A Summer’s Tale

Spring has turned to steamy summer outside the parish hall of Blessed Redeemer Church in suburban Chicago. It’s Mayday, 2100. Father Carlos is cleaning up before his new assistant pastor comes to move into the office they’ll share. The white neck-border of his blue sleeveless scoop-neck shirt represents a clerical collar. He’s comfortable in matching blue shorts and cork sandals, with the temp. at 730 and mildly stirring air from his solar-powered fan.

He glances out at his garden strip, at the peony bushes with peach-colored blossoms–a long-blooming varietal for these warm springtimes. An air-lifted, magnetized tram whiffs by, emitting high pinging tones of warning as it approaches the stop near the church. Carlos sees several people waiting, some dressed in pale greens and yellows for the season. The dwarf plum trees are also still flowering, in their fenced and watered sidewalk tree circles.

The peonies remind him of one of his favorite parishioners, a nurseryman who’s an associate or oblate of the Benedictines, now away at the monastery. He enjoys some weeks each year as part of the order. Carlos flips on the depth-vision above and behind his desk. A three-dimensional image appears in mid-air, projected from the dv’s back and side panels. He taps on an ecclesiastical channel. There’s just a show now about a monastery–a segment on some music being composed there. The monks are instrument makers. He half listens while shuffling piles on his desk.

Mellow wind instruments are playing in fast soft counterpoint with mouth harps and two-stringed, bowed Chinese instruments, that bend to produce different string tensions for the notes. Male voices chant a figured-bass line in Latin. The monastery was built a few decades ago in an alkali high desert region of Oregon, with aluminum-soil plateaus. Out at the edge of its property is an ancient lava bed of twisted, porous black rock. Solitude can still be found there.

The monks cultivate genetically engineered plants, including eerily large cactuses, and groves of scrub pines from which they market the pinenuts. There’s also a desert-evergreen groundcover with tough needles, gray-greening part of the monastery grounds. The camera pans to a couple of strawberry cactuses in bloom with huge pink flowers. The buildings are set into the base of a pink cliff, where cool chambers partly underground were blasted out, for a kitchen, chapel, and instrument storage.

The chant is celebrating the last treaty, thirty years ago today, to end nuclear testing in Africa. It alternates praises of the negotiators with prayers of lament for a different region. In India, millions had died and part of the sub-continent was left uninhabitable, except by a few mutated insects and desert plants, when a “limited deployment” bomb was detonated there sixty years ago.

Since then there’s been no nuclear war. Carlos thinks it’s because the many countries with the weapons always managed to notice that using them would ruin and unpeople their own lands as well as the enemy’s, for unknown generations to come.

Monasticism for Everyone

Actually, quite a few lay people, like his friend, are into “Monasticism for Everyone” these days. They like the retreats of light diet, contemplative prayer, liturgy, celibacy, and work with the monastics—their life gets a rhythm of action and contemplation. While the nurseryman is back home, he and his prayer group stay in touch with the full time monastics through e-notes and contributions. The show ends by noting that these connections were popularized by an old book called The Cloister Walk, by Kathleen Norris.

The phone rings, from its holder clipped on the desk Its mounting has an image of St. Francis in a border of bluebirds and pointy-snouted pigs. The new assistant pastor is telling of a glitch in plans. “Don’t worry, I’ll get there today, it’s just going to take a few more hours than I figured. I was slow rolling out this morning, after the party last night at St. Nguyen’s. I did it though! I renewed my vows for another holy septad.”

“Was it a question?” Carlos asks. Seven years seems like a long time, even though some people renew in the priesthood for twelve at a time, the holy docad.

“Not really,” comes the answer. “Anyway, when I was on my way to the station, the ozalert sounded, and I had to punch open my sun poncho and shuffle along and peer under that thing, so I missed the airbus. But I’ll be along, don’t worry.”

“God bless,” he says, “see ya soon.” He clicks off the phone.

These ozone alerts still happen way too much, he thinks, even though the layer has been gradually recovering the last few decades. In the 2030s there was coastal flooding on all continents, so the insurance companies worldwide quit covering coastal property. Then governments finally got serious about pollution, slowing down both global warming and destruction of the layer. They’re still constantly renegotiating the treaties, though, at the U.N. He remembers coverage of the hearings last year.

He goes back to half watching the dv, with also half an eye on the stuff he’s sorting—tossing some items, putting others into categories.

The Ecclesia network starts a show on an order of nuns in Vietnam called the Sisters of Flowering Sorrow. They were founded in mid-century after that horrible virus epidemic, which struck mainly young people. They’re affiliated with the Mother House of St. Theresa of Calcutta. Their call is greening the memory of the dead.

The narrator recalls that it was a mutant flu, killing hundreds of millions, worst in the dense cities of Asia, though it spread to all parts of the world. It had come from reassortment of genetic materials in a strain of Influenza A, in the same host person with a bird flu virus, leading to antigenic drift in the viral material. It caused massive capillary leakage, and destroyed victims’ lungs. Despite the most rigorous quarantining of patients it swept on, until through further mutation it wore itself away. Like the pandemic virus of 1918 that killed over 30 million people, it didn’t trigger white blood cells to produce an antibody. It was genetically too unprecedented for that. For a year and half researchers world-wide worked frantically, sharing data, till someone had a vaccine–engineered from chimp cells, triggering an antibody.

The Flower sisters collect writings and artifacts of those who died, and include them in their Sunday masses. While most of the victims were Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist, the sisters have no trouble relating many of their sayings to the mass. On Easter Day this year, the people entering their church each got a hat from the collection of artifacts to wear for the service. The celebrants and servers used pieces from the collection. A blue-green ceramic vessel for the chalice, and for the altar, a tablecloth from someone’s house, white with embroidered green and gold leaf patterns. In the praises at the consecration of the gifts, the sisters included a poem by a young woman from Amritsar, about a great tree and its holding of the life of her dead lover. They have so many things in their collection that they’ve built a special hall of artifacts beside their chapter house, for visitors. There’s no admission price. Instead visitors each get a ticket with a name of someone and where the person lived. They’re asked to pronounce it a few times while looking at the artifacts. To support the order, the nuns sell reproductions and editions of the things in their collection, in several languages.

Carlos makes a note on his mini-computer hooked onto the left of his desk, and punches it into a file folder called ‘homilystuff’—these Flowers would be good to mention, on how we need to celebrate people and blessings that were ripped away from our lives and lost. Not just commemorate but celebrate them.

The phone rings again. It’s a nurse in the elder hospice three blocks away. One of his parishioners is in her last moments, it seems. He grabs his duffel bag, ready packed with all the sacrament stuff—the salver, a few hosts blessed on Sunday, oil for the Anointing of the Sick. Somehow it’s easier to be strong for this lady after hearing of the Flowers and the flu victims. At least she had a long life. He pops a cool-it disc on his tongue, tucks on his wide-brim straw sunhat, and heads out into the heat.

“At least I only have to go three blocks,” he thinks, “it’s good that the priests are organized now by these elder-precincts for the hospices. I don’t have to hustle all around the city.” It’s 1020 outside.

