This is a blog that I post to several times a week although not necessarily daily. These reflections are triggered by the scripture found in the lectionary used by many Christian denominations. While I am part of the Catholic tradition, these posts are not --or rarely--sectarian. I try to put myself in the space of a of Jesus Christ and listen to words that come to me as I read and pray the scriptures. Each post also includes a photograph. These rarely have any connection to the content of the post but are simply pleasing images that I capture as I make my pilgrimage through life.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

What keeps me from listening to the Divine One? Expanded and revised

Lookout Mountain, Denver CO
If the Divine One is in everything and in every event, how is it that I don't experience that?  How is it that I don't hear or even listen?  Can it be that I am not present to the reality around me, the reality within which I live and move?

It seems that most of the time I am occupied with my own internal life and simply being unaware.  If I am not aware of the people and events around me--on their own terms, not mine--how can I ever be present to the Divine One?  Just being does not come naturally to me.  It takes a conscious effort to slow down and observe without any kind of agenda.  For me, this is difficult.

Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), wrestled with this problem and came to the conclusion that desire was at the root of the problem.  If we experience other people and things as objects of our desires, we don't really experience them but rather our desires.  He expressed this in "The First Principle and Foundation," a prayer that is central to the Jesuit spirituality he developed.  David Fleming, S.J. wrote a modern version he entitled, "The Goal and Purpose of Life."  While I was experiencing the 19th Annotation of the Spiritual Exercises, I wrote my own prayer based on his.

Goal and Purpose of Life
October 2013 
You created me to know, love, and serve you.  There is no other purpose for my life, nor need there be any other.
All creation is from you and is meant to support me in living out my purpose.  All creation forms a “context of gift” into which you have birthed me.  Nothing you have made is anything else but good, true, and beautiful because all is one with you and is an expression of your unfathomable love.  I can use creation in ways that are conducive to my purpose in life or I can use it to retard that purpose.  It is my choice and it is based on what advances your reign and what retards it..
Thus my fundamental stance is one of a caring, involved indifference toward creation so that my choices are ones that are based on pursuing the goal and purpose of my life.  I should not fix my desire on

  • health or sickness, 
  • wealth or poverty, 
  • success or failure, 
  • a long life or short one, 
  • acceptance or rejection, 
  • order or chaos, 
  • pleasure or pain, 
  • serenity or turmoil, 
  • connectedness or isolation, 
  • strength or weakness, 
  • knowledge or ignorance.  
I pray for the grace to respond ever more deeply to your loving presence within me so I too can say with St. Paul, "Now, not I live, but Christ lives in me."
So it is "desire" that impairs my ability to listen to the Divine One.  It is not what I desire as much as the desiring itself.  Those desires whether for "good" things or "bad" things prevent me from being fully present to my reality at the moment.  If I am not engaged with my reality at the moment, I cannot be present to the Divine One who is always there in that reality.  It is not so much desiring things to be better; it is even in desiring things to stay the same.  The desire itself distorts my perception of and engagement with what is right in front of me and all around me.

My classical Jesuit education reinforced my natural inclination to analyze people and events.  Identifying cause and effect in behavior or events demystifies them.  They become predictable, understandable.  That understanding gives me a sense of order and control amid disorder and chaos.  The problem with the present is that thinking doesn't work.  We can't think about the present.  If we use the present to understand what has happened and its causes, we are in the past.  If we use the present to prepare for what might come, we are in the future.   The present is a flow of thoughts, images, sounds, relationships that comes without our bidding.  As soon as I try to focus on any of these, I step out of the present and into the past or into the future.  If I can't think about the present, what in the world am I to do with it?  How can I be "present" whatever that means?

The current pandemic and social distancing have brought me face to face with this.  How difficult it seems to just "be" in this current situation.  I am constantly listening to and reading media reports on the virus, how we got in this mess and what it will take for us to move forward.  I tend to think about how things used to be and how much everything has changed.  I imagine what it will be like when it is over.  Of all that has changed in my life, what will remain after the crisis?  Will my new way of living continue once the virus is no longer a threat?  What will the "new normal" be like?  I find it difficult to just relax and feel what it is like to be, right here, right now, in just this way.  I think I know why but I want to avoid thinking about that.

