Sunday, March 27, 2016

Freedom from our chains, release from our tombs (Reflections on the Solemnity of Christ's Resurrection)

We’ve all heard of the great illusionist Harry Houdini who was a master magician as well as an amazing locksmith. He was probably the most famous escape artist in the world, and was very confident in his talents. He claimed that he could escape from any jail cell in the world in less than an hour.

True enough every time he was given this challenge, he accepted and did just as he promised. He was left alone in a locked cell and in a few short minutes he’d miraculously escape.

One time though, things didn’t go quite as planned. The story goes that a small town in England had built a new jail cell and was quite proud of it. “Come give us a try,” they said to Houdini, and he agreed.

He walked into the prison cell bristling with confidence. He had, after all, done this hundreds of times before. And he had tucked inside his belt a special lock pick he had designed. Once the jail cell was closed, he took off his coat, and set to work with his lock pick. Soon, however, he discovered that something was unusual about this particular lock.

For thirty minutes he worked and got nowhere. Slowly, his confidence disappeared. An hour passed, and he still couldn’t open the door. By now he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but still no open lock. He tried all his tricks but nothing worked.

After two hours and totally exhausted, Houdini literally collapsed against the door which suddenly swung open. It was then that he realized it really wasn’t locked in the first place. It was locked only in his mind.

Whether the story’s true or simply a legend surrounding Houdini’s fame, it does make an important point. We’ve all, at certain moments in our lives, found ourselves trapped in prison cells like Houdini’s. The doors aren’t really locked, but deep down inside, that’s exactly how we’ve felt.

 A few years ago, I had the chance to journey with a young woman whose first marriage failed. She had married a very good young man, and they were very much in love. At some point though, things began to change. She became very jealous, controlling, disparaging, and at times, even violent towards him.

They had a child, but after six years of marriage, ended up separating and getting a church annulment. A couple of years later, she married her second husband, another good man who loved her very much and was happy to be the stepdad of her young child from her previous marriage. They had three more children together.

After a number of years though, her jealousy and controlling behavior resurfaced; and the constant putdowns her husband had to go through began to cause tremendous strain on their marriage, not to mention the fact that she once again became rather violent.

This time, however, she began to notice the pattern. And because she now had four kids and did in fact love her husband, she decided to seek advice as well as spiritual and emotional guidance. She came to me saying: “Father, I love my family. I don’t want to fail again. But I don’t know what to do. I simply don’t understand what’s going on. Please help me”.

I contacted a friend who’s a family counselor and sent her to him, meanwhile, she would come and talk to me about her family, her faith, her struggles, and the progress of her counseling sessions.

At one point, she disclosed that as a child, her mother had been physically and verbally abusive to her, and for some reason, she found it very hard not only to forgive her mother, but to also move on. She didn’t know how.

Several summers ago, she had the chance to visit her grandmother’s sister who was still alive but quite ill. She decided she wanted to know more about her mother’s family. It was then that she learned that her grandmother too suffered the same fate with her great-grandmother, and the abuse she experienced from her mom was the same abuse her mom in turn suffered from her grandmother.

“It was a vicious cycle, Father”, she said to me. “For the first time, I understood where my mom was coming from. I still have to work on being able to forgive her and move on. But I now have some light. I know why it happened to her, and I know why it happened to me. And you know what, Father. I have decided. It won’t happen again, not to my daughters, not to my family. The pain stops with me.”

“The pain stops with me”. Often, in our meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, our minds focus on God’s immense love for us; and that is good. But we must not forget that the image of Christ on the cross is also telling us something more. The suffering and death of Jesus isn’t only a reminder of God’s love, it also represents a profound appeal to us: “Do not let this happen again. Do what you can to put an end to each other’s suffering, say ‘no more’ to the cycle of pain; ease one another’s burdens”.

“The pain stops with me”. With that resolution, this wounded and broken woman, this abused daughter, this wife and mother seeking healing and wholeness, who had for so long been imprisoned by the wounds of her past, finally had her own Easter; like Jesus she escaped from her tomb. The day she resolved that her pain would not be visited upon her children, was her own Resurrection Sunday, the day when she finally burst forth from the prison that had kept her locked up, frozen, suffering, and sadly, inflicting the same pain and suffering on others.

Today, she is a happily married wife and mother. I spent a couple hours with her family a few years ago. I’ve never seen a happier couple. To her daughters, she was the kindest mom.

As I sat there watching her interaction with her kids, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “If only these kids knew the pain their mother had to go through; and how lucky they are…”

We all have our tombs and prisons that lock us in. Perhaps it’s a prison of anger or resentment, addiction or depression, failure or disappointment or a physical weakness we bear.  Perhaps it’s a tomb of powerlessness because someone we love is ill and we sense their life slipping away.  Or our tomb could be grief over the loss of someone we love, and the pain feels like it would never go away.  Possibly our prison, our tomb, is a loneliness that’s like a thirst that can’t seem to be quenched. 

On this night, when Jesus burst forth from the tomb that had kept him for three days and three nights, we find the fulfillment of our hope that we too can leave behind the many tombs and prisons that have kept us locked in. In Christ who is Risen, no tomb can contain us. In him who is Risen, we can escape anything, even the deepest, darkest, and most painful prisons life has imposed on us. 

