Peeling Kiwis: “Peeling Oranges” Series

October 27, 2013

This afternoon I found myself sitting on the front porch of a woman named Maggie. No, I wasn’t with my own mother on our front porch on Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, but it was about as close as I could get here in Amman.

I had been walking to the Vatican library by a new route, enjoying the sun, the warm wind, and the cloudless blue sky, when I heard someone call my name. I looked around and saw a woman waving from her window, and realized it was Maggie, an employee from the library I have met many times. She called me over and, as Arabs do best, invited me in.

Maggie and her adult nephew, Elias (Arabic for Elijah), were sitting on her porch smoking argeelah, the water pipe, passing the mouthpiece between them. Maggie reminded me that the library was closed (Christian organizations take Sundays off, although the official weekend is Friday and Saturday), so she told me I should spend the afternoon with her until Mass at 6pm. I put aside my research goals for the afternoon, and reminded myself that impromptu, unplanned experiences of hospitality are the reason why I’m here.

Elias and I began an extended conversation about everything from my research to our families—all in Arabic, which was refreshing. Because I don’t live with a host family this time around, my conversations in Arabic are usually short snippets with cab drivers or shop owners, and those habitual requests of “take me here” and “can I buy this?” do little to improve my complex speaking abilities. As I spoke with Elias and discovered myself using new words or verb conjugations with ease, I felt proud and that my colloquial Arabic lessons are paying off.

“Taghadaiti?” Maggie interjected after she exhaled white smoke from her mouth. “Have you eaten lunch?”

“Shwayeh,” I responded. “Sort of.” I had eaten some trail mix and crackers earlier in the morning, but was quite hungry. She heated up some fusulia, a dish of beans, rice and beef, and brought me into her kitchen, which glowed yellow in the afternoon light. I sat alone and ate in silence. Occasionally, Maggie would come in to refresh the argeelah by heating up coals on the stove and stuffing a lemon-flavored something into the pipe. Maggie’s family is Roman Catholic and her home is decorated like those of many other Catholic families here. A sculpture of Jesus and the disciples at the Last Supper sits on the dining room table, and a drawing of Mary, with the caption, “Mystical Rose” (one of her name titles), was pasted above the counter in the kitchen.

I had spent my morning at the Royal Institute for Interfaith Studies, researching the history of Christians in Jordan. So it felt good to finish my day not immersed in a book, but immersed among the people who I’m trying to learn more about. Hearing about the experiences of Maggie and Elias informs how I read history books or academic papers, just as those materials help me better understand the lives of those I meet.

After spooning the last of the rice into my mouth, I rejoined the couple on the porch, and was presented with a plate of fruit: two plums, a nectarine, an apple, and a kiwi. I chose the kiwi pressed a dull knife into its fuzzy skin to peel it. As the juice seeped onto my fingers, I was reminded of a time in the cold winter of 2012 when I peeled oranges with my host brother and I discovered a paradoxical truth: that ordinary moments can often be the best vehicles for revealing God’s presence. Sitting with Maggie and Elias, watching people walk by as wind moved through the olive trees, was one of those simple moments that speaks simultaneously of God’s closeness and unexplainable grandeur.

As I pulled the knife toward me, I was taken aback by the bright green fruit that emerged from behind the skin. The kiwi was especially green, almost neon, and juice sparkled on its flesh. The contrast between the rough brownness of the kiwi’s skin and the bright, moist greenness inside revealed a new message, too: that the dullness and hardship of our days give way to a newness of life, a surprising Joy, that cannot be expected or planned. The most beautiful and most joyous experiences often emerge out of the most scratchy, sand-papery parts of life. The green fruit is so much sweeter because it’s hidden beneath abrasive rinds. This is a truth I’ve known but one that I’ve experienced most palpably during my time living in Jordan.

With the cold winds blowing in, there will be fewer afternoons on Amman porches and fewer fruits to peel. I’ll have to look harder to find reminders of these important lessons. So on the grayest of days, when I’m wandering unfamiliar streets under a melancholy drizzle, I’ll watch for mothers waving from their windows. And I’ll try to catch raindrops on my tongue, and pretend they taste more like juice than dust.

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 3: Detachment and trust

This is the last post in a series about the exemplary life of Blessed Pope John XXIII, whose feast we celebrated on October 11.  Today’s post is on detachment and trust.

