Thursday, December 24, 2009
My most sincere prayers that this be for you a very blessed and peaceful Christmas. I received a letter from a Brother in our New England province a few days ago, riffing off one of my posts on this blog, so since it is better than anything I could have done, I include it below. (Shawn, I hope you don't mind me borrowing your letter - it was too good to miss!) Let us pray for each other, that this Christmas we remember the poor, that we see in this quotidian miracle of birth the ever-new birth of the reign of God: justice, forgiveness, crossing of boundaries to welcome the outsider.
Who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more.
--And God came to us that way, too.
As an infant.
As one born into a family that had faith and very little else.
As the bearer of reconciliation, renewal in the Covenant,
As Savior and Brother and Lord – as he was in God.
--And Jesus lived among us that way, too.
As a humble, quiet resident of Nazareth for 30 of his 33 years.
As an itinerant preacher who challenged the status quo.
As one who loved those considered unlovable, unacceptable,
unclean and unknown
(the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant,
the substance abuser, the criminal – all children of God)
As one who challenges us to do the same.
--And now we are called to live that way, too.
As people of faith in the face of skepticism.
As people of hope in a world where sometimes hope seems lost.
As people of love in a society that has often confused its
priorities about what love means.
Who I am is who I am in God and nothing more.
May the Spirit of God, the Spirit that gave Jesus life and gives us life,
guide you to become who are you are in God
this Advent and Christmas
and throughout the New Year to come.
Tuesday, December 22, 2009
Monday, November 30, 2009
For me in my little universe, that means more than having a much-expanded personal library at the end of this degree program. A mental rock star like Thoreau can say that he kept the Iliad on his table at Walden Pond but didn’t read much of it; again, he isn't dismissing intellectual work, but seeing the task of intellection directed to knowing himself. Plenty of people have dismissed his experiment because he was only a mile or so from Concord, but I challenge anyone to spend a week without reading or talking to anyone – that might sound like heaven at the end of the semester, but not reading, not writing, not accomplishing, not producing is a lot more work than it seems. In my head I share Thoreau’s sentiment, “We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers,” but in my real life I also see how needy I can get after a few months of continual interaction, communication, productivity, when I have not disciplined myself to be still and let go of "relevance." My fear in this place is that academe become a barrier between myself and real life, cutting me off from the desperation of real people's real sufferings as well as Thoreau's “quiet desperation” in my own life, not just because I have spent a ridiculous amount of time this semester cooped up reading or writing, but because a university can be a cozy place to hunker down away from the chaos of the world. “Apocalyptic never makes sense to people who are tenured,” one of my OT professors once told our class. Point taken: To the degree that being here opens my world to the rawness of the world of people who live without safety nets, and gives me the tools to bring people to see outside their bubble, I'm in the right place. To the degree that this kind of work insulates me from it, I’m in big trouble.
Sunday, November 15, 2009
Merry Christmas! I see that we already have a Christmas tree out in the lobby, but how many of you have seen Christmas decorations up at stores or heard Christmas music on the radio? I started hearing it before Halloween. According to this new movie 2012 the Mayans apparently say the end is coming in three years, and I think that by then, stores are going to start Christmas sales on the 4th of July. In the past few weeks, how many of you have said something along the lines of, “Oh my God, the semester is almost over!”? Personally, I don’t want it to be that close, because I have a lot of work to do between now and the end. We see something of that sense of anticipation this week in the readings: sun being darkened, stars falling, heavens and earth being shaken. In other words, the world as we know it is falling apart. We still have a few weeks to go before the end of the liturgical year, but we are already hearing readings that seem to be directly pointing at the end of things. The technical term for thinking about “the last things” is eschatology, so we might say that these readings are eschatological. Preachers throughout history have just loved these texts, usually pointing to current events to convince people that the end is almost here. War here, famine there, the end must be close. There have ALWAYS been wars and famines going on, I’m sad to say, so current events is not the best yardstick. Even the earliest generation of Christians seemed to believe pretty soundly that Jesus would return within their lifetimes, and it’s easy to see why from the content of the gospel: “Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” Both the first reading and the gospel point to a select group who will endure the end: those whose names are written in the book, says the first, and the elect, says the gospel. Of course, people of all times have been at pains to show that they are among the elect, usually showing at the same time who is NOT among the elect. Some group took it upon themselves some years ago to calculate exactly what percentage of people are going to be condemned, and suffice it to say it’s pretty high, 87-point-something percent, if my memory serves. Anybody want to guess whether that group was in the 87 percent or the 13 percent?
