Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Attractiveness of Jesus

 In an article currently featured in the online edition of the National Catholic Reporter, Georgetown professor of theology Fr. Peter Phan is asked the following question:

If most people at Jesus’ time and a large number of people in our time did not know or acknowledge Jesus’ special relationship to God, why were they attracted to him ?

Here is part of Fr. Phan's answer (italics are mine):

"What then is the attractiveness of Jesus? Rarely is it the Jesus as presented by the Christian dogmas in the abstract Greco-Roman philosophical categories. It is rather the Jesus as narrated in the gospels, with his teachings on how to live a fully and truly human life, the example of his life dedicated to the service of the poor and the marginalized until death, and his deep and unconditional love for and obedience to God . In other words, people are attracted to Jesus because in him they find a full flourishing of human life. Let’s note that it is not “happiness” as defined by modernity -- the self-centered satisfaction of material, psychological and even spiritual needs -- that Jesus refers to when he says he gives “abundant life.” Many of Jesus’ teachings are indeed “hard sayings” that require a total renunciation of the self to be his disciples. In spite of this highly demanding ethical ideal, many people are attracted to Jesus, precisely because they find in him the concrete way to live a fully and truly human life."

Read the full article here.

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Sunday, December 26, 2010

Negative Capability

Sportswriter Thomas Boswell on the steroids controversy in baseball:

“The moralist wants to decide what’s right and wrong; the artist wants to see things exactly as they are, even if there are so many shades that right and wrong isn’t a place that you get to. John Keats wrote in a letter—and he was talking about William Shakespeare—he said that the feature that distinguished Shakespeare the most and made him the greatest of all writers was what Keats called 'negative capability', which he described as the ability to remain in tension, undecided between opposing poles. And he said that Shakespeare had that negative capability, the ability to see everything and not jump to one side of the question, to a greater degree than any other artist.

“Now we live in a sports age and a baseball age, where nothing’s more valuable than negative capability because if we’re just in a rush, if we can’t wait to see Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, or whoever it is, as right or wrong, then we’re missing the complexity of these people and the difficulty of the age that they’re living in.”

From "Inning Ten: Bottom of the Tenth (1999-2009)" in Ken Burns Baseball

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Friday, December 24, 2010


At this time of year people of faith are always asked to remember “the true meaning of Christmas”—the humble birth, to an immaculately conceived virgin, of the child Jesus in Bethlehem, a child who was the Son of God, the Messiah, the Saviour who would atone for our sins by dying on the cross. We are told by our pastors that it is this story that we should hold foremost in out hearts and minds at Christmas. We are urged to rejoice that Christ the Saviour is born.

I recognize that the Nativity story—told only in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and differently in these two—is both believed and beloved by millions of Christians worldwide. And it is indeed a beautiful and magical story—the star, the Magi, the gifts, the angels and the shepherds, the manger.

But as it tells me nothing about how to live in this world, unlike the life and teachings of the adult Jesus, it carries little significance for me and moves me not deeply.

If we believe, however, that the love Jesus felt for us was so great that he eschewed all material comfort and lived a life of poverty and simplicity in order to spread his message of love, and if we believe that he ultimately gave his life to show the power of love and of truth, then his birth into a world of conflict and suffering, of greed and hypocrisy, carries powerful and timeless symbolic significance for every Christian and even for non-Christians.

It seems to me that we need this message much more than we need the quaint story of the Nativity and the promise of forgiveness of sin so that we might achieve eternal life in the next world.

An important part of the Christmas message is “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men.” The message is meaningless, however, unless we understand that celebrating the birth of Jesus includes an invitation to constantly re-create ourselves in his image. Only when the peace of Christ and good will toward both those who love us and those who do not love us are born in our hearts again and again can we truly be said to have captured and embodied the spirit of Christmas.

Blessings to all this Christmas season.

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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Once "a Blue-Collar Sport"

In 1869 Harry Wright, manager and outfielder for the Cincinnati Red Stockings, made seven times the average working man’s wage. In 1976, 107 years later, a ballplayer still made just eight times the working man’s salary. By 1994, the average major league salary would be nearly fifty times that of ordinary Americans.

“The big difference, now that players get so much, is that it has distanced them from us. It was a blue-collar sport, and people in the stands could look at these people playing ball and think of them as workers because they were getting paid workers’ salaries, and this perpetuated the illusion that with a little luck that could be me out there. The sense of “we” between fans and players was very strong in those days and players stayed on a lot longer with a team so they were familiars, like someone who worked in the same office with you almost. And all that has gone; it’s quite different now.”  Roger Angell

From "Inning 9: Home 1970-1992" Ken Burns Baseball

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"You're Not So Ugly"

An article I wrote recently about some Korean homestay students who were/are very special to me was posted on Life as a Human last night.

"Mr. Rickey, it's my skin."

Branch Rickey: Baseball people are generally allergic to new ideas. It took years to persuade them to put numbers on uniforms. It is the hardest thing in the world to get baseball to change anything, even spikes on a new pair of shoes. But they will, eventually; they are bound to. 

In March of 1945, Mr. Rickey told me in confidence that only the board of directors of the ball club knew and only his family knew, and now I was going to know that he was going to bring a black player to the white [Brooklyn] Dodgers. 

And Mr. Rickey said that going back to when he was the baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University, he took the team to play a series down at South Bend, Indiana with Notre Dame, and he said, “My best player was my catcher, and he was black. But,” said Mr. Rickey, “when we were registering the squad in the hotel, when the black player stepped up to sign the register, the clerk jerked the register back and said. ‘We don’t register niggers in this hotel.’” And Rickey remonstrated and said, “This is the baseball team from Ohio Wesleyan. We’re the guests of Notre Dame University.” He said, “I don’t care who you are. We don’t register niggers in this hotel.” Well,” Mr. Rickey said, “there are two beds in my room, aren’t there?’ And he said, “Yes.” “Well,” he says, “can’t he use one bed and not register?”

The clerk grudgingly allowed that to happen and Mr. Rickey took the key, handed it to the black player, and said, “You go up to the room and wait for me. Soon as I get the rest of the team settled, I’ll be up.”

Mr. Rickey said, “When I opened the door, here was this fine young man, sitting on the edge of his chair, and he was crying. And he was pulling at his hands, and he said, ‘Mr. Rickey, it’s my skin. If I could just tear it off, I’d be like everyone else.’”

And Mr. Rickey told me this day in March of 1945, he said, “In all these years I have heard that boy crying. And now,” he said, “I’m going to do something about it.” Red Barber, sports broadcaster

(From "Inning 6: The National Pastime, 1940-1950") Ken Burns Baseball)
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers of the National League.

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

New Life and Old

There was a baptism at Mass in our church this morning. It has been a long time since I have attended a Catholic baptism, so I am not familiar with the ritual, especially when it takes place in conjunction with a Mass. At any rate, at the beginning of the liturgy the family, including parents and godparents, stood at the front of the sanctuary with the baby while the priest introduced them and said a few prayers. The actual baptism took place at the end of Mass. (And even with a homily, we still managed to finish in an hour.)

