Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cloud Of Unknowing

When I was a child, I thought priests knew everything.

In grade school, when we stumped Sister with a question, she would often say, "You can ask father that question next time he comes."

What a shock it was when I became a priest and discovered priests don't know everything. What a consolation, as I grow older, to realize nobody has all the answers, that in fact, our relationship with God naturally leads us to stand under a cloud of unknowing.

I suspect the Baltimore Catechism, with its question and answer format, led me to assume that the Church had it all down pat. Such naiveté has since given way to the realization that we always have more to learn.

Jesus' use of parables and paradox is a clue that we are invited to explore, to think things through, to contrast the wisdom and values of the world against the values and wisdom of the kingdom.

Jesus tells puzzling stories: "The kingdom of heaven is like mustard like a treasure buried in a like yeast." And the values he proposes are outlandish: "Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you...if your right eyes causes you to sin, tear it out...offer no resistance to one who is evil."

Jesus' simple invitation, "Come, follow me," tells us something about the way he works. He didn't say where he was going, how he would get there, and what would happen after he arrived. In a very real sense he kept his disciples in the dark. His ominous "If you would be my disciple you must pick up your cross and come after me" was totally honest, but not very revealing.

As a student of theology, I thought Thomas Aquinas was a giant. It was somewhat disconcerting to learn that after compiling his Summa Theologiae, he concluded that all he had written was just straw.

And I read that at the end of his life Michelangelo said something similar about his work: "It's just dust!"

These conclusions are not depressing but freeing. They stem from one of those "aha" moments which mark the beginning of wisdom. We think we're so smart, so talented, so in control, and finally it dawns on us that it all belongs to God.

Admitting that I don't know very much about God or his plan for creation opens me to seeing life as an adventure. God's insistence on faith rather than knowledge prompts us to take risks, to be open to discovery, to grow.

It's pretty clear that God is never content to leave us where we are. The divine plan calls us to be pilgrim people. We are always in process.

The Bible describes Abraham as a wandering Aramean. Moses spent much of his life as a displaced person or the leader of a people on sojourn. Jesus called the twelve disciples "apostles," a title which means "those who are sent."

Movement, discovery, pursuit of wisdom are all characteristics of God's people. I should not then be surprised that not only do I not know everything, but in fact I don't even know what God has in store for me.

This "standing in the mystery" is sometimes tough, but when I can finally "let go," God has some marvelous surprises waiting under that "cloud of unknowing."

Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's OK To Question

The most challenging question any Christian can face is the one posed by Jesus himself, "Who do you say I am?"

Most of us will be tempted to give a pat answer, affirming that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the savior of the world.

But if we go back to the question as Jesus posed it, "Who do you say that I am?" the true answer will have to be more personal, not something taught, not something imposed from without, but something realized from within.

And there's the rub. For an authentic answer comes only after a long time of standing in the question.

By nature our intellects seek the truth, but our impatience often leads us to settle for quick answers. We want to know and we want to know right now.

Standing in the question, living with the mystery, requires patience and the honesty to admit, "I don't know."

When some of Jesus' early disciples asked him, "Where do you stay?" he replied, "Come and see!" He refused to give them a pat answer. He wanted them to discover it for themselves.

Jesus does the same with us. The Jesus of our childhood must give way to the Jesus of our adult years. And as we age it becomes clear that our picture of Jesus, our understanding of who he is, changes (or should change) too.

Many Christians rebel against the notion that we do not have all the answers. Those raised on a catechism's Q&A often assume that we know it all, or at least that we know enough.

To question is not to doubt. To question is to be a seeker. It is the sign of a living faith. It implies openness to growth. It means we are stil disciples (the word means "student").

Questioning was what Mary did ("How can this be?"), what John the Baptist did ("Are you the one?"), what Nicodemus did ("How can a man be born again?"). The rush to answer often precludes a full picture.

It's OK not to have an answer to "Who do you say that I am?". It's not OK to stop pursuing the question.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Abigail & John

I intended to write about John Adams, and specifically what he might think about the political climate in the United States today.

I suspect he would be exasperated by the intrusions of big government into the lives of its citizens, but he would be exhilarated by the protests against it. He believed that every generation should have to fight for its survival.

But on the way to that analysis I was sidetracked again by the relationship between him and his "dearest friend," his wife, Abigail.

David McCullough, in his biography of Adams, wrote, "His marriage to Abigail Smith was the most important decision of John Adam's life...She was in all respects his equal..(a) beneficial, steadying influence."

I think immediately of that common bit of wisdom, "Behind every successful man is a woman." (In John Adams' case I discount Groucho Marx's observation, "Behind every successful man is a woman, and behind her is his wife.")

Not only does the testimony of family and friends link these two souls in an extraordinary relationship, there is also the treasury of letters which John and Abigail exchanged while he was urging independency in Philadelphia and negotiating aid and peace in Europe.

Perhaps the best known exchange between the two of them occurred in April of 1776 when Abigail, responding to John's hope for a congressional declaration of independence from Great Britain, wrote to him in Philadelphia:

"I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

In response, John teasingly replied, "As to your extraordinary code of laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient...But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out. Depend on it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems...(though) in practice, you know we are the subjects."

The playful give-and-take between them, the breadth of their discussions and interests, their tokens of affection and bold proclamations of love are unparalleled in the correspondence of other 18th century Americans.