Worldwide, life expectancy is now 74—in the U.S. and Europe 82. The scientists say it’d be a few years more if the ozone layer were fully recovered, so people didn’t get radiation damage. As he walks, he’s thinking of how long people live. STDs are treatable or preventable, though occasionally new ones crop up, like the old AIDs that lasted so many decades. And most countries have learned pretty good conflict resolution. There are non-governmental organizations, regional military-ecological alliances, and national governments almost totally focused on environmental law enforcement. They all make kind of a counterweight to the multi-national corporations. Although the corporations have defensive paramilitaries at their large production sites, plus computer-spy and security staffs, they push their case mainly with internet and televideo campaigns. Luckily population growth plateaued in 2060, When humanity had doubled again over what it was forty years earlier. It’s now slightly declining. People are glad of that worldwide, although in most countries healthy people have to work till age 72 before getting retirement benefits. Most of the population is still over fifty—has been for years.

His brown arms and slender, almost hairless legs glisten in the heat. The mini-tatoo of the Virgin of Guadalupe on his left bicep, with its circling border of snow and roses, is almost as shiny in the hot sun as his gold cross earring dangling above it. He got the tatoo when he was sixteen, before he thought of being a priest.

Of course sadly, he muses, the end of population growth needed the ‘help’ of calamities: massive forest fires in south Asia causing soil loss and widespread crop failures; famines in Africa while the Sahara desert spread ever southward; and in the 2020s and 30s, vast epidemics. Besides the mutant flu, there was that tuberculosis, totally immune to antibiotics and killing millions. Finally everyone that had it was put in quarantine-imprisonment until they died. The other epidemic–like earlier Kreuzfeld-Jakob’s or ‘mad cow’ disease–was caused by a rogue prion protein in the brain, coming from organic matter in the water in Latin American slums. It reproduced by turning similar molecules into replicas of itself. It survived even boiling and was unaffected by the immune system or any kind of antibiotic. Its symptoms of encephalitis took years to appear, but then turned brain tissue spongy. It ended only when whole populations of many districts were dead.

Somehow, Carlos reflects, religions and faith survive–or restart–even after mass nightmares. In Jerusalem the holy sites, except the Wailing Wall, are administered now by a commission of Imams, Rabbis, and Christian clergy, while Israel has its main capital buildings in a suburb. Practicing Jews worldwide are of all racial backgrounds, since intermarriage is usual but a few offspring always keep the faith. Tibet, still economically poor, has become the spiritual center of a world Buddhism focused on meditation and non-violent activism for justice. It has incorporated some of the widely admired Hindu and Buddhist scriptures into a canon of writings, studied as a religious poetics, in Sanskrit, Pali, Hindi, and English.

Arriving at the hospice door, Carlos rings and an elderly nun opens, in knee-length airy cotton skirt with a print of peace symbols, white scoop-neck sleeveless blouse, and white headband with gray curls tumbling over it onto her forehead. Her face is tanned from gardening, and her eyes kindly.

He spreads his sacramental cloth and gear on the bed by the dying lady’s feet, and asks if she’s awake enough to receive communion. Realizing that she isn’t, he begins the anointing prayers. She’s outlived her son, and the grandchildren are far away. The sister helps, saying the responses. Rosie had been a soil scientist. Had given him her slide collection from travels in Islamic countries—pictures of people and lands. He planned to scan them into his database of images for slide-homilies. Hadn’t got around to it yet. But he’d told her he would.

Islam is the biggest world religion now. Good thing it’s better for women these days, he reflects. Rosie’s pictures show schools for girls, and women’s centers for health care and socializing. In many countries the women wear semi-transparent veils–a great fashion article, much varied in size and color-patterns. In rural areas, Islamic men are very attached to their families, and to local trades and sports. Among the wealthy classes, polygamy and the loves of sister-wives are widespread. Sometimes he tries to explain different cultures to the kids in the parish youth group.

Just as he finishes and is holding Rosie’s hand, her eyes open briefly. She seems to see him, then closes them again. He makes the sign of the cross on her forehead with the scented chrism oil, then sits a minute or so, watching her facial muscles settle into limpness. He places her hands across her stomach. “Goodbye, Rosie,” he thinks. “If you were my mom, I couldn’t have prayed with you any better.” He gets up, puts on his sunhat, and slowly walks back to the parish hall.

As he reaches the peony strip, another tram pings its approach. He checks his watch and thinks, “let me hop this one up to St. Aloysius and catch the spiritgame at 1:00. There’s time enough to clean the office yet.”

A Game of Divine Love Tropes

As Carlos enters the lobby of the college commons room, the playbill says:

For Mayday and the Month of Our Blessed Mother:
A Game of Analogues, Today’s Round: Divine Love Tropes
Star Players! Local and Guest!

Carlos has heard that these wit games began years ago in computer ‘chatrooms’—exchanges of people logged on to their computers at the same time. Then someone got the idea it would be fun to have them in carne—in the flesh, after all. They’ve become quite a draw at Catholic universities. Today, faculty players from three different schools will play one round of this game. Carlos hasn’t watched ‘Analogues’ before. ‘Let’s see,’ he thinks, ‘something about comparisons, images, it must be.’ He takes a place at the left of the semi-round seating area.

The three players sit on low-backed stools, each at a small table colored its own pale shade of blue or green and holding a rose-bud in a vase, a water glass, a name placard, a digital note board with glowing pencil, and a hand-held computo-dictaphone, for notes whispered under the breath as the game proceeds. The players are at three different raised levels of the stage. A cameraman in the center aisle is videotaping.

A moderator, slightly off-center in the scene, sets forth the order of players’ turns. She wears a maroon herring-bone suit skirt, open-necked blouse, and maroon ribbon scarf. In a mellow alto voice she reads out instructions from her digital note screen. Her name placard says Beatrice Ludens.

In Analogues, she says, each player thinks up comparisons, to show something about faith or spirituality. The topic of today’s round: how are sexuality and spirituality related? St. Augustine’s experience, she explains, was one-for-one replacement. After various loves and sorrows, he felt he must leave sex behind, replace it completely with spiritual joys and activities. As a type of comparison, she notes, this is not a trope but a simile: x and y are sheerly parallel and don’t interact. That is, sex is to spirituality as scaffolding is to a house: to the extent that the house is finished, it falls away. But the object of the game is to recognize other known relationships. Each of the players’ turns, she says, must end with the formula, So I say, sexuality is to spirituality as X is to Y.

Diotima Bronte, upstage left, is wearing a long, star-embroidered skirt; her head of straight black hair is bowed low to her table, her legs stretching forward under it. Robbie Lou Gittens, in a dusty rose body suit with geometric print, is leaning her head lightly on her left hand, tapping her curly-haired forehead with a finger as if to tap up good thoughts. She is drawing some chart on her marker board with a pencil of light. Umberto Remark, the third player, sits up, unmoving, in his cuffed walking shorts. He’s wearing a rakish, side-tipped khaki beret. They smile tensely at each other as Beatrice presses the green-light button to begin.

Diotima. “A Mosaic law in the Bible says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox that treads out your grain.’ Sexuality, in both the body and the psyche, treads out the grain of the human spirit, whether in passion and love-making, or in all the energies of creative mind that eros animates. We respect its goodness, and don’t deny it the body’s own joy, some of the natural food it is processing. So I say, sexuality is to spirituality as a handsome draft animal is to the bounty it provides.”