What do we do with readings like this when, a couple of millennia after they were written, the end still hasn’t come? Well, there’s eschatology and then there’s eschatology. I did find it interesting that with all this buzz about this movie 2012 coming out this weekend, a professor of archaeology or some such thing pointed out that the Mayans didn’t see this as the end of the world, but the end of the age, the end of a particular arche, a particular power structure. That, I think, is the sense of what we see in this gospel; right around the time Mark’s gospel was written, the Romans sacked Jerusalem and burned down the temple. For the Jews of that time, this was huge, the “end of the world,” rather like that country song after 9/11, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”, or all those action scenes in the end-of-the-world movies that Hollywood keeps pumping out: the White House blowing up in Independence Day, the frozen Statue of Liberty in The Day After Tomorrow, the fall of the Eiffel Tower in G.I. Joe, and so on. The world looks different after this has happened, because what we thought was stable, sturdy, eternal is shown to be vulnerable. At the same time as these massive catastrophes change the world, that’s also what the life and ministry of Jesus is about, in a completely different way: the outsider, the weak, the unworthy is paradoxically shown to be the place where God is to be found. Thinking back to the “percentages” of who will be saved, who did Jesus spend his time with? The power elite? The well-connected? The really religious folks? Try the unclean, the outsiders, the unworthy, the repentant. So, this age is dying, even if it is a slow and painful death. Unfortunately, instead of this vision of who God is infiltrating our model of power politics, we have allowed it to norm our sense of what God is. The first reading speaks of Michael, and of course we usually get an image of an angel with a sword or a spear, reenacting a power that, while bigger than earthly powers, is the same kind of control: the biggest of the big sticks. In the early Church, Michael was an image for Jesus: Michael means “who is like unto God?” And who is like God, who shows us what God is like? Jesus, who has neither sword nor spear, but only the earth-shaking model of crucified love. God is to be found in the unstable places of history, and while life generally works for all of us who are here, we know well how large a proportion of the world can’t say the same. Despite the death grip of the old age on control and manipulation, the business-as-usual power politics that favors the powerful and the well-placed is giving way to a new era in the ministry of Jesus, who points to the nobodies of his world as signs of the reign of God, a scandal to the reign of power. That’s the already and the not yet; the promise has been made, and we believe that promise is trustworthy, so we can live in a new world and also await its full enactment. The death knell of this arrangement of power and injustice has been sounded in the new reality that is the coming of Jesus, who defies all the power politics of the world, who is born into obscurity and poverty and dies in pain and disgrace.
Since you are all anticipating the end of the semester, and the readings are anticipating the end of the liturgical year, and 2009 is anticipating the year 2012 (why didn’t they wait three years?!), allow me to anticipate a bit and bring the eschatology of this week’s readings into conversation with a reflection on the Nativity, the initiation of the end of the age. Thomas Merton wrote an essay in the early 60’s entitled, “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room,” a reflection on the Nativity, when there was “no room” (in the inn) for the coming of the new vision.
“We live in the time of no room, which is the time of the end. The time when everyone is obsessed with lack of time, lack of space, with saving time, conquering space, projecting into time and space the anguish produced within them by the technological furies of size, volume, quantity, speed, number, price, power and acceleration.
“As the end approaches, there is no room for nature. The cities crowd it off the face of the earth.
As the end approaches, there is no room for quiet. There is no room for solitude. There is no room for thought. There is no room for attention, for the awareness of our state.
“In the time of the ultimate end, there is no room for man.
“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it - because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it - his place is with those others who do not belong, who are rejected because they are regarded as weak; and with those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, and are tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world. He is mysteriously present in those for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst. For them, there is no escape even in imagination. They cannot identify with the power structure of a crowded humanity which seeks to project itself outward, anywhere, in a centrifugal flight into the void, to get out there where there is no God, no man, no name, no identity, no weight, no self, nothing but the bright, self-directed, perfectly obedient and infinitely expensive machine.
“For eschatology is not finis and punishment, the winding up of accounts and the closing of books: it is the final beginning, the definitive birth into a new creation. It is not the last gasp of exhausted possibilities but the first taste of all that is beyond conceiving as actual.”
Friday, November 13, 2009
Monday, November 2, 2009
Sunday, November 1, 2009
I've been thinking a lot lately about how we form our sense of self, which should be no surprise to people who ever read this thing. In particular I have been aware of how easily the university setting can prompt covetousness, and how hard it is to feel "at ease" even in a setting in which people are very friendly and that is not outwardly competitive. In my program, people are working on dozens of areas of research that are so widespread, it can be quite difficult to figure out what common ground we have. However, when I listen to other students talking about their areas of interest, discussing scholars and movements that I have never even heard of, much less read about, it is easy for me to get defensive in response to feeling like I'm on the dumb end of the department, or on the other hand to work myself into a frenzy of wanting to read all this stuff. Now, there's something good about being motivated to read more, I suppose, but there is a certain abysmal character to such a desire. There is physically no way to read everything I "should" read to be up on the sweep of my chosen fields (let alone all the other fields I "should" be keeping abreast of). It is a bit like the Buddhist figure of the "hungry ghost," which is conceived of as having a huge stomach, but a tiny neck - it cannot be satisfied, no matter how much it eats, because its hunger is insatiable.
