Thursday, December 30, 2010

Predictions & Providence

The end of the year invites review.

Those who chronicle 2010 will record disasters such as the earthquake in Haiti (230,000 dead), the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and a world-wide economic downturn.

They will recall the introduction of the iPad, the first 24-hour nonstop flight of a solar powered plane, and the end of the H1N1 flu pandemic.

They will remember the rescue of 33 miners in Chile, the deaths of J. D. Salinger, Tony Curtis and Lena Horne, and Obamacare.

Looking back they will register for future generations the memorable events of MMX.

But the end of the year also invites looking ahead.

I am not a Nostradamus, but I enjoy predicting the future as much as he did. (I really suspect his "prophecies" were fillers for the almanacs he published just as proverbs filled in the pages of Benjamin Franklin's almanacs centuries later.)

With feigned solemnity I predict that over the next two years (I give myself leeway to extend into 2012) the following will occur:

1) President Barack Hussein Obama will announce that he will not seek re-election as President of the United States.

2) Former President William Jefferson Clinton will announce his candidacy for President of the United States and he will float the idea of choosing Hillary Rodham Clinton as his running mate.

3) Pope Benedict XVI will announce his retirement and will offer a recommendation about who should be his successor.

4) Environmentalist Albert Arnold Gore, Jr., will warn that continued green-house gas emissions will cause the onset of a new ice age.

5) Both the Cincinnati Reds and the Cincinnati Bengals will have winning seasons.

Remember! You read it here first!

Part of Nostradamus' lasting appeal is our curiosity and fear about the future. We want to know. And yet predicting the future is somewhat like forecasting the weather. There are signs and probabilities about what might happen, but nobody knows for sure.

Jesus made some predictions. He told his contemporaries that the temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed; it was razed by the Romans in 70 AD. He spoke of the end time, when, following great tribulations, the Son of Man will come with great power and glory, but he went on to add, "Of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father" (Mark 13:32).

Jesus' advice in the face of the unknown was simple: "Be watchful! Be alert!"

But neither his dire prediction nor his sobering advice were meant to leave his audience anxious, distraught or despairing. Heaven is forever telling us, "Do not be afraid!" (Franciscan friar and spiritual writer Richard Rohr says, "'Be not afraid' is the most common single line in the Bible.")

Ours is a loving God, a Father solicitous for his children, capable of bringing good out of evil, always assuring us that there is light at the end of the tunnel. He does not necessarily keep bad things from happening, but he does find a way for goodness to triumph. Ours is a savior who knows his way out of the grave.

I don't know what the future holds. I can suggest that there will be continuing hostility between Arabs and Jews, between Muslims and Christians, between North Korea and South Korea. I am sure terrorist threats and bombings will continue. I predict that commercial television programming will get worse before it gets better.

But in truth I do not know what, when, how or even if these things will happen. All I can have is the assurance that God is the ultimate Master of history and things will turn out as divine providence directs. In the meantime I am to be at peace, not afraid. I am to be alert but not anxious. I am to have faith in God and not worry about tomorrow.

Looking ahead means looking toward God.

Heaven's best blessings to you in the new year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Poetry in Christmas

Some things defy pure reason. I suspect that's why human beings resort to poetry.

Who would send a Valentine card that said, "I have 'a profoundly tender, passionate affection' for you?" The italicized words are the definition of love according to my dictionary. Accurate enough, I suppose, but somehow lacking.

Even a first-grader prefers something less prosaic: Roses are red, Violets are blue, Sugar is sweet, And so are you!

And if the spirit of Valentine's Day is elusive in prose which is the ordinary form of spoken or written language, without metrical structure (another dictionary definition), how much more the mood or ardor of Christmas!

Matthew could not tell the story of Jesus' birth without resorting to mystery and mysticism: Joseph's quandary, a surprisingly mobile star, and astrologers from the east: and Luke had his angelic visitations, a manger for a crib, and shepherds who travel to Bethlehem.

John's account is the most mystical of all: the Word was God, the Word took flesh, and the Word "pitched his tent among us!"

When our ancestors tried to describe God's intrusion into their history, they resorted to all kinds of literary forms: they used myths and folklore, letters and hymns, proverbs and prophecy --prose and poetry.

Jesus too used various literary devices to convey the truth: sermons, miracles, predictions, prayers, and his favorite: parables.

The Church also employs many forms: commandments, homilies, the magisterium, and her favorite: liturgy.

Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church begins its discussion of Jesus' birth in prose ("Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event." #525), but quickly launches into a sixth century hymn by a Greek saint known as Romanos the Melodist:

The Virgin today brings into the world the Eternal
And the earth offers a cave to the Inaccessible.
The angels and shepherds praise him
And the magi advance with the star,
For you are born for us,
Little Child, God eternal.

I have always wanted to preach my best on Christmas but have never come close to matching the occasion. One reason I fail is simple: I am more prose than poetry.

Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver describes writing poetry as a love affair between the heart ("that courageous but also shy factory of emotion") and the learned skills of the conscious mind. The two of them must come together at the same time, she says, or nothing happens.

The heart part "exists in a mysterious, unmapped zone: not unconscious, not subconscious, but cautious." It's that part, as Miss Oliver puts it, which "supplies a necessary part of the poem --the heat of the star as opposed to the shape of a star."

If, as I propose, some things defy pure reason, Christmas must be at the top of the list. And if, as Mary Oliver suggests, "Poets are born and not made in school," I shall never adequately move Christmas from my lumbering prose into passionate poetry.

On the other hand, my just knowing that this very special holyday defies logic and appeals to the more sentimental and spiritual part of my nature gives me comfort and hope. For the time being I am content to revel in the Gospel revelation: "He pitched his tent among us" (John 1:14).

It's nice to know that God is so near, and on Christmas morning, after Midnight Mass, I'll listen for Jesus' ever so mundane and prosaic invitation, "Come, have breakfast" (John 21:12). And once again it'll be a Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Power of Blessing

In one of his books (it might have been Life of the Beloved) Henri Nouwen wrote about the power of blessing.

By blessing he meant saying a good word. He proposed that a benediction (the term means "good word") can counter negativity and raise people's spirits.

The Church offers blessings. In fact it has a whole book of them: blessings for people, blessings related to buildings and human activity, blessings for religious articles, blessings related to feasts and seasons, and blessings for various needs and occasions.

The priest-presider may offer several blessings during Mass: for holy water, the deacon, incense, and, of course, for the people before the dismissal. He blesses the body at a funeral, the rings at a wedding, and a baby at its Baptism.

We ask a blessing before we eat a meal. We have a benediction before an assembly or meeting. We bless ourselves with holy water when we enter a church.

Liturgical blessings are, next to the seven sacraments, the chief sacramental activity of the Church.

Some of the blessings are profound and soul-stirring; others sound as if the blesser is at a loss for words.

The blessing of the sick moves the soul: "Lord, you watch over your creatures with unfailing love; keep us in the safe embrace of your love. With your strong right hand raise up your servants...minister to them and heal their illnesses."

The blessing for airplanes is less inspired: "Grant that this airplane, built by human skill and talent, may make its flights in calm weather."

One frequently told story is about the atheist who insisted that the pope give him a blessing. Trying to come up with appropriate good words, the pontiff at last said (in Latin) the blessing for charcoal: "May you be blessed by Him in whose honor you shall be burned."

Nouwen, however, wasn't thinking of church or liturgical blessings; he was thinking of the kind words, good wishes, and thoughtful praises people can offer to one another.

Someone sneezes, and you say, "God bless you!" Someone does you a favor, and you respond, "Thanks! That was very kind." Someone is hurting or embarrassed, and you say,"It'll be OK."

Sometimes a gesture, like the wave of the hand or a smile on the face, speaks volumes of good words. A driver lets you change lanes, and you signal your gratitude.

In Nouwen's mind, the simple ritual of a blessing (using words and/or signs) makes heaven come down on earth and eases the pain of a broken world.

Every child and most adults like to hear, "Good job!" The affirmation allows the one so blessed to feel for at least a moment, "Hey, I'm OK."

"Thank you" to the cashier at Wal-Mart may over-turn the rudeness of a previous customer. "Good afternoon" may raise the spirits of a tired neighbor or a heart-broken passer-by.

Remarkable to say, a word of blessing to God must delight his loving heart: "Praise the Lord! Alleluia! Thank you, Jesus!"

And the season for freely given blessings is at hand. "Happy Holidays" to the next person you meet would be great, and "Merry Christmas" would be even greater.

My "Thanks" to you too for reading this blog.

And "God bless us everyone!" said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Vatican II's Golden Anniversary

There is the perception among some Catholics that the Church's leadership wants to take the Church back to what it was before the Second Vatican Council.

Some clergy lean toward the theology, dress, liturgical style and clericalism of the pre-Vatican II Church.

Pope Benedict XVI decides, on his personal initiative (motu proprio), to allow a return to use of the Tridentine (Latin) liturgy.

The Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments requires English-speaking Catholics to use a new (and highly criticized) English translation of the Sacramentary (the book of prayers for Mass) beginning in Advent of 2011.

The meetings of Synods of Bishops at the Vatican fall far short of the hope for collegiality raised by the Council fathers.

I once asked a priest/historian if it is possible that the spirit and change of Vatican II might be just a momentary blip on the screen of Church history. Will we go back to the way it was?

