Monday, October 31, 2011

THE POPE AND WORLD RELIGIONS IN ASSISI

The charge was made in the Mobile Press-Register on Saturday, 29 Oct in an AP item, that Pope Benedict showed his typical closed-mindedness and craving for control by refusing to pray with members of other religions in an inter-religious gathering. [Ironically, this was in an article supposedly all about upcoming new liturgical language at Mass.]  The reference was obviously to the “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World” which took place on 27 October in Assisi. This charge is inane and really does not deserve the time I am taking to refute it—a refutation that would be less likely to be needed if the correspondent actually made some effort to research the piece before writing it.


Perhaps this correspondent overlooked the fact that this event was not something the Pope was asked to participate in, for which he gave “hard-line conditions” for his appearance.   Assisi was from first to last his initiative, and he was the one who did the inviting and set the parameters for it. Should he have run his thoughts past our correspondent first, for approval?

Why would Pope Benedict “refuse” to pray with others at this gathering? Perhaps the answer is out of respect for his own beliefs, and those of the others. Let me elaborate—it seems to me at the very least an imposition to pray as a Christian when supposedly sharing prayer-time with a Jew or a Muslim. There are, incidentally, theological views among those latter faiths that regard Christians as heretics for introducing another god (Jesus Christ); they therefore would not recognize Christians as true monotheists. It is one reason why these three world religions are typically referred to, these days, as Abrahamic, rather than monotheistic, faiths.

What about Hindus? I cannot speak for the AP correspondent, and I mean no disrespect to Hindus. But I would be reluctant to pray to Kali…
Buddhists, on the other hand, do not strictly speaking have a belief in God at all—their prayer is for the purposes of achieving enlightenment (as the Buddha did), and of attuning themselves to nirvana, the cessation of the cycle of reincarnation and the cessation as well of personal consciousness. It is very akin (in the best possible sense) to the philosophy of Stoicism, in which the serenity produced by detachment is a most high value.  Yet noble as it is, I would not want to pray for that same goal for myself.

Pope Benedict invited atheists to join in this meeting. To whom would they have prayed together?
It is fascinating that our society so vigorously opposes things like prayer before sporting event(preferring “a moment of silence”) yet would express the editorial opinion (misplaced in honest reporting in any case) that the Pope is at fault for sharing moments of silence with those who would reject his notion of God.

Perhaps this can be best explained by realizing that the critique is coming from a mind-set that thinks prayer in any form is really a trivial exercise. But at least from the Catholic point of view, and, I am convinced, from the point of view of the overwhelming majority of those taking part in Assisi, Pope Benedict was simply being hospitably sensitive to those who do not agree with his own view of God and prayer. In the end, his outreach surely trumps the small vision of the AP correspondent.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

FAITH, UNDERSTANDING & CONSCIENCE (& SUNDAY SCHOOL?)

Pope Benedict has announced the intention of making a “Year of Faith” to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the opening of Vatican Council II. It is obvious why such a commemoration would be marked (50th anniversaries are pretty major), but why mention a notion like “faith”? More to the point, how does this reflect a linkage with a favorite theme of Benedict—faith and reason?

If we begin with the mediaeval definition of theology as Fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), then perhaps we can make sense of this linkage. This would be especially true if we consider the insight of Bl John Henry (Cardinal) Newman, that the act of faith is essentially a choice to make an assent to a reality that is pointed to by what he called “converging probabilities.” But these probabilities can only be discovered by means of reason—that is, by thinking through the implications in a logical way. Not to panic: the principles of logic/reasoning themselves must also be accepted as axiomatic (that is, on faith)…

This sounds terribly esoteric, arcane, intellectual, abstract: and every other word I can think of that makes this topic seem “unrealistic/irrelevant” to 99% of believers! But I want to suggest that this is a wrong idea. I recently had a conversation with a high school girl (a junior) who is wondering about believing in God. As a result of what she is learning (and her school-mates are telling her) about science, she is asking: “Doesn’t the “Big Bang” deny the possibility of the existence of God?” I tried to assure her it was really quite the opposite: the wonders of science (like the heavens of Psalm 19) proclaim the glory of God. But how does one come to this insight, without examination of the possibilities laid before us by things like physics, calculus, analytic geometry, quantum mechanics, and so on? “Do you know why mathematics is the basis of life as we know it?” the little girl asks her Father in the TV ad. “Do tell me,” Dad replies, as they walk along the beach. Little girls (and young ladies in high school) want to know (this is beyond “enquiring minds,” as you can tell). Should knowledge and religious tenets be opposed to each other?

