Saturday, May 29, 2010

The central paradox of the religious life: Karen Armstrong

I have just started reading Karen Armstrong's Islam: A Short History. I love the way in which, in the Preface to the book, she describes "the central paradox of the religious life":

The external history of a religious tradition often seems divorced from the raison d'etre of faith. The spiritual quest is an interior journey; it is a psychic rather than a political drama. It is preoccupied with liturgy, doctrine, contemplative disciplines and an exploration of the heart, not with the clash of current events. Religions certainly have a life outside the soul. Their leaders have to contend with the state and affairs of the world, and often relish doing so. They fight with members of other faiths who seem to challenge their claim to a monopoly of absolute truth; they persecute their coreligionists for interpreting a tradition differently or for holding heterodox beliefs. Very often priests, rabbis, imams and shamans are just as consumed by worldly ambition as regular politicians. But all this is generally seen as an abuse of a sacred ideal. These power struggles are not what religion is really about, but an unworthy distraction from the life of the spirit, which is conducted far from the madding crowd, unseen, silent and unobtrusive. Indeed, in many faiths, monks and mystics lock themselves away from the world, since the clamour and strife of history is regarded as incompatible with a truly religious life.

In the Hindu tradition, history is dismissed as evanescent, unimportant and insubstantial. The philosophers of ancient Greece were concerned with the eternal laws underlying the flux of external events, which could be of no real interest to a serious thinker. In the gospels, Jesus often went out of his way to explain to his followers that his Kingdom was not of this world, but could only be found within the believer. The Kingdom would not arrive with a great political fanfare, but would develop as quietly and imperceptibly as a germinating mustard-seed. In the modern West, we have made a point of separating religion from politics; this secularization was originally seen by the philosophes of the Enlightenment as a means of liberating religion from the corruption of state affairs, and allowing it to become more truly itself.

But however spiritual their aspirations, religious people have to seek God or the sacred in this world. They often feel that they have a duty to bring their ideals to bear upon society. Even if they lock themselves away, they are inescapably men and women of their time and are affected by what goes on outside the monastery, although they do not fully realize this. Wars, plagues, famines, economic recession and the internal politics of their nation will intrude upon their cloistered existence and qualify their religious vision. Indeed, the tragedies of history often goad people into the spiritual quest, in order to find some ultimate meaning in what often seems to be a succession of random, arbitrary and dispiriting incidents. There is a symbiotic relationship between history and religion, therefore. It is, as the Buddha remarked, our perception that existence is awry that forces us to find an alternative which will prevent us from falling into despair.

Perhaps the central paradox of the religious life is that it seeks transcendence, a dimension of existence that goes beyond our mundane lives, but that human beings can only experience this transcendent reality in earthly, physical phenomena. People have sensed the divine in rocks, mountains, temple buildings, law codes, written texts, or in other men or women. We never experience transcendence directly: our ecstasy is always "earthed," enshrined in something or someone here below. Religious people are trained to look beneath the unpromising surface to find the sacred within it. They have to use their creative imaginations. Jean-Paul Sartre defined the imagination as the ability to think of what is not present. Human beings are religious creatures because they are imaginative; they are so constituted that they are compelled to search for hidden meaning and to achieve an ecstasy that makes them feel fully alive. Each tradition encourages the faithful to focus their attention on an earthly symbol that is peculiarly its own, and to teach themselves to see the divine in it.

Of course the book is about Islam and the main purpose of the Preface is to introduce the uniquely political nature of Islam:

Muslims developed their own rituals, mysticism, philosophy, doctrines, sacred texts, laws and shrines like everybody else. But all these religious pursuits sprang directly from the Muslims' frequently anguished contemplation of the political current affairs of Islamic society.

