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On hearing the passion three times

March 30, 2015

This past weekend I had the opportunity to hear the Passion read three different times.  My pastor was in a car accident a couple weeks ago and is laid up for Holy Week.  (Please remember him, Fr. Metzler, in your prayers.)  Since I served as his master of ceremonies for the last Triduum, he asked me to expand my duties and serve at each of the Palm Sunday liturgies as well.  (Pretty easy, since except for the opening rite it is pretty much a standard mass.  But it helps me, the deacons and the altar servers get in sync.  It is kind of like opening in Peoria before taking it to Broadway.)

Because of this, I heard the passion read on Saturday night and twice on Sunday.  I was not sure what to expect, but I sort of assumed that I would sit quietly and half hear it the second two times.  But instead, I was quite surprised when each time I listened to it, something new and different lept out at me.   None of my thoughts were deep or profound:  I share them to illustrate the richness of the text, and to ask you to share what particularly struck you this Sunday as you listened to the passion.

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Book Review: The Cross as our Banner and Our Joy

March 28, 2015

Open Mind, Faithful Heart
By Pope Francis
Translated by Joseph V. Owens, SJ
Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013

There’s a hymn that is popular in Latin America. It’s called “Viva Cristo Rey” (Long Live Christ the King). The first time I heard it while living and working in Nicaragua eight years ago, I was taken aback by its martial lyrics:

Un grito de guerra se escucha en la faz de la tierra y en todo lugar.
Los prestos guerreros empuñan su espada y se alistan para pelear.
Para eso han sido entrenados. Defenderán la Verdad.
Y no les será arrebatado ¡el fuego que en su sangre está!

(A war cry rings out all over the face of the earth.
The eager warriors grip their swords, ready to fight.
For this they have been trained. They will fight for the truth.
And no one will rob them of the fire that burns in their blood!)

As an aspiring peace activist, I am often concerned about the warlike sentiment that permeates our language. When hearing of the fight against cancer to the war on drugs, I worry about our tendencies to use metaphors related to violence and bloodshed.

And yet, I cannot deny that this aggressive fighting spirit is an integral part of our human nature and is not necessarily negative in all cases. It is arguably the source of the determination and resilience we need to survive and thrive in this world. Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Oscar Romero may have been peacemakers, but they were also fighters: they strove with tireless drive and focus to create a more just world. As Catholic Christians, we are called to be just as steadfast, to be warriors in living our faith. This call to battle is the central spirit of Pope Francis’ wonderful book of meditations, Open Mind, Faithful Heart, where he urges his audience to be strong when faced with pessimism or despair:

A most serious temptation, one that impedes our contact with the Lord, is defeatism. When the enemy comes up against a faith that is by definition militant, he takes on the semblance of an angel of light and begins to sow seeds of pessimism. To engage effectively in any struggle, one must be fully confident of victory. Those who begin a struggle without robust confidence have already lost half the battle. Christian victory always involves a cross, but a cross that is the banner of victory […] Those faces of the humble folk with their simple piety are always faces of triumph, but they are also almost always accompanied by the cross. In contrast, the faces of the arrogant are always the faces of defeat (26).

Anyone who views Pope Francis as calling for a watered-down or unrigorous version of Catholicism should read this book. Staunchly resolute, Francis declares that “Our preaching will be authentic only if it derives from our being with Christ on the cross” (59) and “With the cross it is impossible to negotiate, impossible to dialogue: the cross is either embraced or rejected […] If we embrace the cross, then by that very decision we lose our life; we leave it in the hands of God, in the time of God, and it will be given back to us in a different form” (73). This is a tough message, but ultimately one that is central to the Gospel itself. And this, for me, is the greatest strength of Francis’ writing: his fluidity and astuteness when speaking of – and meditating on – the Bible.

Drawing on the tradition of Ignatian spirituality, Open Mind, Faithful Heart consists of forty-eight brief meditations divided into four sections: “Encountering Jesus,” which speaks of a personal relationship with Christ; “Manifestations of Light,” which responds to the idea of salvation history; “The Letters to the Seven Churches,” meditations on the seven churches in the Book of Revelation; and “Human Prayer,” which responds to the prayers of such central Biblical figures as Abraham, David, Job, Judith, Simeon and others. Although these reflections were originally written in different contexts and in different stages of Pope Francis’ career as a priest and pastoral leader, they fit together seamlessly into a coherent whole. Though primarily directed toward priests, they are relevant to all Christians seeking to grow in our relationship with Jesus as well as non-Christians seeking to gain a sense of what our faith is about.

