Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.
For more information please visit my website. http://ronrolheiser.com/
15 August 2018
FACING OUR MAKER
Someday you will have to face your Maker! We’ve all heard that phrase.
The hour will come when we will stand alone before God with no place to hide, no room to rationalize, and no excuses to offer for our weaknesses and sin. We will stand in a searing light, naked and exposed, and all we ever did, good and bad, will stand with us in that light. That prospect, however vaguely felt, makes for a dark corner in every person’s mind.
But we can go through our daily lives with that prospect mostly consigned to the back of our minds. We know that someday we will have to face it all, but that day is a long way off and, for now, we can peacefully accommodate ourselves to our procrastination and weaknesses. The time to radically face ourselves and our Maker, to stand in the searing light of full judgment, will only come at the time of death.
But, why wait until death? Why live with so much unnecessary fear? Why hide from God’s judgment? Why delay throwing ourselves into God’s mercy and peace?
Searing judgment of our souls is meant to be a daily occurrence, not a single traumatic moment at the end of our lives. We are meant to bring ourselves, with all our complexities and weaknesses, into God’s full light every day. How?
There are many ways to do this, though all of them are predicated on the same thing, namely, on bringing ourselves before God in searing honesty. In essence, we face the light of God’s full judgment every time we pray in real honesty. Genuine prayer brings us into that searing light.
We are meant to face God like this every day of our lives, not just at the moment of our death. So, each day, we should set aside some time to put ourselves into God’s presence without words and without images, where, naked, stripped of everything, silent, exposed, hiding nothing, completely vulnerable, we simply sit, full face, before God’s judgment and mercy.
By doing this, we will pre-empt any traumatic encounter at the time of our death and, more importantly, we will begin, already here and now, to enjoy more fully God’s empathic embrace.
11 August 2018
CARING FOR OUR SOUL
Philosophers have tended to define the soul as a double principle inside every living being.
For them, the soul is both the principle of life and energy inside us as well as the principle of integration. In essence, the soul is two things: It’s the fire inside us giving us life and energy and it’s the glue that holds us together.
Since the soul is a double principle doing two things for us, there are two corresponding ways of losing our souls. We can have our vitality and energy go dead or we can become unglued and fall apart, petrification or dissipation. In either case we lose our souls.
If that is true, then this very much nuances the question of how we should care for our souls. What is healthy food for our souls? For instance, if I am watching television on a given night, what’s good for my soul? A religious channel? A sports channel? A mindless sitcom? The nature channel? Some talk-show?
This is a legitimate question, but also a trick one. We lose our soul in opposite ways and thus care of the soul is a refined alchemy that has to know when to heat things up and when to cool things down: What’s healthy for my soul on a given night depends a lot upon what I’m struggling with more on that night: Am I losing my soul because I’m losing vitality, energy, hope, and graciousness in my life? Am I growing bitter, rigid, sterile, becoming a person who’s painful to be around?
Or, conversely, am I full of life and energy but so full of it that I am falling apart, dissipating, losing my sense of self? Am I petrifying or dissipating? Both are a loss of soul. In the former situation, the soul needs more fire, something to rekindle its energy. In the latter case, the soul already has too much fire; it needs some cooling down and some glue.
We can weaken or destroy the God-given life inside us by either petrification or dissipation. We can lose our souls by not having enough fire or we can lose them by not having enough glue.
8 August 2018
UNDERSTANDING AND APPRECIATING OUR DIFFERENCES
In both the Jewish and the Christian scriptures there is the strong, recurring motif that God’s message to us generally comes through the stranger, the foreigner, from the one who is different from us, from a source from which we would never expect to hear God’s voice.
Added to this is the notion that when God speaks to us, we generally experience it as a surprise, as something unexpected, and as something that does not easily square with our normal expectations as to how God should work and how we should learn. There’s a reason for this.
Simply put, when we think we are hearing God’s voice in what’s familiar, comfortable, and secure, the temptation is always to reshape the message according to our own image and likeness, and so God often comes to us through the unfamiliar.
What’s familiar is comfortable and offers us security; but, as we know, real transformative growth mostly happens when, like the aged Sarah and Abraham, we are forced to set off to a place that’s foreign and frightening and that strips us of all that is comfortable and secure. Set off, God told Sarah and Abraham, to a land where you don’t know where you’re going. Real growth happens, and real grace breaks in, when we have to deal with what is other, foreign, different. Learn to understand, writes John of the Cross, more by not understanding than by understanding.
What’s dark, unfamiliar, frightening, and uninvited will stretch us in ways that the familiar and secure cannot. God sends his word to the earth through “angels” and they’re not exactly something we’re familiar with.
4 August 2018
FROM PARANOIA TO METANOIA
It’s significant that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word, metanoia. Jesus begins his ministry with these words: “Repent [metanoia] and believe in the good news” and that, in capsule, is a summary of his entire message.
The word, metanoia, comes from two Greek words: Meta, meaning above; and Nous, meaning mind. Metanoia invites us to move above our normal instincts, into a bigger mind, into a mind which rises above the proclivity for self-interest and self-protection which so frequently trigger feelings of bitterness, negativity, and lack of empathy inside us.
Metanoia invites us to meet all situations, however unfair they may seem, with understanding and an empathic heart. Moreover, metanoia stands in contrast to paranoia. In essence, metanoia is “non-paranoia”, so that Jesus’ opening words in the Synoptic Gospels might be better rendered: Be un-paranoid and believe that it is good news. Live in trust!
Henri Nouwen, in a small but deeply insightful book entitled, With Open Hands, describes wonderfully the difference between metanoia and paranoia. He suggests that there are two fundamental postures with which we can go through life. We can, he says, go through life in the posture of paranoia. The posture of paranoia is symbolized by a closed fist, by a protective stance, by habitual suspicion and distrust. Paranoia has us feeling that we forever need to protect ourselves from unfairness, that others will hurt us if we show any vulnerability, and that we need to assert our strength and talents to impress others. Paranoia quickly turns warmth into cold, understanding into suspicion, and generosity into self-protection.
The posture of metanoia, on the other hand, is seen in Jesus on the cross. There, on the cross, we see him exposed and vulnerable, his arms spread in a gesture of embrace, and his hands open, with nails through them. That’s the antithesis of paranoia, wherein our inner doors of warmth, empathy, and trust spontaneous slam shut whenever we perceive a threat. Metanoia, the meta mind, the bigger heart, never closes those doors.
Jesus, in his message and his person, invites us to metanoia, to move towards and stay within our big minds and big hearts, so that in the face of a stinging remark our inner doors of warmth and trust do not close.
1 August 2018
FACING UP TO THE CHAOS
Michael Ford, in his biography on Henri Nouwen, tells us how brutally honest Nouwen was emotionally.
Sometimes when loneliness, depression, and chaos would threaten to overwhelm him, Nouwen would go to a friend’s house and ask that friend to hold him while he cried. Not an easy thing to do, but in it there is a lesson: When we stare life’s chaos and our own demons fully in the face, someone or something had better be holding us or that darkness will destroy us rather than make us stronger.
Jesus entered the darkness and chaos of Gethsemane and the cross, just as he had once entered the desert, not alone but with another. He was being held by his Father, just as Nouwen, during his depressions, let himself be held by his friends.
Jesus was in the dark night, free falling, but he wasn’t alone. He surrendered himself and jumped over love’s cliff, but only because he trusted that someone, his Father, would catch him before he hit the ground.
It is said that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. True, though sometimes things will kill you, if you face them alone. We should therefore be careful and gentle with ourselves and others. The darkness about us is frighteningly deep.
18 July 2018
AN INVITATION TO A DEEPER VIRTUE
The litmus-test for Christian orthodoxy is not the creed (Can you believe this set of truths?) but a particular challenge from Jesus.
Can you love an enemy? Can you not give back in kind? Can you move beyond your natural reactions and transform the energy that enters you from others, so as to not give back bitterness for bitterness, harsh words for harsh words, curse for curse, hatred for hatred, murder for murder?
Can you rise above your sense of being wronged? Can you renounce your need to be right? Can you move beyond the itch to always have what’s due you? Can you forgive, even when every feeling inside of you rebels at its unfairness? Can you take in bitterness, curses, hatred, and murder itself, and give back graciousness, blessing, love, understanding, and forgiveness?
That’s the root invitation inside of Christianity and it’s only when we do this that we move beyond “an eye for an eye”.
To do this willingly and without resentment is difficult. It’s not easy to do this and not grow resentful and manipulative. More commonly, we carry others’ crosses – but end up being bitter about it and sending them the bill. Growing resentful or manipulative while serving others is a perennial danger.
The invitation of Jesus to what’s higher, more sublime, more noble, remains; as does the gentle, understanding, faithful, non-threatening, non-coercive, non-guilt inducing, but persistent and uncompromising, presence of God.
14 July 2018
A META-NARRATIVE OF CONSOLATION
Peace, as we experience it ordinarily in our lives, is generally predicated on feeling healthy, loved, and secure.
But all of these are fragile. They can change radically with one visit to the doctor, with an unexpected dizzy spell, with sudden chest pains, with the loss of a job, with the rupture of a relationship, with the suicide of a loved one, or with multiple kinds of betrayal that can blindside us. We try mightily to take measures to guarantee health, security, and the trustworthiness of our relationships, but we live with a lot of anxiety, knowing these are always fragile. We live inside an anxious peace.
As well, the peace we experience in our ordinary lives never comes to us without a shadow. As Henri Nouwen puts it, there is a quality of sadness that pervades all the moments of our life so that even in our most happy moments there is something missing. In every satisfaction, there is an awareness of limitation. In every success, there is a fear of jealousy. In every friendship, there is distance. In every embrace, there is loneliness. In this life, there is not such a thing as a clear-cut, pure joy.
Every bit of life is touched by a bit of death. The world can give us peace, except it never does this perfectly.
What Jesus offers is a peace that is not fragile, that is already beyond fear and anxiety, that does not depend upon feeling healthy, secure, and loved in this world. What is this peace?
At the last supper and as he was dying, Jesus offered us his gift of peace. And what is this? It is the absolute assurance the we are connected to the source of life in such a way that nothing, absolutely nothing, can ever sever – not bad health, not betrayal by someone, indeed, not even our own sin. We are unconditionally loved and held by the source of life itself and nothing can change that.
Nothing can change God’s unconditional love for us.
11 July 2018
For many years, I feared that I was too immersed in the things of this world to consider myself a spiritual person, always fearing that God wanted more from me.
I felt that I should be spending more time in prayer, but, too often, I’d end up too tired to pray, more interested in watching a sports event on television or more interested in sitting around with family, colleagues, or friends, talking about everything except spiritual things. For years, I feared that God wanted me to be more explicitly spiritual. God probably did!
But, as I’ve aged, I’ve come to realize that being with God in prayer and being with God in heart is like being with a trusted friend. In an easeful friendship, friends don’t spend most of their time talking about their mutual friendship.
Rather they talk about everything: local gossip, the weather, their work, their children, their headaches, their heartaches, their tiredness, what they saw on television the night before, their favorite sports teams, what’s happening in politics, and the jokes they’ve heard recently – though they occasionally lament that they should ideally be talking more about deeper things. Should they?
John of the Cross teaches that, in any longer-term friendship, eventually the important things begin to happen under the surface, and surface conversation becomes secondary. Togetherness, ease with each other, comfort, and the sense of being at home, is what we give each other then.
That’s also true for our relationship with God. God made us to be human and God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be in his presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are at home.
7 July 2018
THE OTHER SIDE OF ORTHODOXY
God, religion and the churches are, I suspect, more hurt by being associated with the narrowness and intolerance of some believers than they are by any theoretical dogmatic heresy.
Right truth, proper faith, and true fidelity to Jesus Christ demand too that our hearts are open and wide enough to radiate the universal love and compassion that Jesus incarnated. Purity of dogma alone doesn’t make us disciples of Jesus.
Suffice it to say that Jesus is clear about this. Anyone who reads the Gospels and misses Jesus’ repeated warnings about legalism, narrowness, and intolerance is reading selectively. Granted, Jesus does warn too about staying within the bounds of proper belief (monotheism and all that this implies) and proper morals (the commandments, love of our enemies, forgiveness), but he stresses too that we can miss the real demands of discipleship by not going far enough in letting ourselves be stretched by his teachings.
We live always in the face of two opposing dangers: disintegration and petrification. To stay healthy, we need to know our limits and we also need to know how far we have to stretch ourselves.
The German poet, Goethe, once wrote: The dangers of life are many, and safety is one of those dangers. This is true in our personal lives and it’s true in Christian orthodoxy. There is danger in bad dogma but there is equal danger in not radiating, with sufficient compassion and understanding, God’s universal will for the salvation of all peoples.
4 July 2018
WELCOMING THE STRANGER
In the Old Testament, we find a strong religious challenge to always welcome the stranger, the foreigner.
The great prophets taught that God favors the poor and that consequently we will be judged, judged religiously, by how we treat the poor. The prophets coined this mantra (still worth memorizing): The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land; and the quality of justice in the land will always be judged by how orphans, widows, and strangers fare while you are alive.
Orphans, widows, and strangers! That’s scriptural code for who, at any given time, are the three most vulnerable groups in society. God not only makes a preferential option for the poor, but God is in the poor. How we treat the poor is how we treat God.
This is very apropos today in the face of the refugee and immigrant issues we are facing in the Western world. Millions upon millions of people, under unjust persecution and the threat of death, are being driven from their homes and homelands with no place to go and no country or community to receive them.
As Christians, we may not turn our backs on them or turn them away. If Jesus is to be believed, we will be judged religiously more by how we treat refugees than by whether or not we are going to church. When we stand before God in judgment and say in protest: “When did I see you a stranger and not welcome you?” Our generation is likely to hear: “I was a Syrian refugee, and you did not welcome me.”
