The Evil Eye

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I don’t know if Helene Friedman is alive anymore, but I do have fond memories.  About half of what she said was incomprehensibly Yiddish, but I found her antics generally entertaining.  She was quite old and feeble, and an infamous “cat-lady,” who always seemed to just “appear out of thin air” holding two cat carriers.  The few dollar bills she could produce were damp from inside her brassiere, and her glasses were literally taped together.  One thing that sticks with me, after 25 years, is her saying something about “Kinna Hurra,” which she said was so I would not get the evil eye.  It was all a bit of nonsense to me, reminiscent of the “stink eye” mentioned in the movie Juno, or that unpleasant leer Michelle Obama whips out sometimes.  But apparently that’s not at all what she was referring to.

My Rabbi client was in the other day and I mentioned this, and he smiled amusingly at me like my Spanish clients do when I make an attempt at saying something coherent in their language.

“You must mean, ‘Kein Ayin Hora,’ which is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew, ‘Bli Ayin Hara.'”

“Yes, of course that’s surely what I meant,” I smiled back, equally entertained at myself.

“What the heck does it mean?”

The good Rabbi gave me two explanations.

  1. The more traditional describes the “curse” placed on someone who succeeds or attains goals or wealth.  A less fortunate person would look with great jealousy (ayin hara) at his brother and pray to Almighty Gd, complaining of the inequity.  The “evil eye” has effectively placed a “hex.”  The would result in someone acting or showing less evidence of success to avoid such a curse.  Likewise, if complimented, he might say “Kinna Hurra,” or actually spit afterwards, to avoid the curse (apparently evil spirits don’t like spit).  And so when one observes something good happening, he then quickly follows up with this expression, so as not to “jinx” the apparent good outcome.  (I laughed out loud because I remembered Helene actually spitting after uttering her kinnahurra, and how taken back I was that she would do so in my exam room!)
  2. The explanation he said he liked better was deeper, and probably more meaningful to me, as a Christian.  “One of your ‘Catholic Books’ is called Tobit  (I nodded, because  I had recently read these 7 books tossed during the reformation, and remembered it pretty well).  Well Tobit, as well as Proverbs, refers to the concept of the ‘eye’ as a window, letting in light.”

But the ancients also thought of the eye another way, as lights shining interior light of the body.  Psalm 38 talks about ‘eyes as having lost their luster.’  Of course you are thinking in medical terms, Dr. Bill, but this isn’t scientific, or medical.  It’s the observation that someone’s eyes show their inner character.

I shared that Matthew and Luke both talk about the eyes showing light or darkness within.  The Rabbi smiled approvingly, and continued,

So, Matthew and Luke make more sense now – if the eye is generous, it is bright and the body is filled with interior light or goodness. But if the eye is set on cursing others, the body is full of darkness.

And so, my friend, the little old woman in your memory was not only wishing you well, but paying you the highest compliment.  She felt you were generous and had treated her kindly.

I thought of Helene recently, which is probably why this story was in my mind when the Rabbi came in.  I was on a bus at the North American Veterinary Conference, shuttling between the two meeting venues when I looked over to the other side of the road to see an elderly woman running with a hand-written cardboard sign.  In her other hand she held a pet carrier that she was swinging wildly.  This strange sight caught the attention of the bus-load full of veterinarians, until the cage door sprung open and her few clothes and possessions fell to the ground.  Many people in nearby cars seemed amused, smiling as they looked away, but my stomach fell to the floor, as I continued to watch.  She dropped the broken cage and started wiping her face, over and over again, as her tears continued to stream down her cheeks.  As she placed her glasses back on her face, I saw the tape holding them together.

As the light changed to green, my bus rolled away, and I smiled to see brake-lights of someone stopping to help her.

And so, the eyes are the window to the inner character, and perhaps the soul itself.

Do we look away with Ayin Hara, an evil eye of inner darkness, or do we look compassionately with Ken Ayin Hara, a generous eye shining with an inner light?

