Our Over-Burdened Planet

Creating the human race may be the single biggest mistake that evolution made. Douglas Abrams writes this in The Book of Hope, a book he co-authored with Jane Goodall. While that is a rather despairing view, in the end, this book is a book of hope, though not without it issuing a dire warning: There are now over eight billion people on this planet and already we are using up nature’s limited resources faster than nature can replace them. In less than thirty years from now, there will probably be ten billion of us and if we carry on with business as usual, that could spell the end of the earth as we know it.

What do we need to do to turn this around? Goodall and Abrams suggest four things:

First, we must alleviate poverty. When people are hungry and desperate, their thoughts are not on the big picture, namely, the long-range future and the overall good of all humans and the planet. Understandably, their thoughts will be focused on survival and there will be no hesitation in cutting down the last tree to grow food or catching that last fish still alive. Desperation and concern for the big picture generally don’t go together.  

Second, we must reduce the unsustainable lifestyles of the affluent. Mother earth is not a limitless resource and cannot continue indefinitely to sustain our present lifestyles. Moreover, this is true not just for the lavish lifestyles of the rich, but for all of us in most countries. We haven’t faced the fact that everything is limited and hence, we continue to buy in excess, consume in excess, use electrical energy in excess, waste food in excess, use gasoline in excess, and create garbage in excess. This cannot continue much longer. Already millions of desperate refugees on borders everywhere and dramatic shifts in climate most everywhere are telling us that we must make changes, and soon. Our planet is big, but it is finite, and it cannot sustain the limitless demands of unexamined consumption.  

Third, we must eliminate corruption and economic self-interest. Without good government and honest leadership that focuses on the big picture rather than on its own self-interests, it is impossible to solve our enormous social, economic, and environmental problems. As a Barbara Kingsolver character quips in her recent novel, Unsheltered, the free-market has the same morality as a cancer cell. The entrepreneurial spirit that drives our economies serves us well in many ways and affords us comforts, freedoms, and opportunities that few in history have ever had. However, generally it is to the big picture what a cancer cell is to the body, a single cell growing on its own without connection to the overall health of the body. Like a cancer cell, the free-market (with some exceptions) does not take the big picture and the long-range health of the whole body into account.

Fourth, we must face up to the problems caused by an ever-growing population. For most of history, religious and moral voices have literally commanded people to have children. Increase and multiply. This was a sacred duty, owed to God and the human race. However, for a large part, this was predicated on fears that the human race, like any species, was perennially in danger of becoming extinct. Indeed, there was the constant threat that his might happen. Diseases, famines, war, high infant mortality, a short life span, and disasters of all kinds constantly threatened the human species. Humans, like every species, needed to ensure that the species went on. That made sense, in every way, until this present century. Now, with the looming prospect of ten billion people on this planet, the threat of extinction arises more from our sheer number than from some external threat. The planet can only accommodate a given number of us at one time. Granted there are soul issues, moral issues, and religious issues involved with any talk of limiting human growth. Nonetheless, however complex these issues, unexamined growth must now be examined.

Abrams is wrong. Creating the human race was not a tragic mistake that evolution made! Creating the human person was not an accidental and undesired product of blind evolution. God is the author of the process of evolution and God doesn’t make mistakes. God intended from the very beginning for us, human persons, to emerge from the process. Even more, God intended us to have a very special role in the process, namely, to be that place in the process where nature finally becomes conscious of itself and can then proactively help God shape the process towards a final peace and unity (the Kingdom of God) that will include all of us and the planet itself.

Humans weren’t a mistake, though admittedly much of our stewarding has been because we tend to think of the world as something we can strip mine in any way that benefits us rather than as a garden, with limited resources, which we have been asked to care for with love.

To Fall in Love

To fall in love! We use the expression to cover many things. You can fall in love with a baby, a sports team, a city, a job, or another person. However, we reserve the prime analogate for this expression for one thing, emotional infatuation, that intoxicating feeling we first get when we meet someone who we sense as a soulmate.

Iris Murdoch once wrote that the world can change in fifteen seconds because that’s how quickly you can fall in love with someone. She’s right, and falling in love emotionally can literally paralyze us with a grip so strong that even death seems preferable to losing the one with whom we have fallen in love. Countless heartaches, broken hearts, depressions, clinical breakdowns, suicides, murders, and murder-suicides testify to this. Emotional infatuation can be a deadly addiction, the most powerful cocaine on the planet. Where does it come from? Heaven or hell? And, what’s its meaning?

Ultimately, God and nature are its author and that tells us that it is a good thing. We are built for this to happen to us. Moreover, it is a healthy thing, if properly understood, both in its intoxicating power and in its innate failure to be a sustaining power in love.

What happens when we fall in love so powerfully with someone? Are we really in love with that person or are we more in love with being in love and the feelings this brings us? As well, are we really in love with that person or are we in love with an image of him or her we have created for ourselves, one that projects a certain godliness on to that other?

Let me risk some answers. Imagine a man falling deeply in love with a woman. Initially, the feelings can be overpowering and literally paralyze him emotionally. However, inside of all this, a certain question begs to be asked: with whom or with what is he really in love? His feelings? The archetype of femininity the woman is carrying? His image of her?  She herself?

In reality, he is in love with all of these: his feelings, his image of her, she herself, and the divine feminine she is carrying. All of that is of one piece inside of his experience. As well, all of this can be healthy at this stage of love.

God invented emotional infatuation, just as God invented honeymoons. We are not meant to be drawn to each other by cold analytics alone. But, this kind of falling in love is an initiatory stage in love (albeit a delightful one) that needs to be understood exactly for what it is, an initiatory stage, nothing more, one that invites us into something deeper. Emotional infatuation is not yet a mature stage in love. Unless one dies in its grip, as did Romeo and Juliet, it will one day lose its hold on us and leave us disillusioned.  When Iris Murdoch said that we can fall in love in fifteen seconds, she might also have added that, sadly, we can also fall out of love in fifteen seconds. Emotional infatuation can be that ephemeral, both in its birth and in its dying.

So falling in love (in this emotional way) comes fraught with certain dangers. First, there is the adolescent proclivity to identify this with deep love itself. Consequently, when the powerful emotional and psychosexual feelings let go, the person easily concludes that he or she is no longer in love and moves on. Next, more subtly, there is this danger. When we are in this initial gripping stage of love, our image of the other carries with it a certain godliness. What’s meant by that?

St. Augustine coined this timeless dictum: You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. Hence, nothing in life can ever really be enough for us. We are always restless, always yearning for something more. However, in this initial phase of love, when we have fallen into the grip of emotional infatuation, for a time the other is enough for us. That’s why Romeo and Juliet could die happy. At this stage of love, they were enough for each other.

However, the hard truth is that infatuation does not last. The other person, no matter how wonderful he or she might actually be, is not God and can never be enough (and we are unfair to him or her when we unconsciously expect them to be enough). For a while, they are able to carry that godliness for us, but that illusion of godliness will eventually break and we will realize that this is just a person, one person, wonderful perhaps, but finite, limited, and not divine. That realization (which is ultimately meant to be the ground for mature love) can, if not understood, jeopardize or sour a relationship. God invented falling in love! In it, we get a little foretaste of heaven, though, as experience tells us, that is not without its dangers.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

In his Confessions, St. Augustine describes how his conversion to Christianity involved two separate moments of grace, the first that convinced him intellectually that Christianity was correct, and the second that empowered him to live out what he believed. There were nearly nine years between these two conversions and it was during those nine years that he said his famous prayer: Lord make me a good and chaste Christian – but not yet.

