Too Late Wise

“Y’know life can be really hard!” A dear friend was summarizing a conversation we had recently. Each of us could recite a long litany of challenges family and friends are facing — death of a spouse, chronic physical pain, frustrating dead-end careers, relapses in addictive behaviors, unspeakable betrayal in relationships, the list goes on.

All this was washing over me as Jeb the Dog took me to Minnehaha Creek for our late afternoon walk. We’ve had a marvelous summer, gardens are well-tended and the world looks lush. Weeks away from summer solstice, the sun now casts a perceptively different shadow. Jeb remains enthusiastic in his obligation to mark designated trees but he too seems to recognize the waning season.

With head cocked, Jeb grieves the absence of once plentiful ducklings from the water. A fresh silver maple now obstructs the creek’s easy flow, sad consequence of the previous night’s storm. Mary Oliver’s lament in her brilliant poem, The Summer Day rippled within my heart, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”

In a few days Medicare kicks in. That more than the fact of turning 65 shocks me into heightened reflectivity. Like every Minnesotan’s experience of summer, it all happens too fast, passes too soon! There is no time for regrets. Precious time is now better spent remembering, gathering wisdom from what has been, harvesting all that is needed for approaching winter.

Upstream from where the silver maple diverts the free-flowing creek, Jeb plants himself as a sentinel surveying this place he knows so well. Feet squarely set, he appears oblivious as his chest creases the fast-moving current. A rock we know so well for its musical ripple when the creek dances with a normal flow has been smothered by the swarming storm water.

Again, Jeb becomes my best teacher. With legs squared and eyes fixed on the approaching torrent, he ponders our familiar terrane and the changes transforming our daily routine. Like the now silent rock that lies submerged by the storm, his resolute posture tells all I need to know. Do not fear deep water or the rushing torrent. Stand resolute in the middle of it all and let the waters flow over and around you.

As I officially join the Medicare generation on Saturday and turn 65 mid-month, what wisdom is to be gathered? Is there a harvest to be gleaned from these fast flowing years? By necessity, a new modesty seeks to take hold — I am far less certain about everything for which I once asserted a cocky self-confidence. I recognize a propensity to attack paper tigers like Papal infallibility all the while laying arrogant claim to my own.

If age smooths certain edges, it yields strength and confidence as well. Jeb resolutely squared himself midstream. Just as the stationary rock provides rippling melodies when the creek is running its normal course, so too it remains planted and ready to resume its role once the surge subsides. So too with us — I cannot imagine how we are to remain centered amid life’s litany of challenges without resolutely planting ourselves in a spiritual practice of prayer or meditation.

I increasingly cringe at the “wisdom” and “advice” I so wantonly gave whoever would listen. No longer do I claim to speak for God. In fact, I am coming to recognize the God I claimed to serve was too easily an idol of my own fashioning, one I tried to direct and contain. The Risen Christ breaks boundaries, defies our categories and shows up where we least expect — sometimes among those of whom we would not approve.

Finally, I am getting a glimpse into what Benedict of Nursia taught in the sixth century. This preeminent exemplar of western monasticism prescribed that any who would presume to offer spiritual counsel to others should know how to heal their own wounds first (RB46.6). Only when we have felt the full force life’s torrents wash over us may we presume to understand those who feel overwhelmed or are mired in despair.

Of this I am certain… those to whom I have been consistently drawn for solace or counsel somehow communicate they too have known the overwhelming mercy of God. They too are familiar with life’s torrents and human frailty. They know what it is to feel submerged or planted amid life’s rushing currents.  They simply stand firm with legs squared in the assurance that we are loved — beyond measure, beyond ourselves, beyond time.

Only Thing of Monumental Significance

The disappointing truth is that most of us are content with answers. “Give me the facts, ma’am, just the facts!” is a famous line from some detective show better left in the caverns of youthful memories. I guess this approach is fine if you are a police detective. Its a disaster if trying to live a mature spiritual life.

The current brouhaha about the Ten Commandment monument in Oklahoma leaves me scratching my head. What’s the big deal with the Ten Commandments? Christians know that Jesus assumed the role of Moses in the Sermon on the Mount. Why aren’t God-fearing Christians erecting monuments listing the Beatitudes? Better yet, how about Matthew 25 where Jesus tells us in no uncertain terms the standards for our Last Judgment?