Nevertheless, Christians and other people of religious faith who read this brief Preface can appreciate how perceptively Armstrong captures and how clearly she presents the dilemma of the spiritual quest.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Jesus of the Oppressed

In his book A Generous Orthodoxy, Brian McLaren, one of the founding fathers of the emerging church movement, writes that in his life as a Christian he has encountered and gotten to know several different Jesuses:

For conservative Protestants and Roman Catholics, then, Jesus saves individuals through the cross and resurrection; for Eastern Orthodox followers, Jesus saves the world through the incarnation ; for liberal Protestants and Anabaptists, Jesus saves through his teaching and example. But in addition, Anabaptists uniquely emphasize Jesus' role in connecting and leading a community of disciples. For them the church is not at heart an institution...with hierarchies and policies, headquarters, and bureaucracy. Above all, the church is a continuation and extension of the original band of disciples, a group of people learning the ways of Jesus as a voluntary community.

There is one more Jesus that McLaren has met, a man that is in many ways closer to the Jesus of the Bible and that informs the beliefs and practices of many Christians of the emergent church: "the Jesus of liberation theology."

In my readings and travels (especially in Latin America), I have been exposed to many committed Christians who believe that Marxism and Communism were filling the gap that should have been filled by Christians--Christians who understood the revolutionary social and political implications of the teaching and examples of Jesus, whose gospel was good news to the poor along with a challenge toward generosity for the rich.

Because Christians failed to preach and practice this dimension of the gospel, secular movements arose to fill the gap. Sadly, because these secular movements had ideology without truly spiritual good news, the poor received from these secular movements yet another disappointment and yet another delay in experiencing true liberation. Sadly, because these secular movements often preached that violence could overcome violence, even if they had succeeded in liberating the poor from poverty, they could never have liberated the poor from violence. Nonviolent liberation theology sought to rediscover the Jesus who is the hero to the poor and oppressed, and the prophet who bravely confronts the establishments of power and privilege.


The Jesus of liberation theology, firmly rooted in the struggles of the first century, inspires Christians to continue his work and mission in all centuries throughout history, believing that history is exactly the venue into which God's kingdom comes and in which God's will can increasingly be done.

The Princes of the Catholic Church would do well at this time to study and emulate the example of the thoughtful McLaren, along with others in the emerging church movement (oh, and not to mention Jesus), and turn their attention away from summary judgments and acts of excommunication that make them appear pathetically out of touch with the reality of Christian lives and direct it to the suffering poor and oppressed of their own countries and of countries where poverty and suffering of Christians and non-Christians alike is the main feature of life.

And if, for whatever supposedly valid theological reason, the term "liberation theology" is anathema to "true Catholic teaching," then let's, for Jesus' sake, call it something else.

How about "love"?

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Golfing Nun

A nun walks into Mother Superior's office and plunks down into a chair. She lets out a sigh heavy with frustration.

'What troubles you, Sister?' asked the Mother Superior. 'I thought this was the day you spent with your family.'

'It was,' sighed the Sister. 'And I went to play golf with my brother. We try to play golf as often as we can. You know I was quite a talented golfer before I devoted my life to Christ.'

'I seem to recall that,' the Mother Superior agreed. 'So I take it your day of recreation was not relaxing?'

'Far from it,' snorted the Sister. 'In fact, I even took the Lord's name in vain today!'

'Goodness, Sister!' gasped the Mother Superior, astonished. 'You must tell me all about it!'

'Well, we were on the fifth tee...and this hole is a monster, Mother -540 yard Par 5, with a nasty dogleg right and a hidden green...and I hit the drive of my life. I creamed it. The sweetest swing I ever made. And it's flying straight and true, right along the line I wanted...and it hits a bird in mid-flight !'

'Oh my!' commiserated the Mother. 'How unfortunate! But surely that didn't make you blaspheme, Sister!'

'No, that wasn't it,' admitted Sister. 'While I was still trying to fathom what had happened, this squirrel runs out of the woods, grabs my ball and runs off down the fairway!'

'Oh, that would have made me blaspheme!' sympathized the Mother.

'But I didn't, Mother!' sobbed the Sister. 'And I was so proud of myself! And while I was pondering whether this was a sign from God, this hawk swoops out of the sky and grabs the squirrel and flies off, with my ball still clutched in his paws!'

'So that's when you cursed,' said the Mother with a knowing smile.