The other two players smile broadly, as if they know just where to go with this opener. Umberto whispers something briskly into his dictaphone.

Robbie Lou. “My thought is similar, but with beautiful coins instead of livestock. In the gospels a woman searches her house for a lost coin, that stands for the kingdom of God. A novelist named Shelby Foote once said about his writing: ‘I thank God for every lustful thought I ever had. They’re the very coin of my enterprise.’ So sexuality is a kind of inner richness, not a primitive force, much less an evil one. It’s a realm of psychic funding and a medium of profit—because sexual pleasure is much enhanced by creativity and spirituality, as well as vice versa. The economy of these powers is a circulation through body and spirit, in fullness of life. I think sex relates to spirituality pretty much the same way as it does to creativity. So I say, sex is to spirituality as coinage is to wealth.”

Umberto has twenty seconds to respond. He takes a sip of water and reads something silently from his dictaphone screen.

Umberto. “These first two inventions are good, but they both make one term less valued than the other. I like more balanced analogues. I think spirituality and sex are the two poles of a pendulum swing, at the center of each person. Spirituality, at one end, is a projected, large-scale energy circuit, that creates meaning. The energies flow out into a vast unbounded sphere of matter-energy and social value. This is the place where meaning is created–the kind of meaning that makes people and things matter, so we care for them. It’s the place of human and extra-human love. In prayer and meditation we touch into that sphere as divine presence ‘with a face.’ We address God the beyond consciously. At the other pole of the pendulum swing, sexuality is the function within matter where this projected-semiotic makes its fruitful entries and returns. Meaning moves through constant interchange between matter and value. This interchange is like a pendulum swing.”

He drops one hand from the wrist and swings it slowly back and forth.

“At different times of life people’s actions focus nearer to the material, bodily end of the swing, or nearer the projected-semiotic or spiritual end. But there’s always a complete arc. God is fully God-present at both poles, just in different ways. At one end ‘God is with us’–Emmanuel–in the aggressional ways of love, passion, song, liturgy and ritual, childbirth, sweat, and building dreams into reality–“The builder does not build in vain if the Lord is his help.” At the other end of the pendulum swing, God is with us as the ‘uncreated Light,’ in passion-stilled adoration, by mystics or by anyone. So I say, sex and other passions are to quiet spirituality as one end of a pendulum swing is to the other.”

Beatrice presses her bell button, turning on a lavender light above her head and signaling the end of round one and a break of twenty-five seconds. Diotima crosses her legs and stares intently at Umberto, ignoring her dictaphone, thinking over his image.

Diotima. “The pendulum is good, but I like metaphors of living things rather than mechanical ones. So think of some hill country and a plain below—a watershed with its rivers. The water is shared by ranchers and farmers. The rancher = spirituality, the farmer = sexuality. As a Psalmist says: “The cattle on a thousand hills are thine.” The ranchers roam over the highland slopes and meadows. Their herds drink only a little of the water rushing by. The farmers below are more efficient with the water, and their irrigation generates humidity, so more water falls into the watershed than would without them. The fertility-farmers want dams and canals, they want water spread over crops for greening and fruition. The spirituality-ranchers want the water always tumbling down streambeds open to their access. With good arrangements, there’s water for both. So I say, sex is to spirituality as farmers are to ranchers.”

Robbie Lou. “That last one sounds backwards. Maybe the farmers are spirituality–a fostering, low-keyed spirituality of calm routines. They want the rivers all channeled slowly into the fields, where work and prayer and liturgy quietly produce spiritual crops. Paul said the “fruits of the spirit” should be cultivated in the psyche–love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, kindness, and self-control. Of course, now and then in the spirit-farmer’s life, a herd of shining white cattle or fleecy sheep might come pounding across the fields, knocking down the fences, having drunk lots of the water from the canals above. The shining herd may have to do some enriching of the fields, even at the cost of destroying some crops. Either way, in the long run the interaction is good. So I say: sex is to spirituality as ranchers are to farmers.”

Robbie Lou is noted for these reversals of her opponents’ inventions. Umberto has been drawing on his marker board in quick, upshooting lines while she spoke. Now it’s his turn.

Umberto. “The shining herd romping through fields reminds me of forest fires. People used to put them out immediately. But then we realized that they’re part of the cycle of life in a forest. They kill mold and other infestations, foster new seedlings, and allow small animals and brush to contribute their special nutrients to the forest soil. So I say, sex is to spirituality is as fire is to health.”

Beatrice’s bell and lavender light signal the end of round two. The third and final round will be sudden death, with no extended break until a player wins. Diotima takes two sips from her water glass. Beatrice Ludens makes some notes with her light pencil.

Diotima. “The monsoons of northern India show that idea also. They bring violent winds and floods, ruining food that’s not well stored, downing trees, killing unwary people and animals in the flood plains. Yet they’re the life of the region. They awaken dry rivers, fill desert lakes and water holes, and enable the wild white asses to mate and foal. An ancient Hindu poet said the monsoon is a divine army, with the lightning its banner, the thunder its drums. So I say: sex is to spirituality as the monsoon is to the rich life of India.”

Robbie Lou. “These metaphors of fire and storm for sex are misplaced. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came to the assembled people exactly in tongues of fire and rushing wind. So I say: spirituality is to sex as fire and wind are to the bodies of flesh they animate.”

Umberto. “These images of violent forces do express some elements of the connection, but as I said before, they unbalance the terms. A better trope of living things would see the sexual and the spiritual as a crop rotation. Always growing the same crop in the same field depletes the soil. Passionate, in-love sexuality could be the red beans, restoring nitrogen, where the fine soft-white wheat of nourishing spiritual crops can then be grown in alternate seasons. Or, passionate love might be the shining wheat, while spirituality is the restorative, high protein lentils. So I say: sex is to spirituality as crop 1 is to crop 2, and vice versa.”

Umberto smiles beneficently like an operatic tenor bowing after his favorite aria, and drops his head slightly. Diotima starts her next invention, not needing the twenty seconds.

Diotima. “Better yet, two kinds of plant can grow symbiotically–like the elm and the grape vine in ancient Italy, which was an emblem of marriage. Or nowadays, the stem from a strain of grapes with disease-resistant roots is the base of the grapevine. It gives and takes fluids from the shoots of delicious varietal grapes that are grafted onto it. Which is the spirituality, which the sexuality? I say: sex is to spirituality as the swelling root is to the succulent grape. And vice versa.”

Beatrice’s bell and golden light signal the end of the game. She rules that Diotima has won, because her last analogue, besides being vivid and brief, pulled together the best things from the other inventions. It offered a balance of the two terms, and the most interaction between them, which a trope by definition should have. The players and Beatrice all shake hands. Then a boy in an angel costume with wings passes a tray of wine glasses, and all four begin sipping and chatting.

‘Say what?!’ Father Carlos mumbles, as he gets up and moves out with the other spectators. The two guys in front of him are talking about monsoons and wild white asses. ‘I don’t remember that stuff from my Poetics of Spirituality class, Carlos thinks. Some of these characters are pretty far gone and wooly nowadays. In my time the subject matter was more rigorous. In our ’Poetics‘ class, Father Murphy was for legends of the saints of Ireland, and reciting the ‘Sophia’ chant from Wisdom.