He said, "No," and went on to explain that the pattern of history shows a period of reaction following significant change. He told me that we should expect to find people who want to return to the seeming security of the pre-Vatican II Church, but once a change has taken place history does not allow restoration to the past.

The Church has been promised the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus has assured us, "I will be with you always." The theology and renewal reflected in the documents and spirit of the Second Vatican Council cannot be rendered void; those decisions were instructed for the good of the Church and the promotion of the Gospel.

In his book Receiving the Council, canon lawyer Ladislaus Orsy, SJ, reminded his readers that when the Council fathers gathered in St. Peter's Basilica they prayed the traditional acclamation Adsumus, "we are present and listening."

Orsy proposes that the years 2012 to 2015 should be solemnly declared the years of the Council, that the entire people of God ("from the bishops to the last of the faithful," Lumen Gentium 12, quoting St. Augustine) should observe this golden anniversary with that same prayer. He pleads, "Let the cry Adsumus, 'we are present and attentive,' resound --not within the walls of St. Peter's Basilica but throughout the face of the earth."

And I would add a suggestion for still another prayer, namely, that the Church be set free from fear. The Bible is replete with heaven's plea, "Do not be afraid." 1 John 4:18 teaches, "There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love." I suspect that efforts to restore the Church to what it was prior to Vatican II are motivated largely by fear.

Going back to old ways does not ensure preservation of dogma nor reclamation of devotion. It is paradoxical but true that things must change to stay the same. That is what Pope John XXIII meant when he made the distinction between the truths of dogma and the language that is used to present them.

Calling a refrigerator "the ice-box" or an automobile "a machine" may have a certain nostalgic appeal, but as descriptions they are antiquated and inadequate for this age.

Vatican II set a course for the future. Lay participation in the mission and ministry of the Church is sanctioned and here to stay. Recognition of and cooperation with other religions and churches in the ecumenical movement do not pose a threat to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

When Father Orsy suggests that "For communities and individuals to enter into the dynamics of the Council is to expose themselves to the ever-surprising action of the Spirit," I say, "From your mouth to God's ears."

Let preparations for the golden anniversary begin! And do not be afraid!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Tenth Parallel - Nigeria

I’ve just started reading Eliza Griswold’s book The Tenth Parallel, and already I doubt that the jihad of Muslim extremists and the resistance of the Western world will ever be peacefully resolved.

Griswold is a journalist who has for the past seven years traveled along the tenth parallel (the seven hundred mile wide band of land north of the equator, which includes Nigeria, the Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines) to investigate and report on the ongoing bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims.

So far I’ve read only about the situation in Nigeria which she describes as “sub-Saharan Africa’s major petroleum producer,” “America’s fifth-largest supplier of oil,” and “one of the continent’s wealthiest and most influential powers…(and) one of its most corrupt democracies.”

Part of the conflict is about whose beliefs are sanctioned by God: Muslims’ or Christians’? Another part is economic. Some non-Muslims have converted to Christianity as a way of combating Muslim oppression. Christian Pentecostalism is growing fast, and one form of Pentecostalism focusing on a “prosperity Gospel” (i.e., the belief that God blesses Christians with economic prosperity) has proved to be a threat to the spread of Islam.

Anglican Archbishop Benjamin Kwashi puts it bluntly, “In Nigeria both sides are growing, and that growth engenders competition.” Kwashi likes to say, “For Christians, God has moved his work to Africa.” He believes that the western world is guilty of relativizing the Gospel, that mainline Protestant churches have moved away from a strict interpretation of the Bible and are leaving to Christians in Africa and Asia the job of spreading the Gospel. According to Kwashi this is where America in particular has gone wrong.

Author Griswold recounts the story of a February, 2004, attack by Muslims against Christian worshippers in the town of Yelwa. Jihadists, shouting "Allahu Akhbar," set fire to a church, shot those who tried to escape, and burned a nursery school, killing at least 78 people that day. Two months later Christians surrounded the town and over a period of two days, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, massacred over 600 Muslims. By 2006 Yelwa was a ghost town.

Abdullahi Abdullahi, a Muslim human rights lawyer, explained to Griswold that the conflicts in Nigeria did not begin with religious differences, but with shrinking natural resources. Muslims then bought into the rumor that Christians were plotting to eliminate them. “If someone attacks you, you have the right to defend yourself –call it jihad or whatever you want—but this was Christian attacking Muslim,” a school’s headmaster told Griswold. “The Christians came in the sense of crusade.”

Archbishop Peter Akinola, president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, formerly from a southwestern corner of Nigeria where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully, faults western Christians for abandoning conservative morals which in turn weakens the global Church in its struggle against Islam.

“People are thinking that Islam is an issue in Africa and Asia,” Akinola told Griswold, “but you in the West are sitting on explosives. What Islam failed to accomplish by the sword in the eighth century, it’s trying to do by immigration so that Muslims become citizens and demand their rights.”

(Bishop Akinol was once a colleague of author Griswold’s father, also a bishop of the Anglican Church.)

I have much more of The Tenth Parallel to read, as Griswold reports on the situation in the Sudan in Africa, and then about Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines in Asia. I do not know whether she sees any light at the end of this long dark tunnel of religious, economic, ethnic, and cultural conflict. At this point in her expose I am not especially optimistic.

The Tenth Parallel by Eliza Griswold was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010, $27.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Deo Gratias

Our nation's annual Thanksgiving Day reflects not only our gratitude for heaven's blessings (notably food and peace), it also prompts us to be happy.

I've read that increased happiness is one spin-off of gratitude.

The person who is grateful is a person who is, in the words of a Benedictine spiritual writer, "awake, aware, and alert." Brother David Steindl-Rast believes these three practices are "the beginning, middle, and end of gratitude."

(Brother David, age 84, is an Austrian-born Benedictine monk whose teaching about the spiritual life has been heard and embraced all around the world.)

The first step toward gratitude, David explains, is to wake up to the surprises that come in every day life. Many things happen to us and around us during the course of a day that come as complete surprises. Being open to surprise and even embracing it is the attitude which leads to gratitude.

Step two is looking for opportunities to enjoy. David says that most of the day's happenings provide us with opportunities for enjoyment --"to enjoy sounds, smells, tastes, texture, colors, and with still deeper joy, friendliness, kindness, patience, faithfulness, honesty, and all those gifts that soften the soil of our heart like warm spring rain."

"Responding alertly" is the third step. David explains, "Once we are in practice for being awake to surprise and being aware of the opportunity at hand, we will spontaneously be alert in our response. And the response is to enjoy the surprise.

Brother summarizes his conviction in these words: "My simple recipe for a joyful day is this: stop and wake up; look and be aware of what you see; then go on with all the alertness you can muster for the opportunity the moment offers.

"This recipe for grateful living sounds simple --because it is. But simple does not mean easy...Growth in gratitude is growth in maturity...When I am grateful, I am neither rushing nor slouching through my day --I'm dancing."

David's process for achieving an attitude of gratitude can be applied to the celebration of the Mass. What would happen if a congregation full of worshippers went to Sunday liturgy with the intention of being "awake" (open to surprises), of being "aware" (looking for enjoyment), and of "responding alertly" (deciding to enjoy)?

It is not without reason that the Catholic Mass is more accurately called "Eucharist." The New Testament uses the Greek word eucharistia to express the idea of giving thanks. The whole Mass is a thanksgiving.

Some who attend Mass miss this underlying theme of the liturgy. It never occurs to them that they have come to give thanks to God. David's suggestions about being awake, aware and alert would open up the liturgy and the congregation to a genuine expression of gratitude, and surely the spin-off of that gratitude would be increased happiness for those who pray.

Every Mass concludes with the same words: "Thanks be to God!" Some Catholics say those words because they are relieved that the Mass is finally over. Some say those words without thinking. Some others, however, who are awake, aware and alert, say those words because they are genuinely grateful.

For Catholics every Sunday (indeed every day) is thanksgiving day! Every Mass is a thanksgiving meal!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Schism of Indifference?

Someone asked me recently, "Father do you think the American Church will break away from Rome, that we're headed for a schism?"

Her question was motivated by her disappointment with the hierarchy's handling of the pedophile crisis and by her perception that the reforms and spirit of Vatican II are being stifled.

I tried to calm her anxiety, recalling the old bromide Ecclesia reformans et reformanda, the Church is now reforming and always will be in need of reform.

My response was lame so I punted, "The Holy Spirit is with the Church, and despite our human failings, the Spirit will guide us to all truth."

Later, as I thought about her question, about whether a new schism was possible, I drew the uneasy conclusion that in a sense a schism is already taking place, a schism of indifference.

And to be precise, the break is not so much with the Church as with Church leadership. A segment of the Catholic population is simply ignoring the hierarchy.

It is not a schism born of rejection of the core beliefs of the Church.
These "schismatics" believe in God, in the Trinity, in the Bible, in the sacraments, even in the essential role of the hierarchy.

What identifies them is their conviction that many "rules" are unnecessarily restrictive, stifling the movement of the Spirit, impeding the spread of the Gospel, limiting forgiveness, and confining God's grace.

They meet to pray, to read Scripture, to discuss --to breathe. They participate in parish liturgy, they lead parochial programs, they strive sincerely to be Christian, they believe they are truly Catholic. They may be under the radar but they are there.

They are frustrated --upset about what they perceive to be a repudiation of Vatican II reforms, an unhealthy focus on power and control, the imposition of unnecessary rules and restrictions, and a paralyzing fear throughout the Church.

