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!

_____________________

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.

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

For the Class of 2056

How can it possibly be 42 years? But it is! Forty-two years ago today I graduated from Creighton University with a B.A. in Political Science.

I was able to earn enough during the summer to pay my private school tuition. I spent a few nights a week at a mortuary and worked a few funerals for spending money through the school year. Living at home with my parents saved room and board expenses.

How things have changed! I graduated from Creighton with $800 in student loans, all incurred during my freshman year. A little over 70% of this year’s bachelors degree recipients – from public as well as private schools – are leaving with loans totaling $33,000 on average!

That really concerns me! It should concern all of us. Imagine what it’s like to be saddled with that sort of debt right out of the starting gate. Seems to me this is evidence of some pretty serious fraying of the social contract we have with one another in this country.

If I were invited to give a commencement address this year I would, of course, touch on that topic. I would also be strongly influenced by the fact that I would be speaking to my grandchildren’s generation. Forty-two years! I would certainly attempt the impossible in my address – to convince the young graduates just how fast life happens.

If I were speaking to the Creighton Class of 2014 I would undoubtedly reinforce the Ignatian character of their education, especially how they are meant to use their talent and education to serve others and promote justice.

I would find some way to explain – despite how hard we think we each have worked for our degrees – how any one of us who had the opportunity to graduate from Creighton was born on third base and should never think we hit a triple.

From the perspective of 42 years and how fast it all happens, I would remind them of something from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. There Ignatius encourages us to consider our actions or choices from the perspective of our deathbed – then and there, when it’s all over, what will I wish I would have done? I have found this to be an almost infallible guideline for making good choices.

There appears from my vantage point a fraying in the “social contract” we have with fellow Americans. Saddling young people with tens of thousands of dollars of debt is simply unsustainable, if not immoral. Our obstinate denial of the consequences of our consumption of natural resources is unconscionable.

What will the Creighton Class of 2056 hear from their commencement speaker? That day will be here before we know it. Today, 2014, what will we wish we would have done for these future graduates?

Musings of An Old Fogie

Too many elders become cynical and fearful as they observe inevitable change occurring within a dynamic culture. I never want to be like that or be dismissed as an “old fogie”. However, I must confess deep concern, worry and skepticism about where our country is headed.

This past weekend we had a terrific weekend at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI centered on the Junior Recital of an extraordinarily gifted young woman. Meeting Elena’s friends was delightful and reason for great hope.

This same weekend a grand-niece was graduating from San Diego State. Yes, amid all the wild fires – only most recent evidence of the climate change which is dramatically transforming what had been considered one of the earth’s most ideal climates. My nephew reported that temps were near 100 in a region where most homes haven’t bothered with air conditioning.

I desperately do not want to be an “old fogie” trapped in fear and cynicism. I am determined to remain hopeful, happy and optimistic. How are we to live with the tension, the very concrete evidence that gives reason for serious concern for our children’s future?

If ever there was a time, we are in need of dusting off what have classically been called the Cardinal Virtues: prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude! Only these seem an adequate antidote to the worry and skepticism even a casual look at “reality” would generate.

A case in point comes from a bastion of conservative American culture, The Wall Street Journal: The class of 2014 is holds a very dubious and discouraging distinction. They’re the most indebted class ever. [link]

The average graduate with student-loan debt leaves with an obligation of $33,000 they need to pay back. Even after adjusting for inflation that’s nearly double the amount borrowers had to pay back 20 years ago. A little over 70% of this year’s bachelor’s degree recipients are leaving school with student loans, up from less than half of graduates in the Class of 1994.

Apparently wanting to avoid the old fogie moniker as well, The Wall Street Journal reports: “The good news for the Class of 2014 is that they likely won’t hold the title of Most Indebted Ever very long. Just as they took it over from the Class of 2013, the Class of 2015 will probably take it from them.”

The Cardinal Virtues were initially articulated by Plato in The Republic and expanded by Cicero. Christianity picked up on them through Ambrose, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. The term “cardinal” comes from the Latin cardo or hinge; these virtues are considered cardinal because they are the basic virtues required for a virtuous civic life.

This old fogie cannot help but look around and be concerned about some pretty significant fraying in America’s “social contract” around civic virtues such as prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude. Perhaps this is what The Wall Street Journal sees as well.

Never having been accused of being “conservative”, I cannot help but think of the Preamble to our Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I worry – in fairness – whether we are passing on what we old fogies received.

It’s Killing Us

My nephews Tom and Matt probably wish their parents had made a different choice. Now they are both in their late thirties, married, successful in their careers, and raising eight kids between the two of them. I am their godfather and take my responsibilities very seriously. No, they don’t get special gifts from me. They are lucky if I remember to call them on their birthdays.

Matt and Tom know that I never stop having high expectation for their moral character, offering unsolicited convictions about right and wrong, or getting them to feel some healthy spiritual dissonance about what life is all about. Each is a terrific human being, husband, dad and nephew so I regularly find reason to express support, congratulations and affection as well.

Maybe they are the sons I never had and I want them to think of me as something other than that kindly old man who shows up a couple of times a year. If I am trying to leave a legacy through them so be it. At least they know I care – about them, about anyone on the margins, about the earth and about God!

Just yesterday I sent them a link to a brilliant piece by Michael Sean Winters that frames my life of 63 years and delivers an incisive challenge for how we live today. My email to themn stated: If you read anything from me this month, read this!