This might sound naïve, over-idealistic, and fundamentalist. The issue of refugees and immigrants is both highly sensitive and very complex. Countries have borders that need to be respected and defended, just as its citizens have a right to be protected.
Admittedly, there are very real political, social, economic, and security issues that have to be addressed. But, as we, our churches, and our governments, address them we must remain clear on what the scriptures, Jesus, and the social teachings of the church uncompromisingly teach: We are to welcome the stranger, irrespective of inconvenience and even if there are some dangers.
For all sorts of pragmatic reasons, political, social, economic, and security, we can perhaps justify not welcoming the stranger; but we can never justify this on Christian grounds.
Not welcoming stranger is antithetical to the very heart of Jesus’ message.
30 June 2018
GOD AS VICTIM
Christianity is the only religion which worships the scapegoat, the one who is hated, excluded, spat upon, blamed for everything, ridiculed, shamed, and made expendable. Christianity is the only religion that focuses on imitating the victim and which sees God in the one who is surrounded by the halo of hatred.
God is not to be confusedly identified with the myths of success, power, glamour, and popularity. Never confuse God and what is holy with current cultural religion which, antithetical to Christ, worships the included, the glamorous, the ones who aren’t shamed and ridiculed, and the ones who seem important and indispensable.
The God of our culture and the God that is preached in so many of our churches is not the God who dies on a cross, is hated, spat upon, and is excluded and scapegoated in ignorance. No, our culture does not worship a crucified God. The God Jesus revealed, is still, in our very own culture, excluded, mocked, scapegoated, made expendable, and often killed, mostly in the name of God and truth. Where do we see this?
Our own culture, like every other culture past and present, creates a category of persons that it deems expendable and then subsequently victimizes through exclusion, ridicule, scapegoating, and often through actual death. Who constitutes that category shifts slightly from time to time, but there is always a common denominator, it includes always those who are the weakest.
Thus, for instance, our culture, marginalizes and scapegoats the sick, the poor, the handicapped, the unborn, the unattractive, the non-productive, and the aged. These we deem expendable and subsequently decertify in terms of full status within the human race. Worse still, we identify God and holiness with those who are doing the excluding. But that is antithetical to true religion – and true wisdom.
Where is God? God is on the side of the victim, standing with the one who is excluded, especially present in the one being ridiculed, and dying in the one who is being put to death.
True Christianity knows this: It worships the scapegoat – the one who is surrounded by the halo of hatred
27 June 2018
LIVING WITH AN UNNATURAL WOUND
Few things in life are as difficult as the death of a young person. Many is the parent with a broken heart, having lost a daughter or a son and despite time and perhaps even the consolation of faith, there is a wound that will not heal.
There is a reason why this wound is so unrelenting, and it lies not so much in a lack of faith in us, as persons, as in a certain lack within nature itself. Nature equips us for most situations, but it does not equip us to bury our own young.
Death is always hard. It severs with a finality and an irrevocability that cauterizes the heart. This is true even if the person who has died is elderly and has lived a full life. Ultimately nothing prepares us, really, to accept the deaths of those whom we love.
Understanding how much against nature it is to have to bury one of your own children does not bring that child back. It does not help bring things back to normal since, and this is the point, it is precisely abnormal for a parent to bury a child. What understanding can bring, however, is an insight into why the pain is so deep and so unrelenting, why it is natural to feel so badly, and why no cheap consolation or challenge is very helpful. At the end of the day, the death of one’s own child has no answer.
It is also helpful to know that faith in God, albeit powerful and important, does not take away that wound. It is not meant to. When one of our children dies something has been unnaturally cut off, like the amputation of a limb.
Faith in God can be most beneficial in helping us live with the pain and the unnaturalness of being less than whole, but it does not bring back the limb or make things whole again. What faith can do is teach us how to live with the amputation, how to open that irreparable violation of nature to something and Someone beyond us so that this larger perspective, God’s heart, can give us the courage to live with so unnatural a wound.
23 June 2018
CHILDREN OF BOTH HEAVEN AND EARTH
God made us irremediably physical, fleshy, earth-oriented, with virtually every instinct inside us reaching for the things of this earth.
We shouldn’t then expect that God wants us to shun this earth, deny its genuine beauty, and attempt step out of our bodies, our natural instincts, and our physicality to fix our eyes only on the things of heaven. God did not build this world as testing-place to see if we’re worthy of heaven. It’s not simply a stage upon which we, as humans, play out our individual dramas of salvation and then close the curtain. It’s a place for all of us, humans, animals, insects, plants, water, rocks, and soil to enjoy a home together.
That’s the root of a great tension inside us: Unless we deny either our most powerful human instincts or our most powerful religious sensibilities we will find ourselves forever torn between two worlds caught between the lure of this world and the lure of God. I know how true this is in my own life.
I was born into this world with two incurable loves and have spent my life and ministry caught and torn between the two: I have always loved the pagan world for its honoring of this life and for its celebration of the wonders of the human body and the beauty and pleasure that our five senses bring us. With my pagan brothers and sisters, I too honor the lure of sexuality, the comfort of human community, the delight of humor and irony, and the remarkable gifts given us by the arts and the sciences.
But, at the same time, I have always found myself in the grip of another reality, the divine, faith, religion. Its reality too has always commanded my attention – and, more importantly, dictated the important choices in my life.
My major choices in life incarnate and radiate a great tension because they’ve tried to be true to a double primordial branding inside me, the pagan and the divine. I can’t deny the reality, lure, and goodness of either of them. It’s for this reason that I can live as a consecrated, life-long celibate, doing religious ministry, even as I deeply love the pagan world, bless its pleasures, and bless the goodness of sex even as, because of other loyalties, I renounce it. That’s also the reason why I’m chronically apologizing to God for the world’s pagan resistance, even as I’m trying to make an apologia for God to the world. I’ve live with torn loyalties.
That’s as it should be. The world is meant to take our breath away, even as we genuflect to the author of that breath.
20 June 2018
TURNING INNER CHAOS INTO A PEACEFUL GARDEN
Almost all spiritualities have a special place for deserts, wilderness, and other such places where we are unprotected and in danger from untamed nature, wild beasts, and threatening spirits. This concept has deep roots inside both ancient religions and the human psyche itself.
What frightens us today is not untamed geography (which we now see as inviting peace and quiet). For many of us, the untamed, the wilderness, is now visualized more as a gang-infested area within a city, crack houses, singles’ bars, strip clubs, and red-light areas. These are understood as lying outside our cultivated lives, split off from the safety of home and religion, godless places, dangerous, a wilderness.
What frightens us more are the untamed and uncultivated deserts within our own hearts, the unexplored and dark areas inside of us. Like the ancients, we are frightened of what might lie in hiding there, how vulnerable we might be if we entered there, what wild beasts and demons might prey on us there, and whether a chaotic vortex might not swallow us up should we ever venture there. We too fear unexplored places; except our fear is not for our physical safety, but for our sanity and our sanctity.
Nonetheless our Christian faith invites us to go into those areas, face the wild beasts that dwell there, and turn those dangerous regions into cultivated land, into safe gardens. After all that is what Jesus did: He went into every dark place, from the singles’ bars of his time into death and hell itself and took God’s light and grace there. But he wasn’t naïve. He didn’t venture there alone. He entered those underworlds with his hand safely inside his Father’s, not walking alone.
Faith is meant rid us of fear, including fear of the wild beasts and demons that lurk inside the deserts of own minds, hearts, and energies. We are meant to turn those wild, dark areas into safe gardens. But remember to never venture into the dark woods naively and alone! Make sure you are armed with a sturdy creed and that you are walking hand-in-hand with your Father.
16 June 2018
THE GIFT THAT WAS HENRI NOUWEN
Henri Nouwen was perhaps most popular spiritual writer of the late 20th century and his popularity endures today.
Nouwen wrote as a psychologist and a priest, but his writings also flowed from who he was as a man. And he was complex man, torn always between the saint inside of him who had given his life to God and the man inside of him who, chronically obsessed with human love and its earthy yearnings, wanted to take his life back.
Nouwen was fond of quoting Soren Kierkegaard who said that a saint is someone who can “will the one thing”, even as he admitted how much he struggled to do that. He did will to be a saint, but he willed other things as well: “I want to be a saint,” he once wrote, “but I also want to experience all the sensations that sinners experience.” He confessed in his writings how much restlessness this brought into his life and how sometimes he was incapable of being fully in control of his own life.
In the end, he was a saint, but always one-in-progress. He never fit the pious profile of a saint, even as he was always recognized as a man from God bringing us more than ordinary grace and insight. And the fact that he never hid is weaknesses from his readers helped account for his stunning popularity. His readers identified with him because he shared so honestly his struggles. He related his weaknesses to his struggles in prayer and, in that, many readers found themselves looking into a mirror.
Like many others, when I first read Henri Nouwen, I had a sense of being introduced to myself.
Where I try to emulate Nouwen is in his simplicity, in his rewriting things over and over in order try to make them simpler, without being simplistic. Like him, I believe that there’s a language of the heart (that each generation has to create anew) that bypasses the divide between academics and the street and which has the power to speak directly to everyone, regardless of background and training. Jesus managed it. Nouwen sought to speak and write with that kind of directness. He didn’t do it perfectly, nobody does, but he did do it more effectively than most. He recognized too that this is a craft that must be worked at, akin to learning language.
13 June 2018
THE GRACE IN CREATIVITY
When we are creative, we get to feel a bit of what God must have felt at the original creation and at the baptism of Jesus, when, looking at the young earth spinning itself out of chaos and the head of Jesus emerging from the waters, there was the spontaneous utterance: “It is good, very good!” “This is my beloved child in whom I am well-pleased.”
Being creative can give us that same feeling. The experience of being creative can help instill in us the gaze of admiration, an appreciative consciousness, a divine satisfaction.
Obviously, there is a real danger in this. Feeling like God is also the greatest narcotic there is, as many artists and performers and athletes tragically have learned. In the experience of creativity, it is all too easy to identify with the energy, to feel that we are God or that art and creativity are themselves divine and an end in themselves. The greater the achievement, the harder it is to disconnect properly, to not identify oneself or it with God. Creativity comes fraught with a fierce danger.
We need to understand creativity correctly. We tend to be intimidated by the word and to see ourselves as not having what it takes to be creative. Why? Because we tend to identify creativity only with outstanding achievement and public recognition. Whom do we judge to be creative? Only those who have had their songs recorded, their poems published, their dances performed on Broadway, their achievements publicly noted, and their talents talked about on the TV talk shows.
But 99% of creativity hasn’t anything to do with that. Creativity is not in the end about public recognition or outstanding achievement. It’s about self-expression, about nurturing something into life, and about the satisfaction this brings with it.
Creativity can be as simple (and as wonderful) as gardening, growing flowers, sewing, raising children, baking bread, collecting stamps, keeping a journal, writing secret poems, being a teacher, being cub scout leader, coaching a team, collecting baseball cards, doing secret dances in the privacy of your own room, fixing old cars, or building a deck off the porch. It doesn’t have to be recognized and you don’t need to get published.
You only have to love doing it.
9 June 2018
LIFE’S KEY QUESTION
Several years ago, at a retreat, an elderly monk shared with me about the ups and downs of 50 years of monastic life. At the end of this, he said to me: “Give me some hints on how I should prepare to die! What should I do to make myself more ready for death?”
The heaviness of such a question is enough to intimidate a person with a spirituality deeper than my own, and when it’s asked by someone twice your age whose heart seems already deeply charitable, faith-filled, and wonderfully-mellowed through years of quiet prayer, then perhaps the best answer is silence. I wasn’t so naive as to offer him much by way of an answer, his trust in me notwithstanding.
How do we prepare to die? How do we live so that death does not catch us unaware?
The first thing that needs to be said is that anything we do to prepare for death should not be morbid or be something that distances or separates us from life and each other. We don’t prepare for death by withdrawing from life. The opposite is true. What prepares us for death, anoints us for it, in Christ’s phrase, is a deeper, more intimate, fuller entry into life. We get ready for death by beginning to live our lives as we should have been living them all along.
How do we do that?
We prepare ourselves for death by loving deeply and by expressing love, appreciation, and gratitude to each other. Jesus says as much. When the woman at Bethany poured an entire bottle of expensive ointment on his feet and dried his feet with her hair, he commented on her lavish expression of affection and gratitude by saying: “She has anointed me for my impending death.” What he meant should not be piously misinterpreted. He wasn’t saying: “Since I’m soon to die, let her waste this ointment!” He was saying rather: “When I come to die, it’s going to be easier because, at this moment, I am truly tasting life. It’s easier to die when one has been, even for a moment, fully alive.”
Had that old monk cornered Jesus and asked him the same question he asked me, I suspect, Jesus might have said: Prepare for death by living more fully now.
Work at loving more deeply, less discriminately, more affectionately, and more gratefully. Tell those close to you that you love them, and death will never catch you like a thief in the night.”
6 June 2018
SPIRITUALITY AND THE SECOND HALF OF LIFE
In mid-life, perhaps only in late mid-life, we achieve something the mystics call “Proficiency”, a state wherein we have achieved an essential maturity – basic peace, a sexuality integrated enough to let us sleep at night and keep commitments during the day, a sense of self-worth, and an essential unselfishness. We’ve found our way home.
And there we’re relatively comfortable, content enough to recognize that our youthful journeys, while exciting, were also full of restlessness. We’d like to be young again, but we don’t want all that disquiet a second time.
So where do we go from there, from home? T.S. Eliot once said, “Home is where we start from.” That’s true again in mid-life.
The second-half of life, just like the first, demands a journey. While the first-half of life, as we saw, is very much consumed with the search for identity, meaning, self-worth, intimacy, rootedness, and making peace with our sexuality, the second-half has another purpose, as expressed in the famous epigram of Job: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I go back.”
