Holiness, Wholeness, and Depression

External appearances can easily fool us, and often do. That’s true in every area of human life, and religion is no exception.

Some years ago, I lived in a seminary for nearly two years with a young seminarian who, by all outward appearances, appeared to be the ideal candidate for priesthood and ministry. Intelligent, conscientious, prayerful, strongly committed to his studies, and with a deep concern for the poor, he seemed above the more mundane and secular concerns of his peers. He wasn’t interested in drinking beer, arguing football, gossiping, making small talk, or wasting time with the other seminarians. While these other things were going on, he was normally found in either the chapel, the library, or at this desk, busy about more serious things. Moreover, he was always courteous and polite to a fault, no harsh words, bitter slang, or salacious jokes issued from his mouth.  He did all the right things.

But none of us living with him confused him with a saint. He was a sincere young man but not a particularly happy one. Why not?  Because, while externally he was doing everything right, what radiated from his person was not life but depression. His entry into a room had the effect of draining some energy from the room. He was doing everything right, but his energy wasn’t right. The other seminarians, for all their mundane interests, were perceptive and good-hearted enough to recognize that he needed help and would play the Good Samaritan, taking turns sitting beside him at table, hoping to cheer him up a little. The seminary rector too recognized a problem and sent him to a psychologist who told the young man that he was on the edges of a clinical depression and that he would be well-advised to leave the seminary, at least for a while. The young man did leave seminary, eventually regained his health, and is today a man who brings a robust energy into a room.

This is not an uncommon example. One of the struggles we perennially face with religious discernment is that it’s easy to mistake depression for sanctity, sentimentality for piety, rigidity for orthodoxy, narrow sectarianism for loyalty, repressed sexuality for wholeness, and denial of one’s complexity for stability. Depression can look like sanctity because the person within its grip will appear to be free from the normal urges that come from our more-earthy passions. Sentimentality invariably gravitates towards piety and dresses itself as devotion. Rigidity invariably cloaks itself as an overzealous concern for truth and orthodoxy, just as narrow sectarianism forever presents itself as fierce loyalty, and repressed sexuality and denial of one’s complexity, especially one’s sexual complexity, take on the guise of wholeness and stability. Depression, sentimentality, fearfulness, rigidity, sectarianism, repression, and denial like to hide behind nobler things.

I say this sympathetically. None of us are free from these struggles. But, with that being confessed, we shouldn’t be fooled by false sanctity. Depression, sentimentality, fearfulness, narrowness, rigidity, and repression drain the energy from a room.  Real sanctity, piety, orthodoxy, loyalty, wholeness, and stability bring energy into a room and don’t make you swallow hard and feel guilty because your own blood is filled with a more robust energy. The presence of real sanctity sets you free and gives you permission to feel good about your humanity, no matter how red your blood. Real sanctity attracts and radiates life; it doesn’t unconsciously beg you to play the Good Samaritan to cheer it up.

We see this, for example, in Mother Teresa. As we now know from her diaries, she spent the last sixty years of her life in a deep, painful dark night of the soul. During the last sixty years of her life she was struggling interiorly for consolation, yet everything about her radiated the opposite. She filled a room with energy. She lit up a room like a powerful light bulb. She wasn’t just doing all the right things; she was radiating a life-giving energy.

And that is how, in the end, we need to discern genuine sanctity, genuine piety, genuine orthodoxy, genuine loyalty, and genuine wholeness from their false guises. Genuine sanctity brings energy into a room, depression drains it from a room; genuine piety, like a beautiful icon, attracts you, sentimentality makes you uncomfortable, wanting to shield your eyes; genuine orthodoxy makes you want to embrace the whole world, rigidity makes you fearful and petty; genuine loyalty has you standing up for your loved ones, narrow sectarianism makes you a bigot; genuine wholeness has already faced the dark chaos of your human and sexual complexity, repression and denial make you huddle in fear before those dark corners.

There’s a double challenge in this: First, as this pertains to our own lives, we must be more honest and courageous in facing our own chaos and recognize our perpetual propensity to disguise our weaknesses as virtues. Second, we need, as the poet, William Stafford, puts it, to make sure that we are not following the wrong star home.

The Imperative for Wholeness inside Christ

For more than a thousand years, Christians have not had the joy of being one family around Christ. Although there were already tensions within the earliest Christian communities, it was not until the year 1054 that there was a formal split so as to, in effect, establish two formal Christian communities, the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in the West. Then, with the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, there was a further split within the Western Church and Christianity fragmented still further. Today there are more than a hundred Christian denominations, many of them, sadly, not on friendly terms with each other.

Division and misunderstanding are understandable, inevitable, the price of being human. There are no communities without tension and so it’s no great scandal that Christians sometimes cannot get along with each other. The scandal is rather that we have become comfortable, even smug, about not getting along with each other. The scandal is that we no longer hunger for wholeness and that we no longer miss each other inside our separate churches. In virtually all of our churches today there is too little anxiety about those who are not worshipping with us, whether these separated brothers and sisters belong to other denominations or whether they belong to our own. For instance, teaching Roman Catholic seminarians today, I sense a certain indifference to the issue of ecumenism. For many seminarians today this is not an issue that is of particular concern to them. Sad to say, this holds true for most Christians in all denominations.

But this kind of indifference is inherently unchristian. Oneness was close to the heart of Jesus. He wants all his children at the same table, as we see in this parable in the Gospels:

A woman had ten coins and lost one. She became extremely anxious and agitated and began to search frantically and relentlessly for the lost coin, lighting lamps, looking under tables, and sweeping all the floors in her house. Eventually she found the coin. She was delirious with joy, called together her neighbors and threw a party whose cost far exceeded the value of the coin she had lost. (Luke 15, 8-9)

Why such anxiety and such joy over the loss and the finding of a coin whose value was that of a dime? The answer lies in the symbolism: In her culture, nine was not a whole number; ten was. Both the woman’s anxiety on losing the coin and her joy in finding it had little to do with the value of the coin but with the value of wholeness; an important wholeness in her life had been fractured, a precious set of things was no longer complete. Hence the parable might recast this way:

A woman had ten children. With nine of them, she had a good relationship, but one of her daughters was alienated. Her nine other children came regularly to the family table, but this daughter did not. The woman could not rest in that situation; she needed her alienated daughter to rejoin them. She tried every means to reconcile with her daughter and, one day, miracle of miracles, it worked. Her daughter came back to the family. Her family was whole again, everyone was back at table. The woman was overjoyed, withdrew her modest savings from the bank, and threw a lavish party to celebrate that wholeness.

Christian faith demands that, like that woman, we need to be anxious, dis-eased, lighting lamps and searching, until the Church is whole again. Nine is not a whole number. Neither is the number of those who are normally inside our respective churches. Roman Catholicism isn’t a whole number. Protestantism isn’t a whole number. The Evangelical Churches aren’t a whole number. The Orthodox Churches aren’t a whole number. No one Christian denomination is a whole number. Together we make up a whole number.

Thus we are meant to ask ourselves uncomfortable questions: Who no longer goes to church with us? Who feels uncomfortable worshipping with us? Are we comfortable that so many people can no longer join us in our church?

Sadly, today, too many of us are comfortable in churches that are far, far from whole. Sometimes, in our less reflective moments, we even rejoice in it: “Those others aren’t real Christians in any case! We’re better off without their kind! There’s more peace this way! We are a purer, more faithful, church because of their absence! We’re the one true remnant!”

