Writing Your Own Obituary

There comes a time in life when it’s time to stop writing your resume and begin to write your obituary. I’m not sure who first coined that line, but there’s wisdom in it.

What’s the difference between a resume and an obituary? Well, the former details your achievements, the latter expresses how you want to be remembered and what kind of oxygen and blessing you want to leave behind. But, how exactly do you write an obituary so that it’s not, in effect, just another version of your resume? Here’s a suggestion.

There’s a custom in Judaism where as an adult you make out a spiritual will each year. Originally, this will was more in line with the type of will we typically make, where the focus is on burial instructions, on who gets what when we die, and on how to legally and practically tie up the unfinished details of our lives. Through time, however, this evolved so that today this will is focused more on a review of your life, the highlighting of what’s been most precious in your life, the honest expression of regrets and apologies, and the blessing, by name, of those persons to whom you want to say a special goodbye. The will is reviewed and renewed each year so that it is always current, and it’s read aloud at your funeral as the final words you want to leave behind for your loved ones.

This can be a very helpful exercise for each of us to do, except that such a will is not done in a lawyer’s office, but in prayer, perhaps with a spiritual director, a counsellor, or a confessor helping us. Very practically, what might go into a spiritual will of this sort?

If you are looking for help in doing this, I recommend the work and the writings of Richard Groves, the co-founder of the Sacred Art of Living Center. He has been working in the field of end-of-life spirituality for more than thirty years and offers some very helpful guidance vis-à-vis creating a spiritual will and renewing it regularly. It focus on three questions.

First: What, in life, did God want me to do? Did I do it? All of us have some sense of having a vocation, of having a purpose for being in this world, of having been given some task to fulfill in life. Perhaps we might only be dimly aware of this, but, at some level of soul, all of us sense a certain duty and purpose. The first task in a spiritual will is to try to come to grips with that. What did God want me to do in this life? How well or poorly have I been doing it?

Second: To whom do I need to say, “I’m sorry”? What are my regrets? Just as others have hurt us, we have hurt others. Unless we die very young, all of us have made mistakes, hurt others, and done things we regret. A spiritual will is meant to address this with searing honesty and deep contrition. We are never more big-hearted, noble, prayerful, and deserving of respect than when we are down on our knees sincerely recognizing our weaknesses, apologizing, asking where we need to make amends.

Third: Who, very specifically, by name, do I want to bless before I die and gift with some special oxygen? We are most like God (infusing divine energy into life) when we are admiring others, affirming them, and offering them whatever we can from our own lives as a help to them in theirs. Our task is to do this for everyone, but we cannot do this for everyone, individually, by name. In a spiritual will, we are given the chance to name those people we most want to bless. When the prophet Elijah was dying, his servant, Elisha, begged him to leave him “a double portion” of his spirit. When we die, we’re meant to leave our spirit behind as sustenance for everyone; but there are some people, whom we want to name, to whom we want to leave a double portion. In this will, we name those people.

In a wonderfully challenging book, The Four Things That Matter Most, Ira Byock, a medical doctor who works with the dying, submits that there are four things we need to say to our loved ones before we die: “Please forgive me,” “I forgive you,” “Thank you,” and “I love you.”  He’s right; but, given the contingencies, tensions, wounds, heartaches, and ups and downs within our relationships, even with those we love dearly, it isn’t always easy (or sometimes even existentially possible) to say those words clearly, without any equivocation. A spiritual will gives us the chance to say them from a place that we can create which is beyond the tensions that generally cloud our relationships and prevent us from speaking clearly, so that at our funeral, after the eulogy, we will have no unfinished business with those we have left behind.

Dying Alone in the Desert

Recently I received a letter from a friend who shared that she was afraid to accept a certain vocation because it would leave her too much alone. She shared this fear with her spiritual director who simply said, “Charles de Foucauld died alone in the desert!” That answer was enough for her. She went ahead with it. Is that answer enough for those of us who have the same hesitancy, the fear of being alone?

The fear of being alone is a healthy one. Jean-Paul Sartre famously wrote that hell is the other person. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Hell is being alone. All the major religions teach that heaven will be communal, an ecstatic coming together of hearts, souls, and (for Christians) bodies, in one union of love. There will be no solitaries in heaven. So, our fear of ending up alone is a healthy nagging from God and nature, perpetually reminding us of the words God spoke as he created Eve, it is not good for a person to be alone. Children are always mindful of that and feel insecure when they are alone. That’s one of the reasons why Jesus taught that they go to heaven more naturally than adults do.

But, is being alone always unhealthy? What can we learn from Charles de Foucauld who chose a life that left him to die alone in the desert? What can we learn from a person like Soren Kierkegaard who resisted marriage because he feared that it would interfere with a vocation, he intuited was meant to have him die alone? Not least, what can we learn from Jesus, the greatest lover of all, who dies alone on a cross, crying out that he had been abandoned by everyone and then, in that agony, surrenders his loneliness in one great act of selflessness in which he gives over his spirit in complete love?

In a recent book, The Empathy Diaries, Sherry Turkle reflects on, among other things, the impact contemporary information technology and social media are having on us. As a scientist at MIT, she is one of the people who helped develop computers and information technology as they exist today, so she in not someone with a generational, romantic, or religious bias against computers, smart phones, and social media. Yet, she is worried about what all of this is doing to us today, particularly to those who get addicted to social media and can no longer be alone. “I share, therefore I am!” She names a hard truth: If we don’t know how to be alone, we will always be lonely.

That’s true for all of us, though not all of us are called by either faith or temperament to a monastic quiet. What Jesus modelled (and what persons like Charles de Foucauld, Soren Kierkegaard, and countless monks, nuns, and celibates have felt themselves called to) is not the route for everyone. In fact, it is not the norm, religiously or anthropologically. Marriage is. Thomas Merton was once asked what it was like to be celibate, and he responded by saying, celibacy is hell. You live in a loneliness that God Himself condemned; but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fruitful.

In essence, that’s the response my friend received from her spiritual director when she shared her fear of taking up a certain vocation because she might end up alone. If you can be a Charles de Foucauld, you will be alone but in a very fruitful way.

There can even be some romance in proactively embracing loneliness and celibacy. Some years ago, I was doing spiritual direction with a very faith-filled, idealistic young man. Full of life and youthful energies, he felt the same powerful pull of sexuality as his peers, but he also felt a strong draw in another direction. He was reading Soren Kierkegaard, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and Daniel Berrigan and felt a romantic attraction towards celibacy and the loneliness and aloneness within which he would then find himself. He was also reading the Gospels, telling how Jesus died alone on a cross without any human person holding his hand. Like Jesus, he wanted to be a lonely prophet and die alone.

There’s some admirable idealism in that, though perhaps also a certain unhealthy pride and elitism in wanting to be the lonely hero who is admired for stoically standing outside the circle of normal intimacy. Moreover, as a lifelong celibate (and a publicly vowed one for more than fifty years) I would offer this word of caution. A romantic dream of celibacy, no matter how strongly rooted in faith, will meet its test during those seasons and nights when one has fallen in love, is tired, is overwhelmed, and has his or her sexuality (and soul) cry out that it does not want to die alone in the desert. To sustain oneself in the loneliness of Jesus, as Merton says, is sometimes a flat-out hell, albeit a fruitful one.

To die alone in the desert like Charles de Foucauld is answer enough.

On Being Jealous of God’s Generousity

“The cock will crow at the breaking of your own ego – there are lots of ways to wake up!”