Theology of Blessing

As Carlos catches the return tram, he’s still reminiscing about his seminary studies.

He learned about Theology of Blessing, about the incarnation of God as stirring word and breath of pregnant silence made flesh. Incarnation was seen as a relationship between our Blessed Mother and Jesus as the Christ. For every person, the joy of love has begun when the child is fed milk and cuddled, in a love between infant and mother (or main care-giver). So everyone experiences this at least from the child’s side, and many from the mothering side as well–a few men, and lots of women. Blessed Mary as Mother of God–signed as divine presence by her ‘immaculate’ conception–is the place of effluent dawn mystery of the incarnation, and Jesus the Christ is its noonday mystery: the two reaches of incarnation. So God took flesh of humankind in both a woman and a man–namely, in the love between them.

Carlos thinks of his church’s panels on either side behind the altar: on the one a pieta with Mary holding the adult body of Jesus on her lap; on the other, the Cana wedding feast with Jesus touching a large amphora, beside a Mary figure whose upturned palm points toward it. He is completing her invitation to change the flowing water of love to wine.

People don’t think this means that all women should be mystical mothers, and all men marvelous traveling rabbis. And they know that each person has masculine and feminine elements. But they see this story of the human psyche as modeling the ‘I’ to ‘you’ and ‘you’ to ‘me’ in each fully human relationship, where people take turns being initiator and responder, the holder and the held. He recalls how the ‘Gloria’ is said nowadays, in a direct address to God as the best “You” of all: “Glory to you in the highest, God, and peace to your people on earth,” ending with “. . . in the glory of God, Father and Mother. Amen.”

On marriage and sexuality, his seminary class took their first course with the med students at a nearby affiliated university. They learned how sexuality is experienced in different cultures. As a historical example, they studied views of the early Christian ‘fathers’ on the supposed inferior, oversexed nature of women, and on human sexuality as innately corrupt. They learned how these attitudes emerged from a combination of patriarchal Hebrew law and aristocratic Roman stoicism, in the middle of slippery, highly erotic Roman politics.

As the tram is half way back to Carlos’ stop, he hears its ozalert sound, and the glass panels along its side automatically convert to green, protecting the riders. He looks out to a street scene of green people, fumbling with belly pouches for their thin ozo ponchos. He pats his back midriff to make sure his is there, in case the alert is still on when he gets to his stop.

In ‘Marriage & Sex’ class the seminarians also studied primate sexuality, for an idea of what pre-human ancestors were like. He remembers the video on baboons–sometimes a dominant male keeps several females, and all the other adults in the troop are heterosexually inactive, but may engage in same-sex activity as part of bonding, emotional sustenance, and care of young. Or among the bonobo of Zaire (‘pigmy chimpanzees’), all individuals are bisexual, and orgasmic sex serves for daily greeting, bonding, and resolving of tensions. The bonobo never kill each other–they make love, not war. Out of such practices the seminarians learn, a recessive gene complex inclining individuals in some circumstances to homosexuality may have come into the human gene pool, as survival-adaptive.

In a second course on science and sexuality, Carlos recalls, they first studied Galileo, and how the Roman inquisition forced him, under threat of torture, to recant what he saw in his telescope, and his view that the earth moves around the sun. They learn how a few centuries later the Vatican, having done its own recanting about Galileo, was still trying to tell the human sciences what not to see, when scanning the inner and social worlds of humans. But now the church has learned to use its energies more profitably, in celebrating the wonders of God’s creation, as seen by science and in other ways.

The seminarians learn that, within the range of various same-sex loves, sometimes people who have suffered loss or anguish comfort each other, help each other survive and heal (men after battle, women after abuse by fathers or husbands, people recovering from trauma or mental breakdowns). Among the Lakota Sioux, an effeminate man might live at the village edge, and care for any returning brave that was wounded, ill, or severely fatigued. If the returnee wished, the ministrations could include love-making. The man at the village edge had a gift for his community–he was a specialist.

Counselors, psychiatrists, and spiritual companions, whether gay or straight, are likewise specialists, the students learn, but they try to practice, rather than “passionate counter-transference,” only the “dispassionate” variety–that love of 1st Corinthians 13 that is always patient and kind, never seeking its own consummation. Not without cost, and special maneuvers of their own psyches.

The tram windows have returned to normal as Carlos steps onto the platform at his stop, goes down the steps, and punches in his door code to the rectory. As he gets back to cleaning up, he’s happy that he’s not a full time counselor or priest-psychologist. He wouldn’t be cut out for that. Running a parish is messy, but he likes knocking around from one thing to another.

He taps on the dv and gets ready to shift the furniture a bit. A report is airing about an order of priests in Africa who feel called to celebrate animal life and work for preservation of species. So many thousands went extinct in the twenty-first century, especially in regions overgrazed by livestock. Sometimes these Earthsingers hold liturgies of sorrow for what was lost, with pictures of lands as they used to be, and prayers for their recovery. The monks work especially in grasslands and deserts where huge reclamation and planting projects are using desalinated sea water pumped inland. They’ve built small chapels in grass and tree covered bunker mounds. Outside their long windows, wildlife and flocks of birds can often be seen during mass. They keep fragrant herbal planters beneath the church windows, and wear lion and lamb designs on their liturgical stoles. They practice silent meditation, including the kind on the goodness and suffering of all sentient beings taught by Buddhist tradition. The pope recently visited and blessed some of their new facilities.

Nowadays the sacramental catholic churches–Roman, Orthodox, Anglican, and Coptic—as well as a few other Protestant churches that wanted to be together with them–are co-communing, even though each still has its own pope, metropolitan, archbishop, or governing council, and some variations in belief and practice. The Earthsingers get eco-visitors from many of these Christian groups, who take part in their liturgies.

The next show is about a Cistercian or Trappist monastery in the mountains of Tibet. It seems that sixty years ago, when the European Union brokered an agreement with China for an independent Tibet (though with China still allowed to have military bases there), the Tibetans were joyously grateful. So they allowed a religious foundation of Western monastics to be built, on a hill neighboring their own famous Drepung Loseling monastery, restored at that time as a holy center, after the Dalai Lama’s years in exile. This was in the time of the XVIth Dalai Lama.

Tibetan Trappists

The XIVth Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, had already established yearly joint meditation conferences with the Trappists, so they were the order who wanted an affiliation in Tibet. The charter defining their relationship says that the Buddhist and Christian monks will learn many things from each other. The camera zooms to this original document, showing the columns of text in French and Tibetan, one above the other on a scroll.

One thing the Christians have learned is playful, sacred hypnotic dancing, adapted to their own symbolism. A scene shows some monks in white robes, with crowns of flame images for Pentecost, dancing slowly before an open hearth with a blazing fire, to soft large drums stretched to variable pitches. The fire is fueled, the commentator notes, by de-scented waste from yaks and goats. Before it is a stone alter where the gifts wait, for celebration of mass.