On this night, Christ forever broke the chains of death, despair and entrapment. Freed from his own tomb he now commands us to come forth and leave our own tombs. Christ has set us free, and he wants us to know that his power is greater than our weakness and despair, his love greater than any frustration, his light greater than our darkness, his promise greater than our pain, and the life he offers us, is greater than death itself.

This Easter, Jesus who is Risen, invites each one of us to consider what tombs, what prisons still hold us back or hold us in. And he calls on each one of us to trust that he can set us free—if we but let him, for his Resurrection is our Resurrection, his victory is our victory, his Easter is our Easter.

With Saint Paul, we can say with all confidence: “With Christ, I can do anything”. And with the Risen Christ himself we can proclaim: “I have conquered the world”.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Love and do what you will." - From St. Augustine's Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12 (Reflections on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity)

Do you remember what it feels like to fall in love? The thoughts, the feelings, the ideas you had? Falling in love’s a beautiful thing. And no matter how many times we fall in love, the thoughts and feelings are often the same. It’s just a wonderful experience.

The thing about love though, is that beautiful as it is, once you start trying to explain it or put the experience into words, you can’t. That, of course, hasn’t stopped people from trying to describe it.

In one of my philosophy classes at Providence College years ago, we were reading an article entitled, “The Anatomy of Love”. This is how the author, described the experience.

“Dopamine rushes through the brain which makes us feel good. Norepinephrine flows through the brain stimulating production of adrenaline that causes the sensation of a pounding heart. And phenyl-thylamine, creates a happy feeling”

“These chemicals sometimes override brain activity that governs logical thinking. These also play a role in the limbic system which can affect emotion. The limbic system is a group of brain structures, including the hippocampus, amygdala, dentate gyrus, the archicortex, and their interconnections with the hypothalamus, septal area, and the mesencephalic tegmentum. When a shift in the balance of brain power occurs, the limbic system takes over, causing a certain feeling of enchantment”.

After that paragraph, one my students raised her hand and said: “That’s not love.” She was right. “It’s just a scientific formulation trying to say what really can’t be said in words”.

We all know that love isn’t just a chemical reaction in the brain. Those of us who have experienced falling in love, know that however hard we try to explain it, it’s better felt than put in words.

There’s just no mathematical or scientific formula that can fully explain what happens when we love or fall in love. Love, especially if it’s genuine and sincere, is simply beyond our ability to express it in words.

We see it more than we know it. We see it in a husband and a wife’s love for each other, in a father or a mother’s care for his or her children, in a soldier’s love and dedication to his country, or in simple acts of generosity and kindness.

Love, especially when it is genuine, shows itself in commitment, in patience, in kindness, in compassion and in the sacrifices people make for others.

How else do we explain for instance, the death of a young man who during the Tsunami in Bali in 2004, tied a rope around his waist, attached the rope to a tree, then swam to save those who were being carried away by the waves? He saved many, but then the tree was uprooted and he himself drowned in the waters. Or how do we make sense of the death of a young husband who during a tornado in Joplin, MO, used his own body to shield his young wife from flying debris?

There are no scientific explanations for such acts of sacrifice and heroism; just love. “The heart has reasons, of which reason does not know”, says the philosopher Blaise Pascal. Love calculates neither risk nor cost; it simply gives, and when it has nothing more to give, it gives itself, wholly, completely, absolutely. 

“For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son”. The gospel today tells us. Outside this explanation of love, the sacrifice of Jesus doesn’t make sense. One atheistic philosopher used to ridicule Catholics. “You worship a dead man. How stupid is that?” he said.

Without the idea of love, the very symbol which most prominently marks our churches and our homes—the crucifix—is utterly ridiculous. It’s the image of a dead man nailed to a piece of wood.

But from the perspective of love, the cross makes a lot of sense. It shows us the extent of what love is capable of doing. [In fact love makes us forget ourselves and care more for the persons we love. Why that happens, nobody knows.] It’s a mystery. There’s no scientific explanation for it. When you see it, you just know it.

Our belief in the Trinity is very much like the mystery of love. In fact, the Trinity is love. We can’t explain it. We can’t fully understand it. But we know what it means. It’s the Father, Son and Spirit—the greatest symbol of love in our faith.

St. Augustine once tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but then he realized he couldn’t. The mystery of the Trinity’s too big; our brains are too small. So Augustine summed it up in one word: “Love”, he said. That’s what the Trinity means. It’s that simple.

Like Augustine, we will never be able to fully explain the Trinity. But if we take his advice—if we experience love and give love—we may yet come to understand the Trinity, perhaps not in our heads, but certainly in our hearts.

The Trinity will always be a mystery. But its meaning is simple. “Love”, Jesus says, “it’s my commandment to you”. 

