EDITOR’S NOTE 9/27/17:
Some of you have heard me tell, in person or in an auditorium somewhere, the story of my friendship with Hugh Hefner, who went on to his eternal reward today.
My experiences with Hef back in 2004 were among the most memorable and aperture-expanding of my professional life. He is the reason I try my damnedest to leave preconceptions at the door whenever I meet someone I think I know something about, or whenever I meet anyone. Full stop.
I learned so much more about faith and God and even myself from my conversations with Hef than I did about him. He was incredibly warm and kind and generous of spirit. And he was vulnerable, wounded, and there was a certain sadness that dwelt around the edges of his enormous smile and sparkly eyes.
Ninety-one is a respectable number of years. He didn’t out-do his mother, but he got close. And I’d like to think that wherever he is right now, he knows. Now he knows. All the answers to all the questions from a mind that was endlessly curious about the world, love, and yes, God.
Now you know, Hef. Bless your huge tender heart.
What follows below is the chapter about Hef, based on those conversations back in 2004, from my first book, The God Factor.
May we all have our expectations exceeded and our preconceived notions dismantled more often than not.
When I decided to make my living as a religion writer, I never expected the job to entail giving my name and credentials to a “talking rock” outside the imposing gates of California’s Playboy Mansion on my way to have a conversation with Hugh Hefner about God.
What am I getting myself into? I thought, maneuvering my rental car past the rock, which kindly opened the gates for me, and up the winding wooded driveway where cutesy painted “Playmates at Play” signs mark the way toward the infamous mock-Tudor mansion. I crane my neck, looking both ways, fully expecting to see flocks of naked, pneumatic blondes skipping across the manicured lawns.
But there are no naked girls in sight—only a handful of fully clothed male gardeners and a small flock of flamingos—and what I find inside the Playboy Mansion during the visit with the man everyone calls Hef thoroughly surprises me. Almost as much, he will tell me eventually, as I surprise him.
“I have strong feelings about the way organized religion—with the codification of all the rules related to sexuality—became law and played havoc with people’s lives. And I think that—dare I say it?—is very un-Christian,” Hef says at the beginning of our conversation. We are sitting next to each other on a comfy couch in the mansion’s library, not far from where an original Matisse, with a burn mark where a tipsy John Lennon once left a lit cigarette, hangs. Behind the couch is a life-size bust of a topless woman. (Someone later tells me it is Hef’s former girlfriend Barbi Benton—the bust, not the Matisse.) “I think that there are great unanswered questions that I don’t have the answers for, and I think it is presumptuous for some people not only to suggest that they do have the answers but to codify them and establish them as a set of rules, some of which are wonderful and some of which are hurtful, in the name of the Almighty.”
That Hef would chafe at the confines of organized religion is hardly a shock. Much of what he says initially about religion and religious people appears to be well-rehearsed material, thoughtful sound bites that he’s delivered during innumerable interviews throughout his fifty-plus-year career as publisher of Playboy magazine. “Religion was a very important part of my upbringing. I saw in it a quality, in terms of ideals and morality, that I embraced. I also saw part of it, the part related to human sexuality and other things, that I thought was hypocritical and hurtful. And I think that is the origin of who I am. The heart of who I am is a result of trying to make some sense of all of that.
“Sex is there for procreation and a good deal more,” Hef continues. “I was raised in a setting in which it was for procreation only and the rest was sin, and that included not only a whole lot of behavior but also a whole lot of people. That’s abominable.”
Hef, who is dressed in his usual uniform—red-and-black satin smoking jacket, pajamas, and slippers—is charming, disarmingly so for a man in his late seventies. He is also incredibly literate, introspective, and kind in a grandfatherly way. But there is a certain tension at the beginning of our conversation, as if he’s worried that I’m going to judge him or, worse, try to convert him, as another interviewer apparently had a few weeks before me.
“I was saved a long time ago,” Hef says, not quite sarcastically. “I think I am a spiritual person, but I don’t mean that I believe in the supernatural. I believe in the creation, and therefore I believe there has to be a creator of some kind, and that is my God. I do not believe in the biblical God, not in the sense that he doesn’t exist, just in the sense that I know rationally that man created the Bible and that we invented our perception of what we do not know.
“I would believe in a god who created this world and also some more rational insights to make it better, and would indeed give us an afterlife. An afterlife would be a really good deal. Yeah, I would vote in favor of that,” he says, chuckling. “But in the meantime, I urge one and all to live this life as if there is no reward in the afterlife and to do it in a moral way that makes it better for you and for those around you, and that leaves this world a little better place than when you found it.”
Is that how he defines morality, then? Living in a way that makes life better for those around you and trying to make the world a better place? He looks a little concerned about the question, like I’m going to stand up, point my finger at him, and yell “shame on you!” or something.
“Yes,” he says tensely.
Don’t hurt anyone. Try to do the right thing. Make the world a better place. The Hefner moral code.
Hef believes he has lived up to the code, although he’s keenly aware there are people—many of them deeply religious—who would insist he has done exactly the opposite by building an empire based on unfettered sexuality and, some say, the objectification of women. To them, the image of the man is simple: Hugh Hefner, sinner extraordinaire.
“Sin is a religious term for immoral behavior, but it’s a religious term,” Hef says, adding that his definition of sin is “things that are hurtful to people.”
Has he sinned?
“Oh, sure,” Hef says, “but I haven’t pursued very much immoral behavior. I’m a pretty moral guy. Now, it’s morality as I perceive it. Morality is what is perceived as good for people. I try to do what’s right, to do what I believe to be truly humanistic and rational and loving.”
