Iznik, 2025

You know the look! It’s beyond glazed – that moment just before a friend’s eyes begin to roll back, often with a smothered yawn. At dinner with friends last evening at our favorite German restaurant I knew not to bring up the topic – we were there to have fun.

Earlier yesterday I had gasped upon hearing the news. Immediately doing the math, I calculated with delight, yes, I’d live to see the day! I wonder if my expectancy resembles that of a couple who are the only ones in the world who know they are pregnant — an irrepressible impulse breaks open, an indomitable hope and assurance of a future.

The only thing comparable in my lifetime came with the challenge set by President Kennedy on May 25, 1961: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”

With a stillness and the nearly imperceptible display that invariably distinguishes God’s most dramatic “annunciations”, it has been disclosed that Christianity will be getting a Nicaea III.  A what? you say! (Please, fight the glaze rolling over your eyes. Resist the impulse to click the “close” icon.)

Who can calculate the consequences of the Great Schism of 1054? History books tell us of the centuries-old split between the Christian East and the West, with all the socio-political consequences from which our world still suffers. Only in our lifetime are we seeing healing, requisite humility and hope for reconciliation – the kind that is beyond human abilities and can only come from God.

The first Council of Nicaea called by Emperor Constantine occurred in 325 and bequeathed to us the core Christian beliefs we profess today – think: Nicene Creed. 318 bishops gathered at Constantine’s summer home to hammer out how this human being, Jesus of Nazareth, could also be God – funny how we seem to have the opposite issue today!

The second Council of Nicaea was held in the eighth century to clarify that it was okay and even helpful to use objects like icons to enhance worship space and prayer – hardly a burning issue compared to Jesus’ humanity and divinity! (Sorry! Glazed eyes are starting to roll… let’s move on!) 

Now in our own day, after a thousand years of division bordering on animosity, Bartholomew II, Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, has announced that an ecumenical “gathering” will be held in Nicaea in 2025 — seventeen centuries after the first ever ecumenical council gathered there in 325!

“The dialogue for unity between Catholics and Orthodox” Bartholomew explains, “will start again from Jerusalem. In this city, in the autumn [2014], a meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Commission will be hosted by the Greek Orthodox patriarch Theophilos III. It is a long journey in which we all must be committed without hypocrisy”.

Kennedy’s May 1961 challenge was achieved on July 20, 1969 when Neil Armstrong became the first human to step onto the lunar surface – a time frame not unlike the one set by the Patriarch for Nicaea in 2025.

That which was thought to be inconceivable happens even in our lifetime – for even when the past appears barren, nothing is impossible with God! (cf., Luke 1:26-38)
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Nicaea is now Iznik, Turkey and rests in a fertile valley aside a lake 56 miles SE of Istanbul.

See the exclusive report with Patriach Batholomew’s announcement [here].

Tearing Down Walls

Actors on the world stage have the capacity to transform lives and open vistas with plain words and simple gestures. Who can forget President Reagan standing with the Brandenburg Gate as backdrop on June 12, 1987? In rhetoric blazoned in human consciousness he altered world events: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Pope Francis seems to have dramatically altered Middle East politics as well. Who can forget that photo of his apparently unscripted stop en route to Bethlehem? At yet another wall dividing warring factions, Francis achieved something remarkably simple with astonishing power. Francis touched the wall, bent his head and prayed. After kissing the wall, he walked slowly back to his vehicle.

Last evening we attended the Abrahamic Traditions Dinner sponsored by the local chapter of the Niagara Foundation. As the name suggests the annual event is an occasion for Muslims, Jews and Christians to come together in faith to share a meal and conversation.

The dinner was officially sponsored by six “usual suspects” – the Jay Phillips Center at the University of St. Thomas, a Jewish community relations group, the Islamic Center, etc. Held in a ballroom of the St. Paul campus student center of the U of M, we enjoyed an atmosphere that was anything but “formal” and certainly not stuffy!

The dinner was free and no appeal for contributions was made. The food was paid for, prepared and served by the local Turkish American Society (the Turkish community in MSP numbers a surprisingly small 1500 people). My favorite was the hand wrapped grape leaves and the exquisitely sweet yet crisp baklava!

Of course, we expressed frustration with the intransigence of issues that have long divided the Abrahamic religions. Prayers were sung in Hebrew and Arabic. Truths were told and acknowledged. There were no diplomatic breakthroughs or moments emblazoned in world consciousness.

