Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reading Between The Lines

I have often prayed, "God, don't make me read between the lines."

I prefer to know what God wants in some situations rather than have to try to figure it out. God, however, laughs. It seems the Divine One prefers faith to knowledge, and continues to drop hints rather than spell it out.

One of the ways I try to figure out God's suggestions is to look for a thread. If the same idea comes up in differing contexts and from a variety of sources I become suspicious, "Maybe God's trying to tell me something."

That's the way I came to admire Dorothy Day.

Over several months, in books I was reading, the name Dorothy Day kept coming up. I thought I detected a thread connecting me to her story so I bought her autobiography The Long Loneliness.

Her story led me to the film Entertaining Angels (Moira Kelly as Dorothy, with Martin Sheen and Brian Keith). Then came the publication of her diaries, The Duty of Delight.

It was this last book which especially caught my attention. I had to smile when I read the notations for May 5 and 6, 1944. Dorothy was visiting The Grail (a women's spirituality center) in Foster's, Ohio. She wrote about having to walk to Mass in the nearby church, St. John's.

"We crossed the high bridge," she said, " walked a half mile down the highway, turned down a side road and came back by another bridge and down the river to the church." She was describing the descent to the church of my baptism. It was my parent's parish, and there I was baptized April 9, 1944.

The coincidence of time and proximity struck me. I wonder if I could have attended Mass with Dorothy Day --even if I was but an infant.

As I thought about it, I remembered that one summer in my teenage years I was hired to cut the grass at the Grail Farm where Dorothy stayed. I have a vague recollection that there used to be a marker on the property commemorating her visit. (I went back to look for it a couple years ago, but the farm had been sold and the marker was nowhere to be found.)

Then, last month, while I was staying at St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Illinois, I saw a lithograph of Dorothy Day hanging in one of sitting areas of the Benedictine monastery. I took a photo of it. It was the first time I ever stayed in a monastery, and outside the door to my room is a picture of Dorothy Day!

Finally, last week, while reading Rosalie Riegle's book Dorothy Day: Portraits By Those Who Knew Her, I came across a new piece of information: "...Dorothy became a Benedictine oblate. She chose St. Procopius Abbey of Lisle, Illinois, because of its special work toward the reunion of Rome and the Eastern church."

Those experiences are what I mean by "a thread." And I ask myself, "Is God trying to tell me something? What am I to learn from Miss Day?"

God says several times in the Bible, "My ways are not your ways." In spite of my efforts to get God to change and do it my way, the Divine One insists on a heaven-inspired modus operandi in dealing with things (and people) on earth.

I'm sure I will continue to ask God not to ask me to read between the lines, especially in critical matters. And I'm equally sure that both Father and Son will continue to do things their way.

My hope is that the Spirit will be there to guide me, to help me enjoy the detective work, to assist me in the adventure of reading between the lines.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Standing In The Mystery

When you deal with God you deal with mystery. For this reason it's not suprising that there are differences in our perceptions, in our theologies, in our spiritualities.

The Bible opens with two variant perceptions. In Genesis 1 the author thinks of God as transcendent, above and beyond creation; a God who says, "Let it be," and it happens.

In Genesis 2 a different author thinks of God as immanent, with us, in the world, with human qualities. God reaches into the soil to form the body of man and then breathes into the body the breath of life.

Two stories of how God created human beings, two differing perceptions of God.

Similar variety exists in theologizing about how God saved the world. Some theologians emphasize the resurrection of Jesus as the moment of his glorification; others focus on Jesus' crucifixion and death.

The author of 1 Peter 1:3 says God gave us salvation "through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead." The author of John 3:14 says that salvation comes through Jesus' being "lifted up," an ambiguous term which in that context has the dual meaning of crucifixion and exaltation. He compares Jesus' crucifixion to Moses' creating a bronze serpent for the people to look at and be healed.

Which is the source or means of our salvation? In reality we would have to say both. The crucifixion and the resurrection are one act of love.

Because we are dealing with God, we are dealing with mystery, and successful dealing with mystery requires what is often called "non-dualistic thinking." Instead of black-and-white, either-or thinking, we are necessarily led to a lot of gray areas and both-and acceptance.

Those most advanced in the spiritual life, those experienced in contemplation and mysticism, come to acceptance of ambiguity and mystery.

