The Real Reason I Left

July 24, 2014

Open Letter to My Family and Members of the Church of St. Luke:

In February 2002 I wrote letters to you announcing my plan to take a leave of absence from the Jesuits. This meant that I would no longer be your pastor and would be giving up priestly ministry – two roles I cherished.

I regret that shame, fear and deep pain prevented me from being more forthcoming with the truth. The real reason I left Jesuit priesthood is this: I was sexually abused by a Jesuit superior. The abuse occurred on five occasions over a period of eighteen months. In addition to his role in my life, the man had held numerous roles of authority and remains highly esteemed in the Jesuit province.

In my letters to you I explained that I desired “a life that includes deeper relationships and experiences that are not now an option. An important part of this is a desire for greater stability in relationships and the freedom to have a ‘home’.” Although factually accurate, these were not my real reason for leaving. You deserve to know the truth and this rather lengthy explanation gives you the full story.

My personal journals from those years – long before I came to St. Luke’s – are boxed away in storage. They would give exact timelines and many more specific details. Suffice to say, the fifth and final “time away” with this man was the lowest and most humiliating experience of my life. Devastated is too weak of a descriptor! Resolving this would never happen again, I was determined to reassert moral discipline and tight control over my life. Despite my best efforts, what’s buried alive stays alive!

About a year after the abuse ended I initiated a meeting with the new provincial to “manifest my conscience” (a peculiarly Jesuit term meaning to come clean about what’s really going on). He was quiet and thoughtful. In asking “Do you think he has done this to others?” I got the impression that he understood the gravity of the situation. Soon I received a welcome new ministry assignment in Washington, DC. However, in all future meetings with him as provincial he never once initiated any conversation or inquired about the sexual violation I had brought to him.

In addition to this early overture to the provincial I reached out to no fewer than five others – four men and one woman – who held various positions of leadership in the province during the following years. Every victim of abuse knows what incredible strength it takes to break through the shame, secrecy and intimidation that holds us locked in fear and silence. In a letter dated December 2, 1997 I confronted the man himself – not for the first time but by explicitly naming his behavior as abuse. His response was apologetic but hardly satisfying.

All the while I felt like I was spewing out my guts, emotionally hemorrhaging in front of people who should be in positions to help, struggling to get through the anguish and to regain some vitality for life and spontaneity in ministry. In every case, the person to whom I reached out was empathetic in the moment. But no one followed up with any expression of personal, pastoral or practical assistance. In a conversation shortly before I officially left the Jesuits I was able to ask one with whom I had shared my pain in the context of my annual retreat, “Why didn’t you do something?” He said, “I thought it was only once.”

There was one shining exception, Brad Schaeffer who was superior of the Jesuit community in Washington, DC where I lived immediately prior to being assigned pastor for St. Luke’s. Brad had been provincial of the Jesuits of the Chicago Province. His experience obviously served him – and me – quite well.

Brad cut to the heart of the matter with an explicit question, “What do you need from the Society?” My response was immediate, easy and simple… “All I need is for someone in authority to tell me that I am valuable and valued; that what happened to me was wrong, should never have happened, and in the name of the Society, he is sorry!”

I moved to St Paul on May 1999 knowing that “someone in authority” could only be the Jesuit provincial. How hard could it be? He had already heard the core of my story years earlier! Right!!! If you believe that any of this can be easy you don’t understand the cold, tight grip in which a culture of abuse keeps its victims paralyzed.

The steep learning curve of becoming a pastor and getting to know the community of St. Luke’s provided a welcome distraction from the pain buried just beneath the surface. Winter 2000 turned into Spring 2001. We’d be getting a new provincial in June. I could delay no longer. On May 7 I mustered sufficient courage to phone the provincial to explain what I needed – an explicit apology in the name of the Society that what I had experienced was wrong and should not have happened. In that conversation the provincial said we would meet when I came to Milwaukee for a province assembly at the beginning of June.

Suffice to say what I was led to believe would happen did not. Again at my initiative I had to intercept the provincial between Morning Prayer and breakfast on the second day of the assembly or our conversation would never have occurred. I returned from Milwaukee feeling ignored, used and taken for granted once again. I left for a two-week vacation experiencing the festering wound of abuse as something not simply perpetrated by one who violates sexual and emotional boundaries. Abuse is compounded many times over by others in an abusive system of defensive denial and acts of omission.

Sexual abuse is a “structural sin” imbedded within a culture that either believes denial will make it go away or is hell-bent on protecting the organization’s prestige, privilege or power. This has intensified and prolonged the violation I have felt. A deep pain in this sad scenario is that I still want to believe the Society of Jesus, at its core, is better than all this!

I have concluded that people in these dysfunctional systems are like fish – they don’t have an awareness of, nor can they acknowledge, the water in which they swim. Though far short of acceptance or comprehension, I remain a victim if I cannot compose some explanation for how this could happen. If this is not part of a healing process, talk of forgiveness or any future reconciliation is out of the question.