'Nope, that wasn't it either,' cried the Sister, anguished, 'because as the hawk started to fly out of sight, the squirrel started struggling, and the hawk dropped him right there on the green, and the ball popped out of his paws and rolled to about 18 inches from the cup!'

Mother Superior sat back in her chair, folded her arms across her chest, fixed the Sister with a baleful stare and said...

'You missed the fucking putt, didn't you?'

Where is the Good News?

We are often told that we need to hear the “good news” of the gospel. After looking at The New York Times online this morning, I believe we need this good news more than ever.

Here are some of the headlines and by-lines we are starting our day with:

“Tea Party Pick Causes Uproar on Civil Rights”
Rand Paul, the Republican nominee for the Senate in Kentucky, suggested that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was too broad.

“Padded Pensions Add to New York Fiscal Woes”
Errors, misunderstandings and wishful thinking are piling hidden costs onto New York’s pension system.

“Asian Stocks Drop Sharply after Big Fall in U.S. Markets”
Uncertainty over sovereign debt, financial regulation and a halting economic recovery drove markets down across Asia on Friday.

“Fed Governor Says U.S. Could Feel Europe’s Pain”
Daniel K. Tarullo, a Federal Reserve governor, laid out for a House panel how Europe’s debt problems could cross the Atlantic.

There’s often bad news in Sports:

“Rays 8, Yankees 6: Rays Again Dig a Hole Too Deep for the Yankees”
The Rays victory at Yankee Stadium completed a two-game sweep and doubled as a clinic of slugging (four home runs), opportunistic baserunning and robust pitching.

Entertainment and the Arts of course reflect the tone and mood of the day:

“FILM: World Events Rumble at Cannes”
At the Cannes Film Festival, directors are addressing real and often calamitous issues, like the financial crisis and religious fundamentalism.

“MOVIE REVIEW-‘SOLITARY MAN’: Yes, He’s a Jerk, but There’s Something About Ben”
In “Solitary Man,” Michael Douglas plays a liar, cynic, compulsive womanizer and all-around jerk.

But the Editorial and Op-Ed sections are where the negativity knows no bounds. Here’s a sample from today’s Op-Eds:

“Lost Decade Looming?”
America definitely isn’t Greece, but it is looking more and more like Japan. Inadequate recovery, not deficits, is the big problem.

“The Story of an Angry Voter”
The appeal of the Washington outsider will yield to familiar divisions without a viable centrist alternative.

“The Academies’ March Toward Mediocrity”
A football scandal at Annapolis illustrates how our service academies have lost their way.

These headlines tell us a great deal about our society. Now I am definitely not one of those people who believe that the world is going to hell and that we are much worse off than we were 30 years ago, 75 years ago, 150 years ago. What the newspaper is telling us—in this edition and in every edition—is that the same old sins of greed, bigotry, pride, selfishness, and disregard for those less fortunate that Jesus spoke about are still very much with us. Our sins are not new, but the seismic impact of our obsession with telling them and hearing about them has left the Richter scale.

We like disaster, we love scandal, we are addicted to conflict. While we may indignantly claim otherwise, we are all judges, critics, and gleeful spectators at the crucifixion or at the spectacle of gladiatorial combat. And it usually matters not whether the combat is personal, local, or global. What we do not recognize is our own responsibility for much of what we read in the paper or see on TV; we fail to acknowledge our own greed, our own bigotry, our own selfishness. If we were not so hungry for oil, perhaps the disaster in the Gulf might not have occurred. If we weren’t so very greedy for material goods, our economies might be more stable. If we weren’t so lustful or cynical or untruthful, maybe we wouldn’t need to make movies like “A Solitary Man” and then have critics marvel at how well Michael Douglas has learned to play a jerk.