But this lack of a healthy solicitude for wholeness compromises both our maturity and our following of Jesus. We are mature loving people and true followers of Jesus, only when, like Jesus, we remain in tears over those “other sheep that are not of this fold” and when, like the woman who lost one of her coins and would not sleep until every corner of the house was turned upside down in a frantic search for what was lost, we too set out solicitously in search of that lost wholeness.





The Non-Violence of God

In his deeply insightful book, Violence Unveiled, Gil Bailie takes us through a remarkable section of the diaries of Captain James Cook, the famed British scientist and explorer. Visiting the Island of Tahiti in 1777, Cook was taken one day by a local tribal Chief to witness a ritual where a man was sacrificed as an offering to the god, Eatooa. The man was being sacrificed in hope that this particular god would give the tribe some assistance in an upcoming war. Cook, though friendly to the local peoples, could not conceal his detestation for what he considered both a barbaric and superstitious act.  In a conversation with the tribal Chief afterwards, Cook told the Chief, through an interpreter, that in England they would hang a man for doing that.

Cook found the idea of killing someone to appease God to be abhorrent. Yet, as the great irony inside this story makes clear, we have never stopped killing people in God’s name, we have only changed the nomenclature. They called it human sacrifice; we call it capital punishment. In either case, someone dies because we feel that God needs and wants this death for some divine reason.

All peoples, right up to this day, have always done violence in God’s name, believing that the violence is not only justified but is in fact necessitated by God. God, it is argued, needs us to do this violence in his name.  For this reason, ancient cultures often offered human sacrifice. During the medieval ages, as a Christian church, we had the Inquisition believing that God wanted us to kill people who were in doctrinal error. Today we see a new form of this in a number of extremist Islamic groups who believe that God wants infidels of all kinds put to death for the sake of religious purity.

We have forever justified killing and other forms of violence in God’s name, often pointing to texts in scripture, which seemingly, show God as ordering violence in his name. But, in this, we have been wrong. Despite a number of texts which, on the surface, seem to indicate that God is ordering violence (but which are really archetypal and anthropomorphic in nature and do not justify that interpretation) we see, if we read the bible from beginning to end, a progressive revelation (or at least a progressive realization on our part) of the non-violence of God, a revelation that ends in Jesus who reveals a God of radical non-violence. Our faulty idea of the God of the Old Testament who seemingly orders the extermination of whole peoples is indeed primitive and superstitious when placed beside the concept of the Father of Jesus who sends his son into the world as a helpless infant and then lets him die helpless before a mocking crowd. The God whom Jesus reveals is devoid of all violence and asks that we no longer do violence in God’s name.

To offer just one example: In John’s Gospel (8, 2-11), we see the story of the woman who has been caught in adultery. As John tells the story: A crowd of pious persons bring her to Jesus and tell him that they have caught her in the very act of committing adultery and that Moses (their primary interpreter of God’s will) has ordered that, for this offense, she needs to be put to death. Jesus, for his part, says nothing, instead he bends down and begins to write on the ground with his finger. Then, looking up, he tells them: “Let the person among you without sin cast the first stone!” Then he bends down and writes for a second time with his finger. Unbelievably they get the message and lay down their stones and go away.

What has happened here? The key for interpretation is Jesus’ gesture of writing on the ground with his finger. Who writes with his finger? Who writes twice? God does. And what God writes with his finger and writes twice are the Ten Commandments, and he had to write them twice because Moses “broke” them the first time. Coming down the mountain, carrying the tablets of the commandments, Moses caught the people in the very act of committing idolatry and he, gripped in a fever of religious and moral fervor, broke the tables of stone on the golden calf and on peoples’ heads. Moses was the first person to break the commandments and he broke them physically, thinking violence needed to be done for God’s cause.  Then, having broken them, he needed to go up the mountain a second time and have them rewritten by God; but before rewriting them, God gave Moses a stern message: Don’t stone people with the Commandments! Don’t do violence in my name!  The people who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery understood Jesus’ gesture. Their divine interpreter, Moses, had it wrong.

Too often, though, we are still, in a variety of forms, stoning people with the Commandments, falsely believing that God wants this violence.

On the Dangers of Defining Ourselves

Given the speed and change in our world today, the oceans of information being given us by the new technologies, the speed with which knowledge now passes through our lives, the increasing specialization and fragmentation inside higher education, and the ever-increasing complexity of our lives, you occasionally hear someone say, usually just after offering an opinion on something: But what do I know anyway? Good question: What do we know anyway?

On the surface this may sound humble and, if sincere, does depict a certain humility; but this kind of admission has a sad underside: What do I know anyway?  Indeed, what can we know amongst all the complexity and sophistication of our world?

Well, we can know our own light, our own moral center, our own heart, our own mystical center. Ultimately we can know what’s most real and most precious to us and this is the most important knowledge of all. We can know what’s ultimately important. Next to the inchoate knowledge we have of God, knowledge of our own light, of our own moral center, is the most important thing we will ever know. Indeed knowing our own center is intimately intertwined with knowing God.

This is something we need to highlight today because so many forces around us and inside us conspire to deflect us from being awake to and attentive to our own deepest center, that is, from being in touch with who we really are. When we’re honest we admit how difficult it is to be genuinely sincere and how difficult it is for us to act out of our real center rather than acting out of ideology, popular opinion, fashion, fad, or out of some prefabricated concept of ourselves that we’ve ingested from others around us. Often our attitudes and actions do not really reflect who we are. Rather they reflect who are friends are, the newspapers and websites we’ve read recently, and what newscasts and talks shows draw our attention. Likewise we often understand ourselves more by a persona that was handed to us by our family, our classmates, our colleagues, or our friends than by the reality that’s deepest inside us. Beginning from on infancy we ingest various notions of who we are: “You’re the bright one! You’re the stupid one! You’re a rebel! You’re timid! You’re selfish! You’re afraid? You’re slow! You’ve got a quick mind. You’re a loser! You’re bad! You’re good! You’re destined for higher things! You’ll be a failure!”

And so the challenge is to be more attuned to our own light, to our own moral center, to be more in touch with what’s ultimately most real and most precious to us. No small part of that is the challenge to resist self-definition, to not picture ourselves and act out of an image we’ve ingested of ourselves as a the bright one, the stupid one, the rebel, the timid one, the selfish one, the generous one, the bad one, the good one, the successful one, the failure, the one who needs to say: “But what do I know anyway?” What’s the price we pay for doing that?

First, both our compassion and our indignation then become prescribed and selective. We will praise certain people and things and be incensed by other people and other things not because these speak to or speak against what’s most precious inside us, but because they speak to or against our image of ourselves. When that happens we not only lose our real selves we also lose our individuality. Ideology, popular opinion, fashion, fad, group-think, and hype, ironically, bury us into a sea of anonymity. In Rene Girard’s words: In our desire to be different we all inevitably end up in the same ditch! One needs only to look at any popular fad, such as wearing a baseball cap backwards, to see the truth of this.

How might we healthily define ourselves in a way that doesn’t deflect us from being awake to our own light? What kind of self-definition might help free us from ideology? How might we think of ourselves in a way so that image of ourselves that we ingested in childhood might no longer hold us captive in adulthood so that we are strong and healthy enough to not let, as William Stafford says, a simple shrug or a small betrayal break our fragile health and send the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dykes?

