Beware of Your Inner Circles


No man is an island. John Donne wrote those words four centuries ago and they are as true now as they were then, except we don’t believe them anymore.

Today more and more of us are beginning to define our nuclear families and our carefully chosen circle of friends precisely as a self-sufficient island and are becoming increasing selective as to who is allowed on our island, into our circle of friends, and into the circle of those we deem worthy of respect. We define and protect our idiosyncratic islands by a particular ideology, view of politics, view of morality, view of gender, and view of religion. Anyone who doesn’t share our view is unwelcome and not worthy of our time and respect.

Moreover, contemporary media plays into this. Beyond the hundreds of mainstream television channels we have to choose from, each with its own agenda, we have social media wherein each of us can find the exact ideology, politics, and moral and religious perspective that fosters, protects, and isolates our island and makes our little nuclear clique, one of self-sufficiency, exclusivity, and intolerance. Today we all have the tools to plumb the media until we find exactly the “truth” we like. We have come a long way from the old days of a Walter Cronkite delivering a truth we all could trust.

The effects of this are everywhere, not least in the increasingly bitter polarization we are experiencing vis-a-vis virtually every political, moral, economic, and religious issue in our world. We find ourselves today on separate islands, not open to listen, respect, or dialogue with anyone not of our own kind. Anyone who disagrees with me is not worthy of my time, my ear, and my respect; this seems to be the popular attitude today.

We see some of this in certain strident forms of Cancel Culture and we see much of it in the increasing hard, inward-turned face of nationalism in so many countries today. What’s foreign is unwelcome, pure and simple. We will not deal with anything that challenges our ethos.

What’s wrong with that? Almost everything. Irrespective of whether we are looking at this from a biblical and Christian perspective or whether we are looking at it from the point of view of human health and maturity, this is just wrong.

Biblically, it’s clear. God breaks into our lives in important ways, mainly through “the stranger”, through what’s foreign, through what’s other, and through what sabotages our thinking and blows apart our calculated expectations. Revelation normally comes to us in the surprise, namely, in a form that turns our thinking upside down. Take for example the incarnation itself. For centuries people looked forward to the coming of a messiah, a god in human flesh, who would overpower and humiliate all their enemies and offer them, those faithfully praying for this, honor and glory. They prayed for and anticipated a superman, and what did they get? A helpless baby lying in the straw. Revelation works like that. This is why St. Paul tells us to always welcome a stranger because it could in fact be an angel in disguise.

All of us, I am sure, at some point in our lives have personally had that experience of meeting an angel in disguise inside a stranger whom we perhaps welcomed only with some reluctance and fear. I know in my own life, there have been times when I didn’t want to welcome a certain person or situation into my life. I live in a religious community where you do not get to choose who you will live with. You are assigned your “immediate family” and (but for a few exceptions when there is clinical dysfunction) like-mindedness is not a criterion as to who is assigned to live with each other in our religious houses. Not infrequently, I have had to live in community with someone who I would not, by choice, have taken for a friend, a colleague, a neighbor, or a member of my family. To my surprise, it has often been the person whom I would have least chosen to live with who has been a vehicle of grace and transformation in my life.

Moreover, this has been true for my life in general. I have often found myself graced by the most unlikely, unexpected, initially unwelcome sources. Admittedly, this has not always been without pain. What’s foreign, what’s other, can be upsetting and painful for a long time before grace and revelation are recognized, but it’s what carries grace.

That is our challenge always, though particularly today when so many of us are retreating to our own islands, imagining this as maturity, and then rationalizing it by a false faith, a false nationalism, and a false idea of what constitutes maturity. This is both wrong and dangerous. Engaging with what is other enlarges us. God is in the stranger, and so we are cutting ourselves off from a major avenue of grace whenever we will not let the foreign into our lives.

Permission to be Sad


Let the preacher say, you have permission to be sad!

In a book, When the Bartender Dims the Lights, Ron Evans writes:

“There’s a line I came upon in the musings of a preacher: On a Sunday morning many of the people sitting before you are the walking wounded, and you need to give them permission to be sad. In a world obsessed with happiness, where being great is all that matters, let the preacher say, you have permission to be sad. And in a world where old age becomes the golden years, where every problem can be fixed and every ailment cured, let the preacher say, you have permission to be sad. In a world preoccupied with prolonging life, where death is a forbidden word, let the preacher say, you have permission to die. And let the preacher say, you have permission to live in memories of a lonesome kind.” 

Today neither our culture nor our churches give us sufficient permission to be sad. Occasionally, yes, when a loved one dies or some particular tragedy befalls us, we are allowed be sad, to be down, tearful, not upbeat. But there are so many other occasions and circumstances in our lives where our souls are legitimately sad, and our culture, churches, and egos do not give us the permission we need to feel what we are in fact experiencing – sadness. When that is the case, and it often is, we can either deny how we feel and go through the motions of being upbeat, or we can give way to our sadness, but only at price of feeling there is something wrong with us, that we should not be feeling this way. Both are bad.

Sadness is an unavoidable part of life and not, in itself, a negative thing. In sadness, there is a cry to which we are often deaf.  In sadness, our soul gets its chance to speak and its voice is telling us that a certain frustration, loss, death, inadequacy, moral failure, or particular circumstance or season of our lives is real, bitter, and unalterable. Acceptance is our only choice and sadness is its price.  When that voice is not listened to, our health and sanity feel a strain.

For example, in a particularly challenging (raw) book, Suicide and the Soul, the late James Hillman states that sometimes what happens in a suicide is that the soul is so frustrated and wounded that it kills the body. For reasons too complex and many to know, that soul could not make itself heard and was never given permission to feel what it was in fact experiencing. At an extreme, this can kill the body.