Mostly, we shared stories – expressions of hope and experiences of simple decency, sacred stories. An Egyptian told of Christian neighbors sheltering their frightened children on 9/11. A Jewish man found common ground with Muslims around what it means to be a religious minority in America. We shaped plans for Christians to share a day of fasting during Ramadan concluding with a shared meal after sunset.

No grand proclamations to world leaders. No dramatic photo ops here will light up cyber-space. Perhaps the most we can claim is fulfillment of the dinner’s 2014 theme: Neighbors & Neighborhoods. The descriptors Muslim and Jew now have names – Ozer, Murat, Hamdy, Jamilah, Serkan.

We cannot change the world! But, we can change our world. Last evening in Saint Paul we did just that – with plain words and simple gestures we tore down a few walls!

Taking Another’s Place

Who will take her place? Brilliant, elegant, articulate, iconic! Who could possibly take her place? Maya Angelou not only personified America at our best, she had a unique gift and fierce zeal for revealing humanity at our best.

“I am gay,” Maya Angelou told a gathering of an estimated 4,000 predominantly LGBT people celebrating gay and lesbian choruses in 1996. She then paused and continued: “I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”

I don’t know her religious heritage or affiliations. My belief is she transcended narrow definitions and denominational pettiness. She did manifest a mature and passionate concern for the dire state of religious practice in a poem certainly worthy of the Hebrew prophets: 

Savior

Petulant priests, greedy
centurions, and one million
incensed gestures stand
between your love and me. 

Your agape sacrifice
is reduced to colored glass,
vapid penance, and the
tedium of ritual.

Your footprints yet
mark the crest of
billowing seas but
your joy
fades upon the tablets
of ordained prophets.

Visit us again, Savior. 

Your children, burdened with
disbelief, blinded by a patina
of wisdom,
carom down this vale of
fear. We cry for you
although we have lost
your name.

But Maya Angelou’s brilliance is not found in petulance. Her iconic status is not founded upon her inimitable eloquence. Quite the contrary!

Maya Angelou’s insight and brilliance was nothing more than her willingness to embrace the shared humanity of all people—regardless of race, gender, or religion—and she prodded everyone to embrace our common humanity as well.

We salute the Apostle Paul for his ability to proclaim: Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible… I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. (1 Cor 9)

Paul exhorts: In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;  rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Phil 2)

Who will take Maya Angelou’s place of distinction is totally beside the point! My hunch is she would reject that speculation as trivial and trite. Rather, I am certain she would exhort each and all of us to proclaim with passion and eloquence: “I am gay. I am lesbian. I am black. I am white. I am Native American. I am Christian. I am Jew. I am Muslim.”

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I am indebted to Out magazine for the 1996 quote and my initial inspiration [link]. 

Savior © Maya Angelou is from The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou. Random House. 1994., p 250.

Rumpled God

Today, something short! The Seeker by Joey Garcia…

 

The world is smitten with a god

who keeps a sharp crease in his pants,

and whispers, “No! Not like that!”

Oh, but I love the rumpled God

who forgets where he lives, forgets

his own name but never forgets mine.

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Source: Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction. Vol. 20, #2, p. 60.

Be Not Afraid

Too many of us are hamstrung by fear, anxiety and shame. No, not the prudent fear that keeps kayakers off the raging Minnehaha Creek running wildly out of its banks. Neither should we tolerate true mental illness that too often goes unrecognized and untreated with tragic consequences.

But we should be wary of overly inflated egos or a consumer culture which often belie self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.  A mom disciplining her eight-year old daughter coming out of church on Sunday perfectly expressed the right balance: “Honey, I know that’s what you want, but right now it’s not about you getting your way.” Hurray for this mom! What a fortunate child!

The sort of fear and anxiety I’m talking about functions more as subtle undertow on our sense of self and emotional well-being. For example, I tire of well-intentioned warnings to “Be careful – that’s dangerous!” when others learn that I ride a scooter. I’ve learned to reframe these as an expression of care, even affection, that comes out sideways.

Too often fear and anxiety get tangled up with legitimate concern and appropriate caution. Again, a parent struck the right balance: Rather than telling her child, “No, get off the wall, you’ll get hurt!” I saw a mom attentively teaching her four-year old son how to walk on top of a two foot high retaining wall along the sidewalk. Good for her! That’s a child who will grow into mature self-esteem.