I want to be clear.  In no way do I think that the Divine One sent humanity this virus and pandemic to teach us something.  I don't think the Divine One caused this pandemic any more than of the Holocaust, World War II, the AIDS epidemic, climate change or any of the other tragedies of human existence.  I do believe that the Divine One is the source of all life, of all that is and all that happens.  Everything is an expression of divine love and carries meaning for each of us.  All reality--the good and the bad--is meant to teach us something:  the Holocaust no more than the spring warmth and rains that bring the greening and flowering of our world.  There are lessons from both, not one more than the other.  

Life, all of it, is a gift from the Divine One.  Our appropriate response is thankfulness and gratitude.  Sometimes our lessons are easy and comforting:  the beauty and joy of a spring day amid blossoms and sweet fragrances.  At other times the lessons are discomforting and difficult:  human beings freely choosing ugliness, death, and oppression.  I learn that I too can choose evil because I am human.  Hitler was inhumane but he was not inhuman.  I am capable of what he did--though not on such a scale--because I too am human.  I can choose to do otherwise as he could have done.  Eliminating Hitler and people like him does not establish justice and mercy.  Only changing the hearts of people will do that.

So back to why I avoid listening to the Divine One in this time of a pandemic.  In the quiet and isolation, I sense a frightening lesson.  I am not in control.  For someone who values order and calm as I do, this is bad enough.  But there is a further lesson:  no one--not even the Divine One--is in control.  This virus has upended our lives.  This unseen entity has stopped us in our tracks, sickened millions, and killed hundreds of thousands...so far.  And it's not done yet.  Sure, we can change our behavior to "flatten the curve."  This might prevent overwhelming our health care system but the infection will continue to spread, albeit more slowly, and run its deadly and disruptive course.  We can do some things to impact the virus but as Dr. Fauci continually says, "The virus is in charge."

Maybe it's my age, maybe it's just how I think but reflecting on the virus-induced pandemic quickly brings me to my ultimate loss of control, death.  I know I will die but how and especially when are hidden.  People sometimes say that it is in the hands of God but I don't really believe that.  I have had too many friends and relatives die too soon and too painfully to think that God's hands had anything to do with it.  No, death and especially my death is certain but far from under anyone's control.  It would be silly to pray to the Divine One to avoid death or even a painful death.  Like all things in life, death happens.  It just happens.  The Divine One is not a director sitting before a heavenly control board making instant micro-decisions about the lives of billions of people.

I do not believe that the Divine One intervenes in human existence to heal people, to divert hurricanes, to conquer enemies, to protect the weak and vulnerable, to advantage believers or punish sinners.  All that work is up to us, unfortunately.  But I do believe that the Divine One is an active presence in our world who holds the key to eternal life.  I believe that the Divine One wants to engage with me, to enter my life at a fundamental level and change me into the being I was always meant to be, a child of the Divine One, destined to enter eternal life.  The only thing in my life over which I have control is whether or not to accept that offer of life.  Everything else about life and about my life is accidental.

If you are a bit confused about all this, so am I.  My project is a lifelong one.  How can I connect with the Divine in a way that is real?  This has been the question I have been trying to answer my whole life.  Sometimes it has been a quest hidden, even from me.  At other times it has been out in the open, obvious and intentional.  I have tried many different methods.  Childhood prayers and beliefs, highly devotional practices, Baltimore Catechism, Scripture reading and reflection, philosophy, meditation, contemplation, retreats, graduate study in theology, even a monastic experience.  Most of them worked for a while but none became a consistent part of my journey.  I would get a taste, a glimpse.  It was enough to keep me coming back again and again.  Here I am in the time of the pandemic trying again.