I’ll continue to fail miserably, I’m sure.  However, I am beginning to recognize Him along my own journey to Emmaus.  I’m reminded of a prayer shared with me by a Jesuit at Whitehouse Retreat in St. Louis:

Lord, keep me ever mindful, that we are always in your presence.

 

Image result for homeless woman with cat  Beautiful Eye

 

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Dr. Sam

The 12 year old boy stood alone, looking around frantically, unable to think clearly. Why had he ever asked for this? He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  How could this have happened?

“Big Red” was an old Snapper riding mower that only Johnny Byford was allowed to operate.  He had been Dr. Sam’s “vet assistant” and the general fix-it and maintenance-man around the animal hospital property for over ten years.  Today he’d be going out to help Dr. Sam work 800 head of cattle, and so the property maintenance would be postponed for a day or two.

Billy had wanted to be an animal doctor for as long as he remembered.  He had begged for years to have a dog, but the pleas were always met with a resounding, “No, it would just too big of a responsibility for the entire family (translation: you’re a pretty irresponsible kid, so grow up a little).”  When Billy’s big sister had gotten a kitten for Christmas from her boyfriend, that broke the ice.  Within 6 months, his persistence had paid off, and Billy had his first dog, “Pooch,” the ugliest, most pitiful, miserable little wretch anyone had ever seen.  Even then, life was fleeting and ever so precious.  Within six months of “Noelle” dying from feline leukemia, Pooch was found poisoned in a neighbor’s yard.  And so a steady progression of relationships with the small-town veterinarian were born, as Roger, Wolfie, Sam, Sean and Mandy became successive members of the family.

Having thus become acquainted with Dr. Sam, as the dorkie little kid with the ever-present “wow” big eyed look behind his wire glasses, Billy finally got up the nerve.  He asked if he could volunteer sometimes out at the clinic, “Just to help clean up and stuff.”  Hair thinning at the top, even at 30, Sam looked down, “How old are you young man?  When you get to be about 10, I’ll put you to work!” (This was well before minimum age requirements, or at least before they were really enforced).  Sam thought for sure this would be a few years off, and by then the silly little kid would have long since moved on to washing dishes, or mowing lawns.

“Great,” Billy almost shouted, I’ll be ten this summer!  August 27th!”  Johnny looked at the scrawny little brat and laughed, relieved that it was at least 4 months off.

Billy home sick with Wolfe & Noel 1972crop

August 27th of 1969 fell on a Wednesday, and Billy was sitting on the front steps when Jackie the receptionist arrived, without a clue as to the importance of the date.

Billy was mainly a bothersome pest that just wouldn’t go away, everywhere at once, always asking questions, and basically a pain in the ass.  But Sam was a “stand-up” man, and they had a deal.  Besides, Sam didn’t have any children yet, and Billy was growing on him.  The weeks turned into months, and weekends turned into summers.  He really wasn’t allowed to do much in front of the clients, but he gave most of the baths, walked the dogs, scooped the litter-boxes, and kept the runs free of feces.  This was the perfect job.  Except he knew he really wasn’t allowed to do anything important, anything of real responsibility.  That would soon change.

Billy used the push mower around the edges and behind the clinic, watching with envy as Johnny got to ride the big riding mower and do the “real” lawn work.  How he longed to do something that cool – when nobody was watching, he’d sit on the mower in the barn and shift the gears.  Such was the innocent stuff of little boy’s fantasies in 1971 Sikeston, Missouri.  Billy’s imagination was startled as he clipped a rock with the rotary blade and sent it hurtling across against the metal building.  Johnny’s head turned, and Billy sighed to see him laugh at his carelessness.

Dr. Sam bounded out the side door with his arms filled with syringe guns, castrating instruments, blood tubes, and rolls of cotton.  As he walked towards his Bowie Vet Truck, he motioned to the boy to come over.  “Dr. Sam needed to talk to me!  Maybe he’s gonna take me with him to work the cattle!  I’ll be such a big help!” his mind racing as quickly as his little legs.  “Johnny and I won’t be back before quittin’ time, so when you’re finished mowing, just go in to see if Jackie needs anything before you leave for the day.”