What is wrong with good news? It takes consciousness. Living consciously means being aware—aware of the love that God has showered on us and on this earth, aware that we have been given the flowers, the trees, the blue sky, the snow on the mountaintops, dogs, cats, birds of all kinds and colours, and the beautiful beings we touch every day: our husbands, wives, coworkers, the bus driver, the Starbucks barista, the elderly man crossing the street because we have stopped to let him do so. Aware that our getting angry at the guy that cuts us off in traffic might just become tomorrow’s bad news, aware that it doesn’t really matter whether the Yankees beat the Rays because the game is beautiful no matter who wins, aware that whatever conflict is taking place in the world is a reflection of the conflicts in our own lives because all conflicts begin for the same reason: unconsciousness.

I don’t have to read The New York Times online every day (and next year they may start charging for it, so I likely won’t), or the Huffington Post or But at some point during the day, I am going to encounter the same negativity. And I cannot directly help the two courageous men in Malawi who were sentenced to fourteen years of hard labour in prison because they declared and physically expressed their love for each other. I can only acknowledge and try to fulfill my own purpose in life: to be conscious, to be aware.

How do I create good news in my life? By recognizing that, as Henri Nouwen says, I am the beloved child of God. By recognizing that I am not what I do, I am not what I possess, I am not what others think of me. If I am conscious of God’s love for me as expressed in every aspect of my life, whether it is the flowers in my garden, the pleasure that the food I prepare gives to others, or the ever-changing morning scenes as I walk the dog at 5 AM, that consciousness will inform my life every day and the love that I feel as a child of God will radiate outward to the people in my home, to the people behind the fish counter at Safeway, to the readers of this blog.

If I—and every one of us who calls himself or herself Christian—were to sit quietly every morning and read prayerfully the famous passage from 1 Corinthians, we would be filled with good news and protected from bad news:

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I miss you, Oscar - and Lena and Ella and Joe and Niels-Henning and...

Lena Horne is gone. I can’t believe she was 92—how long it’s been since I first heard the live recording of her performance, with Lennie Hayton (Lena’s husband) leading the band, at the Waldorf Astoria in New York. I’m sure I was under twenty at the time and knew nothing of her history. I just loved that passionate and sexy voice and the songs she had chosen to sing and the live sound in the room and the band and those arrangements. I can still sing a couple of verses from “I Love to be Loved.”

I’m pretty sure I was born too late—mostly because I never got to see Art Tatum play live. The story might not be absolutely true, but my piano teacher told me that when he saw “God” at the old Georgia Auditorium in Vancouver some time in the mid-1950s, Tatum—who was blind—was led out to the piano, where he sat down, looked up to his right and never moved a muscle except for his hands as he played tune after mesmerizing tune.

Art Tatum died in 1956 at the age of 47. There has never been a jazz piano player since with the same combination of spectacular technique, exquisite tone, masterful touch and control, and improvisational genius.

Fortunately there are many high-quality recordings of Tatum’s music available. There also lots of wonderful Tatum stories.

I didn’t get to see Art Tatum but I did get to see some of the other jazz greats who are now gone: Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, Errol Garner, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Joe Williams. I loved the mainstream people; I wasn’t a fan of Coltrane or Bill Evans (I like Evans now though) or the bebop guys.

My first experience with live jazz came when I was eighteen or nineteen and my teacher took me to hear Errol Garner at the old Isy’s Supper Club on Georgia Street in Vancouver. I had already heard all these great musicians on records, but the club atmosphere and the “liveness” of the music, and seeing and hearing Garner in the flesh, with his big smile and that slicked-down hair and the signature grunting/groaning, and Errol’s idiosyncratic style, with the rhythmic left hand and the wildly inventive improvisations—it was all more than I could take in.

I loved Garner—and I still do—but I was completely blown away when I first heard Oscar Peterson. I never got over it. That driving, virtuosic, relentless swing, with the chord sequences and the riffs that were uniquely Oscar’s gave me the shivers all over. Oscar had this trick—and I’m no musician, so I don’t even know if it was a trick—of improvising in some swinging, fairly up-tempo tune, and just when you think the thing couldn’t get any more exciting, suddenly taking it up a notch to a new level of swing. The first time I heard that was when I really listened to “Noreen’s Nocturne” on the 1956 album The Oscar Peterson Trio at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Just the other day I was watching a DVD of a 1985 Peterson concert in Berlin; he did the same thing on "Who Can I Turn To?"