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who spends part of the year living in a hermitage, says that when he gets settled into his retreat every year, he comes to the place where he feels like if he never read another book, it would be enough. This is a very well-read guy, so he does not mean that reading is not important or that he has gotten it all figured out. He knows the potential of study to liberate, but he wants to make clear that it can also become an insatiable desire. Even though study is critical to bringing us to new understanding of ourselves and our world, it can also lead to a sense of self based in being able to "compete" with the other: I've read all those people, I am among the literati, I know all the theories out there. The attempt to fill the chasm of who I am with anything, even anything good - books read or published, good works accomplished, income donated, degrees earned - is itself an indication of just how alienated from myself I have in fact become. The measure of that for me is when I find myself in the company of different groups of people: around my students I could feel confident in my knowledge base, while among my classmates I feel somehow more ephemeral, like I am less real around people who know more than I. That may be one way of reading "the Fall" in Genesis 3: the immediacy of my knowledge of my relationship and identity with God gets disrupted with the rise of self-consciousness, of shame and pride, so I feel the need to cover my nakedness with the fig leaves of what I can pat myself on the back for.
That may be one good thing about today: All Saints Day. If today shows us anything, it is the absolute multiplicity of models that have been acknowledged as legitimate ways of living true humanity. The call to holiness is not a blueprint or a script; there is no one way to be a saint. Rather, sainthood is INCARNATED in the very tissue of who I am. As much as I admire her, I am no Mother Teresa, which is ok - I'm not called to be her, but to be me, genuinely me, which is harder than it sounds. This mimesis or creation of desires based on other people tells me what I am supposed to desire, what I am supposed to want to be, and it will jerk me around as long as I play the game of trying to produce a mask that is so real that I will forget that it is simply a mask.
Sunday, October 18, 2009
I have been up to my ears in reading of late, but it has been entirely too long since I posted anything. Mercifully it came time to do a reflection at the Catholic Center here at SU again today, so I had to produce something that I could post. Here goes:
The readings bring together two themes that we don’t often think of going together: suffering and authority. To begin, each of the readings today thematizes suffering. The first reading from Isaiah talks about the suffering of one person healing the people. This reading is the end of a larger unit that Christians usually refer to as the Fourth Servant Oracle: the “Servant Oracles” refer to four texts in the middle of Isaiah which refer to an unnamed Servant of God who is rejected, faces persecution, suffers on behalf of others, so on. Whoever the prophet had in mind, it’s fairly clear why Christians have so often seen a trajectory from these texts to Jesus. In particular the Fourth sounds strikingly like the Passion, in lines like this: “But he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole, by his stripes we were healed.” (IS 53:4-7) Sound familiar? Hebrews talks about Jesus being able to sympathize with us because he knows suffering, and of course the gospel is loaded with foreshadowing of the Passion.
On the other hand, we have the issue of authority. Jesus is a hair’s breadth from Jerusalem, he’s just predicted his passion for the third time, and James and John come looking for jobs: to sit at his right and his left, that is, to become his secretary of state and secretary of war when he beats the Romans and becomes king. Were they not listening? Mark is just pouring on the irony at this point: when Jesus says they will drink from the cup from which he drinks, they’re all excited – “Oh boy! We’re close enough to the Boss that he lets us drink out of the same cup he uses!” Oh, they’ll get it soon enough, but not like they thought. We know who will be at his right and his left in Jerusalem, and it isn’t his chief ministers. Why do the other disciples get mad at the two of them? Is it because they are frustrated that the boys haven’t been listening to Jesus or that they are thinking in too worldly or selfish a way? Maybe I’m wrong, but I think it’s because the other disciples are jealous that James and John beat them to the punch – the ten wish they had thought of it first. So, just like the last time we talked, Jesus has to sit them all down and straighten them out: other people use authority to dominate others and to make sure that their life “works” the way they want it to, but you can’t do it that way. Jesus says this is how the Gentiles are, and the gospels from the daily liturgy this past week were all about "woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites," but we know this isn't a Gentile thing, and it isn't a Jewish thing, it's a human thing. All of us are susceptible to the insidious capacity of power to push us to feather our own nests.