She commented in 1777 on the poor behavior of some of the troops from Massachusetts: "The spirit of venality you mention is the most dreadful and alarming enemy America has to oppose. It is as rapacious and insatiable as the grave. We are in the "faece Romuli non republica Platonis." This predominant avarice will ruin America..."

Abigail quotes Latin in a letter to her husband! (The phrase means, "We have the dregs of Romulus, not the republic of Plato.") She is clearly well-educated. Who uses such descriptions as rapacious and insatiable?

She confirmed in November of 1775 how much she missed him: "Winter makes its approaches fast. I hope I shall not be obliged to spend it without my dearest friend...I have been like a nun in a cloister, ever since you went away..."

Abigail's death in 1818 at age 74, after 54 years of marriage to her dearest friend, was more than troubling to John, but he consoled himself with the realization that their separation could not be as long as the many separations they had endured during his public career.

In response to Thomas Jefferson's letter of condolence, Adams wrote, "I believe in God and in his wisdom and benevolence, and I cannot conceive that such a Being could make such a species as the human merely to live and die on this earth. If I did not believe in a future state, I should believe in no God."

I had intended to speculate about John Adam's reactions to our country's state of affairs today, but I got sidetracked --again-- by the extraordinary story of the relationship between John and Abigail Adams more than 200 hundred years ago.

That one of our nation's founding fathers, known for his irascible and stubborn ways, could write to his intended spouse that he saw her in his dreams "with her fair Complexion, her Crimson Blushes and her million Charms and Graces" forces me to re-evaluate the man and respect him all the more.

That one of our nation's founding mothers should urge the founding fathers to "remember the ladies" makes me re-evaluate the role of women in the establishment of this new nation and admire her all the more.

"For God and country" might well summarize the lives of John and Abigail Adams, though I might have to add "for my dearest friend" as well.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Responsible For All?

Are we responsible for everyone and everything?

That question comes from Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov.

In Book Five, Chapter Two, Father Zossima recalls the last days of his elder brother Markel. Falling seriously ill, Markel went through a conversion experience, and as the end approached, Markel became extraordinarily sensitive and kind, even to the point of questioning why the servants should take such good care of him. "Why do I deserve to be waited on? I should wait on you."

His mother thought it was the illness that made him talk like that, but the insights Markel shared from his deathbed suggest something more. He told her, "Everyone of us has sinned against all men, and I more than any."

When his mother objected, he explained, "Mother, little heart of mine, believe me, everyone is responsible to all men for all men and for everything. I don't know how to explain it to you, but I feel it is so, painfully even."

Dostoyevsky often writes like a mystic, wrestling with the mystery of God and searching for the meaning of life. Markel's observation sounds like the insight of a mystic, someone who has caught a momentary glimpse of life's meaning in a wordless encounter with God.

Those of us unskilled in the ways of mysticism often think the wisdom of mystics borders on the absurd. For example, Meister Eckhart said, "Truly, it is in darkness that one finds the light, so when we are in sorrow, then this light is nearest of all to us." And we ask, "What does that mean?"

Teresa of Avila wrote, "The pain was so great, that it made me moan; and yet so surpassing was the sweetness of this excessive pain, that I could not wish to be rid of it." Such insight challenges credibility.

When Francis of Assisi called the sun his brother and the moon his sister, some rolled their eyes. Was he speaking poetically or should we question his sanity? But in his Praise of the Virtues he went further:

Obedience makes us submissive
to all persons on earth,
nor just to humankind
but to all animals
and wild beasts, too,
that they may do as they please with us
as far as God so permits them.

Is that absurd, or are we responsible to everyone for everything?

Jesus insists that we are family. "He who does the will of my Father is mother and brother and sister to me. What you do to the least of my brothers you do to me. Love one your enemies."

I realize that I stand only on the edge of understanding. The mystical experience eludes me. And yet I am not absolved from the responsibility I have toward the world around me.

When I do what is right, good and loving, I am making the world a better place and I send out a tiny ripple of faith, hope and love. When I fail to do what is right, good and loving, I am, in effect, damaging the world and failing the people who live in it.

Looking at the birds in the garden, Markel begged forgiveness, "Birds of heaven, happy birds, forgive me, for I have sinned against you too. Yes, there was such a glory of God all about me; birds, trees, meadows, sky --only I lived in shame and dishonored it all and did not notice the beauty and the glory."

There is a wisdom there, even if most of us cannot explain it or choose not to acknowledge it.

Henry David Thoreau saw it. That's why he would write, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation."

John Ruskin saw it. That's why he insisted that we have the duty to delight in nature and receive strength and hope from the stones, flowers, leaves and sounds of natural earth.

Jesus saw it. That's why he said, "Consider the lilies of the field...the birds of the air."

Every Sunday we acknowledge our belief in the communion of saints. We gather as God's people, we pray for the deceased, we remember the saints in heaven, we pray for the world around us. We are acknowledging responsibility.

I may not yet be able to explain how we are responsible for everyone and everything, but I think this bit of mystical wisdom must be at the heart of what it means to be Church.

The insights of mystics warn me not to be too quick to think of anyone as being outside the Church, the people of God. Some may be better members than others, but some how, in God, we are all in this together.

Whether I like it or not, whether or not I can explain it, I am then responsible for everyone, and for everything.