What touched me at this special Mass happened at the homily. The priest, a man in his seventies, came down from the pulpit and from the sanctuary, went over to the pew where the couple were seated and took the baby in his arms. He held the infant, gently rocking him back and forth, like the most loving mother would cradle her only child, throughout the entire homily as he walked up and down the aisle, back up to the pulpit where he read words from the first reading, and down into the aisle again. The child made no sound and hardly moved while the priest held him.

There was no suggestion that the baby was a prop for the purpose of illustrating the homily. To me, in fact, the priest and the child were the homily.

The expression of love can be so simple and yet so profound.

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Legend of the Hot Dog (One version anyway)

Bad food and overpriced drink had been sold at ballparks since the 1850s. But it took one very ambitious British-born caterer to turn concessions into an empire. Harry M. Stevens had begun his career hocking scorecards in the 1880s, all the while regaling the crowds with quotes from Byron and Shakespeare. By 1901 he was peddling hard-boiled eggs, ham sandwiches, ice cream, and slices of pie in stadiums from New York to Ohio. Then, one cold afternoon when ice cream sales slowed at the Polo Grounds, he sent out for German sausages, which he put in long buns so fans could hold and eat them. He had made his greatest contribution to the game, introducing hot dogs to the ballpark.

From "Inning 2: Something Like a War (1900-1910)" in Ken Burns' Baseball

The Louisville Slugger

Pete Browning, the old gladiator of the Louisville Eclipse, had a lifetime batting average of .343 and was the idol of Kentucky fans. One day, in 1884, he broke his favorite bat. After the game, an apprentice woodworker named Bud Hillerich offered to make Browning a new bat. The next day Browning went three for three; thereafter he would use no one else’s bat. It was the first Louisville Slugger and Browning would eventually own more than two hundred of them, to each of which he gave a name taken from the Bible.

From "Inning 1: Our Game" Ken Burns' Baseball

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

One Year

Yesterday I had lunch with a friend whom I had not seen for a very long time. Naturally there was a great deal of catching up to do on both sides. After I told him about what I had been doing these past few years—returning to Catholicism, studying various aspects of religion and particularly the Catholic Church, and blogging about my thoughts and experiences—he asked me what the focus of my work was.

I had not been asked this question before, so I had to stop and think a bit before answering. I thought about my original purpose in starting this blog—to articulate the rather disparate thoughts that came to mind in the process of traveling on a spiritual path. And so I told him that there was no real focus to my study and writing beyond the need to find joy and excitement in the journey itself.

Today is the one-year anniversary of the establishment of Confessions of a Liturgy Queen. I am happy that I began the journey and grateful for the wonderful adventures it has taken me on. I am also grateful for the support and for the insights of my faithful readers, who have patiently and lovingly read and commented on my various rants and soul-baring exercises.

Due to a large number of rather stress-filled distractions, I have not been able to write much this fall. Moreover, as I stated earlier in the season, I would like very much to be moving away from polemics and more into reconciliation and contemplation in my thinking and in my writing. We shall see. Regardless, as things are starting to calm down, I am hopeful that I will be able to resume my studies and my writing and once again post regularly on this site.

Blessings to all.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Easy to Preach, Not So Easy to Practise

I have posted a few articles recently on issues like surrender over struggle, following one’s bliss and trusting God, and practising the virtues of charity, humility, and forgiveness. These articles usually arise from some incident or crisis or conversation in my personal environment that has caused me to reflect on how I—and others—react to life. The musings that are these articles come from an inclination to transcendence and from a passionate heart, but they have yet to be translated into a mode of living that is a true imitation of Christ.

I suppose I can say that I live “in community.” I have been hosting international students in my home for the past seventeen years; I am what is known in the international education field as a homestay father. So far, more than seventy-five students have lived in my home for periods ranging from two weeks to more than six years; they have come from Japan, China, and Korea, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil, and several Western European countries. Overall the experience has been more than positive as most of the students have been “family” in the warmest sense of the word and there are many with whom I still keep in touch.

This year, however, has for some reason been rather difficult. There has recently been a spate of students who have been variously unbelievably boorish, unengaged and uncommunicative, boorish 2, and finally prima-donna-like. These characteristics often manifest themselves in behaviour that is thoughtless, insensitive, and self-centered or just plain selfish. They also show themselves in attitudes toward food. Here are some recent behaviours and comments at the dinner table:

  • A student who likes his meat well-cooked comments on a barbecued steak (expensive cut) prepared for him: “What is this black thing you’re giving me?”
  • A student vigorously scrapes the blackened surface of broiled ribs, completely oblivious to the incredulous stares of everyone else at the table
  • A student requests soy sauce to put on the curried fish he was served
  • When asked how they liked meatballs cooked in the slow cooker (and they were delicious), one complains that he only likes “classic” meatballs; another complains of too much garlic
  • A student grinds enough salt to preserve a whale on his food at every meal

Most of these students never offered/offer to help with the preparation of a meal by setting the table or making salad, preferring to lie on the sofa or sit in the big easy chair watching TV while the work goes on nearby. Students are often late for dinner and on numerous occasions have called from downtown an hour or less before the meal to announce that they will not be eating at home. On several occasions I received no call at all.

All of my students are “adults.”

As you can see from the tone of what I have written so far, these behaviours do not sit well with me, especially where they concern food. Often a great deal of preparation, as well as expense—not to mention love—goes into an evening meal in our home. The lack of manners, and more important, of appreciation are appalling to me, and on a few occasions over the past few months, I have found myself so angry I have been unable to sleep and have stayed angry for more than a day.

I am relating this in order to point out that there is a profound disconnect between what I have been preaching—to myself primarily, if truth be told—and what actually happens in my daily life. It seems that the habits of a lifetime—reacting to perceived insults or offences due to over-sensitivity—are not magically transformed with a few pretty phrases about charity and forgiveness and surrender. Old baggage must be consciously cast off through practise, and the practise of observing the ego so that it may be dissipated must be as constant as one can make it.

I am reminded of the story told by Eckhart Tolle in A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. When Tolle was a university student in London, he often saw a woman “who appeared to be quite insane” on the train as he rode to school. “She looked extremely tense and talked to herself incessantly in a loud and angry voice….There was the angry tone in her voice of someone who has been wronged, who needs to defend her position lest she become annihilated.” It turns out that the woman got off at the same stop as Tolle and actually walked to one of the university buildings and entered, all the while talking aloud in the same aggrieved voice.

