RonRolheiser,OMI

Naming the Present Moment – Some Metaphors to Digest

Not everything can be fixed or cured, but it should be named properly. Richard Rohr said that. James Hillman suggests something similar when he wrote that a symptom suffers most when it doesn’t know where it belongs.

Where does our present moment belong vis-à-vis our faith in God and the relevance of our churches? Are we post-Christian? Are we witnessing the death of God and our churches? Or, is our faith being purified by the very criticisms levelled against it and, despite a massive decline in church attendance, aren’t the churches making genuine moral progress on issues like racism, sexism, and social justice in general? Are we dying or maturing? How do we name our present moment?

By way of an answer, I would like simply to offer a series of “metaphors” gleaned from various commentators that attempt a naming.  Some of these seemingly contradict each other, but all of them merit some thought. I leave them for you to digest.

  1. Faith is a spent project! In essence, that’s the view of the Enlightenment thinkers, classically expressed in persons like Nietzsche, Freud, Feuerbach, and Marx, who suggest that faith and belief in God are something you eventually outgrow, like belief in Santa and the Easter Bunny. This belief was needed for a time, but it’s something we outgrow when we lose our naiveté. God and the churches have had their time in history, and that day is over. Today, this is the belief (or unacknowledged fear) of millions.
  2. Our world is still in diapers! Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggests that far from faith being a spent project, it’s only in its infancy stage. In an evolutionary view of history and faith, we are still a world in diapers, emerging from the crib. Faith is far from spent! We are just beginning!
  3. A post-Christian West! That was the view of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became pope. Interestingly, he never asserted it again explicitly after he became pope, namely, that the secularized world, particularly in North America and Western Europe, is now “post-Christian”.
  4. Faith in the secularized world is suffering a certain noonday fatigue! This is an image offered by Thomas Halik. In his view, faith and the churches aren’t dying; they are merely suffering “acedia”, the “noon-day devil”, the fatigue that the early Christian desert writers told us could afflict even the most committed believers.
  5. We are experiencing a crisis of the imagination, not of faith and fidelity. The conditions of belief have changed radically and our imaginations haven’t caught up. This is the view of the renowned philosopher on secularity, Charles Taylor. For him, as believers today we are pioneers, struggling to learn how to live in a (faith) country that we and no one else has ever before inhabited. Small wonder we are struggling.
  6. Secular culture is the adolescent child of Judeo-Christianity and in its adolescent grandiosity our culture sees only its parents’ faults. This is the view of the popular spiritual writer Kathleen Norris and is echoed by Yale philosopher Louis Dupre. As Norris puts it, if you want to visualize the relationship between our secular world and Christianity, watch how a seventeen year-old teenager who is out of sorts with her parents interrelates with them. To this, Dupre adds that grandiose adolescents aren’t bad, they just aren’t finished growing.
  7. Secularity is a fantasy indulged in by intellectuals. For ordinary people there are divine whispers behind every door. In real life, religion of some sort is unavoidable. This from French philosopher Chantel Delsol.
  8. Like Jonah, we are in the belly of the whale.  This is one of Richard Rohr’s preferred namings. Inside our contemporary doubt and confusion, God is taking us through a darkness to where we need to be.
  9. Christian vision in the West is the residue of a former seeing, before suffering a detached retina. This from Walter Kasper. His idea: if someone is born blind, he will not have visual images of outside objects inside of him. However, if someone goes blind sometime in life, he will retain the images of what he once saw, even though he is no longer seeing them. As Christians, we are living too much off past images, and no longer seeing directly with the eyes of faith.
  10. We need “The Benedict Option”. This from Rod Dreher. Heavily secularized culture is asphyxiating our faith. What’s needed to save and nurture it is the “Benedict option”. Like the great monastic founder, St. Benedict, those of us with a committed faith need to pull away from a culture that is eroding our faith and live out our faith in a “monastic” way, namely by withdrawing and building new kinds of “monasteries” within which to live out our faith and raise our children. Eventually, as has happened before, the world will come to us seeking help and meaning.

Who’s right? What best names both our symptoms and our moment? There is something to digest in each of these images.

Love, Not Excuses, Moves Things Forward

The excusable doesn’t need to be excused and the inexcusable cannot be excused.

Michael Buckley wrote those words commenting on Peter’s triple betrayal of Jesus. Here’s the context. Peter had betrayed Jesus in his most needy hour, not out of malice, simply out of weakness. Now, facing Jesus for the first time since that betrayal, Peter is understandably uncomfortable. What do you say after betraying someone?

Well, he didn’t need to say anything. Jesus took the initiative and, as Buckley highlights, he didn’t excuse Peter. Jesus didn’t say things like, it’s perfectly understandable to be afraid in a situation like that! You weren’t really yourself! I understand how that can happen! He didn’t even tell Peter that he still loves him. None of that. He simply asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Peter said yes, everything moved forward. No excuses were needed. The excusable doesn’t need to be excused and the inexcusable cannot be excused. Our humanity already explains why we are prone to betrayal; what needs to be spoken in its wake is a reaffirmation of love.

A couple I know had this happen in their marriage. They went to a party together one Friday night and the wife, partly through the influence of alcohol and drugs, left the party with another man. Her husband was unaware of this for a time but, upon finding out what had happened, was understandably very distraught. He went home alone and spent a sleepless night thinking, his thoughts moving through a series of vengeful fantasies to what (through grace) he eventually decided on.

He was sitting at the kitchen table midmorning the next day when his wife, sheepish and self-chastened, came home. She had her apologies rehearsed and was ready to face his justified anger and fury. She got something else. Her husband didn’t let her voice any apologies or excuses, nor did he explode in anger. Rather, calm and sad, he simply said this to her: “I’m going to move out of the house for a week, so you can think this through. You need to decide. Are you my wife or are you someone else?” He came back a week later to her apologies, but more importantly to her renewed, more radical commitment to their relationship. Their marriage has been solid and grace-filled since. She is now committed to a marriage in a way she never quite was before.

No doubt upon his return, this man’s wife did offer some tearful apologies and excuses. His refusal to let her voice them earlier may well have served a purpose long-term, but was admittedly somewhat cruel short-term. Even when something can’t be excused, we still need the opportunity to say we are sorry. Apologies are important, both for the person offering them and for the one receiving them. Until an explicit apology is made, there is always unfinished business. However, explicit contrition is not ultimately what moves things forward when a relationship has been wounded or fractured. What moves things forward is a renewed commitment to love, to a deeper fidelity.

The inexcusable cannot be excused. Strictly speaking, that’s true, though sometimes a deeper understanding of things somewhat excuses the inexcusable. Here’s an example.

Several years ago, this incident occurred in Australia. A Catholic School Board had just finished building a new multi-million dollar school. Not long after it’s opening, one of its students, a boy in high school, started a fire in his locker, unaware that the gas valves for the school’s heating system were right behind his locker. A huge fire started and the whole school burned down. To his credit, the boy summoned his courage and owned up to what had happened. Then, of course, a never-ending series of questions ensued: Why would he ever do that? Why would anyone start a fire in his locker? What accounts for that kind of reckless stupidity? What can excuse the inexcusable?

I very much appreciated an answer given to these questions by one of the Australian bishops. Speaking to a questioning group of teachers and school administrators, his short answer said it all. Why would this young student do something like that? Because he is a boy! Young boys have been (for no explicable reason) starting fires long before gas valves ever appeared on the planet. Moreover, there’s no excuse for it, save human nature itself.