I’m not fully there yet. Yes, telling my story out loud and in public still frightens me. The first of two superiors of the Jesuit community in Washington where I lived immediately prior to coming to St. Luke’s – the one before Brad Schaeffer – faced allegations of sexual harassment from a young Jesuit under his supervision. The story broke on CBS 60 Minutes in 1999. The Society of Jesus fought hard in Federal court to stifle litigation. After a successful appeal to have his case heard in open court, the evidence was never presented. The Jesuits settled with the claimant out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Jesuits speak of being Companions in the Lord. “Companionship” is the heart of Jesuit identity and is strong, real and rich. It also has its “shadow” side. I remember the “circling of the wagons” among Jesuits immediately after the 60 Minutes expose. I have never met our superior’s accuser but I heard plenty of nasty character assassination and charges of being a “gold-digger.” Some who knew the young Jesuit said he was a willing accomplice and even basked in the erotic attention. The culture of abuse was very much in evidence – blame the victim!

I simply don’t know – I never met the man and evidence was never aired in court. Yet, he was shunned, shamed and called a liar by people who had no knowledge of the case. Jesuits are called “the Pope’s Marines” for a reason – you can count on them to rally to the defense of any perceived attack from outside their tight brotherhood. Most often this is a blessing. In this case of alleged harassment, I silently sided with the claimant and witnessed a bludgeoning. Who wouldn’t feel intimidated?

In the spirit of transparency I should say that I do know the difference between sexual activity between consenting adults and sexual abuse. After many years of “living the letter” of my vow of celibate chastity, I became involved in a sexual relationship with a Jesuit peer and colleague in ministry. I sought counsel and help from the man who would later violate my trust. I went to him because of his roles in my life, his position of leadership and reputation for spiritual wisdom. Rather than offering assistance I have concluded that he interpreted my overture for help as an indication of availability.

Fast forward again to June 2001… I returned from vacation after the Milwaukee assembly clear in my determination to seek a leave of absence. I called the newly installed provincial early in July to inform him of my disposition. Through all the months leading up to my leaving St. Luke’s and the Jesuit community on March 1, 2002, I never had a face-to-face meeting with the provincial or anyone on the province staff. It seemed strange – then and now – that something so significant would be handled with a few phone calls and a series of emails. Was I not more valued, more valuable? I have concluded that, yet again, they did not take me seriously or believe what I was saying.

My hope that the pain and reality of sexual abuse would be left behind with a leave of absence was soon dashed. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, OSB of Milwaukee had long been my hero and icon of the great churchman. I eagerly attended his 8 a.m. Sunday liturgies at the Cathedral whenever I was in town. His leadership with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in drafting their pastoral statement on the US economy epitomizes episcopal leadership and the church’s social teaching at their best. I was honored to have been ordained priest by Archbishop Weakland in 1988.

Imagine my heartache upon hearing the report on national news in May 2002 that Weakland had resigned after it was revealed he had secretly used $450,000 of diocesan funds years earlier to prevent a lawsuit for sexual assault. The payment had been made to hide his relationship with a 30-year-old male graduate student. Does the pain and reality of sexual abuse ever go away?

On January 6, 2004 an email arrived that flashed me back into exasperation and initial disbelief. The province was looking for a new pastor for St. Luke’s and the name of the Jesuit who had abused me was frequently surfacing as one for consideration. The insidious nature of abuse is that it continues to resurface and poke its ugly head into one’s face again and again. At first, the email message sent a stab of pain and the price of loss washed over me again.

That evening I consulted with two members of St. Luke’s with whom I had worked closely and in whom I had confided the “whole story” when I was deciding to take a leave of absence. After sleeping on the matter I chose to focus on the positive and interpret the fact of being asked my opinion to be made in good faith and showed growing sensitivity, comprehension and respect. Nevertheless, I clearly expressed to the province the two parishioners’ thoughts – as well as mine – about the prospect of having this man as pastor of St. Luke’s. To say they and I would have a serious issue with such an appointment would be a gross understatement!

My reply quoted letters from March and May 2003 to the provincial which stated that my “experience of sexual abuse has so eroded my trust in Jesuit superiors and the Society’s ‘cura personalis’ [care of the person] that I no longer choose to be a Jesuit.” Still, this was a huge step forward. Now, a member of the province staff expressed “a deep down hesitation” about an appointment they had the authority to make.

The email asked whether “given [my] history and experience, should a position of leadership, especially in the same city, even be considered?” It went on to say they “want to be respectful of [my] experiences.” Though my first response had been that of a victim whose pain is again flashed before him, my current perspective chooses to focus on good intentions, growing comprehension and the sincerity of the gesture.