Interestingly, a contemporary of his, also a saint, Ephraim the Syrian (306-373 A.D.) wrote a similar prayer: O my beloved, how daily I default and daily do repent. I build up for an hour and an hour overthrows what I have built. At evening I say, tomorrow I will repent, but when morning comes, joyous I waste the day.  Again, at evening I say, I shall keep vigil all night and I shall entreat the Lord to have mercy on my sins. But when the night is come, I am full of sleep.

What Augustine and Ephraim describe with such clarity (and not without a touch of humor) is one of the real difficulties we face in our struggle to grow in faith and human maturity, namely, the tendency to go through life saying: “Yes, I need to do better. I need to bear down and work at overcoming my bad habits, but now is not the time!”

It’s consoling to know that a number of saints struggled for years with mediocrity, laziness, and bad habits, and that they, like us, could for years give in to those things with the shrug: “Tomorrow, I will make a new start!” For a few years, one of Augustine’s expressions was, “tomorrow and tomorrow!”

“Yes, but not yet!” How often does this describe us?  I want to be a good Christian and a good person. I want to live more by faith, be less lazy, less selfish, more gracious to others, more contemplative, less given over to anger, bitterness, paranoia, and judgment of others. I want to stop giving in to gossip and slander. I want to be more realistically involved in justice. I want a better prayer life. I want to take time for things, spend more time with my family, smell the flowers, drive slower, be more patient, and be less hurried. I have a number of bad habits that I need to change, there are still areas of bitterness in me, I am defaulting on so many things, I really need to change, but now is not the time.

First, I need to first work through a particular relationship, grow older, change jobs, get married, get rested, get healthy, finish school, have a needed vacation, let some wounds heal, get the kids out of the house, retire, move to a new parish, and get away from this situation – then I will get serious about changing all this.  Lord, make me a more mature person and Christian, but not yet!

In the end, that’s not a good prayer. Augustine tells us that, for years, as he said this prayer he was able to rationalize his own mediocrity. However, a cataclysm began building inside him. God is infinitely patient with us, but our own patience with ourselves eventually wears out and, at a point, we can no longer continue as before.

In Book 8 of the Confessions, Augustine shares how one day, sitting in a garden, he was overwhelmed with his own immaturity and mediocrity and “a great storm broke within me, bringing with it a great deluge of tears. … I flung myself down beneath a fig tree and gave way to the tears which now streamed from my eyes … in my misery I kept crying, `How long shall I go on saying, tomorrow, tomorrow. Why not now?’” When he got up from the ground, his life had changed; he never again finished a prayer with that little nuance, “but not yet”.

We all have certain habits in our lives which we know are bad, but which for a variety of reasons (laziness, addiction, lack of moral strength, fatigue, anger, paranoia, jealousy, or the pressure of family or friends) we are reluctant to break. We sense our mediocrity, but take consolation in our humanity, knowing that everyone (save full-blown saints) often have this spoken or unspoken caveat in their prayers, “Yes, Lord, but not yet!”

Indeed, there is in fact a valid consolation in this prayer in that it recognizes something important inside the infinite understanding and mercy of God. God, I suspect, copes better with our faults than we cope with them and others cope with us. However, like Augustine, even as we say, “tomorrow and tomorrow” a storm steadily continues to build within us and, sooner or later, our own mediocrity will sicken us enough to cause us say, “Why not now?”

When the Psalmist says, “Sing to the Lord a new song”, we might ask ourselves, what is the old song? It’s the one that ends with us praying, Yes, Lord, but not yet!

How Serious is Laughter?

In a homily, Karl Rahner once commented that in the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus makes a rather stunning statement. He says, ‘blessed are you who are now weeping, for you shall laugh’. Rahner suggests that Jesus is teaching that our final state of happiness in heaven will not just lift us out of our sadness and dry away our tears, it will bring us to laughter, to “an intoxication of joy.” Laughter is integral to the final ecstasy.

Further still, if laughter constitutes the final happiness in heaven, then it should follow that whenever we are laughing, we are on good terms with reality. Laughter, Rahner submits, is part of the eternal praise of God at the end of time.

However, this can be glib and misleading. Not all laughter gives God praise and not all laughter suggests that we are on good terms with reality. Laughter can also be cheap, glib, and wrong. The final joy of heaven is not always found at that place in a room where folks are cracking up with laughter.

There are many kinds of laughter and not all of them are healthy or godly. There is the laughter of drunkenness, of deadening your senses and jettisoning your moral compass and normal sensitivity. That kind of laughter will not be heard in some noisy little corner of heaven. Then there is the laughter of sarcasm, laughter that belittles others, that delights in others’ problems, and sees itself as superior. That too won’t be heard in heaven. Then there is the laughter that’s predicated on being insensitive and blind to the pain of others, that can enjoy itself even while Lazarus is starving just outside the door. The gospels are clear as to where that kind laughter lands us. As well, there is the laughter of pure superficiality, laughter that comes easy because it really doesn’t care about anything. Such laughter, though harmless, speaks of nothing.

However there are other kinds of laughter that speak of health and of God. There is the laughter of pure spontaneous energy, seen most clearly in the natural joyous bubbling over of the life- principle inside of a young person, like the delight you see in a toddler delighting in her first steps. This is the laughter of sheer delight, one that says, It’s great to be alive! When we laugh in this way, we are honoring God and thanking God for the gift of life and energy – since the best way to thank a gift-giver is to enjoy thoroughly the gift and delight in it.

This kind of laughter is most spontaneous is us when we are young and, sadly, generally becomes more difficult for us as the wounds, failures, pressures, and anxieties of adulthood begin to depress our spontaneous energies. We still laugh, but when we stop feeling spontaneous delight in our lives, when healthy laughter dries up, we tend to turn to unhealthy kinds of laughter to try to lift ourselves out of our depression. Hence, the loud, boisterous, cranked-up laughter we hear at our parties is often really only our attempt to keep depression at bay. See how happy I am!

Peter Berger once wrote that laughter is one of the proofs for the existence of God in that our capacity to laugh in any situation shows that, deep down, we are aware that no situation ultimately binds us. Our capacity to laugh in any situation, no matter how grave or threatening, shows that on some level we are aware that we transcend that situation. That’s why a prisoner being led to his execution might still joke with his executioner and why a dying person can still enjoy a bit of irony. Healthy laughter isn’t just godly. It manifests transcendence inside us.

But, not all laughter is born equal. There is a laughter that simply bespeaks superficiality, forced lightness, insensitivity, drunkenness, or a thinly disguised attempt to keep depression at bay. That is not the laughter of heaven. However, there is another kind of laughter, spoken of by Jesus in the Beatitudes, which is a laughter that simply delights in the joy of being alive and (in that delight) intuits its own transcendence. That kind of laughter is a key component in love and sanctity. It will be one of the “intoxications of joy” that we will feel in heaven.

If this is true, then the holiest person you know is not the humorless, dour, easily offended, over-pious person you deem as serious, deep, and spiritual whom you do not necessarily want as your table companion. The holiest person you know is probably the person you want beside you at table.

When I was a novice in religious life, our Assistant Novice Director, an over-serious, fearful man, frequently cautioned us against levity and humor, telling us, that there isn’t a single recorded incident in the gospels of Jesus laughing. Now deceased, I suspect the man is in heaven. I also suspect that from that vantage point, he would drop that caution.

