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.”