It is impossible for me to give you a clear, concise summary of the points that Francis makes in this volume, for the book’s structure renders any such summary impossible. This is not a treatise on theology, but rather a book of devotional meditations on the challenge of the Christian life. Indeed, Francis expresses a certain wariness of intellectualism. “God did not create human intellect so that we could set ourselves up as the judges of all things,” he says. “Our intellect is not the light of the world; it is simply a flash for illuminating our faith” (28). Similarly, he urges us not to be afraid to say “I don’t know:” “Leading God’s faithful people sometimes requires us to forgo the urgency of answers and to remember that silence is often the best response of the wise”(85).

As I have stated, the greatest strength of this book in my view is its Scriptural focus. Drawing on both the Old and New Testaments, Francis makes the Bible come alive in a way that even the best homilists struggle to achieve. In a chapter entitled “The Vision of the Wedding Feast,” for example, Francis examines the wedding – a motif that recurs throughout both testaments of the Bible – as a metaphor for God’s ongoing, unfolding relationship with his people: “Before Christ there is the time of waiting, the betrothal; the earthly presence of the Messiah represents the time of the wedding; then there is the time of separation, or widowhood; and finally there is the time of moving toward the consummation, the expectation of the final, eschatalogical wedding” (146). Francis views the wedding with its various stages as a most apt metaphor for salvation history, an ongoing cosmic drama in which we are all called to take part.

Similarly fascinating is the meditation on the Book of Revelation, which Francis argues is not a story of the end of the world, but rather a book of consolation. Citing the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Francis states that divine consolation does not take the form of counsel, but images and symbols that must be interpreted. For Francis, it is imperative that all of us draw joy and meaning from the symbols in Revelation; however, he sees this process as particularly important for priests engaged in pastoral work:

As we behold this Lord and allow his message to emerge for us out of that tension between images and words, let us ask ourselves about the joy we feel in ministry, about our zeal, our sadness, our worries. As symbol, the figure of the Lord makes us holy; as word, he draws close and humanizes us. Let us ask about the ways we sanctify ourselves. With what attitude do we pardon sins? How do we draw close to people in their everyday lives? Does a special love inspire all our gestures? The Lord does away with all the old ritual mechanisms and makes sacred only love, revealed as a quiet word and a gesture of solidarity in the command, “Fear not.” All sadness in ministry, all fatigue, all drying up of the fountains of fervor result from losing contact with this living Lord (172).

From here, Francis goes on to unlock the symbolism of the seven churches in the Book of Revelation. The Church of Smyrna has become fatigued and bitter; Ephesus has lost the zeal of its first love; Laodicea has become “lite” and lukewarm. Francis traces God’s call to each of these churches to return to its original strength and devotion, and in doing so he extends this call to the global church of today’s world.

One drawback of Francis’ book, in my view, is its tendency to speak in abstractions. While there is much meditation on joy, hope, grace, sin, fear, prayer and salvation, there are few examples of the ways that these phenomena actually take form in our lives. But perhaps this perceived weakness is actually a strength. It is clear that Francis originally intended these meditations to be shared with fellow priests, and when he does bring in concrete examples, they usually relate to pastoral care. By speaking more abstractly, Francis has written a series of reflections that a much wider audience can relate to – not only the Catholic laity, but also non-Catholic Christians looking for a fresh meditation on Scripture or perhaps even non-Christians who are curious to learn about our faith from the perspective of its most prominent earthly leader.

Ultimately, Francis reminds us again and again of what Christianity is all about: accompanying Jesus right up to the cross. The Christian life is not easy, he tells us. “Following Jesus means deciding to walk in his footsteps, and that guarantees the cross. Such a path is far removed from the concessions made by those whose divided hearts dream of peaceful harmony between the Lord of glory and the spirit of the world!” (65). But, ultimately, the rewards of this path are endless – not only as we wait in expectation of Christ’s return at the end of time, but as we encounter the deep joy that stems from humbly yet resolutely following this path every day of our lives.

Was Eve a virgin before the Fall?

March 26, 2015

As part of my reading Advent in Lent, I am now working my way through the readings for Christmastide.  As the readings for Lent intensify, it is interesting to pair them with the readings for Christmas:  Jesus truly was born to die, and to rise again.