Still, the definition of theology I quoted above states that we must begin with the act of faith. Does this mean reason has no place until the (arbitrary?) act of faith is made? According to Newman, the answer is no. Our examination of the possibilities must lead us to the insight that making an act of faith is a reasonable thing to do: rational, even if not provable. So the intellect must be involved if an authentic act of faith is to be made. Newman referred to this as the principle of “converging probabilities” which justify the act of assent, even if they do not absolutely “prove” the fact-hood of the article to which the assent is given.

Perhaps this idea is all that much more important these days when there is a great deal of coercion (real or attempted) in religion, and when there is a great deal of unreflected embrace of particular expressions of one’s faith. The systematic persecution (often with the tacit approval of authorities) of minority Christians in countries like Egypt, Iraq or Pakistan—to name those most recently in the news—would be examples of the former. The “Christian” sect going around the country screaming hate slogans at the funerals of military personnel killed overseas is a sad example of the latter. Combining these two produces a totalitarian regime with the veneer of theocracy: probably the worst of all possible forms of government…

As a Christian, I should be bound by the words of I Peter 3:15—“Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for you hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence…” How can I express my faith in terms that are understandable to others (even if not finally persuasive to them)? How can I sort out the ways my reasons to believe are in fact finally persuasive to me? And how can I present my reasons (and reasoning) in ways that are persuasive to those of open minds? I think of Jesus Christ Superstar and its version of Pilate’s famous question:
But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law?
We both have truths; Are mine the same as yours?

All this means two things especially: open-mindedness to the wonders of our cosmos as signals of the presence and activity of a Creator; and honest facing of all the facts and arguments that suggest the opposite. Brilliant scientific men have been fervent believers in God, and other brilliant men have been determined atheists. It will not do simply to suggest that all believers are na├»ve and all non-believers realistic; nor, conversely, that all believers are open to the truth and all non-believers have ulterior agendas. And in any event, as Newman again insisted, the issue is far less what others choose to accept as sufficient evidences for the act of faith: what is crucial is how I use my best lights to lead me to make a “yes” or “no” to the question of belief.

Once I make an act of assent in a matter that is religious, it is required of me that I put the implications of this assent into practice in my life. Thus Newman, in coming to the conclusion that the Catholic Church was the one true church, not only became a Catholic but steadfastly refused to be a “cafeteria Catholic.” From his logic, the act of assent must be an “all or nothing” approach—otherwise, he judged, he would be setting himself up as arbiter of Scripture, Tradition, magisterial teaching—becoming the supreme authority in his own person.

Nevertheless, he refused to belittle the role of conscience in coming to terms with assent. Newman’s view of conscience here is critical—it is not a sense of “what I want” but rather an interior faculty to which I must listen and by which I must be guided, in determining where I find that truth to which I must give my assent. Newman did not “want” to become a Catholic; he saw it as his moral and religious obligation in conscience (and in fact he suffered for the choice in many ways). The phrase “freedom of conscience” is all too frequently abused and twisted to mean “I can do anything I want.” But the exercise of conscience is always and only a commitment to the truth as honesty comprehended—it is never an easy way to dodge an unpleasant responsibility.