Often times, that’s the excuse for the inexcusable: Because we’re human!  Indeed, this was the real excuse for the woman who under the influence of alcohol and drugs betrayed her husband, just as it was the real excuse for Peter when he betrayed Jesus.

But, this must be read correctly. This doesn’t give us permission to appeal to our morally inept human nature as an excuse for betrayal or stupidity. We’re human! Boys will be boys! The lesson rather is that whenever our moral ineptness has us fall into betrayal or stupidity, what ultimately moves things forward is not an apology or an excuse, but a renewed commitment in love.

Spirituality – A Place Where All Believers Can Come Together

Where can all of us believers come together beyond the divisions created by history, dogma, denomination, and religion? Where is there a place all people of sincere heart can find common ground and worship together?

That place is found in the ecumenical and inter-religious pursuit of spirituality, and our theology schools and seminaries need to create this place within their academic vision and structures.

What is spirituality as an academic discipline within our theology schools and seminaries? It has actually been around a long time, though under different names. In Roman Catholic circles, formerly it was handled piecemeal as moral theology, liturgy, ascetical theology, and as mystical and devotional literature. In Protestant and Evangelical circles (where, until recently, mystical and devotional literature were distrusted) there were courses on discipleship, worship, and Christian ethics.

So what is spirituality as an area of study? At the risk of a vast over-simplification, let me propose an analogy as a way of understanding how spirituality relates to theology and dogma. Spirituality is related to theology and dogma akin to how an actual game of sports is related to the rule book of that sport.

For example, for the game of baseball there is a rulebook, one initially codified and then periodically amended through the many years the game has been played. To play the game today one has to stay within those rules. There is no game outside those rules. However, while these rules critically dictate the lines within which the game has to be played, they are not the game itself. They merely dictate how it is to be played and ensure that it is played in a fair manner.

In essence, that is the critical role of theology and dogma. They are the rule book for how we need to discern faith and religious practice as we live out our discipleship, if we are legitimately to call ourselves Christian. But, while they make the rules, spirituality is the actual game; it’s how in actual practice we live out our faith and discipleship.

Thus, spirituality takes in morality and ethics, worship, ascetical theology, mystical theology, devotional theology, and everything else we do in living out our discipleship.  Theology makes the rules, while spirituality tries to instill the motivation, the fire, the hope, and the practical guidance for the game itself, lived discipleship.

I offer this little apologia for spirituality as an academic discipline in view of affirming that spirituality is that place where believers can come together in a common heart beyond the long-standing divisions created by history, dogma, ecclesiology, and different notions of faith. Spirituality is a place where we can meet in a communion of faith that takes us (at least in that place and moment) beyond our different histories, our different denominations, our different religions, and our different notions of faith.

I know this is true because I have seen and am seeing it first-hand. Oblate School of Theology, where I teach, has an Institute of Contemporary Spirituality in which I see Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Evangelicals of every persuasion studying together, searching together, and praying together in a way that denominational differences simply don’t enter into. Everyone, irrespective of denomination, is searching for the same things: What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus today? How does one genuinely pray? How do we sustain faith in a secular world that so easily swallows us whole? How can we pass our faith on to our own children? How can we be both prophet and healer in our bitterly divided world? What is a faith-based response to injustice? How does someone age and die well? What insights and grace can we draw from the deep wells of Christian mysticism and hagiography to help guide our lives?  

Everyone has the same questions, and everyone is searching at the same places.

Denominationalism recedes when spirituality takes over.

Moreover, this doesn’t just pertain to being together beyond the differences of denominations among Christians; the same holds true vis-a-vis our separation from other world religions. The questions we are grappling with as Christians are the same questions that Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic, Taoist, and other believers are grappling with, and they are looking to us for help even as we are looking to them for help. In spirituality, Christians learn from Sufi Islamic mystics, even as Islamic believers delve into Mariology and Christian mysticism. Buddhist, Hindu, and Taoist believers pick up the Spiritual Exercise of St. Ignatius, even as Christians learn from various Buddhist and Hindu methods of meditation.

Jesus assured us that in God’s house there are many rooms. Spirituality is one of those rooms. Spirituality is the room where all who are caught-up in a common need, common search, and common hope, can bracket for a time their denominational and religious differences and search together.

Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t take away with our differences; but it gives us a place where we can be in a community of life and faith with each other, beyond those differences.

Managing an Ascension

A friend of mine, somewhat cynical about the church, recently remarked: “What the institutional church today is trying to do is to put its best face on the fact that it’s dying. Basically, it’s trying to manage a death.”

What he’s suggesting is that the church today, like a person struggling to accept a terminal diagnosis, is trying to reshape its imagination to eventually accommodate itself to the unthinkable, its own dying. 

He’s right in suggesting that the church today is trying to reshape its imagination, but he’s wrong about what it’s trying to manage. What the church is trying to manage today is not a death, but an ascension. What needs reshaping in our imagination today is the same thing that needed reshaping in the imagination of the first disciples in the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension. We need to understand again how to let go of one body of Christ so that it can ascend and we can again experience Pentecost. What’s at stake here? 

Among the elements within the paschal mystery, the ascension is the least understood. We are clearer about the meaning of the death and resurrection of Christ and the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost. We have less understanding of the ascension.

The forty days between the resurrection and the ascension were not a time of unadulterated joy for the first disciples. It was a time of some joy, but also of considerable confusion, despondency, and loss of faith. In the days before the ascension, the disciples were overjoyed whenever they recognized again their risen Lord, but most of the time they were confused, despondent, and full of doubt because they were unable to recognize the new presence of Christ in what was happening around them. At one point, they gave up completely and, as John put it, went back to their former way of life, fishing and the sea.

However, during that time, Jesus slowly reshaped their imaginations. Eventually they grasped the fact that something had died, but that something else, far richer, had been born, and that now they needed to give up clinging to the way Jesus had formerly been present to them so that he could be present to them in a new way. The theology and spirituality of the ascension is essentially contained in these words: Refuse to cling to what once was, let it go so that you can now recognize the new life you are already living and receive its spirit. The synoptic gospels teach this to us in their pictorial rendering of the ascension, where a bodily Jesus blesses everyone and then rises physically out of their sight. John gives us the same theology but in a different picture. He does this in his description of the encounter on Easter morning between Jesus and Mary Magdala when Jesus says, “Mary don’t cling to me!”

Today, the church is trying to manage an ascension, not a death. I can easily see where my friend can be confused because every ascension presupposes a death and a birth, and that can be confusing. So where, really, is the church today?

Edward Schillebeeckx once suggested that we are living in that same despondency that was felt by the early disciples between Jesus’ death and their realization of his resurrection. We are feeling what they felt, doubt and confusion on the road to Emmaus. The Christ we once knew has been crucified and we cannot yet recognize the Christ who is walking with us, more alive than before, though in a new way. Hence, just as those first disciples on the road to Emmaus, we also frequently walk with faces downcast, in a confused faith, needing Christ to appear in a new guise to reshape our imaginations so that we can recognize him as he is now present to us. 

I think Schillebeeckx is right about this, except that I would put it in another way. The church today is in that time between the resurrection and the ascension, feeling considerable despondency, with its imagination attuned to a former understanding of Christ, unable to recognize Christ clearly in the present moment. For many of us who grew up in a particular understanding of the faith, our former understanding of Christ has been crucified. But, Christ is not dead. The church is not dead. Both Jesus and the church are very much alive, walking with us, slowly reshaping our imaginations, reinterpreting the scriptures for us, telling us again: Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ (and the church) should so suffer ….

