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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