"Love and do what you will. Whether you hold your peace, through love hold your peace. Whether you cry out, through love cry out. Whether your correct, through love correct. Whether you spare, through love must you spare. Let the root of love be within. For of this root can nothing come except that which is good". (Augustine, Sermon on the First Epistle of John 4:4-12, no. 8)

Sunday, May 17, 2015

New eyes to see, new ears to hear, new hearts to love, new tongues to tell the story. (Reflections on the Feast of Christ's Ascension)

It’s probably one of the most difficult experiences for parents to eventually find themselves having to let go of their children, to set them free, and allow them to explore and find their own place in the world. There’s always that fear that they won’t make it, or that the world will be too hard on them. On the part of a young man or woman leaving home, the situation isn’t any easier. There’s much more excitement perhaps, but the fear and the difficulty of saying goodbye to familiar and secure surroundings is just as real.
We all know how it feels to say goodbye. At one point or another in our lives, we’ve all found ourselves saying farewell, perhaps to a good friend who’s leaving, a parent or child, or relative who’s dying, a girlfriend or boyfriend with whom we’ve decided that things just aren’t working out, or perhaps a job we’ve loved for so long but must now leave in order to seek new opportunities.
Goodbyes are rarely easy; but they’re a necessary part of life. We need change in order to grow, whether as children or adults. Without change, something inside us always remains asleep.
Years ago, there was a best-selling book entitled Jonathan Livingston Seagull. It’s a rather small book, and still sold in many bookstores. It was a fairy tale about a young seagull’s growth from childhood to adulthood.
At a critical point in the story, two beautiful white seagulls appear and tell young Jonathan that it was time for him to take an important step in his life. It was time for him to learn to fly as high as he wants. Jonathan hesitates, but the two birds insist, saying to him: “One part of your life is over; the time has come for another part to begin.”
All of a sudden, Jonathan realizes that it is indeed time for him to leave familiar surroundings and to become accustomed to flying into the skies beyond the clouds. He takes one last look at his beloved home, bids it farewell one last time, then soars into the sky, disappearing behind the clouds.
There’s a striking resemblance between stories of goodbye, of growth, of endings, and the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus into heaven. Like the young seagull in the story, like those of us who find ourselves at turning points in our lives, Jesus too, had completed an important phase in his life and was beginning another. He was leaving his disciples behind. And yet his departure did not signal the end of his work on earth, merely the completion of its first phase. Now he begins the second phase, to be continued by those he tasked to carry on his work.
There’s a story that when Jesus returned to heaven after his resurrection, the angel Gabriel was surprised to see him back so soon. After all, he had only been on earth 33 years and that was too short a time to accomplish such a big job like saving the world.

“Back so soon?” Gabriel asked Jesus.
“Well, I would’ve stayed longer, but they crucified me”, Jesus answered.
“Oh they crucified you?” said Gabriel. “I guess that means you failed huh”.
“No”, said Jesus. “You see I gathered a small group of disciples. And I’m sending them the Holy Spirit. They’ll continue my work”.
“But what if they fail?” asked Gabriel.
“Hmm”, Jesus replied, “then I guess that’s the end of it. I don’t have other plans”.
Jesus preached for only three years and to a tiny nation called Israel. The Feast of the Ascension calls to mind and celebrates the expansion of that work, as he commissioned his twelve disciples to preach the Gospel to all nations and promised the Holy Spirit to continue guiding them.
But now the original twelve disciples are themselves gone; leaving us, Christ’s followers today, to continue the work they had begun two thousand years ago. As Jesus depended on the twelve after the Ascension, so he now depends on a very real way, on each one of us—to witness to him through our commitment to our faith and the goodness of the lives we live.
Being a witness to Christ is perhaps as daunting and challenging in our day and age as it was for his first disciples two thousand years ago. But it is an equally consoling as well as humbling thought that like them, we do our work with the knowledge that Jesus continues to lead and guide us.
The Feast of Jesus' Ascension is an invitation for us to give ourselves completely to making this world just a little better for ourselves and for others. It is the only way to fulfill Christ’s command to be witnesses to the gospel.
Jesus may have ascended to heaven, but our job, as his followers, is right here. We must continue his work, preach the Good News through our lives, fulfill his command to make disciples of all nations and trust that he will be with us “until the end of the world”.
What we celebrate is the fact that two-thousand years ago, on the day of his ascension, Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of being his witnesses, his representatives, his instruments. 
We celebrate the fact that Jesus passed on to you and me, the responsibility of completing God’s work on earth: the work of preaching the Gospel, of feeding the hungry, of clothing the naked, of caring for those who are needy, those who are oppressed, those who are in pain.
In his book Song of the Bird, Anthony de Mello tells the story of a man who came to understand what it means to be God’s instrument.
“On the street (he relates) I saw a small girl cold and shivering in a thin dress, with little hope of eating a decent meal. I became angry at God and said to him: “How could you allow this to happen? What are you doing about it?” But God didn’t answer me... Later that night, God did reply, quite suddenly. “How could you say I haven’t done anything about? I certainly did something about it. I made you”.
This is what the Ascension means for us, we who are the church. We share this responsibility, and no one is exempted from it. Each one of us must decide how best to carry out our part in that responsibility. Because one day, we can be certain that it is how we are going to be judged. 
“Then the Lord will say to those on his right: ‘Come. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink; in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me. I was naked, and you clothed me.’ Then the just will ask him: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or see you thirsty and give you drink? When did we welcome you  from home or clothe you in your nakedness? When did we visit you when you were sick or in prison? Then the Lord will answer: ‘I assure you, as often as you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me’.
Let us end our reflection with a prayer. 
Lord Jesus, on the Feast of your Ascension,
we ask, as you return to your Father in heaven,
Give us new eyes to see your face
in the faces of those in need.

Give us new ears to hear your voice
in the voices of those who cry in pain.