But as part of this, I stumbled upon an interesting quote from Saint John Chrysostom.  As part of a reflection on the Feast of the Holy Family, I read,

Why was Christ born of a virgin, and her virginity preserved inviolate?! Because of old the devil had deceived the virgin Eve, Gabriel brought the Good News to the Virgin Mary. Having fallen into the trap, Eve spoke the word that led to death. Having received the Good News, Mary gave birth to the incarnate Word who has brought us eternal life. (Chrysostom, Homily for Christmas)

I must admit that I did a bit of a double-take when I saw the reference to “the virgin Eve.”   I did a quick bit of searching, and discovered that in fact this expression was common among the Fathers, with usage at least as far back as St. Justin Martyr. (CatholicCulture.org has a nice list of quotations.)  And in fact it gets a mention in the Catechism, which quotes St. Irenaeus:

The knot of Eve’s disobedience was untied by Mary’s obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith.  (CCC 494)

It is clear reading all of these passages that they are part of a mariological argument:  Mary is the new Eve, and they want to extend the parallel as far as possible.  This leads to a post facto reading of the Old Testament:  Mary was (explicitly) a virgin, and so, therefore, Eve must have been one as well.   There is, of course, not a stitch of evidence for or against Eve being a virgin in Genesis, unless one wants to read Gen 2:25, “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame” as being a Hebraic euphemism for sexual activity.  This seems a stretch, though as I have noted before, the Hebrew OT does have a number of very earthy passages.  I got this reading from a random website I stumbled upon which was a discussion board for Reform tradition Christians.  Read down a bit for their acerbic comments on “Romanism” and “Popish” ideas.

So how important is this reading?  What would be lost or undermined by assuming Adam and Eve had a prelapasarian sex life?  I think Augustine (or was it Thomas Aquinas) gave this some thought:  didn’t he argue that before the fall, Adam only got an erection at will as he was not subject to concupiscence?   Moreover, all of these readings take Genesis quite literally, so I wonder how this reading would fare given a more symbolic interpretation to deal with human evolution?  Also, to what extent was this reading affected by the (in my view at times obsessive) importance that the Church fathers attached to virginity?

I have no answers, and I am sure that I will think of more questions, but I thought I would toss this out just to see what people thought.

A Desert, In Two Senses

March 25, 2015

I RECEIVED NEWS RECENTLY that an old friend has had some health issues, so I trekked to Las Vegas to see her and catch up. I hadn’t seen her for almost five years, and I found much had changed with her — and in Vegas; my friend because of her illness, and Vegas because the number-two industry in the city, after gambling, seems now to be the demolition of any building with the slightest hint of wear or anachronism.

Author and urbanist Jim Kunstler has said of Las Vegas:

In evolutionary biology, at the threshold of extinction organisms often attain gigantic size and a narrow specialty of operation that leaves them very little room to adapt when their environment changes even slightly. This is the predicament of Las Vegas. Its components have attained a physical enormity that will leave them vulnurable to political, economic, and social changes that are bearing down upon us with all the inexorable force of history.

Las Vegas evolved as a crude extrapolation of several elements of American culture: the defiance of nature, abnormally cheap land, vast empty space for expansion, and the belief that it is possible to get something for nothing — these elements all presenting themselves there in the most extreme form. The trouble with extrapolation as a growth model is that it assumes the continuation of all present conditions in the future, only more so. Since this is not consistent with how the world works, systems organized on this basis fail. Anyway, to extrapolate urban growth based only on extreme conditions invites certain catastrophe, since the law of unintended consequences will produce ever more compounded skewed outcomes. The destiny of Las Vegas, therefore, would seem bright in the same sense that a thermonuclear explosion is bright.

While Kunstler is onto something there, I think he’s being a bit too categorical.

For one thing, not everyone in the city is employed in facilitating tourists’ vice. My friend is a massage therapist for one of the resorts on The Strip. There are places to book helicopter tours of some of the spectacular nearby scenery, guided hikes in the nearby mountains and canyons, and so on.

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Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

March 21, 2015

On March 20, Pope Francis wrote a letter to Federico Mayor, President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty.  This letter builds on previous statements the Pope  has made against the death penalty, but it is much more detailed.  Significant extracts have appeared in English, but at the moment the full text does not seem to be available and I think that the missing parts contribute to the overall force of his argument.  The Vatican has published it in Italian and in the original Spanish.   In the future I  want to comment more fully on what Pope Francis and on the conservative backlash against it, but for now, as a first step, I want to make the full text available in English.

The translation below is partly my own from the Spanish, but I also drew heavily on extensive passages in English given by Independent Catholic News and by the Vatican Information Service.  However, these translations are awkward and I have made many changes and corrections to them.  In several places where the Spanish grammatical structure is involved, I have added words in “[…]” to help clarify the meaning.  Finally, in a couple places I have added some editorial comments.

