“life’s flavor,” ethnicity

Father Edmunds, I’m almost certain that’s the name of the priest who regularly assists our pastor at saying a few Sunday Masses. Charismatic in a more soft-spoken manner, Father gave an interesting homily last weekend.

The Gospel’s message was that we, God‘s disciples, are the “salt of the earth,” and the “light of the world.” Father began his sermon telling of a book fest he’d attended where an acquaintance, a Muslim, was speaking to a predominantly Muslim audience. The man had authored many books based upon his life experiences.

Born in Egypt, the speaker was raised in Switzerland. Now living in the U.S., he’s very familiar with living in a society unlike his own. Initially he tried to fit in, setting aside his cultural idiosyncrasies. In time, with the advice of friends, he realized he should celebrate his Muslim heritage, sharing, rather than hiding it.

Father likened one’s ethnicity, to the salt used by Middle Easterners to heat their earth ovens. There, children set to work mixing together salt and the dung of camels and donkeys. The result is spread over the stones covering the bottom of the earth ovens. The salt acts as a catalyst in igniting the fire. As the flames burn, the catalytic quality in the salt is expended. The salt, its flavor intact, is then scattered on the ground outside the oven.

Just as salt flavors the food we eat, so too our individual differences bring a vibrancy to the world in which we live, explained Father Edmunds. He went on to say that God gifts us with our distinctive traits, as part of His greater plan to bring “light” to the world.

Moving to New York from Honolulu, where I’d graduated from the University of Hawaii, and gotten married, was like moving to a foreign country. Most New Yorkers I encountered didn’t look like me, nor did they share my mannerisms. Being of Chinese-Hawaiian descent qualifies me as a Pacific Islander with the census bureau, but my habits and attitudes are generally like those of the Asian population, and very unlike those of Caucasians. Living in the Big Apple compounded my dilemma, for its residents are unlike those in any of the other 50 states, or so I’m told.

It took me a while to develop a stiff upper lip, not to mention a spine. Orientals in Hawaii in the 50s and 60s, were “invisible.” We had no problem adhering to the golden rule, “children should be seen and not heard.” So finding myself among New Yorkers who were aggressive, ambitious, and often ill-mannered, left me feeling like a doormat. I tried to fit in, by setting aside my ill-equipped Asian mentality. I was like a scared chicken let out of its coop, left to flounder among long-time, cage-free residents.

Slowly, inevitably, I began owning my culture once again. I wore it like a badge of honor, telling everyone within earshot, “I’m from Hawaii, born and raised on the island of Maui.” As whites and blacks warmed up to me, I wore my pride and humility equally. I came to love The Big Apple. Visiting relatives commented that I was becoming a New Yorker, exhibiting more confidence and “hutzpah.” Working in New York City for 10 years, my personality underwent changes in order to survive. I even joked that the stork must have made an error, delivering me to Pacific Islanders. It seemed I should’ve been “dropped” on the island of Manhattan, alongside the Hudson River.

Of course I’d never relinquish my unique heritage. It embellished my experiences in the Big Apple, and being Hawaiian continues to flavor life’s journey wherever I go.

savor one’s heritage…life’s salt, life’s “flavor”…hugmamma.

humility, with a southern drawl

I was invited by a very, dear friend to attend Sunday Mass at her church, the diocesan Cathedral. I’d been in it before, some time ago. Upon entering the nave, I was surprised for I hadn’t remembered its simplicity. The seat of the diocese from which the Bishop administers to local area churches, usually instills awe and if not fear, then certainly timidity. Rather than gazing upon impressive architectural details, I noticed the people sitting quietly in pews, others walking down the central aisle looking for seats. When my eyes came to rest upon the front where Mass would be celebrated, I was perplexed by its lack of ornamentation. The altar was empty; 3 wooden chairs sat to the right. To the left stood the podium, partially blocking another wooden chair. And across the back, imposing in size, was a white marble sculpture of Jesus on the Cross, the Blessed Virgin standing beneath and to his left, eyes gazing upon His face, and St. John standing on the right. Cradling Jesus’ feet was a woman, perhaps Mary Magdalene. 