For many of us today, to live in faith is to be in that time between the death of Christ and the ascension, vacillating between joy and despondency, trying to manage an ascension.

On the road of faith, there’s always bad news and good news. The bad news is that invariably our understanding of Christ gets crucified. The good news is that Christ is always very much alive, present to us still, and in a deeper way.

Fear of Missing Out

It’s hard for a child to have to go to bed in the middle of an evening when the rest of the family is still celebrating. Nobody wants to go to bed while everyone else is still up. No one wants to miss out on life.

Remember how as a child, tired and unable to keep your eyes open, you still struggled against anyone who would try to put you to bed. Exhausted or not, you didn’t want to miss anything. You didn’t want to leave and go to sleep while so much life was going on.

We never really outgrow that. That resistance is congenital and still haunts us on our deathbeds.

One of our more painful anxieties is triggered by a sense that we are forever missing out on something. This is also one of our major fears about dying. For most people, the heaviness and darkness of dying come not so much from a fear of what they might meet in the next life, judgment and punishment, but from a fear of annihilation. Moreover, the fear here is not so much that their personal identity will be snuffed out (though that is a real fear) but rather that they will be taken away from all the life of which they have been part. The sadness lies in the having to let go, in knowing that life will now go on without us, of being taken off to bed while the party continues. And, this is deep inside us, so deep, that we find it difficult to imagine how the world can even go on without us.

However, this is not a sign that there is something wrong with us, some neurosis that needs fixing or some moral or religious issue that needs attention. It’s the human condition, pure and simple, and God is the architect of that. In short, we’re built to be part of a fabric, not single threads content in their isolation. 

I was twenty-three years old when I watched my dad die in a hospital room. He was still young, sixty-two years old, and ideally should have had a number of years still ahead of him. But, he was dying, he knew it, and despite a faith that gave him some comfort, was deeply sad about it.  What he struggled with in his dying was not with some fear of the afterlife or some amends he still needed to make in this life. None of that. There was no unfinished business with God, nor religious and moral issues still to mend. Nor were there unhealthy fears of the afterlife. His only unfinished business had to do with this life, and what he would now miss out on in terms of (figuratively) being put to bed early while the party was still going on. In addition, for him, the party was in full swing. His adult children were just beginning to establish their lives and give him grandchildren, and the younger half of his family were actively preparing to enter into their adult lives. He wasn’t going to be around to see how all of this turned out and he wasn’t going to be around to see most of his grandchildren. More important still, he had a wife, a soulmate, whom he would be leaving. It wasn’t a good evening to be sent to bed early.

Beyond all this, he still had his own siblings, neighbors, friends, a parish, civic involvements, sports teams, and countless other life-giving connections, and he was aware, not without huge heartache, that these were all about to end, at least on this side of eternity.

Why shouldn’t he have been sad? Indeed, why shouldn’t any of us be sad whenever we are facing a death of any kind, when we are being put to bed while the rest of life is still going on?

We are constitutively communitarian. As God himself said when he created the human family, it is not good for anyone to be alone. We are meant to be part of a family and a community, part of the fabric of life, and a fabric is made up of multiple threads. Thus, it’s understandably saddening whenever our single, fragile, lonely thread is being pulled away from the rest of the fabric. No wonder little children don’t want to be put to bed while everyone else is still carrying on with the evening.

Moreover, this isn’t just true for the sadness we experience when we face our deaths. The same dynamic is operative whenever we undergo the various mini-deaths that beset us as we age, lose our health, retire, get fired from jobs, lose people we love, lose marriages, are geographically dislocated, or in any other way are pushed out of the mainstream of life towards the margins.

So, it can be helpful to know that nothing is wrong here. Dying is hard. Letting go is hard. Being pushed aside is hard. Disappearing from life is particularly hard. That’s why little children don’t like being put to bed.

Then God Created Light Again

It doesn’t matter whether you picture the origin of time the way science does, as beginning with the Big Bang, or whether you take the biblical account of the origins of the world literally. Either way there was a time before there was light. The universe was dark before God created light. However, eventually the world grew dark again. When?

We are told in the Gospels that as Jesus was dying on the cross, between the sixth and ninth hour, it grew dark and Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” What really happened here?

Are the Gospels saying that it actually grew dark in the early afternoon, an eclipse of the sun, or are they referring to another kind of darkness, of a spiritual kind? Was there an eclipse of the sun as Jesus was dying? Perhaps. We don’t know, but that is of secondary importance anyway.  What the Gospels are referring to is a kind of darkness that envelops us whenever what’s precious to us is humiliated, exposed as powerless, ridiculed, terminally defeated, and crucified by our world. There’s a darkness that besets us whenever the forces of love seem overpowered by the forces of hatred. The light extinguished then is the light of hope, but there is deeper darkness and this is the kind of darkness that the Gospels say formed a cloud over the world as Jesus hung dying.

What’s being insinuated here is that at Jesus’ crucifixion, creation went back to its original chaos, as it was before there was light. But what’s also being insinuated is that God created light a second time, this time by raising Jesus from the dead, and that this new light is the most staggering light of all because. Moreover, unlike the original light, which was only physical, this light is a light both for the eyes and for the soul.

For the eyes, the light of the resurrection is also a radically new physical phenomenon. At the resurrection of Jesus, the atoms of the planet were shaken up from their normal physical workings. A dead body rose from the grave to a life from which it would never again die. That had never happened before. Moreover, the resurrection of Jesus was also a radically new light for the soul, the light of hope. What is this latter light? 

There’s a famous song written by Robbie Robertson made popular in the early 1970s by Joan Baez, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down. Narrated in the first person by a man called Virgil Caine, the song is a sad lament about the distress experienced by a poor white Southern family during the American Civil War. All that could go wrong for them, seemingly had gone wrong, including the death of their young son, killed in the war. Their situation is dark, lacking any hope. At a point in the song, the narrator offers this lament about his brother’s death:

He was just eighteen, proud and brave
But a Yankee laid him in his grave
I swear by the blood below my feet
You can’t raise the Cain back up when it’s in defeat

Can life be raised back up when it’s in defeat? Can a dead body come out of its grave? Can a violated body again become whole? Can lost innocence ever be restored? Can a broken heart ever be mended? Can a crushed hope ever again lift up a soul?  Doesn’t darkness extinguish all light? What hope was there for Jesus’ followers as they witnessed his humiliation and death on Good Friday? When goodness itself gets crucified, what’s the basis for any hope?

In two words, the resurrection. When darkness enveloped the earth a second time, God made light a second time, and that light, unlike the physical light created at the dawn of time, can never be extinguished. That’s the difference between the resuscitation of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus, between physical light and the light of the resurrection. Lazarus was restored to his self-same body from which he had to die again. Jesus was given a radically new body which would never die again.

The renowned biblical scholar Raymond E. Brown tells us that the darkness that beset the world as Jesus hung dying, would last until we believe in the resurrection. Until we believe that God has a live-giving response for all death and until we believe God will roll back the stone from any grave, no matter how deeply goodness is buried under hatred and violence, the darkness of Good Friday will continue to darken our planet.

Mohandas K. Gandhi once observed that we can see the truth of God always creating new light, simply by looking at history: “When I despair, I remember that all through history, the way of truth and love has always won. There have been murderers and tyrants, and for a time they can seem invincible. But in the end they always fall. Think of it, always.”

Straining To Hear the Voice of Good Friday

They shall look upon the one whom they have pierced!  A phrase that names the voice that’s left behind on Good Friday.