The One and the Many – Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations

One of the most ancient problems in philosophy is the question of ‘the one and the many’, whether reality is ultimately a unity or a plurality and how these interrelate. We might ask the same question regarding the plurality of religious faiths, churches, and forms of worship in our world. Is there some inherent oneness there or is it all plurality without anything binding us together in some kind of community that transcends our differences?

At the risk of being misunderstood, here’s my perspective. All of us in the world who have a sincere belief share a common faith because ultimately we share a common God. Moreover, since we share a common God, we also share a common problem; namely, we struggle equally in trying to conceptualize this non-conceptualizable God. The first dogma about God in all valid religions is that God is holy and ineffable, meaning that God cannot ever be circumscribed and grasped in a concept. By definition, it is impossible to capture infinity in a concept (like trying to have a concept of the highest number it is possible to count to.) Since God is infinite, all attempts to conceptualize God fall short.

All legitimate faiths have this problem in common, and this should keep us humble in our religious language. Further still, beyond our common struggle to have a concept of God, we also all struggle to understand God as actually loving universally and unconditionally. All religions and all denominations struggle not to make God tribal, biased, and lacking in full love and understanding. In Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, for example, where we all believe in the same God, we also all tend to conceptualize that God as male, celibate, and frowning most of the time. Not exactly the ineffable, unconditionally loving God of revelation.

So what’s our task? Our task as believers is to move towards an ever-deepening empathy with each other, across all denominational and religious lines. That is the real route for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. At the risk of sounding heretical or disloyal to my own faith tradition, I say this. Our task is not to set out to make converts, to try to persuade others to join our own church. Our task is to enter ever more deeply, faithfully, and lovingly into our own church and denomination, even as we strive to be in deeper empathy with all others who worship God in ways different than we do. 

The renowned ecclesiologist Avery Dulles taught that the way forward for Christian ecumenism and interreligious dialogue is not the way of conversion, of trying to get others to convert to our particular church. The way forward (in his words) is the way of “progressive gradualism”, namely, of each of us being ever more faithful to God within our tradition so that as each of us grows closer to God (and, for Christians, to Christ) we will grow closer to each other and to all people of sincere faith. The unity we seek lies not in one church or faith community eventually converting all others to join it, but in everyone of sincere faith becoming progressively more faithful to God so that the unity we desire can take place sometime in the future, contingent on our own deeper fidelity inside our own faith tradition.

Our task then is not that of trying to convert others to join our own church, but of moving more deeply into our own church, even as we strive to be in an ever-deeper empathy with other churches and other faiths. We need to be brothers and sisters to each other, recognizing that we already have a shared God, a shared humanity, and shared heartaches.

I work in a doctoral program in spirituality that draws students from many different Christian denominations.  During the five years of their program, these students study together, socialize together, commiserate together, and pray together (though only occasionally in a formal church service). Interestingly, during the ten years, we have had the program; we have not had a single conversion of one person to another denomination. Rather, every one of our graduates has left the program with a deeper love and understanding of his or her own tradition – and a deeper love and understanding of other faith traditions.

This does not imply that all religions are equal, but rather that none of us is living out the full truth and that the path forward lies in a deeper personal conversion within our own faith and a more empathic relationship to other faiths.

I leave you with a poem, my own – The One and the Many

Different peoples, one earth

Different beliefs, one God

Different languages, one heart

Different ways of falling, one law of gravity

Different energies, one Spirit

Different scriptures, one Word

Different forms of worship, one desire

Different histories, one destiny

Different strengths, one fragility

Different disciplines, one aim

Different approaches, one road

Different faiths – one Father, one Mother, one earth, one sky, one beginning, one end. 

The Anthropological Function of Gossip

In his novel, Oscar and Lucinda, Peter Carey offers this colorful image of gossip. The setting is a small town where there are rumors about the priest and a particular young woman. Here’s his metaphor: “The vicar of Woolahra then took her shopping and society, always feeling shopping to be the most intimate activity, was pleased to feel the steam pressure rising in itself as it got ready to be properly scandalized – its pipes groaned and stretched, you could hear the noises in its walls and cellars. They imagined he paid for her finery. When they heard this was not so, that the girl had sovereigns in her purse – enough, it was reported, to buy the priest a pair of onyx cufflinks – the pressure did not fall, but stayed constant, so that while it did not reach the stage where the outrage was hissing out through the open valves, it maintained a good rumble, a lower note which sounded like a growl in the throat of a smallish dog.”

What an apt image! Gossip does resemble steam hissing from a radiator or the growl of a small dog, and yet it’s important. For most of our lives, we form community around it. How so?

Imagine going out for dinner with a group of colleagues. While there isn’t overt hostility among you, there are clear differences and tensions. You wouldn’t naturally choose go out to dinner together, but you have been thrown together by circumstance and are making the best of it.

You have dinner together and things go along quite pleasantly. There’s harmony, banter, and humor at the table. How do you manage to get on so well despite and beyond differences? By talking about somebody else. Much of the time is spent talking about others on whose faults, eccentricities, and shortcomings we all agree. Alternatively, we talk about shared indignations. We end up having a harmonious time together because we talk about someone or something else whose difference from us is greater than our differences from each other. Of course, you are afraid to leave the table because you already suspect whom they will be talking about then! Your fear is well founded.

Until we reach a certain level of maturity, we form community largely around scapegoating, that is, we overcome our differences and tensions by focusing on someone or something about whom or which we share a common distancing, indignation, ridicule, anger, or jealousy. That’s the anthropological function of gossip – and it’s a very important one. We overcome our differences and tensions by scapegoating someone or something. That’s why it’s easier to form community against something rather than around something and why it’s easier to define ourselves more by what we are against than by what we are for.

Ancient cultures knew this and designed certain rituals to take tension out of the community by scapegoating. For example, at the time of Jesus within the Jewish community a ritual existed that essentially worked this way: At regular intervals, the community would take a goat and symbolically adorn it with the tensions and divisions of the community. Among other things, they would drape it with a purple cloth to symbolize that it symbolically represented them and push a crown of thorns into its head to make it feel the pain of their tensions. (Notice how Jesus is draped in these exact symbols when Pilate shows him to the crowd before the crucifixion: Ecce homo … Behold your scapegoat!) The goat was then chased off to die in the desert. It leaving the community was understood as taking the community’s sin and tension away, leaving the community free of tension by its banishment.

Jesus is our scapegoat. He takes away our sin and division, though not by banishment from the community. He takes away our sins by taking them in, carrying them, and transforming them so as not to give them back in kind. Jesus takes away sin in the same way as a water filter purifies, by holding the impurities within itself and giving back only what is pure.

When we say Jesus died for our sins, we need to understand it this way: He took in hatred and gave back love; he took in curses and gave back blessing; he took in bitterness and gave back graciousness; he took in jealousy and gave back affirmation; and he took in murder and gave back forgiveness. By absorbing our sin, differences, and jealousies, he did for us what we, in a less mature and less effective way, try to do when we crucify each other through gossip.

And that’s Jesus’ invitation to us: As adults, we are invited to step up and do what Jesus did, namely, take in the differences and jealousies around us, hold them, and transform them so as not to give them back in kind. Then won’t we need scapegoats any more, and the steam-pipes of gossip will cease hissing and the low growl of that smallish dog inside us will finally be silent.

