Long Reach of 9/11

Renown spiritual writer, teacher and master of Centering Prayer, Cynthia Bourgeault offers an insightful interpretation of social realities leading to the election of Donald Trump. She makes a connection between 9/11 and voters’ motivations I’ve not heard previously:

Viewed from a slightly longer range and slightly out-of-left field perspective, I keep seeing that this election of Donald Trump in a way completes an octave that began on September 11, 2001. In the last fifteen years our country has struggled under a pervasive and growing sense of vulnerability, impotence, helplessness, of having been subjected to a collective rape which still paralyzes the resolve, the gout de vivre, as Teilhard calls it. It expresses itself across the board: in the obsession with guns and gun violence, the very real threats to life and wellbeing in marginalized communities, and in the more privileged classes with the almost hysteria around food, security, and child safety. I really believe that at a subliminal level, Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” speaks to that sense of releasing the paralyzed, hang-dog fear which is the only America we have come to know. It’s not really about economics. It’s about something way deeper. . . .

Bourgeault may be onto something!  You may access a her fuller reflection on the election results and where we go from here at her Center of Action and Contemplation [link]

It’s a Dog’s Life

Jeb the Dog occupies center stage in our lives. We have become the dog owners we vowed never to become. Jeb knows he’s loved and reciprocates in kind. Not only is Jeb a terrific companion. Those who have pets, especially dogs, will understand that he is also a great teacher of what’s important in life.

One consequence of being so loved is that Jeb is a very happy, content animal. If you look in the dictionary for “a dog’s life” you will find Jeb’s photo next to the definition. Jeb doesn’t bark. Yes, he can and it’s quite robust. He just doesn’t. In fact, we do not recall hearing him bark any time during 2015.

Among the many virtues Jeb models exceedingly well are patience, forgiveness and gratitude. This morning his barking habits, or lack thereof, converged with something I was reading to shed new insight and some much-needed wisdom…

“Dogs bark at everyone they do not know,” says Herakleitos [Greece, 530-470 B.C.] — a ritual played out with liturgical precision over the airwaves every morning, filing not only radios, but hearts and minds, “with static.”

We desperately need more wisdom today! Thomas Merton wrote in 1968:

Instead of taking care to examine the realities of our political or social problems, we simply bring out the idols in solomon procession. “We are the ones who are right, they are the ones who are wrong. We are the good guys, they are the bad guys.”

Senseless, obnoxious and continuous barking supplies a perfect metaphor for our toxic Presidential campaign, unconscionable shutdown of naming a Supreme Court justice, and the intractable horror of all that ISIS symbolizes. We are in a perilous position and our “best” seems to be incessant barking like a pack of junk yard dogs. We are living with a cacophony of paralyzing static!

Christopher Pramuk perfectly frames our predicament: “Why the rhetoric, machinery, and obscene liturgy of war — with its collateral damage of rape, torture, imprisonment without trial, destruction of cultures, infrastructures, and hopes for future generations–ad nauseum? Pramuk cites Merton’s prescription:

[Because] we do not have mercy, or yielding love, or non-resistance, or non-reprisal. …We do not see the Child who is prisoner in all the people, and who says nothing.

Jeb the Dog embodies patience, forgiveness and gratitude. He reads his situation really well. Yes, Jeb can bark. He just chooses not to. Rather, he chooses to meet everyone who comes his way as a friend with the expectation they will have a treat to give him.

There is great wisdom to be learned from Jeb the Dog. He really knows how to live!
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Merton and Pramuk quotes are taken from Sophia, The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Thomas Pramuk, A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville MN (2009) p 200. Original source for first Merton quote is Faith and Violence, p 154. The second Merton quote: Emblems of a Season of Fury (1963), p 63.

We Should Know Better

I’m really sad and disheartened this morning. A dear niece who is bright, funny and someone I deeply care about posted something mean-spirited on her Facebook page. There is simply too much fear-mongering and superficial solutions being thrown around these days. She should know better. So should we all!