Give us new tongues to tell your story
to those who need to be consoled.
Give us new hearts to share your love
with those who need it most.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Never-ending Hellos and Goodbyes of Priestly Life. (Prayerful thoughts as one bids goodbye to yet another group of students)

“Oh, only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other,
because we take form
in your act of drawing us.
And we take life in your painting us,
and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while
have you loaned us to each other.” (From an ancient Aztec prayer)

Today is graduation day; another school year comes to an end, another group of students will move on, some to continue their seminary studies, others to respond to God's call leading them towards another direction in their lives, equally good, equally beautiful, equally blessed.

Tonight's graduation mass and ceremony will be another amazing event for sure, an important point and marker along the road these young men have been traveling for the past several years. I've seen them grow, from boys to men. And it was a privilege, a grace, and a blessing to not only watch them grow, but to journey with them as they did. Earlier tonight, as I thought about their journeys, and as I said a prayer for each one of them, I could not help but think of the journey that has been, and continues to be my own.

This will be my eighteenth year in seminary ministry. I've known no other, being assigned to seminary work even before I was ordained to the priesthood. They have been magnificent, grace-filled, and truly wonderful years. And tomorrow, I shall once more see a group of students whom I've had the privilege of knowing, teaching, journeying and, in some instances, crying with, move on. This is, truly, a challenging and, on many occasions, arduous journey.

Tonight they shall graduate, then celebrate a little with their family, their teachers and friends. Then they'll finish packing, if they haven't done that already, and then they'll leave. One by one, they'll leave. And as I was sharing with some of them earlier today, by tomorrow night, most of  them will be gone. By Thursday, the rest of the seminary community will head home, as the entire place takes its much needed break for the summer.

By Thursday night, the silence which has been my companion each time those I've ministered to, one by one, take their leave... that silence will again be jarring.

Goodbye's, even temporary ones, have never been easy for me. Despite the stoic façade and the occasional joke from colleagues of me being the "friendliest anti-social person" they know, the fact is, I like people, and I love hanging out with them and "wasting time", if that's even really possible. (I've never thought that time spent with anyone was time "wasted"; after all, the effects of the connections we make, no matter how seemingly trivial, spread out, like ripples caused by pebbles thrown into a pond, endlessly into an eternity hidden from our sight.) Would that my academic work gave more time to "waste"; but duty often calls, and it must always come first.

I am very proud of these young men I've taught, these seminarians who tomorrow will be moving on. And I am grateful, not only for having been blessed with the opportunity to be part of their life's journey, but also for the knowledge that there are still those who seek to live this life, this joyful, challenging, yet supremely beautiful life in the priestly ministry.

It is good, and tremendously encouraging, to know that one has company. We priests come and go; but the work of ministry goes on, and will go on, in the lives of these young men. That is more than a consolation; it is a gift. It is nothing but grace.

Still, for a couple of days, recollections of the past two semesters will linger: conversations in the living room, or in the kitchen and dining area, classes and seminars, Friday masses at St. Vincent’s chapel, fun with Bella (our English bulldog); they were her “uncles”, and she always has a couple of favorites among them. Yes, students come and go; such is seminary ministry. They sink roots for a while, listen to you in class for a time, and then they move on.

I still find saying ‘goodbye’ challenging, hard in fact,  despite having to do it at the end of every year. Nor does it get easier with every year that passes. One builds relationships, makes friends, and then one has to let them go, trusting only that the next step on their journey will be good, because they are in good hands, in God's hands, and He'll always have their back.

Earlier tonight, as I drove into campus, I saw some of them, packing their cars in earnest, getting ready for the drive home, either tonight or Thursday. Soon, what I'll be noticing will be the absence of cars in the driveway, the silence of the hallways, then the darkness of the house when I come home late at night and, yes, that silence.

And when I turn on the lights, when I get back home from spending a few hours in the gym, this Thursday night, I will see the open doors to rooms which my students had occupied for the year. I will walk around the house, with Bella (she’s gotten used to hanging out with the guys; she’ll be missing them for sure), “It’ll be this way for a while”, I will say to myself, “until the next group of students come in the Fall; then we'll start all over again”. I'll then head back to my room and pick up a book I’ve always returned to, again and again at this time of year: Joyce Rupp’s “Praying our Goodbyes”. On Thursday night, I know, I will need a reassuring voice.

The solitude of the life of a priest who has promised to be celibate for the rest of his life - in service, love and commitment to God's People, beautiful as that may be - still stings me the most on such nights. My brothers in parish ministry tell me that for them, its Sunday nights, when the crowds leave, and the quiet of the rectory becomes, once again, their companion for the night.

God's gifts are surely beautiful; and celibacy is one of them. But some of God's choicest gifts, are painful ones. On Thursday night, when all this school year's goodbye's have been said, I shall again partake of the joy and pain of this gift; and I shall once again be thankful for it.

Goodbyes, especially the more intense ones, cause us to face certain ultimate questions in life: “Where am I headed? What are my most cherished values?” Goodbyes create a space within us where we allow ourselves room to look at life in perspective and gradually discover answers to some of those questions about life. We also learn a lot about the significant others in our lives; we learn who is willing to walk the long road with us, whose heart welcomes us no matter what, who loves us enough to stand with us in good times and in bad, who is willing to love us enough to speak the truth for us or to us.

Goodbyes, when reflected upon in faith, can draw us to a greater reliance upon the God of love, our most significant other. With God we can learn to live in hope, with greater meaning, and deeper joy. All this only comes with time and with great care of self.