Where do we go from home? To an eternal home with God. But, to do that, we have first to shed many of the things that we legitimately acquired and attached ourselves to during the first-half of life. The spiritual task of the second-half of life, so different from the first, is to let go, to move to the nakedness that Job describes.
2 June 2018
SIGNS OF A GOOD MARRIAGE
No amount of preaching shapes a soul as much as does the influence of a good Christian life.
If that is true, and it is, then no marriage course is ever as powerful to teach about marriage as is the witness of a good marriage.
A good marriage can best be described, I believe, by four images:
• A good marriage is a warm fireplace. The love that two people have for each other generates a warm place. But the warmth it creates does not just warm the two people in love, it warms everyone else who comes near them—their children, their neighbors, their community and everyone who meets them.
• A good marriage is a big table, loaded with lots of food and drink. When two people love each other sacramentally that love becomes a place of hospitality, a table where people come to be fed—figuratively and really. Again, love, in a true marriage, feeds not just the two people who are generating it, but, because it is sacramental, it always contains more than enough surplus to feed everyone who is fortunate enough to meet it.
• A good marriage is a container that holds suffering. An old axiom says: “Everything can be borne if it can be shared!” That’s true. Anyone fortunate enough to have a true moral partner in this life can bear a lot of suffering.
That is even truer in a good marriage where the wife and husband, because of their deep moral and emotional affinity, can carry not just their own sufferings but also can help carry the sufferings of many others.
• Finally, to draw upon a deep Christian image, a good marriage is Christ’s body, flesh that is “food for the life of world.” Christ left his body to feed the world. A good marriage does precisely that, it feeds everything and everybody around it.
Many of us have experienced this in some of the married people we’ve met. Having them in our lives is a constant source of (moral, psychological, religious and humor) nourishment.
30 May 2018
A HAUNTING EQUATION
We have perennially tended to equate suffering and sadness with value and depth.
I remember my novice master challenging us with the notion that there is no recorded incident in scripture of Jesus laughing; the idea being that all of Jesus’ depth took its root inside his suffering. Laughter and lightness of heart are to be seen as superficial.
Any good psychologist, spiritual director, or mentor of soul, will tell you that most often, real growth and maturity of soul are triggered by deep suffering and pain in our lives. It’s not so much that God doesn’t speak as clearly to us in our joys and successes, but we tend not to be listening in those moments. Suffering gets our attention.
As C.S. Lewis once said, pain is God’s microphone to a deaf world. There is, undeniably, a connection between suffering and depth of soul.
We must be careful not to read too much into this. When we look at Jesus, and many other wonderfully healthy people, we see that depth of soul is also connected to the joyous and celebratory moments of life. Jesus scandalized people equally in both his capacity to enter into suffering and renounce worldly joys and in his capacity to thoroughly enjoy the moment, as is evident in the incident where a woman anoints his feet with a very expensive perfume. His depth of soul arose both from his suffering and from his joy. And his gratitude, I suspect, arose more out of the latter than the former.
In his novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the Czech writer, Milan Kundera, weighs the equation: What is of more value, heaviness or lightness? His answer: heaviness can crush us, but lightness can be unbearable: “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But … the heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.”
What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness? … That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.”
Truly it is.
26 May 2018
OUR FEAR OF HELL
Hell is never a nasty surprise waiting for a basically happy person.
Hell can only be the full-flowering of a pride and selfishness that have, through a long time, twisted a heart so thoroughly that it considers happiness as unhappiness and has an arrogant disdain for happy people.
If you are essentially warm of heart this side of eternity, you need not fear that a nasty surprise awaits you on the other side because somewhere along the line, unknowingly, you missed the boat and your life went terribly wrong.
Unfortunately for many us, the preaching and catechesis of our youth sometimes schooled us in the idea that you could tragically miss the boat without knowing it and that there was no return. You could live your life sincerely, in essential honesty, relate fairly to others, try your best given your weaknesses, have some bounce and happiness in life, and then die and find that some sin you’ve committed or mistake you’d made, perhaps even unknowingly, could doom you to hell and there was no further chance for repentance. The second of your death was your last chance to change things, no second chances after death, no matter how badly you might like then to repent. As a tree falls so shall it lie! We were schooled to fear dying and the afterlife.
But, whatever the practical effectiveness of such a concept, because it really could make one hesitate in the face of temptation because of the fear of hell, it is essentially wrong and should not be taught in the name of Christianity. Why?
Because it belies the God and the deep truths that Jesus revealed. Jesus did teach that there was a hell and that it was a possibility for everyone.
But the hell that Jesus spoke of is not a place or a state where someone is begging for one last chance, just one more minute of life to make an act of contrition, and God is refusing. The God whom Jesus both incarnates and reveals is a God who is forever open to repentance, forever open to contrition, and forever waiting our return from our prodigal wanderings.
With God we never exhaust our chances.
23 May 2018
LOVE BEYOND NAIVETÉ AND ROMANCE
Several years ago, a Presbyterian minister I know challenged his congregation to open its doors and its heart more fully to the poor.
The congregation initially responded with enthusiasm and a number of programs were introduced that actively invited people from the less-privileged economic areas of the city, including a number of street-people, to come their church.
But the romance soon died as coffee cups and other loose items began to disappear, some handbags were stolen, and the church and meeting space were often left messy and soiled. A number of the congregation began to complain and demand an end to the experiment: “This isn’t what we expected! Our church isn’t clean and safe anymore! We wanted to reach out to these people and this is what we get! This is too messy to continue!”
But the minister held his ground, pointing out that their expectations were naïve, that what they were experiencing was precisely part of the cost of reaching out to the poor, and that Jesus assures us that loving is unsafe and messy, not just in reaching out to the poor but in reaching out to anyone.
We like to think of ourselves as gracious and loving, but, the truth be told, that is predicated on an overly naïve and overly romanticized notion of love. We don’t really love as Jesus invites us to when he says: Love each other as I have loved you! The tailend of that sentence contains the challenge: Jesus doesn’t say, love each other according to the spontaneous movements of your heart; nor, love each other as society defines love, but rather: Love each other as I have loved you!
19 May 2017
THE GIFTS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
The American poet, Robert Frost, once wrote that there is a congenital something in us that hates a wall. Well, there is also something, just as non-eradicable, that loves a list, especially in us who are cradle Catholics.
Our classical catechisms had lists for everything – sacraments, commandments, deadly sins, cardinal virtues, minor virtues and even types of angels. There are two such lists for the Holy Spirit, one listing the fruits and the other listing the gifts. These gifts are not simply a catechetical invention arbitrarily created for pedagogical purposes; both have a solid biblical foundation.
Thus, the fruits of the Spirit are based on a list of virtues that Paul (Galatians 5:22-23) describes as coming from the Spirit. Our Catechism lists twelve of these: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.
The gifts ascribed to the Spirit are based upon two biblical lists; the first given by the prophet Isaiah (11:2) and the second revealed by Paul in 1 Corinthians (12:4-11). Our catechisms, both old and new, summarize these gifts in a list of seven: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord.
How is the Holy Spirit generated within the Trinity and how do the gifts of the Spirit flow out of that? It might seem daunting to try to describe, but we are not without help from divine revelation and human analogues in doing so.
The Holy Spirit has classically been defined in theology as “the love between the Father and the Son.” This is not simply an abstract formula but a phrase that tries to express, however inadequately, what results anywhere, here or in heaven, whenever there is a genuine reciprocal flow of love.
• Thus, simply within the normal flow of human love, we can see the following dynamic: Someone, out of love and gratitude, gives a gift to another.
• That gift helps fire love and gratitude in that other who then, in gratitude, reciprocates.
• This reciprocation fires a deeper love and gratitude within the initial giver who can now give in an even deeper way to the other.
• This in turn fires a still deeper love and gratitude in that other who can then respond even more deeply in love and gratitude to the giver.
• As this dynamic works, an energy, a fire, a certain palpable force, a spirit, begins to build which affects and infects for the good everything it comes into contact with, drawing it into its own joyous energy.
16 May 2017
THE MAJOR IMPERATIVES WITHIN MATURE DISCIPLESHIP
In his autobiography, Morris West suggests that at a certain age our lives simplify and we need have only three phrases left in our spiritual vocabulary: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
Gratitude not only defines sanctity, it also defines maturity. We are mature to the degree that we are grateful. But what makes for a deeper human maturity? Here are some major demands that reside inside both human and Christian maturity:
• Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind: Any pain or tension that we do not transform we will retransmit. In the face of jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred we must be like water purifiers, holding the poisons and toxins inside of us and giving back just the pure water, rather than being like electrical cords that simply pass on the energy that flows through them.
• Let suffering soften rather than harden our souls: Suffering and humiliation find us all, in full measure, but how we respond to them, with forgiveness or bitterness, will determine the level of our maturity and the color of our person. This is perhaps our ultimate moral test: Will my humiliations soften or harden my soul?
• Forgive: In the end, there is only one condition for entering heaven (and living inside human community), namely, forgiveness. Perhaps the greatest struggle we have in the second-half of our lives is to forgive: forgive those who have hurt us, forgive ourselves for our own shortcomings, and forgive God for seemingly hanging us out unfairly to dry in this world. The greatest moral imperative of all is not to die with a bitter, unforgiving heart.
• Become ever-wider in your embrace: We grow in maturity to the degree that we define family (Who is my brother or sister?) in way that is ever-more ecumenical, interfaith, post-ideological, and non-discriminatory. We are mature only when we are compassionate as God is compassionate, namely, when our sun too shines those we like and those we do not. There comes a time when it is time to turn in our cherished moral placards for a basin and a towel.
God is a prodigiously-loving, fully-understanding, completely-empathic parent. We are mature and free of false anxiety to the degree that we grasp that and trust that truth.
12 May 2017
WRESTLING WITH GOD
We tend to confuse faith with our capacity on any given day to conjure up a concept of God and imagine God’s existence.
Moreover, we think our faith is strongest at those times when we have affective and emotive feelings attached to our imaginings about God.
Our faith feels strongest when bolstered by and inflamed by feelings of fervor.
Great spiritual writers will tell us that this stage if fervor is a good stage in our faith, but an initiatory one, more commonly experiences when we are neophytes.
Experience tends to support this. In the earlier stages of a religious journey, it is common to possess strong affective images of and feelings about God. Our relationship with God parallels the relationship between a couple on their honeymoon. On your honeymoon you have strong emotions and possess a particular certainty about your love, but it’s a place you come home from. A honeymoon is an initiatory stage in love, a valuable gift, but something that disappears after it has done its work.
A honeymoon in not a marriage, though it’s often confused with one.
It’s the same with faith: strong imaginative images of God are not faith, though they’re often confused with it.
9 May 2018
THE UNHAPPY COST OF RESENTMENT
Soren Kierkegaard once defined resentment as what happens when we move from the happy feeling of admiration to the unhappy feeling of jealousy.
It’s hard to deny that resentment and its concomitant unhappiness color our world. At every level of life, from what we see playing out in the grievances and wars among nations to what we see playing out in the bickering in our board rooms, classrooms, living rooms, and bedrooms, there is evidence of resentment and bitterness.
It seems everyone is bitter about something, and of course, not without cause. Few are the persons who do not secretly nurse the feeling that they have been ignored, wounded, cheated, treated unfairly, and have drawn too many short straws in life; and so many of us feel that we have every right to protest our right to be resentful and unhappy. We’re not happy, but with good reason.
There are a number of insightful analysts who say the real reason why we are so spontaneously bitter is because we have an inability to admire, to praise others, and to give others and the world a simple gaze of admiration.
Robert Moore once offered this challenge: When was the last time you walked across a room and told a person, especially a younger person or a person whose talents dwarf yours, that you admire her, that you admire what she’s doing, that her gifts enrich your life, and that you are happy that her path has crossed yours? When was the last time you gave someone a heartfelt compliment? Or, to reverse the question: When was the last time that someone, especially someone who is threatened by your talents, gave you a sincere compliment?
We don’t compliment each other easily, or often, and this betrays a secret jealousy. It also reveals a genuine moral flaw in our lives. Thomas Aquinas once submitted that to withhold a compliment from someone who deserves it is a sin because we are withholding from him or her some of the food that he or she needs to live.
To not admire, to not praise, to not compliment, is not a sign of sophistication but a sign moral immaturity and personal insecurity.
It is also one of the deeper reasons why we so often fill with bitter feelings of resentment and unhappiness.
5 May 2018
STUCK IN TRAFFIC
There’s a famous billboard that hangs along a congested highway that reads: You aren’t stuck in traffic. You are traffic! Good wit, good insight!
How glibly we distance ourselves from a problem, whether it is our politics, our churches, the ecological problems on our planet, or most anything else.
We aren’t, as we want to think, stuck in a bad political climate wherein we can no longer talk to each other and live respectfully with each other. Rather we ourselves have become so rigid, arrogant, and sure of ourselves that we can no longer respect those who think differently than we do. We are a bad political climate and not just stuck in one.
Likewise for our churches: We aren’t stuck in churches that are too self-serving and not faithful enough to the teachings of Jesus. Rather we are Christians who too often, ourselves, out of self-interest compromise the teachings of Jesus. We aren’t stuck in our churches, we comprise those churches.
Admittedly, this isn’t always true. Sometimes we are stuck in negative situations for which we bear no responsibility and within which, through no fault of our own, we are simply the unfortunate victim of circumstance and someone else’s carelessness, illness, dysfunction, or sin.
What we see written large in the world news each night simply reflects what’s going on inside of us.
When we see instances of injustice, bigotry, racism, greed, violence, murder and war on our newscasts we rightly feel a certain moral indignation. It’s healthy to feel that way, but it’s not healthy to naively think that it’s others, not us, who are the problem.
When we find ourselves stuck in traffic, metaphorically and otherwise, we need to admit our own complicity and resist the temptation to simply blame others.