Essentially, Winter’s article reminded me of the decade in which I came to consciousness. We rehearsed air raid drills as if crouching and putting our arms over our heads would protect us from thermonuclear war. J. Edgar Hoover regularly reminded us of the imminent threat of atheistic communism. Senator Joseph McCarthy terrorized colleges, labor unions, arts organizations with his demonic witch-hunt. The Cuban Missile Crisis gave an eerie reality Nikita Khrushchev’s threat to “bury” us.

The part of Winter’s argument that really got me going and I hope will similarly provoke serious reflection by Matt and Tom is his reference to Reinhold Niebuhr. In a 1952 book the esteemed Protestant theologian had the courage to suggest that we Americans had more in common with our Soviet nemesis than we cared to admit.

Although much more developed, the essence of Niebuhr’s indictment is captured in a secondary reference: It was particularly ironic that while Americans saw their prosperity as evidence of God’s favor and hence of their own virtue, their enemies saw Americans’ riches as evidence of their vice. Americans were fond of condemning the Soviet Union’s “materialism,” Niebuhr observed, “but we are rather more successful practitioners of materialism as a working creed than the communists, who have failed so dismally in raising the general standards of well-being.”

Niebuhr was only one of many intellectuals in the 1950s who were concerned about the corrosive effects of materialism on American culture. I concur with Winter’s lament that we don’t really have that debate about materialism anymore. Today both the left and the right argue about the best way to improve GDP, but no one really questions the moral significance of our GDP.

Winter correctly states that this is what is meant by structural sin – conditions of life in which even those who wish to improve the lot of their fellow citizens — not to mention following the teachings and example of Jesus — are trapped in a system that requires them to hope for something that is spiritually bankrupt and dehumanizing.

Winter acknowledges that no one can really want GDP to decline. An anemic economy brings real human hardship and suffering with it, especially for the poor and the vulnerable. But he wisely reminds us that an economy based on consumption is not sustainable, not environmentally, not economically, and not morally.

I want my godsons to wrestle with these moral issues! Most importantly, we all need to rekindle that 1950s debate that understood a fact so obvious we tend to miss it today: Materialism is the chief evangelizer of the Gospel of Secularization. So much for atheistic communism!

More than Khrushchev’s United Nation’s bluster about “burying” America, our own materialism is what’s killing us!

____________________

You are invited and encouraged to read Michael Sean Winter’s article in its entirety [here].

Forgiveness

I can’t pray the Our Father anymore – at least as I have in the past. Honesty requires that I admit my paralysis. Most of my prayer remains sincere but I now get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Integrity demands that I admit deep resistance and objection.

It’s easy in conversation to accept that Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves is pretty radical. In every day practice we might be able to transcend our urge to extract “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth”. But love my enemies, pray for those who persecute? Offer forgiveness, not just once but seven times seventy? Do not resist an evil doer but offer the other cheek as well to the one who strikes you?

Last weekend we went to see The Railway Man, a searing account of a former prisoner of war who is unable to overcome the emotional trauma of his past. Based on a true story, Eric Lomax was one of thousands forced into slave labor to build the notorious Burma Railway, known as the “Death Railway” because of the thousands who perished during its construction.

“The Railway Man” begins three decades after the war. It’s long shadow of looms over his marriage. Lomax has terrifying nightmares, and his behavior is erratic, at times violent. His wife sees he is shell-shocked and desperately wants to help. But Lomax refuses to discuss what happened in the internment camp. Intending revenge, Lomax instead travels to Asia to confront his tormentor.

How are such victims to forgive? Are they to be forgiven as they forgive those who have trespassed against them? Locally, two men “sucker punched” and kicked in the head of a young dad who now lies in critical condition struggling for his life. What should “forgiveness” look like for this wife and mother?

Perhaps the ultimate test for our generation is clerical sexual abuse. We all know too well that such a victim never does fully recover from such a profound violation of trust. Unspeakable pain lingers. Emotional landmines lie hidden while spawning a veritable tsunami of collateral damage. Relationships are forever poisoned.

Our generation has been collectively victimized, violated, traumatized. One need not have experienced explicit physical exploitation to know the deep pain. What angers us, what hurts most, is not simply the reprehensible behavior of initial perpetrators. We have come face to face with the fact that the Church itself has failed us all. Unconscionable behavior by the hierarchy seems relentless — like [this] out of Seattle yesterday.  We are all victims of their abuse.

How do we pray with integrity “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”? One thing I have recognized is my tendency to link my need to be forgiven with my willingness to forgive – quid pro quo, we are forgiven as we are capable of forgiving. I’m doomed if my forgiveness is contingent upon or in proportion to my capacity to forgive.

Where is the hope? And, yes, there is always hope! Whether a prisoner of war like Eric Lomax, an anguished wife and mother in Mankato or a “cradle Catholic” in the pew on Sundays, forgiveness sometimes requires a superhuman act. In reality only God can forgive.

“Who can forgive sins but God alone?” remains as pressing in our day as for the Pharisees grilling Jesus. (Luke 5:21). Despite the normative teaching of Jesus in the Our Father, forgiveness is really only possible through God’s saving action in Christ (Rom 3:25f).

Ultimately, God has reconciled us to Himself and to one another while we were still sinners (Rom 5). That gives me hope despite my paralysis in prayer. That is the sole grounds on which we may have hope for the Church as well.

God save us!
_________________
Again, I am indebted to Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life by Walter Kasper, Paulist Press, 2013 for prompting much of these reflections; esp., pp 138-142.