Whenever I read texts like this one, or the gospels we have been hearing for the past week, I get really nervous, because he is warning religious authorities about how easy it is to turn authority into domination. People from my generation tend to distrust the very word: we have seen the authority of the church, the government, business, the family, all of it fall short of what it claims to be. We’ve seen how easily authorities can smash people’s lives, whether intentionally or not, and how insidious power can be when people don’t have someone regularly pulling on their leash. As much as I don’t feel like an authority on anything, I’ve been a professional religious and a teacher for a long time, and I know that a certain amount of authority comes with that fact, like it or not. That’s why the Church says of itself, of all of us, that we are semper reformanda, always reforming and always in need of reform. At our best we remember that, but it’s easy to forget just how quickly any of us, even Church officials, can hunker down when we get to a place that’s working for us. One of my teachers used to say that we all get scripted, whether we know explicitly what the script is or not, by the story lines at play in our culture. What might that story be in the world we inhabit? In his phraseology, “technological therapeutic military consumerism.” We breathe it in all the time, and the implicit or explicit story it is telling us is that authority-as-domination can make us safe and it can make us happy – buy enough stuff, kill the right people, build enough toys, get the right degree from the right school, and you can make your life work for you. That story is a big lie. We’re here every Sunday because we think there’s a better story, but we know that we are all mightily co-opted by the big lie, so we have got to keep coming back. We’ve all heard today’s readings a hundred times, but we have a hard time hearing them and an even harder time getting them to stick, when the big lie has so much free air time. Hopefully when we do hear our story we get excited, we’re committed, we’re going to make a fresh start…but that usually works for about three minutes, and then it’s, “Hey, there’s a new IPhone app.” I don’t have an IPhone, but I took a quick look at their web page to see what’s out there – 75,000 applications – there’s one to program your DVR from long distance, another one to help you make espresso drinks at home, and something to “Shave strokes off your golf score.” And we actually expect that to make us happy.
Back to the gospel, which I know is not as flashy and won’t help your golf game. Jesus is clueing us in that authority and suffering are not polar opposites: they are two sides of the same coin. Dorothee Soelle, a German theologian, puts it this way: “Love does not ‘require’ the cross, but de facto it ends upon the cross…it must necessarily seek confrontation, since its most important concern is not the avoidance of suffering but the liberation of people.” That doesn’t sound better than the big lie, but we know what Jesus’ authority looks like when it gets played out: on the far side of the cross, it looks like new life. That’s what Jesus means at the end of the gospel when he says that he has come to give his life as a ransom for many: he isn’t buying us back from the devil, or from an enraged God. We are holding ourselves hostage, and the ransom note is the big lie; it’s what we think we want, what we think will make us happy, but what we get is authority as service, as self-giving love, which is what we as Christians know is what we actually need.
Monday, October 5, 2009
(*Warning: shameless plug ahead. If you see this and think of a young man who you think would be interested in the religious life, feel free to point him in our direction -- http://www.brothersofthesacredheart.org/. OK, shameless plug ended.*)
I'm turning 32 this week (yeesh), so the parents came in town this last weekend to visit. We did the usual running around - hit the farmer's market, went down to the Finger Lakes, went to church at the Catholic Student Center and walked around the university. Good to visit, and mercifully my reading schedule was lighter this week, so I could afford to visit without being unendurably swamped with work after they left.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
I entered my community as a teenager, and I am grateful to have grown up with the modeling of the men with whom I have lived over the past thirteen years. I don't think I will ever recognize what a grace all those men have been in helping me be less of an idiot than I would have been without them. In our community hymn, there is a line which reads, "Qu'il est bon, qu'il est doux, d'habiter un seul lieu," which literally refers to living in one place, but which we have typically rendered as "dwelling in unity"; community has been about more than just living under one roof - at its best, it has been about sharing a vision, wanting to support each other while we hold one another's feet to the fire (gently, of course!). So, to Brothers, colleagues, former students of the Brothers, and friends who have stumbled upon this blog, Ametur Cor Jesu - loved be the Heart of Jesus. Happy Foundation Day, Brothers.
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Thursday, September 17, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
This question, “Who do you say that I am?” has become the center around which much of Christian identity has orbited virtually from the beginning. The proper theological term for this question is “Christology,” and it is, I think I can safely say, the most written-upon topic in Christian thought. And that makes sense to me, because the question really is about what it looks like when humanity and divinity meet – what happens when humanity is radically embraced by divinity; that question is fundamentally the question of salvation – the making whole of our individual and collective human reality. What we Christians claim to encounter in Jesus is salvation, and that is intimately linked with this question of who we say that he is.
So, let’s look at the gospel. Have any of you ever done a math problem in such a way that you get the right answer but you did it wrong? That’s what we see in the gospel today. When Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter pipes right up, “Ooh! Ooh! I know - You are the messiah,” and the text lets us know that Peter got the right answer. But thirty seconds later Jesus is kicking his butt, and it’s clear that what Peter means by messiah and what Jesus means by it are two radically different things. He got the right answer, but he has absolutely no idea what it means. Jesus refers to Peter as “Satan” in this reading, and the previous time the text talks about Satan is in the desert after Jesus’ baptism, when Satan tries to convince Jesus to understand being the Son of God this way: if God’s the king, you’re the prince, so live like it: make yourself comfortable, popular, in control. Peter is, in effect, doing the same thing – he imagines the Messiah being violent because his image of God is violent, making Jesus’ message fit into his image of who God is instead of listening to who Jesus presents God to be.