In 1981, an anonymous young girl was brutally raped and murdered by the military at an obscure location in El Salvador, fittingly called La Cruz (the Cross). Her story was reported by a journalist named Mark Danner. In his account of this, Danner describes how after a particular massacre some soldiers shared how one of their victims haunted them and how they could not get her out of their minds long after her death.

They had plundered a village and raped many of the women. One of these was a young girl, an evangelical Christian, whom they had raped many times in a single afternoon and tortured. However, throughout it all, this young girl, clinging to her belief in Christ, had sung hymns. The soldiers who had violated and eventually executed her were haunted by that. Here are Danner’s words:

“She kept right on singing, too, even after they had done what had to be done, and shot her in the chest. She had lain there on La Cruz with the blood flowing from her chest, and had kept on singing – a bit weaker than before, but still singing. And the soldiers, stupefied, had watched and pointed. Then they had grown tired of the game and shot her again, and she sang still, and their wonder began to turn to fear – until finally they had unsheathed their machetes and hacked her neck, and at last the singing had stopped.” (The Massacre at El Mozote, N.Y., Vintage Books, 1994, pp. 78-79.

They shall look upon her whom they have pierced! Notice the feminine pronoun here because in this instance the one who is looked upon after being pierced is a woman.  Dying such a violent, unjust, and humiliating death with faith in her heart and on her lips makes her the crucified Christ, and not just because she (like all Christians) is a member of the Body of Christ. Rather because at this moment, in this manner of death, with this kind of faith overt in her person, like Jesus, she is leaving behind a voice that cannot be silenced and which will haunt those who have done violence to her and all the rest of us who hear about it.

What haunted those soldiers? The haunting here is not that of some wounded spirit that now seeks retribution by frightening us and forever unsettling our dreams. Nor is it the haunting we feel in bitter regret, when we recognize a huge, unredeemable mistake which had we foreseen the consequences of, we would never have made. Rather, this is the voice that haunts us whenever we silence, violate, or kill innocence. It’s a voice which we then know can never be silenced and which irrespective of the immediate emotions it evokes in us, we realize we can never be free from, and which paradoxically invites us not to fear and self-hatred but to what it embodies.

Gil Bailie, who makes this story a corner-piece in his monumental book on the cross and non-violence, notes not just the remarkable similarity between her manner of death and Jesus’, but also the fact that, in both cases, part of the resurrection is that their voices live on.

In Jesus’ case, nobody witnessing his humiliating death on a lonely hillside, with his followers absent, would have predicted that this would be the most remembered death in history. The same is true for this young girl. Her rape and murder occurred in a very remote place and all of those who might have wanted to immortalize her story were also killed. Yet her voice survives, and will no doubt continue to grow in history long after all those who violated her are forgotten. A death of this kind morally scars the conscience and leaves behind a permanent echo that nobody can ever silence.

When we parse out all that’s contained in that echo, when we take a reflective look at Jesus on the cross or at the death of this young evangelical, we cannot but feel a wound at a gut level. To gaze upon the one whom we have pierced, Jesus or any innocent victim, is to know (in a way that undercuts all culpable and invincible ignorance) that the voice of self-interest, injustice, violence, brutality, and rape will ultimately be silenced in favor of the voice of innocence, graciousness, and gentleness. Yes, faith is true.

A critic reviewing Danner’s book in the New York Times tells how, after reading this story, he kept “straining hopelessly to hear the sound of that singing.” In our churches on Good Friday, we read aloud the Gospel account of Jesus’ death. Listening to that story, like the soldiers who brutally murdered an innocent young, faith-filled woman, we are made to look upon the one whom we have pierced. We need to strain to hear more consciously the sound of that singing.

The Secret Hidden from the Amoral

According to the Bible, there’s a secret that’s hidden from the amoral, known only by the virtuous. The Book of Wisdom tells us that when we are not virtuous we do not know the hidden counsels of God, nor do we grasp the recompense of holiness, nor discern the innocent soul’s reward.”

How true! How hard it is to know, existentially grasp, actually believe, that virtue is its own reward and the highest happiness. We envy the amoral and pity virtue. Nikos Kazantzakis once remarked that virtue sits itself on the highest branch on a tree, looks out at all it has missed, and weeps.

What’s to be said about this? Who ultimately misses out on life?

A generation ago, Piet Fransen wrote a classic book on grace (The New Life of Grace) which for years was a standard textbook in seminaries and theology schools. He begins his treatise on grace this way. Imagine a man who is entirely careless about all things moral and spiritual. His only interest is his own pleasure. He lives for pleasure, ignoring all the commandments. He has multiple sexual affairs, never denies himself any pleasure available to him, and lives like this for his whole life until, just before his death, he realizes his irresponsibility, repents of his ways, makes a good confession, and dies in the arms of God and the church.

Fransen then makes this comment. If, even for a minute, you felt some envy (“The lucky guy, he got away with this his whole life and then dies and still gets to go to heaven!”) you have never really understood grace. Rather you are like the older brother of the prodigal son, angry with God for welcoming back a wayward son who had forsaken him to pursue a life of pleasure while you, the faithful son or daughter, have stayed home and dutifully renounced many pleasures to be faithful.

When we are the older, duty-laden brother or sister of the prodigal son, virtue is seldom felt to be its own reward, nor indeed a reward of any kind. Mostly no one believes the hidden counsel of God that the highest recompense is awarded for holiness and innocence of soul. Rather most of us stand somewhat angry and bitter in our fidelity, envious of our unvirtuous brothers and sisters.

Why? If virtue is its own reward and the highest reward of all, why do we, like the older brother of the prodigal son, so often envy the excitement and pleasure we imagine fills the lives of those who have forsaken virtue for the pleasures of this world?

The reasons are complex. First, there’s human nature itself. We aren’t simply spiritual, faith-filled beings, but also mammals, creatures of flesh and blood, with powerful innate instincts. There is a strong unyielding part inside us that wants to taste every pleasure, irrespective of morality. That’s in our hardwiring.  Part of us finds it almost impossible not to envy those who give themselves over to pleasure and, seemingly, get away with it.

Moreover, it’s precisely this part of us that does not understand grace or happiness. When the older brother of the prodigal son expresses his frustration to his father, a frustration that does little to conceal his secret envy, his father’s answer reveals the hidden counsel of God. The prodigal father tells his elder son that they need to be happy that his brother has come back home because he was dead. What might look to our human instincts as an enviable fling, a happy carefree time away from morality, is not in fact a joyous, life-giving, happy thing at all, but a time of being dead to most everything that constitutes actual happiness.

Superficially, it can look like the prodigal son got away with something, a fling, a free season of pleasure, that we secretly wish we had enough nerve to do ourselves. However, as the image of eating with pigs and growing desperate for the food in his father’s house graphically depicts, the wayward son was, whatever the pleasures his prodigal life afforded him, far, far from happy. Sin, like virtue, is also its own reward.

When we envy the amoral, we have not yet understood grace or happiness. Should we die in this ignorance, we will no doubt be a bit disconcerted when we get to heaven and meet an infamous sinner there. After being faithful ourselves, we might angrily ask, “how did he get in here, given how he lived his life?” Conversely, if we have understood grace and what makes for actual happiness, we will instead feel both gratitude and relief in seeing that infamous sinner and say instead, “God, I’m glad he made it! I was worried about him.”

Sin is its own punishment and virtue is its own reward. At the end of the day, nothing feels better than virtue and nothing feels worse than sin.  However, that doesn’t make easy peace with our natural instincts; it’s a truth that can only be grasped by living it.

