Sunday, February 24, 2008

Reflection for 24 February 2008 (third Sunday in Lent)

Last summer I spent 3 weeks in Haiti, and we lost running water for days at a time, so we had to carry buckets of water up to our house from a well. The first time it was novel, like I was really “roughing it,” but the coolness quickly wore off: we couldn’t take a shower, and even trivial things like washing clothes or flushing a toilet involved going down 5 flights of stairs to street level to get water and then coming back again, sometimes several times. On another occasion we ran out of bottled water, which was worse because then we literally had nothing to drink until we could go out and get more (the tap water in Haiti is not safe to drink), and even if that were only a few hours, in a hot climate like Haiti, it could seem like an eternity. Those two simple experiences brought home to me how important water is, and how terrible thirst can be. Part of me wants to dismiss the Israelites for so quickly complaining about wanting water, even after all the miracles they had seen from God, but then I remember how being thirsty feels. Part of me wants the woman at the well to ask Jesus better questions, but then I think about what it would entail to have to carry water every day, and what a dream it would be for a woman in her situation to never have to do so again.
We know how much misery exists in the world: hunger, disease, lack of potable water, inadequate housing, and on and on. With so many people lacking sufficient access to the basic goods necessary to sustain life, we can think that our task goes no further than meeting those needs. Important though it is to meet those needs, however, we know well that even people who have a surplus of material goods can still lack something fundamental to authentic human existence: hope, meaning, compassion. “We boast in hope of the glory of God,” says Paul in the second reading, despite all the physical sufferings he has endured in his travels – his life is valuated by something apart from simply meeting physical needs, by the hope of newness coming in Christ.
My theology 100 class is reading Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild, which looks at a well-off young man who gave up all his possessions after graduating from college and spent the next two years on the road, finally dying of starvation in a remote area in Alaska. Why would anyone give up a life in which all of the physical necessities were met (and then some) in exchange for a life of hunger and uncertainty? What could be “out there” to be found that is worth risking one’s life for, that is worth giving one’s life for? He realized that as terrible as hunger and thirst can be (and it can be truly terrible), to ignore or bury one’s hunger and thirst for truth, for authenticity as a tragedy in its own right, regardless of one’s physical state of being. While the protagonist of Krakauer’s book would not have used theological language to discuss it, we see in the pursuit of that ultimate, transcendent horizon a thirst for the “living water” that Jesus offers the woman in today’s gospel, “welling up to eternal life.” In his newest encyclical letter, “Spe Salvi,” Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this “eternal life” as “the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality…like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.” It is this to which Jesus invites the woman at the well, this of which Paul speaks to the Romans, this for which we continue to thirst in our own lives.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Reflection for 17 February 2008 (second Sunday in Lent)

We tend to think of Lent only as it applies to paving the way for Easter, and insofar as it does prepare us for Easter, great, but the danger is that we focus to simplistically on the glory of the resurrection and too easily think that everything has been accomplished. Lent does prepare us for Easter, of course, but it also should prepare us for real life, which is so often marked not by glory, but by grief, loss, and suffering which seem not to be vindicated in any way that we can readily discern. Whatever we can say theologically about the meaning of the resurrection as a key to transforming suffering and death, we can’t claim that it has done away with either one, so insofar as salvation is an integration and reconciliation of every aspect of alienation, and not just something that happens when we die, the work of salvation continues, and we have a place in it. Paul brings out the paradox in 2 Timothy: he begins by urging the reader to bear suffering well, but then concludes by pointing out that Christ has destroyed death and brought life. What can that mean? If death is overcome, what are we to say about its continued existence?
In the first reading, Abram gets a taste of the glory to come: he will become the ancestor of a great nation, people will use his memory to invoke blessing. It all seems like a pretty good deal, and it indeed comes to pass, but we know how the story carries on after this initial encounter: decades of waiting, wondering, hoping, eventually experiencing the joy of having a son (Ishmael) with Hagar, and later Isaac with Sarah, only to see those hopes dashed when Hagar and Ishmael are banished and God demands the sacrifice of Isaac, which involves the threat not only of losing a child, which is horrible enough, but seeming abandonment by the God who had so long ago promised Abraham a future. There is a lot of anguish to go through before Abraham’s faith is vindicated, and he doesn’t even live to see the “great nation” that will eventually claim him as their ancestor.
The gospel, the story of the Transfiguration, does just about the same thing: it gives the disciples a taste of the glory to come, while not allowing them to get too comfortable there. This text falls immediately after Jesus has told the disciples that he would go to Jerusalem to suffer and die and rise, and Peter isn’t having any of it. After all of this unpleasant and unexpected stuff, this is a welcome change, and what they had been expecting all along: we’ve backed the right horse, and it seems that we’re going to win even more glory than we had expected, since Jesus is important enough to stand in the company of Moses and Elijah. Peter likes this version of the story so much that he wants to put up tents and stay a while, because otherwise Jesus might get back to telling them that suffering is on the way. When the voice of God chimes in, it is the first time since Jesus’ baptism, and God says the same thing as at the baptism: this is my beloved Son. It adds the “listen to him” part to make clear that Jesus is not just playing an unfunny prank on the disciples: whatever the Transfiguration has to say about the end of the story, it is not how the next few acts are going to unfold. Instead, perhaps it is just enough of a hint of glory to keep them in the game long enough to face the reversals that are to come. As with God’s promise early on to Abraham, if they only knew what was yet to come, perhaps they would have opted out of the whole thing. You can’t handle it all at once, God says, so let me give you a peek at the back of the book so you don’t panic. Maybe that’s something to keep in mind with the responsorial psalm for today: “Lord, let your mercy be upon us, as we place our trust in you”: Go easy on us, Lord, when we can’t see a light at the end of the tunnel of hardship and pain.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Reflection for 10 February 2008 (first Sunday in Lent)