One thing the Buddhists have learned is gardening in greenhouses of glass and plastic, sweeping up the south-facing slopes from their chill valleys, with seed varieties adapted to the short growing season. Some monks are shown in short yellow tunic-robes, on mini-combines, harvesting high-protein quinoa grain, and in another area, tomatoes and fava beans. Both monasteries have become known for their recipes with local goat cheeses, lamb, and smoked mountain quail. They also make and sell a variety of gongs and tocsins, which people around the world use to signal meditation times of day. Thus millions commune with the monks in the high Himalayas.

In the shared monastic library at Drepung Loseling, the show’s narrator says, there are books by and about the great Catholic spiritual writers of the previous century, Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. Some commentators speculate what they might have written late in life if they could have been ‘spelled’ by someone for a time, as monastics can be now. Instead, when in mid-life Merton became the lover of a woman he deeply respected and admired, he had no way to talk about it, and his great writing came to an end. The record of this came out twenty-five years after his death, as he had wished. On the dust jacket of a collection of his earlier writings, published late in his live, he says that peace is not to be sought at any price, that a Christian should seek peace with integrity. And he says the way to it may be roundabout. It may be part of prophetic change, of new dispensations in the loves of God and human beings. As for Nouwen, having beautifully reasoned away his longing for the love of another man, he died early of a heart attack.

The show ends with a shot of the two orders’ charter of affiliation, with lines translated as follows:

What if karma is more sublime than we supposed?
What if the supernatural is more natural than we thought?

‘Well, yeah,’ Carlos muses as he picks up his desk mat of walnut-stained pressed wood and dusts it with a moist cloth. ‘Those two things would match.’

Sister Lucy’s Bible Study

Carlos notices an old file drawer in the dead space between two corner cabinets he’s moved. Putting on a dust mask, he flips through the files. Most have old-fashioned Sunday School literature, with pictures of chubby white children being carried to a bearded Jesus with wavy brown hair. He sees a date scribbled on one pamphlet: Oct., 1999. At the back of the file is a print-out typescript. Its title page has curly borders of lilies, and columbines with trailing stamens–“Nice, these old-fashioned graphics they had,” he thinks. It says: SISTER LUCY’S BIBLE STUDY. Amused, he begins to read. He always did have a soft spot for antiquarian things. He sits down smiling and mutters, “Kind of old hat what she writes–yeah, someone would have put it that way back then.” He reads on.

“. . . . The Leviticus teachings on sexuality date from the Israelite settlement of Palestine (ca. 1400 B.C.E.). Between crop failures, war-raids, and epidemics, the tribe-clans required constant child-bearing by wives and slave-women for survival. The shortness of life meant that a husband and wife were probably together only a few years.

The principle was regulation of fluids to maximize lawful pregnancies. Landowning men wanted to ensure their sons’ paternity, for inheritance. After a nocturnal emission a man had to perform a cleansing ritual; he must not practice coitus interruptus (‘spill his seed on the ground’); he must not have sex with any woman but his own wives and maid-servants; and he must not have sex with a man (the previous “people of the land” had practiced that, and the Israelites were to set themselves apart from such “uncleanness”). For a woman, the laws were that she must not have sex with any man but her husband or master, must have sex with no man during her menstrual period (after which she must perform a cleansing ritual), and must cry for help if sexually attacked. If attacked in open country she was blameless; if in town and she did not cry for help, both parties would be executed. Male-initiated divorce was allowed, with a cast off woman returning to male relatives. That two women could do anything sexual was apparently not thought of by the priests; presumably, whatever they did would not be allowed to interfere with reproduction. Enforcement of the sexual code was extreme, though no more so than for other laws, as that rebellious adolescents would be stoned to death, with their parents looking on.”

Just then a water balloon hits Carlos’s window. He hops up and flips it open. Two of the parish fourteen-years-old are laughing and waggling their fingers at him, thumbs stuffed in their ears. They’re wearing face paint making them look like honey bees with compound eyes. He yells affectionately, “Get out ‘a here, you uglies.” They throw another ballon and take off, hopping the peonies. He catches it and sidearms it back, hitting one kid on the butt and getting a yelp and a laugh. He shuts the window and picks up Lucy’s lesson. “Let’s see, where was I?”

Jesus was addressing a far different, Greek-influenced society under Roman occupation. Though he spoke within rabbinic traditions of Mosaic law, he saw its divorce practice as unjust to women and too little in touch with people’s needs for love and inner righteousness. Moses permitted this law, he said, for your “hardness of heart.” So far as is recorded, Jesus did not teach a system to replace it. He did proclaim an ideal, in saying that a man’s desire for another man’s wife is an adultery “of the heart”: in other words, physical, emotional, and marital loves should coincide, in a whole person. This teaching about sex in Matthew and Mark is qualified both before and after it. As introduction to the ideak, Jesus says that those who teach this Law in full rigor will be greatest in the kingly reign of heaven, while those who loosen it will be least in the kingdom. That evening, when the disciples say that no one would marry if matrimony is so absolute as he seemed to say, he answers that just as some are born eunuchs and some are made so for the kingdom, this teaching is for those able to receive it.

Carlos takes off his dust mask, blows his nose, and yawns . . . Ah, that’s better. He thinks how Jesus must have been good at stepping through tricky issues with a lot of savy, and then people would take what he said and start simplifying it to suit their bias. Lucky that whoever wrote down the Q source of ‘sayings’ was into fine points. He skips down the page.

. . . St. Paul referred to changes in religious teaching, from age to age, as heralded by a groaning of creation, as it waits to see the glory of God’s children in a new dispensation. Paul experienced this himself in the emergence of new, cross-cultural teachings for his converts. He fused diverse elements into one movement that transcended the Jew-Greek and the master-slave divides—a shattering process of innovation. The male lawgivers writing Leviticus had addressed land-owning males. What other people should do, they dictated only indirectly. Paul tried to talk to everyone.

At the start of Romans, he describes homosexuality— condemned in Jewish teachings but approved and spiritualized in Greco-Roman culture–as God’s punishment for people’s original sin of idolatry: worshipping images of God rather than God, a category mistake of the psyche. Paul was finding a new common ground for Jew and Greek, master and slave, man and woman. He argued that for everyone alike, it was idolatry that had led to all forms of sin, and he ended Romans Chapter 1 with a dark profile of humankind as “steeped in rottenness”: full of greed, malice, envy, murder, wrangling, treachery, arrogance, and lack of pity and mercy.

This was a melt-down of his former Hebraic view of human nature as redeemable by Law, or to switch metaphors, a leveling of the ground for his cross-cultural move: Jews were guilty of idolatry in violating their Law’s teaching to love God above all and one’s neighbor as oneself (a task of self-imaging–rightly seeing oneself in the other); non-Jews were likewise guilty, without the Law, of the same misdirected self-love through wrongful self-imaging, but in their case he said, it showed itself in men desiring men, women desiring women. So God had punished humanity with confusion, Paul argued, “because they have worshipped the creature instead of the Creator.”