No one can avoid the ache of autumn. We all hurt in our own way, but hurt we do. The blessedness in the ache within us is that when we grieve over the farewells, we both give ourselves and find ourselves. We become one with whoever and whatever has met us on our journey. We choose to invest ourselves deeply even though we know that the investment might cost us the price of goodbyes and letting-go. We believe that the investment in our love is worth it, for we have entered into the mystery of life where the hellos that follow our goodbyes are guideposts to our eternal home.

We all need to learn how to say goodbye, to acknowledge the pain that is there for us so that we can eventually move on to another hello. When we learn how to say goodbye we truly learn how to say to ourselves and to others:

“Go, God be with you. I entrust you to God. The God of strength, courage, comfort, hope, and love, is with you. The God who promises to wipe away all tears will hold you close and will fill your emptiness. Let go and be free to move on. Do not keep yourself from another step in your journey. May the blessing of the God of autumn be with you”.

Priesthood, I've come to discover more and more, involves a lot of 'hellos' and 'goodbyes', in an endless cycle—because those we meet, those we care for, those we serve, those we love, are never really ours to keep. They merely pass through our hands, through our lives, and then we let go. And that's alright. Because in the end, that's what a priest is; not the destination, only a path, a bridge, a road, one that ends not in himself, but in God alone whose work he does.

Another school year has ended, another group of young men is moving on. I will miss these guys; just as I still miss the many students whom I’ve taught over the years. The ache of autumn is part of a priest’s life; it’s part of everyone’s life. It's part of mine.

The night of graduation has always been a little tough for me, ever since I began teaching; because the tender sting of letting-go is felt rather acutely at that point, and because I know that the day after, the journey begins all over gain. Saint Thomas says that to love someone is “to wish him well”.

To the young men who today have begun another chapter in their lives, all I can really say is that “I wish you guys well. I shall always wish you well."

When someone we love so carefully grows,
with courage and struggle to let love be their home,
we sing, yes, we dance and share our delight
to witness such beauty and a strength so right.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his hands.

The joy that you’ve found is a gift for us all.
It glows like the velvet of a crystal moonlight.
Over the years, the choices you’ve made,
have clothed you with freedom to nurture and heal.

And as we move on to other horizons of light,
we hope for each other, we drink deeply of life,
to know and to love, to choose and to share,
this garden where we know, happiness dwells.

We love you dear friend, and we treasure your life.
May God tenderly hold you in the palm of his han

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The heart simply knows what it wants, for reasons not even reason itself knows. (Some random thoughts on falling in love, and remaining in love, on Valentine's Day)

Have you ever noticed how radical the words of love songs are? “Forever”, “always”, “never”, “you alone”, “no one else”, “for all eternity”. There are no “if’s”, no “but’s”, no “maybe’s”; just a lot of certainty and single-minded focus on the person one loves.

That’s understandable, since falling in love is that way; and the heart simply knows what it wants, for reasons not even reason itself knows - to paraphrase Pascal. The world changes when one falls in love. Things are more beautiful; life’s more interesting. One has more energy for things. And there’s a whole lot of excitement all around.

That’s what happens when a man falls in love with a woman, and a woman with a man. I've seen it, again and again, in friends, in former students, whose hearts found themselves drawn towards someone they simply know is "the one". It happened to me too; though I'm not talking about falling in love with a girl (that would be for a whole other article.)

I'm talking about what happens when a young man first chooses to follow Jesus in the priesthood, when he first finds his heart drawn towards something he feels "in his gut", is "the one".

You see, whether in marriage or the priesthood, the first step is always the same: a person falls in love and the whole world changes. There’s so much to live for, and enthusiasm for life is at an all-time high.

Every single one of Jesus' disciples went through this experience. They fell in love with his teachings and with the good things he was doing. And so they followed him around, sat at his feet, listened to his every word and tethered their very hearts to this man whose words, ways, and actions had so captivated their hearts, minds, and souls.

Like a man or woman in love or a young man who becomes a priest, Jesus’ disciples fell in love with him. And their world was changed. It was good and beautiful and exciting. And they liked it.

But “falling in love’s” just half the story. And beautiful as it might be, there’s the second and more important half: “staying in love”.

If “falling in love” is the first part of a relationship; “remaining in love” is the second. It’s longer, and without it, the first part just fizzles out. “Falling in love” just happens, “staying in love” needs work. “Falling in love” is grace. You don’t earn it. “Staying in love” is commitment. You take out as much as you put in. “Falling in love” is easy, “staying in love” is tough.

Because as any married couple or priest would tell you, when the honeymoon ends and the excitement subsides, the daily grind begins. And soon, the high’s and low’s of life take over and reality sets in.

The disciples of Jesus found themselves at such points too. Think about the times when they found themselves perplexed, even confused by what he's said or done, or the times when he'd reprimand them for failing to understand. The honeymoon stage of their relationship eventually came to an end - as all honeymoons do - the excitement began to wane; and worse, Jesus seemed to be entering a difficult stage in his work.

His words and deeds were beginning to cause trouble. Israel's leaders were no longer amused, and sooner or later things would get messy, not just for him, but for his friends as well.

For his disciples, reality had sunk in. The initial stage of being attracted to Jesus was over. The exhilaration and newness of the adventure were fast becoming a memory. Were they going to stick around and endanger themselves? Would they stay with him?