“Yessir,” he replied as he turned and hung his head, walking back towards the push mower, kicking the ground.  If not for the approaching shadow, he would have walked right into ol’ Johnny, rushing towards the truck after putting Big Red up for the day.  That would have been really funny to them.

The next morning Billy had to ride his 10 speed Schwinn the 3 miles to work, because his Mom was teaching a remedial summer class, his daddy was at the farm, and siblings were all busy.  He arrived just to see Dr. Sam and Johnny cleaning up the instruments from working on a limping bull, and he braced for admonishment for being a few minutes late.  But Doc simply said, “After you get the kennels cleaned, Billy, I need you for something big.”  He looked up to see a serious face, but Johnny was behind him smiling.

As the boy scrubbed the dried feces off of the concrete kennel floor, he couldn’t help but imagine, “Is today the day he’ll actually get to do something big?”  As Billy squeezed  the floors dry, the idea fell apart as Dr. Sam said they’d be leaving soon to finish at the feedlot where they had been yesterday.

“Since you’re pretty much finished up here, come on out and let Johnny show you how to run Big Red.  This grass is gettin’ mighty tall an’ it really shouldn’t wait another day.”

Billy’s heart was bursting with excitement, but he did his best to look unmoved, answering matter-of-factly, “Sure Doc, that shouldn’t be a problem.”  Johnny rolled his eyes, because he knew this was a big deal for the little brat.

Johnny had actually already showed him what everything was, and how it worked , many times, in anticipation of this glorious event.  Johnny made a point to let Billy know that it was his suggestion yesterday, as they pulled out of the clinic parking lot, that he thought he could be trusted with the big mower.  So within about 4 minutes, Billy had mounted the trusty steed, and was doing “manly work.”

What everyone but Billy knew, was that Big Red was a rust bucket.  This thing was over twenty years old, and always breaking down, throwing a belt, or getting overheated.  Nuts and bolts constantly loosened and fell off, and just last spring, a wheel had fallen off.  But to Billy this was the most responsibility he’d ever been given, much like the little kid in the movie A Christmas Story, summoned by his father to help change the flat tire.  He is entrusted with the hubcap and lug-nuts until he loses his balance, flinging them into the dark, and utters the famous expletive.

Billy puffed his chest out as he had suddenly become a valuable employee, riding the trusty steed on its first lap around the field in front of the barn.  He watched Doc and Johnny loading up the truck for the day.  “When,” he dared wonder, “would he be considered for a day of that – now that’s what he really wanted to do, his life’s mission.”  As he pondered these dreams, basking in the glory of the moment, the tension rod holding tight the belt connecting the engine to the transmission snapped in two.  The belt fell off the camber, and into the path of the blade.  As the mower coasted to a quick halt, the belt wrapped around the blade, quickly chewing it into black rubber pieces, sprayed all over the driveway.

Billy’s head spun around to see the reaction of those who had trusted him.  They hadn’t seen a thing, but were inside getting another load of medical supplies.  He jumped off the machine, frozen in panic.  He wasn’t sure what he had done wrong, but (he thought) nothing like this had ever happened before, and somehow he had screwed up his first real chance to prove himself.  He had begged and pleaded to be trusted with such a big responsibility, and after 3 years had finally been given that opportunity.  And failed.

Billy had no idea what to do, but more than anything, he didn’t want to face them, and just wanted to run.  Dr. Sam was supposed to teach him how to be an animal doctor, and Johnny Byford had trusted him.  He had let them down.  As he raced through the possibilities, he saw his bike leaning against the building, but before he could consider the consequences of racing away, the door opened and out ran the two men.

There was fear and panic, dread and disappointment.  But it was all Billy’s.  The consolation from Dr. Sam’s response would be remembered, valued and put to prose some 40 years later.  There would by no tears, or hugs – these were three grown men.

I looked up to my mentor, my role model, and my friend with tears, I’m sure, in my eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”  Johnny was smiling, probably relieved that his little pal hadn’t been hurt.  Dr. Sam, who’s initial reaction appeared to give me a hard time, suddenly realized this I just a little kid, and this was one of those serious moments where you don’t mess around.  But I anticipated his change in body language was now be one of regret, that I was too little for such a chore.