Peterson’s style evolved over his career, but the swing was always there, no matter the venue, no matter the sidemen, no matter the tune. The swing was rendered more interesting and more exciting by a phenomenal technique and a thorough knowledge of the history of jazz, as well as a bottomless well of improvisational creativity.

And he even looked good. Always an elegant dresser, Oscar would invariably appear in a tuxedo or what we used to call a “Peterson jacket,” a gorgeously patterned silk tuxedo jacket in muted blue or red. The sidemen, usually a bassist and a drummer, were also immaculately turned out. A very large man, Peterson had an attractive face and the most beautiful smile that would break out when the swinging got to just the level he wanted it to be. He would sweat profusely and mop his face with a large handkerchief, but never in the theatrical way that was characteristic of Louis Armstrong; Oscar let nothing get in the way of the music.

I saw him live several times throughout his career—at Isy’s, at Simon Fraser University, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, and in the lean years before jazz made a comeback, at a hotel in North Vancouver that is now condominiums. The last time I saw him was at Jazz Alley in Seattle in 2003. He had had a stroke and was pushed onto the stage in a wheelchair. The great Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen was still playing bass for him—beautifully and devotedly—and Peterson’s other sidemen were top notch. Oscar’s love of playing jazz and his ubiquitous swing were still there but the incredible chops were sadly missing; the sidemen had to do a lot of the solo work.

Oscar died just four years later, on December 23, 2007. The beloved Niels-Henning had died two years before at the age of 59.

I have seen many of the “newer” jazz people—Wynton Marsalis, Keith Jarrett, Chucho Valdes, Bill Charlap, Diana Krall—and I have been thrilled by their playing. But I guess it’s always a generational thing: even though I didn’t really start paying attention to jazz until I was in my late teens, Oscar and Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie and Duke Ellington and Joe Pass—and Lena Horne—were from “my era.” I can still see them and listen to them just about any time I want to, but I miss them all the same. And Oscar, I miss you the most.

Jesus and Sin

I am reading Spencer Burke's book A Heretic's Guide to Eternity, in which he promotes (his view of) spirituality over (his take on) religion in the postmodern age. Burke is one of the founding members of the emerging church movement. While I do not agree with everything he says (so far) in this book, I find some of his ideas beautifully resonant. For example, in a section of Chapter Three ("Grace and the God Factor") called Grace, sin, and spirituality, he says the following about Jesus and sin:

Sin would perhaps be better understood in our culture if it were presented as pursuing self-interest at the expense of the well-being of the larger (or smaller) horizons of our existence, whether through self-abuse or through lack of concern for the world in which we live.

Instead, sin has often been presented as a violation of the rules and regulations of religion. In Christianity, Jesus is held up as the model of sinless living, the ultimate example to which all humanity should aspire. "Jesus," it is said, "was tempted in all points as we are yet was without sin." This concept of Jesus as a sinless individual permeates Christian theology. But was Jesus really sinless? He certainly seems to have violated a number of the rules and interpretations of the Law that his contemporaries regarded as huge sins. He violated the Sabbath and excused his disciples for their violations. He interpreted the meaning of the Sabbath by telling the story of King David's questionable use of the Law in order to feed his men. He repeatedly talked to the unclean, the unlovely, and the unrepentant.

As I see it, Jesus may not have sinned against God, but he certainly committed sins against the religion of his day. Jesus lived his sinless life in grace - and that grace often transgressed the moral codes of religion. The challenge for followers of Jesus is to reframe the story and offer society a new understanding of exactly what grace is and what it means for us all.

What Burke is saying here reminds me of Hans Kung's remarks about how Jesus might relate to the Church authorities of today and of Marcus Borg's take on the subversive compassion of the pre-Easter Jesus. Again, it seems to me that we have a significant disconnect between what religious historians and theologians have determined Jesus really was about and what institutional Christianity requires us to believe. As for myself, the more I read about, the more I observe, the more I think about the Catholic Church, the more inclined I am to "find a congenial, compassionate way to live inside of it and yet outside of it," as Father Richard Rohr tells us.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Life as a Human

I have just begun contributing to a fairly new online magazine called Life as a Human; my first article is "The Old Catholic Church."