Here are my three conclusions.  First I need to sit quietly as reality flows around me without engaging with the thoughts and images that are unavoidable in that flow.  This requires me to set aside some time--15-20 minutes--in a quiet place away from distractions.  While this is often difficult and frustrating, it is the only way for me to be in the now.  This is often called meditation or contemplation.  I have done this off and on for the past 35 years but have never been able to maintain a constant practice.  It is not a question of disciplining myself to adhere to this practice.  I just need to attend to what moves me deeply.

Second, this meditation prepares me to pray.  My prayer is simple.  I ask the Divine One to intervene in my life, not to change my circumstances--see the list in the prayer above--but to intervene in my life by filling me with the grace to accept fully and completely the spirit of the Divine One.  The spirit changes me at a fundamental level into a child of the Divine One filled with divine life.  As a child, it seemed simple.  If I were a good boy and followed all the rules, said the right prayers and gave the right answers, I would go to Heaven when I died.  As I grew older, things became more complex but the central bargain remained:  be a good boy and you get God's favor.  In fact, it was just the opposite.  All those things I thought I had to do to be in God's good graces--things like ethical behavior, almsgiving, church membership, caring for those in need--did not cause my life in the Divine One.  It is the other way around.  The divine life within me bears the fruit of those behaviors.  Mercy, justice, and charity are natural to human beings once they have discovered who they really are and accept that.

Third, my spiritual reading has changed over the last few years.  When I studied theology, I focused on dogma, social justice, sacraments.  Now I turn more to evangelical theologians because of their grounding in scripture, especially the New Testament.  The essence of Christianity is all right there in the gospels, epistles and other books of the New Testament.  Elegant and abstract theological propositions have become more of an obstacle for me.  Just reading the gospels and epistles affects me in ways it had not before.  In some ways, this reminds me of Ignatius.  While recovering from serious wounds suffered in the Battle of Pamplona, he began to read the only books available:  scripture and especially a Life of Christ.  He began to change in ways that radically changed his life.

I am not sure what to make of all this.  Maybe this is another period of quiet meditation and reflection and may not last beyond the isolation of the pandemic.  Maybe it will continue long after that as part of my everyday life.  I pray that it does but I have prayed that before.  So the pilgrimage continues.  I look forward to sharing that pilgrimage with you again in the future.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

How, exactly, can I "listen" to God?

Spent aspen leaves hanging on. 

Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth.

So Eli said to Samuel, “Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply,
‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’”
When Samuel went to sleep in his place,
the LORD came and revealed his presence,
calling out as before, “Samuel, Samuel!”

Samuel answered, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”   1 Sam 3
Samuel's mother, Hannah, had dedicated him to the Lord and taken him to live in the temple under the tutelage of Eli.  As the boy was sleeping, he was awakened by a voice calling his name.  Thinking it was Eli, he went woke the old man only to be told to go back to sleep.  Eventually after this was repeated a couple of times, Eli realized what was going on and told Samuel what we read above.  "Speak, for your servant is listening."  Roman Catholics often hear these words in the Mass just before the Gospel is proclaimed.

What can that possibly mean for me?  How do I listen to the Holy One?  What is it that I think I might hear?  I think it unlikely that I would somehow hear complete sentences that provided me with clear direction or understanding.  If that were to happen, I honestly think my sanity would be suspect.  People who hear disembodied voices tend to have severe emotional issues.  This only happened to me once and that was during my month long stay at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky.  I was awakened in the early morning by what I experienced as a voice saying "Do it."  Without any clear reference for "it," it made little sense.  Was this the Divine One telling me something?  But what exactly?  Was this a generalized call to "do?"  That didn't make much sense.  The only meaning I could come up with was that I should join the Trappists but that made the least sense of all for a man with seven children, four of what would become 17 grandchildren, and a large extended family.  Whatever it was, I concluded it was not the Divine One talking to me.

Some people say that God is present to them, perhaps even speaking to them, in nature or in the good acts of people or in the smiles of young children or the wisdom of the elderly.  But then what about natural disasters or the evil acts of people or the tears of abandoned children or the elderly.  And on and on.  If the Divine One speaks to us in "good and beautiful" things then how does the Divine One speaks to us in the "evil and ugly" things of life?  If the Divine One is the source of all life, as I believe, then the Divine One is in everything and thus arguably speaks to us in everything that happens including the things that are hard, difficult, ugly, unjust even despicable.  