He squatted down beside me and said, “Billy, this is not your fault.  Even if it was, the only people in this world who never screw any thing up are people who never do anything.  I’m proud of you for wanting to work so hard.  Now help Johnny get this mess cleaned up and put Big Red up ’til tomorrow.  We could use a hand at the feedlot today anyway, so after you’re done here, get you’re boots on and get in the truck.”

Much Love.

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

Engraved pavement brick at the WhiteHouse Jesuit Retreat, Saint Louis, MO

The Mystery of Faith

“So that’s it?” “I’m just supposed to accept so many things that don’t make any sense??”

I just smiled at my beautiful 18 year old boy, who’s new-found enthusiasm and truth-seeking I found inspiring and a blessing.  “Cullen,” I replied, “you are a really intelligent person, a torch-bearer for the next generation.  You are supposed to seek the truth.  Fortunately, our faith tradition is a logical one.  Ours is the church that Jesus Himself built.  He appointed the apostles, He handed the keys to Peter, he instituted the sacraments, and on and on.  Question, research, dig and seek for the truth, the dig some more.  Pray for answers and revelation.  Our faith tradition has a reason for absolutely every thing we believe, either written in scripture, or passed along in the oral tradition, started before the followers of Jesus could even read and write.”

“You may well find that you don’t like what you find, and you may well not agree.  And that’s your prerogative, believe it or not, to disagree.  But you can’t leave it there.  Keep looking, deeper and deeper until you at least understand where these beliefs came from and why.  Two thousand years of theologians who devoted their entire lives to discovering the truth, and thousands of Christians over the centuries, martyred because they were convinced that their convictions were indeed the truth, have certainly made a case for the truths of our tradition.  Of course you’ll agree with most things, because it feels like common sense – you’ve been brought up to accept certain truths that others may disagree with.  But you will most certainly disagree with other things.”

“Like the whole Adam and Eve story, when science tells us that’s a ‘fairy tale’?”

“Yes, of course, Cullen, like that, among many, many other things.  But certain things in scripture may or may not have been meant literally.  There are lots of literary devices in the bible – prose, poetry, allegory, hyperbole, metaphors, parables, etc, etc.  The whole ‘Adam and Eve thing’ may indeed be literally true, or simply an allegory of how the first man’s original betrayal of God, because of his pride, arrogance, and disobedience led in some way to our sinful nature, our concupiscence, what we call ‘original sin.’  Could God have created two original people from “dust?”  Of course He could have!  Could He have caused the ‘big bang’ and directed an evolutionary process over millennia? Certainly!  Wouldn’t that be “creation” also?  We aren’t required to believe many of the traditional teachings of our faith, only the “dogma.”  Many things are symbolic and have very deep meaning even though we don’t interpret scripture as “literalists” would.  The stories in the Bible were written over many centuries for audiences in many different cultures, so they had writing styles that they would understand, and lessons that they needed to hear at that time.  So as we read the inspired Word of God, its important to extrapolate, to glean the real message that God wants YOU to hear for your own life in our own times.  This does take a lot of work sometimes, because you must immerse yourself into that culture.  St Ignatious of Loyola showed us one way to do this – to focus on one lesson or passage, and to meditate or contemplate on it deeply, placing yourself into the event.  Feel the hot dust through your sandals, hear the voices, smell the place, really feel the message because you are actually there.”

“Ok, I’ll try that,” Cullen promised, and then… “What about me, dad, doesn’t Catholicism teach that its a sin to be gay?  Doesn’t the Church say I’m going to hell?”

Of course, I was waiting for that, and I really thought I was ready.  I had read several books, and spoken with psychologist clients.  I had downloaded and almost memorized Always Our Children, the pastoral letter from Catholic Bishops directed towards clergy as well as parents on dealing with this difficult subject with loving compassion.  So I intended to pour forth with all my “knowledge.”  And I did, and I agreed it was pretty compassionate (compared to Westboro Baptist).  So out came the “Love the sinner/Hate the sin “clear explanation.”  We’re all called to chastity, outside the confines of a sacramental marriage.