Many of them didn’t. One by one, many of those who found themselves drawn to Jesus before, slowly abandoned him. We can only imagine the sadness and disappointment in his eyes, as he asked them: "Will you leave me too?"

When that “thing” hits the fan—that’s when you know who your real friends are. When life’s no longer as bright and beautiful as on your wedding or ordination day, when the peaks have turned into valleys, and you’re still in love, that’s when you know your love is real.

Not everyone left Jesus. Some of them stayed. Among them was Peter who says: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.”

Peter and all the other disciples had one thing in common. They all fell in love with Christ. But while they all “fell in love”, Peter “remained in love”. While many of the others left, Peter stayed.

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” These were not the words of a fair-weather friend, but of a man who stuck to his commitments. He knew that while his initial attraction to Christ was important, sticking to him through thick and thin was even more. He simply knew his priorities.

Others left. Peter stayed. And he stayed not because he was stronger than they. He will after all, deny Jesus three times. He stayed not because he was holier than they. Jesus called him “Satan” at some point. He stayed not because he was, smarter, wealthier or more powerful than they. He was a lowly fisherman.

Peter stayed because his heart belonged to Christ, and Christ alone.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” They might as well be the radical words of a radical love song. They were the words of a man in whose heart Christ had sunk roots so deep, no “high” or “low” point of life could rip Christ out. Nothing could make him fall out of love.

And life can make us fall out of love. Life can complicate things. It can make us forget why we got married or ordained in the first place. Life’s up’s and down’s can dim our love. It can make us less enthusiastic, even cynical and jaded.

A husband can fall out of love with his wife (and vice-versa), a priest can lose sight of why he chose to follow Christ in the first place.

Life can make us less like Peter, and more like the others who left.

Peter stayed in love because he kept his eyes on Jesus. He anchored his heart, mind, body, and soul on his reason for following Jesus in the first place. And he kept that reason alive. To fall in love is great; to stay in love is greater.

In this day and age when love is too often seen more as a feeling than a promise of commitment, the challenge can be overwhelming. And becoming like the fair-weather followers of Jesus is an ever-present danger.

But we don’t have to be like them. If we can keep our eyes on the essentials and less on the marginals, we can remain faithful to "the one", we can

And how do we distinguish the essential from the marginal? We have only to go back to Peter’s words: “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.

When a husband and wife look into each other’s eyes and see only the person they fell in love with many years ago, they’ll know they’ve stayed in love. When a priest considers Christ and sees in him, the only reason for becoming a priest in the first place, he’ll know he’s stayed in love.

- “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life”.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Society may not be going to hell in a handbasket; but it isn't headed towards heaven either. (Part Two: A reflection on the relationship of the "religious" and the "secular" domains, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the so-called "culture wars".)

Part Two. Christ of culture. 

Niebuhr's second "model" is based on the idea that while the religious and the secular, on many occasions, may in fact be in opposition to one another, there is no need to posit a complete and irreconcilable difference between them. There is no unbridgeable gap between the sacred and the profane, between what is "of-God" and what is "not-of-God", precisely because all things "belong to Him".

In fact, Jesus can be viewed as the one who "completes" and "perfects" what is human, which necessarily includes culture. He is precisely the Messiah, the Savior, because he is the one who fulfills all the hopes and aspirations of humanity. He is the "perfect human being" and in him, the hoped-for fullness of humanity is revealed. He discloses humanity in its perfected form. Gloria dei vivens homo. "God's glory is the human person fully alive".

On the one hand this perspective interprets culture through Christ, where those aspects that are most like Jesus are given the most honor. On the other hand, it also interprets Christ through culture, selecting from his teaching that which best harmonizes with what is best in human civilization.

As such, it can be regarded as a "progressive" view, one that sees humanity as being "on the road" towards becoming what God intends it to be. And culture, society, and human civilization in general, are likewise seen as being on the path towards the development and evolution of better and more humane forms and structures.

The chief strength of this perspective, says Niebuhr, is that it seeks to harmonize Christianity with what is best in a culture and society. And unlike the "conflict" paradigm which holds that  only  those who refuse to adapt to culture and society can ultimately make an impact in the world, this model argues that history has shown that people were attracted to Christ also because of the “harmony of the Christian message with the moral and religious philosophy of their best teachers”.

Consider, for instance, that the earliest apologists of Christianity in its infancy sought to present the message of Christ in language and ways of thinking that were understandable to the men and women of the age, i.e. in ways that spoke to the best of their culture, society, and civilization. St. Paul's speech concerning the "altar to the unknown god" in the Book of Acts represents a kind of adaptation of the Christian message, with the aim of allowing his pagan hearers to understand what he preached.

Even St. Augustine in his Confessions, used the analogy of the Hebrews taking Egyptian gold as they left Egypt for the Promised Land to show that even what is pagan - in Augustine's case, his use of Neo-Platonic philosophy - can be used to articulate the truth of the Christian message. After all, quipped Augustine, gold ultimately belongs to God, wherever it is found. 

And there is good in the world; there is good in society. As I keep telling my students, the idea of the inviolability of the self, the notion that all human beings have a right to the pursuit of happiness, and even the notion of "human rights" itself, are all products of secular culture and society, not to mention the amazing advances in science, medicine, and technology. As the American Jesuit theologian, John Courtney Murray pointed out in his essay, "We Hold These Truths", we cannot subscribe to an all-too easy Lutheranism that fixes a "gulf of separation" between what is of-God and what isn't.