So, how did he learn his definition of morality?
“First and foremost from my parents and secondly, in a very real way, from the movies. I think the movies were my mentors, my other parents. It’s where I escaped into dreams and fantasies, and it also provided me with a set of values that were immigrant dreams—what we call the American dream, dreams of democracy. I was a big fan of Frank Capra before I knew who Frank Capra was. I was born in 1926, so I grew up with the films of the 1930s. Very romantic, during the Great Depression. And those dreams came from Jewish immigrants, by and large, and that is what we think of as the American dream. It has become a universal dream, a dream of democracy, of personal and political freedom for everybody, a right to live your life on your own terms as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody.”
What films have you learned the most from spiritually? I ask, and appear to have stumped him.
“One of the difficulties in the context of what you’re asking is that spirituality has different meanings for different people and suggests for most people a supernatural phenomenon,” he says, tentatively. “And you know … most of the movies that have had the most impact on me in terms of what I would call spiritual were romantic films, but they are … you know … I don’t know if I can use the word spiritual in its proper sense—”
“Let me tell you mine,” I interrupt. “It’s Harold and Maude.”
“Oh,” Hef says, his face folding into a big grin and the tension seeming to evaporate between us. “Oh, I love Harold and Maude. Well, now you’re broadening the definition of spiritual in a really wonderful way. Harold and Maude is one of my favorite films, and Bud Cort [Harold] is a friend and [is] here for parties all the time. And of course, Ruth Gordon [Maude] is wonderful. We show classic films here every Friday night,” he says, motioning toward the screening room (complete with a full-size pipe organ) adjacent to his library. “It’s called Casablanca Night. Last Friday we ran a film written by Ruth Gordon’s husband. Born Yesterday. Judy Holliday’s first film. And that’s a very spiritual film, too.
“It’s about a woman who is a kept mistress of a corrupt guy, played by Broderick Crawford, who is trying to make a deal in Washington. And in her rather Pygmalion relationship with the teacher, William Holden, she sees the world in a whole new way and she is reborn in the real sense. It’s a very spiritual film,” he says.
Another movie he finds spiritually inspiring is the 1942 film The Male Animal, starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland. Fonda plays the mildmannered midwestern university professor Tommy Turner, whose job is threatened after he reads a controversial essay to his class that is perceived to be pro-communist. “It has to do with conviction of belief beyond what is popular, and it had a tremendously moving impact on me,” Hef says. “When I talk about spiritual, that’s what I’m talking about.”
Me, too, I tell him.
“How nice to have someone like you dealing with the subject of religion,” he says, looking relieved. “How did you ever get this gig? I didn’t expect you.”
Despite what he calls a “typical midwestern Puritan” upbringing—and Hefner, a tenth-generation direct descendant of the Mayflower passenger William Bradford, uses the term Puritan quite specifically—the Playboy baron’s own spirituality is decidedly unconventional.
Call it The Playboy Theology. Hef doesn’t believe in a “biblical God,” but he is fairly adamant about the existence of a “Creator.” He hasn’t been to a church service that wasn’t a wedding, funeral, or baptism since he was a student at the University of Illinois in the late 1940s, but he says he worships on a regular basis while walking the grounds of his own backyard. And he follows a system of morals, but not those gleaned from the Methodism of his childhood—at least not the ones that pertain to sexuality.
Hef grew up in Chicago, the elder of two sons born to Grace and Glenn Hefner. As a child he spent little time with his father, an accountant. “It was the Depression, and he was away before I got up and often not back before I went to sleep, so we only saw him on weekends,” he says. “Our family was Prohibitionist, Puritan in a very real sense. Never smoked, swore, drank, danced—all the good stuff. Never hugged. Oh, no. There was absolutely no hugging or kissing in my family.
“There was a point in time when my mother, later in life, apologized to me for not being able to show affection. That was, of course, the way I’d been raised. I said to her, ‘Mom, you couldn’t have done it any better. And because of the things you weren’t able to do, it set me on a course that changed my life and the world.’
“When I talk about the hurt and the hypocrisy in some of our values—our sexual values—it comes from the fact that I didn’t get hugged a lot as a kid, and I understand that.” While his mother was steadfastly Puritanical, Hefner says she wasn’t particularly dogmatic. “We had to go to church every Sunday, but she let us try other churches. We went to a Congregational church for a while, which is similar to Methodist. I went a couple of times to a Christian Science church because I had a crush on a girl in high school who was a Christian Scientist. I went to Catholic church on a number of occasions with my first wife because she was Catholic.”
He married his first wife, Millie Williams, in 1949 at a parish on Chicago’s blue-collar Northwest Side. He can’t recall the name of the parish, but he does remember—vividly—his brush with Catholicism. “Millie got very upset when she went to the doctor for birth control information and the doctor turned out to be Catholic and started singing ‘Rhythm is my business.’ She was so affronted,” Hefner says. That was the end of Hef’s connection, tenuous as it was, to the Catholic Church—or to any organized religion.
The couple, who divorced after ten years of marriage, raised their children, David and Christie (who is now CEO of Playboy Enterprises), without any formal religious tradition. His younger children, teenage sons Marston and Cooper, who live with their mother, Hefner’s second wife, Kimberly Conrad, on an estate adjacent to the Playboy Mansion, are also being reared religion free, he says. (Hefner and Conrad, Playboy’s 1989 Playmate of the Year, married in 1989 and have been separated amicably since 1998.)