The following is from the "About" page on the magazine's website:

Life As A Human is a lifezine that explores, celebrates and discusses the weird, wonderful, challenging, funny and poignant experience of being human. We feature a diversity of inspired writing that creatively probes the status quo– and the fascinating nooks and crannies of our human experience.
We are a multicultural gathering place for writing that moves and inspires – a venue for the authentic voice, regardless of age, nationality or perspective.

I expect to be contributing three to four articles a month, but I will of course continue to post on this blog as time and the muse allow.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Dear Ben

Here is a letter God wrote to B16 recently:

Dear Ben (or Joe, or whatever you like to be called now):

I know you’ve been pretty busy these last few years since you were prefect for the CDF (BTW, wasn’t a prefect some kind of military officer in the Roman empire? Just asking) and then got elected pope (BTW again, I’m still not sure where that whole trip came from, but then the Vatican is in Rome, isn’t it?), but you might just remember me anyway from back in the day when you were a seminarian and a priest. Boy, a lot of water under the bridge since then, huh? Vatican II, your little theological about-face, that business with the priest in Munich—you really didn’t know about that?—then Rome and life in the Vatican with your pal JPII. After you hit Vatican City, you got so much power in your hands I think for a while there you were scarier than Margaret Thatcher—and she was scary! I mean, just ask Chuck Curran, you kicked his ass all the way to the Southern Methodists. Now that’s power. And of course you’ve still got it; you just have to appear more pontifically indirect when you use it.

I’ll bet you’re scratching that head of gorgeous white hair (why didn’t those painters ever give me hair that colour?) right now wondering why God is writing you a letter. After all, you pray to me several times a day with those prayer books and all those wonderful phrases you quote from the thousands of books in your personal library (Geez—oops, sorry, Son—how many condoms would the cost of all those books equate to? Boggles the mind, doesn’t it? Never mind, they’re only sex-crazed Africans).

And it seems you really believe it’s me answering those prayers, reassuring you that you and your cronies in the curia are all divinely appointed (by me. Hello!) to pilot the ship and to hire a loyal crew. Hell, you’re even allowed to sail the damn ship backwards if you want to; after all, what’s apostolic succession mean if you can’t do what you damn well please? And anyway, why do they call you Holiness if it isn’t because you are, well, holy?

I guess you're wondering too why God would use such common language when He (“Ridiculous pronoun,” says that lovely woman, Karen Armstrong; now there’s a true Christian if ever there was one) probably should be speaking with a more biblical inflection. I did write the Bible, didn’t I? Well, no, actually, I didn’t. It was written mostly by a bunch of Jewish guys (just ask Karen! Haha). But that’s another story, so to speak.

Remember that fat little guy Angelo Roncalli? Peasant background. Became John XXIII. Everybody thought he was a joke till he called for Vatican II. Shocked the hell out of most Catholics, but especially those tight asses in the curia. I thought old Ottaviani was gonna have a stroke! Anyway, I like Angelo (he’s here now, with me). Speaks his mind, uses plain language, tells a good joke. His family might have been farmers there on earth, and he might have been a curial outsider, but Angelo had vision and the guy had guts. Cut through all the BS and got the show on the road. Opened all the doors and the windows and got the bishops to sweep out a lot of the dust that had been piling up since at least Pius IX. Now that’s a lot of dust. Angie wanted a modern Church for a modern time, so he wound up the little duck and got it started waddling. Too bad he got stomach cancer and died (I did not have anything to do with that!) and Montini didn’t have the guts to wind that duck all the way back up again when it started to run down. Let’s just say Angie's successor was dealing with some personal issues and leave it at that. But you and that Polish guy. Wow, you just stomped all over that duck till the poor thing couldn’t even let out even the tiniest little quack.