Now, it’s not really Peter’s fault – just about anyone using the word messiah in that time would make the same mistake – most Jews thought the messiah would be a warrior/king who would kick the Romans out of their country. Makes sense, right – for a people living under a repressive and humiliating regime like the Roman Empire, freedom from foreign occupation is a pretty understandable thing to want. Plus, that’s how God has saved them in the past – think the Exodus, return from Babylon, the Maccabean Revolt, they figure they know how God operates, and it’s violently. With the benefit of hindsight, we can say, “Of course Jesus wasn’t coming to start a revolt against Rome,” but not because we are so much more clued in to Jesus’ message – it’s simply that most Christians hardly are even aware that such revolutionary fervor was in the air. That’s why we see this pattern repeated two more times in all three Synoptic gospels, and why Jesus doesn’t want the disciples to tell anyone that he is the Messiah – he is a very different kind of messiah than the one they are expecting. Three times, Jesus predicts his passion and death, and three times the disciples don’t get what he’s talking about, so three times Jesus has to come back and explain what real discipleship is about. Listen for it next week – Jesus will predict his death, and then the disciples will start arguing about who is the greatest, still trying to inflate their egos, so he takes a little kid and says to them, “You’ve got to be like this,” which doesn’t mean being childlike or pure or whatever – it means to give up concern for social ranking – children were nobodies in that culture, and that’s what a bunch of guys who are squabbling about hierarchy need to hear.
What does this say to us and about us? Who am I? I suspect we all want to maintain a certain psychic integrity, to think well of ourselves and to present an image to other people that we want them to think about us. It’s easy enough to pooh-pooh the obviously superficial stuff as a way of cobbling together an identity – how expensive your clothes are, how perfect your body is, so on. Jesus goes further, though, to root out any places where our egos try to hide: even ostensibly good stuff like getting an education, being religious, can be one more way of convincing ourselves that we have got it together. In fact, it’s insidious, because although I believe religion can be the best thing in the world, it can also be the worst thing when it gives divine legitimacy to inflating our egos. Everything you need is already here – it’s just hard to live out of that because it doesn’t feel like much, because our egos can’t hang onto anything for themselves. Who you truly are is who you are in God, and nothing more. That sounds hokey, but at least in my own neurotic self, I constantly feel like I have to prove something, earn something, accomplish something, so I can think well of myself, so others will think well of me, so God will think well of me. That’s hard at a place like this and at the age most of you are, because there are so many talented people that it’s easy to covet all the talents and successes you see in other people. But no matter how many books I read, how many degrees I earn, how many good deeds I do or churchy things I attend, none of that can create an identity for me. That’s the bad news: I can’t cobble together an identity like that. The good news is, I don’t have to. Who I am is who I am in God, and nothing more – there is nothing to prove, no need to deny what a mess I am, no good self-image to project for other people, no need to make it look like I’ve got it all together so that God will love me or so that I can love myself. That is a sure-fire path to denial and hypocrisy, when we have to look like someone on the outside that we know doesn’t correspond to who we really are, when we run away from parts of our humanity. “Who do you say that I am?” Christianity speaks of Jesus as fully human and fully divine, and we have done backflips for two thousand years trying to figure out what that means, because not only do we not know what it’s like to be divine, we can’t even figure out what it means to be human. Usually we tend to oppose divinity and humanity, so we are all full human beings, just like Jesus, but he has the added bonus of being fully divine, so he isn’t subject to the same human stuff that we are. We are used to thinking of Jesus as more divine than us, but let me suggest that I understand Jesus to be more human than I: I am NOT fully human, insofar as I tend to run away from those parts of my humanness that scare me, like looking stupid, failing, vulnerability, and dying. Jesus “does” humanity better than I do – he IS fully human. He accepts being misunderstood, failing, suffering, being thought poorly of, even dying – because he is rooted in his absolute identity, which is beloved child of God. Anyone want to take a guess what our deepest identity is? You got it – “beloved child of God”! How often do any of us try to come up with more identity than that?
Perhaps that’s one way of thinking about what “fully human and fully divine” means – when the divine fully meets the human, then there is no need to run away from the scary parts of humanity, no need to try to assemble an identity by drawing boundaries over against other people – I’m smarter, I’m richer, I’m holier, I’m better. How many problems in our human reality are rooted in just that kind of alienation – setting one group over against another, not living out of our genuine identity, trying to maintain the appearance of being in control? All of that needs healing, reconciliation, SALVATION, all of which, I said at the beginning, is what makes Christology so important to us. That is our task as men and women of Christ – to become more divine by being more fully human – no need for deception, for denial, for self-aggrandizement. The trick is, it isn’t just something we know in our heads – all of us have heard a thousand times that we are the daughters and sons of God. It’s something you have to know in your guts when your ego creeps up and feels the need to defend itself or put on a show, and it’s something we have to keep being brought back to – in our personal prayer, to re-center ourselves throughout the day, but also right here, in our prayer in the community. This place then becomes a center of resistance to the insidiousness of a culture that thrives on masks, but we can’t put all the blame out there – that clutching neediness is in our own hearts as well.