There’s no easy answer, but here’s a suggestion: Early on in his ministry, when people were still trying to figure out who he was, they came to John the Baptist and asked him to define himself: “Who are you? They asked: “Are you the Christ? Are you Elijah? Are you a prophet?” John replied that he was none of these. “Who are you then?” they persisted. John’s answer: I am a voice crying out in the wilderness! Just that, no more!

Now that’s a healthy self-image and a true humility, with no sad underside.

My Ten Favorite Books of 2013

De gustibus non est disputandum. That’s a famous line from St. Augustine wherein he suggests that taste is subjective and that what one person fancies might not be to another person’s liking.  Under that canopy I would like to recommend the following books to you. Among the books that I read in 2013, these ten stayed with me in ways that the others didn’t. So, with no promises that your tastes will echo mine, here goes …

Among the different novels that I read, I recommend:

Alice Munro’s, Dear Life – Stories: These stories won’t give you easy moral comfort, but will stretch you. They’re moral in that they name things as they are. Munro might have entitled these stories – It is what it is! Since publishing this novel, she has won the Nobel Prize for Literature, no surprise to anyone in Canada.

Barbara Kingsolver’s, Flight Behavior: This is a novel about global warming which won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though everyone will learn from it. More important even than her moral message is the flashlight she shines into ordinary life. Told from the viewpoint of a young mother, trapped in poverty and frustrated by her lack of education and her lack of choices, Kingsolver brilliantly lays bare a human heart, with both its temptations and its virtues.

Toni Morrison’s, Home: Morrison isn’t easy reading, and her story line isn’t always the easiest to follow, but her writing is art, the best, and her language conveys a color and feeling that has few equals among novelists. She didn’t win the Nobel Prize for literature undeservedly.

Within the genre of biography and history, these books stood out:

Roger Lipsey’s, Hammarskjold, A Life: Lipsey, using mountains of material from Dag Hammarskjold’s journals and letters, reveals that Hammarskjold was all that was hinted at in Markings, and more. Hammarskjold, both as a public figure and in his private life, tried to mirror the greatness of life. Nearly 800 pages long, it’s worth the effort, the story of a great soul.

Brenna Moore’s, Sacred Dread, Raissa Maritain, the Allure of Suffering and the French Catholic Revival (1905-1944): Not an easy read, but anyone with an interest in the world of Maritains, Leon Bloy, Charles Peguy, and the French Catholic Revival at the beginning of the last century will be given a deeper insight into that world.

Kay Cronin’s, Cross in the Wilderness: An old book, published in 1960, and now available only in libraries, Cronin traces the history of the Oblate missionaries coming to Oregon and British Columbia and opening churches there. I was truly inspired by the selflessness and courage of these men and what they accomplished. French intellectuals, many of them, they were sent into the wilderness with little preparation and survived there on ideals and faith, and flat-out toughness. Food, shelter, and doctors often weren’t available. Reading their story made me, more than ever, proud to be a member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. 

Mary Gordon’s, The Shadow Man, A Daughter’s Search of Her Father: We only understand ourselves when we understand our parents and how their virtues and weaknesses helped shape our own souls. Mary Gordon, better than most, has been able to do this. Many of us are familiar with her brilliant book on her mother, Circling my Mother. Here she does the same thing with her father. How she understands her father will help us to understand our own.

In the area of spirituality, I much recommend:

Belden C. Lane’s, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Desert and Mountain Spirituality: Very much in the genre of Bill Plotkins’, Soulcraft, Lane gives us insights into the important role that geography can play in shaping our souls, and hints of how we might more deliberately expose ourselves to that. For Lane, spirituality isn’t something that should be done only in air-conditioned prayer centers. Rather, nature, the desert, the wind, and the sun need also to wash over our souls and bodies.

Jim Wallis’, Rediscovering Values – On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street, A Moral Compass for the New Economy:  This book should come with a warning: It will upset you if you’re a fiscal conservative, but, if you are, you might want to give yourself this challenge. Wallis is as close to a “Dorothy Day” as our generation has.

Donald H. Dunson’s and James A. Dunson’s, Citizen of the World, Suffering and Solidarity in the 21st Century: Socrates once said that he was a citizen of the world first and only, after that, a citizen of Athens. How do we widen our hearts and our attitudes so as to live out a citizenship that’s wider than our own ethnicity, nationality, history, geography, self-interest, and natural affinity? Donald and James Dunson try to answer that, and they do it with remarkable nuance. This book is a genuine moral compass, what prophecy should be. Good prophets don’t spray you with guilt; they make you want to be a better person.

Again, de gustibus non est disputandum.

Christmas – Its Checkered Origins and its Checkered Sequence

If someone who had never heard the story of Jesus were to ask any of us about his origins, we would, I suspect, begin with the story of his annunciation and birth and end with the story of his resurrection and ascension. While that does capture his life, that’s not how the Gospels either begin or end his story. The story of Jesus and the meaning of Christmas can only really be understood by looking at where Jesus came from, his family tree, and by looking at how his story has continued in history. Indeed, that’s how the Gospels tell his story.

The Gospel of John begins his story by pointing out his eternal origins inside of God before his birth. For John, Jesus’ family tree has just three members, the Trinity: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. Mark’s Gospel gives no family tree, begins his story with his public ministry, and then has no ending to his story. For Mark, Jesus’ story is still ongoing. Matthew and Luke, however, include inside Jesus’ story a long family tree, a genealogy, that shows his origins. Too often we tend to ignore these genealogies with their long list of difficult-to-pronounce names, most of which mean little to us. But, as the renowned biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, emphasizes again and again, we cannot really understand the story of Jesus without understanding why his family tree, this long list of names, is judged to be important.

What’s to be learned from looking at Jesus’ family tree, that curious list of ancient names? Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, Jacob fathered Judah, Judah fathered Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez fathered Hezon, Hezon fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminabab … and so on. Among other things, these genealogies trace out Jesus’ origins in a way that tells us that his real story will not be grasped by anyone who wants to believe that Jesus’ human origins were totally immaculate and pure, containing no sin or weakness. Jesus wasn’t born of all saintly ancestors. Rather, as the genealogies show, his family tree contains as many sinners as saints. Among his ancestors were liars, adulterers, murderers, power-grabbing men, scheming women, wicked kings, corrupt church officials, and sinners of every sort. The same holds true for the religious institutions that figured in his birth. The religious history of Judaism out of which Jesus was born was too a mélange grace and sin, of religious institutions serving both God and their own human interests.

And what’s the moral in all this? The lesson is this: Both the persons and the institutions that gave birth to Jesus were mixture of grace and sin, a mixture that mediated God’s favor and also rationalized it for its own benefit. But, out of that mélange, Jesus was born. It can be a scandal to the piety within us to accept that not everything that gave birth to Christmas was immaculately conceived. The same holds true of what followed after Jesus’ birth. His earthly ministry was also partially shaped and furthered by the self-interest of the religious authorities of his time, the resistance of secular powers of his time, and the fear and infidelity of his own disciples. And this has continued through the two thousand years of history since. Jesus has continued to have earthly incarnation throughout the centuries thanks not only to saintly individuals and virtuous churches. No, Jesus’ family tree subsequent to his birth is also a long list of saints and sinners, of selfless martyrs and selfish schemers, of virtue and betrayal.

And recognizing and accepting this should not lead us to a cynicism where we begin to doubt the truth of Jesus or the legitimacy of the church because of the lies, sin, infidelity, and not-infrequent stupidity of those human persons and religious institutions who originally made up Jesus’ family-tree and who have constituted his family since. Faith can accommodate the recognition of sin and infidelity. So can Christmas. 