It's probably too dramatic to label this phenomenon a schism, even a schism of indifference. In his Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Father Richard McBrien defines schism as "a formal breach in Church unity brought about when a particular group willfully separates itself from the larger community." Strictly speaking then, this phenomenon does not qualify as a schism since there is no formal breach, no separation from the communion.

Nevertheless there are these pockets of disillusioned Catholics, begging for renewal and reform in a Church that seems deaf to their pleas, and yet they have no thought of ever leaving this "one, holy, catholic and apostolic church."

It would be a mistake to deny or ignore their existence, and a greater error to condemn them. The guiding principles are clear: Christ-like love, dedication to the Gospel, openness to the Holy Spirit, compassion for all who are in pain, and dialog, dialog, dialog. In many instances they have, I think, a valid point.

Family members don't always agree with one another, but their disagreements do not cancel the familial bond. Rejection is not an option. Respect is essential. Reconciliation is the goal.

Schism is probably an inaccurate description, but the growing indifference is very real. This is a sign of our times that needs attention.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Deja vu History

Does history repeat itself?

Philosopher George Santayana (1863-1952) famously remarked, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

More than a century earlier Georg Hegel (1770-1831) proposed in his Philosophy of History that history teaches us "that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it."

I was thinking of those observations when I heard about recent rioting in France. The French Revolution (1789-99) came immediately to mind. This time, however, it wasn't a peasant revolt against the king, it was a combination of unions and students opposing reform of the nation's pension system, raising the age of retirement from 60 to 62.

England has been the site of revolution. Students went on a rampage in London against the Tories who proposed a hike for university tuition.

Photographs of these recent protests in France and England are reminiscent of the scenes in the United States in the 1960s: urban race riots, the shooting at Kent State, and perhaps even the sex and drug revolutions caricatured at Woodstock.

Some historians maintain that France's revolution in 1789 came hard on the heels of the American revolution of 1776 because of the fiscal reforms and increased taxes mandated by France's military aid to the American colonies. An example, perhaps, of the inter-connectedness of a global economy.

And the American colonies' protest in Boston Harbor in 1773 reminds us of the 2009 grassroots formation of the Tea Party, only this time the protest was against America's own Congress rather Britain's Parliament.

Are these events in some sense an example of history repeating itself? I've been thinking about that as I read the biography Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas.

Could what happened in the 1930s in Germany find an echo in the 2010s of the United States, or elsewhere?

Germany, still reeling from the losses and humiliation of World War I, looked for a Leader. Mextaxas writes, "The First War and the subsequent depression and turmoil had brought about a crisis in which the younger generation, especially, had lost all confidence in the traditional authority of the kaiser and the church. The German notion of the Führer arose out of this generation and its search for meaning and guidance out of its troubles...the authority of the Führer was submitted to nothing. It was self-derived and autocratic, and therefore had a messianic aspect."

A 2010 Gallup "confidence poll" showed that the United States Congress came in dead last in a list of 16 institutions. At the top of the list were the military (76%), small business and police. Next came church (48%), medical system, U.S. Supreme Court, and the presidency. Finally were public schools (34%), criminal justice, newspapers, banks, TV news, organized labor, big business, HMOs, and Congress (11%).

The American people are extremely disillusioned with congress, and church falls below 50%. When I read what Mataxas wrote about the younger generation in Germany in the 1930s losing "all confidence in the traditional authority of the kaiser and the church," I flinched.

Loss of jobs, increase in taxes, real estate foreclosures, rising cost of gasoline and health care, growth of government, indebtedness to foreign nations --all these cause anxiety and unrest across America today. Is violent protest or civil war possible on our streets?

Pope John XXIII called history "the great teacher of life." In his opening address, he urged the bishops of the Second Vatican Council to disagree with the prophets of doom "who are always forecasting worse disasters" and to embrace instead his perception that "the human family is on the threshold of a new era" and that the providence of God is wisely arranging everything, "even adverse human fortune, for the Church's good."

I want to buy into Pope John's optimism, but the notion that history does repeat itself creates an uncomfortable tension. What must we do to restore confidence in church and government?

I would much prefer to end this piece with a wise answer, but the best I can do at this moment is pose the question.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Reluctant Mystic

Mysticism is making a come-back.

There are scores of new books describing this ancient but often negelected phenomenon, and most of them are urging us to be open to it in our spiritual lives.

Theologian Karl Rahner is often quoted: "The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all."

By mysticism, Rahner meant "a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence."

Having read the stories of mystics like Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Therese of Lisieux, Thomas Merton, and more, I am intrigued by their experience but also frightened by the possible consequences if it should happen to me.

Mystical experiences are personal encounters with God. They render a person vulnerable. They are life-changing. And there's the rub for me. I am afraid of the potential change. I cannot predict what God will ask nor whether I will want to respond.

Yet I believe mystical experiences are real, that they are necessary for spiritual growth. I urge congregations to be open to them. I preach of them often. I have come to believe that openness to a mystical experience is the second step in everyone's spiritual life.

The first step (a relatively safe one) is accepting the rules and rituals of religion. As a child I knew the catechism answers, I attended Mass, I prayed the rosary, I gave up candy during Lent. I understood that these made me a practicing Catholic. And for most of my adult life I stayed firmly on that first step.

Now, however, I recognize that there is more --more to one's spiritual life, more to religion, more to being Catholic. The second step is to turn my religion into relationship.

I am to move from method (the many practices of my religion) to mysticism (openness to a personal experience of God).

There is no one definition of mysticism; it can only be described. I think the common denominator in most descriptions is "experience." Chief Leon Shenandoah, chief of the Onondaga nation, who died in 1996, once explained, "Everything is laid out for you. Your path is straight ahead of you. Sometimes it's invisible but it's there. You may not know where it's going, but you have to follow that path. It's the path to the Creator; it's the only path there is."

(Christians do not have a monopoly on mysticism. It is clearly present in the religions and cultures of Native Americans, of Hindus, of Buddhists, of ancient peoples as well.)

Like Chief Leon, St. Paul found the path for his life through a mystical experience on the road to Damascus. And it is reasonable to conclude that this incident was not his only one. He wrote, "I know someone in Christ who, fourteen years ago (whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows), was caught up to the third heaven...and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter" (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2,4).

Some people out of curiosity, pride, or simply a spirit of adventure want a mystical experience, but these motivations lead to a pseudo-mysticism. Genuine mysticism is motivated by a desire for truth. I think that's why Simone Weil could say, "If I had to make a choice between Jesus and truth, I'd choose truth -for before he was Jesus he was truth."

Part of my fear of mysticism may stem from my awareness that a mystical experience is primarily a right-brain phenomenon. As I understand it, the left lobe accomplishes analytical, judgmental and verbal tasks, while the right lobe processes the sensual, creative and emotional experinces. In a mystical moment the mystic is less in control, less able to analyze, and less able to find the words. I fear being drunk in the Lord.

In addition mystics are often misunderstood. Mystical insights challenge the non-mystical person, and mystical language may be deemed paradoxical or nonsensical. Meister Eckhart was charged with heresy in the 14th century; Thomas Merton has been suspect in our time. (Critics of mysticism like to say, "It begins with mist and ends in schism.")

Now, at this stage of my life, I am once more caught in the trap all preachers face --having to practice what I preach.

Even as I take cautious, fearful baby-steps into being open to mysticism (that is, a personal experience of God), I am convinced it is what God wants for all of us.

It is not enough to know about God; we must come to know him --personally.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

What I Believe

Swiss theologian Hans Küng's latest book is titled What I Believe.

He wrote it, he says, in answer to one of the most persistent questions posed to him: "Be quite honest: just what do you personally believe?"

Küng's response is couched in terms theological and philosophical, but not for that reason divorced from everyday life. He writes about the meaning of life, about a basis for ethics accepted by all human beings, about his personal trials and disappointments with Church leadership.

Küng's explanation of his personal beliefs made me ask myself, "And you, what do you personally believe?"

I have never organized my personal credo in such a way that I could write a summa of my faith and life. I suspect I would discover areas into which I have never ventured, and perhaps some that are contradictory one with another.

God, Church, spirituality, ministry, relationships, sin, grace, Scripture, Eucharist, knowledge --these would be at the top of my list of concerns, but I am regrettably unable to spell out conclusively even for myself what I personally believe about each one and whether those various beliefs are compatible with one another.

"Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope" (cf. 1 Peter 3:15).

At this moment of my life Church looms large as an area of concern. I have been reviewing the documents of the Second Vatican Council and reading histories and analyses of that historic event. I am old enough to recall those so-called "heady days" when we were surprised by what we heard from Rome and excited about the possibilities.

Fifty years later my excitement has abated and surprise has turned to a heaviness of spirit. The hopes, dreams, and promises of the past have clashed with the polarization, ennui, and regression of today.

In 1932 young German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer shocked the congregation which had assembled for Reformation Sunday in Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin when he said that the Protestant Church was in its eleventh hour, and that it was grotesquely inappropriate for them to be in a celebratory mood when they were in fact attending a funeral.

Bonhoeffer advised the assembly to wake up and stop playing church. He saw blindness among his co-religionists; he also saw the coming hegemony of the Nazi party. Bonhoeffer's analysis is eerily appropriate today.