Thus Paul negotiated a new spiritual union, through a psychic bargain within the cultural conflicts of his time. It associated homosexuality with sin, as something the redeemed Christian would be freed from. Greek men, with their ideal of the beautiful body, shown in their glorious sculptures, balked at being circumcised. They didn’t want their genitals cut.
Jews, in a tradition that saw children rather than beauty as the highest sign of divine blessing, balked at the Greek philosophical idealizing of homosexuality. The compromise? Worship of the idealized body must cease; no active homosexuality allowed, and no circumcision required. This was a cultural negotiation like Paul’s advice not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to ‘idols’–those gods are only statues, he reasoned, so the meat has not really been harmed, but if eating it would confuse someone’s faith, avoid it.

Carlos looks at his wall clock, built into a figure of St. Antony with his arms extending into a circle of arrows around the rim of the clock, and flips over a few pages. He wants to see how the “Bible Study” ends and whether it’ll give a clue who Sister Lucy was. A feisty old bird, she seems. Now that he thinks of it, he remembers hearing a story from an old-timer in the parish about a Dominican sister working here who couldn’t get along with the priest. When the bishop came to celebrate a confirmation mass, her sixth graders hung a banner that said HOLY WOMEN RULE! Maybe that was this sister. He starts the conclusion.

. . . . Now, we need new entryways into God’s love, celebrated by Paul with soaring passion when he says that in Christ there is no condemnation, and nothing can separate us from the love of God. Now there is another groaning of creation, until a new Christian identity becomes thinkable for our life conditions, so different from those of ancient Rome and its provinces. Extended life poses challenges of periodic renewal and balance. How to maintain and sometimes remake the very self that must exist so that one can know committed love, and rich use of talents? Identity and selfhood are getting ever more complex in pluralistic societies, because people are constantly pressured to broaden their self-concept, to be tolerant and empathetic across racial and other divides, as our ancestors never were. This is a new task, inseparably interwoven with sexuality.

Of course no one can think that all erotic energy could go into lovemaking–we’ve become the species we are by directing most of it into family, culture, language, and art. But rules that forbid whole categories of people ever to know consummated sexuality are soul-killing, destructive of creativity, and harmful to physical health. And in a hyper-crowded world, people will have to find other forms of fulfillment than those standbys of ancient and modern times: lifelong childbearing, large-scale hobbies or property development, war-making, and rampant consumerism and waste. Rather, along with sexual love, we must learn the satisfactions of small spaces, even cyberspaces, through arts and sports, life-long education, gardening, liturgy and other celebration, group meditation and music, and shared nurture of the children of small families in well arranged living units.

Emily Bronte’s character Heathcliff in the novel Wuthering Heights is an instance of the basic problem in many cultures’ views of sex. A dark gypsy child brought home and raised by a country squire, he is possessive libido personified, a one-man wrecking crew out to ‘get’ his desired love object Catherine at any cost–even after Catherine is in her grave! Christians must have a better concept of sexuality. Billing it as the gypsy Other, the alien not-me that invades and makes me “selfish”–this sickly view of sexuality makes fullness of life impossible.

“Heathcliff!” Carlos thinks, “What the heck?!” Did people really feel that way about sex back then? He can’t quite get the gist of it. Oh well. He reads on.

Besides wealthy countries with their ideals of personal fulfillment, the Vatican must currently attend to cultures where these values are secondary for most Catholics, who would not be ready for a change in the ideals of celibate priesthood and laic chastity, no matter how few people manage to follow them. Abstinence can be a potent symbol of unviolated spirit, of exploited people’s struggle for self-determination. Such a figure is the youngest saint, St. Maria Goretti. She died just before age twelve, of stabbing by a would-be lover. What she knew of hope was to keep up with the housework and care of young siblings, to bring food to the table while her widowed mother worked in the fields. She tried to be whole and concentrated. The right arm that fended off her attacker is a relic beneath the statue of the blessed Virgin in the parish church of Nettuno. She is the patroness of those who hold up a defensive arm against a life that allows them no childhood. When a people’s life is poor and short because of economic rape, then idealized abstinence can be a glowing source of spirituality.

But now on planet earth, whether or not global corporatism can ever be managed so as to eliminate poverty, the need of utmost urgency is new life ways everywhere: small familes, and sustainable forms of personal fulfillment. The earth can no longer survive the ways of all other ages. Ethnic war, famine, epidemic, and ecological collapse are likely, on a scale far beyond even the twentieth century’s nightmares, if this issue of sexuality and life fulfillment is not taken seriously in the next century, by religious people as well as others. Scientists are pursuing the technologies for food, health, and ecology for a vastly enlarged population. The human sciences and religious leaders must face the equally crucial challenge of the dancing human libido on a finite planet.

Carlos stares at Sister Lucy’s last page and unfocuses his eyes. His stomach growls. It’s been a few hours since lunch. He pulls a waxed box of “fruitsip” from the mini-fridge under his desk, and takes a few swallows–ah, mango coconut this time. He likes to pull one without looking at the flavor, and be surprised.

For supper at the rectory he’s planning broiled whitefish filets with garlic, and sliced jicama topped with lime juice, followed by a mixed grain salad—quinoa and cuscus, with tomatoes, olives, challots, sunflower seeds, celantro, and pickled mild chiles. He shopped the ingredients at the district market this morning. Sister Mary Hildegard will clean up since it’s his turn for cooking. He muses on the Bible Study’s thoughts about St. Paul and its warnings about the twenty-first century. He wonders if Sister Lucy lived to see some of the events. He thinks about some alarming issues of his own time.

‘Highlife,’ a recreational drug that is legal and not physically addictive, is so popular worldwide that people of all ages are sitting zombied in their apartments, alone or in casual groups. They don’t learn or grow, or forge meaningful ties with anyone, so happily calm they are and pacified. Much more urgently, the mechanism of aging in human cells has been described, and a genetic treatment can now regenerate people’s bodies, expanding their lifetime to 150 years in fairly good health. Many of the wealthiest people have already undergone it. Health insurance companies refuse to fund it, but clamor for it is rising worldwide, and no one can imagine how such a population of retirees could be sustained–and who can or should support them? The U.N. has been holding special sessions on this for months, with no progress. “A good thing we’ve at least got those old problems somewhat in hand,” he mumbles, tossing Sister Lucy’s file in the recycle bin.

Marriage for a Lifetime

He hears footsteps and two laughing voices in the hall, approaching his door. Yikes! He forgot he had that appointment now with Andres and Corazon, for another session of marriage preparation. Good thing he got back from the spiritgame in time. They’re too young for marriage really, only 23 and 25. But he’s working through the materials with them that he uses—mainly this book Marriage for a Lifetime. It’s time to show them the video that goes with it, and get them to try some of the role playing illustrated by actors there. He pulls down the book and videocase. They covered chapters 1 and 2 in the last two sessions.

Chapter 1 is background about evolution and socialization. Average humans, until very recent centuries, had life spans of probably forty years or less. So the emotive pattern of mating bred in by natural selection was to seek a new spouse every five to seven years, since the previous one might well have died. Now, with a doubled life span of eighty, societies in general have diverse marital practices. For one thing, most people wait till they’re over thirty to marry, as Aristotle recommended for men. Some couples, after their first married years, have ‘open’ marriage–affairs for both partners being tolerated, while they still enjoy each other’s company and don’t want to change their basic living arrangements. Others divorce and remarry several times, but this brings severe financial and identity losses, even though divorce in most countries is legally unhindered.