2 May 2018
THE STRUGGLE TO LOVE OUR NEIGHBOUR
In our humbler moments, I think that all of us admit that we don’t really love others in the way that Jesus asked.
We don’t turn the other cheek. We don’t really love our enemies. We don’t wish good to those who wish us harm. We don’t bless those who curse us. And we don’t genuinely forgive those who murder our loved ones.
We are decent, good-hearted persons, but persons whose heaven is still too-predicated on needing an emotional vindication in the face of anyone or anything that opposes us. We can be fair, we can be just, but we don’t yet love the way Jesus asked us to, that is, so that our love goes out to both those who love us and to those who hate us. We still struggle, mightily, mostly unsuccessfully, to wish our enemies well.
But for most of us who like to believe ourselves mature, that battle remains hidden, mostly from ourselves. We tend to feel that we are loving and forgiving because, essentially, we are well-intentioned, sincere, and able to believe and say all the right things; but there’s another part of us that isn’t nearly so noble.
The Irish Jesuit, Michael Paul Gallagher, put this well when he wrote (In Extra Time): “You probably don’t hate anyone, but you can be paralyzed by daily negatives. Mini-prejudices and knee-jerk judgements can produce a mood of undeclared war. Across barbed wire fences, invisible bullets fly.” Loving the other as oneself, he submits, is for most of us an impossible uphill climb.
So where does that leave us? Serving out a life-sentence of mediocrity and hypocrisy? Professing to loving our enemies but not doing it? How can we profess to be Christians when, if we are honest, we have admitted that we are not measuring up to the litmus-test of Christian discipleship, namely, loving and forgiving our enemies?
Perhaps we are not as bad as we think we are. If we are still struggling, we are still healthy. In making us, it seems God factored in human complexity, human weakness, and how growing into deeper love is a life-long journey.
What can look like hypocrisy from the outside can in fact be a pilgrimage, a Camino walk, when seen within a fuller light of patience and understanding.
28 April 2018
KEEPING OUR LOVED ONES CONNECTED TO THE BODY OF CHRIST
As Christians, we believe that God took on flesh in Jesus, but we also believe that this was not just a one-shot, 33-year incursion, of God into human history. The mystery of the incarnation goes on. God is still taking on real flesh inside of us, the community of believers.
Scripture says: “We ARE the Body of Christ on earth.” We’re not a replacement for Jesus’ body, not a representation of it, or even his mystical body. We ARE his body and, as such, are meant to do all the things he did, including the forgiveness of sins and the binding of each other, through love, to the family of God.
Jesus himself gave us this power: “Whose sins you shall forgive, they are forgiven. … Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Those statements, among others, have immense, almost unimaginable, implications. As a family of faith, we continue to give physical flesh to God on earth and so, like Jesus, have the power to forgive and to link anyone who is sincere to the family of God.
Simply put, this means that we can link those we love (our children, our siblings, our friends, our colleagues, and anyone who is sincere) to salvation, to heaven, to the family that shares God’s table. We can say to God: “My heaven includes those I love!”
Stated in reverse, if, as members of the Body of Christ, we love someone, that person cannot go to hell unless he or she positively rejects our love and our efforts to connect him or her to the family of God. He or she must, of course, at some point, still make a personal choice to belong, but as long as our love is there, that person is solidly connected to the Body of Christ.
Every time I write about this, I’m flooded with letters, mostly from people who find it incredulous. Some object because, as they put it: “Only Christ can do this!” Point well taken, but, as scripture says: “We are the body of Christ.” Christ is doing this. More commonly the doubt expresses itself this way: “I’d like to believe this, but, if it’s true, it’s too good to be true!”
That’s simply a description of the incarnation!
25 April 2018
WRESTLING WITH GOD: FINDING HOPE AND MEANING IN OUR DAILY STRUGGLES TO BE HUMAN
The last few decades have rapidly birthed a modern world that would have been unrecognizable fifty years ago. As long-held beliefs on love, faith, and God are challenged by the aggregate of changes that have overhauled our world, many are left feeling confused and uncertain while old norms are challenged and redefined at breakneck speed.
In WRESTLING WITH GOD: FINDING HOPE AND MEANING IN OUR DAILY STRUGGLES TO BE HUMAN Ronald Rolheiser offers a steady and inspiring voice to help us avow and understand what true faith means in a world where nothing seems solid or permanent.
Drawing from his own life experience, as well as a storehouse of literary, psychological, and theological insights, the beloved author of Sacred Fire examines the fears and doubts that challenge us. It is in these struggles to find meaning, that Rolheiser lays out a path for faith in a world struggling to find faith, but perhaps more important, he helps us find our own rhythm within which to walk that path.
Readers of WRESTLING WITH GOD will grapple with, and conquer a number of major and everyday challenges that faith seekers come in contact with on their journeys to spiritual satisfaction, such as:
• Maintaining a vital sense of God in our daily lives outside of church and explicit religious activity
• Being a conduit of God’s peace in highly charged, and increasingly polarized communities
• Avoiding personal grandiosity and finding balance in a land of excess
• Finding a spiritual connection with others in the overwhelming religious diaspora of our time
• Relinking faith to justice and our own connection to those suffering from illness and poverty
Here are a few excerpts:
• Faith is not a set of answers; rather, it leaves us in mystery, in longing, in desire, but open to something bigger.
• God made us to be human, and God wants us, with all of our wandering weaknesses, to be human in His presence, with ease, with comfort, and with the feeling that we are at home.
• Human will doesn’t bend easily, nor should it, and the heart has complexities that need to be respected, even as we try to rein in its more possessive longings. God, who built us, understands this and is up to the task of wrestling with us and our resistance.
21 April 2018
LOVE IS COMING HOME
Henri Nouwen, speaking about his experience of living with handicapped adults in L’Arche, once remarked: “What is so unique about living in L’Arche is that here I am loved by people who are in no way impressed with me.”
What is contained in these comments can be very helpful in answering the question: How do I know what real love is? Real love is always a coming home, it’s not a place we deserve or earn, it’s coming to a place where you sense others will love you without necessarily being impressed with you. Thus, real love is always experienced as a security, a safe place, home, a safe harbor which we sail into. It’s a place of rest. For this reason, it is experienced as a place from which you don’t want to, or need to, go home.
Conversely, infatuation and other kinds of bonding that can feel like real love, are places of insecurity, of deep restlessness, places which “don’t have to take us,” places which we have to earn, places where we have to perform and impress, and places from which, ultimately, we go home.
The criterion to use when choosing someone for marriage, or even for intimate friendship, is the sense of coming home. Love is home. Ultimately, if we cannot really be of one heart and mind with someone, however interesting and exciting that person might be, then that other will become just part of our world and we will grow apart and go our separate ways, that is, to our separate homes.
Given the complexities of the human heart, we can be obsessed with someone, painfully and hopelessly even, and yet in that relationship, not be at our right place in the universe. In the end, our completeness, real love, home, lies elsewhere. But the heart needs to be scrutinized carefully before it will tell us that.
Our true rest lies, namely, at that place where we don’t have to impress or perform, or earn or win, where we feel safe and secure, and where we are at home.
18 April 2018
OUR UNFINISHED SYMPHONY
St. Augustine began his autobiography with the now-famous line: “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you!”
Thomas Aquinas taught that “every choice is a renunciation” and that is why commitment, particularly a life-long commitment in marriage, is so difficult.
Karl Rahner famously stated: “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable, we finally learn that here in this life all symphonies must remain unfinished.”
And those of us who are old enough remember the haunting line in the old Salve Regina prayer: “To thee to we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.”
What each of these captures, in essence, is that in this life there is not such a thing as clear-cut pure joy and that we will live more peacefully and happily if we can accept that and not put false pressure on life, on our loves ones, and on God, to give us the full symphony right now.
Every day of their lives, my parents prayed words to the effect that, this side of eternity, they were “mourning and weeping in a valley of tears”. It didn’t make them sad, morbid, or stoic. The opposite: It gave them the tools that they needed to accept life’s real limits and the real limits and imperfections within community, church, family, and marriage. They were happier for knowing and accepting that.
My worry is that today we aren’t equipping our own children in thesame way. Instead, too often, we are helping them nurse the false expectation that, if they do it right, they can have it all already in this life. All that is needed is to have the right body, the right career, the right city, the right neighborhood, the right friends, the right vacations, and the right soul mate and they can have the full symphony here and now.
It’s not to be had, and Anita Brookner’s maxim that in marriage we “cannot not disappoint each other” simply states, in secular language, that no one, no matter how good, can be God for somebody else.
11 April 2018
COPING WITH TRAGEDY
When we are in the middle of a storm, we shouldn’t pretend that the sun is shining or, indeed, that there is anything we can do to stop the storm. The task is to wait it out, together, hand in hand, offering each the assurance that we aren’t alone.
Waiting it out is precisely what is required. The Book of Lamentations tells us that there are times and seasons when all you can do is “put your mouth to the dust and wait.” That’s bitter, stoic advice, but it imparts real hope rather than false optimism.
What it tells us and draws us to is the fact that, right now, for this immediate time, this pain must be borne, however crushing. There is nothing to be done. Consolation will come eventually, but it must be waited for and, in the meantime, we need to keep “vigil”. And that is why we call the service before funeral a “vigil”. We gather not just to celebrate the deceased life, but to, together, “put our mouths to the dust and wait.”
That waiting can be very painful, a time when we see everything through the dark prism of our loss and where for awhile we sincerely believe that we will never find joy again. This kind of waiting brings to the surface a frightening kind of loneliness that reveals to us how fragile and vulnerable it all is.
But that is exactly what we need to accept and process. And so we shouldn’t be afraid to feel afraid, nor despair about feeling despair. Neither negates courage or faith. As Kierkegaard put it, “courage isn’t the absence of despair and fear but the capacity to move ahead in spite of them.”
We believe in life after death, in the resurrection, in the communion of saints, and in God’s infinite tenderness and mercy. Faith can be trusted. What it tells us is true.
In the end, there is consolation. However our God, it would seem, doesn’t always save us from tragedy, but instead eventually redeems tragedy.
Jesus didn’t save his friend Lazarus from death, he raised him up from death after he had died. In the end, no doubt, “all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well”, but in the meantime, especially in those moments right after tragedy, senseless accidents, senseless deaths, and senseless loss of all kinds, the consolation and peace of God have to be waited for and we are meant to do that, hand in hand.
7 April 2018
IN PARADOX THERE IS VIRTUE
There are a number of old axioms that suggest that virtue and truth lie in the middle, between the two extremes. This was called the “golden mean” and expressed in phrases such as “In medio stat virtus” and “Aurea mediocritas”.
What these axioms point out is that virtue and truth lie in paradox, in carrying the truth of both sides and living inside the tension of that ambiguity.
Virtue and truth are not found by choosing “either/or” or in opting for some insipid middle that hasn’t the salt to offend either side. Virtue and truth lie in living out “‘both/and”, namely, in carrying and balancing out the truth that is contained in both extremes.
And nowhere is this truer than in religious discernment, that is, in the question of how we recognize God’s voice in our lives, which is heard in paradox:
· The voice of God is recognized wherever one sees life, joy, health, color, and humor, even as it is recognized wherever one sees dying, suffering, poverty, and a beaten-down spirit. God is equally present on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
· The voice of God is recognized in what appears in our lives as “foreign”, as other, as “stranger”, even as it is recognized in the voice that is most deeply familiar and which beckons us home. God’s voice takes us beyond any language we know even as we recognize in it most deeply our mother tongue.
· The voice of God invites us to live beyond all fear, even as it inspires holy fear. When God appears in human history, invariably the first words are: “Do not be afraid!” God’s presence is meant to eradicate all fear, even as it invites us to live in “holy fear”, in a reverence and chastity that help create a world within which no one needs to fear anything.
· The voice of God is always heard wherever there is genuine enjoyment and gratitude, even as it asks us to deny ourselves, die to ourselves, and relativize all the things of this world.
Of course to accept this is also to accept living with ambiguity, complexity, unknowing, and a whole lot of patience. God’s voice will then no longer be as clear as our fundamentalist instinct would like, but it will be free both to soothe and challenge us as never before.
4 April 2018
SEEING THE RESURRECTION
Hugo of St. Victor used to say: Love is the eye! When we look at anything through the eyes of love, we see correctly, understand, and properly appropriate its mystery. The reverse is also true. When we look at anything through eyes that are jaded, cynical, jealous, or bitter, we will not see correctly, will not understand, and will not properly appropriate its mystery.
We see this in how the Gospel of John describes the events of Easter Sunday. Jesus has risen, but, first of all, only the person who is driven by love, Mary Magdala, goes out in search of him. The others remain as they are, locked inside their own worlds.
But love seeks out its beloved and Mary Magdala goes out, spices in hand, wanting at least to embalm his dead body. She finds his grave empty and runs back to Peter and the beloved disciple and tells them the tomb is empty. The two race off together, towards the tomb, but the disciple whom Jesus loved outruns Peter and gets to the tomb first, but he doesn’t enter, he waits for Peter (authority) to go in first.
Peter enters the empty tomb, sees the linens that had covered the body of Jesus, but does not understand. Then the beloved disciple, love, enters. He sees and he does understand. Love grasps the mystery. Love is the eye. It is what lets us see and understand the resurrection.
That is why, after the resurrection, some saw Jesus but others did not. Some understood the resurrection while others did not. Those with the eyes of love saw and understood. Those without the eyes of love either didn’t see anything or were perplexed or upset by what they did see.
Christ is risen, though we might not see him! The miraculous doesn’t force itself on us. It’s there, there to be seen, but whether we see or not, and what precisely we do see, depends mainly upon what’s going on inside our own hearts.
31 March 2018
THE AGONY IN THE GARDEN – THE PLACE OF TRANSFORMATION
Jesus is the lamb who takes away the sins of the world. That’s the central piece in the Christian notion of salvation and it’s also the ultimate icon inside of our faith.