In contrast to the starkness below, the dome over the altar displayed colorful paintings. The lone, central figure was God, left hand extended holding the world with a cross on top. The figures to His left and right may have been of a risen Virgin and St. John, but I’m not certain for I only glimpsed them momentarily. Having seated ourselves, I continued to look around for other tell-tale signs of grandeur befitting the Bishop’s Church. They only seemed apparent beyond the pillars that flanked either side of the nave. Structural details such as cornices, sculptures and stained glass windows enhanced the otherwise, unassuming house of worship. Use of soft pastels in hues of blues, peaches and beiges both in paint colors and floor tiles, imparted an air of serenity.

Awash in calm, I observed those around me. Smiles lighting up faces as friends recognized one another. Young sons kept separate by a mom, as the family of 4 made their way into a pew. A middle-aged, silver haired couple, husband with his arm lovingly draped about his wife, fingers massaging her shoulder. Two 30-ish year old women with ebony, straight, shoulder-length hair, dressed similarly in print skirts and simple black tops, quietly stepped into a pew a couple of rows ahead. One turned her head looking over her right shoulder, a smile lifting the corners of her lovely face. Was she part-Asian, part-Caucasian, or part-Hispanic, part-Caucasian? It was difficult to tell, but she was pretty nonetheless. The single element which disrupted the contemplative surroundings was the couple seated directly in front of us. Blonde hair in a short pony-tail, the woman, dressed in short jean skirt topped with a white, slightly off-the-shoulder blouse, cinched at the waist by a beige, elastic belt, spoke in non-stop whispers to her male companion. I found myself repeatedly focusing my attention elsewhere, trying to assimilate the peacefulness that enveloped me. It wasn’t difficult.

For me the “jewel in the crown” is always the person celebrating the Mass, and I wasn’t disappointed. Different from youthful, 38 year old, 6’4″ tall, dark and handsome Father Bryan, the pastor of my church, Father Edward Steiner, the Cathedral’s rector, was nearer my age, 5’10”, bespectacled, pleasantly rotund, with silvery-blonde hair, mischievous eyes and a ready smile. When he began his homily his voice, not booming like Father Bryan’s, but soothing and comfortable, invited me to rest my back against the bench, to sit-a-spell. With a lilting, southern drawl, Father Steiner spoke of humility, the Gospel’s lesson.

I’m certain I’ve heard this particular Gospel many times over many years. Perhaps maturity gained with age and a lifetime of experiences, coupled with Father’s engaging demeanor kept me hostage throughout his homily. Drawing our attention to the calendar, he reminded us that there were only so many days left until Christmas. The congregation joined in his chuckles. Continuing on, Father said that most of us give obligatory gifts, among these are those to teachers, secretaries. Not intending to dissuade us from gift-giving, he encouraged that we do it for more substantive reasons than obligation. He then explained the cultural premise of the Gospel reading.

According to Jewish practice whoever was positioned directly across from the host while dining, was held in the highest esteem. The remaining positions were then distributed with consideration for the host’s regard toward those invited, the least favored being seated at his feet. Mediterranean practice had diners lying on their sides, dipping torn pieces of bread into serving dishes shared by all. Western practice is less stringent, with the hostess assigning, or not assigning, seats at the table. If in the latter case, a person seats himself across from the hostess and is asked to move, then that guest is humbled. Where if a guest is moved from a lesser position to the most prominent seat, then that person is rewarded for her humility.

Rather than inviting guests to dine based upon a sense of obligation for their having first invited us, Father Steiner suggests we invite those who are unable to return the favor. By bringing the humble (“low in status” according to Webster) to our table we are advancing their honor, and our own. In giving gifts, we should do so not with the expectation of receiving, we should give because we want to honor those to whom we give, knowing that they are unable to give in kind. We honor them, and we honor ourselves.