Christmas has a checkered origin and a checkered sequence: Jacob did steal his brother’s birthright; Judah did sleep with his daughter-in-law; David did commit adultery and did commit murder to cover it up; the church did set up the Inquisition and kill more of its own than were martyred in the early church; the church did give us popes who sold ecclesial favors and were sexually licentious; the churches, despite their catholicity and holiness, have perennially been narrow and elitist and never been fully free of self-interest; and the sexual abuse scandal did happen.

But the pure mystery of Jesus, of Christ, and of the Church somehow shine through in spite of all of this and, ironically, because of all of this. Like a hidden seed, God’s grace works, even through people like us and churches like ours, revealing divinity despite most everything. And the God who wrote the original Christmas with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives.

Staying Awake

In his autobiography, Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis recounts a conversation he once had with an old monk.  Kazantzakis, a young man at the time, was visiting a monastery and was very taken by a famed ascetic, Father Makarios, who lived there. But a series of visits with the old monk left him with some ambivalent feelings as well.  The monk’s austere lifestyle stirred a certain religious romanticism in Kazantzakis, but it repelled him too; he wanted the romanticism, but in a more-palatable way. Here’s their conversation as Kazantzakis records it:

“Yours is a hard life, Father. I too want to be saved. Is there no other way?”

“More agreeable?” asked the ascetic, smiling compassionately.

“More human, Father.”

“One, only one.”

“What is that?”

“Ascent. To climb a series of steps. From the full stomach to hunger, from the slaked throat to thirst, from joy to suffering. God sits at the summit of hunger, thirst, and suffering; the devil sits at the summit of the comfortable life. Choose.”

“I am still young. The world is nice.  I have time to choose.”

Reaching out, the old monk touched my knee and said:

“Wake up, my child. Wake up before death wakes you up.”

I shuttered and said:

“I am still young.”

“Death loves the young,” the old man replied. “The inferno loves the young. Life is like a lighted candle, easily extinguished. Take care – wake up!” 

Wake up! Wake up before death wakes you up. In a less dramatic expression that’s a virtual leitmotif in the Gospels. Jesus is always telling us to wake up, to stay awake, to be vigilant, to be more alert to a deeper reality. What’s meant by that? How are we asleep to depth? How are we to wake up and stay awake?

How are we asleep? All of us know how difficult it is for us to be inside the present moment, to not be asleep to the real riches inside our own lives. The distractions and worries of daily life tend to so consume us that we habitually take for granted what’s most precious to us, our health, the miracle of our senses, the love and friendships that surround us, and the gift of life itself. We go through our daily lives not only with a lack of reflectiveness and lack of gratitude but with a habitual touch of resentment as well, a chronic, grey depression, Robert Moore calls it. We are very much asleep, both to God and to our own lives.

How do we wake up? Today there’s a rich literature that offers us all kinds of advice on how to get into the present moment so as to be awake to the deep riches inside our own lives. While much of this literature is good, little of it is very effective. It invites us to live each day of our lives as if was our last day, but we simply can’t do that. It’s impossible to sustain that kind of intentionality and awareness over a long period of time. An awareness of our mortality does wake us up, as does a stroke, a heart attack, or cancer; but that heightened-awareness is easier to sustain for a short season of our lives than it is for twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty years. Nobody can sustain that kind of awareness all the time. None of us can live seventy or eighty years as if each day was his or her last day. Or can we?

Spiritual wisdom offers a nuanced answer here: We can and we can’t!  On the one hand, the distractions, cares, and pressures of everyday life will invariably have their way with us and we will, in effect, fall asleep to what’s deeper and more important inside of life. But it’s for this reason that every major spiritual tradition has daily rituals designed precisely to wake us from spiritual sleep, akin an alarm clock waking us from physical sleep.

It’s for this reason we need to begin each day with prayer. What happens if we don’t pray on a given morning is not that we incur God’s wrath, but rather that we tend to miss the morning, spending the hours until noon trapped inside a certain dullness of heart. The same can be said about praying before meals. We don’t displease God by not first centering ourselves in gratitude before eating, but we miss out on the richness of what we’re doing. Liturgical prayer and the Eucharist have the same intent, among their other intentions. They’re meant to, regularly, call us out of a certain sleep.

None of us lives each day of our lives as if it was his or her last day. Our heartaches, headaches, distractions, and busyness invariably lull us to sleep. That’s forgivable; it’s what it means to be human. So we should ensure that we have regular spiritual rituals, spiritual alarm clocks, to jolt us back awake  – so that it doesn’t take a heart attack, a stroke, cancer, or death to wake us up.

Every Tear Brings the Messiah Closer

“People are always impatient, but God is never in a hurry!”  Nikos Kazantzakis wrote those words and they highlight an important truth: We need to be patient, infinitely patient, with God. We need to let things unfold in their proper time, God’s time.

Looking at religious history through the centuries, we cannot help but be struck by the fact that God seemingly takes his time in the face of our impatience. Our scriptures are often a record of frustrated desire, of non-fulfillment, and of human impatience. It’s more the exception when God intervenes directly and decisively to resolve a particular human tension. We are always longing for a messiah to take away our pain and to avenge oppression, but mostly those prayers seem to fall on deaf ears.

And so we see in scripture the constant, painful cry: Come, Lord, come! Save us! How much longer must we wait? When, Lord, when? Why not now? We are forever impatient, but God refuses to be hurried. Why? Why is God, seemingly, so slow to act? Is God callous to our suffering? Why is God so patient, so plodding in his plan, when we’re suffering so deeply? Why is God so excruciatingly slow to act in the face of human impatience?

There’s a line in Jewish apocalyptic literature, which metaphorically, helps answer this question: Every tear brings the messiah closer!  There is, it would seem, an intrinsic connection between frustration and the possibility of a messiah being born. It seems that messiahs can only be born after a long period of human yearning. Why?

Human birth already helps answer that question, gestation cannot be hurried and there is an organic connection between the pain a mother experiences in childbirth and the delivery of a new life. And that’s also true of Jesus’ birth. Advent is a gestation process that cannot be rushed. Tears, pain, and a long season of prayer are needed to create the conditions for the kind of pregnancy that brings forth a messiah into our world. Why? Because the real love and life can only be born when a long-suffering patience has created the correct space, the virginal womb, within which the sublime can be born. Perhaps a couple of metaphors can help us understand this.

John of the Cross, in trying to explicate how a person comes to be enflamed in altruistic love, uses the image of a log bursting into flame in a fireplace. When a green log is placed in a fire, it doesn’t start to burn immediately. It first needs to be dried out. Thus, for a long time, it lies in the fire and sizzles, its greenness and dampness slowly drying out. Only when it reaches kindling temperature can it ignite and burst into flame. Speaking metaphorically, before a log can burst into flame, it needs to pass through a certain advent, a certain drying out, a period of frustration and yearning. So, too, the dynamics of how real love is born in our lives.  We can ignite into love only when we, selfish, green, damp logs, have sizzled sufficiently. And the fire that makes us sizzle is unfulfilled desire.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin offers a second metaphor here when he speaks of something he calls “the raising of our psychic temperature.” In a chemistry laboratory it’s possible to place two elements in the same test tube and not get fusion. The elements remain separate, refusing to unite.  It is only after they are heated to a higher temperature that they unite. We’re no different. Often it’s only when our psychic temperature is raised sufficiently that there’s fusion, that is, it’s only when unrequited longing has raised our psychic temperature sufficiently that we can move towards reconciliation and union. Simply put, sometimes we have to be brought to a high fever through frustration and pain before we are willing to let go of our selfishness and let ourselves be drawn into community.