Reflection for 10 February 2008 (first Sunday in Lent)

Again and again in the readings for this past week we heard calls to change our hearts, to cut through whatever system allows us to substitute “doing it right” and feeling justified about it in place of the proper response, which is extending to others the boundless mercy we have received. “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” says the prophet Joel, (2:13) while Isaiah criticizes the people for allowing their fasts to degenerate into legalistic attempts at controlling God while not breaking through to the justice that is the legitimate aim of the fasts. “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke.” (58:6) Jesus warns his disciples against doing even good things for the wrong reasons: don’t bother to give alms, or fast, or pray if all that it will do is give your ego something to hang its hat on, some way to feel “justified” before God, to feel good about yourself, to make other people think more of you.
The readings for today compare the way of life that has prevailed from the beginning of time with the new way of living that Jesus exemplifies. The man and the woman in GN 2 were created to live in immediacy to God, “naked,” as it were, with nothing to prove, no ego to defend, no need for any further identity than the only true identity they had – who they were in God, that is, beloved son and daughter, made in the very image of God. The “fall” into sin was at once an “ascent” into knowledge, but with it came the loss of that cosmic humility that engendered naked immediacy toward God and toward one another, so it also entailed the need to hide the parts of ourselves we aren’t proud of, to create identities for our egos to hang on to, whether the identities of “success,” popularity, power over other people, religiosity, degrees earned, or anything else that would name us apart from our true identity – the simple, unadorned self that we are in God.
Jesus was tempted by all that same falsity: “If you are the Son of God,” says the tempter over and over, then it’s all about you, but Jesus makes clear that to be the child of God is to be centered upon God, not using God as an excuse to center upon ourselves. We see it in today’s gospel: the temptation to use his power for himself, to garner cheap popularity with a magic trick on top of the temple, to “sell his soul,” that is, to forego his stance of total self-giving to God, for the sake of power. I can imagine the tempter urging Jesus, “Think of all the people you could help with all this power, all the laws you could pass to help the poor, all the good things you could do.” However, it would still make the “you” the center of the equation, instead of making him transparent to the will of God. The pattern set from the beginning of human history, a pattern that places me at the center of every equation, is now reversed by the pattern of Jesus, the new man, the new model of authentic humanity, who made himself transparent to the will of God.

Reflection for 7 February 2008

Reflection for 7 February 2008

Every Lent it usually takes me a few days to make the mental transition to remembering to do the “Glory and praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ,” as opposed to "the A-word" (heh) before the gospel, but perhaps it is good to recall just how paradoxical those words are as we begin Lent. Our image of Jesus tends to spend a lot of energy on the glory and the praise, I think, and if we were to ask why that is so, perhaps we just jump to the easy answer, “Because he’s God,” never mind the linguistic difficulties of such an undialectical statement (see Rahner’s article to that effect). But the gospel today should radically critique our usual notions of glory: when Jesus says, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised,” it passes us right by because we know the story. If you read around this passage, though, it’s quite clear that it is a huge scandal for the disciples; it doesn’t make any sense, I presume because they believed that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that lots of other Jews of the time were expecting (and the kind we would want if we were in the situation of occupation and oppression that they were facing): a warrior, a king, in short, a butt-kicker against Rome.

