain to them everything in the scriptures that had referred to him. By the time he finished, it was nearly dark and time for the evening meal, so they invited him to eat with them. While he sat with them, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it and gave it to them, and they recognized him as he vanished. They looked at each other and said,  "Weren't our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?"

When I finished telling this story to my friend, he told me that he sensed my heart was truly open and imagined my husband's heart open as well even though I can no longer see him. His comment reminded me of so many times when my husband and I would hear a story of someone who received the gift of faith or reconciled with someone from whom they had been distanced and we would turn to each other, knowing our hearts were burning with joy and astonishment and grace. Thinking of those times, I realized that I am called to be open to letting those scriptures set my heart aflame again, just as they did when my beloved husband was alive.

Then I felt able to begin the final poem that my daughter has been looking for, and I believe this will be the culmination of the chapbook that I didn't think I could write.

Sunday, February 14, 2021

LASTING MAGIC

When I was pregnant with our third child, my mother-in-law told us that she thought we should take a second honeymoon and she would watch our two daughters for a week since it would be a long time before we got away by ourselves again. We quickly accepted her offer, and began to think about what we would do.  We lived in New Jersey and decided that Bermuda sounded like a great place to go, so we made our reservations and started planning our trip.  As we were dreaming about this wonderful opportunity, I noticed in our parish church bulletin, that there was going to be a Marriage Encounter Weekend just before we were leaving for Bermuda.  I pointed this out to my beloved husband, because when I had had pneumonia the winter before, he had promised me that we would go on a Marriage Encounter Weekend "if I got well."  Both of us had been resigned to the fact that it probably wouldn't be until our children were all grown that we could go.  However, I told him that I was sure his mother would be willing to take the girls for an extra weekend, and she was.  I was excited about it, and he was agreeable, though he thought that it wouldn't be worthwhile and had some concerns that they would make him quack like a duck or some other activity that would make him feel foolish. He told me to call the people in charge and find out if we should make our reservations for the flight to Bermuda for Sunday night or Monday morning. They told us to plan for Monday morning.  My mother-in-law picked up the girls on Friday, and we headed to the Howard Johnson's for the weekend.  

We already had a great relationship, but through the course of the weekend, we fell more profoundly in love, learning to listen with our hearts, share our deepest feelings, and encounter one another on a level we could never even have imagined.  By Sunday afternoon, we were flying high without benefit of an airplane! We came home, finished our packing, and headed to the airport Monday morning. As we came up the airstairs to the plane, the flight attendant looked at our faces and asked us if we were on our honeymoon! I came up a few more steps and he could see that I was quite pregnant as I assured him that it was a second honeymoon. 

That week in Bermuda was unforgettable. We stayed at a hotel that had 5 pools and we swam in every one of them. The water in the ocean was a clear turquoise blue and as warm as an embrace, and we floated in it together nearly every day. We went into the capital city on the one rainy day, drove mopeds from one end of the island to another (all 26 miles), took a bus tour, and discovered plants and flowers that I had never seen before--but many of which I have rediscovered since moving to California--and enjoyed continuing to learn more about each other and loving each other more every day.  It was the incredible beginning to a marriage that became more exceptional--even spectacular--all the time.

Sunday, February 7, 2021

THE BLUEBONNET TREK

I had planned to go to a college about 25 miles from Harvard, where my boyfriend was going. We lived in New Jersey and I thought everything was going along according to plan when my parents announced that we were moving to Texas and I had been offered a scholarship to the University of Dallas, so I would be going there.  I was not happy about the move and the change of college plans but I wasn't independently wealthy so I went along, with much grumbling and complaining.  My father had just resigned as Vice President of the New York Stock Exchange and was going to become President of a computer start-up in Austin. I think they promised that I could have a horse, but that could have been a figment of my robust imagination.  I mean, if you're going to live in Texas, you need a horse! I also learned that only if you were born in Texas you could belong to the native Texans' club. I was born in San Antonio, so I was ready to join.