I don’t know the technical definition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I do know that depression and anxiety can arise seemingly from nowhere. Events in the news have and continue to send me into a tailspin. Such was the case in Spring 2010 when stories of abuse being reported in the media sent me back into therapy. This time I decided to write the Jesuit provincial to inform him of my lingering pain and the recurring struggle with which I live. His response, hand-written on Jesuit community stationery, said in part:

Thank you for letting me know about your return to therapy to address the ongoing consequences of your experience of sexual abuse that led to your departure from the Society. I also appreciate your helping me to have a better understanding of the effects of such abuse. I will keep you in my prayer both that what you hope and wish for me and others sharing your experience will be increasingly realized and that your recovery and healing will be realized as well.

Though an expression of gratitude and assurance of prayer falls short of what I have wanted and needed from Jesuit leadership, the fact he made the effort to respond at all and to name my experience “abuse” was deeply appreciated. Especially from the perspective of today, the note tells me a new generation of leadership is beginning to “get it.”

So, why now? Why am I telling my story at such length? Why not now? Essentially, within the past eighteen months I have felt an emotional loosening, an ability to breathe, and a gentle impulse to let-go, to let down my defenses, a resolve to smile more authentically. A growing sense of strength and freedom cannot help but express itself out loud!

Yes, my physician tells me that I will likely need to be on my anti-depressant for the rest of my life. And, I now keep six Klonopin on hand to forestall another 2 a.m. trip to the ER for panic attack. But without knowing the day or the occasion, I have moved from feeling like a victim to that of being a survivor. That difference need not be fully in place for me to recognize the change as dramatic.

My pain has mutated over the years through grief and deep sadness into something approaching acceptance. News in February 2012 that Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned after initially denying accusations by four priests of sexual exploitation seemed like “old news” and all too familiar. The fact that he was dis-invited from participating in the conclave that elected Pope Francis and was forced to resign carried a refreshing element of vindication!

Parenthetically, Pope Francis is not an anomaly. He is one expression of many really fine Jesuits who are very much the norm rather than the exception. Neither is the story I tell here to be interpreted as an indictment of all Jesuits or a distraction from the tremendous good the Society of Jesus does globally and through the Wisconsin Province. Ignatius wanted “a few abnegated men.” I believe he would be proud of what he’s got today. I choose to believe the abdication of responsibility and complicity in abuse described here is the real anomaly to the Jesuit norm, especially today.

Yes, I still get angry hearing stories such as Oprah Winfrey’s July 17 interview of Jerry Sandusky’s son. Matt Sandusky tells of his father grooming of his victims and his subtle forms of manipulation. Matt’s story is his story – but I recognize its truth and fully appreciate the years it took him to tell it. Something I also understand is his father’s continuing protestations of innocence. I have no doubt that Jerry Sandusky truly believes he did nothing wrong and was simply engaging in good-natured child’s play with his son and his other victims. That’s part of the tragic pattern of abuse.

One important lesson in all of this is about consequences. I still hold Rembert Weakland in high esteem and admire his leadership as international leader for all Benedictine’s in the world and then as Archbishop. His ground breaking work on behalf of economic justice endures. I truly grieve that he has lived the past twelve years alone in an apartment in Milwaukee and was informed last month that he is not welcome to return to his home abbey in Pennsylvania. Behavior has consequences. I concede he did not set out to hurt anyone. But behavior, the kind we call misbehavior, has tragic consequences for oneself – and others. Believe me, I know!

Again, what prompts my disclosure now? An important prompt was the self-disclosure by Washington Post writer Steven Petrow in his April 28 column. A friend had slipped a novel by Carrie Brown into his mailbox. The novel tells the story of Ruth, now in her “twilight . . . look[ing] back on a harrowing childhood and on the unaccountable love and happiness that emerged from it.” Petrow hung on a single line from near the end of the book: “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”

Petrow had been writing an essay about his life and the self-blame he’d long carried about having had cancer. But he stopped his writing, snagged in that very same way as when he had come upon Ruth’s admonition. Would he include a certain seven words: “I had been molested as a child.”? He went on to explain his experience of being sexually molested by his paternal grandfather. I have been hanging on Petrow’s disclosure since April. Like him, I do not believe in coincidences. There is a reason his story crossed my path at this time in my life. “If I can’t ever tell anyone the true story . . . then no one will ever know me.”

The sad news of Fr. Pat Malone’s death arrived yesterday as I was finalizing this “open letter.” I was soon reminded of a post Pat made on his Caring Bridge site during Holy Week 2010. He reflected on the sex abuse scandal roiling the church he loved with his decades long battle with cancer. Pat expressed outrage at clergy abuse of minors but I am encouraged and consoled by his wisdom:

What has most rattled the world, believers and non-believers, is not that an organization has criminals and disturbed individuals within its ranks, but that those who could put the individuals out of harm’s way did not always do so, sometimes until a public outcry demanded it. The way forward was to conceal. There is a place for discretion, especially when it helps the wounded find a new normal, but secrecy too often feeds on itself: it makes it easier to stay clandestine the next time, and the next time. When we do not speak of the corruption, we do not stop it. Secrets keep us ill. They perpetuate shame… Worst of all, secrets convince us that we either do not need redemption, or its beyond our reach.