Back in the 1960s, when Hefner and Playboy Enterprises were involved with the civil rights movement and Playboy was in its heyday, Hef spent time with various clergymen, including the Reverend Jesse Jackson, with whom he could knock around his ideas about theology and morality. In fact, Hef says, for a time Playboy magazine offered a special discount subscription rate for ministers. During this era, the Playboy founder also met the Episcopal priest and author Malcolm Boyd. The two men have remained close friends for more than forty years.
“Hef is a seeker,” says Boyd, an openly gay octogenarian who lived briefly at the Playboy Mansion in Chicago in the mid-1960s and is artist in residence at Los Angeles’s Cathedral Center of St. Paul. “He’s on an adventure in life, and it’s at a very deep level a spiritual adventure. He’s looking for meaning, for context, for answers. He tries to size people up in a kind of spiritual way.
“Hef is almost a fierce individualist, and I think a great many people have never really understood him,” Boyd says. “He doesn’t have a conformist image that people are invited to buy into. He’s himself.”
When Hef prays, which he admits is not with any regularity, he says his conversation with the Creator usually goes something like this: “Thank you, Lord.”
“I’m blessed. If life is a card game, I got the winning hand, and most people have only a small idea of how really good it is,” he says, grinning. “Usually, you know, our religious values suggest you have to pay the fiddler, that if you get a lot of good breaks, there has to be something wrong with it, and usually there is. Not to suggest that my life hasn’t been full of trials and tribulations. Of course, it has. It wouldn’t be a life without it. But I know how lucky I am.”
As we’re talking, a peacock rests on the low branch of a tree in the backyard of the Playboy Mansion, which he shares with his girlfriends Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilkinson. All three women are in their twenties. Located in Los Angeles’s Holmby Hills, the 5.7-acre grounds of the mansion are elaborately landscaped. There are fifty coastal redwoods, a meandering pool with waterfalls, and, of course, the notorious “grotto,” a cavelike alcove off the main swimming pool that houses a series of hot tubs, all of different depths and temperatures. (Of the myriad intimate encounters that have reportedly occurred in the grotto over the years, the saying goes, “What happens in the grotto, stays in the grotto.”)
There’s also a zoo. Squirrel monkeys, parrots, toucans, and other exotic creatures live only a few dozen yards from Hef’s back door. “The animals we have here are a direct connection to my childhood and my love of animals and my belief that we should be somehow living in harmony with nature, as the animals do. The Tarzan myths fascinated me as a kid. It was man and his mate in harmony with nature, and the enemy was the white hunter—civilization.
“Some of my most spiritual moments, if I can call them that, come from walking through the forest, come from walking the backyard; feeling connected to the wonder of what this is all about,” he says, his eyes wandering out a picture window to the mansion’s rolling, bucolic grounds.
“I think it brings your emotions to the surface, to a level where you are just totally overwhelmed. Sometimes you know why and sometimes you don’t. It touches you in places that are hidden, that are from very early childhood, that are hurts, yearnings, and those are wonderful, magical, spiritual moments. And they can come sometimes from left field.” One of the regular stops on his backyard strolls is a Tabebuia, or trumpet tree, he planted near the tennis courts in honor of his mother, who died in 1997 at the age of 101. “A good walk in the woods is very revitalizing,” he says. “If you think you’ve got problems or something hurtful has happened, take a walk in the woods and think about how lucky you are just to be alive.”
So, why are we here? What’s the meaning of life, the highest moral value?
“Love,” he says, without hesitation. “Love. Why do we keep fucking it up? Love. It is the Golden Rule.”
Love is all we need?
“Well, John Lennon thought so, but we need a little reason to go along with it,” Hef says as he sees me out of the library before disappearing upstairs to his bedroom. “This has been a truly spiritual afternoon for me. Not in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this.”
Me neither, Hef. Me neither.
From The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People by Cathleen Falsani (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2006)
Originally appeared via Religion Dispatches
There are many things that Netflix’s House of Cards can do — and do well — because it is not a network television series, not the least of which is handle faith, spirituality, and religion with nuance, courage, and a certain alacrity that is virtually absent from traditional, commercial programming.
Throughout Season 3 of House of Cards, President Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) continues his existential striptease unabated, revealing the depths of his moral declension and staggering spiritual torpor.
House of Cards gets away with showing and telling things about the harrowing intersection of faith and politics that it never would have had the award-winning series fallen into the hands of ABC, NBC, CBS, or even HBO. (Thanks be to God.)
Minor spoilers ahead if you haven’t watched the episode “Chapter 30″ (aka season 3, episode 4) or beyond of House of Cards.
To wit: a scene in the fourth episode of the new season that contained one of the greatest spiritual moments in “television” history followed immediately by one of the most disturbing.
In the episode, disquieted by a presidential decision he made that cost several Navy SEALs their lives, Frank seeks counsel from a military chaplain — the motorcycle-riding “Bishop Charles Eddis” played by John Doman — under cover of darkness, standing under a huge crucifix in the sanctuary of a church.
Continue reading at Religion Dispatches by clicking HERE.
And read the bonus 12 Quotes from the Underwood Bible HERE.
Weeping as I type this, wrapping a few last gifts, listening to the replay of the Midnight Mass from St. Peter’s Basilica, I am so grateful for this man. “Sometimes there’s a man … he’s the man for his place and time.”
I am so grateful for this man, for our beloved Papa Frank.