John Shea gave me those words and I understood them a little better recently as I stood in line at an airport: I had checked in for a flight, approached security, saw a huge lineup, and accepted the fact that it would take at least 40 minutes to get through it.

I was all right with the long wait and moved patiently in the line – until, just as my turn came, another security crew arrived, opened a second scanning machine, and a whole lineup of people, behind me, who had not waited the forty minutes, got their turns almost immediately. I still got my turn as I would have before, but something inside of me felt slighted and angry: “This wasn’t fair! I’d been waiting for forty minutes, and they got their turns at the same time as I did!” I had been content waiting, until those who arrived later didn’t have to wait at all. I hadn’t been treated unfairly, but some others had been luckier than I’d been.

That experience taught me something, beyond the fact that my heart isn’t always huge and generous. It helped me understand something about Jesus’ parable concerning the workers who came at the 11th hour and received the same wages as those who’d worked all day and what is meant by the challenge that is given to those who grumbled about the unfairness of this: “Are you envious because I’m generous?”

Are we jealous because God is generous? Does it bother us when others are given unmerited gifts and forgiveness?
You bet! Ultimately, that sense of injustice, of envy that someone else caught a break is a huge stumbling block to our happiness. Why? Because something in us reacts negatively when it seems that life is not making others pay the same dues as we are paying.

In the Gospels we see an incident where Jesus goes to the synagogue on a Sabbath, stands up to read, and quotes a text from Isaiah – except he doesn’t quote it fully but omits a part. The text (Isaiah 61,1-2) would have been well known to his listeners and it describes Isaiah’s vision of what will be the sign that God has finally broken into the world and irrevocably changed things. And what will that be?

For Isaiah, the sign that God is now ruling the earth will be good news for the poor, consolation or the broken-hearted, freedom for the enslaved, grace abundant for everyone, and vengeance on the wicked. Notice though, when Jesus quotes this, he leaves out the part about vengeance. Unlike Isaiah, he doesn’t say that part of our joy will be seeing the wicked punished.

In heaven we will be given what we are owed and more (unmerited gift, forgiveness we don’t deserve, joy beyond imagining) but, it seems, we will not be given that catharsis we so much want here on earth, the joy of seeing the wicked punished.

The joys of heaven will not include seeing Hitler suffer. Indeed, the natural itch we have for strict justice (“An eye for an eye”) is exactly that, a natural itch, something the Gospels invite us beyond. The desire for strict justice blocks our capacity for forgiveness and thereby prevents us from entering heaven where God, like the Father of the Prodigal Son, embraces and forgives without demanding a pound of flesh for a pound of sin.

We know we need God’s mercy, but if grace is true for us, it must be true for everyone; if forgiveness is given us, it must be given everybody; and if God does not avenge our misdeeds, God must not avenge the misdeeds of others either. Such is the logic of grace, and such is the love of the God to whom we must attune ourselves.

Happiness is not about vengeance, but about forgiveness; not about vindication, but about unmerited embrace; and not about capital punishment, but about living beyond even murder.

It is not surprising that, in some of the great saints, we see a theology bordering on universalism, namely, the belief that in the end God will save everyone, even the Hitlers. They believed this not because they didn’t believe in hell or the possibility of forever excluding ourselves from God, but because they believed that God’s love is so universal, so powerful, and so inviting that, ultimately, even those in hell will see the error of their ways, swallow their pride, and give themselves over to love. The final triumph of God, they felt, will be when the devil himself converts and hell is empty.

Maybe that will never happen. God leaves us free. Nevertheless, when I, or anyone else, is upset at an airport, at a parole board hearing, or anywhere else where someone gets something we don’t think he or she deserves, we have to accept that we’re still a long way from understanding and accepting the kingdom of God.

Our Real Demons

What’s in an image? An image can imprint itself indelibly into our consciousness so that we cannot not picture a thing except in a certain way. Take, for instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. Today if you close your eyes and try to picture the Last Supper, that image will spontaneously come to mind, even though scholars assure us that this is not how Jesus and his disciples would have been seated at that meal. Such is the power of art.

Sadly, this is also true for how we spontaneously picture devils and exorcisms. Movies about demon possession, like Rosemary’s Baby, have imprinted certain images inside of us so we picture someone possessed by a demon as a person with a wild, contorted, hate-filled face, floating up to the ceiling, spewing out sick mustard colored liquid from his mouth, in a room smelling of poisonous gases. Our picture of an exorcism then is that of a very ascetic-looking priest, dressed in heavy blacks, a stole around his neck, calling out Jesus’ name as he sprinkles holy water, with the devil shrieking aloud as he retreats. That’s our image of demon possession and exorcism. Such is the power of art!

But, normally that’s not at all how demon possession and exorcism look like. Indeed, picturing the devil and an exorcism in that way is more harmful than helpful because demons are more subtle and exorcisms are more demanding than that picture would have us believe.

What do demons inside of us actually look like? Well, an image of a contorted face spewing out poisonous gasses and shrieking out hate can in fact serve us well. As a metaphor, that works. However, in real life that contorted, hate-filled face is too often our own face, and the poison spewing out of us is really the hate-filled language we hurl at each other as we name-call across ideological, political, moral, and religious lines. As well, the exorcism required is not the sprinkling of literal holy water, but the sprinkling of the Holy Spirit.

What do demons actually look like?

There’s a very powerful one named paranoia who brings with him a series of other demons: distrust, suspicion, self-protection, and fear. When paranoia possesses us, we become suspicious and distrustful. Everyone begins to look like a threat, an enemy, and all our natural instincts begin to pressure us towards self-protection, and that begins to contort our faces and we begin to spew out distrust. This may be the hardest demon of all to exorcise because it is so deeply embedded inside us. It’s no accident that the word metanoia (which summarizes Jesus’ challenge to us) is the antithesis of paranoia.

Then there is a demon named pride, one that keeps us forever conscious of our own specialness, a demon that would have us prefer to be special rather than happy. This demon invariably brings with him a very nasty companion called envy, a demon that paralyzes our ability to admire others, bless them, and not be threatened by their successes.

Next, come the demons of gluttony and greed. Mostly these no longer tempt us towards over-indulging in food or drink and accumulating more and more possessions. Instead, these demons infect us with a greed for experience, with an obsession with drinking in everything, with an obsession to be networking socially twenty-four hours a day. Moreover, they bring with them the demon of lust; one that has us making others the object of our erotic desires and in a myriad of other ways has us not fully respecting them.

These are the actual demons that contort our faces and while none of them might make us look like the young child in Rosemary’s Baby, all of them have us spew out distrust and hatred rather than trust and understanding.

How are they exorcized? Well, these are not the kind that normally respond to a sprinkling of holy water. These need to be cast out by the Holy Spirit.

Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit “scrutinizes everything”. It tells us as well that the Holy Spirit is not some abstract force that cannot be known by us. St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, tells us precisely who and what the Holy Spirit is. He begins with the via negativa, telling us what the Holy Spirit is not and what the Holy Spirit should never be confused with, that is, with those demons just named: paranoia, distrust, suspicion, self-protection, fear, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust. The Holy Spirit is the antithesis of all of these. To the contrary, the Holy Spirit is the spirit of charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity.

Two contraries cannot co-exist inside the same subject and so an actual exorcism works this way. The more we embrace charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, long-suffering, fidelity, mildness, and chastity, the more we exorcize paranoia, distrust, fear, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, and lust – and less demonic hatred spews from our mouths.