There is good in the world, because it is "God's world"; He is its maker who, in Genesis, declared all his creation "good". But it is also good because God's Spirit continues its work of renewing the world. And just as there is goodness in the human person - despite the fall, we Catholics do not believe that humanity's original goodness was completely wiped out - so there is goodness in what human being's create: culture, society, and the secular world.

In fact, without a recognition of the inherent goodness of created things, the edifice of the Catholic sacramental way of thinking collapses. And even the concept that lies at the very heart of Christian theology, the Incarnation - that God became, fully, a human person - would make little to no sense. The world is still a manifestation of God, and human beings, no matter how fallen, weak, and sinful, remain images of their Creator, and His Spirit continues to dwell in them.

The recognition of the ineradicable goodness of the human being and his world, despite the darker shades that have characterized both after the Fall, is perhaps the single greatest strength of this perspective. Everything isn't simply "going to hell in a hand basket", and the world, despite being a vale lacrimarum (a "vale of tears") remains the stage where the ongoing drama of redemption takes place.

But what of the weak points of this model? Notice that if the model of "Christ against culture" contains a rather negative and pessimistic view of the human person, the world, culture, and society, this model takes exactly the opposite perspective, and with that, becomes susceptible to the opposite danger, namely, an overly-optimistic, perhaps even utopian, and therefore unrealistic view. In fact, Niebuhr’s biggest problem with this view lies in its distortion of Christ and his message, especially when seen with the intention to make Jesus "conform", even to what's best in society.

Jesus isn't only some kind of "avatar", or "cipher", even of what is most noble in humanity. He isn't simply one of the many great and noble men who have walked the face of the earth, taught and enlightened human beings, and showed them the way towards becoming their "better selves". There is an inescapable uniqueness to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, irreducible to anything immanent or terrestrial. Jesus isn't only a man, not even the most holy, noble, enlightened, and perfect man. We believe that is he likewise the Son of God, one in being with the Father. And it is as such that he was sent in order to redeem weak, fallen, and sinful humanity.

To focus our gaze solely on the fact that Christ represents "what is best" in humanity, is to lose sight of the fact that the human person he came to save is truly fallen, sinful, and weak, and only God can save him. If the first model manifests too dark a view of human nature, this one reveals a too bright and, therefore, unrealistic - or to use Niebuhr's word, "inauthentic" one. To repeat Stanley Hauweras' words, there is an inescapable "againstness" built into Christianity's understanding of the human person and, consequently, of the world, society, and culture as well. 

The refusal to accept an all-too-easy rejection of the world, society, and culture (as the previous "Christ against culture" model suggests), should not amount to an all-too-easy embrace of everything one finds in these (which the "Christ of culture" paradigm seems to advocate); for though not "going to hell in a handbasket", they aren't necessarily headed towards heaven either.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

"MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD." (A reflection on the relationship of the "religious" and the "secular" domains, the Catholic intellectual tradition, and the so-called "culture wars".)

Part One. A number of years ago, I had a conversation with a good friend, a bishop, who was lamenting the fact that they had just "lost" what was a hard-fought battle with the government on an issue that was so important to the church.

"We did all we could", he said. "We fought the good fight, and I suppose that's all that the Lord requires. But losing does sting; I can tell you that. I know some of the guys (he was referring to other bishops in the conference) are feeling quite down right now." 

What do you say to a "successor of the apostles" in a situation like that? Are there any words of wisdom at all that you can share with someone whom you've been taught speaks in the name of The Teacher himself? "Jesus lost too, you know," I said. The good bishop just smiled. He knew what I meant.

What's a sufficiently reflective and engaged Catholic to make of the so-called "culture wars" that have now been raging for quite some time? Must we win them? What should our attitude be if we lose? Is there really a point in speaking about "winning" or "losing"? Should we even be engaged in them? What does it mean to speak of a "culture war"? And what should a believer's attitude toward "culture" in general be?

In his book, Christ and Culture, the Protestant theologian Richard Niebuhr (whom Cardinal Avery Dulles credits in his own book, Models of the Church, for providing a point of departure for his reflections on the different ways of understanding the nature of the church), discusses five "models" or "ways" by which Christians throughout the centuries have tried to "square" a faith that asks them to "fix their gaze on heaven" with the need to concern themselves still with things of this world.

But what exactly do we mean by "culture"? In Niebuhr's work, the term is used to denote that which stands in contrast, at times, even opposition, to anything that is "of Christ". It refers to anything that belongs to the domain of the "profane" or "secular", and therefore lies outside the realm of the "sacred".  There are, according to Niebuhr, five basic ways by which the domain of the religious and the secular have been understood to interact, each way or "model" has its strengths as well as its weaknesses.

Before attempting to answer some of the questions we've listed earlier, its is perhaps helpful to, just briefly, enumerate these five models and lay out their strong as well as weak points. These models are: (i) Christ "against" culture, (ii) Christ "of" culture, (iii) Christ "above" culture, (iv) Christ and culture in a relation of "paradox", and (v) Christ, the "transformer" of culture.

Let's begin with the first model, that of "Christ against culture". 