Here’s the part of his homily that turned on the waterworks. It’s just so poetic, beautiful, clear, and true:
Papa Frank said:
The grace which was revealed in our world is Jesus, born of the Virgin Mary, true man and true God. He has entered our history; he has shared our journey. He came to free us from darkness and to grant us light. In him was revealed the grace, the mercy, and the tender love of the Father: Jesus is Love incarnate. He is not simply a teacher of wisdom, he is not an ideal for which we strive while knowing we are hopelessly distant from it. He is the meaning of life and history, who has pitched his tent in our midst.
The shepherds were the first to see this “tent,” to receive the news of Jesus’ birth. They were the first because they were among the last, the outcast. And they were the first because they were awake, keeping watch in the night, guarding their flocks. Pilgrims keep watch at night and that’s what they did. Together with them, let us pause before the Child, let us pause in silence.
Together with them, let us thank the Lord for having given Jesus to us, and with them let us raise from the depths of our hearts the praise of his fidelity: We bless you, Lord God most high, who lowered yourself for our sake. You are immense, and you made yourself small; you are rich and you made yourself poor; you are all-powerful and you made yourself vulnerable.
On this night let us share the joy of the Gospel: God loves us. He so loves us that he gave us his Son to be our brother, to be light in our darkness. To us the Lord repeats: “Do not be afraid!” (Lk 2:10). That’s what the angels said to the shepherds and I, too, repeat: Do not be afraid! Our Father Jesus is patient, he loves us, he gives us Jesus to guide us on the way which leads to the promised land. Our father forgives always. He is mercy. Jesus is the light who brightens the darkness. He is our peace. Amen.
You can watch the replay of the Midnight Mass here:
And read the prepared text of the pope’s homily (spoken it was slightly different) HERE.
Merry Christmas everyone. May you see the light in the darkness, know God is with us, and be not afraid.
Lately it’s been a bumper crop. Here’s what I’m reading these days:
- Without Apology: Sermons for Christ’s Church by Stanley Hauerwas
- Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible by Debbie Blue
- Jesus>Religion: Why He Is So Much Better Than Trying Harder, Doing More, and Being Good Enough by Jefferson Bethke
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
- The Crowd, The Critic and The Muse: A Book for Creators by Michael Gungor
- UNAPOLOGETIC: Why Despite Evertying, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense by Francis Spufford
- The Reason for My Hope by The Rev. Billy Graham
AND HOW COULD I FORGET ( not pictured because it literally was under my pillow in bed) :
- STITCHES: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair By Anne Lamott
The curse of a journalist is never having enough room for everything in one piece. It’s an art of subtraction that often is a painful but necessary practice.
So here’s something Nadia said that I wanted to share but didn’t have space for in the original column. After her reading/riffing at All Saints last week, during the Q&A someone asked her about grief.
I’m coming up on the one-year anniversary of my father’s death (I loved him more than life itself) and what Nadia said is
1) true and
2) actually helpful.
I have nothing other than grief is such a such a disfiguring process. And speed it up or deny that that’s true is to not honor it. And there is no way through but through. Sometimes all that somebody needs to is someone to go through it with them. Not to give them platitudes, not to try to speed it up. That’s it. That’s all I got. There is no magic there. It just sucks.
YES IT DOES.
A few minutes before that, while talking about something else, she also said the following, which will stay with me a long time, grief, grieving or not.
I’m almost always stricken by an experience of God. Broken into a million pieces and put back together.
A child at Little Church by the Sea portrayed St. Elizabeth in the Christmas pageant Sunday.
Can you see the living God in this girl’s face? I can.
Photo by Cathleen Falsani
~ Isaiah 9:6
On the flight home from Connecticut, where we’d buried my beloved father a few days before Thanksgiving, I watched the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and dissolved into a wailing heap of tears and snot.
The premise of the uneven dramedy starring Steve Carell and Keira Knightley is this: An massive asteroid named Matlilda is on a collision course with planet Earth and in three weeks’ time, the world will come to an end. The main characters and others decide how – and with whom – they want to spend the last days of their lives.
Given recent events, this led to some soul searching on my part. If I had three weeks to live, what would I do? Where would I go? Who would I want to make sure I saw? With whom would I want to share my last breaths?
For most of my life the answer has been the same: I’d want to be with my family and, in particular, with my father.
Which is why I ended up bawling my eyes out for the last 90 minutes of the flight home to Los Angeles, much to the dismay of the fellow in the middle seat next to me.
If I had three weeks to live today, I wouldn’t be able to spend any of those moments with Daddy.
He’s in the More, now. On the other side of the veil. In Heaven. Resting in peace. With Jesus.
And I will have to wait until my earthly life ends to see him again face-to-face.
It’s a terribly disquieting thought, one that had filled me with sheer dread since the father of a classmate died suddenly when we were in junior high. Stefanie’s dad was probably in his late 30s. At the time, my dad was in his 50s. And I was terrified that something awful would happen and he’d be gone.
The idea of losing my father terrified me and made me panicky. I wouldn’t let Daddy leave the house without telling him to be careful and that I loved him, whether his destination was a transcontinental flight or a trip to the Stop & Shop down the street.
If he died, I wouldn’t be able to function. It would be chaos. The planet would spin off its axis. The sky would fall. I’d be utterly lost.
It would be the end of the world as I knew it.
So 30 years later, when Daddy did go home to Jesus – peacefully, in his sleep – I was shocked to find the panic and terror I had anticipated for so long replaced by a palpable, otherworldly sense of peace.
I was in Washington, D.C., when I got the call from my mother in the wee hours of a Wednesday telling me that Daddy had passed. Well, at least I was on the right coast. I could drive north on I-95 to Connecticut in a few hours rather than trying to find a flight from the West Coast.