A Biblical Formula for Forgiveness

Nothing is as important as forgiveness. It is the key to happiness and the most important spiritual imperative in our lives. We need to forgive, to make peace with the hurts and injustices we have suffered so as not to die angry and bitter. Before we die, we need to forgive – others, ourselves, and God, for what happened to us in this life.

But, that isn’t easy to do; indeed, sometimes it is impossible to do. That needs to be said because today there is a lot of well-intended literature around, in every kind of circle, which gives the impression that forgiveness is simply a question of willing it and moving on. Let it go and move on!

It doesn’t work that way, as we all know. Wounds to the soul take time, a long time, to heal, and the process is excruciatingly slow, something that cannot be rushed. Indeed, the trauma from an emotional wound often affects our physical health. Healing takes time.

In looking at the question of healing and forgiveness, we can get a long-neglected, valuable insight from the Jewish and Christian spirituality of the Sabbath. Keeping the Sabbath holy isn’t just about honoring a certain day of the week; it’s also a formula for forgiveness. Here’s how it works.

The theology and spirituality of Sabbath teach us that God created the world in six days and then rested on the seventh day, the Sabbath. Moreover, not only did God rest on the Sabbath, God declared this a day of rest for everyone forever, and with that God set up a certain rhythm for our lives. That rhythm is supposed to work this way:

  • We work for six days, then rest for one day.
  • We work for seven times seven years, forty-nine years, then have a jubilee where the world itself goes on sabbatical.
  • We work for seven years, then rest for one year (a sabbatical).
  • We work for a lifetime, then enjoy an eternity of sabbatical.

Now, that rhythm is also intended as the rhythm for how we move towards forgiveness:

  • We can hold a mini-grudge of seven days, but then we need to give it up.
  • We can hold a major grudge for seven years, but then we need to give it up. (The “statute of limitations” is based on this.)
  • We can hold a massive soul-searing wound for forty-nine years, but then we need to give it up.
  • We can hold a massive soul-shattering wound until our deathbed, but then we need to give it up.

This highlights something which is too often absent in therapeutic and spiritual circles today, namely, that we need time to be able to forgive, and that the length of time needed is contingent upon the depth of the hurt. Thus, for example:

  • When we are slighted by a colleague at a meeting, we need a little time to sulk about that injustice, but normally a few days can help put it into perspective and enable us to let it go.
  • When we are coldly terminated at a job by an unfair employer, seven days or seven weeks will often not be enough time for us to put this into a larger perspective, to let it go, and to forgive. Seven years is a more realistic timeframe. (Note that the “statute of limitations” vis-a-vis this biblical insight.)
  • There are traumas we suffer which leave far deeper wounds than those left by an unfair employer who treated us unfairly. There are wounds we suffer from abuse, neglect, and years of injustice that need more than seven years to process. It may take forty-nine years, half a century, to make peace with the fact that we were bullied as children or were emotionally or sexually abused in our youth.  
  • There are wounds so deep and traumatic that it is only on our deathbeds that we can make peace with the fact that they happened to us, let them go, and forgive the person or persons responsible for them.
  • Finally, there can be wounds that are too deep, too disempowering, and too painful to ever process in this life. For them, thankfully we have the merciful healing embrace of God after death.

The ability to forgive is more contingent upon grace than upon willpower. To err is human, but to forgive is divine. This little slogan contains a deeper truth than is immediately evident. What makes forgiveness so difficult, existentially impossible at times, is not primarily that our egos are bruised and wounded. Rather, the real difficulty is that a wound to the soul works the same as a wound to the body; it strips us of our strength.

This is particularly true for those soul-searing and soul-shattering traumas that take forty-nine years or a lifetime to heal, or sometimes can never be healed in this lifetime. Wounds of this kind radically disempower us, particularly towards the person who did this to us, making it very difficult for us to forgive.

We need a spirituality of Sabbath to help us.

The Magnificat

A wise old Augustinian priest once shared this in class. There are days in my life when everything from the pressures of my work, to tiredness, to depression, to distraction, to flat-out laziness make it difficult for me to pray. But, no matter what, I always try to pray at least one sincere, focused Our Father every day.

In the Gospels, Jesus leaves us the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father. This is the most precious of all Christian prayers. However, the Gospels also leave us another precious Christian prayer, one that is not nearly as well known or practiced as is the Lord’s Prayer. This is the prayer the Gospels place inside the mouth of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Known as the Magnificat it is, for me, the most precious Christian prayer we have after the Lord’s Prayer.

The Gospel of Luke paints the scene. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Traditionally we call this “The Visitation” and what transpires between these two women is much more than what first meets the eye. This  is no simple gender-reveal party. Written more than eighty years after the event itself took place it is a post-resurrection reflection on the world-altering significance of what each of these women was carrying in her womb. As well, the words that they speak to each other also speak of a post-resurrection reality. It is in this context that the Gospels have Mary speak the words of the Magnificat. What are those words?

They are words which thank and praise God for having taken the side of the poor, the humble, the hungry, and the oppressed in this world, having lifted them up and given them victory, even as he toppled the powerful off their thrones and humbled them. However, her prayer puts this all into the past tense, as if it was already an accomplished fact,already a reality in our world.

However, as the cartoon character, Ziggy, once reminded God in a prayer, “The poor are still getting clobbered down here!” For the large part, this seems so. Looking at our world, we see that the gap between rich and poor is widening, hundreds of millions of people go to bed hungry every night, corruption and crime are everywhere, and the powerful seemingly can simply take whatever they want without repercussions. We have nearly one hundred million refugees on our borders around the world, and women and children are still victims of violence of all kinds everywhere.  Worse still, it would seem things are getting worse, not better. So where do we see that God has hast cast down the mighty from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty?

We see it in the resurrection of Jesus and the vision of hope given us in that reality. What Mary affirms in the Magnificat is a deep truth we can only grasp in the faith and hope, namely, that even though at present injustice, corruption, and exploitation of the poor, seem to reign, there will be a last day when that oppressive stone will roll back from the tomb and the powerful will topple. The Magnificat is the ultimate prayer of hope – and the ultimate prayer for the poor.

Maybe it is my age, maybe it is the discouragement I feel most evenings as I watch the news, or maybe it is both, but, as I grow older, two prayers (outside of the Eucharist) are most precious to me, The Lord’s Prayer and The Magnificat. Like my old Augustinian mentor, I now make sure no day goes by where pressure, tiredness, distraction, or laziness keep me from praying at least  two prayers with focus and attention, The Lord’s Prayer and the Magnificat.

That hasn’t always been the case. For years, I looked at the Magnificat and saw there only the exultation of the Mary of piety, all the litanies and praises of Mary bunched into one. Not that there is anything wrong with that since the Mary of piety is someone to whom millions upon millions, not least the poor, turn to in need, seeking the guidance, comfort, and sympathy of a mother. Few would argue against the goodness of this since it constitutes a rich mysticism of the poor, and of the poor in spirit.

However, the Magnificat is not so much about Mary’s personal exultation as it is about the exaltation of the poor. In this prayer, she gives voice to how God ultimately responds to the powerlessness and oppression of the poor. Henri Nouwen once wrote that watching the evening news and seeing the suffering in our world can leave us feeling depressed and powerless. Depressed because of the injustice we see, powerless because it seems there is nothing we can do about it.

What can we do about it? We can pray the Magnificat each day giving voice to how God ultimately responds to the powerlessness of the poor.

