Wednesday, March 24, 2010

03-21-2010: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21 / Psalm 126 / Philippians 3:8-14 / John 8:1-11
You could say, from reading today’s gospel about the woman about to be stoned to death, that adultery used to carry a bit of a stigma. That stigma, encoded in the Sixth Commandment, eventually extended beyond the technical definition of adultery per se (illicit sexual relations between two people, at least one of whom is married to someone else) to include all illicit sexual relations, even those sexual acts within marriage determined illicit because they are not open to procreation. You could argue there’s little stigma attached these days to any form of sexual behavior, save, of course, for sexual relations with a minor (which, if some had their way, stoning would be back in force).

Stigma can be a powerful catalyst for keeping people from rocking the boat, upsetting the cultural mores that seem to keep a society knit together and functioning somewhat successfully. But it can also be a catalyst for inflicting terrible pain and engendering cataclysmic decisions in an individual’s life.

I’m thinking here of my mother, my birth mother, who became pregnant with me back in 1952 when the stigma of being pregnant, unmarried, and white was at its peak (black women in the same circumstances kept their children far more often than white women did). Class and race played a big part in the efficacy of the stigma, but religion was the powerful catalyst behind its enforcement, portending a solution to “the problem” as well. If the unmarried woman went into a maternity home, names could be changed, babies adopted out to “more-deserving” parents, and records sealed, effecting, in essence, an un-bloody abortion: no evidence of the sin -- no suffering of the stigma.

Religion fueled the stigma. Americans were, by and large, more observant of religion’s prohibitions from the ‘40s to the ‘60s than they are today or than they were prior to World War II. A case in point: back in the ‘20s a young woman -- agnostic, educated, liberal, having already had one illegal abortion, and unmarried – found herself pregnant again. She was white. She was not religious. She became part of the beginnings of the Communist movement here in New York. She was a writer by profession. And she decided to keep her baby, not to give her daughter up (either to abortion or adoption), which set her on a journey – completely unanticipated - that would eventually lead to her being declared Venerable by the Catholic Church.

Dorothy Day is on that road toward sainthood, one might conclude, because she didn’t care if she were stigmatized as being pregnant and unwed, a bohemian-adulterer with Communist friends. After she and her daughter were baptized, she lived the rest of her life as a devout Catholic, a chaste woman, an extraordinary friend to the homeless and misbegotten, an obedient daughter of the Church – but she never, in all her many years, ever denied Tamar, her illegitimate daughter, or ever ceased being friends with the man with whom she had broken that sixth commandment who, in the mysterious workings of Divine Providence, gave her the gift of her child and serendipitously placed her on that bumpy and crooked path to holiness – which, if she was right, is the same road to happiness. From one perspective we might conclude that adultery was itself the catalyst for such a splendid outcome; or, from another, that it was Dorothy’s love for Foster (its expression, misplaced or misspoken – perhaps) which was at the heart of the journey.

Goes to show, it seems to me (as someone born of those illicit relations proscribed by the Sixth Commandment) that when religion swaps stigma for forgiveness, those wonderful surprises – blessings all -- which the Divine Providence has in store even for us who break the rules, are too easily overlooked or tragically lost.

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