Since I am still assessing what I believe, and I leave open for myself the possibility I will change my mind should I discover something new, I at this moment conclude that the Catholic Church is currently idling, in neutral, low on gas and hesitant about which road to take.

The Church, opened by the council to dialogue and involvement with the world, now sits in a paralysis of navel-gazing, overwhelmed by internal scandal, inept in evangelizing, irrelevant to some of its members, and officiously engaged in re-arranging the oft-mentioned deck chairs.

"No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God" (cf. Luke 9:62).

I believe we have lost momentum, enterprise, and direction. History reports that this has happened before. And that history of confusion, doldrums, and dullness gives me hope. For it is in just such circumstances ("darkest before dawn") that something or someone comes on the scene to breathe new life and effect the answer to our prayer for a new Pentecost in our time.

I believe that both history and the Lord's promise to send the Holy Spirit are reasons to be confident about the future.

"Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age" (cf. Matthew 28:20).

I may not live long enough to see it, but I believe we are standing on the threshold of a new age in the Church. As Francis of Assisi revitalized the Church in the Middle Ages and Pope John XXIII refreshed the Church in the 20th century, someone or something will re-invigorate the Church of the 21st.

I believe the mission and ministry of the Church will be fulfilled. I believe in the dreams inspired by Vatican II. I believe what Archbishop Helder Camara of Recife, Brazil, once professed, "If one person dreams alone it remains a dream. But if we all dream together, it becomes reality."

Perhaps you do not share my beliefs or my dreams, but I think I am in good company when I am with Küng and Bonhoeffer and Camara --and Christ.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Leading Ladies

It seems to me that women are taking on leadership roles in a way and to a degree unprecedented in history.

You can hardly speak of today's political climate without mentioning Nancy Pelosi or Sarah Palin. Angela Merkel is the current Chancellor of Germany. Aloisea Inyumba is a senator in the Parliament of Rwanda. Three women serve as associates judges on the United States Supreme Court.

In religious circles, women have long been recognized as major players in supporting the work of the Church. Even if official leadership roles have been almost exclusively male-dominated, it is clear that women have made major contributions to the Christian mission, whether we think of the women who provided for the apostles out of their means (cf. Luke 8:1-3) or the legions of women religious who serve the Church in prayer, hospitals, education, and care for the poor and broken.

Every pastor knows that it is mostly the women in his parish who make the programs work. They are the teachers in parochial school or CCD, the bulk of the congregation at weekday morning Mass, the Marthas who launder the altar linens and clean the sacristy, the cooks who organize and provide parish dinners, the most likely to attend faith formation classes or hours of Eucharistic adoration.

It's a common saying that "behind every successful man, there's a woman." It may not be universally true, but I do note that Francis of Assisi had Clare, Vincent de Paul had Louise de Marillac, Francis de Sales had Jane de Chantal, and (dare I say it?) Jesus had Mary Magdalen.

How many of us learned the truths of faith and life at our mother's knee or seated before a woman teacher in a classroom!

Today, however, women need not be and are not behind anyone. Pope John Paul II refused to admit women to the priesthood, but a report by Cindy Wooden of Catholic News Service maintains that Pope John Paul II looked more closely at the role of women in the church than any other pope in modern history.

She notes that during his pontificate "women took over pastoral and administrative duties in priestless parishes, they were appointed chancellors of dioceses around the world, and they began swelling the ranks of 'experts' at Vatican synods and symposiums. In 2004, for the first time, the pope appointed two women theologians to the prestigious International Theological Commission and named a Harvard University law professor, Mary Ann Glendon, to be president of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences."

The pope opposed the cultural assumption that God intended women to be subject to men and affirmed their equal dignity. He further explained, "It is universally admitted - even by people with a critical attitude towards the Christian message - that in the eyes of his contemporaries Christ became a promoter of women's true dignity and of the vocation corresponding to this dignity" (Mulieris Dignitatem, 12).

One might protest that the Church has not gone far enough to respect the dignity of women, and whether one likes or dislikes the ladies whose names are given above, there remains the indisputable fact that women are playing major leadership roles in politics and religion.

And that influence is a good thing. The arrogance of thinking that homo sapiens can or should disbar half its members from human endeavors is a mental disorder. It flies in the face of reason.

It may have been true in the past, I mean that observation that "behind every successful man, there's a woman." But it's less likely today. The ladies are now out front, and in many cases the men are trying to catch up. It only makes sense --you can't lead from behind, and the ladies are leading.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

God's Good Humor

I am reading Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk, a account of her extended visits to a Benedictine monastery in Minnesota.

One consequence of her experiences at the abbey was a growing respect for the Liturgy of the Hours, and especially for the liturgy's use of Sacred Scripture.

Norris recalled with a smile the observation of poet Oscar Wilde that one of the chief argument's against Christianity is the style of Paul's letters.

Anyone who has lectored at Mass knows the challenge of proclaiming one of Paul's long and convoluted sentences. By the time you get to the end you forget how it began; his meaning becomes elusive somewhere between the first subordinate clause and the third parenthetical observation.

For example, And he gave some as apostles, others as prophets, others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers, to equip the holy ones for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming (Ephesians 4:11-14).

Norris said that listening to (as opposed to reading) Paul's letters (she didn't mention that it takes a good, interpretive reader to convey his message) allowed her "to take unaccustomed pleasure in the complex play Paul makes of even his deepest theology."

She heard the divine sense of humor in 1 Corinthians 1:21, For since in the wisdom of God the world did not come to know God through wisdom, it was the will of God through the foolishness of the proclamation to save those who have faith.

If I understand Paul correctly, he is saying that we come to know God not through human wisdom but through what it seems to be divine foolishness. Isaiah (29:14) said something similar centuries earlier.

Norris said, "Hearing the passage read slowly one night at vespers, I suddenly grasped the exasperation there, and God's good humor, and it made me laugh."

In 1966 Father Raymond Nogar, OP, wrote The Lord of the Absurd, part of which was a defense of his contention that it is not the order of creation that proves there is a God but rather the disorder, waste and inefficiency of our chaotic world.

The book's title caught my attention more than Nogar's argument. The God I encounter in my life as well as in my religion is indeed the Lord of the absurd.

Is it not absurd that God should create with a big bang, that creation should unfold over billions of years, that the Creator of it all should become part of his creation, that God should succumb (even temporarily) to the penalty of death?

There was a cross on the wall of the sanctuary at Sacred Heart Church in Fairfield, Ohio. It was an odd design. Some parishioner wanted it replaced. Rather than discard it entirely I put out it of the congregation's sightline, on the wall near the sacristy. I had a small plaque placed on it with these words: "You must look for the Lord even in the absurd."

Most parishioners have never seen the plaque. A few thought I intended ridicule. Many got the point: God is everywhere, and the divine sense of humor suggests that we ought to look for that presence all around us and in everything --in Paul's convoluted sentences, in the chaos of the universe, in oddly designed crosses, in the absurd events of our lives.

Protestant Kathleen Norris found God in a Catholic abbey. If I am open to it I can find God in unlikely places as well. God's good humor does explain the Lord of the Absurd.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Lifelong Learning Challenge

The Fall Quarter of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute began this week at the Raymond Walters Branch of the University of Cincinnati.

That information hardly makes a banner headline, but it does explain why I was part of a panel of representatives of four major religions: Islam, Judaism, Protestantism and Catholicism. The course is called "Religion Beyond Dogma." It is one of many offered for senior citizens.

I was asked to explain in seven minutes "the core beliefs of your faith." Needless to say, I couldn't do it in seven minutes; the question-and-answer period allowed me to say more.

It was a challenge to listen, speak, compare, and try to be a worthy representative of my Church.

To listen is hard to do. I suspect that's why the daily prayer of the Jew begins with the admonition, Shema, Israel! "Listen, O Israel, Yahweh is God, Yahweh alone!" To really listen one must be quiet, be open, be attentive. Faith comes through hearing.

To speak is easy. But there is a huge difference between having to say something and having something to say. I wanted to be orthodox but practical.

If, as poet John Donne says, "Comparisons are odious," I have to think that contrasts are odiouser (is there such a word?). And yet it is in comparing and contrasting one religion with another that we sort out the truth.

Hardest of all is being a worthy representative of my Church. I know that there are certain beliefs (dogmas) that every Catholic must hold or risk being judged non-Catholic. For example, Catholics are monotheists, but believe in a trinity of persons. They believe that God created the world, that all human beings are made in God's image, that there is life after death. On these we all agree.

But when it comes to representing practices, spiritualities, and theologies, Catholics differ among themselves. For example, most priests in the Roman Catholic rite are not married; in the Eastern rites most are. Catholics pursue a variety of spiritualities: Franciscan, Dominican, Ignatian, or a hybrid of eclectic devotions. Catholic theologians interpret doctrines in different ways. The Catholic umbrella is large.

As I listened to my colleagues explain their core beliefs, I recognized that they too have personal takes on what their religion holds. I heard myself say things to the audience that some Catholics would quickly disavow.

I do not think one religion is as good as another. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said something that I think applies: "If you board the wrong train, it's no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction." Nonetheless I concluded that each of us must apply our religious tradition in a way that translates it into our individual and personal faith.

I think the confrontation between Peter and Paul over Jewish law or the controversy over faith and good works serve as examples that this individuation and personalization occurred even in New Testament times.

