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.