In reading Thomas Keating, I came upon these lines in The Human Condition,
Contemplative prayer is a deepening of faith that moves beyond thoughts and concepts.  One just listens to God, open and receptive to the divine presence in one's inmost being as its source.  One listens not with a view to hearing something, but with a view to becoming aware of the obstacles to one's friendship with God. (25)
If this is true, then listening to God opens us to awareness of our own deepest sense of self with a particular emphasis on those aspects of our self which make it difficult, perhaps impossible, for us to draw close to the Divine One.  Those aspects have been summed up as our "false self" by Keating, Thomas Merton and other spiritual writers.  For me, the biggest obstacle is my need/desire to live a life of order and control, a life where I am in charge.  When things do not go my way, I can become frustrated and agitated.  These can be small things like a disorderly room, a minor car accident, being late for an appointment.  or they can be major things life death, illness, financial uncertainty.  

Perhaps we listen to the Divine One by becoming aware of those aspects of our self that keep us from experiencing life and other people on their own terms rather than on our schedule or needs.  So listening to the Divine One may be as simple and as challenging as listening deeply to myself.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Means or end?

Maroon Bells Colorado

Sometimes I think of the Catholic Church as a massive, dominating, and unchanging reality much like these two 14,000 foot peaks just outside Aspen.  I feel small, insignificant and inconsequential in its presence.  However much I desire that it change or even how much I desire to change it, it is impervious to my desires or efforts.  On the other hand, sometimes I feel part of a community of people who share beliefs and friendship and even a sense of faith about reality and about the Divine One.  Even in those times, however, the monolithic institutional church feels distant and unapproachable.  

Unfortunately the statements, policies and actions from the church come from that granite-like institution.  The people who lead the church go to great lengths to set themselves apart from us, the regular everyday members.  They dress differently, hold important offices, are not accountable other than to themselves, and actually understand themselves as radically different from the baptized faithful.  The teaching on the ontological change wrought by ordination explains this misguided notion.  (If you click this link to a Vatican document, search for ontological and you will see the relevant paragraph.)  

All of the above creates a dual reality for the church.  There is the official, institutional church with all its paraphernalia and authoritative teaching and there is the day to day life lived by ordinary, baptized Christians.  While I have spent most of my life studying the former, I know that it is the latter that is the more important.  Jesus didn't teach doctrine or creeds.  He taught in word and deed a way of life to which he called his followers.  

This way of life wasn't new.  The belief system of Jesus was thoroughly Jewish and he drew on that tradition when he articulated the basics of his call:  love the Divine One and love your neighbor as yourself.  He not only taught this in parables and conversation but he also gave powerful examples by being with those considered to be sinful or corrupt by his community.  His call to love was not in any way exclusive but racially inclusive.  The institution that grew up around his followers was probably inevitable but unfortunately over time it eclipsed this radical call to live a different kind of life than the one which seemed normal and expected by what Jesus and Paul called "the world."

The Catholic Church and indeed any church is not and cannot be the end of a life of a religious life but a means to that life.  It may be a necessary and at times an important means but by itself it is not enough.  The focus has to be on the way of life.  It was not an accident that the early followers of Jesus the Christ referred to themselves as followers  of "the Way."

I need to spend a lot less time and energy on the means--the church--and more on the end--living the Way of Christ.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A New Year and a new beginning

First light in Grand canyon from Yavapai Point
Taking a photo of a sunrise can be tricky.  At first you want to capture the sun coming up over the eastern horizon but that can result in what has become a hackneyed image often devoid of context.  Eventually you realize that looking away back to the west provides a much more interesting image.  In the above photo, one can see the first light on the sun in the Grand Canyon as it illuminates the northern rim.  There is enough ambient light so that the details of the canyon and the Colorado River become visible.  So sometimes we can get more information by looking away so we can see and experience the impact of something on its environment.