Seeing What Lies Near Our Doorsteps

Henri Nouwen once suggested that if you want to understand the tragedy of the Second World War, you can read a hundred history books about it and watch a thousand hours of video documentaries on it, or you can read the Diary of Anne Frank. In that single memoir of young girl imprisoned and later executed by the Nazis you will see, first-hand, the tragedy of war and what war does to the human soul.

The same might be said about the refugee crisis now taking place everywhere on borders around the world. According to statistics from the United Nations, there are now over eighty million refugees, displaced, homeless, nationless, frightened, and often hungry people on our borders around the world. Two-thirds of these are women and children, and the vast majority are not there by choice, seeking a better economic opportunity in another country. The vast majority of them have been driven from their homes and their countries by war, violence, famine, hunger, ethnic and religious cleansing, and by fear for their lives.

For many of us, this is a faceless, abstract problem. We have a generic sympathy for their plight but not one deep enough to keep us awake at night, unsettle our conscience, or make us willing to sacrifice some of our own comfort and security to do something for them or to pressure our governments into action. Indeed, too often we are over-protective of our borders and the settled, comfortable lives we live inside our nations. This is our country! Our home! We worked hard for the things we have. It is unfair to us to have to deal with these people! They should go back to their countries and leave us alone!

We need a wake-up call. A recent book, a novel, by Jeanine Cummins, American Dirt, gives us a fictionalized account of a young Mexican woman who because of violence and fear of death had to leave her life behind and flee with her young son in an attempt to reach the borders of the United States as an undocumented immigrant. Full disclosure, the book has been heavily criticized by many because it doesn’t always measure up to the exact facts. Conversely, it has also been highly praised by many others. Be that as it may, the bottom-line is that this is a powerful story and a wake-up call, one meant to wake us up to the real tragedy of those who for reasons of poverty, violence, famine, fear, and hopelessness are forced to flee their countries in search of a better life (or any life at all!) elsewhere. Whatever the book’s imperfections, it helps shatter the abstractness we can lean on to protect ourselves against having to look at the issue of refugees today.

Admittedly, the issue isn’t simple. There are extremely complex issues involved in protecting our borders and in having millions of people freely enter our countries. However, as men and women who share a common humanity and a common planet with these refugees, can we remain callous to their plight? Moreover, as Christians, do we accept the fundamental, non-negotiable principle within Christian social doctrine that tells us that the world belongs to everyone equally and we may not adhere to any nationalistic belief that says, explicitly or implicitly, that our country is ours and we have no obligation to share it with others. To espouse this is unchristian and goes against the clear teaching of Jesus.

We might all, I submit, contemplate a certain parable of Jesus (Luke 16, 19-31) where he tells the story of a rich man who ignored a poor man sitting at his doorstep and refused to share his food with him. The poor man dies and finds himself in the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also dies and finds himself tormented by thirst in Hades. He begs Abraham to send the poor man, whom he had ignored during this lifetime, to bring him some water to quench his thirst, but it turns out this is not possible. Jesus tells us that there is an “unbridgeable gap” between the two of them. We have always simplistically assumed that this unbridgeable gap is the gap between heaven and hell, but that is not exactly the point the parable is making. The unbridgeable gap is the gap that already exists now between the rich and poor, and the lesson is that we had best try to bridge that gap now, in this life.

Notice that Jesus does not say that the rich man is a bad man, or that he didn’t earn his riches honestly, or that he wasn’t an upright citizen, or that he wasn’t going to church, or that he was unfaithful to his wife, or that he was a bad father to his children. It only says that he had one fault, a mortal one – inside his richness he did not respond to a hungry man sitting on the borders of house.

One God, One Guidance System, and One Road for Us All

At the end of the day, all of us, believers and non-believers, pious and impious, share one common humanity and all end up on the same road. This has many implications.

It’s no secret that today religious practice is plummetingradically everywhere in the secular world. Those who are opting out don’t all look the same, nor go by the same name. Some are atheists, explicitly denying the existence God. Others are agnostics, open to the accepting the existence of God but remaining undecided. Others self-define as nones; asked what faith they belong to they respond by saying none. There are those who define themselves as dones, done with religion and done with church. Then there are the procrastinators, persons who know that someday they will have to deal with the religious question, but, like Saint Augustine, keep saying, eventually I need to do this, but not yet! Finally, there’s that huge group who define themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious, saying they believe in God but not in institutionalized religion.

All of us know people who are in one or several of these categories and are anxious about them. What can we do, if anything, to nudge these people towards faith, religion, and church? What will happen if they die in this state? Where does God stand in the face of this?

I suspect that God doesn’t much share our anxiety here, not that God sees this as perfectly healthy (humans are human!), but rather that God has a larger perspective on it, is infinitely loving, and is longsuffering in patience while tolerating our choices. Why? What’s God’s larger perspective here?

First, the fact that our faith already baptizes those we love. Gabriel Marcel once famously stated, To say to someone ‘I love you’ is to say, ‘you will never be lost’. As Christians, we understand this in terms of our unity inside the Body of Christ. Our love for someone links him or her to us, and since we are part of the Body of Christ, he or she too is linked to the Body of Christ, and to touch Christ is to touch grace. Thanks to the marvels of the Incarnation, every sincere Christian can say, ‘my heaven includes this or that particular person whom I love.’ We used to call this “baptism by desire”, except that in this instance the desire for “baptism” is on our part, but still equally efficacious.

Next, we need to recognize that God loves these persons more than we do and is more solicitous for their happiness and salvation than we are. God loves everyone individually and passionately and works in ways to ensure that nobody gets lost.  Moreover, God is tricky! As good Christian apologists have always pointed out, God has his own schemes, loving traps, and means to lead persons to faith.

Moreover, God is infinitely patient. If we bracket piety for a moment, we might profitably

compare God to a GPS (a Global Positioning System) given how infinitely patient and yet persistent a GPS is in giving us directions. A GPS is built with the presumption that it will frequently not be obeyed and that it will have to make the necessary adjustments. We are all familiar with how this works. We are driving towards a destination and the GPS tells us that in order to get there we need to make a right turn at the next intersection. However, we ignore its instruction and drive straight through the intersection. There is a brief silence and then the GPS, taking into account the fact that we ignored its original directive, says, ‘recalculating’ and gives us a new instruction vis-à-vis getting to our destination.  And, it will repeat this cycle endlessly. A GPS, limitless in its patience, keeps ‘recalculating’, and keeps giving us a new instruction until we get to our destination. It never gives up on us.

God is the same. We have an intended destination and God gives us constant instructions along the way.  Religion and the church are an excellent GPS. However, they can be ignored and frequently are. But, God’s response is never one of anger nor of a final impatience. Like a trusted GPS, God is forever saying ‘recalculating’ and giving us new instructions predicated on our failure to accept the previous instruction. Eventually, no matter our number of wrong turns and dead ends, God will get us home.

One last thing. Ultimately, God is the only game in town, in that no matter how many false roads we take and how many good roads we ignore, we all end up on the one, same, last, final road. All of us: atheists, agnostics, nones, dones, searchers, procrastinators, those who don’t believe in institutionalized religion, the indifferent, the belligerent, the angry, the bitter, and the wounded, end up on the same road heading towards the same destination – death. However, the good news is that this last road, for all of us, the pious and the impious alike, leads to God.

Making a Recessive Journey

In a particularly poignant passage in her poem, The Leaf and the Cloud, Mary Oliver pictures herself standing at the gravesite of her mother and father, reflecting on their lives. They were far from perfect and she doesn’t sugarcoat their faults. She openly names her mother’s heaviness of soul and her father’s immature faith. She knows that many of her own struggles have roots there. However, she isn’t visiting their graves to lay blame on them. She’s there to kiss them an honest goodbye, at peace finally with both their less-than-perfect lives and their influence on her. She thanks them for everything, the good and the bad, wishes them well in the deep earth, and then says, “But I will not give them the kiss of complicity. I will not give them the responsibility for my life.”