We see this in a less-extreme (though also deadly) way in the phenomenon of anorexia among young women. There is an irresistible pressure from the culture (often coupled with actual bullying on social media) to have a perfect body. Unfortunately, nature doesn’t issue many of those. Thus, these young women need permission to accept the limitations of their own bodies and to be okay with the sadness that comes with that.  Unfortunately, this isn’t happening, at least not nearly enough, and so instead of accepting the sadness of not having the body they want, these young women are forced (no matter the cost) to try to measure up. We see its sad effects.

Psychotherapists, who do dream work with clients, tell us that when we have bad dreams, the reason is often that our soul is angry with us. Since it cannot make itself heard during the day, it makes itself heard at night when we are helpless to drown it out.

There are many legitimate reasons for being sad. Some of us are born with “old souls”, poets, over-sensitive to the pathos in life. Some of us suffer from bad physical health, others from fragile mental health. Some of us have never been sufficiently loved and honored for who we are; others have had our hearts broken by infidelity and betrayal. Some of us have had our lives irrevocably ripped apart by abuse, rape, and violence; others are simply hopeless, frustrated romantics with perpetually crushed dreams, agonizing in nostalgia. Moreover, all of us will have our own share of losing loved ones, of breakdowns of all sorts, and bad seasons that test the heart. There are a myriad of legitimate reasons to be sad.

This needs to be honored in our Eucharists and in other church gatherings. Church is not just a place for upbeat celebration. It is also supposed to be a safe place where we can break down. Liturgy too must give us permission to be sad.

D.H. Lawrence once famously wrote:

            The feeling I don’t have I don’t have.

            The feelings I don’t have, I won’t say I have.

            The feeling you say you have, you don’t have.

            The feelings you would like us both to have, we neither of us have.

We need to be true to our souls by being true to its feelings.

Immigration – Then and Now


In the summer of 1854, U.S. President Franklin Pierce sent Isaac Stevens to be governor of Washington Territory, a tract of land controlled by the federal government. Governor Stevens called for a meeting of Native chiefs to discuss the tension between the U.S. government and the Natives. One of the tribes, the Yakima, was stubbornly rebelling, led by their chief, Kamiakin. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (the religious order to which I belong) were working with the Yakima nations. Their chief, Kamaikin, turned to one of our Oblate priests, Charles Pandosy, for advice, asking him how many Europeans there were and when they would stop coming.  Sadly, the advice that Pandosy gave him was of no consolation to the chief.  In a letter to our Oblate founder in France, Saint Eugene de Mazenod, Pandosy summed up his conversation with the Yakima chief. He told Kamiakin: “It is as I feared. The whites will take your country as they have taken other countries from the Indians. I came from the land of the white man far to the east where the people are thicker than the grass on the hills. Where there are only a few here now, others will come with each year until your country will be overrun with them. … It has been so with other tribes; it will be so with you. You may fight and delay for a time this invasion, but you cannot avert it. I have lived many summers with you and baptized a great number of your people into the faith. I have learned to love you. I cannot advise you or help you. I wish I could.” (Quote from Kay Cronin, Cross in the Wilderness, Mission Press, Toronto, c1960, p. 35.)

One hundred and seventy years later the situation is the same, only the players are different. In 1854, Europeans were coming to America for a myriad of reasons. Some were fleeing poverty, others persecution, others saw no future for themselves in their homeland, others were searching for religious freedom, and others were immigrating because they saw huge possibilities here in terms of career and fortune. But, this was the problem. There were people already living here and these indigenous peoples resisted and resented the newcomers, perceiving their coming as a threat, an unfairness, and a seizure of their country. Even before they fully realized how many people would land on their shores, the indigenous nations had already intuited what this would mean, the end to their way of life.

Does any of this sound strangely familiar? I recall a comment I read on the sports pages several years ago which spoke volumes. A baseball player in New York City to play the Yankees shared how, going to the stadium on the subway, he was taken aback by what he saw and heard: There were people of different colors, speaking different languages, and I asked myself, who let all these people into our country? That could have been Chief Kamaikin of the Yakima nation, a hundred and seventy years ago. Today our borders everywhere are crowded with people trying to enter our Western countries and they are fleeing their homelands for the same reasons as did the original Europeans who came to America. Most of them are fleeing persecution or a hopeless future for themselves in their own countries, even as others are seeking a better career and fortune for themselves.  And, like the indigenous peoples, we who now live here have the same concerns that Chief Kamaikin had a hundred and seventy years ago: When will this stop? How many of those people are there? What will this mean for our way of life, for our ethnicity, our language, our culture, our religion?

Whatever our personal feelings about this, the answer to those questions cannot be much different from the answer Father Pandosy gave Chief Kamaikin all those years ago.  It’s not going to stop – because it can’t. Why not?

Globalization is inevitable because the earth is round, not endless. Sooner or later, we have no other option but to meet each other, accept each other, and find a way to share space and life with each other. Because the earth is round, its space and resources are limited, not endless. Moreover, there are millions of people who are unable to live where they are presently living. They will do what they have to for themselves and their families. What’s happening cannot be stopped. In the words of Fr. Pandosy, we may try to fight and delay this invasion for a time, but we cannot avert it.

Today, we, former immigrants ourselves, are beginning (at least a little) to understand what the indigenous peoples must have felt when we showed up, uninvited, on their shores. It’s our turn now to know what it feels like when a country we consider as ours is progressively filling up with people who are different from us in ethnicity, language, culture, religion, and way of life.

What goes around comes around.