Thursday, March 3, 2011

Tattoos on the Heart

I just finished Tattoos on the Heart, which some dear friends gave me for Christmas. The author, Gregory Boyle, is a Catholic priest who took over a Latino parish with serious gang issues in L.A. in the eighties—and ended up founding Homeboy Industries, which provides all kinds of employment to gang members and kids who are on the cusp of becoming gang members. The subtitle is “The Power of Boundless Compassion,” which is what the book is really about.

It’s a wonderful story about loving people just because they…are. It’s not a panacea for solving the gang problem—or any other problem, for that matter. For the most part, the kids Boyle’s parish stay in the gangs, they wound and kill their enemies, their enemies wound and kill them. All too often innocent people are wounded or killed when they get in the way. What Homeboy Industries does is make them work together, side-by-side, and get along in that place under the theory that it’s a lot harder to hate somebody you know. Things get less black and white, more complicated. There are personal consequences to your actions.

Here’s something I liked a lot—not a new idea to me, but the way Boyle said it shifted things a bit and brought some new understanding: “Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel says, ‘How narrow is the gate that leads to life.’ Mistakenly, I think, we have come to believe that this is about restriction. The way is narrow. But it really wants us to see that narrowness is the way. St Hedwig writes, ‘All is narrow for me, I feel so vast.’ It’s about funneling ourselves into a central place. Our choice is not to focus on the narrow, but to narrow our focus. The gate that leads to life is not about restriction at all. It is about an entry into the expansive.”

Yes! It’s another way of saying, “Let something matter,” which is what I believe in. The gate is a thing, not an idea about the thing. As we say about writing, “Show, Don’t Tell.” It’s all about finding a place to stand.

In the end, though, Boyle's book begged my big questions about religion. I can understand a god that sets us in motion and loves us no matter what we do, but what compassionate god would set some of us in motion in a loving, plentiful world and others in a world of poverty and brutality? “God works in mysterious ways” is the usual answer to this question, but it’s not an answer, really, and I don’t buy it.

And heaven: always perplexing. Assuming it's the same for everyone, is that fair? Depending on the circumstances of their lives, it’s a whole lot easier for some people to be good.

I remember having a conversation (okay, argument) about religion with my sister-in-law years ago that came down to this: “If there were no God, why would anyone be good?” she asked. This shouldn’t have totally flabbergasted me, but it did. And she seemed no less flabbergasted by my response: “Why do you need God for that? Why wouldn’t we be good to people when it feels so much better than being mean-spirited and unforgiving?”

Maybe the better question would have been, what if hell and heaven weren’t in the mix? What if there were no eternal consequence to consider when faced with the option of being kind or unkind, helpful or indifferent?

I get faith. I understand and respect that part of the nature of faith is an acceptance of the fact that there are questions about what you believe that cannot be answered in any rational way. What bothers me is not acknowledging the questions, not even being interested in them—and, worse, being afraid to ask them. If there is a god, s/he gave us a questioning mind, which you have assume s/he meant us to use—and the mind is best put to use by trying to get to the bottom of things.

The operative word being, “trying.”

You can’t ever really get to the bottom of things, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t supposed to try.

In the end, what bugs me most of all is the refusal of paradox, which is at the heart of being alive. If you don’t acknowledge it, don’t allow it to enlighten and delight you—and profoundly scare the crap out of you—then in some very fundamental way you haven’t really lived at all.

And what if God is us, what if it’s as simple as that? That there is as much power in loving each other and knowing that we are loved by each other as in being loved by God?

Boyle writes about Cesar, who called in the middle of the night and said, “I gotta ask you a question. You know how I’ve always seen you as my father—ever since I was a little kid? Well, I hafta ask you a question…Have I…been…your son?” And when Boyle said, “Oh, hell, yeah,” Ceasar, relieved, said, crying, “…then I will be your…son. And you…will be my father. And nothing will separate us, right?”

“That’s right,” Boyle responded.

He goes on. “…Cesar did not discover that he has a father. He discovered that he is a son worth having. The voice broke through the clouds of his terror and the crippling mess of his own history, and he felt himself beloved. God, wonderfully pleased in him, is where God wanted Cesar to reside.”

Then, making a leap that Cesar might or might not have made himself, “There is vastness in knowing you’re a son/daughter worth having…We see our plentitude in God’s own expansive view of us, and we marinate in it.”

My guess is that Cesar would say it was Boyle’s human love that saved him, Boyle’s love he was ‘marinating’ in. And I think Cesar would be right.

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