The Therapy of a Public Life

Forty years ago, Philip Rieff wrote a book entitled The Triumph of the Therapeutic. In essence, he argued that today in the Western world so many people need psychological therapy mainly because our family structure has grown weak and many community structures have broken down. He contends that in societies where there are still strong families and strong communities there is much less need for private therapy; people can more easily work out their problems inside of family and community. Conversely, where family and community are weak, we are mostly left on our own to handle our problems with a therapist rather than with a family.

If Rieff is right, and I suspect he is, it follows that the answer to many of the issues that drive us to the counselling couch lie as much, and perhaps more, in a fuller and healthier participation in public life, including church life, than in private therapy. We need, as Parker Palmer brilliantly suggests, the therapy of a public life.

What’s meant by this? What’s the therapy of a public life?

Public life, life shared inside a family and community, beyond our private selves and private intimacies, can be powerfully therapeutic because it draws us out of ourselves and into the lives of others, gives us a certain rhythm, and connects us with resources beyond the poverty of our own lives.

To participate healthily in other people’s lives can take us beyond our private obsessions. It can also steady us. Public life generally has a certain rhythm and a regularity to it that helps calm the chaotic whirl of restlessness, depression, and sense of emptiness that can so often destabilize our lives. Participation in public life gives us clearly defined things to do, regular stopping places, regular events of structure and steadiness, and a rhythm – commodities no psychiatric couch can provide. Public life links us to resources beyond ourselves, and sometimes they are the only thing that can help us.

While doing studies in Belgium, I was privileged to attend the lectures of Antoine Vergote, a renowned Doctor of Psychology, and the soul. I asked him one day how one should handle paralyzing emotional obsessions, both within oneself and when trying to help others.

His answer surprised me. In essence, he said this: “The temptation you might have as a priest is to simplistically give the advice: ‘Take your troubles to the chapel! Pray it through. God will help you.’ It’s not that this is wrong. God and prayer can and do help. But obsessional problems are mainly problems of over-concentration, and over-concentration is broken largely by getting outside of yourself, outside of your own mind, your own heart, your own life, and your own space. So, my advice is, get involved in public things, from entertainment, to politics, to work. Get outside of your closed world. Enter with resolve into public life!”

He went on, of course, to qualify this so that it differs from the simplistic temptation to bury oneself in distractions and work. His advice here is not that one should run away from doing painful inner work, but that solving one’s inner private problems is also dependent upon outside relationships, both relationships of intimacy and those of a more public nature.

Here’s an example. For more than a dozen years I taught theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Canada. Our campus was small and intimate, and we had a strong community life.  Occasionally a man or woman who was working through some emotional fragility or instability would show up on campus, not enroll in any formal classes, but simply hang out with the community, praying with us, socializing with us, and sitting in on a few classes.  Invariably I would see them slowly get emotionally steadier and stronger, and they found that new strength and balance not so much from what they learned in any of classrooms as they did by participating in the life outside of those classes. The therapy of a public life is what helped heal them.

For us as Christians, this also means the therapy of church life. We become emotionally stronger, steadier, less obsessed, and less a slave to our own restlessness by participating more fully and healthily within the public life of the church. Monks have secrets worth knowing. They have long understood that a regular program, a daily rhythm, participation in community, a mandate that you must show up, and the discipline of a monastic bell calling everyone to a common activity (whether this suits him or her or not at the time) have kept many a man and woman sane and emotionally stable. Regular Eucharist, regular prayer with others, regular meetings with others, regular duties, and regular responsibilities within an ecclesial community not only help nurture us spiritually, they also help keep us sane and steady. Private therapy can sometimes be helpful, but public, ecclesial life, with its consistent daily rhythms and demands, more than anything else, can help keep us steady on our feet.

When Did We Lose Basic Respect for Each Other?

When did we lose it? When did we lose that deeply-engrained, forever-sanctioned sense that however much we might disagree with each other or even dislike each other, we still need to accord each other basic courtesy, respect, and politeness?

We’ve lost that, at least for the most part. From the highest levels of government to the crassest platforms on social media, we are witnessing the death of respect, courtesy, and basic honesty.  Nobody, it seems, is accountable any more for even the most basic manners or for honesty. Things we used to punish our kids for doing (name-calling, ethnic slurs, taunting, lying, and blatant disrespect of another) are now becoming acceptable in the mainstream. Even more worrisome is the fact that we feel justified morally in doing it. To be seen as courteous, respectful, and polite is no longer judged as a virtue but as a weakness. Civility has died.

What’s behind this? How did we move from Emily Post to what happens today on social media? Who gave us permission, societal and sacred, to do this?

Blaise Pascal once famously wrote that “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.” Many people quoted that after the September terrorist attacks of 9/11, as they recognized this in radical Islamism where mass murder was justified and deemed as necessary in God’s name.

No doubt, it’s easier to see this in someone else because, as Jesus says, it’s easier to see the speck in your brother’s eye than the beam in your own. That same false belief that gave Islamic terrorists moral permission to bracket all the rules of decency is taking root everywhere today. Why?  Religious passion for what one believes is right and the belief that one may get ugly in the cause of truth is prevalent everywhere today and is giving us moral permission to become disrespectful, dishonest, and discourteous in the name of truth, goodness, and God. This justifies itself as being prophetic, as armoring us as warriors for truth.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Hatred and disrespect are always the antithesis of prophecy. A prophet, says Daniel Berrigan, makes a vow of love, not of hatred. Like Jesus, a prophet weeps in love over any “Jerusalem” which meets his or her prophecy with hatred. A prophet never brackets the non-negotiable mandate always to be respectful and honest, no matter the cause. No cause, societal or sacred, grants one an exemption from the rules of elementary human courtesy.

Many people argue against this, pointing out that Jesus himself could be very harsh with those who opposed him. Harsh he was. Disrespectful and discourteous he was not. Moreover, underneath his challenge to those who opposed him, there was always the empathic yearning love of a parent for an alienated child, not the ugliness you see today in our government circles, in social media, and in the stare-you-down hatred we often see between various ideological factions today.

The truth can be harsh and confront us with a very strong challenge, but it can never be disrespectful. Disrespect is an infallible sign that one is not right, that one does not have the moral high ground, and that in this instance one is not speaking for God, truth, and goodness. To bracket the most elementary rules of love is to be a false prophet, caught up in self-interest and self-serving truth.

It is not easy to keep one’s balance in a bitter time. The temptation to slide down the ideological roof on one side or the other and please “one’s base” seems humanly irresistible.  However, irrespective of which side we slide down, right or left, there always comes with this a prescribed rhetoric, a prescribed discourtesy, a prescribed disrespect, and not infrequently a prescribed dishonesty. Along with that slide also comes the self-same righteousness of those who opposed Jesus and believed that they were justified in being disrespectful and doing violence in God’s name.

Bitter times, a milieu of hatred and lies, and finding ourselves on opposing sides from each other, tempts us towards what comes naturally: name-calling, disrespect, lack of graciousness, and dishonesty whenever a truth or a lie serves us. Paradoxically, the challenge is in the opposite direction. Given the breakdown in civility today, the call from truth and from God is to be more careful, more scrupulous, and more uncompromising than ever in the respect, courtesy, and graciousness we accord to others.

We hope to be spending eternity with each other, dining at a single table. We do not prepare ourselves nor those we disagree with to take a place at that table by facing off with each other with hatred, dishonesty, disrespect, and coercion, as if that table could be taken by power and violence.