John allowed God to carry him through life, just as his father carried him on his shoulders when he was a boy. His motto was “obedience and peace”—he was always conscious about the need to be content following God’s will for him.

John wrote often about the need for detachment and trust in God during his time as a young man in Bulgaria, where he was stationed as a papal ambassador.  He didn’t want to go, and called Bulgaria his “cross.”

He wrote: “I’m sincerely ready to stay here until I die, if obedience wants it. I let others waste their time dreaming about what might happen to me.  The idea that one would be better off somewhere else is an illusion.”

He also wrote: “Once you have renounced everything, really everything, then any bold enterprise becomes the simplest and most natural thing in all the world.”

This attitude was one he carried with him as he called the Vatican II council, when many doubted his ability to carry out such a large task—councils require the coordination of 2,500 bishops.  John didn’t let others’ negative opinions hold him back, nor did he let his old age keep him from starting a new project.

John knew he wouldn’t see the end of the council, not to mention its effects in the world.  Just a month before opening the council, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He died a year later in 1963; the council concluded in 1965.

But as John told his good friend and secretary, “it is an honor just to begin.”  He knew that the mission of the Church, that God’s will, was bigger than himself.  “If I die, others will come,” he said.

And many have come after, continuing the work that John began. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Vatican II, we are reminded of our call to do that in our own ways.

Most saints, or those deemed “blessed” like John, are celebrated on their death day.  But we don’t celebrate John on June 3, the day he died.  Instead, we remember him on the date of Vatican II’s opening, October 11th.

And I think that’s how John would want it.

Check out Parts 1 and 2 on humor and humility and compassion and courage.

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 2: Compassion and courage

This post is the second piece in a series about Pope John XXIII, who opened the Vatican II Council on October 11, 1962.  I hope we can celebrate the 50th anniversary of the council, and live out its mission, by following the example of the Good Pope.

John’s motto for his papacy was “pastor and father.”  He didn’t just preach about unconditional Christian love, but he lived it by intimately engaging with people, even when it was unpopular.

Like a loving grandfather, John encouraged parents to “give their children a kiss from the pope,” and every day would pray the rosary for all the babies born in the world that day.

John with a little girl in her First Communion outfit.

He could easily empathize with others, and, while working as a military chaplain during World War I, wrote, “It often happened—permit me this personal memory—that I had to fall on my knees and cry like a child, alone in my room, unable to contain the emotion I felt at the simple and holy deaths of so many poor sons of our people.” As a diplomat in Europe during World War II, John worked secretly to save Jews by forging birth certificates and marriage papers.

John constantly practiced and encouraged aggiornamento—updating or renewal—during a time when the Church, for so long, had refused to engage with the modern world.

He not only pushed the Church toward aggiornamento by calling the Council, but he also sought to redefine his own position as pope. He took the name John upon ascending to the papacy, despite the fact that the name was considered “unsalvageable” after the militaristic John XXII had tainted the name.  The Good Pope reclaimed the name and transformed it.

John visits prisoners on Christmas in 1958.

John broke with the papal tradition of seclusion and made the world his home.  In a radical move, he celebrated his first Christmas as pope at a local prison. Upon meeting the prisoners he said, “You could not leave to see me so I came to you.”

Only days into his papacy—which many had assumed would be a short-term, transitional period, given John’s old age—John announced he plan to call a council.  It came in a “flash of inspiration” from the Holy Spirit, he said, and took swift action to make it happen.

John addressed the fears of Church leaders and laity who were wary about a council, and about bringing the Church into the modern world that it, for so long, had pulled away from.

In his opening speech at the council, John said, “We must disagree with these prophets of gloom,” who could only see the destruction and corruption of modernity. “We must recognize here the hand of God,” John asserted, understanding the good that modernity could do for the Church, and the good that the Church could do for modernity.  John quickly published an encyclical addressing all people (not just Catholics), which spoke about imperialism, just wage, social justice, human rights, relations with the Jews, liturgy, and religious freedom.  Speaking in modern terms about modern crises, he wanted all the world’s people to know how much he loved them.

Yesterday, I wrote about John’s humor and humility.  Tomorrow, I’ll discuss John’s attitude of detachment and trust.

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 1: Humor and Humility

Today, we celebrate the life of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council—arguably the most important religious event of the twentieth century—on October 11, 1962.

Much has been written about the council on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and I hope to contribute to that body of work in the coming weeks and months.  But today, on his feast day, I’d like to reflect briefly on the life of John XXIII—the Good Pope, as he was called.