Instead of hopping in the car right away, I took my time getting ready for the drive home. I sent emails and made phone calls to family and friends, letting them know that my father had passed away. One of the first friends I told was a fellow who was in from out of town to do some lobbying on Capitol Hill. I was supposed to see him at lunchtime, and sent a quick note to say Daddy had died and I wouldn’t be able to make it.
A few hours later, just as I was heading out of the district toward Baltimore, my friend emailed me back saying that he had sought out a quiet corner in the U.S. Capital to pray for my family and me – for God to give us “the peace that passes all understanding.”
Such an articulation of peace comes from the epistle of St. Paul to the Philippians, where, in the third chapter, the apostle writes:
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication make your requests known to God. And the peace that passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:6-7)
In other words, God says, “I got this,” and hands us peace.
But what is this peace of which the Bible speaks? In the Hebrew scripture the word used most often for “peace” is shalom. It means more than just a lack of conflict or absence of war. Shalom comes from the Hebrew verb shalam, which means to “make amends.” Shalom describes a completeness or a soundness; a healing or making whole again.
In the New Testament, the Greek word for peace used most often (including in the passage from Philippians 3) is eirene. It describes a state of tranquility and rest, but also a “joining together,” God’s gift of wholeness when all the disparate parts will be joined together.
Eugene Peterson says that “Jesus is the dictionary in which we look up the meaning of words.” Therefore, Jesus himself is both the definition and incarnation of God’s peace – the Prince of Shalom described by Isaiah.
True peace, the high and bidding peace that passeth all understanding, is to be had not in retreat from the battle, but only in the thick of the battle. Picture Jesus at the Last Supper: He had every reason to believe that the end was upon him, and we see im looking around at his friends who will all betray him and saying, ‘Peace I leave with you,’ he says, when you would have thought he had no peace at all anywhere. ‘My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.’ John 14:27)
Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another….Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought. Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep…you cannot go it alone. You need help. You need them. You need whatever name you choose to give the One whom Lewis named Aslan.
That kind of peace is what descended on my heart and mind in the wake of my father’s death. I didn’t do anything to get it to arrive. I didn’t pray the right prayer or read the right thing. It just … arrived. Like a gift.
It feels like a pair of strong arms I can wrap myself in and sink into like a cosmic bear hug. It makes no sense to have this kind of peace when the world as I knew it had come to an end and my greatest fear had come to pass.
Perhaps even in the darkest of times personally or collectively – even when the most horrific evil we could imagine wrecks havoc and terror in the halls of a Connecticut elementary school, violently ending the lives of 26 innocents – there is a peace that can cut through it all.
Even on the day when the Mayan calendar stops, when some say the world will end and the Apocalypse will begin. Even on the shortest day of the year that I will always think of as annus horribilus. Even when all hope is lost and darkness threatens to swallow the last flicker of light.
May you know the peace that passes all understanding in these last days of Advent — as we look with hope to the Incarnation of the Prince of Peace — at Christmas, in the new year, and in all the days to come.
Cathleen Falsani is a Featured Writer for Sojo.net. A veteran religion journalist who specializes in the intersection of faith and culture, Cathleen is the author of four books, including The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People, the memior Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, and The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. Follow Cathleen on Facebook and Twitter @GodGrrl.
Photo credit: Mayan glyphs by zimmytws/Shutterstock. Photo (bottom): Cathleen Falsani and her father, Mario “Muzzy” Falsani, at Christmastime 1972. Photo courtesy of the author.
LAKE TANA, Ethiopia — Spirituality imbues every corner of Ethiopian culture, from its music and dance, to its artwork and even its unrivaled rich-as-the-earth coffee.
Home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world (having adopted Christianity as its official state religion in the 4th century), the sites and sounds of Christendom were ubiquitous wherever we traveled in country this month.
Art and iconography — both ancient and modern — from Ethiopian Orthodoxy (also known as Tawahedo or “being made one” in the Ge’ez language that remains the official language of the Orthodox liturgy here) were ever-present — in shops, restaurants, and hotel lobbies as well as in the myriad churches and monasteries, and the sounds of ancient Christian prayers and the chants of monks filled the air from the capital city of Addis Ababa to the kebeles (or neighborhoods) on the outskirts of Bahir Dar, another major city about 60 km from the Sudanese border that was once intended to be the capital itself.
The religious population of Ethiopia today is about 63 percent Christian (the vast majority of those adherents members of the Ethiopian Orthodox tradition) and 34 percent Muslim. There is also a tiny, but historic, Jewish population, the Beta Israel, who live in northwestern Ethiopia. In the 1990s, however, most Ethiopian Jews immigrated to Israel through diaspora relocation programs run by the Israeli government known as Operation Moses and Operation Solomon.
Each morning in Addis and Bahir Dar, I’d awoke to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer, or azan, emanating from the minaret of a nearby masjid and, often, soon after (and sometimes at the same time) the ancient prayers from an Orthodox church or monastery, mixed with the cock-a-doodle-doo of the occasional rooster and the omnipresent barking of dogs. You can hear a snippet of that intoxicating, otherwordly chorus of sound below.
While visiting Bahir Dar, capital of the Amhara region or kilil, which boasts a population that is more than 87 percent Ethiopian Orthodox, my traveling companions from ONE Moms and ONE Mums (our British sisters) — 14 of us in all — boarded two small pontoon boats docked on Lake Tana for what was described as a “three hour a tour” (“a three hour tour…” a la Gilligan’s Island) of one of the 20 medieval monasteries built on some 37 small islands in and around the lake.