Pat was a superb Jesuit, of which there are many. He was a beloved associate pastor for St. Luke’s. I trust that he would endorse this truth-telling.

Unquestionably, another powerful motivation has been the decades-long cover-up of clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Minnesota Public Radio broke open the horrendous story more than a year ago. It now finds expression in at least forty law suits against the Archdiocese working their way through the courts. MPR aptly titles its July 14 webcast, “Betrayed by Silence.” This 59-minute radio documentary meticulously recounts the efforts of three successive archbishops to hide clergy sex abuse, failures to comply with protocols enacted by the US bishops in 2002, and stone-walling investigations by law enforcement. Tragically, the “structural sin” of systemic abuse is very much in evidence.

The most immediate and by far the most powerful impetus for my disclosure is a story first broke on July 1 by Commonweal magazine. Since the end of 2013 Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis has been under investigation for “multiple allegations” of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other adult men. Upon receiving complaints last year the Archdiocese has hired a law firm to conduct a full and independent investigation. In the past this would have sent me into a tailspin of depression, perhaps back into therapy. Today I choose the opposite of burying my feelings – rather, I choose to use a newly empowered voice to tell my story out loud and in public.

Regular readers of Kneading Bread know that I have frequently reiterated what rank-and-file Catholics know all too well… the root cause of our sex abuse crisis in the church is the culture of clericalism, hierarchical arrogance and preoccupation with protecting power and privilege. Now you know from where the passion and forcefulness of my conviction is coming. You now better understand the personal price and outrage beneath my words!

On July 7 – still outraged by the story about Archbishop Nienstedt’s alleged misconduct – I wrote on this blog: It’s long past time for more than a little honesty in our church. We are in urgent need of changing the sieve that keeps secret the tragic truth poisoning our church family. Honest confessions are long overdue. Telling my story is holding myself accountable to what I truly believe.

Actually, we need far more than “a little” honesty. I have become exhausted by holding my secret. More and more I am finding my voice – shame simultaneously dissipates. Confession is long overdue! Only now do I feel strong enough to add mine to the long roster of public confessions that still need to be heard in the light of day.

Finally, my family and faithful friends from St. Luke’s deserve yet another expression of gratitude. Your ongoing affection and practical support continue to nurture and inspire me. Over the last few months our paths have crossed at graduation celebrations, retirement parties, birthday recitals and other family get-togethers. We have shared losses and expressed grief as well as joy and achievement. Again without effort or awareness on your part, you remain a tremendous gift. When we have hugged and reminisced I have increasingly left with this conviction: You have a right to know!

Clergy sex abuse is perpetrated by a culture that holds its victims hostage within silence and secrecy. You have been victimized by this culture of abuse as well. As our paths have crossed this summer, especially in light of the scandals currently being exposed in this Archdiocese, it has seemed an injustice to you not to disclose the truth of my departure. Paraphrasing actress Ellen Page’s coming-out statement, “I am simply tired of lying to you by omission.”

You need not be a careful reader to see that I have deliberately not named names. Some in whom I have confided believe I should. But my purpose is not to seek revenge or retaliation. Yes, an undercurrent of anger, pain and grief flows through these pages. I have tried for too long to bury or disguise it. What’s buried alive stays alive. No more! I can achieve what contributes to my healing without saying more than I need to say.

One thing anger has taught is that it can be used to hurt or to heal. I sincerely want the hurt to stop – disclosing names just feels hurtful and stopping short of naming names feels right. I seek healing, for me and for all victims – not naming names seems like an appropriate way to express my strength and direct my anger toward that goal.

A composition of this length warrants a crescendo close. The only one that comes to mind is the quote from the Greek poet Aeschylus made famous by Robert Kennedy when I was seventeen and too young to fully comprehend its import. RFK concluded his remarks on the day Martin Luther King was assassinated:

“Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

But this composition is not history nor mythology – it’s my story, my life! Truly, it has become a story we share. It is our story! I am incapable of crafting a fitting conclusion alone. No longer do I presume to carry the responsibility of crafting that conclusion by myself.

Healing comes when we are open and honest, when the fullness of our lives is given as gift for others.



Facing Facts… All of Them!

Delusions are really dangerous. Denying reality abdicates responsibility only at our own peril. It is not that pretty bad and awful “things” are happening — people, human beings, are doing those pretty nasty, horrible things to one another. We can turn a blind eye, deluding ourselves with denial — the consequences are lethal.

All the more reason to open our eyes, face reality — all of it!  There are some hopeful and positive things happening amid the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq and the carnage of war in Gaza. We imperil ourselves if we shut-down, look away, aren’t paying attention.

Case in point… what percentage of people in Minneapolis-St Paul do you think are even aware that the Muslim community is nearing the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan? Media reports would reenforce the dangerous delusion that Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations are accurately symbolized by perennial strife in the Middle East.  Not true — or at least it need not be so!