All of us might do well to make this kind of recessive journey in terms of revisiting our early religious training. An interesting gravesite. Unfortunately, many of us don’t ever tarry there long enough to truly sort out what blessed us and what wounded us when some very fallible human agents introduced God to us. Today it is common (almost fashionable) for people to look back only negatively on their early religious training. Indeed many speak of being “in recovery” from it and often blame every kind of unhappiness and neurosis in their lives on their early religious training.

No doubt, some of this is valid, early religious training does leave a permanent mark on us. However, we owe it to ourselves, our parents, our early teachers, and to honesty to sort out the positives and negatives of our early religious background and, like Mary Oliver, make peace with it, even if we cannot give it the kiss of complicity.

What’s my own story? For me, awakening to consciousness and awakening to God and church were inextricably linked. The Roman Catholicism of the time was the air I breathed as a child and this was Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, a Catholicism replete with both positives and negatives. The spirituality of my childhood was one of absolute truths, of non-negotiable rules, of strong demands, of tribalism, and of narrow inclusivity. We, and we alone were the one true faith. Moreover, all of this was underwritten by a God who kept a scrupulous watch on your every action, didn’t easily give you permission to make a mistake, held the sixth commandment above all others, used shame as a weapon, and was frowning a lot of the time.

But, that was far from all of it. There was a whole other side. The family, community, and church that christened me had communal bonds that most communities today can only envy. You truly were part of a body, a family, and a community that incarnated a sense of transcendence that made faith something natural, and community part of your very identity. You knew you were a child of God and you knew too that you were a moral creature with real responsibilities to others and to God. You knew your eternal significance, your essential dignity, and the moral responsibility that came with that and you couldn’t exempt yourself from it.

What all of this did was ground you existentially in a very fundamental, non-negotiable human, moral, and religious truth, namely, that your life was not simply your own to do with whatever you wished. You knew in a way that you could not ignore, except by way of infidelity, that you were constitutively social, interdependent, ecclesial, and that God put you on this earth not just to make a good life for yourself. You had a vocation, a certain duty to serve, and God, family, community, and church could ask you to give your life over. Today, I see this particular brand on my soul as one of the most precious of all gifts that I received from the spirituality of my childhood. Whatever demons came along with that were worth it.

Besides demons can be cast out and most of those buried inside the catechesis of my childhood have slowly been exorcised through the years. What did it? Lots of things: years of studying and teaching theology, reading good literature, having good spiritual directors, seeing a robust and joyous health in women and men of faith, persevering in my own dogged (and far-from-perfect) attempt to be faithful to prayer, the Eucharist, and church community through seven decades, and, not least, the grace of God.

Today I look back on my early religious training in a way wherein the negatives are eclipsed by the positives. I am thankful for it all, even its initial rigidity, timidity, tribalism, fearfulness, and false fears of God, because something inside all of that grounded me and taught me what is ultimately important. Indeed, rigidity, timidity, tribalism, and excess caution aren’t a bad place to start from because after they loosen their grip, you are free for the rest of your life.  No small gift!

Disarmed and Dangerous

After his first arrest, the peace activist Daniel Berrigan went into hiding. After four months, he was captured, but during those months underground, although a threat to no one, he was put on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. There’s an irony here that did not go unnoticed. Someone put up a poster of him with this caption: Wanted – Notorious consecrator of bread and wine. Disturber of wars and felonious paper burner! The fugitive has been known to carry the New Testament and should be approached with extreme caution. Disarmed and dangerous.

Disarmed and dangerous! Corny as that may sound, it expresses the real threat to injustice, violence, and war. Disarmament is dangerous. Someone who is genuinely unarmed is ultimately the one who poses the greatest danger to disorder, immorality, and violence. Violence can withstand violence, but it can be brought down by non-violence.Here are some examples.

In our own generation, we have the example of Christian de Cherge, one of the seven Cistercian monks who were kidnapped and later killed by Islamist extremists in Algeria in 1996. His journey, and that of the other monks who died with him, is chronicled in a number of books (including some of his own letters and diaries) and in the awarding-winning film, Of Gods and Men. Living within a small community of nine monks in a remote Muslim village in Northern Algeria, Christian and his community were much loved by that Muslim community and, being French citizens and enjoying the protection of that citizenship, their presence constituted a certain protection for the villagers against Islamic terrorists. Alas, the situation was not to last.

On Christmas Eve, 1995, they received a first visit from the terrorists with the clear warning that they had best leave before they would become its victims. Both the French and the Algerian governments offered them armed protection. Christian, acting alone at first, against the majority voice in his own community, categorically refused armed protection. Instead, his prayer became this: In face of this violence, disarm us, Lord. His response to the threat was complete disarmament. Eventually, his entire community joined him in that stance.

Six months later they were kidnapped and killed, but the triumph was theirs. Their witness of fidelity was the singular most powerful gift they could have given to the poor and vulnerable villagers whom they sought to protect, and their moral witness to the world will nurture generations to come, long after this particular genre of terrorism has had its day. Christian de Cherge and his community were disarmed and dangerous.

There are innumerable similar examples of other persons who were disarmed and dangerous. Rosa Parks, disarmed and seemingly powerless against the racist laws at the time, was one of the pivotal figures in ending racial segregation in the USA, as was Martin Luther King. The list of dangerous unarmed persons is endless: Mahatma Gandhi, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero, Franz Jagerstatter, Dorothy Stang, Daniel Berrigan, Elizabeth McAlister, Michael Rodrigo, Stan Rother, and Jim Wallis, among others. Not least, of course, Jesus.

Jesus was disarmed and so dangerous that the authorities of his time found it necessary to kill him. His complete non-violence constituted the ultimate threat to their established order. Notice how both the civil and religious authorities at the time did not so much fear an armed murderer as they feared an unarmed Jesus … Release for us, Barabbas! We prefer to deal with an armed murderer than with an unarmed man professing non-violence and telling people to turn the other cheek! Give them credit for being astute. Unconsciously, they recognized the real threat, someone who is unarmed, non-violent, and turning the other cheek.

However, turning the other cheek must be properly understood. It is not a passive, submissive thing. The opposite. In giving this counsel, Jesus specifies that it be the right cheek. Why this seemingly odd specification? Because he is referring to a culturally-sanctioned practice at the time where a superior could ritually slap an inferior on the cheek with the intention not so much of inflicting physical pain as to let the other person know his or her place – I am your superior, know your place! The slap was administered with the back of the right hand, facing the other person, and thus would land on the other person’s right cheek. Now, in that posture, its true violence would remain mostly hidden because it would look clean, aesthetic, and as something culturally accepted.

However, if one were to turn the other cheek, the left one, the violence would be exposed. How? First, because now the slap would land awkwardly and look violent; second, the person receiving it would be sending a clear signal. The change in posture would not only expose the violence but it would also be saying, you can still slap me, but not as a superior to an inferior; the old order is over.

Disarmed and dangerous. To carry no weapon except moral integrity is the ultimate threat to all that is not right.

Why is There Something Instead of Nothing?