After a 40-minute journey (where the weather did not start getting rough and our tiny ships were not rocked) we alighted at a rocky inlet, surrounded by a canopy of bowing mulberry trees, on a small island, Entos Eyesu, home to a monastery that is, as I understand it, reserved only for women. The adjacent island, Kebran Gabriel, houses a much larger monastery, church, and compound, but alas … no girls allowed.
Several academic sources date the Entos Eyesu monastery and church to the 17th century, with some attributing its construction to the Portuguese under the auspices of Emperor Fasilades, and more recently renovated (perhaps by an Egyptian monk), which explained why some of the elaborate paintings and frescoes that decorated the interior of the monastery looked so freshly painted.
Entos Eyesu is beautiful, but perhaps not quite as historically “important” as some of the other island monasteries, each established somewhere between the 13th and 17th centuries as a kind of hermitage for Christian contemplative monks, but later used as refuges to protect important artifacts of Christendom — including the a number of ancient sacred texts, the mummified remains of several Ethiopian emperors and, reportedly, the Ark of the Covenant (which, according to the Bible, contains the stone tablets upon which are written the Ten Commandments), which Ethiopians now believe to be housed inside the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Axum.
Whether Entos Eyesu was less “important” in an historic sense didn’t seem to matter to our motley band of would-be pilgrims, among us a couple of nonreligious Jews, several renegade Evangelical Christians, a lapsed Catholic or two, a Latter-day Saint, and a handful of what sociologists of religion might call “nones” these days. Setting foot on the island, a reverent hush descended on our normally chatty lot as we walked along rocky paths through the lush jungle of mango and banana trees, up a steep set of stone steps to the monastery/church itself.
A round domicile with a pitched, metal roof topped by a stylized Coptic cross, we stopped outside its stone and cement walls to take off our shoes and cover our heads with scarves. Once inside, though dimly lit, the round room — built around a small “holy of holies” room that houses a tabot, or replica of the Ark of the Covenant secreted behind banana-yellow locked doors — the paintings covering the walls, depicting biblical and historical scenes from Ethiopian Orthodox history and lore, exploded in a riot of colors.
Jesus is featured, as he would be, in many of the paintings. He’s depicted as mixed-race, appearing much like a modern-day Ethiopian. There were scenes from Hebrew Scripture, such as Abraham being interrupted by an angel (and a ram caught in a thicket) as he was about to sacrifice his son, Isaac; the massacre of the infants by the order of Herod (who’d hoped to kill the newborn King of the Jews in the process, but was thwarted when Mary and Joseph took their infant son to Egypt); Jesus ordering a servant boy to pour water into jugs (which the Lord then turned into a very good vintage wine) in his first miracle; the healing of a leper; Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem on a donkey for what we call Palm Sunday; the crucifixion, the resurrection, and the last judgment.
Ever present — alongside Jesus, Noah, and other biblical figures — is St. George (patron of Ethiopia, always shown decked out in royal regalia atop his white steed, slaying a dragon) and the Archangel Michael.
Everyone in the group solemnly snapped pictures of the artwork and various religious artifacts, before putting our shoes back on and heading down the hill to our boats. On the way down, a few of us stopped in a small museum (about the size of an average American walk-in closet) where a monk showed us a few manuscripts — some of them brilliantly illuminated with hand paintings — that he claimed were from the 7th century. I lingered in the small space as three young Ethiopian women from the hotel where our group was staying in Bahir Dar who had accompanied us on our lake adventure, stood rapt, hanging on the young monk’s every word (all of which were spoken in Amharic.) Maya, one of our ONE Moms who is a native of Ethiopia, translated bits and pieces for me.
But I didn’t really need to know what the monk was saying. I was struck far more by the posture and reverence the young women, including Maya, had for the obviously sacred space in which we were standing.
We finally returned to the boats, where the rest of our group was waiting patiently, and on our journey back to Bahir Dar, I began thinking about pilgrimage and how, perhaps, what you believe (or don’t) actually doesn’t matter. It’s the journey itself that makes it sacred.
Tewahedo, the name of the the Ethiopian Orthodox church, means “being made one.” How appropriate for our group — ONE Moms and Mums from the ONE Campaign, an organization co-founded by Bono of U2 who wrote a song years ago, also called “One,” with the lyric:
We’re one, but we’re not the same, we get to carry each other.
That’s what our trip to Ethiopia was all about. That’s what the ONE Campaign and ONE Moms are all about. We — all of us humans — are in most ways the same, and it is our responsibility (and our blessed vocation) to carry, care for, and mind each other. We may look, sound, think, eat, walk, talk, dress, worship, and believe differently, but we are, essentially, the same.
My story is your story. Your story is my story. Or, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of reminding us, there is another word for this idea: Ubuntu. It’s an African word (that I have tattooed on my back), which means, “I am because you are.”
We are one.
Cathleen Falsani is Web Editor and Director of New Media for Sojourners. Follow Cathleen on Twitter @GodGrrl. Cathleen is traveling in Ethiopia this week as an expense-paid guest of the ONE Campaign on a listening-and-learning visit to programs and organizations that work primarily with women and girls. Learn more about ONE Moms and the Ethiopia trip HERE. Watch for Cathleen’s tweets (and those of her ONE Moms traveling companions) on Twitter with the tag #ONEMOMS.
Read more of Cathleen’s posts from her Ethiopian journey by clicking on the links below.