I was still thinking about her when I was in the men’s room prior to entering the library.  As I was washing my hands, I thought: I hope I don’t end up like her. The man next to me looked briefly in my direction and I suddenly was shocked when I realized that I hadn’t just thought those words, but mumbled them aloud. “Oh my God, I’m already like her,” I thought. Wasn’t my mind as incessantly active as hers? There were only minor differences between us. The predominant underlying emotion behind her thinking seemed to be anger. In my case, it was mostly anxiety. She thought out loud. I thought—mostly—inside my head. If she was mad, then everyone was mad, including myself. There were differences in degree only.

Some of us have had a lifetime of this angry or anxious mental activity, reacting to the world around us, near and far. It seems to be very difficult, especially as one gets older, to even be conscious of the voice, let alone to let it go by surrendering in love and forgiveness to a greater voice.

It seems that I am being tested these days on my ability to practise what I preach. I don’t think I want to show anyone my report card just yet.

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"Anger" by sahlgoode

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Thursday, November 4, 2010

Book Review: What Happened at Vatican II, by John W. O’Malley

In the Introduction to this marvellous book, Father O’Malley states his purpose as author:

In this book I will analyze [the sixteen conciliar] documents, but I will not provide a detailed theological commentary on them….What I will do, rather, is put the documents into their contexts to provide a sense of before and after….Only by tracing the documents’ genesis, and even more important, locating them in their contexts can their deeper significance be made clear.

He identifies the main historical contexts for Vatican II as “the long and the broad history of the Western church” from Constantine and Nicaea to the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation; “the long nineteenth century,” including the French Revolution and Pius IX and Vatican I; and “the period beginning with World War II and continuing up to the opening of the council.”

O’Malley also identifies what he considers to be the most important issues dealt with at Vatican II. These included the place of Latin in the liturgy, the relationship of Tradition to Scripture, the relationship of the church to the Jews and then to other non-Christian religions, religious liberty, the role of the church in the modern world. There were many more.

But the author believes that it is really the “issues under the issues” that characterize Vatican II and make it unique in the history of ecumenical councils. These are:

1. The circumstances under which change in the church is appropriate and the arguments with which it can be justified.

2. The relationship in the church of center to periphery, or put more concretely, how authority is properly distributed between the papacy, including the Congregations of the Vatican Curia, and the rest of the church.

3. The style or model according to which that authority should be exercised. Here the council becomes more explicit by introducing a new vocabulary and literary form. Words like “charism,” “dialogue,” “partnership,” “cooperation,” and “friendship” indicate a new style for the exercise of authority and implicitly advocate a conversion to a new style of thinking, speaking, and behaving, a change from a more authoritarian and unidirectional style to a more reciprocal and responsive model.

I believe that this is the issue captured by the expression “the spirit of the council,” that is, an orientation that goes beyond specific enactments.

Once O’Malley’s account reaches the opening of the council, the book often reads like a novel, filled with characters in conflict with each other, intrigue, surprises, and pathos. The council fathers quickly split into what the author calls the majority and the minority. The latter group was made up of members of the Roman curia and its supporters who believed that the council should be a reaffirmation of doctrine laid down by previous councils and by popes like Pius X. The majority, on the other hand, soon recognized that the council was an opportunity to bring about significant change in the way that the church related to the modern world. These two opposing views resulted in four years of tension and more-than-occasional vitriolic outbursts.

While faithfully recording these dramatic moments, the author does not fail to bring us back to the issues he laid out in his Introduction, placing events and outcomes in their proper historical and ecclesiological context.

Let us take the “lightning-rod issue” of collegiality—“the relationship of the bishops, or episcopal hierarchy to the papacy”—as an example.

What kind of authority did the bishops have over the church at large when they acted collectively, that is, collegially; how was that authority exercised in relationship to the pope; and how was collegiality different from “Conciliarism” (supremacy of council over pope), a position condemned in the fifteenth century and repeatedly condemned thereafter?

The issue of collegiality was addressed primarily in chapter two—later to become chapter three—of the much revised schema on the church, which in its final form would be entitled Lumen Gentium. One of the points made by this chapter was that bishops were ordained rather than consecrated and that this sacrament of ordination conferred on them “the tripartite office of teaching, sanctifying, and governing their flocks.”

O’Malley tells us:

It was over the last of those three—governing—that the difference arose. Thus this difficult topic blended into the final point [of chapter two], episcopal collegiality. The original [version of the schema, prepared by members of the curia] insisted that, though the sacrament conferred the office (munus) of governing, it did not confer the power to exercise it, which bishops received from the Roman Pontiff.

The new text was more intent on emphasizing that bishops have inalienable authority by virtue of the sacrament….This text agreed with the original that bishops were “vicars of Christ,” and a few lines later added a telling quotation from Leo XIII that they were “not to be thought vicars of the Roman Pontiff. They are called bishops (antistites, overseers) because they exercise an authority properly their own and really govern the flocks that are theirs.

Discussion of chapter two, which was often heated, went on from October 4 to October 15, 1963 during the second session of the council. Finally, in “a congenial meeting” with Pope Paul VI, the council moderators came up with the idea of asking the fathers to vote “on the contested issues of chapter two in a way that would indicate where the bishops stood on them and also be binding on the Doctrinal Commission in its revision of the chapter.”

On the day of the vote, however, it was suddenly announced that it had been cancelled; no explanation was given for this move. According to O'Malley, “Somebody had got to Paul VI.” As a result of his unexpected intervention, the pope was “besieged” for several days, and following a series of negotiations and no doubt due to pressure from leaders of the majority, a revised ballot was created and the vote took place.

The issue of collegiality was addressed in one of five questions to be voted on by the council fathers:

Should the schema assert that the so-called Body or College of Bishops in its evangelizing, sanctifying, and governing task is successor to the original College of the Apostles and, always in communion with the Roman Pontiff, enjoys full and supreme power over the universal church?

The result of the vote on this question was 2,148 affirmative, 336 negative. But as we shall later see, this was not the end of the story for collegiality at the council.

In his Conclusion O’Malley underlines the overall significance of this issue for the council and for the church.

No instance of ressourcement was more central to the drama of Vatican II and to its aspirations than collegiality. Proponents of collegiality at the council saw it as a recovery of an aspect of church life increasingly sidelined in the West since the eleventh century. It had been virtually pushed off the ecclesiastical map by the ways the definition of papal primacy of Vatican I had been determined and implemented. Yet, though the church had never officially defined collegiality as part of its constitution, for centuries it had taken it for granted as its normal mode of operation. The church of the first millennium functioned collegially…and in local councils and other ways the collegial mode continued to function even in the West well into the modern period.

In the West, papal primacy “developed” incrementally in a steady and almost continuous line up until the long nineteenth century when it accelerated at (for the church) almost breathtaking speed—papal definitions of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, the growth and increasing authority exercised by the Roman Congregations, the devolution of the appointment of bishops almost exclusively into the hands of the pope, and of course, in 1870 the definition of papal primacy and infallibility.