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Monday, August 31, 2009
In today’s gospel, Jesus criticizes the Pharisees who make a big deal about the disciples who don’t wash their hands before they eat: “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts. You disregard God’s commandment but cling to human tradition.” (MK 7:6-8) On the other hand, Christians have too often rejected ritual practices as magic that we too easily think that movement doesn’t matter, that space or décor or music don’t matter, because God doesn’t care about any of that. Stripping away the ritual drama too easily leads to locating the real “action” of grace in our souls only, which reinforces the old dualistic problems of devaluing the physical world and its attendant dimensions of justice - economic, political, sexual, etc. - in favor of an overspiritualized "inner" gospel.
There’s the real conundrum that the gospel brings up for me today: local particularities and customs are what give folk religion (I don’t mean that in a pejorative way – I am simply referring to religious practice on the ground, as opposed to the official sanctions from the top) its power to shape an identity for people to live inside of, but taking any of it as divinely mandated leads to the kind of pharisaic compulsion that Jesus has no time for. How do we respect those things that shape the boundaries of our identities without obsessing over them or dismissing people for whom those practices are not so important? I mentioned a few months ago about what some people see as “Catholic identity”: frying fish on Fridays in Lent, saying the rosary, so on. None of those peculiarly Catholic things are bad – I think they are very good, and they have shaped a number of distinctively Catholic cultures – but they are hardly the centerpiece of the gospel. Does God really care if we eat meat on Fridays in Lent or not? My vote would be no, but I value the tradition of abstinence on Fridays because it’s important for us to have a chance to remind ourselves of what hunger feels like (see Friday's post), and because for so many Catholics, it's just what we've always done.
In his marvelous essay, “Learning to Live,” Thomas Merton recalls a meeting he had with the Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki, during which they celebrated the Zen tea ceremony: “It was at once as if nothing at all had happened and as if the roof had flown off the building. But in reality nothing had happened. A very very old deaf Zen man with bushy eyebrows had drunk a cup of tea, as though with the complete wakefulness of a child and as though at the same time declaring with utter finality: ‘This is not important!’” We can bring our total attentiveness and seriousness to our practice at the same time as we acknowledge that God isn’t about being nitpicky. We don't do it grudgingly or out of fear, as if God gets angry if we don't split hairs about it all - we do it because it retells our story, it calls us back to the story of who we are. It doesn’t matter to God whether we kneel or sit or stand, whether we show up at church in Bermuda shorts or a suit and tie, or a myriad of other particularities, but they matter to us embodied beings - our postures generally DO say something about our state of mind, our bodies DO influence our religious lives. Too easily, though, the fact that other people don’t do it as well as we think they should leads us to dismiss them, or our attentiveness to those details makes us think we are better Christians than other people because we do them, and that’s where the second half of the gospel comes in: “From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” (MK 7: 21-23) Jesus doesn’t seem to be opposed to washing one’s hands, he just can’t abide people using it to inflate their own sense of holiness – self-righteousness and judgmentalism can come out of a person at the exact same time as they are washing their hands, in fact BECAUSE they are washing their hands. To how much other religious stuff could we apply that standard? We hold in tension the need to sacramentalize (that is, make tangible and bodily) our inner lives while acknowledging the plurality of legitimate ways of doing so.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
As a side note, Hosea 11:8 has God say, “How could I treat you as Admah, or make you like Zeboiim?” Admah and Zeboiim are code words for Sodom and Gomorrah – how can I do this kind of violence to my child? Then, the text says, “My heart is overwhelmed,” and the word used here is the same word used in the Sodom and Gomorrah story for “earthquake” – God is taking the earthquake of anger at injustice and unfaithfulness into God’s own heart and being torn apart by it. Kazoh Kitamori, a Japanese theologian, envisioned God, in the words of German theologian Dorothee Soelle, “as one who suffers because of sin and yet cannot maintain his wrath, who reconciles wrath and love in pain because he loves the object of his wrath, which always entails suffering.” Not our usual God-image, perhaps, but what is the Sacred Heart, my community’s central symbol, but the institutionalization of the suffering of God in and on behalf of the world? So, to wrap up on this day of memorializing the scars that are hanging on in Mississippi and Louisiana four years later, are those memories opening us up to acknowledge the unbelievable plethora of sacred wounds in the world that remain unhealed? I regularly use Merton’s quote from The Sign of Jonas to talk about God, but maybe we can point it at ourselves too…mercy within mercy within mercy.