My Top 10 Books for 2022

The book you need to read finds you, and finds you at that time in your life when you need to read it. I believe that old axiom, and offer it here as an apologia for my selection of books for 2022. Good art and good literature always have an objective element to them, a depth and an aesthetic that are not contingent on the eye of the beholder, but an old axiom also asserts that whatever is received is received according to the mode of the receiver. Hence, there is always a subjective element in how we judge or evaluate anything. All of this to say that these are the ten books that most spoke to me during this past year. Their practical claim to my top ten list is that they found me and spoke to me.

In the area of spirituality, both in its restricted and its wider sense, I found these books particularly meaningful.

  1. Jim Forest, At Play in the Lion’s Den, A Biography of Daniel Berrigan. A well-written biography of Daniel Berrigan by a man who knew him well, supported all his causes, went to prison with him, but still kept a critical distance from him.
  2. Robert Ellsberg, Dearest Sister Wendy, A Surprising Story of Faith and Friendship. A delightful, warm, touching, intimate book, sharing some of the letters between the renowned art critic Wendy Beckett (who died in 2018), and Robert Ellsberg the publisher of Orbis Press. Their conversations touch on all points religious.
  3. Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run, Blessed Stanley Rother, Martyr from Oklahoma. A very good biography of Stanley Rother’s path to becoming a prophet and a martyr for the poor. Hagiography for today.
  4. Sherry Turkle, The Empathy Diaries. Sherry Turkle is a first-rate scientist and penetrating writer of soul. This is essentially an autobiography, but in sorting herself out, she helps us to do the same thing. The title of the book bespeaks its thesis.
  5. Amia Srinivasan, The Right to Sex – Feminism in the Twenty-First Century. A strong book that takes no prisoners. I don’t always agree with her on some major points, but she asks the right questions and answers many of them in a way that falls between the ideologies of both the right and the left.
  6. Jane Goodall & Douglas Abrams, The Book of Hope, A Survival Guide for Trying Times. Just the name, Jane Goodall, says why this book should be read. Abrams adds his own color, including the assertion that creating the human species may be the biggest mistake evolution ever made.
  7. Roosevelt Montas, Rescuing Socrates – How The Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter For A New Generation. This is a powerful apologia for liberal education, akin to John Henry Nouwen’s, The Idea of a University, save that Newman didn’t have to deal with the many hyper-sensitive contemporary critiques of classic Western thinkers.

Among the novels I read, three stand out.

  • Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You. Set in post-modern and (mostly) post-Roman Catholic Ireland, this novel chronicles the conversations (emails and texts) between two young, emotionally sensitive women. They are trying to make sense of their lives and of the times against the backdrop of a cultural Catholicism that still helps define who they are and a set of friends and a workplace that would define them in a new way. What comes after one lets go of an explicit faith, but is still struggling with an inchoate one?
  • Valerie Perrin, Fresh Water for Flowers. A translation from French, this is a masterpiece, a work of art, a beautiful painting. Nothing much happens in this story, except that it is beautiful.
  • Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt. Cummins received a lot of negative reaction to this book, not because it isn’t a well-written, gripping story, but because she, its author, is not Hispanic and thus her writing “someone else’s story” is considered by some to be both patronizing and a certain act of theft. Be that as it may, this is a gripping story of a mother and her young son facing death in Central America and fleeing for the USA border.

That’s ten, but there’s an honorable mention:

  • Joyce Aitken, Sincere Condolences – What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say. Aitken lost her husband to suicide and found that, in its wake, many people found it awkward to talk to her about it, even though that is exactly what she, in her grief, needed. The book is insightful and practical. Don’t we all find ourselves in situations that leave us awkward, not knowing what to say? As well, commenting on her inability to prevent her own husband’s suicide, she adds a line that needs to be heard by anyone who has ever lost a loved one to suicide: The Will to save a life does not constitute the Power to prevent a death.

These are my favorite ten books for 2022.

Defying Darkness with Christmas Lights

In the days of apartheid in South Africa, one of the ways people expressed their opposition and their belief that someday it would be overcome, was to light a candle and put it in a window where it could be seen by anyone passing by. A lit candle, publicly displayed, made a prophetic statement. It didn’t take long for the government to react. Placing a lit candle in your window became a criminal offense, equivalent to carrying an illegal firearm. The irony wasn’t lost on children. They joked, “Our government is afraid of lit candles!”

And well they should be! To light a candle for a moral or religious reason (be it for protest, for Hanukkah, for Advent, or for Christmas) is to make a prophetic statement of faith and, in essence, make a public prayer.

Admittedly, this can be hard to read inside the glow of the millions of Christmas tree lights that we see everywhere. Why do we put up all these lights at Christmas? A cynical answer suggests that this is done for purely commercial purposes. As well, for many of us, these lights are simply a question of aesthetics, color, and celebration, mostly devoid of any religious meaning. However, even here, there is still something deeper going on. Why do we put up lights at Christmas? Why do we light our homes and our streets with colorful lights at this time of year?

No doubt, we do it for color, for celebration, and for commercial reasons; but we also do it because, more deeply, it expresses a faith, however inchoately this might still be felt, that in Christ a final victory has been won and light has forever conquered darkness. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

Our Christmas lights are, in the end, an expression of faith and in essence a public prayer. Nevertheless, we might still ask, to what end? What difference can this possibly make? Putting up lights as a symbol of faith can seem like a very insignificant and naïve thing to do in the face of the seeming overwhelming darkness of our world. We look at our world and we see millions suffering from the war, millions of refugees on borders around the world, and hundreds of millions suffering from food shortages. As well, when we know that thousands of people every day are dying from domestic violence, drug violence, and gang violence, and when we see tension everywhere within our governments, our churches, our neighborhoods, and our families, we might ask ourselves, what difference do our little string of lights, or indeed all the Christmas lights in the world, make?

Well, in the words of the late Jesuit Michael Buckley, prayer is most needed, just when it is deemed most useless. These are words to hang onto. Given the magnitude of our world’s problems, given the magnitude of the darkness that threatens us, now more than ever, it is imperative that we express our faith publicly, as a prayer. Now, more than ever, we need to show publicly that we still believe faith works, that we still believe in the power of prayer, and that we still believe that, in Christ, the power of darkness has been forever overcome.

This is expressed wonderfully in a poem John Shea inscribed inside his Christmas card this year.

Our Christmas trees want to talk to us

The greater darkness of December can take its toll and strengthen what afflicts us.

Our Christmas trees beg to differ. Their branches are full, leafy, strung with lights.

            The brightness is defiant.

            We want a perfect world.

        But that is not always what we get.

We may experience catastrophic weather; a pandemic; threatened health; overstressed work, dipping finances, struggling relationships, and society and world either slightly or wildly insane.

            Our Christmas trees glow. Their lights whisper;

“Give all the things that afflict you their due, but do not give them your soul.

            You are more than the surrounding darkness.

While struggling to overcome apartheid in South Africa, Archbishop Desmond Tutu was sometimes confronted by military personnel who came into his church while he was preaching, flashing their guns to intimidate him. He would smile at them and say, “I’m glad you have come to join the winning side!”  In saying this, he wasn’t talking about the apartheid struggle; he was talking about the forever victory that Christ has won for us. The most important of all battles has already been won, and our faith puts us on the winning side. Our Christmas lights express this, however consciously unaware of it we may be.