Thomas Halik once commented that an atheist is simply another term for someone who doesn’t have enough patience with God. He’s right. God is never in a hurry, and for good reason. Messiahs can only be born inside a particular kind of womb, namely, one within which there’s enough patience and willingness to wait so as to let things happen on God’s terms, not ours.

Hence, ideally, every tear should bring the messiah closer. This isn’t an unfathomable mystery: Every frustration should, ideally, make us more ready to love. Every tear should, ideally, make us more ready to forgive. Every heartache should, ideally, make us more ready to let go of some of our separateness. Every unfulfilled longing should, ideally, lead us into a deeper and more sincere prayer. And all of our pained impatience for a consummation that seems to forever elude us should, ideally, makes us feverish enough to burst into love’s flame.

To offer yet another image: It is with much groaning of the flesh that the life of the spirit is brought forth!

Misguided Loyalties

Anyone familiar with the life and writings of Simone Weil will, I am sure, agree that she was a woman of exceptional faith. She was also a woman with an unwavering commitment to the poor. But, and this may seem anomalous, she was also exceptional and unwavering in a certain resistance she had towards the institutional church. During her lifetime she longed for daily Eucharist, even as she resisted baptism and membership in the church. Why?

It wasn’t the church’s faults and failings that bothered her. She was a realist and accepted that every family and institution has its infidelities, flaws, and sin. She had little problem forgiving the church for its shortcomings. Her resistance to full genuflection within the institutional church had its root instead in a particular anxiety she felt before any social institution, that is, she saw how an uncritical patriotism or misguided loyalty often leaves individual members of an institution unable to see the sins and shortcomings within that institution. For instance, fiercely patriotic citizens can be blind to the injustices done by their own countries and deeply pious people can be constrained by their loyalty to the church so as to turn a blind eye on the church’s faults, as was the case with many saints who supported the Crusades and the Inquisition. Blind loyalty to country, church, family, or anything else, Weil believed, becomes a form of idolatry.

She’s right. Blind loyalty can easily become idolatry, despite its sincerity and high motives. It might seem wrong to criticize loyalty, but we can be too loyal, loyal to the point where our loyalty blinds us from seeing the real harm sometimes being done by those to whom we are uncritically giving that loyalty.

We are all familiar with certain axioms which each in their own way, would have loyalty trumping everything else: My country, right or wrong! The church, love it or leave it! A family’s dirty secrets need to remain inside the family; they’re nobody else’s business! But these axioms, with their naïve and uncritical call for loyalty to one’s own, are neither wise nor Christian.  Both human wisdom and Christian discipleship call us to something deeper.

All families, all countries, and all churches have their sins and shortcomings, but we show our love and loyalty when, instead of blinding our eyes to those faults, we instead challenge ourselves and everyone within that circle to look at and correct those sins and shortcomings. We can learn lessons here from Recovery and 12-Step programs. What they have learned through years of experience in dealing with dysfunction of every kind is that the loving thing to do in the face of sickness, inside of any group or relationship, is to confront that pathology. To not confront it is to enable it. Real love and real loyalty do not remain uncritical. They never say: This is my family, my country, or my church – right or wrong! Instead, when things are wrong, they tell us to show love and loyalty not by protecting our own, but by confronting what’s wrong.

That’s in fact the biblical tradition of the prophets, exactly what the prophets did. They loved their people and were fiercely loyal to their own religious tradition, but they were not so blindly loyal so as to be uncritical of the real faults inside that religious community. They were never constrained by false loyalty so as to be blind to the sins within their own religious structures and remain muted in the face of those faults. They never said of their religious tradition: Love or leave it!  Instead, they said: We need to change this – and we need to change it in the name of loyalty and love.

Jesus followed in the same path. He was faithful and loyal to Judaism, but he was not silent in the face of its faults and wrongdoings in his time. In the name of love, he challenged everything that was wrong. He taught, and taught strongly, that blind religious loyalty can be idolatry. He would be last person to teach that loyalty and love mean never criticizing your own. Indeed, he de-literalizes the meaning of family, country, and church and asks us to understand these in a higher way. He asks: Who is my mother and who are my brothers and sisters? And he goes on to say that these are not to be defined by biology, country, or religious denomination. Real family, he says, is made up by something else, namely, by those who hear the word of God and keep it, irrespective of biology, country, or religion. Consequently biology, country, and religion must be criticized and opposed whenever they stand in the way of this deeper union in faith and justice.

Blood may be thicker than water. But, for Jesus, faith and justice are thicker than blood, country, and church. Moreover, for him, genuine love and loyalty manifest themselves in a commitment to challenge things that are wrong, even when that means seeming to be disloyal to one’s own.

Searching for a Word Filled with Reality

Faith is not something you achieve. If you try to nail it down, it gets up and walks away with the nail. Faith works this way: Some days you walk on water, other days you sink like a stone. You live with a deep secret, the poet Rumi says, that sometimes you know, and then not, and then know again. Sometimes you feel the real presence, and sometimes you feel the real absence. Why?

Because, like love, faith is a journey, with constant ups and downs, with alternating periods of fervor and dryness, with consolation giving way to desolation, and with graced moments where God feels tangibly present eclipsed by dark nights where God feels absent. It’s a strange state: sometimes you feel riveted to God, steel-like, other times you feel yourself in a free-fall from everything secure, and then, just when things are at their lowest, you feel God’s presence again.

Why does faith have this confusing dynamic?  It’s not that God is cruel, is playing games with us, wants to test our fidelity, or wants us to have to do something difficult to earn salvation.  No, the ups and downs of faith have to do with the rhythms of ordinary life, especially the rhythm of love. Love, like faith, too has its periods of fervor and of dark nights. All of us know that inside of any long-term commitment (marriage, family, friendship, or church) there will be certain days and whole seasons when our heads and our hearts aren’t in that commitment, even as we’re still in it. Our heads and hearts fade in and fade out, but we experience love as ultimately not dependent upon the head or even the heart. Something deeper holds us, and holds us beyond the thoughts of our heads or the feelings of our heart at a given moment.

In any sustained commitment in love, our heads and hearts will fade in and out. Sometimes there’s fervor, sometimes there’s flatness.  Faith works the same. Sometimes we sense and feel God’s presence with our heads and our hearts and sometimes both leave us flat and dry. But faith is something deeper than imagining or feeling God’s presence. But how do we come to that?  What should we do in those moments when it feels as if God is absent.

The great mystic, John of the Cross, offers this advice. If you want to find God’s presence again in those moments when God feels absent listen to a word filled with reality and unfathomable truth.

What might he mean by that? How does one listen to a word filled with reality and unfathomable truth? How does one even find such a word? To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what he means, even as his words explode with possible meanings inside my mind. The phrase might be easier to untangle if he was telling us to look for an experience that’s deep and filled with reality; for example, giving birth to a child, being awed by exceptional beauty, or having your heart broken by loss or death. These kinds of experience are real, unfathomably true, and jolt us into a deeper awareness; so, if God is to be found, shouldn’t God be found there?