Some disagreements allow only one answer, but some permit a variety of solutions. That the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Christ is dogma --you have to believe it to be a Catholic. Whether communion should be distributed only on the tongue is open to discussion and differing practices.

I am not proposing that Catholics should pick and choose beliefs and practices simply as they please. Cafeteria Catholicism is not my focus.

Rather, what came to me as I participated on the ecumenical panel was the need for all believers to personalize their religion if it is to be more than an academic exercise or a practice of culture.

Religion should be an interiorized, personalized expression of one's relationship with God. Muslims, Jews, Protestants and Catholics all share a common family bond --we are children of Abraham. But we deny that relationship if we do not make it personal.

I may not always agree with my brothers and sisters but they remain my family. If the ecumenical movement is to be successful, if Jesus' prayer that they all may be one is ever to be answered, it will require each family member to do his or her best to translate that truth into real life.

To be faithful to one's religious tradition and yet make it one's own is the lifelong learning challenge of every authentic believer.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Knowledge of God

I came across the Pew Research Center's report, U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, released September 28, 2010. The researchers questioned 3,412 Americans age 18 and older about their knowledge of religion.

One of the surprising results of this report is that atheists and agnostics scored higher than Jews, Mormons, Protestants and Catholics.

The survey asked 32 questions. On average the atheist/agnostic group answered 20.9 correctly, while white Catholics scored 16.0. Other groups included Jews at 20.5, Mormons at 20.3, white mainline Protestants at 15.8, Hispanic Catholics at 11.5, and the "nothing in particular religion group" at 15.2.

Most Protestants did not know that Martin Luther inspired the Protestant Reformation. About 43% of the Jews did not know that Maimonides, the highly venerated 12th century rabbi, was Jewish.

Of the Catholics surveyed 45% did not know that their Church believes that the bread and wine of the Eucharist do not merely symbolize but actually become the body and blood of Christ at Mass.

These results are rather discouraging, especially the report about Catholics and their understanding of the Eucharist.

The New Testament directs all believers, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope..." (cf.1 Peter 3:15).

The Pew research suggests that many Catholics are not prepared to do so.

Fifty years ago most U. S. Catholics could respond to questions about their religion with the concise answers they memorized from the Baltimore Catechism. Most grey-haired Catholics today can still tell you what a sacrament is: " outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace."

The problem with question-and-answer catechisms was their simplicity. The answers were helpful but they left a lot unsaid. The Vatican's Catechism of the Catholic Church does not use the old method. Truth tends to require more nuance than the questions-and-answers would allow.

The Pew survey asked whether respondents read books about religion, or went online for such information. About 48% of those affiliated with a religion said that they seldom or never read books or consult websites about their own religion, and 70% said they seldom or never read about other religions.

If the results of this Pew survey are valid, then it is clear that Catholics need to catch up on their knowledge of the word of God.

Catholics need to be evangelized, that is, be presented the Gospel in such a way that they say, "Aha! Makes sense!"

Catholics need to be catechized, that is, presented the facts and insights that enable them to say, "I see it more clearly."

Catholics need some familiarity with theology, that is, to recognize that the truths of faith are often complex and require ongoing exploration, as when we say that God is one but triune.

Catholics need to participate in the liturgy, that is, to celebrate God's word and pray over its consequences for our lives.

Catholics need to be missionary, that is, to share their faith convictions with others; to evangelize.

Catholics need ministry, that is, to translate the Gospel into action, to be servants of the word.

Catholics need to hear, learn, study, celebrate, give witness, and become involved --ways in which we gain knowledge of our religion.

Baptism and Confirmation imply that a Christian is expected to hand on the Gospel to others. A Catholic must not simply consider himself Catholic; he has to be one.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

God's Mother

I think we do a disservice to Mary if we depict her as simple, meek, and mild.

Details about her are few, but the New Testament suggests that she was complex, forthright, even bold.

In Luke's portrait, Mary challenges the angel Gabriel with a rather bold question, "And how will this be since I am not in a sexual relationship?"

In John's portrayal, Mary shows the chutzpah of the stereo-typical Jewish mother. Even though Jesus seems reluctant to intervene on behalf of the bride and groom at Cana, Mary tells the catering staff, "Do whatever he tells you."

Later in his account, John recalls that Mary was there on Calvary, standing beneath the cross and accepting Jesus' instruction to be a mother to one of his disciples.

I think of Mary as a remarkably pious woman, probably a mystic, not afraid of mystery but equally inquisitive, "Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety." In response to Jesus' cryptic reply, it is written that she did not understand but "kept his sayings in her heart."

The Magnificat alone defies picturing a shy, retiring, saccharine Mary. She identifies with the lowly, but gladly acknowledges that future generations will hail her as the blessed one. She proclaims God as the Almighty who acts with power against the arrogant ruling class. She celebrates God's history of raising up the poor and feeding the hungry. She trusts in the promises God made to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Spiritual writer Kathleen Norris underscores the power of Mary's song. She wrote in Amazing Grace - A Vocabulary of Faith, "The Magnificat's message is so subversive that for a period during the 1980s the government of Guatemala banned its public recitation" (p. 117).

Mary's role and significance are further highlighted in these lines from a very widely read holy book:

And make mention of Mary in the Scripture, when she had withdrawn from her people to a chamber looking East. Then we sent unto her Our spirit and it assumed for her the likeness of a perfect man. He said: I am only a messenger of thy Lord, that I may bestow on thee a faultless son.

Then she said: How can I have a son when no mortal hath touched me, neither have I been unchaste?

He said: So it will be. Thy Lord saith: It is easy for Me. And it will be that We may make of him a revelation for mankind, and mercy from Us, and it is a thing ordained.

And she conceived him, and she withdrew with him to a far place.

This description is found in the Muslim holy book, The Koran, Surah xix, 16-22. The whole chapter is titled Mary. The religion of Islam honors her.

Theotokos, the God-bearer, is a strong, spiritually deep, courageous woman. Iconography too often diminishes her spirit and demeanor, painting instead a woman of sentimental sweetness and chemerical complexion. I refuse to believe that Mary had blond hair and blue eyes.

I prefer to picture her as a real woman, more beautiful in soul than in face -humble but durable, kind but challenging.

I wish I could show you a picture of a statue of Mary that adorns the wall of the chapel at St. Vincent's Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Standing tall, she rests her cheek in the palm of her hand, and looks down to the chairs where the seminarians and priests sit for prayer. The gesture and the look on her face are open to varying interpretations, but I think her expression, if verbalized and punctuated with a sigh, would say, "Oh my.....!"

Now that's how I think of God's Mother.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Uniformity vs. Unity

Starting in Advent of 2011 English-speaking Catholics will use a new translation for Mass, the Revised Roman Missal, Third Edition.

It is said that the new translation better reflects the Latin text. It is a "word-for-word translation" as opposed to the "dynamic equivalent translation" we have been using for nearly 40 years.

For example, the Latin expression "Et cum spiritu tuo," when rendered word-for-word, is "And with your spirit." We have been saying, "And also with you."

The translation we have been using since 1974 was thought to better reflect the way we speak English (hence, "dynamic equivalent"). The new translation will have "And with your spirit" (the "word-for-word" method of translating --though if we really translated word-for-word we would would be saying, "And with spirit your").

There have been rumblings among clergy and laity alike about having to make a change, about clumsy expressions and poor grammar in the new word-for-word rendering, about Vatican (Roman) control of a vernacular translation.

It is well-known that fear of Vatican control over local issues is a stumbling block in discussions about the reunion of Anglicans and others with Roman Catholics.

The former (now retired) Archbishop of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, addressed this issue in his book The Reform of the Papacy (Crossroad Publishing, 1999). He wrote:

One of the great ecumenical concerns today and an obstacle to Christian unity, is the fear that the Pope can arbitrarily intervene in the affairs of local or regional churches and that he does in fact do so. For instance, the repeated rejection by Rome of decisions made by the Episcopal Conference of the United States {that is, the US bishops conference} is interpreted by many Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants as an indication of "what it would be like" if they entered into full communion with Rome.

One of the major issues at the Second Vatican Council was the relationship between the authority of the pope and the authority of the bishops as succesors of the apostles. Many Catholics assume that the pope is the head of the corporation and the bishops simply take orders from the pope. That assumption is incorrect; the long-standing, biblically-based tradition of the Church indicates otherwise.

Bishops have authority by virtue of their ordination; they do not have to be given authority by the pope. This relationship between pope and bishops is complex. Chapter three of Lumen Gentium, the Vatican II document about the Church, tries to explain the relationship; it is only partially successful.

In 1995 Pope John Paul II issued the letter Ut unum sint ("That they all may be one"), in which he acknowledged that "the Catholic Church's conviction that in the ministry of the Bishop of Rome she has preserved...the visible sign and guarantor of unity, constitutes a difficulty for most other Christians" (cf. UUS, #88).

The pope explained that the Church cannot renounce papal primacy because it is essential to the Church's mission, but the way of exercising that primacy "is nonetheless open to a new situation" (#95).

This acknowledgement by Pope John Paul II excited many within and outside the Catholic Church. When this admission that the way the pope exercises his primacy could be modified was added to Vatican II's recognition of the bishops' local authority, it seemed as if the Vatican was going to promote the freedom of bishops' conferences to lead their people on the local level. This freedom was theirs by divine right but had been severely curtailed by papal interventions over the past few centuries.