Shame is where fear and anxiety get really embedded and problematic. Healthy guilt comes with an appropriate regret for something I have done wrong. Shame is that toxic self-judgment that something is wrong with me and that I am deficient in who I am as a person.

Addiction finds a receptive host in shame. Marketing of all sorts feeds off this fear and suggests we will be happy or whole if we buy this product. We are awash – like Minnehaha Creek running out of its banks – with consumer products that brazenly promise what they cannot deliver.

Churches are all too often purveyors of fear, anxiety and shame as well. We joke about “hell, fire and brimstone” but know that humor always carries an element of truth. America carries in our DNA the heritage of Jonathan Edwards’ 1741 sermon: “Sinners in the Hands of a Vengeful God.” Why else do so many smile knowingly to another’s comment about being a “Recovering Catholic”?

Ronald Rolheiser, a contemporary American preacher I much prefer, offers a clever way to slip behind our puritanical heritage. He tells of a dream in which he was to go to the airport to pick up Jesus arriving on a flight.  He characterized the dream as anxiety producing! How would he recognize him? What would he look like? How would Jesus react to his chauffeur? What would he say to him? Would Rolheiser like what he saw? Would Jesus like what he saw?

Dispensing with pious overlays of what we’ve been told in church or given as “Gospel truth” this simple exercise slips behind such filters. Don’t dismiss it too quickly, or at least before you honestly ask whether fear, anxiety or shame is at the basis for “not wanting to go there.”  Give it try! Your personal meeting-up with Jesus at the airport is what counts!

I will share one memorable encounter conjured for me by this exercise – I was seven years old. My favorite grandma, now in her eighties, was visiting. I dashed through the kitchen door and saw her seated on a straight-back chair near the warm radiator. Thinking it to be an odd place to sit I asked, “Grandma, why are you sitting there?” Without missing a beat she said, “Because it’s next to the window and I can see you sooner coming home from school.” Can a child feel more loved?

We probably all get tangled up in fear, anxiety and shame because at some deep level we doubt whether we are loved, unconditionally. I thank God today for my Grandma, for the mom with the eight year old daughter at church and the parent who taught her son to walk on top of retaining walls!

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The complete story of Ronald Rolheiser’s dream is in his book, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing. Franciscan Media, 2013. p 17.

In Memoriam

Our hearts are full with love and loss this weekend. In Minnesota we are heavy with the lush beauty of a long-awaited Spring. Yet, our evening barbecue with friends will be preceded by a visit to Resurrection Cemetery.

We don’t get to live long before we know the loss of loved ones. I have lost five of nine siblings in addition to my parents. We are of that generation which now attends many more funerals than weddings — we find they are increasingly for our contemporaries. Still, we have come to that unexpected vista where we recognize grief but equally cherish love and a life well lived.

Among the many losses, the one I hold closest to my heart this Memorial Day is that of Visitation Sister Peronne Marie Tibert, VHM. Peronne was my Elizabeth – that elder wise woman I would run to in moments of exhilaration and brokenness. We consistently shared such intimacy with poetry and over tea. Our common passion for gardening and bread baking waned as we aged.

Peronne died in September twelve days after marking her 90th birthday. In our last conversation on her birthday she said, “It’s time!”

In her memory, and remembering the many we have loved and lost, I share a sonnet Peronne wrote in 1959:

I shall remember gentle April rain

When only crumbling dust is to be found;

I shall remember fields of sun-filled grain

When hallow husks lie scattered on the ground;

When storms shall rage against the rocks I’ll hear

The lapping of soft waves upon the strand;

When stinging winds shall break the bough and sear

I’ll blow a milkweed seed across my hand.

 

No shrieking hawk will still the skylark’s song

Nor blot the memory of the bluebird’s wing,

For even when all loveliness is gone

I shall recall each tender, trembling thing.

Today I enfold love within my heart

To keep against the day when we must part.

Start of Construction Season

Pray! We all need to pray really hard this weekend. Yes, it’s Memorial Day. However, I am talking about today’s tweet from @Pontifex: “Dear friends, please pray for me during my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.” We all need to take him at his word.

I love that Pope Francis chose @Pontifex as his name on Twitter. It comes from one of the most significant roles traditionally ascribed to the Bishop of Rome, Supreme Pontiff. As King Abdullah astutely noted in welcoming Francis to Jordan this morning, “pontiff” means bridge-builder!

