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Deserts, Mountains, And Stars

The Sermon on the Mount Carl Bloch, 1890

The Sermon on the Mount
Carl Bloch, 1890

Newsflash: 2020 Was the Deadliest Year on Record for Migrants Crossing the Arizona Desert

Geography matters:

The Sermon is set early in the Ministry of Jesus after he has been baptized by John the Baptist in chapter 3 of Matthew’s Gospel, gathered his first disciples in chapter 4, and had returned from a long fast and contemplation in the Judaean Desert where he had been tempted by Satan to renounce his spiritual mission and gain worldly riches.

Before this episode, Jesus had been “all about Galilee” preaching, as in Matthew 4:23, and “great crowds followed him” from all around the area. The setting for the sermon is given in Matthew 5:12. Jesus sees the multitudes, goes up into the mountain, is followed by his disciples, and begins to preach. The Sermon is brought to its close by Matthew 8:1, which reports that Jesus “came down from the mountain followed by great multitudes”.

We recently celebrated the winter Solstice with a sunset and early evening gathering of our fellow desert nomads to observe The Great ConjunctionCould that have been the star that guided the 3 wise men?

So its that time of year again, when, of course, we reflect on deeper meanings, which of course tap into strong emotions and memories of our youthful experience.

We grew up in a Catholic family.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories are of church  – I was awed by almost everything: the medieval architecture; the dark cool church interior; the beauty of the stained glass windows, candles, displays, and sculpture; the colors; the incomprehensible but mysterious latin Mass; the incense and bells; the organ and choir; the solemn deep humility and reverence of strangers all around me; the greeting.

I actually liked going to church – what I hated was everything that led up to and came after it.

The family bullshit. The anxiety. Something in my family triggered neurotic irrational trauma, which only got worse after my parents divorce, which resulted in the effective excommunication of my mother (the impetus behind our family’s Catholicism). Mom stopped going to church and instead would listen to PBS operas on Sunday morning – a sure fire way to drive me and my sister out of bed and out of the house to escape both the opera and mom’s trauma.

I often tell myself that the Church’s treatment of my mother is why I left. But that’s a lie.

I left the Church just weeks before my confirmation. I hated the Wednesday afternoon classes on Christian Doctrine that were required. I hated the nuns, I hated the rigidity, I hated the conformity, I hated the discipline, I hated the authority. I hated the lack of respect.

I had no clue what the doctrine and the Church was all about.

But, the real reason I left was because those Wednesday afternoon confirmation classes were part of an “early release” program at school.

The Catholic kids were let out of school early (1:30 or so) and bused to church for those classes.

At the time, I was in love with Cathy Rosenthal, a Jewish girl who also would leave early on Wednesday’s for her ballet class.

Instead of going to confirmation classes, I would leave early and get to hold her hand and walk her up Beekman Avenue to the bus stop, where she would get on a bus to Ossining for her ballet class. After her bus took off, I was out of school early and free!

I never went back.

Later, as a rebellious teenager, I came to despise the Church’s authoritarian approach, largely in response to the lectures I would get from Aunt Rosalie (mom’s sister) and uncle Steve. They were both Captains in the Salvation Army and would show up, in uniform, at Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter meals to lecture us on our evil ways, which shamed my poor mom, who was deeply religious and sang in the church choir as a kid and young adult. They made sure to leave with a huge pile of leftovers, sometimes even carving the turkey, ham or roast been themselves too stuff their doggie bags!.

The best way I can describe Aunt Rosalie is that she was like Nurse Ratchet, perhaps crueler. She would openly mock her son, Chris, by saying stuff like: “He thinks he’s a girl and likes to play with girls. His testicles haven’t descended yet”.

Uncle Charlie (mom’s younger brother) would always show up hours late, after dinner was long over. He’d be drunk as a skunk and carrying a six pack in brown bag under his arm. Mom would make him a turkey sandwich as Aunt Rosalie and Uncle Steve lectured and shamed him. Uncle Charlie was gay. They all were more ashamed of that than his alcoholism. He was forced into the Army as a 16 year old by a local judge as punishment for a shoplifting charge. He was badly wounded in Korea and came home a junkie from the morphine the Army doctors filled him with.

Later in the day – or perhaps the next day – dad would visit and take us to our grandparents house in Yonkers. My other aunt and cousins lived upstairs in the same house. The adults would sit around playing cards as the kids ran wild. My older cousin Bobbie was a sick bastard. He would torment me. He was like a character out of Clockwork Orange. He had a CO2 cartridge pellet gun that he would use to kill the neighborhood cats. He’d make bombs out of the used cartridges and use them to blow up the toilets in the local park. Of course, he became a cop (a Palisades Parkway cop).

To escape this toxic family shit,  I joined all my buddies, who would gather at McGovern’s house on Christmas eve to watch the Yule log, drink beer, and go to midnight mass. We didn’t discuss church doctrine or the meaning of our “ceremonies”, but we knew we loved each other.

As an adult, I didn’t get married in the Church and didn’t raise my kids in the Church either.

But that doesn’t mean I see no value in it’s teachings. Pope Francis’ LAUDATO SI’ is hugely important.

So, we are reading the Sermon On The Mount as our celebration tonight.

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