Monday, August 31, 2009

Sunday, 30 August 2009

A few years ago I took a class at Notre Dame on liturgical prayer, and as it so happened, I was the only student in the class who was not specializing in liturgical studies. At one point we were talking about particular ritual gestures at particular points in the prayers, and I got exasperated at what seemed like nit-picking and blurted out, “None of this stuff matters!” The professor calmly replied, “It does matter – we are embodied beings.” “OK,” I said, “it matters that we do SOMETHING with our bodies, but I can’t imagine that God cares whether we are sitting or standing or kneeling, using the orans position or whatever else, at any given moment.”  I just couldn't imagine God being a micromanager, but I could understand the importance of sacramentality, that is, the relationship between our sensory world and our spritual lives.

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 d├ęcor 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

Happy Hurricane Katrina Day...

Today is the 4th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making lives interesting in Louisiana, and as it so happens, I’ve been reading for a class on how religions institutionalize memory. What particularly interests me is how we make wounds into sacred wounds to memorialize trauma. There is actually a show on MTV called Scarred (or something like that), which is mostly about extreme athletes telling stories of hurting themselves really badly and showing off the resulting scars while videos of their accidents replay over and over. (Seriously, I only watched it for about 3 minutes…really.) I remember seeing the news from Halloween in New Orleans in 2005, and a lot of people made costumes that poked fun at our collective plight – wearing the spray-painted markings that the National Guard put on houses they searched, for example. Some people have deliberately kept those markings on their houses, or kept the waterlines on their outer walls, as a way of remembering what happened here. People who go through initiation rites often receive some kind of permanent marking (scar, tattoo, wound, lost tooth, branding, whatever) as a way of marking them as initiated men or women and reminding them of their own mortality. Mythic traditions often do the same, from the dislocated hip of Jacob in Genesis or the boy prince’s golden finger in the Eisenhans story to Harry Potter’s lightning scar or Luke Skywalker’s lost hand. What I think all of these sacred wounds are pointing to in some way is compassion. Richard Rohr, OFM says that he can only think of two things that have much chance of teaching us wisdom: suffering and contemplative prayer (I suspect they have to go together). This is because, on one hand, they remind us that we can’t take our own projects with final seriousness and that we are much more mortal than we would like to believe, and on the other hand, because we’re not the only ones with sacred wounds. Seeing our own wounds had better open us up to acknowledging the wounds of others, or we will simply turn inwards on our own bitterness or self-absorption and play victims.
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

Considering how few people ever see this blog, I don't expect any Muslim readers to see this, but just in case, Ramadan Kareem. The fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan is intended to increase solidarity with people who don't have a choice about going hungry. We Catholics have pared down the fasting bit pretty far in our liturgical calendar, and while I rarely argue for legislation from on high as the means of invigorating the interior life, I would say that we could learn something from our Muslim sisters and brothers about taking on such a discipline and having more than just our whims to hold our feet to the fire. It's not about "giving something up," but about embodied prayer and solidarity - FEELING hunger in our bodies, and using that sensation as a launching pad to consider what hunger means given the massive scale on which it exists in our world. I know a number of students who voluntarily fast regularly, and who hold each other accountable - not making a fuss, not because they have to, not because they think it makes them holier than anyone else, but because they want to take on a discipline that keeps them attentive to issues of hunger in the world. When was the last time any of us felt truly hungry? How often do we eat when we aren't even hungry? Bethlehem Farm (where I visited last week) has a banner in their dining room that reads, "Lord, to those who hunger, give bread, and to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice." Amen...

Friday, August 14, 2009

one more thing...

I've been fiddling with the settings on this thing, adding blogs I like, and I wanted to mention one that I like a lot: it's called "Religious Life Rocks: The Adventures of One Fun Nun," ( and it's kept by a young School Sister of Saint Francis named Sister Katy. Never met her in person, but from what I have seen, she lives up to her title of "fun nun" (given by one of her students) - she has a quirky sense of humor - she's apparently part of an improv comedy group in her city - and a charming writing style. (On the other hand, my own mother tells me that half the time she can't figure out what I'm saying in my blog posts. Thanks, Coach.)

mysterium tremendum et fascinans

Just got back from Bethlehem Farm a few hours ago – a great trip, despite having a few more aches and pains than I would prefer to admit. Still, any trip that involves hitting stuff with a sledgehammer is a good trip in my book -- the second picture, by the way, is of me with my friend and former co-worker Laura O’Donnell (and the sledgehammer). I promise we didn’t dress alike on purpose… The first picture summarizes my Wednesday – working in the garden, shoveling a lot of…fertilizer.

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

farming and Flatland

First, a quick word of thanks to Fr. Austin ( for kindly making mention of my blog on his – I admire his consistency in posting so regularly and always having something good to say. Even when I go long stretches without posting I don’t often come back feeling like I have much to say that is worthwhile.