My reluctant assumption is that a scary percentage of folks like black and white answers. This drive for clarity feels to me like rigidity, an obsession with control. “Tell me what to do or not to do” is the passive version.  “I’ll tell you what’s right and what’s wrong!” is the more aggressive and dangerous manifestation.  Looks like infantile paralysis to me!

When such moral certitude is pulled out from under us by life’s complexity, and it will be, too many throw in the towel on religion. “Bunch of hypocrites!” often becomes a simplistic and defensive excuse to summarily dispose of thousands of years of wisdom. Such a dismissive attitude is no better than the cold stone monuments some want to erect on courtyard lawns.

After reluctantly wrestling with the confounding complexity life throws at us we gradually soften, become more supple, proffer eternal truth with greater humility. We come to live the questions rather than seek answers. If we remain alert — and lucky — we escape slipping into moral relativism or synchronism (it doesn’t matter what you believe, it’s all the same anyway).

It does matter! It’s not all the same! Our questions are profoundly consequential — not because they yield clear, precise, fixed answers, but because they quicken in us the very decision-making dignity imprinted in us by God. We become morally mature, responsible adults created in God’s very image.

Remaining securely within the safety of laws, texts or answers — typically handed down by some self-authenticating spokesperson — is a popular way to go. Too many people refuse to take the first critical hurdle to spiritual maturity — they prefer the moral straitjacket of already having the “truth”. Complexities of living are addressed as reason to dig in their heels even more firmly — reciting threadbare principles over and over, shouting louder and more insistently if they must. Erecting monuments of cold, hard stone.

Sooner or later all this becomes indefensible! Life’s inevitable ambiguities don’t yield to simple, clear answers. Its exhausting having to constantly defend moral rectitude. Loud voices are in abundant supply and routinely dismissed. Life’s questions are simply too numerous, complex and spontaneous to be catalogued.

Still, the hardest thing in the world is for some to let go of their “answers”, especially those intended for others. To do so is not to question one’s faith but to maturely embrace and express it!

There is no judge seated aside a monument to the Ten Commandments at the Pearly Gates. As from a master-teacher, we already have been given the only question on our Final Exam. All answers are not the same. Our own answer matters, definitively!

Did you love?  Really, did you? …especially those we consider least (if we consider them at all)!

As Through a Glass Darkly

She is her mother’s daughter, that’s for sure!

For a few years now I have listened to an acquaintance — rather than friend because I consciously keep her at arm’s length — grouse about her 85-year-old mother. It’s a long story spanning their lifetimes which has been recounted to me in brief snippets. Can’t she see what she’s doing? Why doesn’t she understand?

Not only is it a great principle of human psychology, it is an important function of literature to allow us to “transfer” or “project” our own selves onto the characters we envision or read about. Shakespeare remains masterful in creating figures onto whom we can dump or build our hidden selves.

Case in point… To Kill a Mocking Bird vies with Grapes of Wrath for my all-time favorite novel. I love the character of Atticus Finch for his demeanor, delivery and dedication to justice. Now, pre-release publicity suggests that Atticus comes off as something less that saintly or heroic in Harper Lee’s long-awaited sequel.

I don’t want to hear it! Already, I have concocted all sorts of excuses not to read Go Set a Watchman. I don’t want anyone to tinker with my well entrenched opinion of the virtuous Atticus! He’s my idol. He’s the one onto whom I projected my youthful passion for justice. NO, he cannot have feet of clay! I will hear none of it!

A few days ago I was walking where my “arm’s-length acquaintance” typically intercepts me. Her rants have become so tedious I sometimes take other routes to lessen the chances of an encounter. Again, she bad-mouthed her elderly mother and rolled her eyes in disgust to emphasize her frustrations.

What doesn’t she see? Why doesn’t she get it? She is her mother’s daughter! She is a master at precisely the obnoxious, tiring, off-putting manner she accuses her mother of personifying. Pointing this out to her would simply be met with denial — a lifetime of projecting our problems or faults onto others is not going to change because of anything I say.

Perhaps the most I can hope for is that I not be guilty of that which I accuse others. I, too, project and transfer my negativity and culpability. I am too often blind and fail to get-it. I, too, am heavily defended behind walls of denial.