Jesus took away sin by absorbing and transforming sin. What does this mean?
In ancient times, there were “scapegoat” rituals, liturgies intended to take tension out of a community. When tensions within ran high, communities would gather and symbolically invest those tensions onto a goat or a sheep which they would then drive out into the wilderness to die. The idea was that this animal, the “scapegoat”, took the tension and sin out of the community by leaving the community and dying.
Jesus does this, but in a radically different way. He takes the sin and tension out of the community, not by dying and going away, but by absorbing and transforming it into something else. How does he do this?
Perhaps an image (sadly, more mechanical than organic) might be helpful: Jesus took away our sins in the same way as a filter purifies water. A filter takes in impure water, holds the impurities inside of itself, and gives back only the pure water. It transforms rather than transmits.
We see this in Jesus: Like the ultimate cleansing-filter he purifies life itself: He takes in hatred, holds it, transforms it, and gives back love; he takes in bitterness, holds it, transforms it, and gives back graciousness; he takes in curses, holds them, transforms them, and gives back blessing; he takes in chaos, holds it, transforms it, and gives back order; he takes in fear, holds it, transforms it, and gives back freedom; he takes in jealousy, holds it, transforms it, and gives back affirmation; and he takes in satan and murder, holds them, transforms them, and gives back only God and forgiveness.
Jesus takes away the sins of the world in the same way a water-filter takes impurities out of water, by absorbing and holding all that isn’t clean and giving back only what is.
In doing this, Jesus doesn’t want admirers, but followers. The Garden of Gethsemane invites us, everyone of us, to step in, and to step up. It invites us to sweat a lover’s blood so as to help absorb, purify, and transform tension and sin rather than simply transmit them.
28 March 2018
THE TRIUMPH OF GOODNESS
The stone which rolled away from the tomb of Jesus continues to roll away from every sort of grave. Goodness cannot be held, captured, or put to death. It evades its pursuers, escapes capture, slips away, hides out, even leaves the churches sometimes, but forever rises, again and again, all over the world. Such is the meaning of the resurrection.
Goodness cannot be captured or killed. We see this already in the earthly life of Jesus. There are a number of passages in the Gospels which give the impression that Jesus was somehow highly elusive and difficult to capture. It seems that until Jesus consents to his own capture, nobody can lay a hand on him.
We see this played out a number of times: Early on in his ministry, when his own townsfolk get upset with his message and lead him to the brow of a hill to hurl him to his death, we are told that “he slipped through the crowd and went away.” Later when the authorities try to arrest him we are told simply that “he slipped away”. And, in yet another incident when he is in temple area and they try to arrest him, the text simply says that he left the temple area and “no one laid a hand upon him because his hour had not yet come.” Why the inability to take him captive? Was Jesus so physically adept and elusive that no one could imprison him?
These stories of his “slipping away” are highly symbolic. The lesson is not that Jesus was physically deft and elusive, but rather that the word of God, the grace of God, the goodness of God, and power of God can never be captured, held captive, or ultimately killed. They can never be held captive, can never be killed, and even when seemingly they are killed, the stone that entombs them always eventually rolls back and releases them. Goodness continues to resurrect from every sort of grave.
No matter how bad the news on a given day, no matter how threatened our lives are on a given day, no matter how intimidating the neighborhood or global bully, not matter how unjust and cruel a situation, and no matter how omnipotent are anger and hatred, love and goodness will reappear and ultimately triumph.
The ending of our story, both that of our world and that of our individual lives, is already written – and it is a happy ending! We are already saved. Goodness is guaranteed. Kindness will meet us.
We only need to live in the face of that wonderful truth.
24 March 2018
RANSOM THE CAPTIVE
The corporal works of mercy, as the phrase itself suggests, have to do with the physical, the material. Unlike the spiritual works of mercy, what is at stake is not feeding, clothing, or washing someone spiritually, with truth and spirit. The feeding, clothing, washing, visiting, ransoming, and burying that they direct us towards are precisely corporal, to do with the physical well-being of our neighbour.
However, physical does not necessarily mean literal. This is particularly so for the corporal work of mercy which directs us to ransom the captive. For most of us, taken literally, there would be little opportunity to practice this. Who today needs ransoming in the literal sense? Prisoners of war, hostages, and other victims of this sort. Not many of us are in situations where there is much rescuing we can do of this kind.
But the physical character of this injunction needs to be safeguarded even as we let go of its literalness. We still need to ransom the captive and today, as in every age, there are countless persons who, while not literally in a prison or held hostage, are physically captive, that is, caught up in conditions which physically imprison them in some way.
Years ago, I was attending a lecture given by Gustavo Gutierrez, the father of liberation theology. At one stage, after a long discussion on the complexity of social justice, someone asked him: “Given magnitude of poverty and injustice on this earth, given all the discussions about the complex systems that must be changed to make much difference in bringing about a more just world, and given my own limits as one human person, what really can I do?”
Gutierrez answered something to this effect: “Do this at least: have one concrete poor person or family in your life. Never let your response to poverty and injustice be only a theoretical ideal. Always be concretely involved with someone who is physically poor, even if it is only one person.”
At one level, we ransom the captive by reaching out concretely to someone, even if it is to only one person, who is somehow being held hostage by poverty or injustice. Our efforts may not seem to make much difference in terms of changing the systems that cause poverty and injustice – but they can make a big difference to that one person.
21 March 2018
STOPPING THE HAEMORRHAGING BY TOUCHING THE HEM OF THE GARMENT
In the gospels we are told, within a single story, how Jesus cured two women who, on the surface, seem to have very little in common. The story runs this way:
Jesus is approached by a man named Jairus, who asks him to come and cure his daughter who is thirteen years old. As Jesus is making his way to Jairus’ house, a woman who had been suffering from internal haemorrhaging for eighteen years, approaches him surreptitiously, saying to herself: “If I but touch the hem of his garment, I will be healed!”
And as the gospels tell us, instantly the flow of blood stopped. Touching Jesus did for her what doctors couldn’t do: it stopped her internal haemorrhaging.
Then as Jesus is approaching Jairus’ house, he is told that the man’s daughter is already dead, but he enters the house anyway, goes to the young girl’s bed, takes her by the hand, and brings her back to life.
What these two women have in common is this: For different reasons, both are unable to get pregnant and give life; the young girl, because she dies at puberty, just as she has the radical possibility of getting pregnant, and the other woman, because the forces inside her that are meant to give life are damaged and haemorrhaging, making it impossible for her to hold a pregnancy.
What Jesus does is give back to both women the possibility of giving life, in one case by stopping the flow of blood and in the other by starting it.
We all need a similar miracle: By the time we’re finally ready to give life, some deep parts of us have already died and are too cold and lifeless to ever become pregnant. Like the woman whose internal bleeding made it impossible for her to get pregnant, we too are wounded in ways that have us forever haemorrhaging out the life forces we need in order to give life. Parts of us have died and parts of us have been wounded and we are forever haemorrhaging in body, heart, and soul.
In the end, the power to give life can only be restored to us through grace and community, through letting a power beyond give us something that we cannot give to ourselves.
Then, and only then, will those parts of us that are dead or diseased begin again to give life.
17 March 2018
THE HEALING PLACE OF SILENCE
There’s a language beyond words. Silence creates the space for it.
Sometimes when we feel powerless to speak words that are meaningful, when we have to back off into unknowing and helplessness, but remain in the situation, silence creates the space that’s needed for a deeper happening to occur. But often, initially, that silence is uneasy. It begins “as a small frightened thing” and only slowly grows into the kind of warmth that dissolves tension.
There are many times when we have no helpful words to speak. We’ve all had the experience of standing by the bedside of someone who is dying, of being at a funeral or wake, of sitting across from someone who is dealing with a broken heart, or of reaching a stalemate in trying to talk through a tension in a relationship, and finding ourselves tongue-tied, with no words to offer, finally reduced to silence, knowing that anything we say might aggravate the pain. In that helplessness, muted by circumstance, we learn something: We don’t need to say anything; we only need to be there. Our silent, helpless presence is what’s needed.
And I must admit that this is not something I’ve learned easily, have a natural aptitude for, or in fact do most times when I should. No matter the situation, I invariably feel the need to try to say something useful, something helpful that will resolve the tension. But I’m learning, both to let helplessness speak and how powerfully it can speak.
I remember once, as a young priest, full of seminary learning and anxious to share that learning, sitting across from someone whose heart had just been broken, searching through answers and insights in my head, coming up empty, and finally confessing, by way of apology, my helplessness to the person across from me. Her response surprised me and taught me something I’d didn’t know before. She said simply: Your helplessness is the most precious gift you could share with me right now. Thanks for that. Nobody expects you to have a magic wand to cure their troubles.
Sometimes silence does become a velvet thing that swells and settles, gathering every space into itself.
14 March 2018
ON FASTING AND PRAYING IN SECRET
Why should we avoid all public display of our fasting, ascetical practices, and private prayer?
Partly Jesus’ warning is against hypocrisy and insincerity, but it is more. There is also the question of what we are radiating and of how we are being perceived. When we display asceticism and piety in public, even if we are sincere, what we want to radiate and what is read by others are often two different things.
We may want to be radiating our faith in God and our commitment to things beyond this life, but what others easily read from our attitude and actions is lack of health, lack of joy, depression, disdain for the ordinary, and a not-so-disguised compensation for missing out on life.
We don’t radiate faith in God and health by uncritically accepting or cheerleading the world’s every effort to be happy, nor by flashing a false smile while deep down we are barely managing to keep depression at bay. We radiate faith in God and health by radiating love, peace, and calm. And we can’t do this by radiating a disdain for life or for the way in which ordinary people are seeking happiness in this life.
That’s a tricky challenge, especially today. In a culture like ours, it is easy to pamper ourselves, to lack any real deep sense of sacrifice, to be so immersed in our lives and ourselves so as to lose all sense of prayer, and to live without any real asceticism, especially emotional asceticism.
Among other things, we see this today in our pathological busyness, our inability to sustain lives of private prayer, our growing incapacity to be faithful in our commitments, and in our struggles with addictions of all kinds: food, drink, sex, entertainment, information technology. Internet pornography is already the single biggest addiction in the whole world.
Prayer and fasting (at least of the emotional kind) are in short supply, but we must practice them without public exhibitionism, without disdaining the good that is God-given in the things of this world, without hinting that our own private sanctity is more important to us and to God than is the common good of this planet, and without suggesting that God doesn’t want us to delight in his creation.
Our asceticism and prayer must be real, but they must radiate health, and not be a compensation for not having it.
So we need to take more seriously Jesus’ words that asceticism and private prayer are to be done “in secret”, behind closed doors, so that the face we show in public will radiate health, joy, calm, and love for the good things that God, whom prayer and asceticism brings us closer to, has made.
10 March 2018
THE LAW OF KARMA
We can learn something from watching toddlers play. There’s a disarming, brutal honesty in them. They simply rip what they want from each other’s hands and try to shout louder than the rest to gain attention.
We do the same thing, except in subtler and less honest ways. Beneath the surface of our everyday politeness and decorum, in ways we don’t often have the courage to look at or acknowledge, we’re still toddlers trying to snatch the toys from each other and trying to shout louder than others to get attention.
The real air we’re breathing out is fraught with self-interest, jealousy, competitiveness, pettiness, fear, and less than full honesty. In subtle, and not-so-subtle, ways we’re saying to each other:
“Who do you think you are!” “I’m brighter and more successful than you.” “I’m better looking than you.” “I’m the person here who’s the most knowledgeable, everyone should be listening to me.” “My sufferings are deeper and more important than yours.” “I’m more interesting than others and my story is more important”.
We would never admit that we feel these things, but, too often, that’s the air we’re breathing out.
Is it any mystery then that our lives are full of competition, jealousy, bitterness, anger, accusation, and false judgement? Is it a mystery why so often, beneath a polite surface, there is so much thinly disguised competition, jealousy, and non-forgiveness around? We’re breathing these things into the world, should we be surprised that we’re re-inhaling them? The measure we’re measuring out is the measure that we’re receiving.
Jesus takes this even further. He adds: “To those who have much, even more will be given; and from those who have little, even what they have will be taken away.” That sounds so unfair, the innate cruelty of nature, the survival of the fittest applied to the gospels, Jesus as Darwin.
Isn’t Jesus’ message supposed to be about the survival of the weakest? It is, but a certain law of karma still applies.
To the big of heart, who breathe out what’s large and honest and full of blessing, the world will return a hundredfold in kind – honesty and blessing that swells the heart even more.
Conversely to the miserly of heart and dishonest of spirit, the world will give back too in kind – pettiness and lies that shrink the heart still further.
That’s the deep mystery at the centre of the universe: The air we breathe out into the world is the air we will re-inhale.
7 March 2018
FACING OTHERNESS AND DIFFERENCES
For all our talk of global community, wide tolerance, and acceptance of differences, there is, almost everywhere, a growing obsession with boundaries and with protecting one’s own kind in terms of ethnicity, culture, language, religion, gender, ideology, lifestyle.
Protecting cherished values and defending necessary boundaries are a good place to start from, but ultimately, we must move on to face and accept otherness, strangeness, difference, the foreign. Our survival depends upon it. We can no longer live just among our own. Sooner or later, given that the planet is both limited and round, we’ll find it impossible to avoid what’s foreign to us. What’s strange to us will soon enough be part of our neighborhood, our home, our church, and our perspective on things.
Moreover, welcoming what’s other and different is in fact a key biblical challenge. In the scriptures of all the great religions, Christianity no exception, we see that God is defined precisely as “Other”, as what’s beyond imagination, as outside the realm of the familiar. This is what scripture means when it calls God “Holy”; “Holy”, first of all, not because of some moral quality but because of some ontological quality, namely, otherness and difference from us.