Karl Rahner once wrote that, at Christmas, God gives us sacred permission to be happy. Christmas also assures us that we have more than sufficient grounds to be happy, regardless of what might still be happening in our lives and in our world. We can be defiant in the face of everything that demands we be downcast. Our Christmas lights express that defiance. 

Staring into the Light

In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Stories That Heal, medical doctor and writer, Rachel Naomi Remen shares this story.

When she was fourteen years old, she took a summer job working as a volunteer in a nursing home for the aged. This wasn’t easy for her. She was young, shy, and mostly afraid of elderly persons. One day she was assigned to spend an hour visiting a ninety-six-year-old woman who had not spoken for over a year and suffered from severe dementia. Rachel carried a basket of glass beads with her, hoping that she could engage the elderly woman into stringing beads with her. It was not to be.

She knocked on the door, received no answer, and entered to see the woman sitting in a chair, staring out of a window. She sat in a chair next to the old woman and, off and on, for the next hour attempted to draw her attention. She never succeeded. In her words, “the silence in the room was absolute”. The woman never once acknowledged her presence, never even looked at her, and simply continued to stare out of the window.

When a bell rang to signify that her hour with this woman was over, Rachel got up to leave, turned to the old woman, and asked, “What were you looking at?” The woman turned to her and said, “Why, child, I was looking at the light.” Rachel was momentarily stunned, not by anything extraordinary in those words, but by an extraordinary expression a sort of rapture, in the old woman’s face. As a fourteen-year-old, Rachel had no idea what lay behind that extraordinary facial expression. It would take her years to find out.

She went on to become a medical doctor, a pediatrician, who helps deliver babies. When she helped deliver her first baby and the newborn opened its eyes, she saw in the face of that baby that same expression she had seen all those years before in the face of the old woman. That baby too was looking at the light – uncomprehending, mute, in a kind of rapture, fixated on a light it had never seen before. 

What’s the parallel between the expression of a newborn opening its eyes for the first time and the expression of an elderly person staring into the light? Rachel Remen’s image captures it.

In essence, if you live long enough, there will come a time when your old ways of knowing will no longer serve you, your heart will be forced to look beyond its wounds, your old securities will all fall away, and you will be left staring into a very different light. This will radically shift your gaze, strip you of most everything that used to make sense, render you infantile again, and leave you mute, staring silently into the unknown, into its beckoning light.  Why? What’s happening here?

When a baby is born, it leaves a place that is small, confining, and dark, but protective, nurturing, and secure. It also leaves the only place it has ever known, and it can have no idea of what awaits it after birth. Indeed, could it think consciously, it would no doubt find it difficult to believe that anything, including its mother (whom it has never seen), exists outside the womb. Hence, a baby’s facial expression when it first opens its eyes and looks into the light – awe, bewilderment, rapture.

We are born out of one womb into yet another. We live in a second womb, our world, which is somewhat bigger, somewhat less confining, and somewhat less dark, and which like our mother’s womb offers protection, nurturing, and security. For most of our lives, this second womb serves us well, giving us what we need. When we are young, healthy, and strong, there seems little reason to shift our gaze towards any other light. The womb in which we are living is providing enough light. As well, it’s the only place we know. Indeed, left to nature and ourselves, we have no assurance that there is any place beyond it.

Moreover, we share this too with a baby in the womb. From the moment of its conception, a baby already has the imperative for its impending birth encoded in its body and soul. There comes a time when it must be born into a wider world. So too for us. We also have the imperative for an impending birth from our present womb encoded in our body and our soul. Hence, along with an unborn baby in the womb, we too share a certain “insanity” for a wider light.

In a poem entitled, The Holy Longing, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe expressed this poetically.

Now you are no longer caught

In the obsession with darkness,

and a desire for higher lovemaking

sweeps you upward.

Distance does not make you falter,

now, arriving in magic, flying,

and finally, insane for the light,

you are a butterfly and you are gone.

Jesus’ Dysfunctional Ancestry 

The full story of how Jesus Christ came to be born includes elements that we do not easily imagine when we sing our Christmas hymns. Jesus’ family tree and bloodline were far from perfect and this, according to the renowned biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, needs to be kept in mind whenever we are tempted to believe in Jesus, but want to reject the church because of its imperfections, scandals, and bad history. Jesus may have been immaculately conceived. However, as the gospels make clear, there is much in his origins that is as jolting as any contemporary church scandal.

For example, in giving us the origins of Jesus, the gospels point to as many sinners, liars, and schemers in his genetic and historical lineage as they do to saints, honest people, and men and women of faith.

We see, for example, in Jesus’ genealogy a number of men who didn’t exactly incarnate the love, justice, and purity of Jesus. Abraham unfairly banished Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, rationalizing that God favors some people over others; Jacob, by scheming and dishonesty, stole his brother Esau’s birthright; and David, to whom Jesus explicitly connects himself, committed adultery and then had the husband of his mistress murdered to cover up an unwanted pregnancy in order to marry her.

Moreover, the women mentioned in Jesus background don’t fare much better. It is interesting to note, as Raymond Brown does, which women don’t get mentioned in reference to Jesus’ origins. The gospels don’t mention Sarah, Rebekah, or Rachel, all of whom were regarded as holy women. Whom do they mention?

They mention Tamar, a Canaanite woman, someone outside the Jewish faith, who seduces her father-in-law, Judah, so that she can have a child. They mention Rahab, also a Canaanite woman, and an outsider, who is in fact a prostitute. Next, they mention Ruth, a Moabite woman who is also outside the official religion of the time. Then they mention Bathsheba, a Hittite woman, an outsider who commits adultery with David and then schemes to make sure one of her own offspring inherits the throne.

All of these women found themselves in a situation of marriage or pregnancy that was either strange or scandalous, yet each was an important divine instrument in preserving the religious heritage that gave us Jesus. It is no accident that the gospels link these women to Mary, Jesus’ mother, since she too found herself in a ritually taboo pregnancy and in a marital situation that was peculiar.

Further still, beyond these less-than-saintly characters in Jesus’ lineage, we see as well that some of the institutions that shaped the Jewish faith were also less than saintly. Institutionalized religion back then suffered from many of the same problems it has today, including the corrupt use of power. Indeed, Israel itself (perhaps justifying the deed by referring to what Jacob had done to Esau) seized the land of Canaan from those who had a prior claim to it, claiming ownership by divine privilege.

Finally, and not insignificantly, we see too that the lineage that gave us Jesus built itself up not just on the great and the talented, but equally on the poor and insignificant. In the list of names that makes up the ancestors of Jesus, we see some that are famous but also others who can make no claim to specialness or significance. Jesus’ human blood, scripture tells us, was produced equally by the great and the small, the talented and the talentless.

What’s to be learned for all of this? Perhaps Raymond Brown captures it best. What all this tells us, he says, is that God writes straight with crooked lines, that we shouldn’t accept an overly idealized Christ, and that our own lives, even if they are marked by weakness and insignificance, are important too in continuing the story of the incarnation.

As Brown puts it: “The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world harkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continues to work through the same mélange. If it is a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence.”

Christianity isn’t just for the pure, the talented, the good, the humble, and the honest. The story of Jesus Christ was also written and keeps being written by the impure, by sinners, by calculating schemers, by the proud, by the dishonest, and by those without worldly talents. Nobody is so bad, so insignificant, so devoid of talent, or so outside the circle of faith, that he or she is outside the story of Christ.

