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.