Today, Kayla McClurg has a terrific [reflection] on the Gospel being read in many churches this weekend. She recognizes that when we don’t truly know ourselves, accept ourselves, or be our true selves we fail to listen and learn. When we fail to admit our faults and failures we live forever displaced from the center of our lives.

Even in tedious rants and people we would rather avoid, there lies the invitation to own our own stuff. To be the person on the outside the person we are inside. Yes, to project and transfer both our grandstanding and our greatness onto characters of Scripture and literature. But also to own the fullness of all that is reflected back to us.

When I was young I wanted to be Atticus Finch! Perhaps now that I am approaching 65 I do need to read Go Set a Watchman more than ever. It is a gift that Harper Lee waited fifty years to release her sequel — only now am I starting to recognize even the great ones have clay feet. We all do!

Those I deem to be tedious, tiring and troubling may simply be holding up a mirror for me to see more clearly. Truth is, I am also my acquaintance’s reflection. If not in exactly the same ways, then at least more than I want to admit.

Them and Then, Us Here and Now

Most of us go to movies to be entertained. If the scenes are well directed and the acting really good, so much the better. Rarely does a movie leave a lasting impact, open us to truly fresh insights, transform the way we see things.

That happened the other night when we saw Testament of Youth, based on the memoir of Vera Brittain. Set in the lush baronial estates of pre-World War I England, the Brittain family is one of stature and privilege. Young Vera bristles at the cultural constraints placed upon women and courageously surmounts them much to the chagrin of her elders.

Catalyzing Vera’s ultimate transformation is the horror of war. Postponing her tenaciously sought Oxford studies, Vera volunteers to nurse wounded soldiers in London and then on the battle front in France. Later she will return to Oxford and eventually become a renown writer, feminist and ardent pacifist. More about the movie later…

But, now… Some readers might know that we are planning a trip to Germany this Fall. Although I have visited the ancestral home of my paternal lineage whose family name I bear, this will be my first opportunity to visit the village from which my mother’s German heritage originated. Of course, we will be seeing friends and new sites such as Berlin, Dresden along with Germany’s many great museums.

Haunting my anticipation is the nagging horror of the Holocaust. Although my German ancestors emigrated to the U.S. more that 150 years ago, I remain troubled by the perversion Nazi Germany wreaked upon the world. How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so morally corrupt and the cause of unspeakable evil?

The traditional answer given by Jewish theologians has been that God chose (for whatever reason) to remain temporarily hidden. Or, more commonly, that God deferred to human freedom. This has never been a satisfying explanation for me.

Quite simply, that expression of “freedom” is the very denegration of human freedom and a defacto proof of its absence. More significantly, it begs the ultimate moral dilemma: If God is good, why would such a God allow such unmerited and unmitigated suffering?

My heritage is three-fourths German, one-fourth Irish. Nazi atrocities and that indictment of an uncaring God has nagged at me for decades. There have been two recent breakthroughs — of course, the first was a book; and then the movie, Testament of Youth.

Along with the usual German maps and travel-guides, I recently came upon The Female Face of God at Auschwitz. Rabbi Melissa Raphael challenges the traditional explanation of the Holocaust as God’s “hiddenness” or deferral to human freedom. Raphael interprets published testimonies of women imprisoned in the extermination camps in the light of Shekhinah, the feminine expression of divine presence accompanying Israel into exile and beyond:

God’s face, as that of the exiled Shekhinah was not … hidden in Auschwitz, but revealed in the female face turned as an act of resistance to that of the assaulted other as a refractive image of God. For women’s attempt to wash themselves and others, and to see, touch, and cover the bodies of the suffering were not only the kindnesses of a practical ethic of care; they were a means of washing the gross profanation of Auschwitz from the body of Israel in ways faithful to Jewish covenantal obligations of sanctification. Women’s restoration of the human, and therefore the divine, from holocaustal erasure opposes not only recent theories of divine absence, but also patriarchal theologies that accommodate absolute violence in the economies of the divine plan.

Wow! This really hit like a bolt of lightning, a blast of fresh air. It struck — as truth often does — with the sudden clarity of recognition.