God’s Anger – And our Feelings of Guilt and Shame

My early religious training, for all its strengths, placed too heavy an emphasis on fear of God, fear of judgment, and fear of never being good enough to be pleasing to God. It took the biblical texts about God being angry and displeased with us literally. The downside of this was that many of us came away with feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred, and understood those feelings religiously, with no sense that they might have more of a psychological than a religious origin. If you had feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred, it was a signal that you were not living right, that you should feel some shame, and that God was not pleased with you.

Well, as Hegel famously taught, every thesis eventually spawns its antithesis. Both in the culture and in many religious circles today, this has produced a bitter backlash. The current cultural and ecclesial ethos has brought with it a near-feverous acceptance of the insights from contemporary psychology vis-à-vis guilt, shame, and self-hatred. We learned from Freud and others that many of our feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred are really a psychological neurosis, and not an indication that we are doing anything wrong. Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred do not of themselves indicate that we are unhealthy religiously or morally or that God is displeased with us.

With this insight, more and more people have begun to blame their religious training for any feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. They have coined the term “Christian neurosis” and have begun speaking of “being in recovery” from their churches.

What’s to be said about this? In essence, some of this is healthy, a needed corrective, though some of it also suffers from its own naiveté. And, it has landed us here. Today, religious conservatives tend to reject the idea that guilt, shame, and self-hatred are mainly a neurosis (for which our religious training is responsible), while religious liberals tend to favor this notion. Who is right?

A more balanced spirituality, I believe, combines the truth of both positions to produce a deeper understanding. Drawing on what is best in current biblical scholarship and on what is best in contemporary psychology, a more balanced spirituality makes these assertions.

First, that when our biblical language tells us that God gets angry and unleashes his fury, we are dealing with anthropomorphism. God doesn’t get angry with us when we do wrong. Rather what happens is that we get angry with ourselves and we feel as if that anger were somehow “God’s wrath”. Next, most psychologists today tell us that many of our feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred are in fact unhealthy, a simple neurosis, and not at all an indication that we did something wrong. These feelings only indicate how we feel about ourselves, not how God feels about us.

However, that being admitted, it is too simple to write off our feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred as a mere neurosis. Why? Because even if these feelings are completely or largely unmerited, they may still be an important voice inside us, that is, while they don’t indicate that God is displeased or angry with us, they still can be a voice inside us that won’t be silent until we ask ourselves why we are displeased and angry with ourselves.

Here’s an example. There is a wonderfully enlightening exchange in the 1990s movie, City Slickers. Three men are having a conversation about the morality of having a sexual affair. One asks the other, “If you could have an affair and get away with it, would you do it?” The other replies: “No, I still wouldn’t do it.”  “Why not?” he is asked, “nobody would know.” His response contains a much-neglected insight regarding the question of guilt, shame, and self-hatred. He replies, “I would know, and I would hate myself for it!”

There is such a thing as Christian “guilt neurosis” (which incidentally is not limited to Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious persons, but is universal among all morally sensitive people). However, not all feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred are neurotic. Some are trying to teach us a deep moral and religious truth, that is, while we can never do a single thing to make God angry with us for one minute, we can do many things that make us angry with ourselves.  While we can never do anything to make God hate us, we can do things that have us hate ourselves. And, while we can never do anything to make God withhold forgiveness from us, we can do things that make it difficult for us to forgive ourselves. God is never the problem. We are.

Feelings of guilt, shame, and self-hatred do not of themselves indicate whether we have done something wrong, but they do indicate how we feel about what we have done – and that can be an important moral and religious voice inside us.

Not everything that bothers us is a pathology.

You Have Less Love in You Now Than When You Were Young

The first chapter of the Book of Revelation contains a powerful challenge that’s hidden within the overall esoteric language of that book. John, its author, speaking in the voice of God, says something to this effect: I have seen how hard you work, I have seen your fidelity and your hunger for the truth; but I have this against you, “you have less love in you now than when you were young.” That stings!  

It’s easy to be blind to this inside of ourselves. We change, we grow, we age, and sometimes we don’t look at ourselves closely to see what those changes are doing to us. Hence, we can be dedicated, hard-working, truth-seeking, sincere persons, virtuous in most every way, except that this goodness has become encrusted inside an anger, bitterness, and hatred that wasn’t so evident in us when we were young. As we age, it’s easier to be committed to the right causes than to remain loving and not let bitter judgment and subtle hatred infect our character.

It’s important to have the right causes and to fight for the right truth, but as T.S. Eliot warns, “The last temptation is the greatest treason, to do the right deed for the wrong reason”. If the author of the Book of Revelations came back today and scrutinized us, conservatives and liberals alike, I suspect, he might say the same thing he said to those Christians in Asia all those years ago, You are dedicated, that’s good – but you have less love in you now than when we were young. Our causes may be right and our motives good, but there is also in us now some hatred of others and demonization of them that wasn’t as evident when we were younger. We need to own this. 

Someone once quipped that we spend the first half of our lives struggling with the Sixth Commandment, with the fire of eros, and then spend the second half of our lives struggling with the Fifth Commandment, with the fire of disappointment, anger, and hatred. When I was young and immature, I used to confess to having “bad thoughts” (to do with the Sixth Commandment). Now, aged and more mature, I confess to having “bad thoughts” (to do with the Fifth Commandment).

There is, I fear, less love in me now than when I was young. I went to the seminary at the age of seventeen and for the next eight years lived in a large community (forty-fifty of us). We were young and immature, but our community life together was mostly wonderful. These were happy years. Today, all of us in that group are in our seventies and are mature. However, if we tried to live together now, we would kill each other. We are more mature – though perhaps with less love in us now than when we were young.

Admittedly, this can be a simplistic judgment. Are we really less loving? Is love simply to be identified with warm energy, friendliness, and being nice to each other? It is more than that. Genuine love can also be prophetic, angry, and hard. Moreover, many things conspire to naturally callous our youthful sensitivity, exuberance, and energy, and harden our faces. Our spontaneity, bounce, and ease in hospitality are calloused simply through the natural loss of our naiveté and through the inevitable blows which life deals us: disappointment, failure, rejection, the death of loved ones, the loss of health, and the growing sense of our own mortality. Those things also take the bounce out of our step and make us less pleasant to be around than when we radiated youthful exuberance, and that isn’t necessarily a loss of love.

Still, I’m haunted by an image Margaret Laurence gives us in the person of Hagar Shipley in her novel, The Stone Angel. As Hagar ages, she grows ever more bitter and critical of others, without ever recognizing how much she has changed. One day, ringing a doorbell, she overhears a little girl telling her mother “that horrible old woman is at the door.”  Hearing this, stung to her roots, she goes to a bathroom, turns on all the lights, and for the first time in years examines her face in the mirror and is taken aback by what she sees. She no longer recognizes her own face. It has become something other than how she pictures herself. Her face now is that of a bitter, hateful old person.

We need to do what she did, have a good look at our faces in a mirror. Better yet, lay out a series of photographs of yourself from childhood, through adolescence, through young adulthood, through middle age, to your present age and study your face over the years to see how it has changed from when you were younger.  Sadly, you will probably see there some hardening that is less attributable to natural aging than it is to bitterness, jealousy, and hatred.