But John isn’t directing us towards an in-depth experience; he’s asking us to look for a word that’s carries reality and depth.  Does that mean that when we are unsteady and in doubt we should hunt for texts (in scripture, theology, spirituality, or in secular literature and poetry) that speak to us in a way that re-grounds us in some primal sense that God exists and loves us and that because of this, we should live in love and hope?

I suspect that this is exactly what he means. God is one, true, good, and beautiful, and so the right word about oneness, truth, goodness, or beauty should have the power to steady our shifting minds and hearts. The right word can make the Word become flesh again.

But what words have the power to do that for us? We’re all different and so not everyone will find truth and depth in the same way. Each one of us must therefore do our own, deeply personal, search here.

For myself, the words of various authors have carried this kind of truth for me at different times in my life. Therese of Lisieux’, The Story of a Soul, has steadied me in some moments of doubt; John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath, can still refocus my vision when it gets cloudy; various passages from Karl Rahner, John Shea, Raymond Brown, and Henri Nouwen can help steady my ship when I feel it rocking; and some words of Dag Hammarskjold can make me want to live so as to mirror more the greatness of life.

But each of us needs to search in our own way for words which, for us, are so filled with reality and unfathomable true so as to evoke a felt-presence of God.

Handling Resentment in our Lives

Many of us, I suspect, know about the work of the renowned anthropologist, Rene Girard and the dissemination of his insights through the work of his student, Gil Bailie. With gratitude to them, I pass along one of their insights, an invaluable look at how we try to handle resentment in our lives.

When astronauts journey into space, their capsules are equipped with a machine that gets rid of the carbon monoxide they produce as they breathe. If that machine breaks down, they’re in trouble, as was shown in the movie Apollo 13. Traveling inside a space capsule is possible only if there’s a machine constantly getting rid of the carbon monoxide being produced.

That’s also true for our human journey. All groups constantly produce the suffocating gas of resentment and jealousy. Resentment is present inside of virtually every human community and family because, as Girard puts it, we’re “mimetic”, which means, among other things, that we always want what others have. This inevitably creates tension, resentment, jealousy, and conflict. It’s no accident that two of the Ten Commandments have to do with jealousy.

What’s the machine inside human life that tries to rid us of the carbon monoxide of jealousy and resentment? Anthropologists tell us that we try to rid ourselves of tension by scapegoating. How does scapegoating work and how does it get rid of tension?

Consider this example: Imagine going out for lunch with a number of your colleagues or co-workers.  There will be, as is always the case, some personality conflicts and tensions among us. But we can have a harmonious and even fun-filled lunch together. How? By talking about certain people who aren’t there, whom we all dislike, whom we all consider eccentric or difficult, and whom we all judge to be a negative or eccentric presence.  And so we talk about them: how terrible the boss is, how difficult a particular colleague is, how eccentric one of our co-workers is. In doing that, in highlighting how different or negative to us someone else is, we make our own tensions with each other disappear for that moment. That’s the essence of scapegoating. We create community with each other by projecting our tension onto someone else. By exiling that person from our community we create community with each other; but our unity is then based upon what we are against rather than upon what we are for.

All groups, until they reach a certain level of maturity, do this. And we do the same thing to cope with tension in our private lives. It works this way: We get up some morning and, for a myriad of reasons, feel out sorts, weighed down by a mixture of free-floating frustration, anxiety, and anger. So what do we do? We find someone to blame. Invariably we will soon pick someone (in our family, at our place of work, or a politician, or a religious figure) on whom to place that tension. Someone whom we consider difficult, or ignorant, or politically wrong, or morally corrupt, or religiously bad will soon bear the weight of our tension and resentment.

Moreover, not only will we project our tension onto someone, we will invariably “sacralize” the indignation we feel, that is, we will project our tension and anger onto that other not just because he or she is different from ourselves or because we consider him or her difficult, ignorant, or lazy, but especially because we feel ourselves as morally superior to him or her: we’re right and he’s is wrong; we’re good and she’s bad. Thus our resentment towards that person is a holy resentment, necessary for the cause of God, and truth, and goodness. Such are all crucifixions, hangings, and excommunications.

That’s the normal human machine to rid ourselves of resentment inside our communities and inside ourselves. Jesus was crucified precisely because a community did this to him, and did it to him for holy reasons.

But, the ultimate victim of scapegoating, Jesus, invites us to something higher, and he models that for us in the way he died. Jesus took away tension by transforming it rather than by transmitting it. What Jesus does for us is comparable to what a water-purifier does. A water-purifier takes in water containing dirt, toxins, and poisons. It holds the impurities inside of itself and gives back only pure water.  Jesus, as the Lamb of God, took away our sins and purified us in his blood not by some divine magic but, precisely, by absorbing and transforming our sin. Like a water-purifier, he took in hatred, held it, transformed it, and gave back love; he took in jealousy, held it, transformed it, and gave back affirmation; he took in resentment, held it, transformed it, and gave back compassion; and ultimately, he took in murder, held it, transformed it, and gave back forgiveness. That’s the Christian design for taking tension and resentment out of our lives.

And, as Soren Kierkegaard suggests, we shouldn’t just admire what Jesus did here, we should imitate it.

Dying into Safe Hands

It’s hard to say something consoling in the face of death, even when the person who died lived a full life and died in the best of circumstances. It’s especially hard when the one who’s died is a young person, still in need of nurturing and care in this life, and when that young person dies in less-than-ideal circumstances.

As a priest, I have, a number of times, had to preside at the funeral of someone who died young, either as the result of illness, accident, or suicide. Such a funeral is always doubly sad. I remember one such funeral in particular: A high-school student had died in a car accident. The church was over-packed with his grieving family, friends, and classmates. His mother, still a young woman herself, was in the front pew, heavy with grief about her loss, but clearly weighed-down too with anxiety for her child.  After all, he was still just a boy, partly still in need of someone to take care of him, still needing a mother. She sensed how, dying so young, in effect, orphaned him.

There aren’t many words that are helpful in a situation like this, but the few that we have say what needs to be said – even if on that day, when death is still so raw, they don’t yet bring much emotional consolation. What’s to be said in face of a death like this?  Simply that this young boy is now in more-loving, more-tender, gentler, and safer hands than ours, that there’s a mother on the other side to receive him and give him the nurturing he still needs, just as there was one on this side when he was born. No one is born, except into a mother’s arms. That’s an image we need to keep before us in order to more healthily imagine death.

What, more precisely, is the image? Few images are as primal, and as tender, as that of a mother holding and cradling her newborn baby.  Indeed the words of the most-renowned Christmas carol of all time, Silent Night, were inspired by precisely this image. Joseph Mohr, a young priest in Germany, had gone out to a cottage in the woods on the afternoon of Christmas Eve to baptize a newborn baby. As he left the cottage, the baby was asleep in its mother’s lap.  He was so taken with that image, with the depth and peace it incarnated, that, immediately upon returning to his rectory, he penned the famous lines of Silent Night. His choir director, Franz Gruber, put some guitar chords to those words and froze them in our minds forever. The ultimate archetypal image of peace, safety, and security is that of a newborn sleeping in its mother’s arms. Moreover, when a baby is born, it’s not just the mother who’s eager to hold and cradle it. Most everyone else is too.