Thus, biblically, we have the great tradition within which revelation from God is understood to come mostly through the stranger, the foreigner, the unexpected, the unfamiliar, in what’s different, in the surprise. For this reason, the scriptures insist on the importance of welcoming strangers. Since God is Other, strangers, among all others, are the most likely to be carrying God’s revelation.
Nothing’s safe for long. More than any previous generation, we’re being stretched beyond what’s familiar. Sometimes that’s both painful and disorienting. It’s not easy to have our boundaries, values, and ideas under constant redefinition, especially when we believe in eternal truths.
But we’ve never grasped those truths deeply enough. We have them in part, in small pieces. That’s why we call them mysteries. Moreover, and this is the point, a lot of the pieces we still need to fill out those mysteries lie precisely in what’s foreign to us, in what’s other, strange, different.
3 March 2018
ON BEING ONE WITH THE SAINTS IN PRAISING GOD
We are all familiar with a refrain that echoes through many of our Christian prayers and songs, an antiphon of hope addressed to God: Grant that we may be one with all the saints in singing your praises!
But we have an over-pious notion of what that would look like. We picture ourselves, one day, in heaven, in a choir with Mary, Jesus’ mother, with the great biblical figures of old, with the apostles and all the saints, singing praises to God, all the while feeling lucky to be there, given our moral and spiritual inferiority to these great spiritual figures. We picture ourselves spending eternity feeling grateful for having made a team whose talent level should have excluded us.
But that is a fantasy, pure and simple, mostly simple. What would it mean to be among the saints singing God’s praises?
We are one with the saints in singing God’s praises when we are one with them in the way we live our lives; when, like them, our lives are transparent, honest, grounded in personal integrity, with no skeletons in our closet. Being one with the saints in singing God’s praises is less about singing songs in our churches than it is about living honest lives outside of them.
We are one with the saints in singing God’s praises when we radiate God’s wide compassion; when we, like God, let our love embrace beyond race, creed, gender, religion, ideology, and differences of every kind. We are one with the saints in praising God when our heart, like God’s heart, is a house with many rooms. Being one with the saints in singing God’s praises means being compassionate as God is compassionate, it means letting our sun shine on the bad as well as the good and letting our empathy embrace too those whose ideas oppose us.
We are one with the saints in singing God’s praises when we tend to “widows, orphans, and strangers’, when we reach out to those most vulnerable, when we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and imprisoned, when we work for justice. Being one with the saints in singing God’s praises means reversing nature’s proclivity for the survival of the fittest and working instead to enable the opposite, the survival of the weakest.
28 February 2018
THE JESUS CODE – UNRAVELLING THE SECRET
Love is the deepest mystery within the universe.
It lies at the base of everything, the cosmic, the biological, the emotional, the psychological, the sexual, the spiritual. There is no level of reality where one doesn’t see the relentless deep pull inside of all things towards a unity, community, fusion, and oneness beyond self. Love stirs all things, speaking to every element in the language it can understand. Deep inside of us, we know too that this alone can bring us home.
And there is an inner code, a certain DNA, within love itself. It too has inner secrets, an inner structure, and a code that needs to be cracked if we are to properly understand its dynamics. And we don’t crack that code all at once, at a weekend retreat or at religious rally. We crack it slowly, painfully, with many setbacks, over the course of a lifetime.
Jesus gave us the keys to crack it. They can be named: vulnerability, the refusal out of love to protect ourselves, self-sacrifice, putting others before ourselves, refusing to give back in kind when someone hurts us, a willingness to die for others, the refusal to give ourselves over to cynicism and bitterness when things beset us, continued trust in God and goodness even when things look the opposite, and especially forgiveness, having our hearts remain warm and hospitable, even when we have just cause for hatred.
These are the keys to the wisdom that Jesus revealed and the gospels tells that we are “inside” or “outside” the true circle of love, depending upon whether or not we grasp this wisdom.
24 February 2018
THE EUCHARIST AS WASHING EACH OTHER’S FEET
The Eucharist invites us to receive nourishment from God, fill with gratitude, and, on the basis of that, to break open our lives and serve the poor in hospitality, humility, and self-donation.
This is everywhere evident in the Gospels, though John’s Gospel puts it the most clearly. Where the other gospels have Jesus speaking the words of institution at the last supper (“This is my body. This is my blood. Do this in memory of me.”) John has Jesus washing the disciples’ feet.
For John, this gesture replaces the words of institution. It specifies what the Eucharist is in fact meant to do, namely, to lead us out of church and into the humble service of others.
An old church hymn, often used to send people forth from church, puts it well:
Called from worship into service
Forth in His great name we go
To the child, the youth, the aged
Love in living deeds to show.
This wonderfully expresses what the Eucharist is meant to do. It is a call to move from worship to service, to take the nourishment, the embrace, the kiss, we have just received from God and the community and translate it immediately and directly into loving service of others.
To take the Eucharist seriously is to begin to wash the feet of others, especially the feet of the poor. The Eucharist is both an invitation that invites us and a grace that empowers us to service.
What it invites us to do is to replace distrust with hospitality, pride with humility, and self-interest with self-effacement so as to reverse the world’s order of things – wherein the rich get served by the poor and where the first priority is always to keep one’s pride intact and one’s self-interest protected. The Eucharist invites us to step down from pride, away from self-interest, to turn the mantel of privilege into the apron of service, so as to help reverse the world’s order of things wherein pride, status, and self-interest are forever the straws that stir the drink.
It is no accident that, among all the potential scripture texts it might have picked for liturgy on Holy Thursday, the feast that marks the institution of the Eucharist, the church has chosen to use John’s account of Jesus washing the feet of disciples. A splendid choice. Indeed, nothing better expresses the meaning of the Eucharist than does that gesture.
21 February 2018
THE RESURRECTION AS REVEALING GOD AS REDEEMER, NOT AS RESCUER
Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider how good you are going to look on wood!
That’s a line from Daniel Berrigan that rightly warns us that faith in Jesus and the resurrection won’t save us from humiliation, pain, and death in this life. Faith isn’t meant to do that.
Jesus is deeply and intimately loved by his Father and yet his Father doesn’t rescue him from humiliation, pain, and death. In his lowest hour, when he is humiliated, suffering, and dying on the cross, Jesus is jeered by the crowd with the challenge: “If God is your father, let him rescue you!” But there’s no rescue. Instead Jesus dies inside the humiliation and pain. God raises him up only after his death.
This is one of the key revelations inside the resurrection: We have a redeeming, not a rescuing, God.
It took the early Christians some time to grasp that Jesus doesn’t ordinarily give special exemptions to his friends (such as in the story of Lazarus) no more than God gave special exemptions to Jesus. So, like us, they struggled with the fact that someone can have a deep, genuine faith, be deeply loved by God, and still have to suffer humiliation, pain, and death like everyone else. God didn’t spare Jesus from suffering and death, and Jesus doesn’t spare us from them.
That is one of the key revelations inside of the resurrection and is the one we perhaps most misunderstand. We are forever predicating our faith on, and preaching, a rescuing God, a God who promises special exemptions to those of genuine faith: Have a genuine faith in Jesus, and you will be spared from life’s humiliations and pains! Have a genuine faith in Jesus, and prosperity will come your way! Believe in the resurrection, and rainbows will surround your life!
Would it were so! But Jesus never promised us rescue, exemptions, immunity from cancer, or escape from death. He promised rather that, in the end, there will be redemption, vindication, immunity from suffering, and eternal life. But that’s in the end; meantime, in the early and intermediate chapters of our lives, there will be the same kinds of humiliation, pain, and death that everyone else suffers.
The death and resurrection of Jesus reveal a redeeming, not a rescuing, God.
17 February 2018
GROANING BEYOND WORDS – OUR DEEPER WAY OF PRAYING
When we no longer know how to pray, the Spirit, in groans too deep for words, prays through us.
Saint Paul wrote those words and they contain both a stunning revelation and a wonderful consolation, namely, there is deep prayer happening inside us beyond our conscious awareness and independent of our deliberate efforts.
What is this unconscious prayer? It is our deep innate desire, relentlessly on fire, forever somewhat frustrated, making itself felt through the groaning of our bodies and souls, silently begging the very energies of the universe, not least God, to let it come to consummation.
Our deepest prayers are mostly not those we express in our churches and private oratories. Our deepest prayers are spoken in our silent gratitude and silent tears. The person praising God’s name ecstatically and the person bitterly cursing God’s name in anger are, in different ways, in radically different ways of groaning, both praying.
From this we can learn to forgive life a little more for its frustrations and we can learn to give ourselves permission to be more patient with life and with ourselves. Who of us does not lament that the pressures and frustrations of life keep us from fully enjoying life’s pleasures, from smelling the flowers, from being more present to family, from celebrating with friends, from peaceful solitude, and from deeper prayer?
We are forever making resolutions to slow down, to find a quiet space inside our pressured lives in which to pray. But, after failing over and over again, we eventually despair of finding a quiet, contemplative space for prayer in our lives. Although we need to continue to search for that, we can already live with the consolation that deep down, our very frustration in not being able to find that quiet space is already a prayer.
In the groans of our inadequacy the Spirit is already praying through our bodies and souls in a way deeper than words.
But a deeper thing is happening under the surface: Our frustration, longing, lust, jealousy, and escapist daydreams, things we are ashamed to take to prayer, are in fact already lifting our hearts and minds to God in more honest ways that we ever do consciously.
14 February 2018
SEEING IN A DEEPER WAY
One of the many kinds of healings Jesus performs in the Gospel in the healing of people who are blind. He’s giving them more than just physical sight; he’s opening their eyes so that that can see more deeply.
That’s only an image. How can the grace and teachings of Jesus help us to see in a deeper way? Here are some suggestions:
· By shifting our eyes from seeing through familiarity to seeing through wonder.
G.K. Chesterton once affirmed that familiarity is the greatest of all illusions and that the secret to life is to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again. We open our eyes to depth when we open ourselves to wonder.
· By shifting our eyes from seeing through jealousy to seeing through admiration.
Our perception becomes distorted whenever we move from the happy state of admiration to the unhappy state of envy. Our eyesight is clear when we delight in admiration.
· By shifting our eyes from seeing through bitterness to seeing through eyes purified and softened by grief.
The root of bitterness is wound and the way out of bitterness is grieving. Tears clear our eyesight because they soften a heart hardened by wound.
· By shifting our eyes from seeing through anger to seeing through forgiveness.
Nothing taints our eyesight as much as anger. It’s the most debilitating of all cataracts. And nothing cleanses our vision as much as forgiveness. Nobody holding a grudge sees straight.
· By shifting our eyes from seeing through longing and hunger to seeing through gratitude.
Longing and hunger distort our vision. Gratitude restores it. It enables insight. The most grateful person you know has the best eyesight of all the people you know.
13 February 2018
EUCHARIST AS GOD’S PHYSICAL EMBRACE
In the Eucharist, God physically embraces us. Indeed that is what all sacraments are, God’s physical embrace.
Words, as we know, have a relative power. In critical situations they often fail us. When this happens, we have still another language, the language of ritual. The most ancient and primal ritual of all is the ritual of physical embrace. It can say and do what words cannot.
Jesus acted on this. For most of his ministry, he used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But at a time, powerful though they were, they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before he death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.
To my mind, that is the best understanding there is of Eucharist. Within both my undergraduate and graduate theological training, I took long courses on the Eucharist. In the end, these didn’t explain the Eucharist to me, not because they weren’t good, but because the Eucharist, like a kiss, needs no explanation and has no explanation. If anyone were to write a four hundred page book entitled, The Metaphysics of a Kiss, it would not deserve a readership. Kisses just work, their inner dynamics need no metaphysical elaboration.
The Eucharist is God’s kiss.
There comes a point, even with God, when words aren’t enough. God has to pick us up, like a mother her child. Physical embrace is what’s needed. Skin needs to be touched. God knows that. It’s why Jesus gave us the Eucharist.
7 February 2018
In his book, The Divine Milieu, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin confesses that throughout his life he was haunted by two great loves, God and pagan beauty. Both had the power to take his breath away.
To feel the reality of God, he says, is to be overwhelmed by something so profound that all else is dwarfed.
However, to look at pagan beauty, the loveliness of this earth and so much of what’s in it, is also to be held captive by a power so great that, for a moment at least, all else seems unimportant. In this world, he submits, there are two great enticements, the reality of God and the stunning beauty of paganism.
The stunning beauty of paganism! How fierce its attraction! How near to God its power! But the reality of God is also real and enticing, even more so than the grip of this world. To live with open eyes and an open heart is, as Teilhard submits, to find oneself painfully torn between two worlds that are not easy to keep in harmony.
Invariably we sell one out for the other.
How do we take both God and pagan beauty seriously? How do we give them both their due? Karl Rahner affirmed that the secret here is to see created beauty against the horizon of the infinite. That’s correct, theoretically, but how do we do this practically?
By never denying, denigrating, or ignoring any beauty or any truth that we see, pagan or divine. By being honest, pure and simple. What takes your breath away takes your breath away! Never pretend otherwise.
God and pagan beauty are both real, but they are not in our lives as two warring parties that must be brought to a neutral table for a negotiated settlement, but are two storms on a collision course. Be true to both and see what happens. Let the storm takes its course, trusting that the Author of all beauty, pagan and divine, will, while respecting both your struggle and the legitimate reality of pagan beauty, gently lead you into that great harmony within which nothing is lost and everything has its proper place and value.
3 February 2018
WHAT MAKES FOR A PRACTICING CHRISTIAN?
Reginald Bibby, the Canadian sociologist of religion, who likes to quip: “People aren’t leaving their churches, they just aren’t going to them – and that is a difference that needs to be understood.”
People are treating their churches just like they treat their families. Isn’t that as it should be? Theologically the church is family – it’s not like family, it is family. A good ecclesiology then has to look to family life to properly understand itself (the reverse of course is also true).