Christ against culture 

The first model pits the religious against the secular, faith against reason, Christ against culture. As Niebuhr points out, it is the most uncompromising view towards culture which “affirms the sole authority of Christ over culture and resolutely rejects culture’s claims to loyalty”. 

We could perhaps refer to it as the "conflict model" which sees a perpetual clash between the domains of faith and the world. It sees little to no point in trying to "bridge" or even attempt to find points of contact between these two spheres. Perhaps the most radical of all the models, it is the worldview we find among religious communities that separate and even isolate themselves from the world as much as they can. The Amish are an example, though certain past ways of understanding the monastic life can also be regarded as manifesting such mindset. There is nothing salvific or even worth redeeming about the world or secular society. This is not the believer's home; and while he has to live his or her life here and now, his gaze and his mind must forever be focused on heaven and the world to come.

In 2010, a new edition of the Bible—nicknamed “the Green Bible”—was published. It’s stated aim was to “equip and encourage readers to see God’s vision for creation and help them engage in the work of healing and sustaining it. This first Bible of its kind included inspirational essays from a number of spiritual leaders, including Pope John Paul II. The aim of the edition was certainly noble and admirable.

Surprisingly though, when the Bible did hit the shelves at bookstores, the first words of critique and rejection, came not from non-believers, but from certain fundamentalist Christian groups, their main argument against the edition – that Christians are called to “flee”, “shun”, and “reject” the world as the place of evil, torment, and suffering, and should instead look to the “world to come”. Talk of care for the environment, some of them insisted, was really no more than a facade for a kind of secularism that seeks to “water down” Christianity’s rejection of the world and its coming condemnation at the end of time.

In the early Christian era, the theologian Tertullian was among those who first articulated this paradigm of "conflict", even "warfare" between faith and reason, religion and secular life. "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" he asked. What his question really meant was, "what does worldly reason have to do with revealed faith?" His answer, of course, was nothing. We believe, not because what we believe is rational or can be given sense by human reason, faith isn't faith if it doesn't hold onto what is inherently absurd. Credo quia absurdum. "I believe (precisely) because it is absurd".

Niebuhr is quick to point out that it is the radical nature of this paradigm that makes it both so admirable as well as dangerous - and in this consists both its strength as well as its weakness.

Martyrdom, for instance, is impossible without such mindset. The early Christian martyrs who so willingly shed their blood for the sake of what they believe saw no room for compromise between their belief and the demands of the world. There is no "middle-ground" between Christ and the world, and there can be neither conciliation nor cooperation. To borrow the Danish philosopher, Kierkegaard's words, faith is a case of "either-or", not "both-and". One therefore has to stand in awe at the power of conviction of those whose blood became the "seed of the Church".

What's the "downside"? For the sake of emphasizing the point, let's use a rather "extreme" case. In 2001, the 8200-feet Bamiyan Buddhas, cultural and historical possessions of all humanity, and built some 1500 years ago on the Silk Road running through the Hindu Kush of Central Afghanistan, were blown to bits by the Taliban when they took control of the country. Though different reasons were given, the bottom-line was, they were regarded as idols, impure artifacts, unacceptable in the new fundamentalist leadership's vision of building a "purer" religious society.

Now, we're not trying to compare the Amish or Catholic monastic desire to shield one's faith from the depredations of the world with radical fundamentalism, but there is something to be said about a worldview that sees nothing but evil and degradation in the world, that sees very little that is salvific or even remotely useful to religion and faith, in the domain of what is perceived to be properly secular or profane.

(A "disclaimer" is perhaps called-for at this point. While the Catholic monastic tradition has, in its history, included tendencies that suggested "flight" from the world, the tradition has itself evolved and does not, i.e. without qualification, see one's taking-leave of the world as a simple rejection of it, nor has the tradition ever regarded the realm of the secular as totally corrupt and depraved.)

The theologian, Stanley Hauwerwas has argued - and I do make it a point to emphasize this idea to my students - that whether we like it or not, there is a necessary "againstness" that is built into the very attitude that a believer must have towards the world. The two are forever in opposition with each other. This isn't the Christian's home. At the same time, to emphasize this opposition is not to say that "conflict" and "opposition" must always mark one's view of the world. There is simply no way a believer can "barricade" himself against the influence of the world.

There is no other world, after all, just this one; and one's worthiness of a hoped-for life-to-come is premised on how one lives his or her life "in this world". Rejection isn't enough, and the simple vilification of this world won't do. Moreover, as Niebuhr himself points out, the perspective itself is most inadequate in describing how a Christian ought to relate himself to the world and society, primarily because an actual separation between the world and Christianity has never actually been achieved at any time, and thus we should not think that it can ever be. It is just as hopeless as the ideal of a secular irreligious utopia.

We must resist the temptation to think that sin lies in culture, in society, and in the world alone, and that when the Christian escapes these realities, he can therefore effectively escape sin. This is certainly not the case. Finally and, perhaps, most importantly, the simple pitting of Christ against culture, faith against reason, the sacred against the secular, reveals an impoverished view of Christ and his Spirit's role in creation. As Niebuhr argues, "the rejection of culture is easily combined with a suspicion of nature and nature's God", leading ultimately to the temptation "to divide the world into a material realm governed by a principle opposed to Christ and a spiritual realm governed by a spiritual God". 

To be continued...

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)