There is a wonderful story out of London that gets buried in the on-slot of bad news. Just like Ramadan (ends at sundown, July 28), I bet virtually none of us are aware of the courageous and inspiring actions of Rabbi Natan Levy. He has stunned members of the Jewish community across England by observing the Islamic month of fasting. [link]

Like millions of Muslims across the globe, for 30 days, he will not eat or drink from sunrise and sundown and refrain from sexual intercourse. The 40-year-old religious leader said he was encouraged to take part after witnessing first-hand the lack of engagement between Judaism and Islam.

“I hope this gets us thinking and talking as a community about two things; the hungry poor in our midst, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Ramadan is a time for charity and hungry people care about hungry people,” he told the Jewish News in London.

Some of us will remember that Pope John Paul gathered leaders of the world’s religions at Assisi to pray for peace shortly after 9/11. How many Americans are aware that in the very same overture he encouraged Catholics around the world to fast on the last day of Ramadan 2001 (December 17) as prayer for peace and gesture of mutual understanding? The dominant political rhetoric of the moment buried that part of the pope’s appeal and it went virtually unreported.

Yet prophetic actions like those of John Paul and Rabbi Levy are happening still and closer to home. Each year the Muslim community of Minneapolis-St Paul shares a Dialogue Iftar Dinner to which non-Muslims are invited. “Iftar” is the name for the meal at sunset that breaks the day’s fast.  This year the dinner will be held in North Star Ballroom at University of Minnesota at 7:30 PM on Saturday, July 26th. I feel honored to have been invited.

None of us can put an end to the animosity that grips the Israelis and Palestinians. We cannot protect the Christians fleeing the perversion of religion in Iraq. But’s let’s not succumb to negativity and despair, deluding our ourselves that we can do nothing. Yes, we face some pretty painful facts. But open our eyes we must! We can change the reality in which we choose to live.

Here is a simple suggestion… what if we each called our churches and asked that a prayer in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters concluding the Holy Month of Ramadan be included in our services this Sunday? Our prayers for world peace can become so rote and anemic as to be meaningless. Why not make our prayer explicit in a way that might actually transform our attitudes and actions?

Who was it that said, “There is no one so blind as the one who will not see.”? Let’s celebrate and create real evidence that humans — yes, even those we hate and kill as well as those we love and embrace — are created in the image of God. No exceptions!

“More Than Ever, I am Aware…”

More than ever, I am aware of how my faith has soothed my cynicism
into humility, how it helped me abide in peacefulness even when the
future is obscured in confusion. It is a faith where we know each
moment, groaning in labor, allows us to bring new life to this
sacramental world.

Fr. Pat Malone, SJ posted these words on his blog for July 12 announcing to friends, family and the parishioners of St. John’s Church on the Creighton campus that he was entering hospice care.

I had the honor of knowing Pat from the day he entered the Jesuit novitiate and the privilege of ministering with him for two years at the Church of St. Luke.

Pat died yesterday afternoon after spending more than half of
his 55 years battling cancer. In reading the rest of his blog-post I
am sure you will agree that he beat the cancer and victory is his.

And so we trust, whether in infirmity or vigor, that we can bear
fruit; we believe we can take the set-backs and surprises in life and
from them become servants of a greater love. We do it not because we
are wise or holy. We have long ago learned that to be a saint, as Ron
Rolheisher wrote, is to be warmed by gratitude, nothing less. We do
it because we sense a kinship by adoption, as Paul wrote, “of being
children of God.” And because we have each other.

For the past four years, the people of St. John’s have refused
anything but to tightly weave their faith and strength into my health
adventure. You made it easy to be shattered with tough news; you made
it inviting to proclaim the awe from unexpected recoveries. Your
close comfort continues to carry me, even now as I move to assisted

This past week, following prayer and conversation with family, the
Jesuits, and the health care professionals, I moved into hospice care.
The medical explanation is simple: it is getting harder to breathe.
So the focus will be more palliative than restorative.

The hope is I can pay attention to a life that keeps revealing a
generous God, and human bonds that have pushed me into inspiration and
affection. This attentiveness will leave sufficient room for
occasional crankiness, but I know the journey ahead has been seeded
with thankfulness and contentment.

We come from abundant love, so all we can do well is try to show it,
play with it, and foster new life with it. May that glorious mission
come with each precious breadth.

Fr. Pat

Source: for July 12, 2014

Do You Know Him?