In the end, not everyone at that table will have liked each other this side of eternity, but everyone will be most gracious, respectful, and honest on the other side.

Lenten Ashes

We enter the season of Lent by putting ashes on our foreheads. What’s symbolized here? Perhaps the heart understands better than the head because more people go to church on Ash Wednesday than on any other day of the year, including Christmas. The queues to receive the ashes in many churches are endless. Why? Why are the ashes so popular?

Their popularity, I suspect, comes from the fact that, as a symbol, ashes are blunt, primal, archetypal, and speak the language of the soul.

Something inside of us knows exactly why we take the ashes. No doctor of any kind needs to explain this. Ashes are dust, soil, humus; humanity and humility come from these. Ashes have always been a major symbol inside all religions. To put on ashes, to sit in ashes, is to say publicly and to yourself that you are in a penitential mode, that this is not “ordinary time” for you. Smudging oneself with ashes says that this is not a season of celebration for you, that some important work is going on inside you, and that you are, metaphorically and really, in the cinders of a dead fire, waiting for something fuller in your life.

All of this has deep roots. There’s something innate in the human soul that understands, understands that every so often, one must descend, be smudged, lose one’s luster, and wait for ashes to do their silent work. All ancient traditions, be they religious or mythical, abound with stories of having to sit in the ashes. For example, we all know the story of Cinderella. This is a centuries-old, wisdom-tale that speaks about the value of ashes in life. The name Cinderella itself speaks to this. Literally, the name Cinderella means, “the young girl who sits in the cinders, the ashes.”  Moreover, as the tale makes plain, before the glass slipper is placed on her foot, before wearing the beautiful gown, before going to the ball, before dancing with the prince, and before marrying him, there must first be a period of sitting in the cinders, of being humbled, of being waiting patiently, while you are being readied for a sublime joy and consummation. In the story of Cinderella, we can see a spirituality of Lent.

Native American traditions too have always had an important place for ashes. In some Indigenous communities, there was the concept that occasionally someone would have to spend time in the ashes. Nobody knew why a specific person was called at a particular moment to sit in the ashes, but everyone knew that this was a natural thing, that ashes do an important work in the soul, and that eventually that person would return to his or her regular life and be better for having spent time in the ashes.

To offer one example: Certain native communities used to live in what they called longhouses. A longhouse was the communal building, in effect, the house for the whole community. A longhouse was long, rectangular, with large sloping sides, with the center of the roof open so that this could function as a natural chimney. Fires were kept burning, both for cooking and for warmth, along the entire center of the longhouse. People gathered there, near the fires, to cook, eat, and socialize, but they slept away from the fires, under the roofs that sloped down either side of the open center. Every so often, a man or a woman for reasons they didn’t have to explain, would cease adhering to the normal routine. Instead, he or she would, become silent, sit just off the fire in the ashes, eat very sparingly, not social, not go outside, not wash, and not go to bed with the others, but simply sit in the cinders.

Today we would probably diagnose this as clinical depression and rush that person off for professional help. For their part, they didn’t panic. They saw this as perfectly normal, something most everyone was called upon to do at one time or another. They simply let the person sit there in the ashes until one day he or she got up, washed the ashes off, and began again to live a regular life. The belief was that the ashes, that period of silent sitting, had done some important, unseen work inside of the person. You sit in the ashes for healing.

The church taps into these deep wells of wisdom when it puts ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season for each of us to sit in the ashes, to spend our time, like Cinderella, working and sitting among the ashes, grieving some of the things we’ve done wrong, refraining from the dance, refraining from the banquet, refusing to do business as usual, but rather waiting in patience as some silent growth takes place within us. Lent is a time to be still so that the ashes can do their work.

And we need not understand exactly what the ashes are doing. They have a long history of being very patient with us.

Our Best Farewell Gift

In his farewell speech in John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that he is going away but that he will leave us a parting gift, the gift of his peace, and that we will experience this gift in the spirit he leaves behind.

How does this work? How do we leave peace and a spirit behind us as we go?

This is not something abstract, but something we experience (perhaps only unconsciously) all the time in all our relationships. It works this way. Each of us brings a certain energy into every relationship we have, and when we walk into a room, that energy in some way affects what everyone else in the room is feeling. Moreover, it will stay with them after we leave. We leave a spirit behind us.

For example, if I enter a room and my person and presence radiate positive energy: trust, stability, gratitude, concern for others, joy in living, wit, and humor, that energy will affect everyone in the room and will remain with them after I have left the room, as the spirit that I leave behind. Conversely, even though my words might try to say the contrary, if my person and presence radiate negative energy: anger, jealousy, bitterness, lying, or chaos, everyone will sense that, and that negative energy will remain with them after I leave, coloring everything I have left behind.

Sigmund Freud once suggested that we understand things the clearest when we see them broken, and that is true here. We see this writ large, for instance, in the case of how a long-term alcoholic parent affects his children. Despite trying not to do so, he will invariably bring a certain instability, distrust, and chaos into his family, and it will stay there after he is gone, as the spirit he leaves behind, short-term and long-term. His person and his presence will trigger a feeling of distrust and chaos, and the memory of him will do the same.

The same is true in reverse vis-à-vis those who bring positive energy, stability and trust, into a room. Unfortunately, often at the time, we do not sense the real gift that these persons bring and what that gift does for us. Mostly it is felt as an unspoken energy, not consciously perceived, and only later in our lives (often long after the persons who did that for us are gone) do we recognize and consciously appreciate what their presence did for us. This is true for me when I think back on the safety and stability of the home that my parents provided for me. As child, I sometimes longed for more exciting parents and naively felt safety and stability more as boredom than as a gift. Years later, long after I had left home and learned from others how starved they were as kids for safety and stability, I recognized the great gift my parents had given me. Whatever their human shortcomings, they provided my siblings and me with a stable and safe place within which to grow up. They died while we were still young, but they left us the gift of peace. I suspect the same is true for many of you.

This dynamic (wherein we bring either stability or chaos into a room) is something which daily colors every relationship we have, and is particularly true regarding the spirit we will leave behind us when we die. Death clarifies things, washes things clean, especially regarding how we are remembered and how our legacy affects our loved ones.  When someone close to us dies, our relationship to him or her will eventually wash clean and we will know exactly the gift or burden that he or she was in our lives. It may take some time, perhaps months, perhaps years, but we will eventually receive the spirit he or she left behind with clarity and know it as gift or burden.

And so, we need to take seriously the fact that our lives belong not just to us but also to others.  Likewise, our deaths do not belong only to us, but also to our families, our loved ones, and the world. We are meant to give both our lives and our deaths to others as gift. If this is true, then our dying is something that will impart either a gift or a burden to those who know us.

To paraphrase Henri Nouwen, if we die with guilt, shame, anger, or bitterness, all of that becomes part of the spirit we leave behind, binding and burdening the lives of our family and friends. Conversely, our dying can be our final gift to them. If we die without anger, reconciled, thankful for those around us, at peace with things, without recrimination and making others feel guilty, our going away will be a sadness but not a binding and a burdening. Then the spirit we leave behind, our real legacy, will continue to nourish others with the same warm energy we used to bring into a room.