Friday, August 21, 2009
Friday, August 14, 2009
I had wanted to write about this before, and kept putting it off…a few weeks ago, in New Orleans, we had an interesting table conversation: one of our guys who does mission appeals for our Bro’s in Africa went to a parish in New Orleans, visited six Latin Masses at this place, and they were all full, mainly of younger folks. I’m happy people are going to church, of course, but I’m curious about this, because I have gone to Latin Masses before and found them impressive but personally unfulfilling. (*The Latin Mass feels to me rather akin to going to a Greek Orthodox liturgy, which I enjoy doing every now and then even though my Greek is almost as terrible as my Latin. The ceremony is impressive, the “smells and bells” are potent reminders of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans (thank you, Rudolf Otto), but I don’t feel like I am building any community, and liturgy, which literally means “the work of the people,” feels at that moment more like a spectator sport, since I don’t speak the language.*) So, a few ideas we had: have our masses become so “domesticated” that they have lost a sense of mystery that people feel is important to maintain focus on the transcendence of God? Does the majesty and otherness of the Latin Mass make that present in a way that other liturgies don’t? On the other hand, since most folks don’t know Latin, is the “horizontal” aspect of the liturgy (i.e., the building of the body of Christ in the community, the celebration of our daily triumphs and defeats and fears, lost in the otherworldliness of the Latin? Even though the Latin Mass is not my particular preference, I understand the importance of deep, powerful symbols in relationship to God (how many sweatlodges have I done because the symbolism goes all the way down?) and have no need to try to undercut that. Still, if the retrieval of the Latin is a sign that the vernacular Mass is not meeting people’s needs (not trying to oversimplify – I know a lot of parishes and a lot of ministers who are doing tremendous things), then we should be asking questions about that as well. Too, for Christianity the real mystery is that the mysterium tremendum et fascinans is encountered in the ordinary, in our midst – bread, wine, water, one another in all of our messiness. I say that not to try to domesticate God or to invalidate grander models of liturgy, but to ask how to hold the transcendent and immanent, the vertical and horizontal, in tension and not spin back into the liturgical stuff that Jesus fussed about with his contemporaries. The frustrating thing I see in so many Sunday liturgies gone wrong is that all the raw materials are there – good readings, deep symbols, grand ritual – but we end up moving it into our heads or into our feelings instead of into our guts, where it can become the story by which we “live and move and have our being.” As I have argued elsewhere, maybe one problem is not that we are asking too much of people, but that we are asking too little. English or Latin, the liturgical goal of the active participation of the faithful is an elusive one, with passive listening and watching being much more the order of the day. I don’t envy pastors their task: respecting people’s intelligence without turning it into a theology class, getting people involved without resorting to entertaining them (some parishes with a lot of teenagers seem to think that an electric guitar and a drum kit added to humdrum liturgy could make it not humdrum), and reweaving a story that engenders another way of living in the world. As always, ideas or rebuttals are most welcome.
Wednesday, August 12, 2009
To that end, a few interesting things (interesting to me): I am presently staying at Bethlehem Farm (http://www.bethlehemfarm.net) in southeast West Virginia, a Catholic farm run by an intentional community of young Catholics. One of the founders of the place, Colleen Fitts, happens to be the sister of a former co-worker of mine from St. Louis University, so they both invited me to come visit. An exciting place: 15 or so groups per year come for weeklong missions, rather like Klagetoh, the Brothers’ place in the Navajo Nation, but they also grow a lot of their own food here, cook almost exclusively vegetarian food, and have a good mix of community living setups – long-term folks, summer volunteers, single and married folks, shared prayer, the works. As much as I am enjoying these few days here for their own sake, I will be keeping an eye out for ideas that could work in Klagetoh, especially involving bringing more people there for longer-term volunteer opportunities (summer, semester, year, whatever) - for college students or recent grads.
I just read a little book by Edward Abbott, entitled Flatland; written over a hundred years ago, it tells a story from the perspective of a being living in a two-dimensional universe. A being from 3-D space tries to explain what his universe is like, to no avail – the 2-D being simply can’t fathom anything so beyond his experience. It has reminiscences of Plato’s “Cave Allegory,” from The Republic, as well as The Matrix, but it poses the question to us of our capacity to imagine realms of reality and experience beyond our own. I could see it working as a reading for an intro theology class or something like that.