In Exile – Marking an Anniversary

Forty years ago in November of 1982, I began writing this column while a doctoral student in Belgium. I chose to call it “In Exile” for two reasons.  Superficially, I chose this title because I was living in Europe, far from much of what I considered as home. While I was not pretending to be Robert Browning, writing Home-Thoughts, From Abroad, I did take an amateur’s delight in the small parallel. For much more significant reasons, I chose this title because all of us live our lives in exile. We live our lives (as St. Paul says) seeing “as through a glass, darkly.” We live in our separate riddles, partially separated from God, each other, and even from ourselves. We experience some love, some community, some peace, but never these in their fullness. Our individual existence places a certain barrier between us and full community. We live, truly, as in a riddle. God, who is omnipresent, cannot be physically sensed; others, who are as real as we, are always partially distanced and unreal; and we, in the end, are fundamentally a mystery even to ourselves.

In that sense, all of us are far from home, in exile, longing to know more fully and to be known more fully, distanced from so much. And, while on this pilgrimage, our perspectives are only partial; our vision, even at best, that of the “foreigner,” one out of the mainstream, who does not fully see nor understand.

From this exiled perspective, I have for forty years offered my reflections. The column has taken a variety of forms. As Margaret Atwood once said: “What touches you is what you touch!” I have touched on a whole lot of things; but all of them, in their own fashion, were in one way or another trying to untangle the riddle, to end the exile, to help to get a pilgrim home!

Initially, the column ran in only one newspaper, the Western Catholic Reporter. In 1987, the Green Bay Compass picked it up, and one year later the Portland Sentinel began to publish it. In 1990, the column got a major break. It was picked up by the Catholic Herald in London, England, a national paper in the United Kingdom that, at the time, was privately owned by Otto Herschan who also owned the Irish Catholic, a national paper in Ireland, and the Scottish Catholic Observer, a national paper in Scotland. With that, the column now had a home in six newspapers in five countries, nationally in three of them. Moreover, with lax copyright laws in Asia that are not as rigorous, nor as enforced, as here and, soon, a number of dioceses in Asia began to pirate the column and publish it.

The early 1990s brought more breakthroughs for the column: The Catholic Register and the Prairie Messenger, both national papers in Canada, picked up the column in 1992. To my mind, that was circulation enough. However, after the publication of The Holy Longing in the USA in 1999, the column’s circulation exploded. Within three years, it was being carried by more than sixty newspapers in more than ten countries. That has since grown to more than eighty papers.  Since 2008, the column has also been published in both Spanish and Vietnamese and is finding a readership in Vietnam, in Mexico, and in parts of Latin America.

I owe a debt of gratitude to a lot of people but need to single out several to thank specially. First, a deep thanks to the Western Catholic Reporter (in Edmonton, Canada)and its then editor, Glenn Argan. It was the first newspaper and Glenn Argan was the first editor to take a chance on me, an unknown prairie boy with little in the way of sophisticated credentials or contacts. Because of this, through all these forty years, I have always coded the column as WCR because, before anyone else, I was writing it for the Western Catholic Reporter. Today, each week, when it is emailed to some eighty plus newspapers, it goes out under the coded label “WCR”. I suspect none of the editors receiving it know what that means, but now you know.

A special thanks to Delia Smith for taking the column to the Catholic Herald in London and to Otto Herschan its then owner and publisher. From 1990 until his death, Otto made sure that any newspaper he published had my column in it. As well, deep thanks to JoAnne Chrones, my tireless Executive Secretary for these past 28 years, to Kay Legried, who pitched the column to various newspapers, and to Doug Mitchell who lays a critical, proofreading eye, to every column.

Truth be told, when I first began writing this column, I was probably more solicitous about bringing a column to birth than about helping bring God’s kingdom to birth. Our motivation is perennially in need of purification. I hope that I have matured in this area during these forty years and my biggest thank you of all goes out to you, the reader.

Can Anything Good Come from Okarche Oklahoma?

It is not enough merely to have saints; we need saints for our times! An insightful comment from Simone Weil. The saints of old have much to offer; but we look at their goodness, faith, and selflessness and find it easier to admire them than to imitate them. Their lives and their circumstances seem so removed from our own that we easily distance ourselves from them.

So, I would like to propose a saint for our times, Stanley Rother (1935-1981), an Oklahoma farm boy who became a missionary with the poor in Atitlan, Guatemala, and eventually died a martyr. His life and his struggles (save perhaps for his extraordinary courage at the end) are something to which we can easily relate.

Who is Stanley Rother? He was a priest from Oklahoma who was shot to death in Guatemala in 1981. He has been beatified as a martyr and is soon to become the first male born in the United States to be canonized. Here, in brief, is his story.

Stanley Rother was born to a farming family in Okarche, Oklahoma, the oldest of four children. He grew up helping work the family farm and for the rest of his life and ministry he remained forever the farmer more than the scholar. Growing up and working with his family, he was more at home tilling the soil, fixing engines, and digging wells than he was reading Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas. This would serve him well in his work with the poor as a missionary, though it served him less well when he first set out to study for the priesthood.

His initial years in the seminary were a struggle. Trying to study philosophy (in Latin) as a preparation for his theological studies proved a bit too much for him. After a couple of years, the seminary staff advised him to leave, telling him that he lacked the academic abilities to study for the priesthood. Returning to the farm, he sought the advice of his bishop and was eventually sent to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland. While he didn’t exactly thrive there academically, he thrived there in other ways, ways that impressed the seminary staff enough that they recommended him for ordination.

Back in his own diocese, he spent the first years of his priesthood mostly doing manual work, redoing an abandoned property that the diocese had inherited and turning it into a functioning renewal center. Then, in 1978, he was invited to join a diocesan mission team that had begun a mission in Guatemala. Everything in his background and personality now served to make him ideal for this type of work and, ironically, he, who once struggled to learn Latin, was now able to learn the difficult language of the people he worked with (Tz’utujil) and become one of the people who helped develop its written alphabet, vocabulary, and grammar. He ministered to the people sacramentally, but he also reached out to them personally, helping them farm, finding resources to help them, and occasionally giving them money out of his own pocket. Eventually he became their trusted friend and leader.

However, not everything was that idyllic. The political situation in the country was radically deteriorating, violence was everywhere, and anyone perceived to be in opposition to the government faced the possibility of intimidation, disappearance, torture, and death. Stanley tried to remain apolitical, but simply working with the poor was seen as being political. As well, at a point, a number of his own catechists were tortured and killed and, not surprisingly, he found himself on a death list and was hustled out of the country for his own safety. For three months, back with his family in Oklahoma, he agonized about whether to return to Guatemala, knowing that it meant almost certain death. The decision was especially difficult because, while clearly he felt called to return to Guatemala, he worried about what his death there would mean to his elderly parents.

He made the decision to return to Guatemala, fired by Jesus’ saying that the shepherd doesn’t run when the sheep are in danger. Four months later, he was shot to death in the missionary compound within which he lived, fighting to the end with his attackers not to be taken alive and made “to disappear”. Instantly, he was recognized as a martyr and when his body was flown back to Oklahoma for burial, the community in Atitlan kept his heart and turned the room in which he was martyred into a chapel.

A number of books have been written about him and I highly recommend two of them. For a substantial biographical account, read Maria Ruiz Scaperlanda, The Shepherd Who Didn’t Run. For a hagiographical  tribute to him read Henri Nouwen, Love in a Fearful Land.

We have patron saints for every cause and occasion. For whom or for what might Stanley Rother be considered a patron saint? For all of us ordinary people of whom circumstance at times asks for an exceptional courage.