The Belgian theologian Jan Walgrave, who directed my doctoral thesis, was a true intellectual and a rare one. True, in that his thought naturally, instinctually gravitated towards the huge philosophical questions of essence and existence. Why are we here? Who are we really?  Moreover, he was also a rare intellectual in that he was an uncommon mixture of hard intellectual scrutiny and childlike piety. He could be equally disarming both in his intellectual sophistication and in his childlikeness.

In one of our meetings, he asked me this, “Do you ever sit on a park bench and ask yourself, why is there something instead of nothing?” I answered honestly, “In truth, I can’t ever remember doing that very explicitly. Like everyone else, I often wonder where we came from and how there is a God behind all of this, but I have never very explicitly contemplated your question.” “Well,” he replied, “then you are not a philosopher!  He went on, “I think about this question all the time; it is the most important of all questions.” (He consoled me for the fact that I could never be a true philosopher by telling me that I had a “fertile mind”, which he told me is its own gift.)

Why is there something instead of nothing? Surely, that is the ultimate question. How did it all begin? Who or what was there at the beginning and started it all?  Moreover, where did this who or what come from, who gave it a beginning?

Contemporary science cannot answer that question. It can tell us what happened at the origins of our universe, the Big Bang, but that doesn’t get us any nearer answering the bigger question, namely, who or what gave origin to that initial explosion nearly fifteen million years ago that lies at the origins of our universe and gave birth to billions of galaxies? How was this force itself in existence?

As people of faith, we believe it was God and believe that God had no beginning. However, that can neither be conceptualized nor imagined. What gave birth to God? No matter whether we believe in God or not, we are all still left with the question, Walgrave’s question, “why is there something instead of nothing?” Moreover, that question is complicated further by the fact that creation, at least vast segments of it, have a clear intelligent design. Given that fact, the most credible postulate vis-à-vis who or what lies at the origins of everything, demands that this something or someone (from which everything takes its origins) is not some blind, brute force but one that is highly intelligent and personal.

Thomas Aquinas, who did have a true philosophical mind, once proposed a number of logical arguments to try to “prove” that God exists. Among his arguments, we find this one: Imagine walking down a road and finding stone on the ground and asking yourself, ‘who put that stone there?’ You could simply conclude that it has always been there and think no further about it. However, imagine walking down a road and finding a clock that is still keeping time, and asking yourself, ‘who put that clock there?’ In this case, you could not simply say it has always been there and leave it at that. Why? Because the clock has a clear intelligent design that demands that some intelligence designed it. As well, it is still keeping time, which means that it could not always have been there. Someone put it there, and at some clear point in time. Thus, Aquinas concluded that since many things in the universe have an intelligent design, there must be an intelligent designer at its origins.

Today most people might consider that logic a bit naïve, but perhaps the naiveté is on their part. Someone no less than Albert Einstein affirmed this: The harmony of natural law reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is utterly insignificant reflection.

He is right, and the harmony he speaks of is not just the unfathomable ecological harmony that the various elements of the physical world appear to have with each other and how nature continues to regenerate itself despite everything we do to destroy its ecology. Further still, that harmony of natural law (as Einstein calls it) also includes an undeniable oneness between the laws of nature and the moral order. The law of karma and the law of nature are one and same thing, all of one piece, as is the law of gravity and the Holy Spirit. The physical and the moral are part of a single symphony. The air we breathe out into the universe is the air we are going to inhale – physically and morally. Rarely do I sit on a park bench and ask myself, “why is there something instead of nothing?” But then as Jan Walgrave said, I’m not a philosopher. My hope is that this little excursion into philosophy isn’t proof of that!

The Temptations of the Good Person

Many of us are familiar with an often-quoted line from T.S. Eliot; The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed for the wrong reason. This, he suggests, is the temptation of the good person. What’s the temptation?

In John’s Gospel, Jesus asks his listeners this question, “How can you believe who receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from God?” What’s Jesus’ challenge here? This: We can do all the right things, be doggedly faithful, resist every kind of compromise, and even accept martyrdom – but why? To be respected? To be admired? To win approval? To win a permanent good name for ourselves?

Aren’t these good, noble enough reasons?

They are. However, as T.S. Eliot suggests in Murder in the Cathedral, a temptation can present itself as a grace, and that can be the case in terms of being virtuous. He illustrates this through the struggles of his main character, Thomas a Beckett.  Beckett was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1162 until he was murdered in his own Cathedral in 1170. As Eliot presents him, Beckett does all the right things. He is altruistic, radically faithful, resists all compromise, and is ready to accept martyrdom. However, as Eliot highlights, these can be “the temptations of the good person”, and it can take some time (and a deeper maturity) to distinguish certain temptations from grace. Hence, Eliot coined these now-famous lines:

                           Now is my way clear; now is the meaning plain:

                       Temptation shall not come in this kind again.

                      The last temptation is the greatest treason:

                        To do the right deed for the wrong reason. …

                        For those who serve the greater cause

Make the cause serve them.

Those who serve the greater cause can easily make the cause serve them, blind to their own motivation.

Don’t we all know it! Those of us who work in ministry, in teaching, in administration, in the media, in the arts, and those of us who are habitual good Samaritans helping out everywhere, what ultimately drives our energy as we do all this good?

Well, motivation is rarely simply straightforward. We are a complex, often tortured creatures of motivation. Here’s a little parable vis-à-vis motivation from the Sufi tradition that suggests that we don’t have a single motivation but have multiple motivations. The parable runs this way.

There was a holy man, a guru, renowned for his wisdom who lived near the top of a mountain. One day three men showed up at his door, seeking counsel. He questioned the first one: “Did you climb up this mountain to see me because I’m famous or because you truly are interested in gaining some wisdom?” The man answered, “To be truthful, I came to see you because of your fame, though, of course, I’m also interested in receiving some counsel.”  The guru dismissed him, “You aren’t yet ready to learn.” He turned to the second man and asked him the same question, “What’s the real reason you climbed up this mountain to see me?” This man’s answer was different. “It’s not your fame that drew me here,” he said, “I’m not interested in that. I want to learn from you.” Surprisingly, the Guru also dismissed him, telling him that he was not yet ready to learn.

He turned to the third man, “Did you climb this mountain to see me because I’m famous or because you truly seek some counsel?” The man replied, “To be honest, it’s for both reasons, and probably for a good number of other reasons that I am unaware of.  I did want to see you because you are famous and I do really want to learn from you, and I am not even sure that either of them is the real reason I came to see you.” “You’re ready to learn”, said the holy man.

T.S. Eliot presents his main character in Murder in the Cathedral as a man who does all the right things, is recognized for his goodness, but is someone who still has to examine himself as to his real motivation for doing what he does. What Eliot highlights is something which should give all of us who are trying to be good, virtuous, faithful persons, pause for reflection, scrutiny, and prayer. What’s our real motivation? How much is this about helping others and how much is about ourselves, about gaining respect, admiration, a good name – and having a good feeling about ourselves?

This is a hard question and perhaps not even a fair one, but a necessary one which, if asked, can aid us in our quest for a deeper level of maturity. In the end, are we doing good things because of what it does for others or because of what it does for us?

As we stand somewhat naked and exposed before this question, we can take some consolation in the message contained in the Sufi parable. This side of eternity our motivations are pathologically complex and mixed.

Coping with our own Souls

We have many photographs of Therese of Lisieux. Her sister Celine loved using a camera and took many photos of Therese, but there’s an interesting thing to note in those photos. The British Carmelite Ruth Burrows once did a study of those photos and commented that in all of them, Therese is always somehow alone, by herself, even when in a group photo.   

