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!