As Chapter 2 explains, in the Sacramental churches people tend to think that divorce, while permissible, is often a poor answer to problems since the same ones area apt to recur in another marriage. They well see the challenges of marriage for a species not suited to monogamy. But they think that a lifelong friendship and kindly love between two people who live as partners in faith and lovers is a strong symbol of the love of God for humankind. Each of the spouses is an embodiment of Christ for the other, the two interweaving the threads of their lives through days and nights, through support in good or hard times, sexual pleasure as best they can find it over long years, joint commitments and love of shared friends, making things together that never were before, and joy in their children and grandchildren, or other ways of creating together in the life-world of earth.

Corazon and Andres have been taking care of her sister’s baby for two nights, as their assignment from the last session. They yawn and hold hands while the three of them talk.

Chapter 3, “What the Elders Know,” covers the part of marriage preparation where couples learn what retired people see, looking back over their span of life. How it has consisted of different times, in terms of sex and vitality: maybe a youthful time of idealism when physical sex seemed of  little importance (or a youthful time just the opposite); maybe a time of great love for one person; a time when engaged work relationships made for intense attractions, consummated or not; a time of dryness when one was so busy with petty activity that one almost forgot about sex; and so on. Engaged couples try to anticipate how the challenges of marriage will be complicated by these phases. They don’t usually resist thinking about this, as young couples used to, since most have waited to marry until they had a sense of their own job-calling and values, and had seen various relationships unfold and play out.

The Appendix is discussion questions for the video with the book. Professional actors do role-played scenes about the usual spoilers of love: intimidation through barking fits of anger (even without physical attack, which the actors do stage in one scene); passive aggressive controlling behavior through silences, pouting, or self-righteous nagging; failure to agree on childbirth hopes; clashing money habits never negotiated; debunking each other’s enthusiasms, the wall of inner defense that can spoil intimacy, even if on the surface relations are o.k., etc. They talk over common men’s and women’s forms of these actions and feelings.

Andres is upset after the scene where the husband hits the wife. “I wish Corazon didn’t have to even see it,” he says. He can’t imagine ever doing that. Corazon is petite, several inches shorter than Andres. Suddenly she looks vulnerable, unnerved. The actors did a good job.

Carlos says probably no one thinks he would do that, until it happens. Carlos tells them he’s often mused about how the gentlest, kindest love can turn to rage. People in love, he says, have trusted each other down to their deepest layers, so they’re very exposed emotionally. When things go wrong they feel betrayed, and it’s like tender protected feet suddenly have to walk on burning, thorny ground.

And so much ordinary stuff in a life together can go wrong, and make them feel betrayed, as if their very mind may come apart at the seams. Then rage is a natural defense.

He asks if either of them knows a couple where this stuff seems to be happening. They look at each other knowingly but are silent a few seconds. Corazon says she thinks with her aunt and uncle. It’s obvious they’ve talked about it. Carlos takes that for a good sign. He asks them to think how they might recognize if things are going really bad, before the trouble got that far. They talk over some things they already disagree on, and how they might make a habit of each just handling some of those matters separately—like cooking. They always annoy each other if they cook together. They decide they’ll each just do cleanup when the other cooks.

The book also asks how they might respond if their spouse seemed to be having an affair, a likely time being a life transition such as career change, or children leaving home, or menopause. Would they want to be told at the time? One response could be for the left-out spouse to try a take-charge generosity and extra kindness at such a time, though it would be very hard–like “giving away one’s cloak too, when robbed of one’s coat.” Could they accept a return of the spouse to intimacy if it had been interrupted? (This was portrayed years ago by a Catholic writer, Nancy Mairs, in Ordinary Time.) In their parish, people recognize that tacit helps are needed for spouses left out at such times, according to the person’s temperament–like travel with friends, or household space for a new satisfying hobby, or prayer/support groups with others in special need of various kinds. Older people sometimes celebrate renewals of marriage vows. These may be for something like a twenty-fifth anniversary, or a new sense of spirituality the couple has found together. Or sometimes they celebrate spouses coming together again intimately. In any case, people call it their ‘rejuvenation vows.’ The decorate the church with bluebells and ‘baby’s breath,’ and take a wine called Cana Vintage for communion.

As Carlos finishes with Andres and Corazon, he gives them each a big hug. Their footfalls move quietly away from his door. One more meeting to go before their wedding.

Dear Friends in Marriage

He puts the book and video back on the shelf, noticing another book beside them, that he’ll need tomorrow for another couple. It’s called Dear Friends in Marriage. The introduction explains that certain people (some 6% of the population) incline only to same sex partners. A couple committing to a life together are blessed with a marriage covenant. Preparation includes mostly the same issues straight couples consider, except that they talk over whether they hope to adopt a child, or possibly to have one by insemination. The book carries a dedication to the memory of two religious from a while back, Sister Jeannine Gramick and Father Robert Nugent, who started programs of “Gay-lesbian Outreach”; Sr. Jeannine opened many people’s minds through a tape she made, where she read an idyllic fairy tale, as she called it, of two happy Catholics, raising an orphaned nephew of one partner, and participating in fine ways in their parish.

These couples often hold the wedding mass in their house or apartment, as a special blessing to the place. Part of the liturgy is taken from an early rite of the Greek Church that consecrated holy friendships. In the U.S. they decorate their place with green living plants and pink triangles, and invite the couple’s immediate family members and a few best friends. They party late into the night, with someone playing an instrument and leading group singing. If nieces, nephews, or children of friends attend, they may take part in the ceremony as flower child, singer, mass server, or whatever the child prefers. If one of the partners is a priest, the other often makes a commitment of prayer support for that ministry.

The next book on his shelf is called The Specialists. Sometimes a man and woman come to Carlos, knowing they are bisexual or potentially so, but loving each other and wanting to make a life together, and have children. This is a book he works through with them.

It describes how some people live out friendship in a multi-valent way–as some have in all ages. They have a gift for erotically based affection and strong emotional support of friends, male and female–usually not consummated sexually, though they might or might not do that some time. Amateurs of the heterosexual, specialists of the  homosocial and heterosocial, they may marry, or they may do best in a single life. They may know the joy of children, or may give their inner riches in other ways. They often participate in their parishes creatively–in art, music, liturgy planning, rhetoric of conflict mediation, ecumenical initiatives, cooking for celebrations, or whatever is their talent. They tend to be some of the most spirited and open-spirited people in their communities.

Some of them have been inspired by Sister Fran Ferder, a Franciscan and psychologist, who wrote articles such as one in a church publication called CTA News. She said she imagined herself before God at the pearly gate of heaven saying, “Well, I stayed celibate. I didn’t have sex.” And God looks a little puzzled and replies, “Well that’s nice, but how was your loving? Your forgiving? Your feeling and understanding for people?” Did you love them richly, without fear? When these principles conflict, she said–if following the first means being thwarted in the second, because of fear, rigidity, or spiritual dryness, then the second should be recognized as more important.

The May evening is now wearing away with the end of a thunderstorm. The leaves outside glisten in orange light from beneath a cloud bank in the west. Father Carlos gets interrupted again in his cleanup efforts by a ring at the rectory door. It’s Mazy, a bag lady who asks if she can stay tonight in one of the two small dormer rooms, each with six beds, that the parish keeps for homeless people. Nowadays, they as often come in out of the heat as out of the cold.