Anyway, back to Angelo. He’s the one actually got me writing this letter. He’s pretty upset with you and JPII for raining on his Vatican II parade (well, he actually used a different type of downpour metaphor, but he was a peasant after all; I’m cleaning it up because I know you are sensitive to that kind of thing—decorum and all that). He’s probably more ticked off with me for letting you guys go ahead and do what you did to Vatican II. I tried to explain to him again about free will, but he’s just not listening right now—you guys know all about the not listening thing. So what Angelo is saying is that he tried to catch the Church up with the modern world, but you guys have put the ship in reverse so the world’s going in one direction and the Church is going in another. Angelo says, “What’s that about anyway?”

You popes might not be rocket scientists (I mean, come on, it only took you four hundred years to figure out Galileo wasn’t a heretic), but you, for one, are a pretty smart guy. Here’s the thing: change is like running water. Nothing’s going to stop it. Nothing ever has. Now I know you are the pope and everything, but even you can’t stop it. Just look around you. Take Portugal, for instance. You go in there and you say that gay marriage is “insidious and dangerous” and you condemn abortion and divorce, and I know what else. At the same time, gay marriage and women’s rights are getting official support and sanction in more and more countries. You’re advising your loyal Catholic organizations not to be taking government money so that they can continue to discriminate against the very people those governments are trying harder and harder to protect.

I hate to tell you this, Ben, but you’re kind of out of touch with reality here. When your bishops start kicking kids out of Catholic school because their parents are gay (oops, I mean homosexual; you guys don't use the word "gay"), when your henchmen call the sex abuse crisis “petty gossip,” when you protect a serious big-time abuser because your pal liked him and he gave a lot of money to the right folks in your neighbourhood, your cred is going to take some heavy-duty hits. And as your cred goes, so does the Church’s.

You see, my big problem right now is—and here’s the reason for this letter—in all this stuff about moral absolutism and the magisterium of the Church and the value of Catholic Tradition, you kinda forgot about me. Somewhere down the line, you guys made the connection between me and the Church—and all the rules. And suddenly I got replaced by your idea of Church. Fact is, I didn’t really have anything to do with the church thing. And if you read Hans Küng (okay, I know you don’t like him but he is smart guy, might even be as smart as you) or better still, talk to him equal to equal, he’ll tell you that my Son didn’t even say all that stuff to Peter about being the rock that his church would be built on; those words were added later by Matthew`s community. So the Church as you see it doesn’t mean much to me. Don’t get me wrong: I like the idea of church—as a community bonded together in love, a community that welcomes all as my children. But Church as institution, with the catechism and so many kinds of sins you need a database program just to keep them all in order, just doesn’t do it for me.

What my Son did say is that rule #1 is “Love one another as I have loved you.” Do you remember that one? Now I think “Love the sinner, hate the sin” is pretty clever. But I don’t really buy it. For a couple of reasons, like who gets to decide what’s a sin and like can you really separate “sin” and sinner. I like Jesus’s way: keep it simple, keep it about love, and you can’t really go wrong. I mean, I like the robes and the singing and the incense and all that stuff, but you know what they say: it’s not the wrapping that counts, it’s the gift inside (okay, maybe I just made that up, but I can do that. I’m God).

Well, I’m starting to ramble here and Angelo wants to go out for a smoke, so I guess I’ll sign off. One last word: Think about that eight-year-old kid in Boston who is gonna have to change schools because his Catholic school told him he couldn’t attend since his parents are lesbians. Don’t think about the theology of it or what the catechism says. Think about the kid. And then think about love.



P.S. I love your hat.

Friday, May 7, 2010

A Priest's Loyalty

It has been almost two weeks since I wrote to my parish priest to tell him that I was excusing myself from membership in the parish I love because I could no longer accept the institutional homophobia of the Church and at the same time maintain my personal integrity. I copied the priest-in-residence in the e-mail. Both of these men know me quite well. As of today, I have not received a response from either priest.