Is all this too far-reaching an exercise in academic issues for most people to care about, much less get involved in? I hope not, because if we as human beings are not willing to examine our beliefs in the light of reason and then act upon the logical conclusions of those beliefs, what really are we? I am reminded of a pivotal speech of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons (a speech, by the way, lifted from More’s own writings):
God made the angels to show him splendor—as he made animals for their innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man he made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind! If he suffers us to fall to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle and clamor like champions…if we have the spittle for it. …But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to that extremity! Our natural business lies in escaping…

It is important to remember that in the exercise of reason in one’s faith-life and on the formation of one’s conscience one need not be a scholar. It is only important that one strive to understand to the best of his or her ability. At whatever level of my education and study, I must honestly ask (and answer) questions such as: “What do I believe?” “Why do I believe this?” “What are the implications for me personally of my belief, both in what I may do, and what may be done to me?” Am I willing and able to “count the cost” (Luke 14:28ff)? Unless I know the cost, I cannot determine if I am willing or able to afford it. And again, these must be personal answers—what does this all mean to and for me?

This is why there is probably no more important on-going activity offered by most parishes than religious education. In the younger years, this is dedicated to inculcation of basic premises and truths of the Faith. But as we grow older, facing choices like a personal YES to Jesus Christ (or not), and working out the implications of this YES, study is critical. An example: many people were sure (and are sure) that they have a legitimate disagreement with the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Yet how many have actually read any of the Church’s documents on this subject (beginning with Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae), or engaged in any sort of classes that would help explain it? Did we base our decision to reject this teaching on a sound-bite from television? Conversely, did we make a knee-jerk acceptance of the teaching because a prominent Catholic figure said to do so? In both cases we are abdicating our responsibility to think through, to understand, and to give the deepest, most authentic personal affirmation in conscience to the teaching.

So: is this entire essay an overblown appeal for adults to engage in religious education sessions? Maybe…

Friday, October 21, 2011

MEDITATION ON ROMANS 7

St Paul famously described the internal spiritual struggle he had in this passage, including the insight “The good that I would [do], I do not do; that which I do not want [to do], that is what I do” (Rom 7:19). How many of us have not felt this same conflict (not necessarily reducing it to the trivial level of “The devil made me do it”)? What is this alternate law in the body that is seemingly so diametrically opposed to spiritual growth?

The 14th century Dominican spiritual master John Tauler had a fundamental insight: “Our nature looks to self in everything. …[M]an is inclined to love himself more than anything else…even more than God… And this evil tendency is rooted so deep in us, that its traces baffle the search of all the wise men in the world. All the industry of man cannot correct this innate weakness. …It often happens, that when we fancied God alone was our motive, it turned out that…we were but seeking self in everything.”
The more modern buzz-word for this propensity (from 12-Step programs) is “self-centeredness.” Ironically, the less we see this tendency in ourselves, the more likely it is deeply rooted in our hearts—it is the master-teacher of the exercise of rationalization, by which we can justify whatever we wish to do, in the name of the principle that declares, “This is wrong for everyone, all the time—except for me, this time.”

How can we put to death this cause of spiritual death? How can we break out of the prison of self-centeredness? Surely it must be a step-by-step process (so long as we truly continue to take the next steps)—what act of outreach, of generosity, will I engage in today that I otherwise would choose to avoid? Can I look into another’s eyes and see the other as a true other, rather than just a reflection of (or extension of) myself? So hard…

It seems to me that the precise meaning of Matt 5:48 (“You shall be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect”) is the complete transformation of the person from self-centeredness to other-openness—it makes us heavenly creatures rather than hellish ones (those who, by definition, are utterly wrapped in self). The final letting go may be difficult—even painful: here is the beginning of the practical theology of purgatory—but utterly essential.

Who is willing to make today “the first day of the real ‘rest of your life’”?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

A PLAN FOR PEACE

Focolare is a movement in the Catholic Church dedicated to living lives in community and fostering ecumenical and inter-religious understanding. Their current president, Maria Voce, has been writing and speaking about the upcoming “Day of Reflection, Dialogue and Prayer for Peace and Justice in the World: Pilgrims of Truth, Pilgrims of Peace.” This day, called by Pope Benedict XVI, will be held in Assisi on 27 October, and it will also be the 25th anniversary of the first such event (also held in Assisi)—in 1986, in answer to the call of Pope John Paul II. He called another such gathering in 2002.