The majority at the council certainly did not press for a statement on collegiality merely to make a theological point. They brought it to the fore, like other ressourcements, because it had practical ramifications. The bishops who promoted the doctrine and fought for it so passionately wanted to redress what they saw as the imbalance between the authority exercised especially by the Roman Congregations and their own authority as heads of “local churches.” Collegiality was the supreme instance in the council of the effort to moderate the centralizing tendencies of the ecclesiastical institution, of the effort to give those from the periphery a more authoritative voice not only back home but also in the center.

I had hoped that Father O’Malley would deal with the apparent reversal of at least the spirit of the council by John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger. He does not do so in this book but his treatment of Pope Paul VI gives a clear indication that this process was underway long before John Paul II was elected; in fact, the dismantling began during the council itself.

By the time the second session of the council opened in September 1963, it was clear that the majority of the council fathers would be more and more insistently calling for the reform of the curia. “The Curia abused its authority, its critics maintained, and tried to lord it over the bishops. The behavior of some its members during the first period seemed to justify the indictment. The animus was widespread, by no means confined to the leaders of the majority.”

In a an address to the curia shortly before the resumption of the council in 1963, Paul admonished its members to cooperate more fully with the council and informed them that changes would have to be made to the curia’s mode of operation. At the same time, “he communicated that he was removing reform of the Curia from the agenda of the council. ‘The reform will be formulated and promulgated’, he said, ‘by the Curia itself.’” Naturally, a curia that has no interest in reform in principle will be unwilling to consider reform for itself; John Paul II had a ready and willing tool waiting for him when he ascended the throne of Peter and began dismantling Vatican II and restoring the Church of the “long nineteenth century.”

Unlike John XXIII, Paul intervened often and significantly in the business of the council. “His interventions and the way they were made are a crucial part of the story of Vatican II and of the larger problem of the relationship of center to periphery” and they reflect a preference for the primacy of papal authority over episcopal collegiality.

The most substantive—and to some, the most egregious—intervention came in the last week of the third session. The pope “communicated for Lumen Gentium [the final text of which was due to be voted on during this last week] a ‘Preliminary Explanatory Note’ (Nota Explicativa Praevia) that interpreted the meaning of collegiality in chapter three.” Most commentators agreed that the Note did not change the meaning of the text, but Joseph Ratzinger “found this ‘very intricate text’ marked by ambivalence and ambiguities and saw it tipping the balance in favour of the primacy.”

The Note won the support of the minority for the chapter and for the schema, as shown in the final voting— only 5 negative votes out of 2,156 cast. The price for that virtual unanimity was high. No matter what the pope hoped to accomplish, he in fact gave those opposed to collegiality a tool they could—and would—use to interpret the chapter as a reaffirmation of the status quo.

Father O’Malley has successfully incorporated a thoughtful and credible analysis of the issues treated by the council into the gripping story of Vatican II. I could not help but wonder, all the way through, how such a seemingly powerful wave of optimism and enthusiasm for change, such a compelling movement for dialogue and conciliation could be so quickly and so thoroughly subdued.

This book will never spend long enough on my bookshelf to gather much dust. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Kinds of Naïveté

Isn’t it interesting that so many people consider it naïve to think that belief in and the practice of the virtues of charity, humility and forgiveness are one way to save this troubled world. It is more fashionable to believe that small-government or trickle-down or tax-and-spend economic policies or trade protectionism, or trade liberalization, will save us. We just have to elect that other guy, not the loser we elected last time, and we'll be back on the right track headed toward prosperity and economic security. We prefer to put our trust in governments who tell us that tightened airport and border security or gun control or sending young people to fight in foreign wars will keep us safe from the threat of terrorism. We think that all we have to do to be happy and safe is to make our country stronger and richer (than those other countries) by spending more at Wal-Mart (on credit, of course).

No, no, we are not naïve. Everyone knows that the only way to win is to beat the other guy. Those old sayings like “Love thy neighbour” and “Turn the other cheek” are for dreamers and wimps.

It just might be time for us to open our eyes and look around at what our lack of naïveté has brought us. If we are truly not naïve, we will quickly see that it ain’t prosperity, it ain’t security, it ain’t happiness.

We are, in fact, profoundly naïve. If we think that the politicians we send as our representatives to state/provincial and federal governments have our interests at heart, we have not been paying attention. If we believe that the increasingly large corporations from whom we purchase our goods and services hold up excellent customer service as their chief ideal, we have not been paying attention.

When Barack Obama’s stimulus package went to a vote in the U.S. Congress earlier this year, not a single Republican voted in favour of the bill. Are we naïve enough to think that every one of these representatives believed that it was in the best interest of his or her constituents to vote against this bill rather than put individual political aspirations to one side and enter into a dialogue with the Democrats in a spirit of selfless service to the people of the United States in a time of great crisis and need? I wonder what the outcome might have been if every Democrat and every Republican had practised the virtues of charity, humility, and forgiveness in the process of dealing with the economic crisis.

The other day I received an e-mail with the following (unverified) information about Wal-Mart:

  • At Wal-Mart, Americans spend $36,000,000 every hour of every day (and Wal-Mart is not only in the U.S.)
  • This year, 7.2 billion different purchasing experiences will occur at Wal-Mart stores
  • Wal-Mart now sells more food than any other store in the world, including Safeway. In the fifteen years it took to accomplish this end, 31 supermarket chains sought bankruptcy
  • The value of products for Wal-Mart passing through the port of San Diego each year is a larger sum than 93% of ALL countries’ Gross National Product (GNP) ...and that is only ONE port way that Wal-Mart gets its stuff
  • Of the 1.6 million Wal-Mart employees, only 1.2% make a living above the poverty level
  • There are more millionaires per square mile in the city of Bentonville, Arkansas, the location of Wal-Mart's head office, than any place on earth
  • Wal-Mart, and MOST large companies, takes out life insurance on its employees, without the employees’ knowledge. If an employee dies, all the life insurance benefits go to the company. For example, if an employee making $18,000 per year dies, the company could reap as much as $1 million. This money is usually paid out to executives as bonuses
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is responsible for calculating the consumer price index (CPI), Wal-Mart’s prices are not significantly lower than those of other retailers
Even if this information is only somewhat true, the situation is still shocking. In our naïveté we are contributing to the concentration of more and more wealth in the hands of a few corporate moguls. Even we are not naïve enough to think that Wal-Mart is a charitable organization.

And while it may be the largest, Wal-Mart is not the only corporate entity that relies on our naïveté to make its executives and shareholders rich. Yet we continue to shop in these places while the local shopkeeper is forced to live hand to mouth or is driven out of business altogether.

I realize that we live in a democracy and in a capitalist economic system, which is generally understood and accepted as the best available system at the moment. But we have failed to recognize that the freedom this system affords us in order to prosper and live well must be balanced with the responsibility to be moderate in our appetites for material wealth. Our naivete is actually the gullibility that is the result of our greed.