Francis will have a packed agenda praying at holy Christian sites, mutually extending overtures of good will with Orthodox Christians as well as Jews, bringing hope to a diminishing Christian minority in the Middle East, offering moral weight to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

We should all be praying really hard these days that this Pontiff achieves something successful in spanning the gaping, perilous divide between Christians and Muslims. Of all that Francis will attempt, this probably has the most profound consequences for the lives our grandchildren.

Francis appears to understand the stakes. Some of the first words out of his mouth upon landing were: “I take this opportunity to reiterate my profound respect and esteem for the Muslim community.”

He then praised King Abdullah’s efforts to promote “better understanding of the virtues taught by Islam” and create a climate of interreligious understanding. It should be noted that as a descendent of Muhammad the king has diligently “tried to uphold true Islam, a religion of peace.”

Today’s words and gestures extend a series of overtures. Who can forget Francis washing the feet of women and a Muslim at the Roman juvenile detention center during his first Holy Thursday liturgy after being elected pope? Well he did it again this past Spring in washing the feet of a disabled 75-year-old Muslim man.

Last summer, the pope released a personal Ramadan greeting to the world’s Muslims, calling it “an expression of esteem and friendship for all Muslims.” In the past this greeting is typically extended by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

In September, Francis sent a letter to the grand imam of Al-Azhar, a prominent Islamic university in Cairo, calling for a “mutual understanding between the world’s Christians and Muslims in order to build peace and justice.”

In another first, Francis will be accompanied by an Argentine rabbi and an Islamic scholar. “Imagine what could be the power if you saw the pope and a rabbi go into a place where Jews traditionally cannot or do not go, or a Muslim doing the same.” observed a Vatican spokesman.

Yes, pray for this Pontiff’s success. Pray that Francis succeeds in laying a few strong pilings. But we are all laborers – each and all of us are called to bridge the divide separating neighbors and nations, constructing an edifice of peace built on mutual respect and the inherent dignity of every person.
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I have relied on an [article] by Jaweed Kaleem for quotes and late-braking facts.

Those Who Aren’t, Are!

Often when my mother was about to say something profound, she would preface it with, “You know, life is strange!” Then she would unload some wise bomshell from a lifetime of careful observation. Usually her “truths” disclosed life not always being what it seems or “conventional wisdom” being turned on its head.

Mom’s wisdom came to mind again yesterday when a sister-in-law shared a 90 second video. It was the season premier of Louie, a program unknown to me. The [clip] features an exchange between a bluntly honest single dad and his daughter. After Louie rewards his eldest child for doing her homework with a mango pop, his youngest demands one as well.

With tempered exasperation that can only come from the love of a parent (or a teacher), Louie bluntly confronts his youngest with the fact that life is not fair and she will need “to get used to it.” While everyone is of equal dignity, there is no fundamental human right to equal treatment.  That’s life!

Then with wisdom befitting my own mother, Louie delivers a line we hope would somehow register somewhere in the consciousness of our young children: we are never to look to see if others have more but only to see whether others have enough! Wisdom befitting the Gospels!

It is often stated, and experience seems to prove, that the first and best teachers in the faith are parents. In this, Louie deserves an A+. But you know, life is strange… I think Louie would be the last person to claim that stelar achievement. Life is coming too fast and furious for this single dad to allow time to evaluate how well he is parenting.

In my book, parents like Louie (and many teachers) are literal saints. Jesus always had a predilection for the invisible little guys, those who thought they were nobodies or society ignored. The Louies of the world don’t have the luxury of introspection. They just lay down their lives from some deep inner core of love that elicits selflessness.

I’m only on the cusp of my elder years and have yet to achieve my mother’s wisdom. However, I am ruminating about something that has not yet risen to the status of “truth”. It is this: People who think they are holy typically are not; those who doubt whether they are holy often are! What do you think?

Yes, life is strange!

We Have Much to Learn

Despite pretensions to the contrary, my knowledge of great world religions other than Christianity is woefully deficient. You might say a one-size-fits-all superficiality characterizes my understanding. I claim to be fascinated with other cultures and peoples but I am still trapped in caricatures and stereotypes.  My loss!

As a Roman Catholic I should know better. Too many presume we all walk in lock-step – granted, too many in the hierarchy wish that were the case! But it’s not as if the Pope sneezes and we all catch cold! Many of us would not survive if that were the case, nor should we!