Is this “syncretism”? Is this “relativism”? These are dirty words that imply we can all gather together because one belief system is just as good as another, or because we don’t believe there is any such thing as objective truth which can in any way be known. This is not what these gatherings are about. It is a recognition that on the basis of natural law and our common humanity and our shared conviction in the reality of a Deity, there must be (even if only for reasons of simple self-preservation) a concentrated effort to end the violence and the injustices that plague our world. It makes sense for religious leaders to stand together in such a path: would a Greek be more likely to listen to a word of peace from a Hindu priest or from Patriarch Bartholomew? Would a Muslim be as open to such a word from Pope Benedict as he would from an imam?

If you truly think of the words, there is little in the famous “Peace Prayer” of St Francis (other than, perhaps, the hope to be “born to eternal life”) that the leader of any world religion could not recite with integrity. What a joy it would be if we could all put those words into practice in our daily lives!  If there is ever to be peace on earth, I will have to "let it begin with me"...

This event will not be strictly only ecumenical (a word reserved for dialogue and the search for reconciliation and agreement between different Churches and Christian denominations). This gathering will also be inter-religious, and there will be leaders from many world religions: all with a longing to contribute in some concrete way to world peace and justice from their own unique faith-based perspectives.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

FRANCIS

For an imaginatively faithful biography, I recommend Francis: the Journey and the Dream by Murray Bodo, OFM.
We cannot do better on this feast of St Francis of Assisi, than his prayer for peace (pray it and live it), and John Michael Talbot makes the words come intensely alive in his musical setting.  Enjoy, and happy feast day to all who love God's creation, who love peace, and who yearn to enjoy and be 'simple gifts.'


Monday, October 3, 2011

SILENCE AND WORD

This is the theme for the upcoming World Day of Communications (officially on 24 January, the feast of St Francis de Sales). The Pope’s message will focus on evangelization, but I want to reflect first on the concept of silence.

This past weekend I was called to a home to administer the Sacrament of Anointing to Mary, a woman who is in fact dying. It really is “the last rites” in her case, I believe. I made it out to the house where the adult children (eight siblings) and their children and spouses were gathered. We all went to the woman’s bedroom (she is, sadly, unresponsive). I asked them to lay hands on whatever part of Mom/Grandma they could, to let her know through feel that they were there. It took a few minutes for everyone to settle down, get to a comfortable place in the room, and touch Mary. But they did, and then I laid hands on her sacramentally as well—in complete silence. It lasted 2-3 minutes, and the silence was overpowering—it led to all kinds of tears and sobbing, especially after the anointing itself, and the prayers of commendation.

The following morning at Sunday Mass I was privileged to confer the sacrament of Confirmation on a young woman. Again, there is a laying-on of hands in silence before the anointing (this time with the Sacred Chrism). The whole church silently prayed for her with me during this time. And again, the silence was deafening in its statement of presence.

Cromwell and Norfolk (in A Man For All Seasons) are talking about Thomas More’s refusal to take the oath of supremacy and standing on his silence. Cromwell remarks, “Not being a man of letters, Your Grace, you perhaps don’t realize the extent of [More’s] reputation. This ‘silence’ of his is bellowing up and down Europe.” And so it can, even if More attempted to take his stand on the legal maxim Qui tacet consentire [Silence gives consent]. Cromwell, in the trial scene, is quite right on one point: “So silence can, according to circumstances, speak.”

It is amazing (and very true) to think that silence can be regarded as eloquent. Do people in love always need words, or is not it often the case that looking into each other’s eyes is the best way of saying enough?

Our silence in prayer (even, according to the circumstances, in liturgy) is for some just a time of fidgeting—“When will the priest finally stand up and get on with it?” For others, it is a time of deep communion of heart and soul with our divine Lord and Savior.

The psalmist understood silence: “No speech, no word, no voice is heard; yet their message goes out to all the earth, and their words to the utmost bounds of the world” (Ps 19:4-5).

And in the spirit of wondrous, silent presence in love, I wonder if we cannot ourselves draw strength to be witnesses (martyrs) for the Lord by our example far more than our arguments. We can leave those to the debaters; let’s instead be people whose silent, loving witness draws others to the Master. And we can all gaze into His eyes and know we are loved, and home.