A few weeks ago, when I was preparing a presentation on John to deliver for a class on Vatican II, I was struck by his humor and humility, compassion and courage, and detachment and trust.  I’d like to share a few quotes and anecdotes about John’s attributes, in the hopes that we can carry on the mission of the Second Vatican Council by following his example.

Today’s post speaks to his humor and humility.  I’ll post about compassion and detachment on Friday and Saturday.

Humor and humility

John, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, came from a humble farming family in Northern Italy, and he used humor to remind himself of that.

When a little boy asked him once if he too could one day be pope, John replied: “Anybody can be pope. The proof is that I have become one.”

“It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it.  Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope!” John was so concerned about helping others that he often forgot about his own prominent position.

Some other great John jokes:

Reporter: “How many people work at the Vatican?”
John XXIII: “About half.”

Head nun at the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome: “Welcome, Holy Father, I’m the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
John XXIII: “You outrank me. I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

Parts 2 and 3 will be posted in the coming days.

Trends we can’t ignore: 4) The threat of white supremacist hate groups

The recent terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara was committed by Wade Page, a white supremacist and member of the hate group, Hammerskin Nation.

The attack highlights the threat of white supremacist hate groups, a threat that has been consciously sidelined by the federal government, whose leaders are cowing to political pressure.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that tracks hate groups and hate crime in America,

Since 2000, the number of hate groups has increased by 69 percent. This surge has been fueled by anger and fear over the nation’s ailing economy, an influx of non-white immigrants, and the diminishing white majority, as symbolized by the election of the nation’s first African-American president.

Currently, there are 1,018 known hate groups operating across the country.

They also highlight the “resurgence of the antigovernment ‘Patriot’ movement,” which was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing and the other domestic terror plots in the 1990s.  “The number of Patriot groups, including armed militias, grew by 755 percent in the first three years of the Obama administration – from 149 at the end of 2008 to 1,274 in 2011.”

In the past few years, groups that are specifically “anti-Muslim” have also emerged.

These are frightening statistics, and one might wonder why we haven’t heard more about them.

On a recent episode of the Diane Rehm Show, Michael Greenberger of the University of Maryland Carey School of Law explains why.

In 2009, the Department of Homeland Security issued a report which said the greatest threat, in terms of domestic terrorism, was the growth of these white supremacist groups that is the greatest threat to stability within the United States. And it was an analytical framework of how the department and other law enforcement agencies should focus on these white supremacist groups, militia groups and hate groups. When it was issued, there was an uproar from the conservative community.

… And House Majority leader John Boehner, House minority leader at the time, now speaker, said the Department of Homeland Security owes the American people an explanation for why they have abandoned the term terrorist to describe those such as al-Qaida, who are plotting overseas to kill Americans, while our own department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking. In fact, faced with the siege of criticism, the secretary [Janet Napolitano] withdrew the report—it actually had been published—and she apologized.

… And so there is a debate right now about the analytical force of the Department of Homeland Security. There’s a lot of information that they dropped from six analysts who were looking at this problem there to one analyst. Now, I saw yesterday at the department challenges that fact, but, nevertheless, it’s in the year that this has not been a priority.”

Because of political pressure, the federal government is intentionally ignoring issues of real security. This is unacceptable and puts all Americans—and especially minorities like Muslims and Sikhs—in danger.  The federal government must not cow to pressures from right-wing extremists, whose anti-Muslim and anti-minority rhetoric protects and legitimizes white supremacist hate.

I’ll end this post and this series on “trends we can’t ignore” with the following quote from a Huffington Post article written by Riddhi Shah in response to the terrorist attack on the Sikh gurdwara: 

Today, if we don’t ask why a small religious community in the Midwest was targeted by a 40-year-old white man, if we don’t make this discussion as loud and robust as the one that followed the attack on Gabby Giffords or on those young people in Aurora, we’re in danger of undermining what America stands for.

This series is a call to attention and awareness, a plea for a national dialogue about issues that have been ignored for far too long.

 

Note: The Norwegian terrorist who went on a politically-motivated and Islamophobic killing spree in Oslo last summer recently received his sentence–at least 22 years in prison (it should be much longer, and likely will be.)  Read Nathan Lean’s important commentary on the portrayal of the attack and the threat of white supremacist hate: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-lean-breivik-hate-groups-u.s.-20120826,0,7942204.story