Wednesday, October 31, 2012

A Reminder From Mother Nature

"The greatest lie, the greatest scam of our lives is that this world was created for us, for our pleasure and enjoyment, for our dominance. What stupid, arrogant animals we are. We were created for it. We are simply the audience. What would true art be without an audience? Only in this work, the artist painted us inside the canvas. We are art and audience all at the same time. We are part of the grandest work ever created, ever dreamed."

There is a certain irony to Hurricane Sandy's arrival a week before election day. We oftentimes act as if our political choices will decide the fate of the world. The Landlord just reminded us how very delusional we are.

Minutes and hours. That's all it took for air and water to decimate the work of human hands. Yes, we will repair and rebuild, and pat ourselves on the back for our ingenuity and perseverance. And one day, Mother Nature will snap her fingers again, and it will all come tumbling down, again. We pour endless amounts of time, treasure, and talent into our creations. But air, water, fire, and earth will always get the best of them.

We humans are a small and impotent part of the cosmos. It is not the reality we want, but it is the truth we need to accept. And let us do so joyfully, not grudgingly; for we are not diminishing ourselves. Rather, we are embracing our rightful place in a much grander family than we could ever dream of, if we can be humble enough to listen to Sister Hurricane, and all that she has to teach us.

"So much of life is a paradox, but it is there that we find God the most. It is there, in the confusion and that mess that we must dwell. It is there that we experience true beauty, true joy. It is there that we can see something wonderful, something that sends a chill down our spine, and puts a smile on our face and a laugh in our heart, where we know with certainty who and what we are and why we are here in this time and place."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Catholic Vote

Which presidential candidate should a good Catholic vote for? I don't know, but plenty of pundits, and even a few bishops, are happy to give an answer. That's the corporate religion approach to politics. They buy into the false dualism of our two-party system, which demands that every person, community, and idea must be either Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. We know that states, and churches, are never just red or blue, but it sure does make it easier on bloggers and journalists if we pretend that they are. Unfortunately, many believe the gimmick is actually truth.

Way back in February, the Los Angeles Times published a pair of opinion articles by Charlotte Allen and Diana Wagman arguing that liberals and conservatives cannot talk to one another. Sounds silly, until you read this gem from Wagman: "We each would prefer the other just didn't exist." I wish I could believe that the attitudes espoused by these two women are only an aberration, but I've heard their echoes constantly in the political discourse offered up by both secular and religious voices during this election season. It's sad and pathetic, and not the way for siblings to treat one another.

"It is past time that we recognize this family of the One, this fellowship of the One. They are tired of us ignoring, neglecting, and tarnishing it. This family is our Creator's greatest gift to us and we spit upon it constantly. Enough!"

Jesus admonished us to "repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God." We do not honor our Parent when we allow ourselves to get swept up into the natural inflation of our politics, where small things look like life and death matters, and shrill, angry self-righteousness sounds prophetic. Our Church and our family deserve better. They belong to God, and cannot be carved up to suit the needs of political games. Yes, we do need to vote; Jesus did not absolve us of our obligation as citizens. But what matters is how we vote, not for whom we cast our ballot.

In saying this, however, I am not interested in assembling a guide or checklist for your conscience. There are plenty of Catholic entities filling that void already; perhaps too many, and some too eagerly. No, the Catholic Vote I have in mind is something very different, an antidote to the poison spread by people like Allen and Wagman, a simple practice that a theology professor named Gerald W. Schlabach urged us to take up for Lent this year: "Love the Enemy in Your Pew"
So this Lent, listen to uncomfortable voices in your community. Listen without arguing back, for as long as it takes to really hear. Listen deliberately. Listen for the back story behind positions you may never agree with. Debate later.
... Listen particularly to someone who represents all you think might be wrong with the Church. A Catholic neighbor ... who is so impassioned about some ways of defending life that he or she seems to ignore other ways. Or an openly gay Catholic who continues to receive the Eucharist or an activist campaigning to make same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Listen to the fan of that dangerous neoconservative columnist George Weigel, or the fan of that idealistic peacenik Jesuit John Dear.
I don't care which candidate you vote for in November. I do care that you vote to love and listen to those who will be voting for the other guy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Grace of Vatican II