The divine image of Shekhinah resurfaced in the theater when viewing the panorama of female nurses caring as best they could for brutally injured troops on the muddy battlefields of WWI France. The movie begins and ends with bucolic scenes at a swimming hole. Only at the end did I recognize the baptismal washing common to both Jewish and Christian faiths.

The stunning impact of Testament of Youth, however, came in an especially intimate scene in which Vera Brittain attends to a dying German soldier. Only later do we learn this was a death-bed confession meant for his fiancé in which he seeks forgiveness for the violence in which he now lies complicit.

This moment now imprinted on my heart also brings light, refreshment, clarity, recognition. I need not go to Germany to seek answers for how a people so great and a culture so grand could become so perverse. It is not a matter of my German ancestry from the past.

Like the long-suffering women of Auschwitz, the courageous nurse and an anguished soldier reveal God’s enduring presence in our broken, sinful world.

It’s not about them or then, but us here and now!

______________
The Female Face of God in Auschwitz: A Jewish Feminist Theology of the Holocaust, Melissa Raphael, Routledge Taylor & Francis Group: London and New York, 2003. The quote is from inside the front cover.

Self-Degradation, Self-Inflicted

We have demeaned and degraded ourselves once again. I feel ashamed, dirty. Why we perpetuate this violence and further poison ourselves remains a sickening question. Who do we think we are, God Almighty?

Yesterday, by sheer coincidence, Richard Rohr’s popular blog posted the following suggestion:

Perhaps upon reading passages such as Matthew 25 or the vengeful Psalms calling for God’s wrath, we might do well to follow the Eastern Orthodox Saint Silouan’s advice:

“I remember a conversation between [Staretz Silouan] and a certain hermit, who declared with evident satisfaction, ‘God will punish all atheists. They will burn in everlasting fire.’ “Obviously upset, the Staretz said, ‘Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire–would you feel happy?’ “‘It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,’ said the hermit. “The Staretz answered him with a sorrowful countenance: “‘Love could not bear that,’ he said. ‘We must pray for all.'”

Yesterday, a jury in Boston swiftly sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death under the guise of justice.  Many — if not most — Americans feel vindicated, grateful, safer. We are no better than those self-righteous fanatics who would stone a woman for infidelity or a man for being gay.

Yes, these news stories have also been reported recently in the news. We mask our own vengeful impulses with the self-serving explanation that these religious extremists know nothing of God, of God’s love or of “true” religious faith! We smugly sit within our own self-righteousness, our own presumption to distribute ultimate justice, our own arrogant propensity to play God.

The deliberate taking of another person’s life is immoral. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty of a heinous crime — even his attorneys do not contest that fact. But, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is securely within our custody — restrained and incapable of further killing and violence. Yet, we as a society are not! Instead, we perpetuate the violence, inflicting further brutality upon ourselves.

God forbid! If we but knew the love of God! We must pray for all.

___________________

Richard Rohr’s blog post for Friday, May 14 — the very day Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death — gave the source of Saint Silouan’s quote as: Bishop Kallistos Ware, The Inner Kingdom, Vol. 1 of the Collected Works (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: 2004), 48.

A God Not Created in My Own Image

True confession: I’ve got quite a way to go. My spirituality may be accurately described as a faith seeking justice. To me, the fact that God became human in Jesus unequivocally expresses what God has in mind for us.  I quickly fall into a trap: thinking transformation of the world is my/our responsiblity rather than God’s doing!

We’ve all seen the bumper stickers: “If you want peace, work for justice!” The same is expressed by the southern Black Baptist pastor I often quote: “Sometimes our faith is so heavenly minded its no earthly good.”

God in Christ has no other purpose than to restore this creation to what God had in mind in the first place. Mature Christianity understands that we are designated as primary agents in the implementation of God’s plan.  But, my recurring challenge is to align myself to God’s plan, not God to mine!

Today I am confronted — like smack-dab in my face — with the inadequacy of my way of seeing things. I’m long on the justice imperative — I really fall short when it comes to expressing God’s mercy. Honestly speaking, I’m fixated on my conception of “justice” and stingy with extending mercy (except when I am the recipient and the one in need of understanding or forgiveness).