I went to see the musical Jesus Christ Superstar last weekend, and in it there is a scene in which after Simon tries to get Jesus to whip the adoring crowds up into frenzy against Rome, sings:

“Neither you Simon, nor the fifty thousand
Nor the Romans, nor the Jews
Nor Judas, nor the twelve
Nor the priests, nor the scribes
Nor doomed Jerusalem itself
Understand what power is
Understand what glory is
Understand at all”

It’s a touching scene, countering the energy and movement of the crowd with the still voice of Jesus, but it shows insight into the paradox of glory that Merton writes about in his prose poem, “Hagia Sophia,” in which the She is Sophia (Holy Wisdom), and He is Christ:

“She crowns Him not with what is glorious, but with what is greater than glory: the one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.”

Perhaps in addition to the usual slate of penance-type activities this Lent, going down into the soil of these kinds of paradoxes is a good thing to spend some time with for the next 40 days.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

too busy...

It's just ridiculous that I haven't posted in this long, dang it...It isn't like there hasn't been anything going on to talk about.
So, in my last post, I mentioned the Ignatian Retreat. I think that of all the retreats that we offer at SLU, this is my favorite. Lots of open time, plenty of space to walk around, and you get past all the usual retreat fare, the icebreaker-small group-game playing stuff that can be fun in small doses but that gets old fast. We went out to a retreat center run by an Episcopal church in Illinois, and it was great: cold cold, but with a couple of big fireplaces that became focal points for people all weekend, partly because it was so cold, partly because fire is just hypnotizing. Here are a couple of pictures, which really don't represent the retreat because I didn't want to take pictures of people during a silent retreat -- it didn't seem like it would be in the spirit of the thing.

Anyway, a really good retreat. Just after that, classes started back, and this time around I've got an intro theology class: 30 freshmen, quite different from the 8 upperclassmen I had last semester, but still I think it's in good shape. We've spent our time so far doing the usual introductory stuff, including a bit on Catholic Biblical interpretation, and working through GN 1-3 (my 3 favorite chapters of the whole Bible, I think, so I've spent a little extra time with them).

I'm also working on vocation week in campus ministry, which is next week (and which is tough because so many vocation directors want to get in on it, you end up with more of them than students -- what I call the "feeding frenzy" model of vocation ministry -- yeesh. For Lent this year, I also pitched the idea of offering a couple of overnight getaways for students, what we are now calling "midweek escapes" -- after classes on a Wednesday, go to the university's retreat center, which is just off campus, feed the students, give them a little talk on entering silence, and then just leave them alone until the next morning, when we feed them and bring them back to campus. It sounds really simple, and it is, but my idea was to enable students to create some psychic distance from campus and quiet down. We're offering two this year, but we'll see if it goes anywhere.

Last night I took the Micahs to the ceramics studio, which I did last year as well, to hopefully encourage the doing of theology with the right side of the brain -- making symbols, making meaning. It was one of the favorite activities last year, and it seemed to be equally popular this time. We'll go back in a couple of weeks to glaze the pieces they made.

Plenty more stuff going on, including a couple of paper proposals I'm putting out there: one for the Notre Dame Peace Conference, which I attended last year, and one for the 2009 Merton Society conference. I also finally met tonight with the students who are going to Haiti with me in June and met the students from Habitat for Humanity who are going to New Orleans with me at Spring Break. Oh, I was also finally able to participate in a sweatlodge that some people around here offer once a month. A deep ritual, one I had been missing the past few years since I left Arizona, and one I intend to keep doing. I wrote a paper last semester on an anthropological consideration of baptism and the sweat lodge, but it's probably too much to put on this blog. Needless to say, it remains an area of interest because I am so convinced that baptism when it is done right can be amazingly potent as a ritual, and I know from firsthand experience how rich the lodge can be. More soon, hopefully not a month and a half this time...