Our greed has led to a state in which we believe the false claims and promises of politicians who, for the large part, represent no one other than themselves. We should know by now that only certain types of people enter politics; such awareness should inspire us to keep a careful watch on their activities. Our greed has led us to a state where much of our lives are controlled by very large corporations. The quality of the food we eat, the programs we watch on television, the working life of the appliances or automobiles we purchase, the money we entrust to banks—the list is endless—are all controlled so as to maximize profits and return on investment. There is no concern for the individual customer.

Our greed has brought us to this state, so there is no point in blaming the politicians or the giant corporations because they are better at being greedy than we are.

We must get off this treadmill and retake control of our lives, first by recognizing the mess we have made and then by embracing the other kind of naïveté, the sweet one that Jesus taught. We must admit to ourselves that our greed has not brought us happiness. We must understand that, regardless of whether we are Christian or not, whether we belong to a church or not, practising the virtues of charity, humility, and forgiveness will put us on the path to true joy.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John Shelby Spong on Life After Death

From Eternal Life: A New Vision:

The drive to survive seems to motivate human life so deeply that perhaps the time has to come to face openly and honestly the question of whether the human hope and yearning for life after death might will turn out to be just one more manifestation of this biologically driven survival desire that is present in all living things....It cannot be denied that this is at least a possibility.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Homily Blues

One of the first books I bought and read after I returned to the Church in 2006 was Still Called by Name: Why I Love Being a Priest, by Dominic Grassi, a priest in the archdiocese of Chicago. I got this book because I felt called to be a priest myself but wondered how, in the Roman Catholic Church of today, one could answer this call and still fully be oneself. I hoped that Still Called by Name would enlighten me in this regard.

I love this book and I am full of admiration for Father Grassi, a man who is so fully in touch with and accepting of his own humanity that he can relate with unreserved compassion to the people to whom he ministers and with whom he shares a community. His honesty, integrity, and vulnerability make him a real pastor rather than an archdiocesan functionary or a mouthpiece for teachings that have nothing to do with the reality of people’s lives.

There is a chapter in Still Called by Name entitled “Dancing with the Word,” in which Father Grassi tells of how he learned to be an effective homilist. In the early days of his priesthood his sermons, which he memorized and recited word for word, were like “theology lectures” made up of “the stuff that had been poured into me in the seminary.” Fortunately, he listened to the feedback of his parishioners and of his own body and sought out “the best preacher I knew” for advice. As a result, he began to preach from his heart as much as from his head. Eventually, he experienced another breakthrough:

Fortunately I stumbled upon—or the Spirit kindly led me to—something called theology of story. At that time authors such as Jack Shea and others were creating a new way of looking at the story of what our faith means. Its premise, simply stated, is that to effectively share the story of salvation, of God’s love for us, that is found in Scripture and in our tradition, a preacher needs to get in touch with and be familiar with not only the word of God but also his own story of faith and the stories of the people with whom he shares his thoughts. I believe it was during that difficult period of growth that I first became a storyteller.

My homily eventually became a kind of spiritual dance, with my story touching the stories of the people to whom I preached. And together we explored and shared the mystery of the Story, found primarily in Scripture but also found in human history. What a difference this new approach made. No more headaches. Now I was eager to make those connections that were building up inside of me.

Over the years, Father Grassi has developed his storytelling skills and, to this day, continues to work on learning new techniques and improving his homilies.

Most important, however, I have learned that a good homily comes from the heart. Often I am preaching something that I myself need to hear. Anything less than complete honesty will not only shortchange the listeners but also will destroy the power of the message.

Apart from the homily, the liturgy of the Mass is for the most part a “set piece.” While the readings, prayers, and liturgical actions speak to each of us in different ways, they are prescribed by the national bishops’ conferences for every day of a three-year period. It seems to me, then, that the occasion of the homily presents an opportunity for the homilist to draw together the elements of the liturgy for that Mass and to tease out their relevance to the world of today and to the lives of the people in the pews.

A good homily is not a form of entertainment, designed to keep the congregation awake and to enhance the popularity of the homilist. I am certain that Father Grassi does not tell stories to entertain his parishioners. But stories—especially those that are well told—do have a way of engaging the listener, of touching his or her life, of raising questions that the listener is moved to consider.

Now there are didactic stories and mimetic stories. A ridiculously pious and condescending young priest in my mother’s parish once gave a homily in which he told the story of his attending an interreligious conference. At the conference were Anglican and Lutheran priests and ministers, whose liturgical rites are very similar to those of the Catholic Church but who tend to be theologically liberal. The young priest told us that he felt far more at home with the fundamentalist Evangelicals because their moral teachings were similar to those of Catholicism. This was a didactic story because it was—unsubtly—designed to teach us a lesson about the potential moral perils of ecumenism. Like all of this young man’s homilies, it was delivered to us as if we were participants in a children’s catechism class.

A mimetic story is one that gives an engaging picture of some vital aspect of life but allows us to ask our own questions and to draw our own conclusions about the issue presented. Most modern prose falls into this category. As a reasonably mature and intelligent adult, I relate more readily to mimetic than to didactic stories.

My bet would be that Father Grassi's stories are predominantly mimetic.

I am sure that it must be very difficult for a priest to come up with a fresh and inspiring homily every week, especially given the heavy workload imposed on today’s clergy. I am also sure that some priests just eventually give up. In my former church the pastor would usually tell a joke at the start of the homily and then read from a prepared text. He is not a native speaker, so his English is not always idiomatic or grammatically correct. Yet the (mercifully brief) homilies he read were in perfect English. This often made me wonder how it is possible to passionately communicate with the people in the pews using someone else’s words.

In a 2009 article in America entitled “Preaching in a Vacuum: Why Routine Feedback on the Sunday Homily is Essential,” South African Jesuit Chris Chatteris offers the following:

I can think of no greater service to the pastoral practice of the church than constructive criticism of preaching. If such a movement were to take hold among the people of God, there would be nowhere to hide for the unprepared, the hollow and the offensive.

Father Chatteris recommends that the people of God, in any given congregation, offer “straightforward and trenchant feedback” on the homily. This is contrasted with the “body language feedback”—glazing over of the eyes, close examination of the bulletin, fidgeting—that preachers often ignore.

One suggestion that Chatteris offers for the improvement of homilies is “the formation of a preaching committee—a group of parishioners asked to assist the priest, deacon or lay preacher in the preparation, delivery and assessment of the homily.”

The U.S. Catholic bishops have wisely written: “Only when preachers know what their congregations want to hear will they be able to communicate what they need to hear” (Fulfilled in Your Hearing, 1982). A preaching committee can help a preacher to discern a congregation’s needs and thus assist in finding helpful themes for homilies. Such a group can also break down the alienating sense of loneliness that can accompany the process of preparing homilies, an awful feeling of flying solo.

How much more uplifting and inspiring a Sunday Mass would be if the homily touched the hearts of the listeners in a way that left them wondering or marvelling or somehow motivated. How much longer the Mass would last in the minds of the congregation as they moved into their Sunday routine. And how deeply fulfilled the homilist would be knowing that on giving inspiration he received love in return.