Happy 50th Birthday, Mr. Bono
On this day in 1960, a wee child with an enormous spirit was born in Dublin, Ireland.
His parents named him Paul.
We call him Bono.
Like untold millions of people around the world, B has touched my life in a transformative way. On this his half-century birthday, I am deeply grateful for his presence in this world of ours.
Rock on, B.
And thank you.
I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from Mr. Bono:
“The idea that there’s a force of love and logic behind the universe is overwhelming to start with, if you believe it. Actually, maybe even far fetched to start with. But the idea that that same love and logic would choose to describe itself as a baby born in shit and straw and poverty, is genius. And brings me to my knees, literally,”
SAVE ME A GOOD SEAT IN HEAVEN, UNCLE DODI.
Seven years ago, at the start of the war in Iraq and its accompanying societal discord, a rabbi friend of mine told me something that I’ve thought about every day since: “We learn the most from the people we think are the least like us.”
Earlier this month, when my Uncle Dodi crossed through the veil into the eternal hereafter at the age of 74, the rabbi’s words returned to me with fresh power.
Dodi was my chosen uncle — a life-long friend of my father’s from New Hampshire where they’d known each other since childhood. Despite the lack of blood bonds, he had an epic and enduring influence on the spiritual life of my entire family.
You see, Dodi is the person who introduced my parents, and then my brother and me, to Jesus. Not as an historical figure or as a spiritual idea, but as a personal savior — the giver of life eternal and unending, staggering grace.
In the late ‘70s, after having studied intensively the New Testament in its original languages on his own, Dodi came to believe wholeheartedly in the message of the Gospel. And he shared the good news he’d discovered with my mother and father.
Soon after, they became born-again Christians, left the Roman Catholic church and led our family into the brave new world of Protestant evangelicalism. It was, at the time, a thoroughly scandalous transformation.
My parents’ spiritual epiphany, for which Dodi’s own newfound faith was the catalyst, changed the course of our lives.
But Dodi was the most unlikely of evangelists. A consummate intellectual, Dodi came from stubborn Greek and Italian stock, was a proud Dartmouth graduate and a member of Mensa,. He was not, for most of his, a believer of any kind. Nor was he any sort of gentle spirit.
Dodi was the quintessential New England curmudgeon, straight out of the J.D. Salinger handbook. (He and Salinger even bore a striking resemblance to one another.) When Dodi became a born-again Christian, his soul was reborn and remade, but his personality remained intact.
Irascible. Intensely private. Perpetually grumpy.
Still, he was a believer in the most authentic sense of the word. When I was a teenager, Dodi would call our house to talk to me, engaging me for hours in conversation about the Bible and faith, and never once condescending to my young heart or mind.
Dodi always spoke to me as an adult. He was unfailingly frank. I could (and did) ask him anything about God and he would give me the straight answer (as he saw it), but he would not abide intellectual dishonesty. I couldn’t get away with faking it. I had to know what and why I believed.
He was thoroughly convinced that we were living in the “end times” and that the Second Coming of Christ was nigh. Time’s a wastin’, Dodi insisted, no room for mucking about. It was time to get down to business.
Dodi was no blind apostle. He embraced the great Jewish tradition of arguing with God and he did so endlessly. He had many unanswered questions about Christianity and Christ. Despite his lingering conundrums, Christianity, he told me time and again, “is the only game in town.”
Prayer is meant to be an ongoing conversation with God — we can say anything to God. God can take it, my uncle would say. And God talks to us as well, Dodi insisted.
“What does he say to you?” I asked him once.
“Mostly he tells me that I’m an asshole,” Dodi answered. He wasn’t kidding.
When God “told” Dodi that I wasn’t meant to understand it as a damnation. Rather, it meant that God knew exactly who and what Dodi was — and loved him anyway.
That kind of truth was liberating. It wasn’t Pollyannaish. It was real. And messy. And honest.
As I got older, Dodi and I had less in common. His politics were somewhere to the right of Attila the Hun (at least from my perspective), while mine were adamantly liberal. It drove Dodi nuts.
While he never gave up trying to change my politics, Dodi never implied that because of them, my faith was any less genuine than his.
As I see it, God, with that holy sense of humor, used the most unlikely of men to lovingly and powerfully shape my spirit.
Dodi was my opposite just as certainly as he was my soul’s mate. A hot-tempered Yoda, showing me the way and that the force was strong within me.
I can’t help but smile picturing him now, sitting with Jesus in heaven, a long list of questions in his hand, crossing each one off as he gets the answers.
Still arguing his point.
Bless his soul.