Last Thursday marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. Much ink and pixels have been spilled in the last month or two arguing about the meaning of the Council. The worst of these debate the various "hermeneutics" theologians have constructed. This is the epitome of corporate religion: insisting that you need a graduate degree to properly understand the Gospel. Fortunately, there are others who simply offered us firsthand perspectives on life before and after Vatican II, such as Robert Blair Kaiser, who covered the Council for Time Magazine.
The Council changed the way we thought about God, about ourselves, about our spouses, our Protestant cousins, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews, even the way we thought about the Russians.
Let me share a family anecdote to support Kaiser's assertion. As a child, my mother attended Catholic schools, where she was taught that only baptized Catholics would go to heaven. Unfortunately, her father was not a Catholic. She knew he was a good man, but the Church told her that was not good enough. So she hid a scapular under his side of her parent's bed, in the hopes that if he died at night, maybe, just maybe, God would make an exception and let him into heaven after all.

That was the Church before Vatican II. An institution that would tell a little girl that no matter how good of a life her daddy lived, he was going to hell because he wasn't one of them. It was not said out of malice, but from a belief that this was a true expression of God's love. Scholars can trot out all the hermeneutics they want, but for me it's pretty simple: after the Council, we were no longer that Church.

John XXIII prayed that the Council would be a "new Pentecost" for the Church. I think he knew he was asking for something more than just a set of documents. The Council invited the Holy Spirit into the hearts of all the faithful, to help them reimagine who they were as a family, and she obliged by showing them how vast and majestic that family truly is. That grace is what Kaiser, my mother, and so many others experienced. Our challenge is to acknowledge that this grace did not vanish when Vatican II ended.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A New Direction, An Eternal Faith

Last Friday, my intention was to write about Donald Spoto's biography of Francis of Assisi "Reluctant Saint" in honor of the saint's feast the day before. Obviously, that didn't happen. Once again, the right words refused to come, for I have lost my way.

This blog was never supposed to be a "blog." It is a tool to promote a revelation, no more, no less. But then I decided to expand the content and somehow it morphed into being like all of the other religion blogs out there that endlessly talk over one another. It cannot be that, because that can never convey a revelation that is inherently simple.

"Why do you babble so much about me? So much time and energy, for what purpose? What more is there to understand about us than love? You think too much and feel too little. You talk too much and love too little."

Fittingly, my need to make a course correction with this blog takes place on the eve of the opening of the Year of Faith, which is "an opportunity for Catholics to experience a conversion - to turn back to Jesus and enter into a deeper relationship with him." This idea of conversion is also a key theme in Spoto's book:
The life of Francis of Assisi and the journey of his progress toward God had meant accepting a series of corrections and simplifications, a refining of his understanding about what God had wanted of him. We might even say that Francis had constantly to revise what he believed would honor God. Hence Francis's conversion was the work of a lifetime, with all its autumns and winters; it was not the achievement of an afternoon in springtime.
Life and faith is a journey, and not always an easy one. But why? If faith is just about believing the right things, being able to say the creed without your fingers crossed or fervently proclaiming that Jesus is your lord and savior, then how does that demand a journey? Well, here's one piece of the puzzle:
Take the earliest gospel, which is probably Mark. Right after Jesus’ baptism, Jesus goes out to proclaim his message: “The kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the Good News.”
I am consistently asking my students, “What’s the good news?” It’s not that Jesus died and came back, because this is only the first chapter. He hasn’t yet mentioned the passion. Nobody knows he’s going to die. The good news has to be something else.
So the good news has to be what you get from the parables. The good news has to be the Sermon on the Mount. The good news has to be the healings, which show care for people in the community.
The good news is that everyone is part of the family. It doesn’t matter what your income level is. That’s even true of sinners and tax collectors, people who have removed themselves from the common welfare by working for the occupation government, disrupting the sense of community by stealing, or destroying marriage by committing adultery. Jesus says, “You know what? You’ve got a role in this community, too.”
That’s not belief; that’s action. It is reconciliation, and it’s family values in their best form possible.
And here's a second:
Catholic stories are incarnational, they speak of God incarnate in the human condition at Christmas time and God going down to the valley of death with us and returning alive with us on Easter. They speak of a community of the followers of Jesus bonding with one another to pass on the heritage which is formed by the stories. The doctrines are latent in the stories. Both are necessary, but the stories come first. Alas, for much of which passes for Catholic religious education, the stories are discarded in favor of the doctrines. All the Trinitarian and Christological controversies in the early Church, as important as they may be, do not have the appeal or the value of the image of Madonna and Child.
... It is worth noting that it took four centuries to make the doctrine reasonably precise while the story was there at the beginning. Both require one another, but it is the story that appeals to the total human. It is the beauty of the story which holds Catholics to their heritage.
It's about relationship, from the beginning of our story as humans to the foundation of the Church, it's always been about relationships.