Workaholism and Greed

There’s only one addiction for which we are praised – overworking. With every other addiction, concerned others are looking to put you into a clinic or into a recovery program, but if your addiction is work, generally it’s seen as virtue. I know of what I speak. I’m a “recovering workaholic”, and not exactly in full sobriety at the moment. However, I recognize the disease. Here are its symptoms: we are forever short of time with too many things to do. Our days are too short.

In his autobiography, movie critic Roger Ebert, writes, “I have filled my life so completely that many days there is no time to think about the fact that I am living it.” Many of us know the feeling. Why do we do this to ourselves?

The answer may surprise us. When our lives are so pressured that we never have time to savor the fact that we are alive and living it, when we are always short of time with too many things to do, we are suffering from greed, one of the classical deadly sins.

We have a simplistic notion of greed. When we think of a greedy person, we imagine someone who is stingy, selfish, rich in money and material things, hoarding those riches for himself. Few of us fit that category. Greed, in us, has infinitely subtler forms. What most of us who are generous, unselfish, and not rich in money or property suffer from is greed for experience, greed for life itself, and (if this doesn’t sound too heretical) greed even in our generosity. We are greedy to do more (even good things) in our lives than time allows.

Where do we see this? We see it in ourselves whenever there is never enough time to do what we (seemingly) need to do. There is always pressure that we should be doing more. When we think that somehow God made a mistake with time and didn’t allot us enough of it, we are suffering from greed. Henri Nouwen once described it this way: “Our lives often seem like over packed suitcases bursting at the seams. In fact, we are almost always aware of being behind schedule. There is a nagging sense that there are unfinished tasks, unfulfilled promises, unrealized proposals. There is always something else we should have remembered, done, or said. There are always people we did not speak to, write to, or visit.”

But … God didn’t make a mistake in giving us time. God gave us enough time to do what is asked of us, even in generosity and selflessness. The issue is on our side and the problem is greed. We want to do more in life than life itself allows.

Moreover, in most cases, this is easy to rationalize. If we are burning out while serving others, we can easily look at our over-extension, tiredness, and our haunting sense that we are not doing enough and see it as virtue, as a form of martyrdom, as selflessness, as giving our lives away for others. Partly this is true, there are times when love, circumstance, or a particular season in our lives can demand that we hand it all over to the point of radical self-abnegation; even Jesus was overwhelmed at times and tried to sneak away for some solitude. However, that is not always the case. What a mother needs to do for an infant or a young needy child is quite different from what she needs to do when that child is grown and is an adult. What is virtue in one situation can become greed in another situation.

Being too busy generally begins as a virtue, and then often turns into vice – subtle greed. What was once necessary to serve others now begins more to serve our own self-image and reputation. As well, it functions as a convenient escape. When we are consumed with doing work for others, we don’t have to face our own inner demons nor the demons that need to be faced in our marriages, vocations, and relationships. We are simply too busy; but this is an addiction, the same as all other addictions, except that this particular addiction is seen as a virtue for which we are praised.

This is one reason why God gave us the Sabbath, ordering us to stop working one day each week. Sadly, we are losing the very notion of Sabbath. We have turned a commandment into a light lifestyle suggestion. This can be a good thing to do, if you can manage it! However, as Wayne Mueller writes in his very challenging book on the Sabbath: “If we forget to rest, we will work too hard and forget our more tender mercies, forget those we love, forget our children and our natural wonder. … So God gave us the commandment to observe then Sabbath – ‘Remember to rest.’ This is not a lifestyle suggestion, but a commandment, as important as not stealing, nor murdering, not lying.”

Overwork is not a virtue.

Risking God’s Mercy

Shortly after ordination, doing replacement work in a parish, I found myself in a rectory with a saintly old priest. He was over eighty, nearly blind, but widely sought out and respected, especially as a confessor. One night, alone with him, I asked him this question: “If you had your priesthood to live over again, would you do anything differently?” From a man so full of integrity, I fully expected that there would be no regrets. His answer surprised me. Yes, he said, he did have a regret, a major one: “If I had my priesthood to do over again, I would be easier on people the next time. I wouldn’t be so stingy with God’s mercy, with the sacraments, and with forgiveness. You see what was drilled into me in my formation was the phrase, The truth will set you free, and I believed that it was my responsibility to challenge people to protect that. That’s good, but I fear I’ve been too hard on people. They have pain enough in their lives without me and the church laying further burdens on them. I should have risked more God’s mercy!”

I was struck by this because less than a year before, as I took my final exams in the seminary, one of the priests who examined me, gave me this warning: “Be careful,” he said, “never let your feelings get in the way of truth and be too soft, that’s wrong. Remember, tough as it is, only the truth sets people free!” Sound advice, it would seem, for a young priest beginning his ministry.

However, as every year goes by in my own ministry, I feel more inclined to the old priest’s advice. We need to risk more God’s mercy. Admittedly, the importance of truth may never be ignored, but we must risk letting the infinite, unbounded, unconditional, undeserved mercy of God flow freely. The mercy of God is as accessible as the nearest water tap and we, like Isaiah, must proclaim a mercy that has no price tag: “Come, come without money and without virtue, come everyone, drink freely of God’s mercy!”

What holds us back? Why are we so hesitant in proclaiming God’s inexhaustible, prodigal, indiscriminate mercy?

Partly our motives are good, noble even. We have a legitimate concern over some important things: truth, justice, orthodoxy, morality, proper public form, proper sacramental preparation, fear of scandal, and concern for the ecclesial community that needs to absorb and carry the effects of sin. Love needs always to be tempered by truth, even as truth must be moderated by love. However, sometimes our motives are less noble and our hesitancy arises out of timidity, fear, jealousy, and legalism – the self-righteousness of the Pharisees or the hidden jealousy of the older brother of the prodigal son. No cheap grace is to be dispensed on our watch!

Nevertheless, in doing this, we are misguided, less than good shepherds, out of tune with the God that Jesus proclaimed. God’s mercy, as Jesus revealed it, embraces indiscriminately, the bad along with the good, the undeserving with the deserving, the uninitiated with the initiated. One of the truly startling insights that Jesus gave us is that the mercy of God cannot not go out to everyone because it is always free, undeserved, unconditional, universal in embrace, reaching beyond all religion, custom, rubric, political correctness, mandatory program, ideology, and even beyond sin itself.

For our part then, especially those of us who are parents, ministers, teachers, catechists, and elders, we must risk proclaiming the prodigal character of God’s mercy. We must not spend God’s mercy, as if it were ours to spend, dole out God’s forgiveness as if it were a limited commodity, put conditions on God’s love as if God were a narrow tyrant or a political ideology, or cut off cut access to God as if we were the keepers of the heavenly gates. We are not! If we link God’s mercy to our own assessment of things, we then link it to our own limits, wounds, and biases.

It is interesting to note in the gospels how the apostles, well-meaning of course, often tried to keep certain people away from Jesus, as if they weren’t worthy and were somehow an affront to his holiness and purity. Repeatedly, they tried to send away children, prostitutes, tax collectors, known sinners, and the uninitiated of all kinds and always Jesus over-ruled their attempts with words to this effect: “Let them come! I want them to come to me.”

Little has changed. Always in the church, we, well-intentioned persons, with the same motives as the apostles, keep trying to keep certain individuals and groups away from God’s mercy as it is available in word, sacrament, and community. God doesn’t need (nor want) our protection. Jesus wanted every kind of person to come to him then and he wants them to come to him now. God wants everyone, regardless of morality, orthodoxy, lack of preparation, age, or culture, to come to the unlimited waters of divine mercy.