Today Pope Francis proclaimed a “jubilee year” exhorting people like me — indeed the entire Catholic Church — to get with God’s program!  We are to refashion ourselves as a people, not of judgment or condemnation, but of pardon and merciful love. True confession: this would require a much deeper change of my “standard operating procedure” than I’ve been willing to accept to date.

Francis names my challenge: “The temptation … to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step.” He may just as well have had me in mind when reminding us of Peter’s question about how many times its necessary to forgive. We all know the answer; I have perfected the practice of keeping it at arm’s length!

Francis acknowledges the Bible’s frequent use of the image of God as a judge. But he cautions, “Such a vision … has not infrequently led to legalism by distorting the original meaning of justice and obscuring its profound value.”

Francis explains, “Jesus is bent on revealing the great gift of mercy that searches out sinners and offers them pardon and salvation … One can see why, on the basis of such a liberating vision of mercy as a source of new life, Jesus was rejected by the Pharisees and the other teachers of the law.”

And here’s something to mull over: “If God limited himself to only justice, he would cease to be God, and would instead be like human beings who ask merely that the law be respected.”

“In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us … and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves.” Truth is, I’ve heard that so often and in so many ways its like water off a ducks back!

“The Lord asks us above all not to judge and not to condemn,” states the Pontiff. “If anyone wishes to avoid God’s judgment, he should not make himself the judge of his brother or sister.” Ouch!

The Pontiff (word means: bridge-builder) not only challenges us personally but exhorts the whole church to “become a Door of Mercy through which anyone who enters will experience the love of God who consoles, pardons, and instills hope.”

Recalling the action of the Holy Spirit in Vatican II, Francis reminds, “The walls which too long had made the Church a kind of fortress were torn down and the time had come to proclaim the Gospel in a new way, … a new phase of the same evangelization that had existed from the beginning.”

Let’s be honest… this is pretty radical stuff! I thought Lent and all that “conversion” talk was finished for the year. If we really take this Holy Year talk to heart, it will require a complete re-boot of the way I live my faith. I won’t speculate what this might mean for “standard operating procedure” at your rank-and-file church down the street!

Change isn’t easy. I sort of like my well-worn faith-practice, thank you very much!  I prefer the God I’ve created in my own image!

In this, I am grateful God’s justice is tempered by mercy!

_______________

Francis’s proclamation runs over 9,500 words.  I acknowledge my dependence on two articles for papal quotes cited above.  I am especially indebted to Joshua J. McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter [link] and to a lesser degree, Cynthia Wooden of the Catholic News Service [link].  I recommend both articles for excellent summaries which exceed what I have attempted here.

Not Selling Ourselves Short

Often we sell ourselves short, letting ourselves off the hook too fast. Life, on the other hand, is not so easy on us!

After saying something hurtful, I can apologize. If we thoughtlessly let down a friend, we can say we are sorry. Most good people — and if you are reading this you probably fit the bill — do not intend to injure others or do what is wrong. When we fail, we generally make amends.  We generally make amends. We generally choose good and avoid evil.

But life is not so easy — either on us or for us. That’s what Lent is all about — getting to that deep human core where we know ourselves to be both powerless and culpable, paralyzed by forces seemingly beyond our control, yet called to break free from that which holds us bound and burdened.  No, life isn’t easy… but too often hard!

Jeanne Bishop, only after more than twenty years, is finally able to say out loud the name of the teenager who murdered her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child. It took decades for this woman, a Chicago public defender in her professional life, to meet the grown man who was serving a sentence of life without parole.

What they had to say to each other was hard. Wounds ran deep on both sides. How do two people like this even begin a conversation no less approach reconciliation? Bishop explains the challenge and predicament perfectly. Even after all these years, “it would take time, untangling those stories, like patiently trying to pull apart the chains of two necklaces knotted together.”

Lent entices us past the bland grocery list of minor infractions. If we are willing, and when we are able, Lent nudges us into the deeply tangled knots of our lives. We must proceed without knowing how it will all turn out, even knowing for certain what is the right way to go about it. Such if life! Such is the nudge of grace!

Susan Stabile’s counsel to Jeanne Bishop is spot-on for us as well: “That is the point with God: we don’t get all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed in advance. We’re asked to say yes, knowing the path ahead is clouded in uncertainty — to say yes in faith that God will be with us no matter what.”