This poem was written by my friend, Kathy Caron in November 2009:


Do you know him?
Do you know him?
Is he really a sinner?
For being the person God created him to be?
The bright, inquisitive boy who has a heart of gold?
The boy who cares deeply for the rights of others?
The boy with the playful spirit, and creative depth?
Do you know him?
The young man who struggles to accept who God created him to be?
The young man who is following his path, with righteousness and care?
The young man who cares about the world
So deeply that it is painful?
Do you know him?
The brother of the two who silently, obediently, listened
While you called him a sinner?
The son who always takes time to remember birthdays, anniversaries
making things by hand that he knows would be special?
Because he notices.
Because it matters to him.</em
No, you don’t know him.
Yet you judge him.
Using God’s word as your shield.
He is my son.
He is not a sinner
Not for embracing who God created him to be.
He is simply trying to be that person.
Yet, he has the burden of living in a world filled with fear and judgment
About who he is.
He is just like you and I
Created in the image and likeness of God.

Do you really know him? God, I mean.

Stepping Out

Yesterday we went to the Milk Carton Boat race at Lake Calhoun. Its our favorite part of the week-long Minneapolis Aquatennial. Yes, people actually construct boats from milk cartons and then get into them to race over the 100 yard course. Some are not entirely sea-worthy. It’s quite humorous to see otherwise boat-savvy Minneapolitans making fools of ourselves.

Amid the hundreds of revelers along the shore a Mother Mallard with five ducklings caught my attention. They seemed quite at home amid people who in other circumstances are their predators. Was Mama Duck actually teaching her children to befriend potential enemies and confront their engrained fears? These would be essential skills if they are to grow-up and survive in a modern urban setting.

It’s good for our health and delightfully frivolous to paddle-race milk carton boats from time to time.  Children brought by parents to witness the spectacle had their creative imaginations stretched and saw what playful competition can look like. Along with Mother Mallard and her five ducklings we were all getting an important lesson of living well in community.

Basking in the spirit of summer in The City of Lakes, I was reminded of the Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, The Swan:

This laboring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.

And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself

into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.


Poem translation by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows

Shattering Shelter and Simplicity

You don’t need to have seen the movie Ida to be moved by its timeless and provocative questions. Trudging through the English captions of this Polish production only engages the viewer more deeply with the protagonist’s quest. Filming in black and white brilliantly sharpens the movie’s impact.

The story is that of a young Polish novice about to profess vows in the convent where she has been raised since being orphaned as an infant. She is encouraged by a wise and solicitous mother superior to discover her true identity and desires before moving forward with her profession.

Fledgling curiosity — like any who would engage the universal struggle for authenticity — shatters the ordered, sheltered and simple universe of Ida’s youth. She discovers her heritage as Jewish, the daughter of parents whose home was confiscated and who perished in the Holocaust. A hardened, forceful, agnostic maternal aunt serves as midwife for Ida’s birth into maturity.

A neighbor and I discovered a mutual love for Ida.  This has lead to snippets of conversation and email banter over the past few days.  Sarah and I are intrigued by lingering images, unanswered questions and left to wonder…

How is religion a “container” of sorts? In childhood this allows for a feeling of safety and security. Maturation, should we choose to grow-up, will burst these old wine-skins. Sometimes this even requires us to ask whether that original container was all that  safe or secure.

In any case, the rough and tumble of youth will force us to outgrow it. We may fiercely resist. It may be a relentless struggle. But one way or another a wise mother superior or a wizened maiden aunt is likely to introduce us to a more complex and authentic God outside of convent walls.

Does our religion — any ordered, regular spiritual practice as “convent life” implies — bring one to awakening? Or, does it close us off to the rough and tumble of life meant to move us to maturity? Does our “god”, our church, our spiritual practice keep us safe and small or does it make us magnificent and magnanimous?

The movie leaves us hanging… we do not know where Ida is headed! Had she seen enough of the world? Might she be going off in a totally new direction?  Will she reclaim the home and heritage of her parents? Returning to the convent is now a more mature option — but somehow feels like it might just be too safe of an option. But who knows?

Is this newly empowered and freshly inspired woman even ready to comprehend the complexities of life and the huge loss she has just uncovered? Any who have dealt with some hard things in our lives will, even if begrudgingly and through monumental effort, come to embrace these complexities and losses.  But this is a process into which we are mentored over a lifetime.

Wisdom comes much later… is still coming… never stops coming.


See Ida if you can still find it in a theater near you. If you cannot, or if you want a perceptive synopsis before you go, Commonweal magazine provides a great [review].

A Bad Day Amid the Ruble

Yesterday was a pretty crappy day! Anyone paying attention would have to conclude that we are in pretty dire straits.

Long gone is the consoling image of Pope Francis’ head pressed in prayer against the wall separating Israel and Palestine on the road to Bethlehem. Who even remembers Pentecost Sunday with Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew hosting Presidents Abbas and Peres in a prayer for peace?

Now Israel has begun a massive ground offensive in Gaza, a passenger plane was shot down in the Ukraine leaving some to say the pilots should have known better than to fly over a war zone, all the while Iraq implodes leading me to wonder what the hell is the point of tens of billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of human lives!

Our collective anxiety and national paranoia are epitomized in the White House lockdown yesterday because an unattended package was found on the lawn. It turned out to be nothing!