"You are my child. More than that, you are myself. We are one, linked forever. What you feel, I feel. What I know, you know. We are love incarnate. We are life."

"You are my sibling. We are family. This is the essential truth of life. It is the only moral truth that really matters."

Faith is a relationship, not only with God but with all of our siblings alive and dead, and relationships are always journeys. Faith is not defined by the stretches when we stay on the path, but by how we deal with the potholes along the way, and how we respond to getting lost. Faith is not found in a moment or a year, but only through a lifetime.

And what of my faith? Where is my journey headed now? Spoto's book gave me a quote from Francis that I use on all of my websites: "Who are You, my dearest God? And what am I but Your useless servant."
This is a sublime prayer, not the expression of a philosophical inquiry about the nature of God and the self. It faces with absolute gravity the idea that God is utterly unknowable - as is the deepest truth of one's own life. But it is also, by the very fact of being addressed to God, a statement of unreserved conviction about the supreme reality of God, Who brings sense out of Francis's own emptiness and absurdity, his uselessness.
It is the prayer of a man who has felt God's touch and just wants to be obedient to that call. It is my prayer, and the only destination worth traveling to.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Injustices We Ignore

On Monday, the Los Angeles Times published an article about Damon Thibodeaux, a death row inmate who was exonerated last week. I must admit that the story did not capture my attention until I read the following letter to the editor today:
The NFL's replacement referees blow a game-deciding call and it's decried as the unthinkable finally happening. The calamity is front-page news and even commands the attention of the White House. But the news that yet another person on death row has been freed based on DNA evidence, the 18th death row inmate and 300th overall, elicits barely a yawn and is buried inside The Times ... Granted, sentencing someone to death for a murder he didn't commit isn't anywhere near as important as the Seattle Seahawks stealing a touchdown, but it does reflect pretty serious and systemic failures of the criminal justice system that merit more attention than they are getting.
I'm not sure which is worse, the miscarriages of justice themselves, or the fact that we just don't seem to care that they take place. The easy response is to blame the media for having poor focus, but that's just a cop-out. The media gives us what we want, and we choose trivialities and amusement every day of the week. It's time to grow up.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Weekly Reading (9/24-9/30)

"'Two Doors to the Same Cafeteria'"
David Cloutier, Catholic Moral Theology

"Dorothy Days Dynamic Orthodoxy"
William Doino, First Things

"Feast of St. Vincent DePaul"
Timothy Dolan & Nicholas DiMarzio, The Gospel in the Digital Age

"Cultural Satire, Gangnam Style"
Paddy Gilger, The Jesuit Post

"The High Holidays and Reasons Limits"
Noah Glyn, First Things

"U.S. drone policy: Counterterrorism, or just plain terrorism?"
Liz Lefebvre, U.S. Catholic

"How Vocations Happen (It Could Happen to You)"
Paul Lickteig, The Jesuit Post