Among Jews, striving for honor was a constant. But it seemed to be a subsequence of humility. When Mary told Jesus that a wedding reception was running low on its supply of wine, she intended that he do something. Knowing that he would help to preserve the groom’s honor, Mary was advancing her own Son’s honor. Without fanfare and with only a handful bearing witness, Jesus performed a miracle to keep the wine plentiful. This act, done with humility, brought honor to Himself while maintaining the honor of His host.

After Mass I thanked Father for his sermon. The same warmth that emanated during the eucharistic celebration continued to flow from him as we chatted. When my friend and I took our leave, allowing others patiently waiting to speak with Father, I hugged him in Aloha. Comfortable in returning the gesture, Father elevated a humble follower to share his proximity to God, thus honoring me and in the process, advancing His honor as well.

I meant it when I told Father Steiner that my experience with southern hospitality is that it is akin to Hawaiian Aloha. Both have their faults for sure, but they have their blessings as well. Rather than use a broad stroke to define a culture, I prefer to use a fine brush to detail their compassionate and positive qualities. Focusing upon the humbler side of human nature advances its honor, and the honor of all mankind, and ultimately, God’s.

hugs for a humble southerner, Father Steiner…hugmamma.

discipline and community

My mind may wander during Mass, I may glance around looking for familiar faces among the congregation, smile when a friend recognizes me, admire Father Brian’s recently purchased vestments, puzzle over the types of flowers arranged in vases around the altar. But when we sit and Father begins the homily, he has my undivided attention. My husband agrees that our pastor has a gift for public speaking.

I’m sorry to say I’ve no idea what the Gospel was about. I was lost in thought attempting to make sense of the previous reading, the Epistle. The woman seemed not to understand what she was reading so she stumbled over the words, saying “disciple” instead of “discipline.” I’m always impressed by these volunteers who must appear to understand the words set in front of them, even though they may not grasp their full meaning. Some may take a few minutes before Mass to familiarize themselves with their task, but it’s not always possible to do so, I’m sure. So while Father was reading the Gospel, I was probably feeling sorry for the previous speaker, and thanking God that I had not been in her shoes. Unlike her, I would have been blushing to my white roots.

My ears perk up when I hear Father speaking “regular” English for it makes comprehending simpler; narratives in the Bible require that I focus. And as I’ve said, my mind is multi-tasking. When Father begins with some personal anecdote everyone seems to straighten up, and tune in to what he’s saying.

Father spoke of his early days as a seminarian, and how difficult it was to learn discipline. He did not relate well with the first person charged with instructing the novices. He did better with the next person, the “student master,” who would explain the reason for leveling discipline upon those in his care. When students at the UofW Newman Center asked Father Brian to join them for a weekend retreat, the ‘student master” denied the request. When Father asked if he might attend the wedding of friends elsewhere, he was again denied. The explanation given for the denials was that he needed to focus on the vocation he had chosen, and the community in which he lived. He needed to learn discipline, understanding that he could not have his way in everything. As Father’s words washed over me, I pondered their meaning for me.

Over breakfast my husband and I discussed the homily.  I explained that as Father spoke, I could feel myself turning inward, humbling myself as Catholics of my era are wont to do. Talk about “glass ceilings,” I think Catholicism cornered the market on that centuries before it ever occurred to feminists trying to work their way up the corporate ladder.  Throughout the 12 years I was schooled by nuns from Boston, we students were constantly reminded about our need for humility. So I wondered if I was confusing the need for discipline with the need to be humble, as taught by my religion. 

I was interested in my husband’s perspective since, having been a seminarian, I assumed he’d had more theology than me. Ever the pragmatist he replied that his theological schooling had not exceeded mine and furthermore, every person needed discipline within himself, that it had nothing to do with religion. He was right.

Without self-discipline, we usurp the rights of others, including other species which share our natural resources. Without self-discipline, personal happiness eludes us because we are never satisfied unless we have more. Without self-discipline, we set ourselves apart from our community. Without self-discipline, we are unable to teach our children the values necessary for their evolution as good citizens. 