On our fenced borders a humanitarian crisis unfolds as children relegate us to bumbling and blundering about an appropriate response. Some would send drones to patrol the border reinforced with even higher fences. They would fast-track legislation to close porous loopholes in US immigration policy.  For God’s sake (literally), it’s not as simple as all that!

Before these zealous protectors of the “American way” adjust their flag lapel pins or a candidate requests another contribution from a faith-based PAC I would ask two things. Please, review your own family history and immigrant roots — why did your family come? … how were they received?

Instead of going to church services this Sunday I propose that more of us stay home and silently pray with Scripture instead. We would do well to begin with Mt 2:13-23, the Flight into Egypt.

Those familiar with the practice of Ignatian mediation might want to assume in prayer the role of the innkeeper — hearing ourselves say, feeling in our own managerial hearts, “There is no room here for you in our inn.”

Or, reenact with Francis the trek to Bethlehem.  Pick a wall, any wall in your home will do.  Press your head against it in silent prayer.  Absorb the tension and anxiety of Mary and Joseph as they traveled this route.  What were their aspirations, what does every child — Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, American, Guatemalan, Ukrainian — deserve?

Yes, there is plenty of evidence to indicate the world is a mess and hurting. Despair is one response. Feeling impotent is understandable. Shaking our heads in disbelief is not an option!


God and Lawn Care

Courtesy of my brother-in-law, here is a humorous variation on the theme of yesterday’s post…

“Frank, you know all about gardens and nature. What in the world is going on down there on the planet? What happened to the dandelions, violets, milkweeds and stuff I started eons ago? I had a perfect no-maintenance garden plan. Those plants grow in any type of soil, withstand drought and multiply with abandon. The nectar from the long-lasting blossoms attracts butterflies, honey bees and flocks of songbirds. I expected to see a vast garden of colors by now. But, all I see are these green rectangles.”

It’s the tribes that settled there, Lord. The Suburbanites. They started calling your flowers ‘weeds’ and went to great lengths to kill them and replace them with grass.

Grass? But, it’s so boring. It’s not colorful. It doesn’t attract butterflies, birds and bees; only grubs and sod worms. It’s sensitive to temperatures. Do these Suburbanites really want all that grass growing there?

Apparently so, Lord. They go to great pains to grow it and keep it green. They begin each spring by fertilizing grass and poisoning any other plant that crops up in the lawn.

The spring rains and warm weather probably make grass grow really fast. That must make theSuburbanites happy.

Apparently not, Lord. As soon as it grows a little, they cut it -sometimes twice a week.

They cut it? Do they then bale it like hay?

Not exactly, Lord. Most of them rake it up and put it in bags.

They bag it? Why? Is it a cash crop? Do they sell it?

No, Sir, just the opposite. They pay to throw it away.

Now, let me get this straight. They fertilize grass so it will grow. And, when it does grow, they cut it off and pay to throw it away?

Yes, Sir.

These Suburbanites must be relieved in the summer when we cut back on the rain and turn up the heat. That surely slows the growth and saves them a lot of work.

You aren’t going to believe this, Lord. When the grass stops growing so fast, they drag out hoses and pay more money to water it, so they can continue to mow it and pay to get rid of it.

What nonsense. At least they kept some of the trees. That was a sheer stroke of genius, if I do say so myself. The trees grow leaves in the spring to provide beauty and shade in the summer. In the autumn, they fall to the ground and form a natural blanket to keep moisture in the soil and protect the trees and bushes. It’s a natural cycle of life.

You better sit down, Lord. The Suburbanites have drawn a new circle. As soon as the leaves fall, they rake them into great piles and pay to have them hauled away.

No!? What do they do to protect the shrub and tree roots in the winter to keep the soil moist and loose?

After throwing away the leaves, they go out and buy something which they call mulch. They haul it home and spread it around in place of the leaves.

And where do they get this mulch?

They cut down trees and grind them up to make the mulch.

Enough! I don’t want to think about this anymore. St. Catherine, you’re in charge of the arts. What movie have you scheduled for us tonight?

‘Dumb and Dumber’, Lord. It’s a story about….

GOD: Never mind, I think I just heard the whole story from St. Francis.

Of Bees and Being Human

Yesterday I saw a Monarch butterfly! What a perfectly named creature — regal, majestic, elegantly attired. Yes, I saw a butterfly. Remember when we were kids? We’d see hundreds of Monarchs along with many other kinds of butterflies, moths, bees, wasps as well as other flying bugs that only God knew what they were.

Sighting the solitary Monarch yesterday frightened me. Yes, a butterfly scared me! Where have they gone? And what about the birds? In our neighborhood, the incidental cardinals outnumber the sparrows — how crazy is that? Robbins evoke as much excitement from Minneapolitans in July as they do in March. Something is really wrong in The City of Lakes when we start valuing creatures by their absence!