When we moved to Austin, it was still a sleepy college town.  If you wanted to fly out of the Austin airport, you went out on the tarmac and climbed up the airstairs. It was long before South by Southwest. In those days you only went to Austin if you were going to college there or you had business there. Businessmen wore cowboy hats and boots and bolo ties. And Texans talked like Texans, not like the Columbia Broadcasting School. Nowadays the only place you can still get much of a genuine Texas accent is way out in East Texas or West Texas. There isn't much left of it in Dallas.

When I started at the University of Dallas, it still seemed like an adjunct of a Catholic school in Forth Worth, where half the students in my class seemed to have gone.  Coming from New Jersey, I felt like an outsider, though I quickly made friends with a girl from New York City. I was always amused by the way she said "you-all" with a very strong New York accent.

I entered as a Politics major, planning to run for President in a few years after graduation, and then discovered that the major was "Politics" not "Political Science," so we studied Aristotle not current affairs.  There was a core curriculum at a time when most colleges flailed about offering classes in niche subjects but disregarded the whole sweep of Western culture or any culture whatsoever. In my first year of Literary Tradition, I discovered T.S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," which at least at the time changed my whole approach to writing poetry; I included snippets in other languages and shifted to free verse and more contemporary language.  

My teaching assistant in my first Politics class joined the Cistercian monastery on campus and became my spiritual guide the year he was in the novitiate. That was my introduction to the Cistercian Abbey, Our Lady of Dallas, and I fell in love with it. I often went to Mass there on Sundays and stayed afterwards to visit with some of the monks and the Venezuelan couple who took care of the Abbey.  I never knew exactly what their official position was, but we would often sit together in the kitchen eating cheese and sausage on bread. I'd speak Spanish to them, English to the monks, and the Hungarian monks would occasionally indulge in a little Hungarian among themselves, although most of them spoke several languages, and my Greek teacher, Fr. Placid (whose name described him perfectly) had a working knowledge of about 17.

One of the monks, Fr. Gilbert, taught my Philosophy of Man class my freshman year, and I was almost instantly entranced by his holiness, his sense of humor, and his charming Hungarian accent. I proceeded to take every course he offered in Philosophy and Theology, working my way up to his graduate course in The Trinity.  That was heady stuff, and there was only one other person in the class who was not a seminarian. I did my final paper on a comparison of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, and Fr. Gilbert asked permission to use it in his own textbook on the Trinity.  When Wes and I were preparing to get married in Missouri, we asked Fr. Gilbert to be the main celebrant at our wedding, and we flew him up for the ceremony. When our son was born, we named him Gilbert, and Fr. Gilbert always sent him particular greetings when he wrote to us.

What I remember most vividly about the monastery was that in the spring, when I would walk over, the entire hill in front of the monastery would be covered with bluebonnets in bloom, and any Texan can tell you there are very few things more beautiful than that.  We had made it through the winter (one year we had an ice storm that shut down the entire city of Dallas), and spring was spread out before me in a stunning carpet of blue. When I walked there, I was enveloped in peace, knowing there were men who dedicated their entire lives to prayer, study, and teaching in an orderly schedule that followed the liturgical rhythms of the faith and the daily routine of the Liturgy of the Hours.  Although my husband went to Harvard, after he became Catholic, he was very influenced by the Cistercians, and for the last 20 years of his life, he also prayed the Liturgy of the Hours. As he was dying, Elizabeth, our oldest daughter, asked if I thought he would like it if she and her sister Mary read the prayers so he could hear them, and they did.  We could see his lips moving to the prayers that were said every day, so we knew that he was aware of their prayers. It was a holy death, connected as he was with the prayers of the Church being said around the world. And perhaps there was a path of bluebonnets leading him into heaven.

The memory of that abbey and its blue hill still fill me with color and light, harmony and grace.

LIVING WATER


In spring, the monastery rose

from a wildness of bluebonnets

coursing in torrents down the hill

giving limestone walls the softness

of a cloister in a watercolor stream.


I ran like a child and chose

the fathers I had dreamed

from mortal men in black and white

whose lives were waterfalls of light

pouring out yearned for fatherliness.


I thirsted and was filled

by the fountain of chant

welling up from Benedict,

cascading into unfathomable inheritance.