My niece’s posting noted that the Tsarnaev brothers found guilty for the horrific Boston Marathon bombing were refugees. With the latest terrorist attack roiling Paris, you can figure out the intended political message of the “prepared” image she chose to re-post on her FB page.

(BTW, why do we have such an outpouring of moral outrage when 129 people are killed in France and so quickly “forget” nearly twice as many Russian citizens who were killed in the flight from Egypt? Could it be that the French are more like “us” and our generation has learned to demonize the Russians as our enemy? The recent massacre in Beirut hardly registered in our consciousness. Just wondering what this is all about!)

What I take as my niece’s “painting with broad strokes”, guilt-by-association or “extrapolation from the specific to the whole” is dangerous and unfair. In my opinion it’s also stupid and xenophobic!

My angry side wanted to post the following: “Does the fact that the son of your Dad’s cousin was sentenced to death for first degree murder mean that our whole family are felons and should be denied our civil liberties?” Is our whole family guilty by association and to live in shame?

In addition to a lifelong love for my role as uncle, I cherish the role of family historian and keeper of stories. It’s easy to forget our own truth or glamorize the stories. I want to remind my niece — and the extended family as well — of our heritage.  It is identical to many.

Centuries of exploitation by the British led our Irish ancestors to flee poverty and famine between 1842 and 1855. The failed social revolution of 1848, and repressive measures attempting to prop up remnants of the Holy Roman Empire, lead our German forebears to flee their homeland in 1850 and 1856.

At last count we now have 31 Governors feeding into what I call ignorance, xenophobia and fear-mongering. As our Governor Mark Dayton has said, Minnesotans are better than that. President Obama has also tried to call Americans to our better instincts all the while fully supporting French efforts to apprehend the terrorists and retaliate forcefully on ISIS in Syria.

Most of us call ourselves Christians. This Advent we would do well to pay special attention to the story of our salvation, our liberation from slavery to freedom. Let’s place the Flight into Egypt front and center this year. Let’s remember Jesus’ own “post” on the social media of his day. In the poor, the naked, the infirm, the homeless, those seeking refuge we see the face of Christ.  Or, we don’t!

If nothing else, we would do well to see our own!

Speaking of Elephants

Every once in a while something hits you up-side the head and you wish it hadn’t. Something challenges your enshrined values and you don’t want to yield your revered self-interest. Something written forty years ago surfaces and seems directed singularly at you.

That’s the case with a book on the formation of Thomas Merton’s prophetic spirituality I’ve just finished.  The part pestering me today is Merton’s assertion that “the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.”

Only after humbly accepting this truth are we prepared for real transformation. Merton continues:

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own particular truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.

That’s wonderful in principle and maybe in books.  But is it actually possible for any but the truly virtuous among us?  Somehow I remain entangled in a world that seems more nasty and complicated. How do we take such pious principles and give them flesh in the muddle of our real relationships — life as, and among, very imperfect people?

Last evening we watched a documentary on the criminal and civil prosecution of OJ Simpson. How does the family of Nicole Brown Simpson give expression to Merton’s ideal?

How do those who have experienced sexual abuse come to “love” their adversary? What does “love of our deluded fellow man” look like for them?

This week Minnesota Public Radio featured a marvelous piece on the Black Lives Matter movement. Where would we be if Rosa Parks had not said, “I’ve had enough — I’m not moving to the back of the bus!”

I’m resigned to the fact that there will always be “adversaries whom we wish to destroy.” I’m equally convinced that some adversaries like racism, violence, and all forms of abuse need to be challenged and destroyed.

I’m equally convinced that “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.” Fine sounding words and much needed admonition from geniuses like Thomas Merton. But what about most of us who muddle with our fellows in delusion and sin?  How do we name and honor behaviors which are just inexcusable?

The way forward? Mutuality. Respect. Encounter. Remaining in community, conversation and relationship. These sound nice but can remain so much etherial babble. For me, maybe you, a good start in giving them legs is by talking about elephants in the room.