Perhaps no image then is as apt, as powerful, as consoling, and as accurate in terms of picturing what happens to us when we die and awake to eternal life as is the image of a mother holding and cradling her newborn child.  When we die, we die into the arms of God and surely we’re received with as much love, gentleness, and tenderness as we were received in the arms of our mothers at birth. Moreover, surely we are even safer there than we were when we were born here on earth. I suspect too that more than a few of the saints will be hovering around, wanting their chance to cuddle the new baby. And so it’s okay if we die before we’re ready, still in need of nurturing, still needing someone to help take care of us, still needing a mother. We’re in safe, nurturing, gentle hands.

That can be deeply consoling because death renders every one of us an orphan and, daily, there are people dying young, unexpectedly, less-than-fully-ready, still in need of care themselves. All of us die, still needing a mother. But we have the assurance of our faith that we will be born into safer and more nurturing hands than our own.

However, consoling as that may be, it doesn’t take away the sting of losing a loved one to death.  Nothing takes that away because nothing is meant to. Death is meant to indelibly scar our hearts because love is meant to wound us in that way.  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it: “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love. … It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; God doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.  … The dearer and richer our memories, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude changes the pangs of memory into a tranquil joy. The beauties of the past are borne, not as a thorn in the flesh, but as a precious gift in themselves.”

The Single Life

The universe works in pairs. From the atoms to the human species, generativity is predicated on union with another. Happiness, it would seem, is also predicated on that.

So where does that leave singles and celibates? How can they be normal, generative, and happy?

For many people living single and celibate, life can seem unfair. Everything, it seems, is set up for couples, while they are single. And that isn’t the only problem. A further problem is that, too often, neither our churches nor our society give singles and celibates the symbolic-tools to understand their state in a life-giving way.

Consequently, single persons often feel like they’re looking in at life from the outside, that they’re abnormal, that they’re missing something essential within life. Moreover, unlike married persons and vowed religious, few single persons feel that they have positively chosen their state of life. They feel it rather as an unfortunate conscription. Few single persons feel easeful and accepting of their lot. Instead they regard it as something temporary, something still to be overcome. Rarely does a single person, especially a younger person, see himself or herself growing old and dying single – and happy. Invariably the feeling is: This has to change. I didn’t choose this! I can’t see myself like this for the rest of my life!

There are real dangers in feeling like this. First, there’s the danger of never fully and joyfully picking up one’s life and seeing it as worthwhile, of never positively accepting what one is, of never accepting the spirit that fits the life that one is actually living. As well, there’s the danger of panicking and marrying simply because marriage is seen as a panacea with no real possibility of happiness outside of it.

Partially those fears are well-founded. Being single and celibate does bring with it a real loss. Denial is not a friend here. Pious wishing or platonic spiritualities that deny the power of sexuality don’t placate our emotions or erase the fact that God said: It is not good for the man to be alone. The universe works in pairs and to be single is to be different, more different than we dare admit. Thomas Merton, reflecting on his own celibate state, once put it this way: “The refusal of woman is fault in my chastity. … And all my compensations are a desperate and useless expedient to cover this irreparable loss which I have not fully accepted. … I can learn to accept it in the spirit and in love and it will no longer be ‘irreparable.’ The cross repairs and transforms it. The tragic chastity which suddenly realizes itself to be mere loss, and the fear that death has won – that one is sterile, useless, hateful. I do not say this is my lot, but in my vow I can see this as an ever-present possibility.” Celibacy and the single life bring with them real dangers for immaturity and unhappiness.

But, paradoxically, admitting this truth is the first step in beginning to live positively beyond those dangers. Sexuality is a dimension of our self-awareness. We awake to consciousness and feel ourselves, at every level, as cut off, sexed, lonely monads separated and aching for unity. Celibacy is indeed a fault in our humanity.

However, to be celibate and single doesn’t necessarily mean that one is asexual or sterile. Today the impression is often given that no happiness exists outside of sexual union. That’s superficial and untrue. Sexuality is the drive in us towards connection, community, family, friendship, affection, love, creativity, delight, and generativity. We are happy and whole when these things are in our lives, not on the basis of whether or not we sleep alone. The single celibate life offers its own opportunities for achieving these. God never closes one door without opening countless others. For instance, when our culture recognizes that it’s easier to find a lover than a friend, it recognizes too that human sexuality and generativity are more than biological.

There are other ways of being healthily sexual, of getting pregnant and impregnating, of being mother or father, of sexual enjoying intimacy. Sexuality, love, generativity, family, enjoyment, and delight have multiple modalities.

Early on in my ministry, I once served as a spiritual director to a young man who was discerning between marriage and priesthood. His greatest hesitation in moving towards priesthood was one particular fear: “I’ve always been afraid of being a priest because celibacy will mean dying alone. My father died when I was 15, but he died in my mother’s arms. I’ve always resisted celibacy because I want to die like my father died – in a woman’s arms. But, meditating on Christ’s life one day, it struck me that Jesus died alone, loved, but in nobody’s arms. He was alone, but powerfully linked to everyone in a different way. It struck me that this too could be a good way to die!”

It can be, but only if first, as Merton says, the cross repairs and transforms us.

The Academy and the Pew – A Strained Relationship between Theology and Catechesis

There has always been an innate and healthy tension between theology and catechesis, between what’s happening in theology departments in universities and the church pew. Theologians and bishops are often not each other’s favorite people. And that’s understandable. Why?

Theology and catechesis have different purposes, even as both are valid and both are needed.

Catechesis, in essence, is an effort to teach the fundamentals of the faith. Indeed, in its original Greek, catechesis means “echoing”. Thus catechesis is not so much an effort to understand the faith as it is to simply “echo” it, namely, to transmit it as clearly as possible. A catechist then is not trying to prove the foundations of the faith, although he or she may be trying to give a certain apologetics or rationale for it. Catechesis does not search for intellectual difficulties or seeming contradictions in the doctrines it teaches, its intent is rather to teach those truths and dogmas to those for whom they are still relatively new. And its audience is precisely those for whom its truths are still relatively new, namely, the neophyte, the religious novice.

Catechesis is therefore, by definition, an essentially conservative endeavor. Its aim is not so much to stretch minds to new places as it is to teach the basics, to impart principles that help hold minds together. Catechesis tries to build a foundation inside of person, not stretch that foundation.

Theology, on the other hand, does not simply try to echo the faith, it seeks to understand it and articulate it in a language that makes it palatable to a questioning and critical mind. For more than 900 years, for the most part, Christianity has accepted St. Anselm’s definition of theology as “faith seeking understanding”.  If Anselm is right, then the task of theology is to critically examine the Christian faith, both in terms of what faith itself is and in terms of what is contained in our Christian dogmas, so as to produce a vision of both faith and dogma that can handle all the questions that can be thrown at them both from inside the church and from outside skeptics.

Hence, the audience for theology differs from the audience for catechesis. Theology has three, ideal, audiences: church-goers who are already catechized and are seeking a deeper intellectual grasp of their faith, the academy of learning (universities, colleges, the arts, intellectual centers) where faith and dogma are often questioned, and the culture and world as a whole where Christianity has to justify itself and justify itself intellectually.

Theology therefore is an essentially liberal endeavor. Why? We say theology is liberal for the same reason that we never speak of a “Conservative Arts College”.  That would be an oxymoron. Institutions of higher learning, universities, schools of art, and the like are, as Cardinal Newman classically articulated in his book on education, The Idea of a University, by definition, liberal, namely, they are intended to stretch people, to make them deal with difficult and critical questions, to bring them to a level of maturity within their discipline (faith and dogma, in this case) so as to leave them unafraid to face whatever issues arise, and to help them to be leaders in their field. Catechesis seeks to produce an orthodox disciple; theology seeks to produce an informed leader.