Carlos lets in Mazy with her large flower-bedecked hat. Her favorite thing is to talk with him on her theory of how the papal infallibility is transmitted from one pope to the next, and where it resides in the interim between the death of one, and election of the next by the cardinals. Each time she tells it, a few more wrinkles get thrown in. Actually some of her ideas aren’t half bad, he thinks, if they could be worked out in a more processed way.

The state governments have institutions, with daily work routines, for people who can’t take care of themselves enough to keep a job and residence—for whatever reasons. But many still prefer the open air and street life, so churches and other religious centers try to put them up as need arises. Sometimes Mazy goes and says part of the rosary with the people who like to meet for that on Monday evenings, but she has trouble concentrating for more than a few minutes. Only the topic of papal infallibility keeps her attention for long. Carlos reminds her where the toast bread and the juice are, and makes her promise to put her sheets in the wash in the morning. Sometimes she does it and sometimes not.

Taking Orders

As Mazy leaves the office, the last show of the Ecclesia network’s afternoon is in progress, called Taking Orders. Carlos goes on sorting things, moving piles off the floor onto newly cleared shelves. Some of the show’s material is familiar to him. It’s about newer orders of priests, that exist along with continuing ones like the Salvatorans, Franciscans, and Jesuits.

Carlos himself is a Salvatoran father assigned to a parish, in his tenth year of priesthood. In two more years his first holy docad of religious life will be up. It’ll be time to decide if he wants to renew his vows for seven or twelve more years. At the chapterhouse of his order they’ll throw a big party for him, and his parents and kid sister and brother and sister-in-law will come. People celebrate the years of religious life already given by the honoree just the same, whether the person is continuing in priesthood, switching to a different order, or transiting to a time of another calling. Carlos is thinking ‘yeah,’ he’ll carry on another sacred seven at least. So far celibacy hasn’t greatly troubled him, and there’s good pastoral literature on how to live it, and signs of when to start another life. If he wants to continue priesthood in another order that doesn’t prescribe celibacy, he can go for that.

The show is telling about orders of priests formed over the past century. The Johannines were named after a couple called John and Ann. They’re married couples who bothe feel called to priesthood and are both ordained. If they are childless, they give their energy fully to the parishes or missions they serve. Or they may have children, since their experience as parents will also help them serve better in certain ways. In liturgies of Ordinary Time their green stoles have, at each hanging end, embroidered intertwining bright yellow and orange flames to show the double fire of their bodily and spiritual love for each other and for the church. One of them is being interviewed. He says they realize that Jesus was not a hermaphrodite, but they think this may be just as well, since even if he had been one, there probably wouldn’t be enough hermaphrodites to fill all the jobs for priests. So they don’t think anyone would have a problem with this in exercising her priestly ministry.

The Hearth Pastors are men or women who combine their priestly service with married life while their spouse has something of a different calling, as have priests in other times of Christian history. There are other orders too, so that people in various life situations can practice special love and institutional support for each other as priests. In many countries, health insurance companies have special low rates for priests. In many countries, health insurance companies have special low rates for priests and clergy of any groups that provide free social services. The government supplements the insurance system that way because the clergy’s work saves the taxpayers money.

The Weavers of Truth (or just “Wearvers”) are an order of men and women scholar-priests, founded in 2001 by the Sri Lankan theologian and oblate father Tissa Balasuriya, who became widely known for his book on Mary and Human Liberation. The two mottos interwoven on their seal are Truth, the seemly garment of the mind and the Pauline saying, “God is not without witness in any nation.” They say the threads of truth must be rewoven in each era, and they wear hand-loomed garment for liturgy.

They run libraries and data centers for studies of faith and culture, and have charge of the Vatican’s ancient and modern holdings, which they keep open to all scholars. They remained a small Asian order for a while. But Thomas of India, the first east Asian pope, who lived to be ninety, expanded their operations through the mid twenty-first century. Many of them are single, though they may have a spouse, often also a scholar or scientist, who shares their apartment in a Weavers living unit, wherever they are assigned. These usually have units arranged around a commons area for liturgical and other celebrations, as well as a kitchen for community cooking for special occasions.

Many of them are anthropologists. They look for touchpoints of recognition for Catholics in the spiritual life of many peoples, and write of these cultures with respect. They are rigorous about accuracy and self-aware critical editing, for the audio-visual and textual materials in their databases. They teach careful study of languages and other aspects of culture. The offices in their Vatican headquarters are often cluttered and unkempt, as scholars’ quarters tend to be. The watchword-logo on works from their publishing house is, Concepts elegant and shaggy, data documented. They have oversight responsibility of the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.”

As the show on priestly orders ends, Carlos finally has his floor cleared enough to pull down the built-in stretch vacuum hose from its corner ceiling tube, and clean up the dust and scraps. They vanish into the tubing leading to the building’s compactor, that packs the waste into cubes to be collected by a recycling truck once a year; they’re used for layering in landfills. He slips out the collapsible brush from its holder on the tube and goes over the pictures and hangings. He hopes his new co-pastor will like the light plum-colored mini-blinds he chose, and the crucifix of pewter and lapis lazuli, sent by the parish’s sister church in Mexico City.

Myra Shaunessy, President of the Altar Society, comes in to check about the flowers for the May processional for the Feast of Mary this Sunday. They’re to be native wildflowers, grown by some of the Catholic Daughters in their gardens and window-boxes. Myra is also planning ahead to the midsummer’s Sacred Heart festival, and who’ll be her committee for the event. She and Father Carlos talk over some new people in the parish with small kids who might take part.

Each year on the feast day of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which is also the eve of Immaculate Heart of Mary, the parish holds a picnic and mass near Lake Michigan, in the long evening light of solstice. People swim in an inlet recreation area, and eat chilled salads. Quarter life-sized figures of our Blessed Mother and St. John the beloved disciple are placed at one end of the white-clothed picnic table serving as an altar, with her hand outstretched and his holding it. He has a fishing net slung over his shoulder and a loaf of bread held to his chest, inscribed panis angelicus. An inscription on her dress says: Mother, receive your son. People think that when Jesus on the cross gave John to his mother as a son to replace himself, he was giving all of us to her as our blessed mother. Mother of God and mother of us.

As the candles are lit, the children attending bring up flowers and vines and long grasses from home, which they drape profusely on and around the two figures. During the processional two kids bring up a placard and prop it at John’s feet, with a saying from the First Letter of John: See what love the Father has lavished on us–it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we are already God’s children.

Once Myra has said “Goodbye” and headed out with her notepad of names, Father Carlos clears away the last few things from the forgotten corner between old cabinets. In a few minutes there’s a knock. He opens the door and the new assistant pastor walks in. Her tight-woven braids are neck-length, and she’s patting the dark brown skin of her shoulders with a red-checkered handkerchief. She wears a blue blouse with white-bordered neck similar to Carlos’s shirt. Mother Lejuana Godot introduces herself with a big smile, shakes his hand, and surveys the now lightly cluttered office.

“This looks just like what I left!” she says contentedly. “I feel at home already.”