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Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fear, Bliss, Surrender, Trust

I realize now that I grew up in fear—fear of my father, fear of punishment, fear of bullies, fear of rejection—and that my life has been circumscribed by this fear. In fact, for most of my adult years fear has caused me to say no to life rather than to say yes. Instead of taking risks and thus experiencing the adventure, I played it safe all the way down the line. Practically everything I thought, said, and did was filtered through an imagined social approval system; thus my individuality, creativity, and emotional growth were virtually suffocated in the process. The person that God meant me to be never blossomed.

I do not want to try to imagine what my life might have been had I not been so controlled by fear. What might I have accomplished or created? What melodramatic love affairs might I have experienced? What memorable conversations might I have had with interesting people? What might I have contributed to the world?

If I am truly honest with myself, I must admit that I have not lived; I have merely existed.

Now that I am nearly sixty, I wonder how this habit of fear, so deeply rooted, can be overcome and a healthy life lived. Certainly, recognition of the ways in which fear still governs my life can be a first step in freeing myself from it. Worry and anxiety, particularly of the obsessive variety, are common manifestations of fear, for example. Shyness is also a symptom of an underlying fear. Lack of confidence is born out of the fear of failure or rejection. All of these syndromes have a paralyzing effect on human development and are a barrier to a happy, healthy, creative life.

Most people’s fears are illogical; they are out of proportion to nearly all worst-case-scenario outcomes. Yet it seems that fear cannot be banished or overcome by logic. The child who is afraid of monsters in the dark can only be comforted by the security of parental protection, not by assurances that monsters do not exist. Adults are not much different, it seems. I know that our neighbours or our homestay students are not going to hate us if our smoke alarm goes off while we’re making boeuf bourgignon and we don’t get it silenced right away. Yet my heart rate immediately goes up and I try every means possible to shut that noise down. (Such an incident—and my predictable reaction— actually occurred while I was writing this paragraph.)

So how do we set fear aside and begin to live—really live? One way is to find and to follow your bliss, a pursuit you so deeply love that it takes you outside of yourself and thus beyond all fear. Fear is, after all, a profoundly self-centered emotion; true love or passion (not infatuation), on the other hand, is other-centered. I found my bliss a few years ago, but I now understand that I have not been truly following it.

Following your bliss involves complete surrender to the journey. And what is it that you have to surrender? You have to let go of your ego; you must surrender all desire. As soon as you have expectations—of “results,” (such as visits to your blog) of acceptance (comments on your blog), of material gain as an outcome of your effort (making money from your writing)—you will also have fear that those expectations will not be met and disappointment when they are indeed not met.

The bliss, then, must be pure.

Complete surrender can only be accomplished when there is perfect trust. When I am truly following my bliss, I trust that wherever that journey takes me is where God intends me to be at that moment, and if I believe, as Henri Nouwen says, that I am the beloved child of God, I know it will always be a place of joy. If I trust, I am free to follow my dream—to act on my inspiration—without fear of danger or loss or pain and without expectation of outcome. I am free to be who I really am, and as Henri tells us, I am not what I do, I am not what I have, and I am not what others think of me.

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Saturday, October 9, 2010


I decided to write this book because over the last number of years I realized I did not agree with the faithful (or at least all they said) so much as disagree with the unfaithful (or those who say they do not have faith). That is, sooner or later, one has to answer those who make it a point of saying that you and most of those you love are wrong.

Novelist David Adams Richards in God Is. My Search for Faith in a Secular World

Joseph Campbell and the New Mass

This is from the PBS series Joseph Campbell: The Power of Myth, with Bill Moyers:

There’s been a reduction, a reduction, a reduction of ritual. Even in the Roman Catholic Church. my God, they’ve translated the Mass out of the ritual language into a language that has a lot of domestic associations. Every time…that I read the Latin of the Mass, I get that pitch again that it’s supposed to give, a language that throws you out of the field of your domesticity. The altar is turned so that the priest’s back is to you, and with him you address yourself outward [gestures upward with his hands] like that.
Now they’ve turned the altar around; [it] looks like Julia Child giving a demonstration—all homey and cozy. They’ve forgotten what the function of a ritual is: it’s to pitch you out, not to wrap you back in where you have been all the time.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010


It has been a few weeks since I wrote something on this blog. To those faithful readers who keep looking for something new (or who have long since given up), my apologies for the long absence.

One of the reasons for the paucity of blog postings in the past month is pure circumstance. I had several house guests, homestay students moving in and moving out, a floor refinishing project that required removal of all items, large and small, from the living room and dining room and their replacement after the floors dried—a much larger job than anyone in this house had imagined. Just when this project was finally completed and I was ready to settle into my regular life of study and writing, there was a major flood in the basement. This was an enormously disruptive and stressful event from which I am just beginning to emerge.

The second, and more significant, reason for my blog silence is that my journey seems to be taking me in a new direction. I have been feeling this change coming for a while but it has yet to take on a definite shape, so I am unable to articulate it in any coherent way at this moment. Suffice it to say that my interest in all things Catholic is still much the same but my perspective appears to be changing. I have had an interest for some time now in Joseph Campbell’s work in the field of mythology and may seek to apply some of his insights to my own study of religion. I am also interested in a more contemplative approach to spirituality, one that is less reactive, more accepting and forgiving, more peaceful and loving.

Of course, I will continue to speak out against what I consider unjust in the Church and in the world, but I hope that my speaking out will come less from a sense of personal affront and more from an inclination toward reconciliation.

In the meantime, I have been attending Sunday Mass at St. Augustine’s, still very quietly and anonymously but with an eye to perhaps becoming more involved. I suppose my next step will be to have a private chat with the priest to determine whether the parish will allow me to be active and be who I really am.

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Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Real Church 2

Part Two of my article  "Open the Doors and See All the People" has been posted on Life as a Human.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Real Church

My article "Open the Doors and See All the People: Part One" has been posted on Life as a Human. In the article I attempt to explain that the Catholic Church is much more than the hierarchy and its scandals and stupidities.

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"Books and Rosary" by Susan Mogan

Friday, September 3, 2010

Victimhood or Responsibility?

I have been thinking about the economic crisis in the United States* and wondering about responsibility. Perhaps I am projecting or reading more into the situation than there really is, but it seems to me that America is about to punish Barack Obama and the Democrats for their failure to alleviate the economic woes of the country. How severe that punishment will be, no one knows, until the smoke has cleared from the November mid-term elections. Nor can one really predict the longer-term effects of the down-on-Obama-and-the-Democrats mood, but I shudder to think that the likes of Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck might take over the White House in 2013.

I am convinced that the anger and the pain of millions as a result of the economic crisis are being intensified by hysterical pundits in the media and office-seekers on both sides of the political divide.