Just started in on The Sacred Canopy by Peter Berger, a sociologist. He is doing a sociological analysis of religion, not to reduce religion to sociology, but to remind us that religion has a seriously sociological element to it. In particular so far he has spent a lot of time talking about religion as a legitimizing factor for a particular arrangement of power structures. For example, he has a chapter entitled “Theodicy” (which of course piqued my interest since I taught a course on theodicy, or the question of why bad things happen to good people), in which he argues, “One of the very important social functions of theodicies is, indeed, their explanation of the socially prevailing inequalities of power and privilege. In this function, of course, theodicies directly legitimate the particular institutional order in question.” (59) So, if we say, “Everything happens for a reason,” we give support to the current state of affairs, since by our logic, whatever is happening, no matter how terrible it is, must have a good reason for being so. That means that we don’t have much theological pressure to change the state of affairs (whatever it might be). Of course, most of us at one time or another have likely said, “Everything happens for a reason”; we do at times feel like things have lined up too perfectly to be mere coincidence (and that may well be the case), but if everything is happening according to plan, then God presumably wants our world to be the way it is, undercutting the impetus for social change and neglecting the gospel stance that things are NOT the way God wants them to be. “May thy kingdom come, may thy will be done” (making explicit the usually implicit subjunctive) means that “thy will” isn’t being done, at least not in full. People that challenge that social arrangement, however, usually end up in trouble (can you think of any significant religious leaders who never got themselves in trouble with their religious group and/or their society for critiquing the status quo?), because to shake up the ordered worldview of the religion seems to risk plunging them back into chaos: “When the socially defined reality has come to be identified with the ultimate reality of the universe, then its denial takes on the quality of evil as well as madness.” (Berger 39) In Flatland, after our two-dimensional narrator is given an experience of the 3-D universe, he tries to explain it to the other beings in his universe, he is summarily silenced and imprisoned for threatening the secure worldview that they all inhabit. Thomas Merton and Walter Brueggemann both see poetry as closely akin to prophecy, not in making rhyme schemes, but in articulating an alternative to our “settled” vision of the world – what we presume to be obvious, self-evident, in the very “nature” of the world. Such thinkers and seers use analogy, metaphor, poetic language, something other than flat, “final” prose to call into question both our certitudes and the arrangements we have settled on as a society to avoid seeing those who get chewed up by those arrangements.
Monday, August 10, 2009
As I was listening to Brueggemann’s sermon, I was caught up with realization that I almost never hear a sermon on a psalm. My experience in Catholicism is that sermons are more often on some piece of Catholic doctrine, or on a moral kernel to be gleaned from the gospel, or perhaps Paul (although it seems that Paul is too close to the Protestant schema for most Catholics to know what to do with him). The psalms, though, particularly the lament psalms, present the grittiness of life lived with God and the boldness of making big complaints and big imperatives of God – something many of us are not comfortable with. Brueggemann concluded another clip I watched this morning with the line, “If people are caught in dogmatism or in moralism, they tend not to see how incredibly artistic it all is.” One of his big motifs is the need for the artistic, the poetic, to bring speech to the stuff we usually deny – the heartache and uncertainty and rage we feel and then feel bad about feeling, because good people aren’t “supposed” to think that way. So, we prefer a safe denial to a risky honesty and thereby truncate God to only having access to the acceptable parts of our lives, and the shadow part of our lives and our personalities runs unchecked and unhealed.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of making perpetual vows, and today is the tenth anniversary of first vows. I certainly would not have anticipated on either of those days that my religious life would lead me to Syracuse, New York. I do think I had hoped I would have grown up more, but the more I try to think about my spiritual development over the past decade, the more I find that there isn’t much to speak of. Just like ten years ago, it is still so much easier for me to ask questions about faith than to have it, to read books about prayer than to pray, to think about justice than to work for it. As the saying goes, “O wretched man that I am!” It is just such realizations that spark my faith, however – realization of my need for “mercy within mercy within mercy.”
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Saturday, July 4, 2009
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I’ve been back in the Navajo Nation for a few days now, and lots of fun things as well as some important things have happened along the way. First, the 20-ish hour drive from New Orleans to Klagetoh was more or less uneventful, except for the travel center sign that read, "Eat here. Get gas." (I can only presume they knew what they were doing) and that the 35-hour-long audiobook of The Brothers Karamozov that I brought with me has been disappointing so far; I know it’s a classic, but the writing style that spends entire chapters discussing someone’s appearance or some feature of the landscape just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe that is me being impatient, but 6 CDs into the book, there has not been very much actual plot development; I’m still not quite sure what the plot actually is.
Thursday we (my friend and former co-worker Ben) went to St. Michael’s (the high school I used to teach at) to help the maintenance folks break up an old sidewalk – they had said we would be able to use a jackhammer, which was the main reason I wanted to go, but they had decided to put off getting the jackhammer until later on. Anyway, they handed us sledgehammers and told us to go to work; not as much fun, but still a good way to spend a day. We did get help from one of the maintenance guys with a Bobcat, so we broke up and hauled a lot of concrete that day, to the point that we were pretty wrecked that day and still not quite back to 100%.
Today (Saturday) was a trip to Canyon de Chelly, followed by a sweatlodge at the mission. They asked me to be the fire man for the sweat, which means nothing more than that I got to dig white-hot rocks out of a blazing fire, close enough to scald me all over. I spent a lot of time in there thinking about what has kept me coming back here all these years – certainly I love the landscape, the ritual life, the pace, and so on, but I think that the mentoring I get from Br. John, who runs the mission here, is something I crave. John exudes what I would call Grandfather Energy – that unhurried wisdom that comes from a lifetime of living the religious life well, and even while I admit he isn’t perfect (and he wouldn’t be upset by me saying so), he gives young folks like me a space to “apprentice” with him. That is, I spend my time here going with him to visit families, working with him to prepare meals for groups coming in, making trips into town for supplies, and other seemingly menial things that let me learn his way of doing things by directly watching him do it – something one does not do so easily as a teacher or a person working a desk job.