In the spirit of pushing back against stereotypes and caricatures, I was fascinated to learn that Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Mezbizk died on this day in 1760. He was honored with the appellation “Master of the Good Name” as founder of Hasidic Judaism. That title is Baal Shem Tov in Hebrew, thus he came to be commonly known as the “Besht”.

The rabbi has much to teach all people of good will about faith and the spiritual life. Rather than providing a set of teachings, the Besht “communicated his lessons through a certain attitude, a spirit of joy, an instinct for the holiness of experience.” Thus, his followers inspired so many they came to be known as the “pious ones,” the Hasidim.

The Besht was born into a Ukraine still reeling from brutal persecution in which more than a hundred thousand Jews had lost their lives. Within this world of suffering, he proclaimed a “mysticism of the everyday.” Within each task and each moment, regardless of how mundane, there resides a spark of the divine.

The Besht opposed excessive asceticism just as he opposed a preoccupation with the law. Each person is called to discover and express the potential holiness imbedded in the everyday and ordinary. And, this was all to be grounded in a pervasive spirit of joy. He spoke of prayer as a window to heaven and called the entire world a house of prayer.

We have the twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber to thank for popularizing the stories and example of the Baal Shem Tov and early Hasidic masters well beyond their home in Eastern Europe. Though not himself a Hasid, Buber recognized that Hasidic spirituality carries a universal message especially relevant to the secularized West.

Buber summarized the Besht’s consecration of everyday life to God this way: “The human task, of everyone, according to Hasidic teaching, is to affirm for God’s sake the world and oneself and by this very means to transform both.”

The large Hasidic community in Eastern Europe was largely extinguished by the Nazis. Vibrant communities in the United States and Israel continue to give expression to the joyful and compassionate vision of the Baal Shem Tov.

We have much to learn! We have much to learn!

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I am entirely indebted to All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Times by Robert Ellsberg (Crossroads, 1999) pp. 224-5 for this reflection.

“Ask the Beasts”

You deserve better. We all do! If you are a regular here you are quite aware of my consternation and frustration about what’s happening with our environment. If my tone has been off-putting please read on. I’m excited and this should influence what you read here in the weeks ahead. We all want and deserve reasons for hope.

Although I have alluded to it before, only today have I ordered (you probably know about cash-flow, too) the latest book by one of my favorite theologians, Elizabeth A. Johnson, CSJ. She is the one who first turned me on to the insight that the Hebrew words for mercy and womb share the same root. She also gives the doctrinal watchdog in the Vatican headaches. Does she need any further endorsement?

The book is Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. Although the cost for the Kindle version is half that of a hard copy, I splurged because this is a book I will want to mark up and return to often. Experience has taught me this is the best way to savor Elizabeth Johnson’s meticulous work.

Given the title, we might assume the book is about the contentious issue of Darwinism versus Creationism, science versus God. It’s not! According to a thorough and inspiring review by Julia Balamut on the Amazon.com site, Johnson only uses these issues as background for her intelligently argued and beautifully written testament to the wonder of God’s creation.

As the rigourous scholar that she is, Johnson has the utmost respect for the advances in scientific breakthroughs through the human genome project and new discoveries about cell biology.  The Fordham University professor is quite comfortable acknowledging that Darwin was right all along in his life-long study of the origins of life.

Balamut praises Johnson’s careful and respectful separation of the Genesis accounts of creation from modern science. Johnson readily admits that science convincingly demonstrates that it is scientifically unlikely that an intelligent designer spontaneously created life as we know it today.

Yet, she just as convincingly argues using the Christian Nicene creed that God in the Son and Spirit is the “Creator,” of not just humanity but of all the wonders of the natural world. As the committed woman of faith she is, Johnson uses Scripture and humankind’s persistent quest for meaning and insight to show God’s ever present hand in science and nature.

If you are looking for another heated debate about Science vs. Religion and how a scientist can’t possibly have a strong spiritual life or how a religious person can’t possibly believe something if it didn’t factually happen as written in the Bible, this isn’t the book for you. There is plenty of that in the media already.

Befitting her status as a masterful teacher, Professor Johnson implores and inspires us to strive with all our intelligence, faith, hope, and love to honor and protect God’s marvelous creation.

I cannot wait for my copy to arrive! Our earth deserves better from us. Elizabeth Johnson has shown us the Way to which our faith calls us.

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I am deeply indebted to Julia Balamut for her comprehensive review and recommend it to you in its entirety [here].