I begin 2020 with this in mind as I think about my relationship to the Roman Catholic Church.  2019 has been a difficult year for me and the church, nationally and locally.  No need to catalog the issues that plague the church of my upbringing except to say that the lack of accountability to the members of the church by its leaders on every level can be infuriating and debilitating.  It certainly was for me.

I actively investigated membership in other Christian denominations.  I found much that was important and attractive but in the end I couldn't get myself to leave the Catholic tradition.  So I am committed to membership in my local parish and will continue to support it and indirectly my diocese and the Roman Church.  I wish I could withhold my financial support to the last two without penalizing my local parish but that is not possible given the organizational format of the Roman Church.

I am under no illusion that remaining in the church, participating in weekly worship, serving as a lector, volunteering in social ministry, and generally being a "good parishioner" will address my need for spiritual enrichment.  Indeed what I have learned during my year of prayer and discernment is that church membership is a necessary but far from sufficient condition for a vital faith.  My spirituality vitality is a function of my personal relationship with the Divine One.

This blog for 2020 will focus on just that, my personal relationship with the Divine One.  Sometimes this will seem in perfect concert with the institutional church and sometimes it will seem completely out of sync with that institution.  I look forward to diving into those waters and sharing my insights with those who find their way to this blog.

Friday, August 9, 2019

It would be so much easier if heaven were in heaven

Garden fountains at Longwood Gardens
20 Once, on being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed,21 nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst.”  Luke 17:20-21
 As a child I was taught the fundamentals of Christianity--in school, at church and at home--in a way appropriate to a child.  Be a good boy and later man and I would enter heaven (the kingdom of God) when I died.  The definition of "good" was not left to chance.  There were a set of rules that provided guidance of how to live a good life.  There were the Ten Commandments and explications thereof.  They largely told me what not to do; they told me what sins were so I could avoid them.  Honoring my mother and father and recognizing God always seemed easy enough.  Not stealing and telling truth were sometimes challenging but understandable.  Adultery and coveting people and stuff didn't make much sense but no harm, no foul.  There was another set--the Commandments of the Church--that specified obligations related to the Church and the Sacraments.  Frankly they seemed innocuous and easy enough.

Once puberty arrived, all that coveting stuff took on new relevance.  While adultery seemed out of the question at the time, other sexual sins were certainly on the table.  What had started out as a more or less reasonable set of rules became pretty much the sole focus of my religious education and formation.  Now, getting into heaven was serious business and not to be taken for granted.  Over time a grand bargain took shape.  Follow the rules about personal and especially sexual behavior and you would go to heaven where you would be perfectly and eternally happy.  Increasingly, "being good" became over focused on personal and sexual behavior.

As I matured, got married, fathered seven children, raised them, got divorced, changed professions, remarried, became a grandfather, I bit by bit came to the realization that the "grand bargain" was a lot more complicated and challenging than simply being a good boy and then getting into heaven.  As I began to read the gospels and to study them, I began to realize that Jesus wasn't so much talking about heaven to come as the kingdom.  Rather he was calling his followers to live their lives in the kingdom right here and right now.  Heaven or the kingdom was a way of life that we are called to create in our daily life.  More to the point, it is not just our daily personal lives but the communal life of societies and political entities.  If this social aspect is not recognized, we end up with perversions of the Christian message, like the one that justified slavery in this country or that led church leadership to bow down before Hitler and the Third Reich.

Certainly Jesus did not have a political--let alone a partisan agenda--but he did have a way of life agenda that extended before our families and our face to face communities.  The Sermon on the Mount, the story of the Good Samaritan, and the lesson of the sheep and goats makes clear that Christian are called to created a way of living that exemplifies these values of simply taking care of each other and especially those who are different, isolated, marginalized, discriminated against.  In short, those who are not like us. 