Trying Not to Make God Look Bad

For fifteen years, I taught a course entitled The Theology of God. The students in that course were predominately seminarians preparing for ministry, along with a number of lay students who were preparing to serve as ministers in various capacities in their churches. I would always teach what the curriculum called for: the key biblical revelations about the nature of God and God’s actions in history, some salient perspectives from the Patristics on God’s nature and actions, the historical development of the dogmatic definitions about God, plus some speculative notions on the trinity, ranging from Saint Augustine to Karl Rahner to Catherine Lacugna. But my overriding emphasis, like a leit motif, was always this. I would tell the students: whatever else you do in your pastoral practice and preaching, try not to make God look stupid!

Nothing is as important in our teaching, preaching, and pastoral activities as is the notion we convey of the God who underwrites it all. Every homily we preach, every catechetical or sacramental teaching we give, and every pastoral practice we engage in reflects the God who undergirds it. If our teaching is narrow and petty, we make God look narrow and petty. If our pastoral practice lacks understanding and compassion, we make God lack understanding and compassion. If we are legalistic, we make God legalistic. If we are tribal, nationalistic, or racist, we make God tribal, nationalistic, and racist. If we do things that befuddle common sense, we make God the enemy of common sense.  Crassly stated, when we do stupid things in our ministry, we make God look stupid. 

In all of our preaching, teaching, and pastoral practice we need to work at rescuing God from arbitrariness, narrowness, legalism, rigidity, racism, tribalism, nationalism, and everything that’s narrow, legalistic, and petty that, through us, gets associated with God. Anything we do in the name of God reflects God.

It’s no accident that atheism, anti-clericalism, and most of the negativity leveled against the church and religion today can always point to some bad theology or church practice on which to base itself. Atheism is always a parasite, feeding off bad religion. So too is most of the negativity towards the churches which is prevalent today. Anti-church attitudes feed on bad religion and thus we who preach, teach, and minister in the name of God need to scrutinize ourselves in the light of those criticisms.

As well, we need the honesty to admit that we have seriously hurt many persons by the rigidity of some of our pastoral practices that do not reflect a God of understanding, compassion, and intelligence, but instead suggest that God is arbitrary, legalistic, and not very intelligent.

I say this in sympathy. It’s not easy to reflect God adequately, but we must try, try to reflect better the God that Jesus incarnated. What are the marks of that God?

First, that God has no favorites. No one person, race, gender, or nation is more favored than others by that God. All are privileged. That God is also clear that it’s not only those who profess God and religion explicitly who are persons of faith, but also those, irrespective of their explicit faith or church practice, who do the will of God on earth.

Next, that God is scandalously understanding and compassionate, especially towards the weak and towards sinners. That God is willing to sit down with sinners without first asking them to clean up their lives. Moreover, that God asks us to be compassionate in the same way to both sinners and saints and to love them both equally. That God does not have preferential love for the virtuous.

In addition, that God is critical of those who, whatever their sincerity, try to block access to him. That God is never defensive, but surrenders himself to death rather than defend himself, never meets hatred with hatred, and dies loving and forgiving those who are killing him.

Finally, and centrally, that God is first of all good news for the poor. Any preaching in God’s name that isn’t good news for the poor is not the gospel.

Those are the attributes of the God who Jesus incarnated and we need to keep that God in mind in all of our preaching, teaching, and pastoral practices, even as we are sensitive to proper boundaries and the demands of orthodox teaching.  

Complex pastoral questions will always be with us and this is not suggesting that these issues be resolved simplistically. The truth sets us free and the demands of discipleship are, by Jesus own admission, harsh. However, with that being admitted, the compassion, mercy, and intelligence of God need always still to be reflected in every pastoral action we do. Otherwise, God looks arbitrary, tribal, cruel, and antithetical to love. Christianity, as Marilynne Robinson says, is too great a narrative to be underwritten by any lesser tale and that should forbid especially its being subordinated to narrowness, legalism, lack of compassion, and lack of common sense.

The Perfect Ritual

Sometimes it takes an outsider to help you to see the beauty and depth of something you have never fully appreciated. I suspect this true for many of us, myself no exception, regarding the celebration of the Eucharist in our churches.

David P. Gushee, an Evangelical, recently published a book entitled After Evangelicalism, within which he describes his decades-long struggle to make peace with some issues inside his own church. He has remained in his church, though now on Sundays he also goes (with his wife who is a Roman Catholic) to a Catholic Mass. Here’s his description of what he sees there.

“I view design of the Catholic Mass as something like a polished gem, refined over time to a state of great beauty – if you know what you are looking at. … The movement of the Mass manages to accomplish so much in something like an hour – a processional, with the cross held high; greetings in the name of the triune God; early confession of sin, brief but compelling; an Old Testament reading read by a lay person; a sung psalm; an Epistle reading by a layperson; the Gospel reading by the priest, and the ceremony around it; a brief homily; the centering movement provided by the creed and the prayers of the people. An offertory and music. Then right to the Table – the people offer gifts that are then offered to God and come back to the people as Christ’s body and blood; the kneeling in humility; the Lord’s Prayer as an important part of the Eucharistic rite; the precious chance to pass the peace with neighbors just before the supper; more kneeling; the chance to watch the people come up for Communion and pray for them, or instead be quiet with God; the final Trinitarian blessing and recessional.”

What an insightful description of the ritual by which we celebrate the Eucharist! Sometimes when we’re inside something, we don’t see it as clearly as does someone from the outside.

Let me add two other descriptions that highlight the Eucharistic ritual in a way that we often don’t think about or meet in our usual theology and catechesis on this.

The first, like Gushee’s, also comes from a non-Catholic. A Methodist layman shares this: “I’m not a Roman Catholic, but sometimes I go to a Roman Catholic Mass just to take in the ritual. I’m not sure if they know exactly what they’re doing, but they’re doing something very powerful. Take their daily Mass, for example. Unlike their Sunday Mass, they do daily Mass more simply, with the ritual stripped down to its skeleton. What you see then, in essence, is something akin to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.” Why does he make that connection?

Here are his words. “People who go to daily Mass don’t go there to experience anything novel or exciting. It’s always the same, and that’s the point. Like people going to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, they’re going there to receive the support they need to stay steady in their lives, and the steadiness comes through the ritual. Underneath the surface, each person is saying, “My name is ___   and my life is fragile. I know that if I don’t come to this ritual regularly my life will begin to unravel. I need this ritual to stay alive.” The ritual of the Eucharist functions too as a “12-Step” meeting.

Another perspective comes from Ronald Knox, a British theologian. He submits that we have never truly been faithful to Jesus. When we’re honest, we have to admit that we don’t love our enemies, don’t turn the other cheek, don’t bless those who curse us, don’t forgive those who kill our loved ones, don’t reach out enough to the poor, and don’t extend our compassion out equally to the bad as well as to the good. Rather, we cherry-pick the teachings of Jesus. But, says Knox, we have been faithful in one great way, through the ritual of the Eucharist. Jesus asked us to keep celebrating that ritual until he returns and, 2000 years later, we are still celebrating it. The ritual of the Eucharist is our one great act of fidelity, and the good news is that this ritual will ultimately be enough.

Jesus left us two things: his Word and the Eucharist. Various churches have taken different approaches as to which of these to give priory. Some churches, like Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Anglicans have prioritized the Eucharist as the foundation on which they build and maintain community. Other churches, most Protestant and Evangelical communities, have reversed this and prioritized the Word as the foundation on which they build and maintain community. How do the Word and the Eucharist play out together?

On the Road to Emmaus when the disciples of Jesus fail to recognize him even as they are walking with him, Jesus stirs their hearts with the Word, enough so that they beg him to stay with them. Then he sits down with them for Eucharist, and the ritual does the rest.