Does the voting public of America truly believe that by kicking out Democratic congressmen and replacing them with Republicans, the job is going to get done and America will get right back to work? Is it really that simple? Should the government step up and throw billions of dollars more at the problem, using money that it actually does not have? Why do we consider it the responsibility of government to get us out of economic trouble?

We are a society that is encouraged - perhaps I should say "tempted" - to live beyond its means. The credit card companies want us to use their cards so they can collect their 18 percent interest per year; the department stores are even more avariciously delighted when we use their cards and pay them back at a rate of 29% per year. The banks and finance companies would like us to take out loans and mortgages that we can't really afford so their shareholders can get 15-20% annual returns on their investment; of course, when we cannot pay back the loan, we lose the house or the car and all the money we put into it.

There is no such thing as job security; there has not been for many years. And no country is recession-proof, so we know that every few years, we are going to have some kind of economic downturn and there is going to be job loss; the lost job just might be ours. Moreover, none of us knows when personal disaster may strike, leaving us with huge bills to pay. Yet we continue to live on credit, spending well beyond our means and saving nothing. And then when the shit does hit the fan, we blame the government or the big corporations, and we expect government to come and rescue us. Because we are victims.

Of course there are those - and they are not few - who are genuinely disadvantaged and who need our help, in good economic times and in bad. These are the people that our tax dollars and our charitable donations should be used to help.

The rest of us, I think, need to learn a little responsibility. We are responsible for taking a serious look at our lives and deciding if we truly need all the junk that we buy. We might also think about why we buy all that stuff and ask ourselves if this ridiculous consumerism is not a substitute for happiness. Perhaps there are other ways to make ourselves happy.

It seems to me that the old saw that consumerism fuels the economy is a bit misleading. Exactly whose economy is benefiting? If several million people did not buy an iPhone4, Steve Jobs and the Apple Corporation and however many shareholders would not be applying for welfare anytime soon. And if I get fewer hours, say as an Apple Store employee, I am okay because I have decided I don't really need to check my e-mail while standing in line to wait for my $4.00 Starbucks coffee. And if I recognize that I can make a great coffee at home, I'll have more time to use my creativity or be with my kids or whip up a gorgeous (and inexpensive) meal for my friends. And if I don't have an iPhone4, I can actually have a conversation with my friends because I won't be checking my e-mails while I am sitting at the dinner table. Oh, and if I don't have to work every day, maybe I don't need my car everyday; I could share it.

I strongly believe that each of us is responsible for his or her own happiness, whether we have taken our own happiness away through choices we have made or it has been taken away from us by circumstance. The vast majority of us are not victims, even though our society - and our own laziness - encourages us to believe that we are. Very few of us do not have the energy, the creativity, and the heart to make a beautiful life for ourselves. Unfortunately, we allow ourselves to be drawn in  - sucked in - to the negativity that dominates our social and political existence.

JFK said (something to the effect of) "Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country." Maybe we first need to ask what we can do for ourselves, for our loved ones, and for our friends. Congress and the White House, Obama and the Tea Party, Democrats on the left and on the right, Republicans and Democrats may all be locked in perpetual conflict and have therefore placed the nation in a state of gridlock, but Americans do not need to wring their hands in despair and hurl epithets at this group or that. Surely we have come to realize that no matter who is in the Oval Office and which party has a majority, there is always some kind of crisis, and life always goes on. The bottom line is that the government, like any other organization, group, or individual, cannot make us happy, cannot solve our problems.

Joseph Campbell says:

You might ask yourself this question: if I were confronted with a situation of total disaster, if everything I loved and thought I lived for were devastated, what would I live for? If I were to come home, find my family murdered, my house burnt up, or all my career wiped out by some disaster or another, what would sustain me? We read about these things every day and we think, Well, that only happens to other people. But what if it happened to me? What would lead me to know that I could go on living and not just crack up and quit?

I've known religious people who have had such experiences. They would say, "It is God's will." For them, faith would work.

Now what do you have in your life that would play this role for you? What is the great thing for which you would sacrifice your life? What makes you do what you do; what is the call of your life to you - do you know it? The old traditions provided this mythic support for people; it held whole culture worlds together. Every great civilization has grown out of a mythic base.

In our day, however, there is great confusion. We're thrown back on ourselves, and we have to find that thing which, in truth, works for us as individuals. Now how does one do this?

I suggest that we do not do it by living on credit in order to keep consuming. I suggest we cannot do it by waiting for the government to act on our behalf. Rather we have to stop, be quiet, and look deep within ourselves to find our "mythic support." It might be God, it might be art, it might be nature.

I'm pretty sure it won't be the Tea Party.

*I am a Canadian and do not presume to speak for Americans or to possess either broad or deep knowledge of American social and political issues. Canadians are exposed to a great deal of "Americana," however, and as our politics is really quite boring, many of us take an interest in what is going on south of the border. In 2008, a very large majority of Canadians indicated that they would like Barack Obama to be their Prime Minister.

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

New Church?

Well, I do miss going to Mass and I do not at this point appear to be highly motivated to attend services at any of the Anglican churches. So last Sunday, after a bit of research, I attended 9:00 Mass at St. Augustine's parish in the Kitsilano area of Vancouver. I chose this church because the pastor has been married and has children and grandchildren. The autobiographical sketch posted by this priest on the parish website reflects a warm, open-hearted character. I thought that perhaps a parish run by such a man might be a little more realistic, a little more inclusive, a little less doctrinaire than the norm in this archdiocese.

The church itself, built in 1931, is beautiful inside and out. There is something about older church buildings: they have an atmosphere that makes them seem more like churches than the newer creations. The congregation was more heterogeneous than that  of my former parish, both in age and ethnicity. There were numerous children and young people, along with the elderly and very elderly. One woman seated a couple of pews in front of me was obviously in early- to mid-stage dementia. On one side of me was a woman from somewhere in the West Indies and on the other side a Filipino woman and her teenaged son. The caucasians in the congregation were not all white-haired.

It turned out that the pastor was the celebrant. While I was not greatly impressed with the manner in which he conducted the liturgy or with his homily - both were rather insipid - it was quite clear that the laity play a large role in the celebration of the Mass at this church. There was also an intangible sense of the warm connection between this priest and the parishioners of St. Augustine's.

This connection was made very clear at the end of the Mass when the priest asked everyone to be seated and a man came up to the front of the church and began to read, with great emotion at times - what turned out to be a farewell speech to the pastor. After four years at St. Augustine, and only one year as pastor, he had been reassigned, and this was his last Sunday Mass.

Still, I think I will continue to attend Mass at this church. Here is what the home page of St. Augustine's website says:

As an Oblate parish, we are really a family, imbued with the charisma of the Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, St. Eugene de Mazenod. Consequently, the parish has and does reach out in mission “at home and abroad”, as far away as Peru and Africa. Youth has always been a focus, as are the elderly, the sick and shut-ins, the poor and the marginal in Vancouver. The community supports the arts and is ecologically conscious. We do liturgy well and are known for our music, we are generous and hospitable. As you browse about the Site, we hope you might be inspired to come and visit us, if not simply to visit, you may attend one of our two daily masses, or come to one of four on the weekend. We have a staff of 7 and numerous wonderful volunteers that keep the parish running and active.