St. Freddie of Rupert on EASTER:
The Gospels are far from clear as to what happened. It began in the dark. The stone had rolled aside. Matthew alone speaks of an earthquake. In the tomb there were two white-clad figures or possibly just one. Mary Magdalen seems to have gotten there before anybody else. There was a man whe thought at first was the gardener. Perhaps Mary the mother of James was with her and another woman named Joanna. One account says Peter came too with one of the other disciples. Elsewhere the suggestion is that ther were only the women and that the disciples, who were somewhere else, didn’t believe the women’s story when they heard it. There was the sound of people running, of voices. Matthew speaks of ‘fear and great joy.’ Confusion was everywhere. This is no agreement even as to the role of Jesus himself. Did he appear at the tomb or only later? Where? To whom did he appear? What did they say? What did he do?It is not a major production at all, and the minor attractions we have created around it – the bunnies and baskets and bonnets, the dyed eggs – have so little to do with what it’s all about that they neither add much nor subtract much. Its’ not really even much of a story when you come right down to it, and that is of course the power of it. It doesn’t have the ring of great dram. It has the ring of truth. If the Gospel writers had wanted to tell it in a way to convince the world that Jesus indeed rose from the dead, they would presumably have done it with all the skill and fanfare they could muster. Here there is no skill, no fanfare. They seem to be telling it simply the way it was. The narrative is as fragmented, shadowy, incomplete as life itself. When it comes to just what happened, there can be no certainty. That something unimaginable happened, there can be no doubt.The symbol of Easter is the empty tomb. You can’t depict or domesticate emptiness. You can’t make it into pageants and string it with lights. It doesn’t move people to give presents to each other or sing old songs. It ebbs and flows around us, the Eastertide. Even the great choruses of Handel’s Messiah sound a little like a handful of crickets chirping under the moon.He rose. A few saw him briefly and talked to him. If it is true, there is nothing left to say. If it is not true, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, there is nothing left to say. For believers and unbelievers both, life has never been the same again. For some, neither has death. What is left now is the emptiness. There are those who, like Magdalen, will never stop searching till they find his face.— Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith
St. Freddie of Rupert on “Vocation”
GOOD FRIDAY BLESSINGS: SWEET SISTER FRIEND
As you know, I spent the earlier part of this week in Bolivar, MO speaking at Southwest Baptist University. When I received the invitation last year to speak there, I was wary. I wondered how in the world they’d heard of me and if, in fact, they really were familiar with my work.
Preconceived notions on my part nearly prevailed. I’m so glad they didn’t.
As it turns, a lone student named Mallory – 20 years old, from a town south of St. Louis on the Mississippi River; Roman Catholic, tiny nose ring, earth keeper, a heart for justice like a young Dorothy Day – had heard my lecture via podcast from last year’s Festival of Faith and Music at Calvin College. It was titled, “Jesus is my Mix Tape: a Spiritual Biography. Mallory is a die-hard music lover. We talked and talked about the music that speaks to our heart and why.
Mallory is with a group of students on campus who are responsible for choosing the programming for chapel two weeks a month. She is the one who invited me and convinced the school that it was a good idea.
Mallory was a breath of fresh air to my hurdling-toward-forty spirit. She reminded me of many of my dearest friends when we were 20 and students at Wheaton. Wide-eyed and idealistic. Endlessly curious about the world – this one and the hereafter. She is smart – whip smart – and deeply, deeply kind. A gracious soul. She took great care of me during my sojourn in Bolivar, consummately professionally and wonderfully sure of herself.
An absolute delight. An unexpected blessing. Startling grace.
When Mallory drove me to the airport in Sprigfield, MO, she gave me a gift: a CD mix of her favorite music. She introduced me to some artists I’d never heard of before. Alexi Murdoch, Josh Ritter, Deb Talen, Mumford & Sons, Oriole Post, The Avett Brothers and Mike Crawford. One of Crawford’s songs, “Words to Build a Life On” really touched my heart this Good Friday.
I wanted to share it with you. And give a deep bow of gratitude to my sweet new friend, Mallory.
Blessings and Easter graces to you, dear sister.
“Words to Build a Life On”
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine
Blessed are the poor
Blessed are the weak
Blessed are the ones
Who can barely speak
Blessed in your hurt
Blessed in your pain
Blessed when your teardrops
Are falling down like rain
Blessed when you’re broken
Blessed when you’re blind
Blessed when you’re fragile
When you have lost your mind
Blessed when you’re desperate
Blessed when you’re scared
Blessed when you’re lonely
Blessed when you’ve failed
Blessed when you’re beat up
Blessed when you’re bruised
Blessed when you’re tore down
Blessed when you’re used
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine
Blessed when you’re heartbroke
Blessed when you’re fired
Blessed when you’re choked up
Blessed when you’re tired
Blessed when the plans
That you so carefully laid
End up in the junkyard
With all the trash you made
Blessed when you feel like
Giving up the ghost
Blessed when your loved ones
Are the ones who hurt you most
Blessed when you lose your
Then blessed when you find it
And it has been redeemed
Blessed when you see what
Your friends can never be
Blessed with your eyes closed
Then blessed you see Me
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine
Blessed when you’re hungry
Blessed when you thirst
Cause that’s when you will eat of
The bread that matters most
Blessed when you’re put down
Because of me you’re dissed
Because of me you’re kicked out
They take you off their list
You know you’re on the mark
You know you’ve got it right
You are to be my salt
You are to be my light
So bring out all the flavor
In the feast of this My world
And light up all the colors
Let the banner be unfurled
Shout it from the rooftops
Let the trumpets ring
Sing your freaking lungs out
Jesus Christ is King!
Jesus is my Savior
Jesus is divine
Jesus is my answer
Jesus is my life
These are Your words
how can they be mine
These are words to build a life on
These are Your words
I want them to be mine
Give us ears that we may hear them
voice that we may sing them
life that we may live them
hope that we may give them
hearts that we can feel them
eyes that we can see them
thoughts that we may think them
tongues that we may speak Your words
Pursued by the hound of heaven:
Remembering Mark Metherell
It’s hard to believe so much time has passed.
We’re coming up on the second anniversary (April 11) of the day our sweet Mark was killed in Iraq.
On Monday evening in Laguna Niguel, Mark’s mother, Pam Metherell, gave a heart-rending, spirit-lifting talk about faith, family and Mark’s passing.
Mark would have been very proud of his mum.
He is so dearly missed by all who knew and loved him.
Up there in the heavenly realms, surfing with Jesus.