The Death of Chastity in our Culture

The concept of chastity has fallen on hard times.

Several years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of students at a Catholic university. The invitation came with a request and a caveat. I was to speak on chastity, but ideally, I was to avoid using the word. The Dean of Theology, who had invited me, had appraised the situation this way: perhaps more than anything else, the students need a challenge to chastity, but they are so turned off by the word that if we mention it in the title, very few will show up.

His hunch was right on both scores: the need for chastity in their lives and their aversion to the word. That’s also true for our culture.

For many today, the word chastity has negative connotations. Outside of a constantly shrinking number of select church circles, the word chastity sets off mostly negative alarms. Within our highly secularized and sophisticated world, for the most part chastity is identified with naiveté, with sexual timidity, with religious fundamentalism, with a toxic over-emphasis on sexual purity, with a lack of sophistication, and with something that perhaps made more sense in another age. Commonly, the notion is ridiculed, even in some religious circles. Very few people today dare talk about saving sex for marriage or about chastity as virtue. 

What’s behind this? Why this negativity and disdain towards the word chastity?

Partly this is based on a number of popular perceptions. Chastity is often seen as grounded in a religious fundamentalism, which our culture today either disdains or pities (“Chastity for Jesus”). As well, the notion of chastity is seen as a product of the church’s long-standing, one-sided emphasis on virginity and celibacy and its failure to articulate a healthy, robust spirituality of sex. It’s hard to argue with perceptions, except to say that the reasons for the demise of the concept of chastity in our culture are much more complex than this.

Admittedly, our catechesis about chastity is part of the problem. My suspicion is that a good number of people are negative vis-à-vis the notion because of how the concept has been presented to them. Our churches and moral teachers have to assume some of the blame and admit that far too often the concept of chastity has been presented, however unintentionally, precisely as a naiveté, a repression, and as an over-emphasis on sexual purity. There’s a parallel here to how atheism finds its ground. Just as so much atheism is a parasite feeding off bad religion, so too much of the negativity towards the concept of chastity is a parasite feeding off unhealthy religious teaching. 

However, our culture’s negativity towards the notion of chastity feeds off more than a less-than-healthy catechesis. The culprit? Sophistication as a virtue that is an end in itself. In short, our culture prizes personal sophistication above most everything else, and when sophistication is so highly prized, chastity easily looks like naïvete and ignorance.

Is it? Is chastity a naïvete, an ignorance? At the end of the day, is the notion of chastity a sexual repression, an unhealthy timidity, a toxic over-emphasis on sexual purity, a religious fundamentalism, a pitiable pre-sophistication?  Admittedly, that can sometimes be the case. However, here’s the case for chastity.

In 2013, Donna Freitas, the author of a number of books on sexuality and consent, published a study entitled, The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused about Intimacy. That title is the book in caption. Nowhere in the book (and for this she has been unjustly criticized by some church groups) does she ever say that what is happening in our culture today in terms of soulless sex is wrong or sinful. She doesn’t have to. She simply spells out the consequences – unhappiness, confusion, sexual depression.

A generation earlier, the renowned educator Allan Bloom, writing out of a purely secular perspective, came to the same conclusion. Looking at the bright, very-sophisticated young students he was teaching, he concluded that the very unbridled sophistication they so prided themselves in (which he termed “the absence of chastity in their lives”) had this effect in their lives: it left them “erotically lame”.

And so I submit that chastity merits another look from our culture. There’s first-naïvete (childishness) and there’s second-naïvete (childlikeness). There’s hook-up sex and there’s soul-sex. There’s religious fundamentalism and there’s the wisdom of divine revelation. There’s the over-emphasis on sexual purity and there’s the dehumanizing disrespect for others (that the #Me Too is standing up to). There’s a certain ennui and fatigue in an ultra-sophistication that believes all taboos may be broken, and there’s a vibrancy and happiness that’s felt in keeping your shoes off before the burning bush. Note, in every one of these dualisms, chastity speaks for soul, for wisdom, for respect, and for happiness.

When Our World is Falling Apart

The early years of my adulthood and priesthood were spent teaching theology at Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Canada. I was young, full of energy, loved teaching, and was discovering the joys of ministry. For the most part, these were good years.

However, they weren’t always easy. Restlessness and inner chaos find us all. The demands of ministry, the tensions inside community, the obsessions I’m forever prone to, the not-infrequent departure of cherished friends from the community, and the constant movement of people through my life, occasionally left me in emotional chaos, gasping for oxygen, struggling to sleep, wondering how I was going to still my soul again.

But, I had a little formula to help handle this. Whenever the chaos got bad, I would get into my car and drive four hours to our family farm just across the border in Saskatchewan. My family still lived in the house I’d grown up in and I was able to eat at the same table I’d eaten at as a child, sleep in the same bed I’d slept in as a boy, and walk the same ground I’d walked while growing up. Usually it didn’t take long for home to do its work. I’d only need a meal or an overnight stay and the chaos and heartache would subside; I’d begin to feel steady again.

Coming home didn’t cure the heartache but it gave the heart the care it needed. Somehow home always worked.

Today, the same kind of emotional chaos and heartache can still unsettle me on occasion and leave me unsure of who I am, of the choices I’ve made in life, and of who and what to trust. However, I cannot drive to my childhood home anymore and need to find the steadying that going home once gave me in new ways. It isn’t always apparent where to find this, even amidst a good community, a still supportive family, loving friends, and a wonderful job. Home can be elusive on a restless night. What one needs to steady the heart isn’t always easy to access. Once you’ve left home, sometimes it’s hard to find your way back there again.

So what do I do now when I need to go home and retouch my roots to steady myself? Sometimes a trusted friend is the answer; sometimes it’s a call to a family member; sometimes it’s a family that has become family to me, sometimes it’s a place in prayer or in nature, sometimes it’s immersing myself in work, and sometimes I can’t find it at all and have to live with the chaos until, like a bad storm, it blows over.

Through the years, I’ve discovered that a special book can take me home in the same way as driving there once did. Different people find home in different places. One of the books that does this for me, almost without fail, is The Story of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux. Not surprising, it’s the story of a recessive journey, the story of Therese’s own effort at recapturing what her house, home, and family once gave her. But the recessive journey in itself is not what gives this book (which I highly recommend for anyone whose heart is aching in way that unsettles the soul) such a special power. Many autobiographies unsettle more than they settle. This one soothes your soul.

However, remembering alone doesn’t necessarily care for the heart and sometimes our memories of home and childhood carry more pathology and pain than steadying and healing. Not everyone’s home was safe and nurturing. Tragically, one’s initial home can also be the place where our trust and steadiness are irrevocably broken, as is the case often in sexual and other forms of abuse. I was fortunate. My first home gave me trust and faith. For those who were not as lucky, the task is to find a home, a place or a person, that caresses a wounded soul.

What makes for a home that caresses the soul?

Home is where you are safe. It’s also the place where you experience security and trust and where that steadiness enables you to believe in the things of faith. I used to drive four hours for a meal or a night’s sleep in order to find that. Today, I need to make that recessive journey in other ways.

It’s a journey we all need to make in times of chaos and deep restlessness in our lives, namely, to find a place, a space, a friend, a family, a house, a table, a bed, a book, or something that grounds us again in security, trust, stability, and faith.

Of course, there are headaches and heartaches for which there is no cure; but the soul doesn’t need to be cured, only properly cared for. Our task is to go home, to find those people, places, prayers, and books that caress our souls at those times when our world is falling apart.