Inside of our families: When does someone cease being a “practicing” member of a family? Does someone cease to be a member of a family because he or she doesn’t come home much any more? Many of us have children and siblings who for various reasons, at some stage of their lives, largely use the family for their own needs and convenience. They want the family around, but on their terms. They want the family for valued contact at key moments (weddings, births of children, funerals, anniversaries, birthdays, and so on) but they don’t want a relationship to it that is really committed and regular.
It’s natural that in families there will be different levels of participation. Some, by virtue of maturity, will carry most of the burden – they will arrange the dinners, pay for them, keep inviting the others, do most of the work, and take on the task of trying to preserve the family bond and ethos. Others, for many different reasons, will carry less, take the family for granted, and buy in largely on their own terms.
That describes most families and is also a pretty accurate description of most churches. There are different levels of participation and maturity, but there is only one church and that church, like any family, survives precisely because some members are willing to carry more of the burden than others. Those others, however, except for more exceptional circumstances, do not cease being members of the family.
They ride on the grace of the others, literally. It’s how family works; how grace works; how church works. In most families, simple immaturity, hurt, confusion, distraction, laziness, youthful sexual restlessness, and self-preoccupation, do not mortally sever your connection. You remain a family member. You don’t cease being “a practising member” of the family because for a time you aren’t home very much. Families understand this.
Ecclesial family, church, I believe, needs to be just as understanding.
31 January 2018
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE OF REBIRTH
Some time ago, C.S. Lewis wrote a brilliant little book on heaven, hell, and purgatory, entitled, The Great Divorce. In that book he stresses the moral continuity between this world and the next.
Because Lewis wanted so much to emphasize that the way we shape our hearts in this world will determine how we respond to love in the next, the reader can easily get the impression that heaven is a lot like here, only nicer, that heaven will simply be our present life beautified. No doubt this is true, but our faith cautions us to not think of this too literally – Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor is the human person even capable of imagining what God has prepared for those who love him.
Heaven is going to be wonderful, no doubt. However it isn’t going to be a simple extension of this life. Rebirth will be as much of a stretch for us as was first birth. We will, I believe, wake up in heaven, like an infant again, too overwhelmed to speak, needing to be coaxed into a new language and a new consciousness by God’s smile and the delight of the saints.
Some of the learning this new language and consciousness is already possible for us here. I knew an abbott who through the last 25 years of his life, used to sit in silent prayer for 4-6 hours a day, every day. He described this silent prayer as an attempt to enter into God’s stillness, into the divine quiet, into a silence that contains all words, all languages, all understanding, all compassion, all unity. Through silent prayer he was struggling to enter into a language that is beyond all languages. When he died, I suspect he wasn’t as overwhelmed as he might have been. He had already been trying to learn heaven’s language for all those years.
Not all of us are abbotts, monks, or contemplative nuns, who have, by vocation, the chance of spending such quality time each day in silent prayer. Each of us has to try to learn that language, the language of God’s stillness and divine quiet, in our own way. Perhaps it might be through our intimate relationships within marriage and family, where words at a point become superfluous; or perhaps it will be in our loneliness and solitude, where silence breaks through both so painfully and peacefully; or maybe it will be through the very tediousness of our daily tasks, where burdens often reduce us to silence.
There are various ways of being a monk and all of them are good.
27 January 2018
THE STORM ON THE LAKE
The Synoptic gospels record the story of Jesus calming the waters during a storm on the lake.
As Mark has it: With the coming of evening that same day, Jesus said to them, “Let us cross over to the other side”. And leaving the crowd behind they took him, just as he was, in the boat; and there were other boats with him. Then it began to blow a gale and the waves were breaking into the boat so that it was almost swamped. But he was in the stern, his head on a cushion, asleep. They woke him and said to him, “Master do you not care? We are going down!”
Jesus woke up and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Quiet now! Be calm!” And the wind dropped, and all was calm again. Then he said to them, “Why are you so frightened? How is it that you have no faith?” They were filled with awe and said to one another: “Who can this be? Even the wind and sea obey him.” (Mark 4, 35-41).
This story reminds us that during the more stormy moments in our lives, God is still in charge of this universe, every counter-indication notwithstanding. The first Christian creeds had only one line: Jesus is Lord! Ultimately that says enough, says it all.
God still rules, even in death and darkness. When our very souls are in fear of drowning, it will seem like God is asleep, comfortable, his head on cushion. But, and this is the real challenge, calm is only a second of realization away. What calms the storm in life is not that all of our problems suddenly disappear but that, within them, we realize that, because God is still in charge, all will be well.
All will be well because even asleep with his head on a cushion, God is still lord.
24 January 2018
WILLPOWER ALONE IS NOT ENOUGH
At one point in the gospels, Jesus tells his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.
The disciples are stunned and Peter responds by saying: If that is the case than it is impossible! Jesus appreciates that response and adds: It is impossible for humans, but not for God.
The gospels speak of this as a baptism and they speak of two kinds of baptisms: the baptism of John and the baptism of Jesus, adding that John’s baptism is only a preparation for Jesus’ baptism. What’s John’s baptism?
It’s a baptism of repentance, a realization of what we are doing wrong and a clear resolution to correct our bad behaviour. What’s Jesus’ baptism? It’s an entry into grace and community in such a way that it empowers us internally to do what is impossible for us to do by our willpower alone.
But how does this work? Is grace a kind of magic? No. It’s not magic. All psychic, emotional, and spiritual energy is, by definition, beyond a simple phenomenological understanding. Simply put, that means that we can’t lay out its inner plumbing. There’s a mystery to all energy. But what we can lay out empirically is its effect: spiritual energy works. Grace works.
This has been proven inside the experience of thousands who have been able to find an energy inside them that clearly does not come from them and yet empowers them beyond their willpower alone. Ask any addict in recovery about this.
Sadly, many of us still haven’t grasped the lesson. We’re still trying to live out our lives by John’s baptism alone, that is, by own willpower. That makes us wonderful critics but leaves us mostly powerless to actually change our own lives. What we are looking for, and desperately need, is a deeper immersion into the baptism of Jesus, that is, into community and grace.
20 January 2018
PRIDE IN SUBTLE FORMS
How pride lives in us during our more mature years is probably best described by Jesus in the famous parable of the Pharisee and Publican.
The Pharisee, vilified in this story, is proud precisely of his spiritual and human maturity. That’s a subtle pride of which it is almost impossible to rid ourselves. As we mature morally and religiously it becomes almost impossible not to compare ourselves with others who are struggling and to not feel both a certain smugness, that we are not like them, and a certain disdain for their condition.
Spiritual writers often describe the fault in this way: Pride in the mature person takes the form of refusing to be small before God and refusing to recognize properly our interconnection with others. It is a refusal to accept our own poverty, namely, to recognize that we are standing before God and others with empty hands and that all we have and have achieved has come our way by grace more so than by our own efforts.
During our adult years pride often disguises itself as a humility that is a strategy for further enhancement. It takes Jesus’ invitation to heart: Whoever wants to be first must be last and be the servant of all! Then, as we are taking the last place and being of service, we cannot help but feel very good about ourselves and nurse the secret knowledge that our humility is in fact a superiority and something for which we will later be recognized and admired.
As well, as we mature, pride will take on this noble face: We will begin to do the right things for seemingly the right reasons, though often deceiving ourselves because, in the end, we will still be doing them in service to our own pride. Our motivation for generosity is often more inspired by the desire to feel good about ourselves than by real love of others.
Pride is inextricably linked to our nature and partly it’s healthy, but it’s a life-long moral struggle to keep it healthy.
17 January 2018
THE MAJOR IMPERATIVES WITHIN MATURE DISCIPLESHIP
Gratitude is the ultimate virtue, undergirding everything else, even love. It is synonymous with holiness.
Gratitude not only defines sanctity, it also defines maturity. What makes for a deeper human maturity? Here are some suggestions.
• Be willing to carry more and more of life’s complexities with empathy: Few things in life, including our own hearts and motives, are black or white, either-or, simply good or simply bad. Maturity invites us to see, understand, and accept this complexity with empathy so that, like Jesus, we cry tears of understanding over our own troubled cities and our own complex hearts.
• Transform jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred rather than give them back in kind: Any pain or tension that we do not transform we will retransmit. In the face of jealousy, anger, bitterness, and hatred we must be like water purifiers, holding the poisons and toxins inside of us and giving back just the pure water, rather than being like electrical cords that simply pass on the energy that flows through them.
• Let suffering soften rather than harden our souls: Suffering and humiliation find us all, in full measure, but how we respond to them, with forgiveness or bitterness, will determine the level of our maturity and the color of our person. This is perhaps our ultimate moral test: Will my humiliations soften or harden my soul?
• Forgive: In the end there is only one condition for entering heaven (and living inside human community), namely, forgiveness. Perhaps the greatest struggle we have in the second-half of our lives is to forgive: forgive those who have hurt us, forgive ourselves for our own shortcomings, and forgive God for seemingly hanging us out unfairly to dry in this world. The greatest moral imperative of all is not to die with a bitter, unforgiving heart.
• Live in gratitude: To be a saint is to be fueled by gratitude, nothing more and nothing less. Let no one deceive you with the notion that a passion for truth, for church, or even for God can trump or bracket the non-negotiable imperative to be gracious always. Holiness is gratitude. Outside of gratitude we find ourselves doing many of the right things for the wrong reasons.
God is a prodigiously-loving, fully-understanding, completely-empathic parent. We are mature and free of false anxiety to the degree that we grasp that and trust that truth.
13 January 2018
Jesus tells us we are too anxious we are too about our physical needs, food, drink, clothing, and shelter.
We are also too anxious about how we are perceived, about having a good name and about being respected in the community. We see this in Jesus’ warning about how we are to imitate the lilies of the field in their trust in God and his multiple warnings about not doing things to be seen by others as being good. But we’re always anxious about these things, all of us, and our fear here is not necessarily unhealthy. Nature and God have programmed us to have these instincts, though Jesus invites us to move beyond them.
More deeply, beyond our anxiety for our physical needs and our good name, we nurse a much deeper fear. We’re fearful about our very substance. We’re fearful that, in the end, we are really only, as the author of Ecclesiastes puts it, vanity, vapor, something insubstantial blown away in the wind.
That’s the ultimate anxiety and you see it already in animals, in their irrevocable and often violent drive to get into the gene pool, nature’s form of immortality. We have the same irrevocable (and sometimes violent) drive for immortality, to get into the gene pool. But, for us, that takes on multiple forms: Plant a tree. Have a child. Write a book. In essence, leave some indelible mark on this planet. Guarantee your own immortality. Make sure you can’t be forgotten.
We are so anxious about our substance and immortality and are always trying to create this for ourselves. But, as Jesus, often and gently, points out, we cannot do this for ourselves. No success, no monument, no fame, no tree, no child, and no book, will give ultimately still the anxiety for substance and immortality inside us. Only God can do that.
We see one of Jesus’ gentle reminders of this in the Gospels when the disciples come back to him buoyed-up by the success of a mission and share with him the wonderful things they have done. He shares their joy, but then, in essence, gently reminds them: Real consolation does not lie in success, even if it’s for the Kingdom.
Real consolation lies in knowing that our “names are written in heaven”, that God has each of us individually, lovingly, and irrevocably, locked into His radar screen. Real consolation lies in recognizing that we don’t have to create our own substance and immortality.
God has already done this for us.
10 January 2018
PRAYER AS SANITY AND BALANCE
As it is understood in all its best traditions (Christian and other), prayer is meant to do two things for us, both at the same time: Prayer is meant to connect us to divine energy, even as it makes us aware that this energy is not our own, that it comes from elsewhere, and that we may never identify with it.
Genuine prayer, in effect, fills us with divine energy and tells us at the same time that this energy isn’t our own; that it works through us, but that it’s not us. To be healthy, we need both: If we lose connection to divine energy we drain of energy, depress, and feel empty. Conversely if we let divine energy flow into us but identify with it, somehow thinking that it is our own, we become grandiose, inflate with self-importance and arrogance, and become selfish and destructive.
Deep prayer is what energizes us and grounds us, both at the same time. We see this, for example, in a person like Mother Teresa, who was bursting with creative energy but was always very clear that this energy did not come from her, but from God, and she was merely a humble human instrument.
Lack of real prayer makes for two kinds of antithesis to Mother Teresa: On the one hand, it makes for a wonderfully talented and energetic man or woman who is full of creative energy, but is also full of grandiosity and ego; or, on the other hand, it makes for a man or woman who feels empty and flat and cannot radiate any positive energy.
Without prayer we will forever be bouncing back and forth between grandiosity and depression. Without prayer we will always be either too empty of energy or too full of ourselves.
6 January 2018
CHRIST AND NATURE
Scripture says that Christ didn’t just come to save people, he came to save the world. (see full article for specific scripture references).
We find in these Scriptures that nature (not just humanity) is being redeemed by Christ. The world is not just a stage upon which human history plays out; it has intrinsic meaning and value beyond what it means for us as humans. Physical nature is, in effect, brother and sister with us in the journey towards the divinely intended end of history. Christ also came to redeem the earth, not just those of us who are living on it. Physical creation too will enter in the final synthesis of history, that is, heaven.
This means too that nature has intrinsic rights, not just the rights we find convenient to accord it. What this means is that defacing or abusing nature is not just a legal and environmental issue, it’s a moral issue. We are violating someone’s (something’s) intrinsic rights. Thus when we, mindlessly, throw a Coke can into a ditch we are not just breaking a law we are also, at some deep level, defacing Christ. We need to respect nature, not, first of all, so that it doesn’t recoil on us and give us back our own asphyxiating pollution, but because it, akin to humanity, has its own rights. This teaching too is rarely affirmed.