However, the ongoing and constant insistence of the Vatican that the pope and his Curia are the final judge of local matters undermines the teachings of both Ut unum sint and Lumen Gentium.

So it must be asked, "Is not the Vatican's modifying critique of the new English translation proposed by the United States bishops another blow to restoration of Church unity?" Is the Vatican's exercise of primacy in this non-essential matter of a word-for-word translation worth the price?

It sends the message to our separated brothers and sisters that if they unite with Rome they too will lose autonomy in non-essential matters. Would Anglicans have to give up their tradition of married clergy? Would Greek Orthodox churches have to submit their rituals to Rome for approval?

There seems to be a debilitating conflict between the Vatican's need for uniformity and Jesus' prayer for unity.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Mystery of Faith

I don't like not knowing. I don't like ambiguity. I don't like mystery. But if I'm going to be a Christian I have to make friends with all three.

St. Paul put it simply, "We walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5:7).

Even though God has spoken to us in past times in partial and various ways through the prophets, and more recently and powerfully through his Son, (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2), we still do not know everything.

How could a puny human mind ever comprehend the height, breath, or depth of the wisdom of God? God's ways are unsearchable, his judgments inscrutable. "Who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" ( Romans 11:34).

Jesus ' teaching was not without ambiguity. He says we must love everybody, even our enemies (cf. Matthew 5:44), and then he insists that only those who hate their parents, their siblings, even their very selves can be his disciples (cf. Luke 14:26). He was fond of couching his message in paradox: to be the leader, you must be the servant (cf Mt. 20:27).

And the mysteries of the kingdom have never been resolved. Jesus spoke about them in parables (cf. Lk 8:8-10) but even when he explained his stories, his disciples were still confused. "But they understood nothing of this; the word remained hidden from them, and they failed to comprehend what he said" (Lk 18:34).

St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the existence of God can be proved. His first argument was based on the need for a prime mover. Then the need for an uncaused cause. And then the need for some intelligent being to direct natural things to their end.

Others have argued that "evil in the world" suggests there is no God, for if God is loving then God should prevent evil, especially the evils of natural disasters. Since God does not prevent such evils, either he is powerless to do so or he is not all that loving.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal concluded that one cannot prove that God exists nor prove that he does not exist. Unable to offer proof one way or the other, Pascal proposed what has become known as Pascal's Wager. He reasons, in effect, that although we cannot prove or disprove God's existence, one has better odds in believing in God since one loses nothing if there is no God but gains eternal life if there is.

Christians come at this issue from an altogether different angle. They generally believe in God's existence because the world and its complexity require an intelligent creator, but they add further that faith is a gift from God, freely offered to those willing to accept it.

Christians not only believe in God, they also believe that God made the world, loves it dearly, and sent his divine Son to help us cope with the mess we have made of it.

This Son of God we call Jesus, and Christians accept him as their Savior and their Lord. They accept his message as Gospel truth and they make an effort, with varying degrees of success, to overcome evil and live according to the divine plan.

There remains for many of us, however, in spite of our faith, a degree of uneasiness. Faith by its very nature implies risk. It means trusting in something, or in this case, Someone.

The uneasiness that leads me to feel uncomfortable about not knowing, about ambiguity, and about mystery is normal and natural, but it does not have to rob me of peace of mind.

Saints and mystics have long offered the assurance that the uneasiness of faith can be reduced by deepening one's personal relationship with God. Faith, then, is supported not by reasoned proofs for God's existence nor by quotes from Jesus' Gospel, but rather rests on a personal encounter with Jesus Christ.

Prayer can be a a religious exercise of words and actions and song, or it can be an avenue of intimacy with the Divine One.

If or when I finally come to trust Jesus implicitly, I will not need the surety of answers nor will I mind the ambiguity or mystery which faith implies.

I have come to believe that the best answer anyone can give to those who question why I believe in God or why I am a Christian is simply, "Because I've met him. I know him. We're friends."

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Hidden Treasures

Two Northern Kentucky school teachers, Mac Cooley and Jerry Gels, have researched and organized two superb Cincinnati walking tours: "Queen City Underground: Breweries, Bosses, and Burials" and the newest "Civil War Cincinnati: Heroes, Halls, and Holy Places."

The highlight of the Queen City Underground Tour is the cavernous beer cellar under the old Kaufman Brewery in the Guildhaus Building on Vine Street near Liberty. Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood once had 130 breweries, bars, and beer halls, and remnants of those glory days are part of the tour and open to tour participants.

Nearby in St. Francis Seraph Church is a crypt where human remains were re-interred in the mid-nineteenth century and tombstones were used to pave the floor.

The Civil War Cincinnati Tour pauses at Washington Park to recall the military recruiting and drills common there in the early 1860s. Across the street is Memorial Hall, with a 600-seat auditorium, built by The Grand Army of the Republic and Hamilton County to honor the military service of local citizens.

Also on the tour is the now-closed Emery Theater built in 1911 to house the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra's new director was 27-year-old Leopold Stokowski. Tourists can see for themselves why the Emery is believed to be the first concert hall in America with no obstructed view of the stage.

A couple blocks away is Old St. Mary's Catholic Church, whose bell-tower, it is said, served as a watch tower during the Civil War against an invasion by Confederates across the Ohio River.

Many if not most citizens are unaware of Cincinnati's history and treasures. Once known as "The Paris of the United States," often dubbed "Porkopolis," nicknamed "The Gateway to the South and the West," the Queen City is being refurbished and its hidden treasures are coming to light once again.

Few who drive downtown's Central Parkway realize that this thoroughfare used to be the site of the Miami-Erie Canal, nor do they know that remnants of a failed and long-defunct subway system still remain below the surface.

It's fair to say that wherever people settle, they leave behind remnants of their culture which in time become cherished relics.

Cincinnati, Ohio, is surely such a site. The German influence is obvious in Over-The -Rhine. Other ethnic and cultural details can be uncovered all over the city.

It makes me wonder what future generations will discover about us. Will they wonder about our accomplishments the way we marvel at the ovens and lager-beer caves under Vine Street? Will they be impressed with the beauty of our decorations the way we stand in awe of the ornamentation in Memorial Hall on Elm Street?

Sometimes, when I assess the art, music, drama, literature and architecture of our day, I draw the conclusion that we are in a New Dark Age.

What shall we leave behind?

Put that question in the context of the Gospel, and we look not to things that perish but to things that last.

Cincinnati has many hidden treasures, and they are revealed only when I go look for them. Perhaps the same is true of life in general. Maybe I need to look around and see the good that people do and realize it shall live after them. Maybe I need to go look for the treasures around me. Maybe I need to become a tourist.

We and everything we manufacture will one day turn to dust. Only one thing lasts, and that is love. And so I question, "Where is my treasure?" And, "Will it last?"

(Further information about Cincinnati tours at Further information about lasting treasure at Matthew 6:19-21.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A New Pentecost

I was reading The Second Coming by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939), and found again one of the more insightful lines in poetry: The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty Centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Critics have given no single exegesis or explanation of Yeats' imagery. What is the "widening gyre?" Who is the falconer? What does the falcon represent?

The lack of consensus among the experts gives me leave to propose my own interpretations, and the freedom to change my mind with every reading. As America's librarian Archibald MacLeish insisted, "A poem should not mean, but be."

The poem's title suggests that Yeats was thinking of the Christian expectation that Jesus will come again. This parousia will herald judgment day. Yeats confirms that the world is falling apart and he sees some apocalyptic vision on the horizon forecasting a new stage in human history.

The line contrasting the best and the worst captures the formula for disaster. Jesus saw it: "The children of this world are more prudent...than the children of light." Edmund Burke saw it: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

On the world's stage or in the church's sacristy politics today seems to be in a downward spiral. Too many good people are disheartened.

I do not want to be counted among "the prophets of gloom" with whom Pope John XXIII disagreed, but I think we are in one of those valleys which characterize certain epochs of human history, including the history of the Church. Coming off the heady days of Vatican II, the Church has had to struggle to implement the council's vision and spirit. Many members are tired, some are discouraged; still others are afraid.

I don't sense much conviction about the mission and ministry we reviewed at Vatican II. The excitement of celebrating new forms of liturgy, the exhilaration of seeing Catholics and Protestants in friendly dialogue, the enthusiasm of lay involvement in Church ministry, the euphoria of the council's call to holiness re-animating the spirituality of the faithful -- all these prescriptions for aggiornamento have in my estimation slowed and become commonplace.

Jesus too sensed a malaise in his day: "We piped you a tune but you did not dance, we sang you a dirge but you did not wail."

Maybe the biblical visions and images of apocalyptic literature were devised to rouse a sleeping people to awareness and action. Maybe Yeats' "blood-dimmed tide" is an echo of "the sea tuned to blood" in Revelation 8:8. Maybe the beasts of Revelation 13 are mirrored in Yeats' vast image out of Spiritus Mundi in the desert sand.

Experts in poetry may well reject the spin I've put on The Second Coming, but I suspect Yeats would nod generous approval for I am convinced that he is saying, "We've screwed up the last twenty centuries. It's time for a second start."

Yeats' prophecy of the second coming reflects his belief that Christians might do better the second time around as they waken from twenty centuries of stony sleep.

Even in his day, St. Cyprian (200-258 AD) reminisced about an earlier time when "the faith of believers was warm with a fervor of faith still new."