Franciscan friar Richard Rohr proposes that Jesus was a non-dualistic thinker. In the beatitudes we see this kind of mindset: Blessed are the poor...those hungering for righteousness...the persecuted and the slandered.

Our immediate reaction to the idea that someone is blessed when he's persecuted or hungry or in pain is negative. It makes no sense --at first.

Wisdom often comes from standing in the question. The rush to judgment may stifle new insight and growth.

Of course we have to make judgments in many areas of our lives. Conscience must decide whether an act is right or wrong, and we cannot straddle the fence or fall into a relativism which fails to distinguish good from evil.

At the same time there are areas of our lives where living with the uncertainty and probing both sides are to our advantage.

There is tension in celebrating both Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Mature Christians embrace that tension, and allow this non-dual experience to color our thinking and living.

Being open to God's transcendence and immanence, to the Church's holiness and sinfulnes, to opinions liberal and conservative is no easy matter. Most of us want answers, and we want them now. The wait, the uncertainty, the poverty of non-resolution threaten our spiritual equilibrium and peace of mind.

But in truth we must be hesitant to resolve every issue with an immediate and often one-sided response.

To jump to a conclusion too quickly militates against one of the major beliefs of Christianity, namely that Jesus is both God and man, divine and human. After two thousand years we are still wrestling with the consequences of this revelation.

Christ's very being is an invitation to non-dualistic thinking. In the light of his both-and nature we must stand in the mystery.

We can exult in the "happy fault" which brought about Good Friday and at the same time sing with St. Augustine, "We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song."

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Communion of Saints

Historians think that belief in the Communion of Saints slipped into the Apostles' Creed sometime between the 5th and 8th centuries. The Apostles' Creed was originally a statement of beliefs for instructing converts in the fourth century.

The meaning of the expression "communion of saints" has been disputed. Some think it originally meant "a sharing in holy things," such as participation in the faith and the sacraments. Others propose that the expression referred to "the fellowship of saints" (saints being the martyrs, the confessors, or perhaps all the baptized.) The most common interpretation today is the latter.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the communion of saints as "the unity in Christ of all the redeemed, those on earth and those who have died."

In his book Catholicism Father Richard McBrien explains it in these terms: "The spiritual union of the whole community of believers in Christ, living and dead. Those on earth are called the Church Militant. Those in purgatory are the Church Suffering. Those in heaven are the Church Triumphant."

In other words, a person need not be canonized to be considered a part of this communion or fellowship; even the souls undergoing purgation are considered "saints." And believers still living on earth qualify too.

I saw artistic representations of this belief, this communion of saints, in two parish churches recently --the one was in St. Elizabeth Seton Church, Naperville, Illinois; the other was in St. John Church, West Chester, Ohio.

Artist and former teacher at the Chicago Academy of Fine Art Lilian Brulc created six murals on the rear walls of St. Elizabeth Seton Church in Naperville. In her depiction of the communion of saints Brulc chose 52 individual persons as examples of virtue worthy of imitation.

Some of her choices are to be expected: Elizabeth Seton, Mary, Joseph, Therese of Lisieux, John the Evangelist, Francis of Assisi. Others may come as a surprise: Isaiah the prophet, Fabiola, Raphael the Archangel, Joanna the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Pier Giorgio, Gabrielle Bossis.

Some are canonized, others are not. Bossis, who died in 1950, was included because of her devotion to the Blessed Sacrament; Giorgio, who died in 1925, was known for his living out the Beatitudes, and his body remains incorrupt. They serve as examples that sanctity comes in many shapes and sizes, and all, whether officially recognized by canonization or not, can be worthy of the title "saint."

In St. John Church, West Chester, there are six extraordinary bas reliefs of Elizabeth Seton, Oscar Romero, Thea Bowman, Dr Tom Dooley, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and Dorothy Day.

A committee of parishioners, as a new parish church was being designed, chose these six as emblematic of the communion of saints, as models of Christian life in the modern world. Elizabeth Seton, wife, mother, widow, convert, foundress of the Sisters (Daughters) of Charity in the United States. Oscar Romero , advocate for social justice, the martyred bishop of El Salvador.

Thea Bowman, African-American, convert to Catholicism, religious Sister, witness to Gospel values in her teaching and her struggles with cancer. Dr Tom Dooley, US Navy medical officer, selflessly serving the huge refugee camps in war-torn Viet Nam.