As we begin to do that--unreservedly and without qualification--we begin to build the kingdom of God right here, the only place we know for sure it counts.  If we don't do that, no amount of personal rectitude makes any difference or any sense.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Potential for a dangerous misinterpretation

Before sunrise
He also told them, "Take care what you hear.
The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you, 
and still more will be given to you.
To the one who has, more will be given; 
from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."  Mark 4:24-25
These less than direct sayings of Jesus are repeated in the gospels of Luke and Matthew.  It is therefore pretty clear that the earliest Christian communities took them as authentic sayings of Jesus the Christ.  Our modern ears are tempted to pass over these sayings without giving them much attention.  They seem to be saying that the rich get richer which strikes us as inconsistent with the overall message of Jesus.  And, it is.  So what is going on here?

Perhaps as 21st century Americans, we are primed to think that we are masters of our fate.  To our ears, it makes perfect sense to think that what we do determines what the Divine One does.  Whatever measure we use is the measure that the Divine One uses.  The text does not specify what is being measured.  Nor does it specify what one has in the final verse.  If we reflect from within the context of the full message of Jesus, we quickly realize that we cannot determine or even condition the way that the Divine One relates to us.  If we can determine divine behavior then the Divine One that we thus conceive cannot be divine, cannot be God.  Quite the opposite.  The central message of Jesus is grace.  Our faith and salvation is pure, unmerited grace, a gift freely and fully offered by the Divine One regardless of our acceptance or rejection.

Indeed the measure we use to measure others will match the measure the Divine One uses to measure us, not because our measure causes the divine measure but exactly the opposite.  The divine measure--accepted fully by us--will be reflected in the measure we use to measure others.  That is why more will be given, no matter how much has been given because the source is inexhaustible and limited only by our capacity to accept.  Using a more familiar term may be helpful.  Our generosity towards others will be a reflection of the generosity of the Divine One toward us to the extent that we accept that generosity.  This generosity buds and blossoms in our lives naturally the way fruit buds and blossoms in an orchard.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Which comes first: forgiveness or acceptance?

Bonaventure Cemetery outside Savannah GA
Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
"Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?"
Jesus heard this and said to them,
"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners." 
Mark 2:16-17
This little story about the earliest stage in the ministry of Jesus holds particular meaning for those of us who are Christians in 21st century America.  These few lines are significant because they present to different, even contradictory, approaches to living a life of faithfulness.  The scholars who question the disciples are members of a sect of Jews we have come to know as Pharisees.  We don't know a lot about this sect.  It was not a large group.  It did not have all that much influence.  Its power was based on its approach to a righteous life which focused on detailed compliance with the rules and regulations of religious practice.  Jesus once criticized them for laying heavy burdens of observance on ordinary people.  They were particularly concerned with the laws of purity and the necessity of living within a community of believers and excluding non-believers.

They were scandalized by Jesus' insistence on fellowship with a diverse set of people, especially non-Jews, publicly recognized sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors, lepers and others concerned unclean, and the poor and imprisoned.  This was made even worse by his failure to abide by rules of ritual purity and the sabbath.  His very existence and life was an affront to the central self identity of the Pharisees.  While the Pharisees sought to influence people through their detailed and rule-based religious observance, Jesus was generating a large following by seemingly living in direct opposition to their rules and judgments.  His popularity was an indictment of their core principles.  This dynamic helps me understand the intensity of their opposition to Jesus, culminating in his death.  He was a threat to their existence.

So there are two approaches to living a righteous life.  The first focuses on rules and regulations and a life enclosed within a community of "true believers."  The other focuses on relationships with all kinds of people and does not make "righteousness" a requirement of fellowship and acceptance.  It was not the case that Jesus was sharing table fellowship with former sinners and tax collectors.  He clearly intended to all include all especially those who were "sick" and just those who were well.  The love of his father was not exclusive and he was intent on living a life that reflected that all inclusive love.

During my lifetime, Catholicism in the United States has grown from a "ghetto" religion into one squarely in the mainstream of American culture.  That transition is a challenge and is on-going.  It is easier to maintain your identity within a community of like-minded true believers but that is not the world into which we are called to be disciples.  How to maintain our identity and spontaneity in a world whose values are inimical to ours is our central challenge.  The message of Jesus, to me at least, is not to turn our backs on the world and retreat into closed communities but rather to trust the inclusive love of the Divine One.