Here’s the anomaly. Therese was a warm, friendly person with good social skills, who was loved by many. Yet in almost all the photographs of her, even when she is pictured together with family members whom she loved deeply, there is always a certain loneliness, an aloneness, that’s evident. However, the loneliness she exhibits there is not the aloneness of someone at odds with family and community, but a certain distance of soul, something that might be termed moral loneliness.  What is this? Can our souls be lonely even while we are bathed in friendship, love, and family?

Yes, that’s true for all of us, was true for Therese of Lisieux, and was true for Jesus.

Looking at the Gospel narratives that describe Jesus’ passion and death, we see that what they emphasize in not Jesus’ physical suffering. While those sufferings must have been horrific, the gospels never dwell on them. What they highlight is Jesus’ emotional suffering, his aloneness, his loneliness of soul as he endured his suffering and death. They point out how, in his neediest hour, while alone, abandoned, betrayed, misunderstood, humiliated, and in effect unanimity-minus-one, he was suffering more in soul than in body. 

Luke’s Gospel tells us that his agony took place in a garden. This too is revealing. Jesus had agonies elsewhere, in the temple, in the desert, and in his hometown, but his most searing one took place in a garden. Why a garden? As we know, in archetypal literature, gardens are not for growing vegetables, but for delight. The archetypal garden is the mythical place of delight, where lovers meet, where friends drink wine together, and where Adam and Eve were naked, innocent, and didn’t know it. The Jesus who sweats blood in the garden of Gethsemane is not Jesus the Teacher, Jesus the Magus, Jesus the Healer, or Jesus the Miracle-worker. In the garden, he is Jesus the Lover, the one who delights in love and who suffers in love – and it’s to this garden of suffering, intimacy, and delight to which he calls us.

The gospels emphasize that what Jesus suffered most deeply in his crucifixion was not the pain of being scourged and having nails driven through his hands, but a deep loneliness of soul that dwarfs even the most intense physical pain. Jesus wasn’t a physical athlete, but a moral one, doing battle in the arena with soul.

What’s moral loneliness?

I first encountered this term in the writings of Robert Coles, who used it to describe Simone Weil. What it suggests is that inside each of us there’s a deep place, a virginal center, where all that’s tender, sacred, cherished, and precious is held and guarded. It’s there that we are most genuinely ourselves, most genuinely sincere, most genuinely innocent. It’s where we unconsciously remember that once, long before consciousness, we were caressed by hands far gentler than our own. It’s where we still sense the primordial kiss of God.

In this place, more than any other, we fear harshness, disrespect, being shamed, ridiculed, violated, lied to. In this place we are deeply vulnerable and so we are scrupulously careful as to whom we admit into this space, even as our deepest longing is precisely for someone to share that place with us. More than we yearn for someone to sleep with sexually, we yearn for someone to sleep with there, morally, a soulmate. Our deepest yearning is for moral consummation.

But this isn’t easy to find. Rare is the perfect moral partner, even inside of a good marriage or friendship. And so we perennially face a double temptation: Resolve the tension by settling for certain compensations, tonics, that help us make it through the night or, perhaps worse, because the pain is too much to live with, giving ourselves over to bitterness, anger, and cynicism, thus denigrating the great dream. Either way, we sell ourselves short and settle for second best.

What’s to be learned from Jesus’ struggle with moral loneliness? This: he refused both the road of compensatory tonics and that of soul-hardening cynicism. He stayed the course and carried the tension to term.

Our own moral loneliness can be tyrannical. However, that’s not a license or invitation to begin jettisoning commitments, responsibilities, morals, and whatever else it takes to try to find that elusive soulmate for whom we yearn so deeply. What Jesus (and persons like Therese of Lisieux and Simone Weil) model is how to carry that tension ideally, how to carry our solitude at a high level, and how to resist, no matter the pain, calling second-best by any other name than second-best.

Our Fellow Believers – Friends not Foes

Denominational identity in me runs deep. Born, baptized, and raised a Roman Catholic, Roman Catholicism is my second nature, like a brand on my skin. I have no regrets about the congenital grip this has on me, even though now I think of it more as a foundation than as an endpoint in my faith journey.

The Roman Catholicism in which I was raised inserted me into the mystery of Christ – Jesus, the church, the sacraments, the Sermon on the Mount. For this, I couldn’t be more grateful.  It also taught me to be slow in judging anyone. However, it also taught me (with some allowances for Protestants) that basically only Roman Catholics would go to heaven, that the Roman Catholic Eucharist is the only one that yields the full “real presence”, and that Roman Catholicism is the only fully authentic way of being Christian. Moreover, non-Christians (those not baptized) could not go to heaven, except by grave exception. Only later did I learned that a number of other Christian denominations and world religions returned the favor and saw Roman Catholicism as deviant.

Things have changed for me and for many others. I am still unwaveringly a Roman Catholic, but now I am living out my faith and my Roman Catholicism in communion with Anglicans, Episcopalians, Protestants, Evangelicals, Jewish believers, and Muslims, all of whom are now cherished faith companions for me. At this stage of my life, I appreciate very deeply the truth (that Ephesians affirms) that ultimately there is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God who is Father of all, especially as I come more and more to appreciate that all of us who share this one God also share the same heartaches.

Several years ago, I met with a group of Divinity students at Yale University. The students came from a variety of Christian backgrounds and denominations, but shared a common goal; all were training for some kind of ministry, lay or ordained, in their particular denomination. It was an open discussion where they asked me questions. Two questions dominated the discussion. The first was a practical one, “How do you get a job in the church?” The second pertained to our topic. A number of the students asked this question, “Can I belong to more than one denomination at the same time? Can I be an Evangelical and Roman Catholic at the same time? Can I be at one and the same time a Protestant Evangelical Roman Catholic if I value aspects of all three faith traditions?”

I was without hard answers and their questions left me with my own questions which I am encountering daily in the school where I teach. The Oblate School of Theology where I teachhas a PhD program in spirituality that draws students from a variety of Christian denominations. These students are together in the same classes, the same dining halls, and the same social circles for the years they are studying here, all within a Roman Catholic institution. Very quickly, in months rather than years, as they study, pray, socialize, and share with each other their common ideals and struggles, denominational issues basically disappear. Nobody quite cares what denomination anyone else belongs to anymore. Not that they make light of it and that there is some generic melting down of the various denominational identities. That hasn’t been happening. The opposite – in the ten years we have had this program, not a single student has converted to another denomination.

However, their view of other denominations and of their own denomination has changed; in essence, it has been enlarged. There is a universal respect for each other’s denominations, and more than that. As these students focus on spirituality, they find that this can take them to a place where each can be affectively supportive of other denominations, even while more deeply valuing his or her own.

The deep lesson is this: there is a fellowship and an intimacy in faith that we can have with each other, and an affective support we can give each other that lies beyond our denominational differences. By studying together and sharing a common faith (one that lies beyond denominational differences) we are realizing that what is common to us is infinitely greater (and more important) than what separates us. We are also realizing that we all have the same heartaches.

 Moreover, this isn’t just a rarified experience happening in some divinity schools. More and more, this is becoming the common Christian experience.

So why the continued suspicion of each other? Why are we defending more our own denominational specificity than proactively moving towards embracing each other in a common faith, especially since this can be done without threatening our own denominations and separate ecclesiologies?

The invitation here is not to move towards an uncritical syncretism that blinds itself to genuine denominational differences, but rather to begin more and more to embrace all of our brothers and sisters in the faith, and not just our own kind.