Bishop counsels us to accept God’s invitation, to follow God’s gentle but persistent nudge, to take a first step toward reconciliation without knowing what lies ahead. Again, she provides a wonderful metaphor that suggests the unfamiliar terrain we must follow. She compares our terrain to paths in the hills of Scotland where she and deceased sister had travelled with the geometric expansiveness of Illinois where they had grown up.

In Illinois roadways and farm fields are even and linear. Bishop muses that where she lives “you can sit on your front porch and watch your dog run away for a week.” Scotland, Bishop and her sister discovered, remains “a place of rises and curves; even if you are headed in the right way, you couldn’t be sure, because the streets turned and bowed.”

This is the invitation of Lent… to finally approach those parts and places in our lives that are tangled in knots. Not to sell ourselves short by letting ourselves off the hook too fast. With God as faithful companion and guide, we dare to walk a way both turned and bowed.

______________
In this and in many ways, I am indebted to Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy, and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015, pages 124-5.

Drinking Poison

Do you ever stumble over the Our Father? No, not whether to wrap it up with “for thine in the kingdom, the power…” or chop it at “deliver us from evil”. My problem is more than linguistic. From time to time I get hung up on “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Sometimes the words hold up a mirror revealing more than I want to see or admit, more than I am willing to give.

Yesterday a friend shared just how complex and convoluted our emotions can be. Reflecting on my post about loss and grief, he confessed an unwillingness to acknowledge anger, an emotion with which he has come to recognize a complex and difficult relationship. Recently, as he probed more deeply into experiences of sadness and fear he has discovered that feelings of anger were being masked by the other two emotions.

My friends honesty challenges me! Yes, loss and grief — as we live these out day by day — get all bunched-up and tangled with feelings of fear, sadness, anger, betrayal, remorse, you name it! Often, unmasking one emotion reveals others joined at the hip complicating and confounding our ability to disentangle from the emotional mess. Reciting the Our Father can become a jarring reminder of the paralysis I sometimes feel around my need to forgive.

Jeanne Bishop, the author I referenced yesterday, had the ultimate challenge of forgiveness! Her sister, brother-in-law and their unborn child were brutally shot by a gunman awaiting their return from a celebratory dinner with Jeanne and their parents. It’s a heart-wrenching, compelling story of forgiveness, something I am incapable of replicating right now.  My emotions remain too entangled, my vices too entrenched for such magnanimity.

Yet, Bishop’s words return, over and over, offering wisdom to the degree I am willing and able to hear:

Hating is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die!

Jeanne Bishop was strengthened by a determination not to give her sister’s killer that emotional power over her! From the moment that the police told her that Nancy and Richard had been murdered, she sensed in her deepest core that hating the person who did it would affect him not a bit, but it would destroy her.

Our emotions are complex and convoluted and frequently mask others more entrenched. Grief from deep loss, anger over genuine injury, hate welling from despicable behaviors can ensnare us. They can kill us.

Self-interest is not the most altruistic of motivations.  Yet, it serves as the most basic of moral imperatives to forgive — we must not give to them that power!

___________

See: Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer by Jeanne Bishop. Westminster John Know Press, 2015. p. 45.

Born Again (Again)

Lent is our invitation to renewal, to return, to be radically changed, to be raised from all that is death-dealing in our lives.

The Scottish poet, Edwin Muir, at the end of the Second World War, wrote a very personal prayer-poem on the Transfiguration. Muir captures in words what we seek and the world needs during this season of grace.  He writes:

  • But he will come again, it’s said, though not
    Unwanted and unsummoned; for all things,
    Beasts of the field, and woods, and rocks, and seas,
    And all mankind from end to end of the earth
    Will call him with one voice. In our own time,
    Some say, or at a time when time is ripe.
    Then he will come, Christ the uncrucified,
    Christ the discrucified, his death undone,
    His agony unmade, his cross dismantled—
    Glad to be so—and the tormented wood
    Will cure its hurt and grow into a tree
    In a green springing corner of young Eden,
    And Judas damned take his long journey backward
    From darkness into light and be a child
    Beside his mother’s knee, and the betrayal
    Be quite undone and never more be done.

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.