To that end, a few interesting things (interesting to me): I am presently staying at Bethlehem Farm ( 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

bringing speech to pain

Yesterday (Sunday) I accompanied one of the Brothers to a march organized by a local group called Mothers against Gun Violence – we walked through an area of downtown Syracuse to an outdoor gathering where there were about 2 hours of performances – prayers, raps, poems, a mime, and so on. I was glad I went, but the left side of my brain kept saying, “Do they expect this to actually stop people in the heat of the moment from taking violent actions?” Centering prayer, teaching about nonviolence, all that seems more “results-oriented,” and maybe it is, but then today I was listening to a clip of Walter Brueggemann giving a sermon at Duke University, making his way through a lament psalm, and I realized that, in their own way, that’s what those folks yesterday were doing. “Effectiveness” is only one pole of the work they are involved in – most of the people there had lost someone to violence (as evidenced by the number of people wearing t-shirts with iron-ons or airbrushings of deceased friends or family members), and lament is the appropriate response to such a rending of life’s fabric. Part of their intention was undoubtedly to tell young people to stay away from violence, but I imagine that much of it was rather about the need to “bring speech to pain.”
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

Happy anniversary...

I think I have mentioned before the alleged Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Translation: change is difficult. Still, four days after arriving in Syracuse, so far it has been pretty smooth. It will be a little while before I know my way around town, and until I actually meet people (activities at school don’t start for two more weeks), but I have so far managed to find a few essential places (grocery store, gym, school, etc.) and to keep myself busy. In the past few years I’ve gone to a gym in New Orleans a few times with some of the Bro’s, and it’s the kind of place where they give you towels out of the freezer and there are flowerpots in the locker room. Nice place, but half the times I went I was afraid of getting sweat on the equipment, and the other half the air was up so high I never broke a sweat. Believe me, there are no frozen towels at this place: it’s dark, full to overcrowded with beat-up old weights, the walls are covered with ancient posters of past greats like Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva and Ah-nold, the place smells like rust and half the mirrors are broken. It’s definitely a dungeon, and I love it already. I know that once I register for classes I can use the rec. facility at SU, but part of me wants to stay at this place just for the dungeon factor.

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

Institute for Creation Research

Almost at the end of living out of a suitcase! I left New Orleans two days ago, spent last night in northern Alabama at the wedding of a friend from high school, and got up this morning and drove to St. Louis, where I am staying the next two days on my way to Syracuse. Along the way, I happened to catch part of a radio commercial for a group that promotes “creation science.” What was particularly interesting was the clarity with which they laid out the logic of their position; in battling mainstream biology, they take issue with claims that dinosaurs existed for millions of years before human beings, and here’s why: if dinosaurs lived and died for millions of years before humans existed, then that counters Paul’s argument that death entered the world because of the sin of the first humans, so sin is NOT the wages of death, and then, what is the value of the cross of Christ as the sole means of the salvation of humanity? It is stunning to me how clearly they see where the crux of their problem lies: the point was not about challenging pagan science or anything like that, as they put it, but about the centrality of Christ, which, ideologically twisted though their position is, it has a certain internal logic to it which I find interesting. However, the unexamined parts of their argument are even more interesting to me. Early on in Christian history, mainstream Christianity fairly tightly defined the orthodox teachings on Christology, i.e. who Jesus is in his relationship with God and other human beings, but no official teaching was ever given on soteriology, i.e. the means by which Christ saves. There are any number of models and analogies in scripture and the teachings of various theologians, but never has any one been declared to be the definitive model. However, this particular group has taken an analogy (or more likely, taken a few analogies and conflated them) as literal speech. Paul and other early theologians wanted to say that somehow in the midst of the horror of the cross, salvation was understood to be present, but they used so many images and models that it is quite obvious that they did not take any one model with final seriousness. The other problem is that as much as the term “salvation” gets batted around, people often enough don’t have a clear sense of what it actually means. We tend to think of it in extraterrestrial terms, e.g. the forgiveness of sins as means of attaining heaven or some such thing, rather than being involved in people’s real lives, encompassing physical well-being, social reconciliation, and so on. This infomercial ended by urging listeners to go back to the Bible and “get right” with Genesis, that is, don’t allow yourself to be led astray by the disenchanting teachings of evolutionary biology. I have no problem with claiming that I experience salvation in the cross of Christ, but that in no way forces me to believe that death did not exist until humans existed, or that the death of Jesus is only or even primarily about a transaction with God to propitiate God’s anger into forgiving sins. So the effort of defending “creation science” boils down to protecting an analogy, to taking literally that which was meant to be a pointer, and one of many at that – as Nietzsche says, “Truth is an army of metaphors.” Images of Jesus as scapegoat and sacrifice and exemplar and ransom and many others all shake together, not so they can all be taken literally (impossible, as they mutually undercut each other), but so they can together point beyond themselves. Such a reality is too big to be adequately captured by any one image, or even by many working together, and to attempt to do so, despite their best efforts, does not uphold the integrity of the cross, but reduces it to one image. At the same time, on the creation vs. evolution front, I would offer Paul Tillich's "principle of correlation": good science may not necessarily lead to good theology, but bad science inevitably leads to bad theology. If truth is genuinely one, that is, if all truth comes from God, we don't have to be afraid of science - new learnings may well give us new, better questions to ask of the tradition that we could not have asked otherwise.