I think this belief prompted Pope John to pray that his council might effect "a new Pentecost in our time," a new age when the best will be full of conviction and the worst will lack passionate intensity.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Truth Is Truth

Father Mark was scolded by a parishioner for quoting in his homily the observation of a wise and holy Buddhist. "Why, Father, would you quote at Mass somebody who's not even Christian?"

Himself a wise and holy man, Father Mark said, "Why not? Do we have a monopoly on wisdom? Don't you think truth is truth even if it is spoken by people of other religions?"

His complainer was not deterred. "But, Father, they're not Christian!"

"True," he replied, "most Buddhists are not Christians, but neither are they throwaways. God is with them, and Jesus loves them too. Christians don't have a monopoly on Christ."

During the course of its history the Church has often had to make course corrections about this matter.

For centuries the Church's attitude toward other religions came across as negative. In 1858 Pope Pius IX took a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, away from his parents and raised him in the Vatican because the boy had been secretly baptized a Christian. The pope thought it improper for a Christian to be raised in a Jewish home.

As late as 1958 Catholic liturgy described the Jews as "perfidious."

Prior to the mid 1960s Roman Catholics were not permitted to attend services in Protestant churches. For a time there were some Catholics who believed that only Catholics could go to heaven --a conviction which obviously excluded members of non-Christian religions.

Down through the centuries, however, the Church did affirm that Jews must not be forced to become Christian --see canon 8 of the Second Council of Nicea, 787 AD. Or Pope Gregory VII's acknowledgement in 1076 that Moslems and Christians worship the same God. Or Pope Pius XII's statement in 1951 that "there is truth and goodness outside the Christian religion."

At the Second Vatican Council the bishops corroborated these course corrections: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions" (Hinduism and Buddhism), and further stated, "The Church also has a high regard for the Muslims" (Nostra aetate, 2, 3).

Gaudium et spes (#22) went further, insisting that the Holy Spirit works not only in Christians but also in the hearts of all men of good will, for Christ has died for all! "We must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known to God, in the paschal mystery."

Some critics of this Catholic position fear that a sense of indifferentism will take hold and people will conclude one religion is as good as another. Christians in general, Catholics in particular, maintain that all salvation comes through Jesus Christ. We are not saying one is as good as another, but it is the conviction that all salvation comes through Christ which allows us to see Christ and the Holy Spirit operative in the lives of people of other religions.

Long before the Incarnation God loved and saved people. Those who came before the Christian era were not throwaways, nor are the millions of souls today who do not know Christ to be written off. God is busy in many places in many ways.

One of the basic directives of the Christian faith is "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12). This so-called Golden Rule was found in the teaching of the ancient Greek philosopher Pittacus who died some 500 years before Jesus. A form of this rule is found also in Confucianism, in Hinduism, and in Buddhism.

I do not propose that Jesus took the Golden Rule from ancient Greeks or Buddhists, but I do propose that the Holy Spirit of God was at work in the world before the Christian era began. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, but God's love for and involvement in the world did not begin with the coming of Christ.

Father Mark found truth in the Dhammapada of Buddhism. Tomorrow he may find it in the Rig Veda of the Hindus or in the Qu'ran of Islam. He has found it all his life in the Bible. Truth is truth no matter where he finds it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

God's Nickname

When Moses asked God what his name was, God responded, "I am who I am." In Hebrew "I am" is rendered yahweh, and we have by long standing tradition assumed that Yahweh is God's name.

Although Exodus 3:15 maintains that "This is my name forever, this is my title for all generations," the Bible reveals that God has been given a lot of names over the centuries, nicknames which enhance his mysterious character or confirm his almighty power.

For many Semitic peoples, El is the word for God. It is probable that El and Allah share the same etymology.

In several places in the Old Testament God is called "El shaddai," the God of the mountain. Sometimes the Hebrew God is designated "Yahweh Sabbaoth," that is, Yahweh of hosts. God is also called "melek" (king) and "adonay" (lord).

Among other nicknames are "eben" and "tsur" and "ḉela," all of which can be translated as rock. In Genesis 49:24 he is called "the Rock (eben) of Israel." In Psalm 18:3 Yahweh is "tsur," or "Rock of refuge." And in Psalm 71:3 God is "ḉela," a Rock.

Last Memorial Day I visited Riverview Cemetery in Aurora, Indiana, with the primary purpose of looking for a rock. I was told about an Indiana Civil War soldier who had fought on Culp's Hill in the battle at Gettysburg. Sometime after the war, Captain Alexander B. Pattison of Company A of the 7th Indiana Infantry went back to Culp's Hill and searched for the rock behind which he had found protection during the battle.

I do not know how he managed it, but he had that rock cut in half and part of it shipped to Indiana, where it now rests on his grave, in section "I'" of Riverview Cemetery, Auroa, Indiana. The minie ball hits are still plainly visible.

Pattison died August 16, 1906, at the age of 71. His burial record gives his occupation as banker, and cancer as the cause of death.

As I stood behind Pattison's rock of refuge, I felt sure that he had prayed Psalm 144:

Blessed be Yahweh, my Rock ("tsur"),
who trains my hands for battle,
my fingers for war;
My safeguard and my fortress,
my stronghold and my deliverer,
My shield in whom I trust,
who subdues people under me.

Our ancestors of the First Testament were quite vocal in expressing their praise for God's protection, for being their rock of refuge. My visit to Pattison's burial plot and the sight of his rock from Gettysburg reminded me of King David's song.

O Yahweh, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer,
my God, my rock of refuge!
My shield, the horn of salvation,
my stronghold, my refuge,
my savior, from violence you keep
me safe.
"Praise be Yahweh," I exclaim,
and I am safe from my enemies (2 Samuel 22:3-4).

I suspect it was in light of the Old Testament that Jesus gave one of his apostles the nickname "Cephas," the Rock, Peter. It also suggests Jesus had a sense of humor. Surely he smiled when Peter tried walking across the water and sank like a rock.

Pattison's experience behind the rock at Gettysburg, the biblical references to Yahweh as the Rock of refuge, and Simon's being called the rock upon which Jesus would build his Church --all suggest that I ought to thank God often for being the foundation and protection of the Church and of my life.

And I think it's all right if I use his nickname in that prayer, for I have a hunch God smiles when I call him Rocky. Of course I must wonder what his nickname is for me.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Liberal or Conservative?

I was asked recently, "In matters of Church, are you liberal or conservative?"

Since I did not know how my inquirer defined those terms, I chose not to choose. (A good apologist knows that the one who defines the terms wins the argument.) I replied, "I'm orthodox."

My dictionary defines conservative as "traditional in style or manner, avoiding novelty." Liberal is defined as "favorable to progress or reform."

With those definitions in mind I asked myself, "In matters of Church, which are you --liberal or conservative?"

As I read the New Testament I am struck by the simplicity of Jesus' teaching, by his emphasis on God's mercy, by his gathering of disciples who were neither philosophers from Greece nor lawyers from Rome but fishermen from Galilee and a headstrong Pharisee from Tarsus.

He forgave sinners, reprimanded the self-righteous, and warned his followers not to seek positions of rank or titles of honor but to be servants meek and humble of heart.

Jesus was stern: "You know how the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall no be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave" (Matthew 20:26-27).

Things changed over the centuries since Jesus taught and the Gospels were written. In the earliest days one was evangelized, baptized, and then catechized. Celibacy was not required of a bishop; forgiveness of sin did not require confession to a priest; liturgy was in the vernacular; bishops were chosen by the people not the pope.

Something changed when the Roman Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity, offered Church leaders money, houses, and titles, and built basilicas for Christian worship.

Something changed when more and more authority was acquired by the bishop of Rome and the successor of Peter became "the Supreme Pontiff," when bishops became princes and were called "Your Grace," when the priesthood became a career.

Something changed when the Vatican insisted on uniformity at the expense of diversity and unity, when the term "Church" became synonymous with the hierarchy, when the people became "the simple faithful."

Changes in the Church are inevitable, indeed required, if she is to be faithful to her mission in a changing world. But along with the necessary changes came novelties in liturgy (priests turned their backs on the people and spoke in a foreign language), in law (a metropolitan bishop is obliged to request the pallium from the Roman Pontiff, cf. Canon #437), and in papal power (choosing who can be ordained a bishop, or insisting that a non-infallible teaching is definitive and may no longer be discussed).

It seems to me then that a conservative is one who shies away from novelties and cherishes foundational beliefs and practices. A liberal is one who promotes progress, changes and reform.

A conservative Catholic would be one who wants to see his Church drop hierarchical titles such as "Your Eminence," celebrate Mass in the old style (i.e., in the vernacular with the people gathered about the table), return selection of the bishop to the local church community, accept married clergy, and reaffirm the Gospel values of poverty and service in the early Church.

A liberal Catholic would be one who wants to maintain clericalism, celebrate Mass in the recent innovative style (i.e., in Latin with the laity separated from the altar), intensify papal centrism, require celibate clergy, and promote titles, vestments, and practices of the Medieval Church.

My analysis transposes the common application of the terms liberal and conservative, so you can see why I am reluctant to choose one as a self-description. I have come to believe that conservatives are really liberals, and liberals are really conservatives. You perhaps do not agree with my assessment, but then he who defines the terms wins the argument.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Signs of the Times

I admit I did not understand what Pope John XXIII meant.