The wholesale collapse of bee colonies is beginning to get some attention because of the essential role their pollinating serves in human food production. Wouldn’t you think we’d show more care and solicitude for “the help” who keep our lives functioning? As brazenly self-centered as it is, wouldn’t you think the demise of honeybees would wake us up to the fact that our own well-being might be similarly threatened?

The honeybee is a remarkably resilient species that has thrived for 40 million years but now they are in widespread collapse. They are like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. An [article] in the NYTimes corroborates why a solitary Monarch and the conspicuous absence of songbirds should be seen as harbingers of a larger catastrophe in the making.

It seems that any creature that flies is threatened by factors similar to those afflicting honeybees: heavy pesticide use, destruction of nesting sites by overly intensive agriculture, a lack of diverse nectar and pollen sources thanks to highly effective weed killers, wanton disregard for the eco-system bees depend on for nutrition.

According to the author of the NYTimes piece, the real issue is not primarily the number of problems but the interactions among them. Bees offer a lesson we ignore at our peril: the concept of synergy, where one plus one equals three, or four, or more.

“A typical honeybee colony contains residue from more than 120 pesticides. Alone, each represents a benign dose. But together they form a toxic soup of chemicals whose interplay can substantially reduce the effectiveness of bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.”

Our problem extends far beyond the tragic truth about bees.   The fatal effects of our agricultural obsessions (obscenities?) are reflected in the disappearance of butterflies and birds as well.  If they starve, we starve!

But it gets worse… a [study] released last month from UC-Davis is only the most recent to link proximity to agricultural pesticides in pregnancy to increased rates of Autism and other types of developmental delay among children. Regardless of age, we are what we eat.  And what we eat might just be killing us!

Those of us from a sacramental faith tradition, indeed all who profess faith in the God of Genesis, recognize that humans (literally, earth-creature and cognate of humus) have a special role and bear a unique responsibility for creation. Eco-spirituality is not a fad — it’s a moral duty!

Humility is a virtue hard to come by for most of us. The word has the same root as human and humus. We would do well to cultivate more of it. Humans have no “being” apart from this creation.  We begin by acknowledging that we are merely one part of God’s creation — one part, and one with sacred responsibilities.

The etiology of humility, human and humus affirms that at some deep intuitive level we “get it.”  We know in our bones that the way we relate to creation mirrors the way we relate to God.

We pray as we live… may it be “on earth as it is in heaven.”


Something is Radically Wrong

“When I was young I thought the goal of a spiritual life was some form of bliss or contentment. In my pride, I wanted not only to attain this but to be seen to have attained it. Christian mysticism and Buddhism intrigued me, and of course I understood neither of them.”

This self-admission by John Garvey in the current issue of Commonweal magazine really caught my attention! I became even more intrigued by his honest admission that “being a fool for a while is part of the process.”

Garvey explains that it wasn’t until many years later that he turned around to look at his life and saw that what had led him to where he really was involved a mix of depression, anger, fear, and anxiety. As the wise sage he has become, Garvey observes that “all you can deal with at the start is yourself.”

Seems so obvious, self-evident. But is it? Aren’t most of us inclined to fix everybody else before we get to ourselves? And if we courageously look in the mirror are we not inclined to shift blame?   Even “accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior” can be little more than a delay tactic forestalling life-saving major surgery.

Garvey tells of a man who was ordained a Zen monk, and is now an Orthodox Christian. He teaches meditation and asks his students, “What do you hope to gain from this?” They may say something about having a more whole life, serenity, etc.—the usual clichés that surround the idea of enlightenment.

The monk points out that he is a divorced man, a recovering alcoholic, and has suffered through long periods on unemployment—the point being that nothing, including meditation, can guarantee wholeness or any sense of moral or therapeutic achievement.

It is common for people to think of morality as a major end of the religious life, or some sense of “being right” with God, or of being on the right side of a particular issue. Garvey has come to recognize that this need to be right is at best ego-satisfaction and an idolatrous temptation.

What John Garvey didn’t see when he was younger — and why I resonate so strongly with his reflection — is quite simple: the common insight of the great religious traditions is that something is wrong! Something about ordinary human consciousness doesn’t work, and it only gets worse when we try to put ourselves in control, to fix things.

To admit that I need help and cannot somehow conjure it up through my own power is liberating. We must turn from ourselves to something outside ourselves, hoping it will be gracious. We must acknowledge our core interior emptiness.

This is where the Christian story matters so much—brokenness is the beginning of salvation! We must enter our emptiness, return to the radical “nothingness” from which all was created. In a culture addicted to control, power and autonomy this knowledge is hard to come by.

How much more counter-cultural can we get than to believe, to truly profess, that we are the most open to grace when we admit how broken we are. But it is in this that we are saved!

You may access John Garvey’s excellent reflection [here]. However, Commonweal restricts full access to subscribers.  My post here is largely dependent on his insights so I hope I have done him — and you — justice.