The church needs both. It needs to emphasize both catechesis and theology, focusing both on those who need to learn the essentials of their faith and on those who are trying to make intellectual sense of their faith. There is, admittedly, an innate tension between the two. The pew invariably feels that theologians are too liberal; while theologians tend to look wearily at the pew, concerned that the hard questions are not being addressed. However it should never be a question of either/or; but always both/and. The church needs people who are solidly catechized, who know clearly the essentials of their faith, even as it needs people who have tried to articulate that faith at a more critical level and have stared without fear or denial into the fierce storm of intellectual objections to, ecclesial angers at, and every kind of protest against the faith.

Orthodoxy is important, but it’s meant to be as much a trampoline from which to spring as it’s meant to be a container that holds you. For example, the word “seminary” comes from the Latin, seminarium, meaning a “greenhouse”. A greenhouse isn’t a place to grow an oak tree. It’s a place to put young, tender, seedling plants that need protection from the harsher outdoor climate. It’s a place to protect a young plant or to grow a very tender plant, but it isn’t a place to grow huge tree.

The relationship between catechesis and theology might be characterized in the same way. Catechesis is the seminary, a necessary place to start and protect young and overly-tender plants, whereas theology is a less-protected place where you ultimately grow the oak tree.

Saint or Sinner?

What are we ultimately, saints or sinners? What’s deepest inside us, goodness or selfishness? Or, are we dualists with two innate principles inside us, one good and one evil, in a perpetual dual with each other?

Certainly, at the level of experience, we feel a conflict. There’s a saint inside us who wants to mirror the greatness of life, even as there is someone else inside us that wants to walk a seedier path. I like the honesty of Henri Nouwen when he describes this conflict in his own life: “I want to be great saint,” he once confessed, “but I don’t want to miss out on all the sensations that sinners experience.” It’s because of this bi-polar tension inside us that we find it so hard to make clear moral choices. We want the right things, but we also want many of the wrong things. Every choice is a renunciation and so the struggle between saint and sinner inside us often manifests itself precisely in our inability to make hard choices.

But we don’t feel this tension only in our struggle to make clear moral decisions; we feel it daily in our spontaneous reaction to situations that affect us adversely. Simply put, we are forever bouncing back and forth between being petty and being big-hearted, spiteful and forgiving, whenever we are negatively impacted by others.

For instance, we all have had this kind of experience: We are at work and in a good emotional state, thinking peaceful and patient thoughts, nursing warm feelings, wishing harm to no one, when a co-worker comes in and, without good reason, slights or insults us in some way.  In one instant, our whole inner world reverses: A door slams shut and we begin to feel cold and spiteful, thinking anything but warm thoughts, seemingly becoming different persons: moving from being big-hearted to being spiteful, from being saints to entertaining murderous feelings.

Which is our true person? What are we really, saints with big hearts or petty, spiteful persons? Seemingly, we are both, saints and sinners, since goodness and selfishness both flow through us.

Interestingly, we don’t always react in the same way. Sometimes in the face of a slight, insult, or even positive attack and injustice, we react with patience, understanding, and forgiveness. Why? What changes the chemistry? Why do we sometimes meet pettiness with a big-heart and, other times, meet it in kind, with spite?

Ultimately, don’t know the reason; that’s part of the mystery of human freedom. Certain factors obviously play in; for example, if we are in a good inner-space when we are ignored, slighted, or unfairly treated, we are more prone to react with patience and understanding, with a big heart. Conversely, if we are tired, pressured, and feeling unloved and unappreciated, we are more likely to react negatively, and return spite for spite.

But, be that as it may, ultimately there’s deeper reality at work in all of this, beyond our emotional well being on a given day. How we react to a situation, with grace or spite, for the most part depends upon something else. The Church Fathers had a concept and name for this. They believed that each of us has two souls, a big soul and a petty soul, and how we react to any situation depends largely upon which soul we are thinking with and acting out of at that moment. Thus, if I meet an insult or an injury with my big soul, I am more likely to meet it with patience, understanding, and forgiveness. Conversely, if I meet an insult or a hurt while operating out of my petty soul, I am more likely to respond in kind, with pettiness, coldness, and spite.  And, for the Church Fathers, both of these souls are inside us and both are real; we’re both big-hearted and petty, saint and sinner. The challenge is to operate more out of our big soul than our petty one.

But we must be careful to not understand this dualistically. In affirming that we have two souls, a big soul and a petty soul, the Church Fathers are not teaching a variation of an old dualism, namely, that there are inside us two innate principles, one good and one evil, perpetually fighting for control of our hearts and souls. That kind of struggle in fact does go on inside us, but not between two separate principles.

The saint and sinner inside us are not separate entities. Rather the saint in us, the big soul, is not only our true self, it’s our only self. The sinner in us, the petty soul, is not a separate person or separate moral force doing perpetual battle with the saint, it’s simply the wounded part of the saint, that part of the saint that’s been cursed and never properly blessed.

And our wounded self shouldn’t to be demonized and cursed again. Rather it needs to be befriended and blessed – and then it will cease being petty and spiteful in the face of adversity.

In His Own Words

Many of us, I suspect, have heard snippets of an interview that Pope Francis did for a series of Jesuit publications, including the USA magazine, America, where, among other things, he suggested that we might be wise to not always emphasize the moral issues around abortion, gay marriage, and contraception in our conversations. That’s, of course, the phrase that most caught the attention of the media, but the whole interview is remarkable for its candor and includes a whole range of thoughts that help give us a sense of how Francis intends to color his papacy. Here are a few of his thoughts, in his own words:

·        On why our pastoral focus needs to be on healing and not on reiterating certain moral concerns

“I see clearly that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask an injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the levels of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about something else. … 

During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge.  By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person. A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’  … I also consider the situation of a woman with a failed marriage in her past and who also had an abortion. Then this woman remarries, and is now happy and has five children. That abortion is her past weighs heavily on her conscience and she sincerely regrets it. She would like to move forward in her Christian life. What is the confessor to do?  We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I have been reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”

·        On women in the church

“Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. … We must therefore investigate further the role of women in the church. … The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”

·        On what it means to think with the church

“All the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as ‘thinking with the church’. … We should not even think, therefore, that ‘thinking with the church’ means only thinking with the hierarchy of the church.”

·        On manifesting a wide Catholicity

“This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting mediocrity.

·        On Benedict’s decision to allow a wider use of the Tridentine Mass

“I think the decision was prudent and motivated by the desire to help people who have this sensitivity. What is worrying, though, is the risk of the ideologization of the Vetus Ordo [the decree authorizing a limited use of the Latin mass], to its exploitation.”

·        On the temptation to defensively circle the wagons in face of a growing secularity

“If the Christian is a restorationist, a legalist, if he wants everything clear and safe, then he will find nothing. Tradition and memory of the past must help us to have the courage to open up new areas to God. Those who today always look for disciplinarian solutions, those who long for an exaggerated doctrinal ‘security’, those who stubbornly try to recover a past that no longer exists – they have a static and inner-directed view of things. In this way faith becomes an ideology among other ideologies. … It is amazing to see the denunciations of lack of orthodoxy that come to Rome.”

Perhaps it’s best not to add much commentary to this. His words speak for themselves and, obviously, for him.