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.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

The First of my Three Misconceptions about Christianity: It's all about you and me, God.

First light, Grand Canyon

I have been a faithful Roman Catholic since birth.  During those 80 years, a lot has changed in the world, in Christianity, in Roman Catholicism, and in me.  In fact, so much has changed that it is difficult to remember exactly what I was like at different points in my life let alone remember what the Church or the world was like.  But recently I have come to realize that for much of that time, I labored under at least three misconceptions about Christianity.  And these are not minor or trivial issues but ran right to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.  This post will focus on the first of these three.

First, I understood Christianity as fundamentally about my relationship with God.  On the surface that doesn't seem so wrong-headed.  What else could religion be other than how I related to a Supreme Being?  As a child, adolescent, and then young adult, I was taught and came to believe that my religious faith was about my individual relationship with God.  Sin disrupted that relationship.  So my goal was to avoid sin, especially mortal sins which would lead straight to hell.  There were a whole set of rules, mostly based on the Ten Commandments as well as Commandments of the Church.  As long as I obeyed these and restricted my failures to minor sins, I would get to heaven and eternal happiness.

This seemed a reasonable approach and actually quite doable until I hit puberty and SEX.  The first six months weren't bad--actually pleasurable--until that retreat during my freshman year at my Jesuit High School.  That's when I got the depressing news that with SEX there was no such thing as a venial sin.  They were all MORTAL!  My life became a series of danger zones between masturbation and the next available confession.  I lived in dread that between Saturday confession and the obligatory Sunday Mass--see Commandments of the Church above--I would indulge and then be forced to go to Communion rather than have to explain to my parents why I stayed in the pew when the rest of the family along with 99 percent of the congregation got up to receive.  My scarlet letter would be midway in the alphabet but still.  Oh, and by the way, if I did receive communion with that mortal sin festering in my soul, I would earn a second mortal sin.  Would I go to two hells?  Simultaneously?  Sequentially?  Just one but twice as hot?  At least, it would only take one confession to erase everything and get back in God's good graces.  Until the next time.

My Catholicism and thus my Christianity became more and more focused on keeping my relationship with God righteous.  My relationships with other people were involved only to the extent that I avoided behaviors listed in the various commandments:  no lying, no cheating, no stealing, no adultery, and no coveting--as though coveting would be a big problem.  You could covet but as long as you didn't do anything you could wiggle your way out of any sinning.  And even if you ran afoul of these, there was always confession.  Oh, and no killing.  

While all this seems a bit silly in retrospect, it was a serious business.  Quite apart from the specific sins and infractions, there was a meta lesson.  All I needed to do was focus on my relationship with God and stay in the state of grace by following the rules.  If I added the right prayers and attended the required religious services, I would get into heaven.  None of this had anything to do with my relationships with other people, other than the generally negative prescriptions of the Ten Commandments.  I don't remember anything about healthy relationships with family members and friends.  And I don't remember anything about my relationship with the poor, the marginalized, the different, the stranger, or the migrant.  In short nothing or almost nothing from what I would later come to learn was called Catholic Social Teaching.  So it was basically up to me and God.  If I kept that relationship in good shape, things would end well for me.  And the key was reining in and controlling my urges and desires.  If I could just keep my thoughts pure, everything would be fine.  So my religious struggle was an intensely individual one.  The focus was on me and my interior thoughts and desires.

In retrospect, it seems strange that all those Gospel stories about concern for other people never had much of an impact.  I just recently read the story of the Good Samaritan in Pope Francis' latest encyclical, "On Fraternity and Social Friendship."  You have to be pretty dense, or just not interested, to hear that teaching of Jesus and not realize that his concern was with how we treat each other rather than any sexual sins.  Maybe it was because I grew up before Vatican II and its emphasis on scripture for Catholics.  The Sunday readings were proclaimed, so to speak, in Latin and the sermons were rarely treatments of the scripture readings.  Homilies, which by definition begin and stay with the scripture readings, became more prevalent, but hardly universal, after the liturgical reforms of the Council.

To be fair, however, there were a lot of mixed signals in the scripture, especially from Paul and his epistles.  What was I to make of the following from the Epistle to the Galatians?

 Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.

It takes a lot of theology and anthropology to get to the full sense of that tantalizing and dangerous sentence.  Left to my own devices, I understood it to mean that I needed to crucify my human nature with its desires and urges to belong to Christ Jesus.  Paul didn't mean that exactly.  In fact, he meant quite the opposite.  If you belonged to Christ Jesus, your human nature was transformed by faith.  "If we live in the Spirit, let us also follow the Spirit."  For Paul it was never a question of disciplining one's physical body to avoid sexual sins, but rather to live in the freedom of the Spirit.  As with so many other things, it is both/and not either/or.

However it happened, this emphasis on my individual relationship with God had disastrous results.  I could consider myself to be righteous as long as my personal prayer and behavior were righteous regardless of what difficulties or challenges other people faced.  Some of my ancestors owned enslaved people and built their livelihood and well being on the foundation of chattel slavery.  Some of them fought in the Civil War to preserve this odious practice.  But at the very same time, they were active Christians.  Some of them were leaders in their local congregations.  Their highly personal and individual Christian faith allowed them to feel righteous even as they perpetuating evil.  I have often achieved a certain level of prayerful calm that exists only because I have looked away from the injustice in the world around me.

The teaching of Jesus was clear.  "Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for me."  We are called to do only two things.  We recognize the existence of God, the source of all life and the incarnation of God as Jesus Christ.  Then we are to take care of one another.  Either one without the other falls far short of what Jesus proclaimed.  I try to overcome this misunderstanding by opening myself to my brothers and sisters who do not have such an affluent life as I do.  I try to focus on the abiding truth that Pope Francis proclaimed in his encyclical, "The Joy of the Gospel."

99. Our world is being torn apart by wars and violence, and wounded by a widespread individualism which divides human beings, setting them against one another as they pursue their own well-being. In various countries, conflicts and old divisions from the past are re-emerging. I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This was Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father: “That they may all be one... in us... so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Beware of the temptation of jealousy! We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port! Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.

Let us set this first misconception aside, finally and firmly.  Justice and mercy are the heart of Christianity, not piety and purity. 

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.