I am frankly not sure whether I am surprised or not by their silence. I do know that I am disappointed. And although I do not like to admit this, I am hurt. I feel as if I have been left in the cold; it may even be that they are glad to be rid of me because my absence means there will be no more letters or comments on the Church and homosexuality. Or they may have sought advice from the Chancery and been told that the best response is no response; after all, this guy has chosen not to accept the wise teachings of Mother Church.

Anyway, although I am obviously feeling sorry for myself over this, and these feelings certainly cannot be separated from what I write here, the purpose of this post is not to elicit sympathy (after all, it was I who made the decision to withdraw; I was not kicked out of the parish) - so please do not offer any. It is rather to muse about what might be going on in the minds of these two men. And I do mean muse - or speculate - as I am in no way privy to their thoughts, nor am I a psychologist.

Both of these priests are Vietnamese; both of them came to Canada in the 1980s as refugees under very difficult and dangerous circumstances. Both come from devoutly religious families. My pastor has one brother who is a priest and two sisters who are nuns. The priest-in-residence has a brother who is a Benedictine monk about to be ordained a priest. The two fathers are outgoing and intelligent; each has a wonderful sense of humour. They are warm and thoughtful and appear to be happy in their chosen vocation.

At one time I believed that there was a budding friendship between myself and each of these men. We went to lunch a couple of times, I helped them to edit documents they wrote, and the pastor even once sent me a Christmas card in which he wrote that he thanked God for our friendship - I was touched by his message and kept the card for a long time. While they remained warm to me in church, the "friendship" seemed suddenly to cease. About a year and a half ago I suggested to the pastor that it had been some time since we had had lunch together and that it was about time we made a date; I was quite cleverly put off. Again, perhaps they were advised by fellow priests or by the Chancery that it was not wise to get too close to a gay man.

In my study of Chinese culture (I have a B.A. in Chinese language and and M.A. in contemporary Chinese literature and taught Chinese history and culture for a number of years in a Vancouver college) I learned that Vietnam and Korea were two countries that were most strongly within China's sphere of influence. These countries,which were "tribute states" to the Chinese emperor, adopted the Chinese writing system and, most importantly, Confucian ideology. One of the most enduring features of Confucianism, which looked to China's past for examples of ideal attitudes and behaviours, has been an emphasis on patriarchal authoritarianism. In addition, in these East Asian countries, loyalty and service to the group - family, clan, village - take precedence over the rights and interests of the individual. Finally, in the 1980s Vietnam was still very much a communist country. When I was a student in China in the mid-seventies, before the economic reforms and the open-door policy instituted later in the decade, a characteristic of communism that I found surprising - for a supposedly radical, left-wing ideology - was its puritanism. It is interesting that Karol Wojtyla, who became Pope John Paul II, also came from a very conservative, communist-dominated country.

All this is to say that my two priests are not culturally disposed to accept homosexuality, to recognize the rights and interests of one individual over those of the group (i.e. the Church), and to do or say anything that might be construed as going against authority. They are also culturally predisposed not to offend. So what do they do when someone they may like personally - and who is older than both of them - presents a compelling argument that is in conflict with their belief system? Where a priest from a Western country might express sympathy for the dilemma the protester finds himself in but kindly yet firmly remind that protester of the inerrant teaching of the Church, my guys take the only option that fits within their cultural paradigm: silence. If my somewhat speculative but also somewhat educated theory is even partially correct, it goes to show how powerful these cultural predispositions can be: both priests have been in this country for nearly thirty years.

Regardless of the reasons for the silence of these priests, I cannot help but wonder at the woeful pastoral inadequacy of a priesthood that is unable or unwilling to come to the aid of a soul in distress even when that soul is constitutionally unable to accept one of the doctrines of the Church.

In the two weeks since I withdrew from my parish, I have felt the loss keenly. Yet I am also beginning to experience a kind of liberation. The Church has unwittingly freed me to explore other options like the Old Catholic Church, which welcomes everyone without judgment, and gay-friendly Anglican communities. No matter which option I choose, however, I believe that if I were ever fortunate enough to find a Roman Catholic parish in which the pastor was truly modern and truly pastoral, I would return in a heartbeat.