While I do not quite qualify as "elderly" yet, perhaps I could be called "marginal." At any rate, I do get a good feeling from this parish, so I think I will keep going for a while.

Photo from St. Augustine's parish website

Friday, August 27, 2010

Hitchens: Religion, Dr. King,, and the Civil Rights Movement

In God is not Great Christopher Hitchens attempts to explode the notion that religion causes people to do good things. The chapter entitled "Does Religion Make People Behave Better?" looks at the story of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the United States. While King was a religious man and used biblical imagery in his speeches, especially the story of Moses and the liberation of the oppressed people of Israel from their Egyptian masters, "the examples King gave from the books of Moses were, fortunately for all of us, metaphors and allegories."

While employing biblical rhetoric to inspire his followers, King was trying to throw off the "heavy burden" of southern Christian racism:

The southern churches returned to their old ways after Reconstruction, and blessed the new institutions of segregation and discrimination. It was not until after the Second World War and the spread of decolonization and human rights that the cry for emancipation was raised again. In response, it was again very forcefully asserted (on American soil, in the second half of the twentieth century) that the discrepant descendants of Noah were not intended by god to be mixed. This barbaric stupidity had real-world consequences. The late Senator Eugene McCarthy told me that he had once urged Senator Pat Robertson - father of the present television prophet - to support some mild civil rights legislation. "I'd sure like to help the colored," came the response, "but the Bible says I can't." The entire sefl-definition of the south was that it was white, and Christian. This is exactly what gave Dr. King his moral leverage, because he could outpreach the rednecks. But the heavy burden would never have been laid upon him if religiosity had not been so deeply entrenched to begin with.

Hitchens points out an interesting fact about the people around Reverend King:

As [King biographer] Taylor Branch shows, many of King's inner circle and entouraage were secular Communists and socialists who had been manuring the ground for a civil rights movement for several decades and helping train brave volunteers like Mrs. Rosa Parks for a careful strategy of mass disobedience, and these "atheistic" associations were to be used against King all the time, especially from the pulpit. Indeed, one result of his campaign was to generate the "backlash" of white right-wing Christianity which is still such a potent force below the Mason-Dixon line.

Hitchens concludes:

Anybody, therefore, who uses the King legacy to justify the role of religion in public life must accept all the corollaries of what they seem to be implying. Even a glance at the whole record will show, first, that person for person, American freethinkers and agnostics and atheists come out the best. The chance that someone's secular or freethinking opinion would cause him or her to denounce the whole injustice was extremely high. The chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to take a stand against slavery and racism was statistically quite small. But the chance that someone's religious belief would cause him or her to uphold slavery was statistically extremely high, and the latter fact helps us to understand why the victory of simple justice took so long to bring about.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Sister Margaret McBride

Life as a Human  just published my article, "The Common Sense of Mercy," on the controversy surrounding the excommunication of Sister Margaret Mary McBride by Thomas Olmstead, Bishop of Phoenix, for her role in the approval of an abortion performed at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix in late 2009.

To read the article, go here.

Friday, August 20, 2010

"God is not Great" is not Great

Along with The Bishop's Man, I am also reading Christopher Hitchens' God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. After eight chapters and some, I am finding it a bit of a tough slog, a bit like certain chapters in the Old Testament.

There is no question that Hitchens is an excellent writer, an intelligent man, and someone who is passionate about religion - obviously in an anti-religious way. But there are two things that strike me about God is not Great. First, what was the purpose of writing it? Did Hitchens think that by proselytizing his anti-religious views, he would win converts to atheism? Did he hope that Christians or Muslims reading his books would suddenly see the error of their ways and remove the blinkers from their eyes?

The second thing that strikes me about this book is the fact that Hitchens virtually ignores the good that religion has done for people throughout history. Does he really think that an individual intelligent and curious enough to pick up his book and read is not going to quickly notice that it paints an utterly one-sided picture of religion, thereby utterly invalidating everything he says?

I can hardly wait to read Dawkins.

More on this later.

Or maybe not.

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Thursday, August 19, 2010

"Relating an opaque theology to contemporary circumstances"

I am reading, for the second time, Linden MacIntyre's award-winning novel The Bishop's Man. It is the story of a priest, just turning fifty, who is assigned by his bishop to a small parish in rural Nova Scotia. This is his first pastoral appointment after many years of being the "bishop's man," a special agent of the chancery sent out to deal discreetly with the problem of wayward (i.e. abusive) priests.

Here are some of his reflections on being a pastor:

Nothing in the seminary or since had prepared me for what I now faced every day. Relating an opaque theology to contemporary circumstances. Seeking guidance in the ruminations of great medieval minds, now rendered unintelligible except in transparently manipulative parables, the old promises and threats designed to sway the superstitious, now empty. I thought of Pat and laughed aloud. I thought of Sextus and my sister. There was nothing in my experience, personal or pastoral, to help me deal with these realities.

But it didn't seem to matter. It seemed to be sufficient that I was here. It hurts, they've told me, when a place loses a school, a post office, identity. Losing the church would be the last straw. I agreed with everything. The church is the guardian of life itself, a lonely sentinel. I didn't tell them what I really thought: how the spire has been supplanted by the satellite dish. I dared not tell them what I think about the right to life.

They wouldn't listen anyway.

I wonder how many real priests come to the same conclusions as this fictional one and how they deal with the cynicism, the disillusionment.

This one seems to like to drink.

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The $18,000 Dead Cat: Please do not tell anyone in Pakistan

In Pakistan some 20 million people have been affected by flooding; thousands have already died, and thousands more will die. People are so desperate to escape the rising waters they are climbing trees, only to be bitten by poisonous snakes. Refugees are forced to live in squalid makeshift camps, with filthy water, mosquitoes, and little or no medical attention. The suffering is unimaginable, and it is likely to go on for a very long time. Aid organizations are complaining that the response from the public around the world to this disaster has been weak at best; donations trickle in.

Of course, this is a big international news story.

At the local level in the meantime, this story: Harley the cat, who was found soaked in paint thinner in a Vancouver suburb last month, had to be put down last Friday. The thousands of dollars raised for the cat's care as a result of public outrage over the incident was apparently not enough to save his life. According to the news story, "Before Harley's condition deteriorated, the hospital capped the bill for his care on compassionate grounds, but it still came to $18,000." The cat's owner says the cat was that important to her and her young son.

An administrator at the animal hospital has said that she will likely have to bring in a counselor to counsel some of the nursing staff who are distraught over Harley's death.

This is a true story.

God help us see the tragic and absurd errors of our ways.