Cardinal Bernardin, former Archbishop of Cincinnati, falsely accused, reflected Gospel values in clearing his name and enduring his fatal bout with cancer. Dorothy Day, social activist, pacifist, servant of the poor and broken through the Catholic Worker Movement.

Perfection eluded nearly all of those honored in the murals and the bas-reliefs, but each reflects the courage that comes from Christ when weak humanity opens itself to the power and presence of God.

In his book Becoming Who You Are Father James Martin, SJ, addresses the call to sainthood: "...whether we work in a corporate office in midtown Manhattan or as a housewife in a small house in Iowa. Whether we are caring for a sick child late at night or preparing a church dinner for hundreds of homeless men and women. Whether we are listening to a friend tell her problems over a cup of coffee or slogging late hours at work in order to help put our children through school...Whether we are rich or poor, young or old, straight or gay: all of us are called to our own brand of personal holiness."

As Thomas Merton put it, "For me to be a saint means for me to be myself."

The Communion of Saints inspires us to be who we are --in Christ.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Encouragement For The Future

I just returned from preaching a parish mission at St Elizabeth Seton Church in Naperville, Illinois, and from a five-day stay at St. Procopius Abbey in the neighboring town of Lisle.

The mission went well; the parishioners were friendly, receptive, responsive. The monks at the monastery follow the Benedictine rule, and thus "All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ," and we were.

The ambience of the abbey reminded me of my seminary days: a schedule for prayer, an environment marked by statues and pictures of saints, and silence.

The "talk" of the abbey was the recent election of a new abbot (the man in charge.) St. Benedict wrote that "goodness of life and wisdom in teaching must be the criteria for choosing the one to be made abbot...even if they are the last in community rank." The fathers and brothers at St. Procopius chose the youngest member of their community, thirty-six year old Austin Murphy!

In the Rite of Blessing for a new abbot, the bishop of Joliet, Most Reverend J. Peter Sartain, reminded the young man, "By the grace of God your community has elected you their abbot, their father, the teacher of wisdom. Benedict wanted his monks to seek the Lord with their whole being, and to guide and prod them in that seeking he wanted the monastery to be a school for the Lord's service...

"You take the place of Christ in this monastery...He is wisdom incarnate. He is the Master Teacher. He is the exemplar par excellence of diakonia ...God bless you, Fr. Abbot, and make you the best of teachers."

In his homily Abbot Austin replied, "It is very humbling to have been asked to lead a community with such a tradition. But the blessings God has bestowed on the past are an encouragement for the future. 'God is faithful' and "His mercies are not spent' (1 Cor. 10:13, Lam 3:22)."

The dual experience of staying in a monastery and preaching in a parish brought together two of the chief building blocks of the Church of today and tomorrow.

There are less than 30 monks at St. Procopius, and most of them are elderly. Perhaps 18 are priests; the others are brothers. Only God knows what the future holds for them, but the longevity of the Benedictine tradition (St. Benedict died around 550 AD) suggests the end is not at hand.

The lively faith and Gospel spirit easily discernible in the the laity of St. Elizabeth Seton Parish suggest that the Church is carrying on the commission given to the apostles --making disciples, baptizing, and teaching all that Jesus had taught them.

On the one hand it looks as if many of the elements of the Church which we have known for centuries are poised to undergo revision or elmination. The plethora of convents and monasteries which once marked the Catholic landscape is likely to become more rare. The number of priests continues to decline.

Theologian Karl Rahner said decades ago that the Catholic population would be living in a diaspora-like situation, devoid of the cultural and familial supports on which Catholics had for centuries tended to rely.

On the other hand, we can chart lay involvement in the mission and ministry of the Church on a level and to a degree never seen before.

A wedding of sorts is taking place --where monasteries and parishes are conduits of the energy and personnel required to fulfill the Church's role in the 21st century.

Laity will be inspired and re-charged by the life and regimen of the monastery, and in that spirit will go out to evangelize, catechize, and live the Gospel. Catholics drive by the monastery and see the sign "St. Procopius" and know that inside those walls there are faith-filled people fully dedicated to the Gospel. And in turn those drivers are challenged to translate that same Gospel into their lives and into the world around them.

Monasticism is not dead. It is making a come-back. Abbot Austin's election is a sure sign of hope.

The Gospel is alive in St Elizabeth Seton parish, and in many, many others around the globe.

I have a hunch that monasteries and parishes may be the renewing forces behind the work of the Catholic Church across America. Together they will promote that long awaited aggiornamento.