Not least of all, what is implied in understanding the cosmic dimension of Christ and what that means in terms of our relationship to mother-earth and the universe is the non-negotiable fact that the quest for community and consummation within God’s Kingdom (our journey towards heaven) is a quest that calls us not just to a proper relationship with God and with each other, but also to a proper relationship with physical creation.
We are humans with bodies living on the earth, not disembodied angels living in heaven, and Christ came to save our bodies along with our souls; and he came, as well, to save the physical ground upon which we walk since he was the very pattern upon which and through which the physical world was created.
3 January 2018
THE REAL PRESENCE
The Eucharist doesn’t just make a person present; it also makes an event present.
At the Last Supper, Jesus invited his followers to continue to meet and celebrate the Eucharist “in memory of me”.
For us “memory” is a word that simply means calling something to mind, like remembering a special event. That’s a simple remembering, a passing recollection. It can stir deep feelings but it does nothing more.
The Hebrew concept out of which Jesus was speaking, memory, making ritual remembrance of something, implied much more than simply recalling something. To remember something was not simply to nostalgically recall it. Rather it meant to recall and ritually re-enact it so as to make it present again in a real way.
That’s how the Passover Supper is understood within Judaism. The Passover meal recalls the Exodus from Egypt and the miraculous passing through the Red Sea into freedom. The idea is that one generation, led by Moses, did this historically, but that by re-enacting that event ritually, in the Passover Meal, the event is made present again, in a real way, for those at table to experience.
The Eucharist is the same, except that the saving event we re-enact so as to remake it present through ritual is the death and resurrection of Jesus, the new Exodus. Our Christian belief here is exactly the same as that of our Jewish brothers and sisters, namely, that we are not just remembering an event, we are actually making it present to participate in.
The Eucharist, parallel to a Jewish Passover meal, remakes present the central saving event in Christian history, namely, Jesus’ Passover from death to life in the Paschal mystery. And just as the consecrated bread and wine give us the real presence of Christ, the Eucharist also gives us the real presence of the central saving event in our history, Jesus’ passage from death to life.
Thus at a Eucharist, there are, in effect, three real presences: Christ is really present in the Word: the scriptures, the preaching, and the music. Christ is really present in the consecrated bread and wine; they are his body and blood. And Christ is really present in a saving event: Jesus’ sacrificial passing from death to life
30 December 2017
KING HEROD AND THE WISE MEN – A CHRISTMAS CHALLENGE
The Christmas story is surely one of the greatest stories ever told.
Inside its great narrative there are multiple mini-narratives, each of which comes laden with its own archetypal symbols. One of these mini-narratives, rich in archetypal imagery, is the story King Herod and the wise men.
We see this in the Gospel of Matthew when he tells us how various people reacted to the announcement of Jesus’ birth. Matthew sets up a powerful archetypal contrast, blessing and curse, between the reaction of the wise men, who bring their gifts and place them at the feet of the new king, and King Herod, who tries to kill him.
Jesus is born inside of a religious tradition, Judaism, and his birth is announced to that faith-community in a manner that befits religion, namely, by the angels, by supernatural revelation. But those outside of that faith-tradition need another way to get to know of his birth, and so his birth is announced to them though nature, astrology, through the stars. The wise men see a special star appear in the sky and begin to follow it, not knowing exactly to where or to what it will lead.
While following the star, they meet King Herod who, upon learning that a new king has supposedly been born, has his own evil interest in matter. He asks the wise men to find the child and bring him back information so that he, too, can go and worship the newborn. We know the rest of story.
The news that a new king has been born threatens Herod at his core since he is himself a king. The glory and light that will now shine upon the new king will no longer shine on him. There is a big contrast between the wise men and Herod: The former see new life as promise and they bless it; the latter sees new life as threat and he curses it.
This is a rich story with a powerful challenge: What is my own reaction to new life, especially to life that threatens me, that will take away some of my own popularity, sunshine, and adulation? Can I, like the wise men, lay my gifts at the feet of the young and move towards anonymity and eventual death, content that the world is in good hands, even though those hands are not my hands? Or, like Herod, will I feel that life as a threat and I try somehow to kill it, lest its star somehow diminish my own?
27 December 2017
REASONS TO CELEBRATE CHRISTMAS
Christmas speaks of love, peace, and unity but, as we see from the news each night, these are in very short supply in our world today. We live in a dangerously polarized world, with the gap between rich and poor growing ever wider, with hatred of all kinds becoming more overt, with millions of refugees having no place to go – and with governments who don’t inspire much confidence. And so we lean on hope rather than on optimism: Short-range, things don’t look good; long-range, we’re in safe hands! As Julian of Norwich assures us: In the end, all will be well, and all will be well, and every manner of being will be well; and as the poet, Oscar Wilde quipped: If it isn’t well then it still isn’t the end! God is real and faith works!
Merry Christmas and thanks a thousand times for your love, support, friendship, and prayers.
There is a God-given pressure inside of us that pushes us to celebrate and instils in us an irrepressible sense that we are not meant for poverty, gloom, and carefully measured-out relationships, but that we are meant ultimately for the feast, the dance, the place of lights and music, and the place where we don’t measure out our pennies and our hearts on the basis of having to survive and pay mortgages. The celebration of festival and carnival, even with their excesses, help teach us that.
Christmas is such a festival. In the end, its celebration is a lesson in faith and hope, even when it isn’t as strong a lesson in prudence.
To make a festival of Christmas, to surround Jesus’ birthday with all the joy, light, music, gift-giving, energy, and warmth we can muster is, strange as this may sound, a prophetic act. It is, or at least it can be, an expression of faith and hope. It’s not the person who says: “It’s rotten, let’s cancel it!” who radiates hope. That can easily be despair masquerading as faith.
It is the man or woman who, despite the world’s misuse and abuse of these, still strings up the Christmas lights, trims the tree and the turkey, turns up the carols, passes gifts to loved ones, sits down at table with family and friends, and flashes a grin to the world, who is radiating faith, who is saying that we are meant for more than gloom, who is celebrating Jesus’ birth.
23 December 2017
THE INCARNATION MEANS GOD IS IN THE ORDINARY
The God who is born at Christmas, the Christ of the incarnation, is more domestic than monastic.
He was eventually crucified, as a poet once put it, for making God as accessible as the village well.
We celebrate many things at Christmas, not the least of which is how scandalously easy it now is to see God.
Likewise, there are many challenges to the Christmas mystery, not the least of which is, precisely, to be able to see the many-faced face of God in a piece of bread, a cup of water, and in our own homes and families.
After the incarnation, every home is a monastery, every child is the Christ child, and all food and drink is a sacrament.
We struggle to believe this. For many reasons, each of us has the propensity to miss seeing God in the ordinary because we are forever searching for him in the extraordinary. We tend, nearly always, to miss the sacredness of the domestic as we look for the sacred in the monastic.
Too often we are unaware that the incarnation fundamentally changed us from being theists to being Christians, that is, from being people who believe in God to becoming people who believe in a god who was made flesh in Christ.
The word “Christ” is not Jesus’ second name. Christ is a title, not a name. Literally, in Greek, it means: the anointed one.
Part of the meaning of that however is that the anointed one is the one who is God-in-the-flesh, God-in-carnus. Christmas then means God-in-the-physical just as it also means that the-physical-contains-God.
We no longer need to look for God in extraordinary visions—a sunset will do. An incarnational God normally gives precisely that kind of vision! Likewise we don’t need to look for people with the stigmata to see the wounds of Christ—the pain in the faces of those we sit down at table with will do. God’s wounded body too is everywhere.
May the incarnation deeply bless our lives! May God’s many-faced face be present, sacramentally, in all of our Christmas celebrations—our food, our drink, our gifts, our family sharings. Likewise, may each of us struggle to give birth to God’s many-faced face so as to be more sacrament to those around us. God, we bow down and worship your beloved many-faced face.
20 December 2017
LIFE’S INCESSANT LONGING
The earth is ablaze with the fire of God. Part of that fire is burning longing—blind pressure, incessant hunger, relentless hormones, insatiable restlessness and crying dissatisfaction. People have always had their own ways of trying to explain this.
Many ancient peoples believed that the human soul was a piece of divine fire that had somehow become disconnected from God and it was this divine fire blazing within us, trying to return to home, that made us restless. For them we were on fire because our immortal soul was trying to escape from a mortal body.
That idea, the soul as divine fire, might strike us as rather naive and dualistic, but it is in fact a beautiful metaphor that captures and soothes the imagination in ways that most analytical psychology never can.
Where it errs is only in its dualism. The fire, the relentless pressure, is not only in the soul, it is in everything else as well. The cosmos is all of a piece. The chemicals in your hand and in your brain were forged by the same furnace, the furnace of the stars. The story of life, body and soul, is written in DNA—and relentless yearning lies just as much in the cosmos and the DNA as it lies in our hearts and souls.
In the end, longing and yearning are not really sightless at all. They may be experienced as blind pressure but they are the Spirit of God, groaning and praying through us.
Ultimately, this is what Scripture is talking about when it tells us that when we do not know how to pray, the Spirit of God prays through us, in groans too deep for words (Romans8:26). At its root, all longing is for the fruits of the spirit; all life, all eros, and all energy, blind or conscious, yearns for charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, fidelity, mildness and the union that chastity can bring.
Advent is the season to touch these longings and to let them touch us.
16 December 2017
PRAYING SO AS TO SEE GOD’S GLORY INSIDE OF HUMANITY
Familiarity breeds contempt. It also blocks the mystery of Christmas by breeding a view of the life that cannot see divinity within humanity.
All of us are hopelessly prone to see most everything in an over-familiar way, namely, in a way that sees little or nothing of the deep richness and divinity that is shimmering everywhere under the surface. G.K. Chesterton, reflecting on this, once declared that one of the deep secrets of life is to learn to look at things familiar until they look unfamiliar again.
Seeing the world as transfigured is ultimately the meaning of Christmas, the meaning of the incarnation, and the mystery of God walking around in human flesh. Christmas is not so much a celebration of Jesus’ birthday as it is a celebration of the continued birth of God into human flesh, the continuation of the divine making itself manifest in the ordinary; God, a helpless baby in a barn.
To have this vision we need to pray. Prayer is our major safeguard against the familiarity that breeds contempt and is one of the few ways in which we can begin to see with the deeper eyes of the heart. Prayer is a lifting of our minds and hearts to God, but it is also the way, sometimes the only way, we can purify and deepen our vision.
Familiarity breeds contempt. That’s an archetypal flaw within human nature. And this, perhaps more than anything else, prevents us from entering the mystery of Christmas, from seeing God’s radiance shimmering under the surface of what’s familiar to us.
Jesus once asked his disciples to join him in prayer and, as they prayed, he and everything around him was transfigured and began to glow with a divine radiance. He invites each of us into that particular prayer.
13 December 2017
THE THREE LEVELS OF CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP
Author Nikos Kazantzakis once suggested that there are three kinds of souls and three kinds of prayers.
Here is Kazantzakis’ description:
· I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me, lest I rot.
· Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.
· Overdraw me, Lord, and who cares if I break!
When I look at life, I also see three great struggles, not unlike those so poetically named by Kazantzakis. And each of these has a corresponding level of Christian discipleship.
There are three major phases in our human and spiritual journey:
· Essential discipleship – The struggle to get our lives together.
· Generative discipleship – The struggle to give our lives away
· Radical discipleship – The struggle to give our deaths away
Radical discipleship, the struggle to give our deaths away, is the final stage of life. As Christians, we believe that Jesus lived for us and that he died for us, that he gave us both his life and his death.
But we often fail to distinguish that there are two clear and separate movements here: Jesus gave his life for us in one movement, and he gave his death for us in another. He gave his life for us through his activity, through his generative actions for us; and he gave his death through his passivity, through absorbing in love the helplessness, diminutions, humiliations, and loneliness of dying.
Like Jesus, we too are meant to give our lives away in generosity and selflessness, but we are also meant to leave this planet in such a way that our diminishment and death is our final, and perhaps greatest, gift to the world. Needless to say that’s not easy.
Walking in discipleship behind the master will require that we too will eventually sweat blood and feel “a stone’s throw” from everybody. This struggle, to give our deaths away, as we once gave our lives away, constitutes Radical discipleship.
9 December 2017
SEARCHING FOR BETHLEHEM IN THE SOUL
An old philosophy professor of mine used to tell us this: If you ask a naive child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say yes. If you ask bright child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say no. But if you ask even a brighter child if she believes in Santa and the Easter Bunny, she will say yes, for a deeper reason.
Almost everything about Christmas, from its deep real meaning to the piety and even (ironically) the commercialism we surround it with, invites us to be that third child.
But that’s not easy. To be an adult is precisely to be experienced, complex, wounded. To be an adult is to have lost one’s innocence. None of us, unless we die very young, carries the dignity of our person and of our baptism unstained through life.
We fall, we compromise, we sin, we get hurt, we hurt others, and mostly we grow ever more pathologically complex, with layer after layer of emotional and intellectual complexity separating us from the little child who once waited for Christmas in innocence and joyful anticipation. And that can be painful.
Sometimes, if we’re sensitive, the innocence of children can be like the stab of knife to the soul, making us feel as if we’ve fallen from ourselves. But, in the end, that’s an unhealthy over-idealization. We’re not meant to be children forever and innocence will always be lost.
Sometimes, more positively, we get to experience our old innocence and youthful wonder vicariously in the eyes of our own children, in their joyful anticipation and gleeful celebration of Christmas. Their belief in Santa and the wonder in their eyes as they look at the baby-Jesus in the crib help us find a certain softness inside again; not at the same place where we once felt things when we were children and still believed in Santa (because that would only bring the painful stab of nostalgia) but at a new place, a place beyond where we defined ourselves as grown-up (because that’s the place where wisdom is born).
That’s also the place where Jesus is born. That’s Bethlehem in the soul.