In announcing his intention to call an ecumenical council, he said that the Church must "read the signs of the times." I initially rejected such an idea on the grounds that the Church could not learn anything from the world.

Only later did I remember that Jesus had reprimanded his contemporaries for failing to judge the signs of the times, a failure which kept them from recognizing who he was (cf. Matthew 16:3).

Pope John, however, did read the signs. He saw the aftermath of two world wars, the fragmentation which came from technology and science, and the struggle between materialism and spiritual values. He believed the Church could bring hope, peace and unity.

But before it could fulfill its God-given mission, the Church had to humbly read the signs of the times and re-assess how it could best respond with Christ's message and ministry. The Second Vatican Council was to be that re-assessment.

"The Church," as John often reminded the bishops, "is not a museum." It is a servant, responsive to the needs of those it serves. The Second Vatican Council gave us a wake-up call.

The Church is alive, and therefore subject to change. The Spirit breathes where it will, and we are by divine commission sent into the world. Consequently we have a divine mandate "to interpret the present time" (cf. Luke 12:56).

In the quest to read and respond the Church must not dilute the Gospel or compromise its mission. Jesus Christ is the same today, yesterday and forever. The Church has been given testimony from Christ and may not part from it.

At the same time the Church may not divorce itself from the cry of the poor, nor condemn the evils of the world from some ivory tower. Though its dogma does not change, the lanuage used to express it may have to. Practices appropriate to one age may have to be altered to meet the needs of another.

Jesus' admonition applies to us. To be authentic and loyal, we must determine the signs of our times. I offer some suggestions and questions.

1) Church membership is splintered. Some members boast that they are "traditionalists" wanting to return to Tridentine liturgy, put the brakes on "the spirit of Vatican II," and promote papal monarchy. Others are proud to be known as "progressives" wanting to develop multiplicity of liturgical styles, push forward with the Vatican II agenda, and promote collegiality in Church government. And statistics indicate still another group whom we might call "inactive Catholics." How long can a divided house stand?

2) The clergy are choosing sides too. "Vatican II priests" generally support the social teaching and spirit of the Council and want to promote lay involvement and eschew clericalism. "John Paul II priests" are skeptical about "the spirit of Vatican II" and focus on liturgy, clerical status, and a return to the Catholicism of the past four hundred years. What would Jesus do?

3) An explosion of electronic communication is an obvious characteristic of our day. Should evangelization, catechesis and preaching adapt to cyberspace, You-Tube, and Kindle? How?

4) Church scandals such as pedophilia and homosexuality among priests, cover-ups by the hierarchy, and mishandling of Church funds have affected the Church's image and undermined Church credibility among members and non-members alike. How do we restore confidence?

5) The shortage of priests continues to impact dioceses and parishes. Is ordaining married men a solution? Is it Eucharist versus celibacy?

6) There seems to be a growing schism --not so much a public or formal revolt against the pope and bishops but rather "a schism of indifference" in which Church members find Church leaders to be irrelevant, insensitive, ill-suited to serve. Who has drifted?

The handwriting is on the wall. We must not turn a blind eye. If we are too proud to listen and learn from the world, we jeoparadize the very mission we have received. And yet, having read the signs, we need the Spirit to guide our response. Let us pray for a new Pentecost in our time so that we correctly read the signs and then speak the languages of a multifacted world.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Renewal Begins With "R"

I didn't plan it. There was no rhyme or reason for it. It was just coincidence.

But I found it amusing when I noticed in my stack of books on the coffee table that each author's name began with the letter "R."

First was Karl Rahner, the late German Jesuit whose dogmatic theology had a profound influence on the deliberations at Vatican II. Prior to the Council he had been under suspicion by Vatican authorities and forbidden to publish anything until first it was censored by Rome.

Serving as a theologian-resource for the German bishops, Rahner was asked to review various documents and provide input for their deliberations, especially on the Church, on Scripture and Tradition, and on the Church in the Modern World. He was named peritus (an expert) at the Council.

Next on my stack was a book by Rahner's friend and associate Joseph Ratzinger, a theologian likewise consulted by the bishops at the Second Vatican Council. He and Rahner were critical of the initial document on the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and the German bishops asked them to compose an alternative text.

Church historian John O'Malley suggests that Ratzinger was "perhaps the most important of the younger theologians (he was 35) at the council." As advisor and peritus to Cardinal Josef Frings of Cologne, Ratzinger insisted that the Council's documents should reflect "the vital language of Scripture and the Church Fathers." Today he is Pope Benedict XVI.

The third "R" was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII, the initiator of the Second Vatican Council. I was reading Journal Of A Soul, the posthumously published diary which he kept from age 14 up to six months before his death.

I especially enjoy his final entry in which he reflects on his decision to call an ecumenical council. He wrote, "I was the first to be surprised at my proposal, which was entirely my own idea...we are now on the slopes of the sacred mountain. May the Lord give us strength to bring everything to a successful conclusion."

Timothy Radcliff was my fourth "R." He's the London-born Dominican friar whose preaching and writing have provided insight and encouragement for developing our spiritual lives.

His What Is The Point Of Being a Christian? explores the treasures of our Faith, and applies them to how we struggle to live in the spirit and love of Jesus. He laments the loss of debate in the Church, and suggests that "we must learn humility, to be docile before the wisdom and language of others' experience."

"R" number five is Ronald Rolheiser, a priest of the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. He has written several books on spirituality, and both teaches and practices spiritual direction.

In The Holy Longing Rolheiser outlines the nonnegotiables of the Christian's spiritual life (worship, social action, and the centrality of Jesus' incarnation), and insists that a true spirituality cannot be divorced from one's every day life.

My final "R" is the Franciscan priest and speaker/writer of things spiritual --Richard Rohr. His ministry combines contemplation and action. He founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico to help people in social service ministries to maintain a healthy balance between prayer and activism.

Rohr's many books explore our Christian commitment and describe a plan for growth. I like Things Hidden - Scripture As Spirituality best of all. He has a way of looking at things from an unusual perspective, leading his readers to re-evaluate and re-commit.

I'm sure it's just coincidence that the books on my coffee table were all written by authors whose last names begin with "R." But I wonder if, in the light of that litany of authors, it's coincidence that renewal begins with an "R" too.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Be Honest

I've come to believe that the most difficult virtue to acquire is honesty, and the hardest thing to speak is the truth.

Dishonesty in politics, religion, advertising, business, and social issues is so prevalent that we have become jaundiced and take deception for granted. Diogenes' lamp burns and still he searches for an honest man.

My dictionary defines honesty as "truthfulness, sincerity, freedom from deceit." A more in-depth look at honesty insists that honesty and dishonesty flow from one's intention.

A man could be telling the truth but if his intention is to deceive, he is dishonest. A woman could speak a falsehood but if she truly believes what she is saying and intends to tell the truth, she is nonetheless being honest.

Would it not follow then that honesty is devotion to the truth?

During his trial, Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he had come to testify to the truth. In a response jaundiced by years of military and political intrigue, Pilate asked with sarcasm, "What is truth?"

Had he been at the Last Supper, Pilate would have heard Jesus' unsettling claim, "I am the way and the truth and the life." In his defense Jesus explained, "Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

A mystic of the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, proposed that "only the hand that erases can write the true thing." I think he meant that to be honest one must assess and re-assess what he says in order to convey the truth.

Poet/novelist Stephen Crane addressed the difficulty and fear that accompany one's search for the truth:

The wayfarer
Perceiving the pathway to truth
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
"Ha," he said,
"I see that none has passed here
"In a long time."
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
"Well," he mumbled at last,
"Doubtless there are other roads."

I think he recognized two things: truth is rare, and it is intimidating to pursue it.

If then I am correct that honesty is devotion to the truth, it follows that Christians can best acquire the virtue by devotion to Christ: "The truth will make you free...I am the truth...Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart!"

And yet our pursuit of truth, even in and with Christ, is a slow trek. Seldom is it discovered at first glance, and impatience often curtails the chase. It is easier to accept another's word as truth than it is to engage in a personal, dogged quest for it.

I suspect this failure to research the truth and make it a personal discovery accounts for the apathy and infidelity of many Christians. Catechism answers may be sufficient for children, but adults need more. Unexamined truth is seldom convincing in the face of pressure.

Fundamentalists will cry "Foul!" They will insist that one must accept a truth as true simply because an authority has said it. Fundamentalists seek security. Faith-filled people, however, wrestle with the truth --they probe it, test it, and confirm it. Faith by its very nature is risky, and it is in the investigation of truth that it becomes truly believable and binding.

Jacob wrestled with God; that is why he is called Israel. Jesus wrestled with his Father; that is why he could say, "As you will, not as I will it." Countless saints have gone into the wilderness and struggled with confusion and doubt; that is why they are saints.

The Church no longer decrees that error has no rights. It is the freedom to be wrong that leads to the assurance of truth. How many discoveries and inventions came only after long periods of trial and error.

The hero in Morris West's The Heretic put it well: "I claim no private lien on the truth, only a liberty to seek it, prove it in debate, and to be wrong a thousand times to reach a single rightness."

It is the virtue of honesty that promotes the pursuit of truth and protects the pursuer from heresy. It questions without fear because it always seeks the truth. Authority has its place in proposing truth, but no authority can absolve a rational being from being honest. Honesty imposes the obligation of probing the truth and making it one's own.

I've come to believe that honesty is the most difficult virtue to acquire, and the hardest thing to speak is the truth.