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The book referenced is In the School of Prophets: The Formation of Thomas Merton’s Prophetic Spirituality by Ephrem Arcement, OSB.  Cistercian Publications.  Liturgical Press: Collegeville, MN. 2015. p 136.   Both quotes of Merton cited above are from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image Books, 1966, #68.

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!

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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.

Suffer? Good God!

Odds are high you won’t read this post. When you discover the topic you will likely stop and hit “delete.” None of us want to face it. None of us like it. All of us wish it would disappear — but it won’t.

So we stifle it, ignore it in every way we can, pretend it isn’t lurking over our shoulder. Some of us even resort to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate and anesthetize its pain.

(Now would be a good time to stop reading if you don’t want to persevere to the end.)

We are going to Germany for two-weeks at the end of September. My maternal grandmother was an Irish girl from South Boston but the rest of my heritage is German. Not far below the surface throughout what we expect to be a wonderful trip will be a nagging question: How could a people so great and a culture so grand become so corrupt that it perpetrated the horrendous evil of the Holocaust?

We all wrestle with suffering — especially when it is unmerited and random. Why do some children endure such violence and misfortune when others do not? Why does Beau Biden die of brain cancer at age 46? Tornados destroy entire communities and sometimes randomly kill neighbors. None of this makes sense!

I’ve wrestled with the topic of suffering but more often than not simply ignore it and distract myself with my privileged life and bask in my own relative good fortune. Yet the reality nags, taunts and festers at the edges of my consciousness.

Maybe this explains why so many of us shun public transportation. A simple bus ride across downtown Minneapolis exposes a human side of life we would rather ignore or deny — like choosing not to read this post any further and summarily hitting “delete”.  But, don’t!

Last week the New York Times offered a rare but really well thought-out op-ed [link] on the topic of suffering. Titled The Value of Suffering, author Pico Iyer will appeal even to the many who claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”

Too often faith-leaders retreat into conspicuous silence on the question of how any could possibly profess the existence of a good God in the face of such unmerited and seemingly unmitigated suffering. A rare exception is Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, who courageously wrestled with the challenge the horrific Asian tsunami presented to Christian assertion of God’s benevolence. [link]

What gives me courage to finally take on this bedeviling topic, though it regularly gnaws at the edges of my consciousness, was a post today on Richard Rohr’s blog. [link]

His is not the final word — if by that we mean some rational explanation that dismisses all questions or doubt. However, it’s about as good as it gets. Rohr gets about as close as anyone to expressing our “truth” in a way that thinking-people will comprehend.

If you have persevered this far, I certainly hope you are curious enough to check-out the links to the New York Times and Rowan Williams articles above. Even if you choose not to check out these other sites, rest assured it doesn’t get much better than this from Richard Rohr:

Both [saints] Francis and Clare … let go of all fear of suffering; all need for power, prestige and possessions; any need for their small self to be important; and came to know something essential–who they really were in God and thus who they really were. Their house was then built on “bedrock,” as Jesus says (Matthew 7:24).

Such an ability to really change and heal people is often the fruit of suffering, and various forms of poverty, since the false self does not surrender without a fight to its death. If suffering is “whenever we are not in control” (which is my definition), then you see why some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion of control and to give that control back to God. Then we become usable instruments, because we can share our power with God’s power (Romans 8:28).

Such a counterintuitive insight surely explains why these two medieval dropouts–Francis and Clare–tried to invite us all into their happy run downward, to that place of “poverty” where all humanity finally dwells anyway. They voluntarily leapt into the very fire from which most of us are trying to escape, with total trust that Jesus’ way of the cross could not, and would not, be wrong. They trusted that his way was the way of solidarity and communion with the larger world, which is indeed passing away and dying. By God’s grace, they could trust the eventual passing of all things, and where it was passing to. They did not wait for liberation later–after death–but grasped it here and now.

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.

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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.