Cheap Grace

There’s a tension among Christians today between those who would extend God’s mercy everywhere, seemingly without any conditions, and those who are more reticent and discriminating in dispensing it. The tension comes out most clearly in our debates concerning who may receive the sacraments: Who should be allowed to receive the Eucharist? Who should be allowed to marry inside a church? Who should be allowed a Christian burial? When should a priest withhold absolution in confession?

However, this tension is about a lot more than who should be allowed to receive certain sacraments. Ultimately, it’s about how we understand God’s grace and mercy. A clear example of this today is the growing opposition we see in some sectors to the person and approach of Pope Francis. To his critics, Francis is soft and compromising. To them, he is dispensing cheap grace, making God and His mercy as accessible as the nearest water tap. God’s embrace to all. No conditions asked. No prior repentance called for. No demand that there first be a change in the person’s life. Grace for all. No cost.

What’s to be said about this? If we dispense God grace and mercy so indiscriminately doesn’t this strip Christianity of much of its salt and leaven? May we simply embrace and bless everyone without any moral conditions? Isn’t the Gospel meant to confront?

Well, the very phrase cheap grace is an oxymoron. There’s no such a thing as cheap grace.  All grace, by definition, is unmerited just as all grace, by definition, doesn’t ask for certain preconditions to be met in order for it to be offered and received. The very essence of grace is that it is a gift, free, undeserved. And, though by its very nature grace often does evoke a response of love and a change of heart, it does not of itself demand them.

There’s no more powerful example of this than Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son and how it illustrates how grace meets waywardness.  We know the story. The prodigal son abandons and rejects his father, takes his unearned inheritance, goes off to a foreign land (a place away from his father) and squanders the money in the pursuit of pleasure. When he has wasted everything, he decides to return to his father, not because he suddenly has a renewed love for him, but, selfish still, because he is hungry. And, we know what happens. When he is still a long way from his father’s house, his father (no doubt longing for his return) runs out to meet him and, before his son even has an opportunity to apologize, embraces him unconditionally, takes him back into his house and prepares a special celebration for him. Talk about cheap grace!

Notice to whom this parable was spoken. It was addressed to a group of sincere religious persons who were upset precisely because they felt that by embracing and eating with sinners (without first demanding some moral preconditions) Jesus was cheapening grace, making God’s love and mercy too accessible, hence less precious. Notice as well the reaction of many of Jesus’ contemporaries when they saw him dining with sinners. For example, when he dined with Zacchaeus, the tax collector, the Gospels tell us, “All who saw it began to grumble.”  Interesting how that discontent persists.

Why? Why this anxiety? What undergirds our “grumbling”?  Concern for true religion? Not really. The deeper root of this anxiety is not religious but grounded rather in our nature and in our wounds. Our resistance to naked gift, to raw gratuity, to unconditional love, undeserved grace, stems rather from something inside our instinctual DNA that is hardened by our wounds. A combination of nature and wound imprints in us the belief that any gift, not least love and forgiveness, needs to be merited. In this life, no free meal! In religion, no free grace! A conspiracy between our nature and our wounds keeps forever reminding us that we are unlovable, and that love must be merited; it cannot be free because we are unworthy.

Overcoming that inner voice that is perpetually reminding us that we are unlovable is, I believe, the ultimate struggle (psychological and spiritual) in our lives. Moreover, don’t be fooled by protests to the contrary. People who glibly radiate how lovable they are and make protests to that effect are mostly trying to keep that fear at bay.

Saint Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans as his dying message. He devotes its first seven chapters to simply affirming over and over again that we cannot get our lives right. We are morally incapable. However, his repeated emphasis that we cannot get our lives right is really a set-up for what he really wants to leave with us, namely, we don’t have to get our lives right. We are loved in spite of our sin, and we are given everything freely, gratuitously, irrespective of any merit on our part.

Our uneasiness with unmerited grace is rooted more in a human insecurity than in any genuine religious concern.

Suicide and Our Misunderstandings

Margaret Atwood once wrote that sometimes a thing needs to be said, and said, said again, until it doesn’t need to be said anymore. That’s why I write a column annually on suicide, mostly saying the same things over and over again. The hope is that, like a note put into a bottle and floated out to sea, my little message might find someone needing consolation after losing a loved one to suicide.

What’s needs to be said, and said again, about suicide? Four things.

First, that it’s a disease and perhaps the most misunderstood of all diseases. We tend to think that if a death is self-inflicted, it is voluntary in a way that death through physical illness or accident is not. For most suicides, this isn’t true. A person who dies by suicide dies, as does the victim of a terminal illness or fatal accident, not by his or her own choice. When people die from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, AIDS, and accidents, they die against their will. The same is true for suicide, except that in the case of suicide the breakdown is emotional rather than physical – an emotional stroke, an emotional cancer, a breakdown of the emotional immune system, an emotional fatality.

This is not an analogy. There are different kinds of heart attacks, strokes, cancers, breakdowns of the immune system, and fatal accidents. However, they all have the same effect; they all take someone out of this life against his or her own will. No one who dies through suicide actually wants to die. He or she only wants to end a pain that can no longer be endured, akin to someone jumping to his death out of a burning building because his clothes are on fire.

Second, we should not worry unduly about the eternal salvation of a suicide victim, believing (as we used to) that suicide is the ultimate act of despair and something God will not forgive. God is infinitely more understanding than we are and God’s hands are infinitely safer and gentler than our own. Imagine a loving mother having just given birth, welcoming her child onto her breast for the first time. That, I believe, is the best image we have to picture how a suicide victim (most often an overly sensitive soul) is received into the next life. God is infinitely understanding, loving, and gentle. We need not worry about the fate of anyone, no matter the cause of death, who exits this world honest, oversensitive, gentle, over-wrought, and emotionally crushed. God has a special love for the broken and the crushed.

Knowing all of this however, doesn’t necessarily take away our pain (and anger) at losing someone to suicide; but faith and understanding aren’t meant to take our pain away but rather to give us hope, vision, and support as we walk within our pain.

Third, we should not torture ourselves with second-guessing when we lose a loved one to suicide: “What might I have done? Where did I let this person down? If only I had been there? What if …?” It can be natural to be haunted with the thought, “if only I’d been there at the right time.” Rarely would this have made a difference. Indeed, most of the time, we weren’t there for the exact reason that the person who fell victim to this disease did not want us to be there. He or she picked the moment, the spot, and the means precisely so that we wouldn’t be there. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that suicide is a disease that picks its victim precisely in such a way so as to exclude others and their attentiveness. This is not an excuse for insensitivity, especially towards those suffering from dangerous depression, but it should be a healthy check against false guilt and fruitless second-guessing.

We’re human beings, not God. People die of illness and accidents all the time and sometimes all the love and attentiveness in the world cannot prevent a loved one from dying. Love, for all its power, is sometimes powerless before a terminal illness.

Fourth, when we lose a loved one to suicide, one of our tasks is to work at redeeming that person’s memory, namely, to put that person’s life into a perspective wherein his or her memory is not forever tainted because it is viewed through the prism of suicide.

A proper human and faith response to suicide should not be horror, fear for the victim’s eternal salvation, guilty second-guessing about how we failed this person, and a hushed, guarded tone forever afterwards when we speak of him or her. Suicide is indeed a horrible way to die, but we must understand it (at least in most cases) as a sickness, a disease, an illness, a tragic breakdown within the emotional immune system. Most of all, we must trust God, God’s goodness, God’s understanding, God’s power to descend into hell, and God’s power to make all things right, even death by suicide.