“No!  Of course not Cullen, the Church does NOT say you are going to hell.  You were born with a same-sex-attraction (SSA), and we all have temptations that lead us to sin.   Now, acting on those temptations, now that’s another matter.  Yes, the Church WOULD consider the same-sex physical act sinful – just as it would consider it sinful for your unmarried sister to be having sex, or myself, before I was married.”

Knowing full well about him and Tim, his “best friend” for two years, I was quick to clarify.  “But Cullen, here’s the thing, and the beautiful thing about our faith.  Forgiveness is the biggest and quite unique component of Christianity.  We believe that God sent His son to walk among us to show us how to love, and the lesson he most often taught in words and action, is that of forgiveness.  We’re ALL sinners, and we all make mistakes.  Every Day!  I do!  In fact, I screw up more than anyone I know.  But God does know how hard I try, and how sorry I am when I fall, and how I really do love Him and other people the best that I can.  In walking with us, Jesus was like us in all things but sin.  He was tempted, He hungered, He felt loneliness, He grieved and wept, and He felt pain.  He really felt all of our emotions, because although He was fully God, He was fully human also.  Now here’s something that requires “faith.”  Faith is required not when something can’t be proven, but when it also can’t be disproven.  It’s a true mystery, the ‘mystery of faith’ that He was God AND man both at the same time.

“Yeah dad, I know all that, but you never answered my question.  Does the Church say I’m going to Hell?”

Cullen didn’t know the times I had literally wept over this very question – alone, in prayer, and in conference with priests at several of my annual Jesuit Retreats in St. Louis.  How could the loving God that I know, sentence my son to life with such a burden?  To create such a yoke of burden to bear all his life.  How could a loving God be so unfair?  To create a person who must choose between the love, affection, companionship and intimacy that we all long for or eternal salvation?  Seriously? That just feels so unfair, even cruel!  My Jesuit confessors were very sympathetic, it wasn’t the first time they had heard this lament.  One even cried with me.  “Remember, He is God, and we are not.  And He IS the loving, forgiving, compassionate Jesus that you know.  Love your son as He loves us.  Let your son walk with God, and he will find salvation.”  But we do suffer with our children.

I’m sure Cullen knew I was fumbling for his answer, but he knew I was always honest with him, and that I did my best to lead him.  “The Church’s official position is that your SSA is the cross you must bear, and that you are called to celibacy.  I realize it doesn’t feel fair, and frankly, I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes.  One thing is for certain however.  My strongest advice is to pray, talk to God, pray for guidance for the truth.  Your relationship with our God is just that – YOUR relationship with a God so loving that He suffered and died on the cross for YOU.  Kneel down in adoration at the cross, and see the definition of perfect love.  Close your eyes and talk to Christ on the cross.  Pray and contemplate like Ignatious suggests.  Listen in the silence for His love poured out for you.  That’s all I know.  And always pray for strength to do what you know he is telling you.  Just know that He will pick you up, time after time, when you fall down.  Remember that God loves us, but He doesn’t just love us, He IS love itself.  That’s why His is unconditional, unfaltering love.

I felt like I dodged the bullet, the hardest question of all time for someone like him when he then asked, “Dad, that’s the other thing, what’s the point of the whole crucifixion thing?  I get the whole cultural thing back then, about offering sacrifice and all that, but – really?  He was God.  Couldn’t he just snap his fingers and forgive our sins?”

In retrospect this was really the question of existence, His and ours!  But at the time, compared to the previous question, it felt like an easy one.

“Of course He could.  But we wouldn’t see His love.  He showed us He knows all our emotions: loneliness, isolation, and betrayal.  He showed us He knows pain and physical suffering.  That’s why He has the utmost empathy and compassion.  He actually walked in our shoes, because He was one of us.”

That’s the gist of what I remember about our conversation that night in the kitchen.  We both had lots to think about.