I think having humility might make it easier to learn self-discipline; but having self-discipline doesn’t guarantee humility. Being a Catholic raised in the 50’s and 60’s, I have to be careful not to mistake being humble with self-reproachment. Catholics of my generation bought into the guilt trip, “hook, line and sinker.” So while I humbly acknowledge my gift for writing, I realize that with it comes the need for discipline, knowing that I have a responsibility to my readers in what I say, and how I say it. I think all writers have that responsibility, though some may not think so.

While I paid no heed to God’s gospel, I think I got Father Brian’s homily. I think I’ll need him as a middle-man to gain entrance to Heaven. Father speaks my language, “regular” English.

pray for me…hugmamma.

a friendly place

Getting up for 8:15 Mass is a struggle. I’m not a morning person, as I’ve said in previous posts. So making it to exercise and church services is a labor of love, or else insanity, maybe both. The “drawing card” for me are the teachers, Kristina at the gym, and Father Brian at St. Joseph’s. Their common denominator is their compassionate, warm, “open” personalities. Neither basks in the limelight, rather they are humbly passionate about spreading their messages, Kristina “speaks” to exercise as essential for our well-being; Father Brian shares the gospel that God loves and cares for all of us.

Probably the youngest priest I’ve ever encountered as pastor of a parish, Father Brian, is a natural-born “shepherd.” He gathers his parishioners, his “sheep,” about him, with concern for our safe deliverance into the hands of God, our Maker. He doesn’t prod us with pokers, rather he relates stories, personal or biblical, which encourages us to think and to decide by what values we should live. The church fills with laughter when Father Brian tells a joke or humorous anecdote. He’s not even above pointing a finger at himself, whether in fun or to confirm that he too is human. His manner is easy, his smiles always forthcoming. He is accepting of ways that are different from his. If there are rules, and there must be, by which the parish operates, they do not seem “set in stone.” Perhaps his youthfulness and relative newness to pastoral duties has him proceeding with caution, allowing himself to blend into the congregation’s routine, to become one with, not one above, us.

Today my ears were extra perked when listening to Father’ sermon. He spoke of our need to focus upon the “small things” in our lives. These, he said, are the building blocks of the kingdom of Heaven. God does not reward us for “flash”, but rather for what we do “behind the scenes.” As stewards of God’s gifts, our services toward and on behalf of one another will be rewarded. Our faithfulness will be recognized. Romans 12:6-8 from The New Testament testifies to this:

“We each have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.” 

As an introduction to his homily, Father Brian spoke of witnessing small, but meaningful, human gestures that “built up the Kingdom of God.” Friends from out-of-town were visiting with him. A couple and their 2 daughters visited the popular tourist attractions. In their comings and goings, Father witnessed the loving care bestowed upon the littlest child by her sister and her parents.

On a recent visit with his elderly grandparents at their assisted living facility, Father celebrated the Mass in their apartment, the 3 huddling together. At the “kiss of peace”, his grandparents turned and pecked each other on the cheek, mouthing the words “I love you” to one another. This demonstration of their affection spoke volumes of their 67 year-long marriage.

After weekday Mass one morning, Father Brian noticed a lone woman moving through the pews, collecting congregation booklets, which she would then return to their housing. On another occasion, a parishioner asked Father if she could bring flowers from her garden to place around the altar. Walking over to it, he fingered one of the daisies, lovingly displayed in a vase. Matching arrangements were staged prominently in other areas.

It is obvious that Father Brian is like family to his parishioners. He freely speaks to us of his mother, other relatives, his friends, his love of basketball, his personal impressions of a recent visit to the Vatican, and his own faith journey. And he eagerly awaits us outside after Mass, shaking hands and smiling broadly. He always remembers our daughter, though she’s not a regular. Because he attracts everyone with his charismatic style, I said to Father Brian one day “You could be a rock star!” To which he replied, after letting out a belly laugh, “Jesus is the rock star!”

no “Hell, fire and brimstone” here, only warmth…hugmamma