As two of my fellow bloggers are professional translators, I hope they will have mercy on my efforts here.  Corrections to my translation will be gratefully accepted.

 

His Excellency
Sr. Federico Mayor,
President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty

With these letters I want to give my greetings to all the members of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, to the group of countries that support it, and to those who collaborate with the organization over which you preside.  I also want to express my personal thanks, and also those of people of good will, for your commitment to a world free of the death penalty and for your contribution to the establishment of a world-wide universal moratorium on executions with the aim of abolishing capital punishment.

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How can I love my enemies if I don’t even know them?

March 9, 2015

It was Christmas Day. As always, I sat in the living room with my family members, who were ready to exchange gifts. This year, I folded my arms sheepishly. I’d spent my December buried in job applications, and then the week before Christmas (which is when I normally do my shopping) I’d caught the same horrific flu that everyone seems to be catching this winter. For the first time ever, I hadn’t managed to buy a single present. For anyone.

“Don’t worry about it,” my mother said kindly. A devout Catholic who has never been a fan of consumerism, she was not going to let my negligence make any of us forget the reason for the season. “And honestly, there’s only one thing I want from you. I’ve bought you a book for Christmas, and the best present you could give me would be to read it.”

I felt a knot tightening in my stomach. Whatever this book was, she was definitely not giving it to me for my reading pleasure. I knew this gift would be an attempt to convert me to her views on some controversial issue. Probably political, I cringed as I began undoing the ribbons. Nevertheless, I promised her I’d read it. Despite our differences, my mother has always been the most loving and generous parent I could ask for. The least I could do was to read a book that might help me understand her better. A few seconds later, the wrappings were removed and I held a thick hardcover volume entitled Stop the Coming Civil War, by conservative radio commentator Michael Savage, between my hands.

“Ooh,” my mother observed with a slight laugh. “You’re making a face.”

Yes. I was. A quick glance through the chapter headings warned me of what kinds of views I could expect to encounter – fear-mongering about undocumented immigrants in the US, an endorsement of the English-only movement, militarism, homophobia, climate change denial, and a general “my country, right or wrong” nationalism that has long irked me. No, Michael Savage was definitely not my kind of guy. And, as I began to read through the chapters, I soon found that I was not his kind of gal, either. “Let me simplify things. If it’s illegal, Democrats are for it. Period,” he says on page 48. “We live in a society in which our civil rights are being eliminated, even as we must make our way through a leftist-dominated culture that has become even more hedonistic, amoral and degenerate than that of Germany’s Weimar Republic of the 1920s.”

I’m not a registered Democrat, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable being labelled as left-wing. But, admittedly, my opinions generally lean well in that direction, and as I read the book, I found myself feeling more and more defensive. Throw-away lines about “loony leftists” and “greedy socialists” kept making me feel that, despite the book’s title, Savage is not setting out to stop the hypothetical civil war that threatens his beloved nation. He is not trying to heal the wounds that divide right from left. Instead, like so many pundits, he is trying to win the war for those “true patriots” on his side: the Republicans, particularly the Tea Party.

This aggressive, grandstanding, hooray-for-my-side approach is certainly not unique to Savage. I’ve seen it all over the media and especially online – on feminist websites and men’s rights ones, Christian blogs and atheist ones, The Huffington Post and The National Review. It has been argued that instead of uniting us, the age of personalized media divides us further, allowing us to surround ourselves with people who share our views and blocking out the rest. And, of course, the ability to post comments anonymously allows us to give free rein to our most vicious, aggressive selves. (I must take a moment here to express my gratitude to those readers who comment on this website – in my brief blogging experience, I have found you to be incredibly polite and sensitive while still expressing yourselves honestly. Thank you!). :)

Psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander has done a great job of summing up the greatest social division that plagues the United States today. Alexander purports that our country consists of two distinct tribes, and he offers us these tongue-in-cheek descriptions:

The Red Tribe is most classically typified by conservative political beliefs, strong evangelical religious beliefs, creationism, opposing gay marriage, owning guns, eating steak, drinking Coca-Cola, driving SUVs, watching lots of TV, enjoying American football, getting conspicuously upset about terrorists and commies, marrying early, divorcing early, shouting “USA IS NUMBER ONE!!!”, and listening to country music.

The Blue Tribe is most classically typified by liberal political beliefs, vague agnosticism, supporting gay rights, thinking guns are barbaric, eating arugula, drinking fancy bottled water, driving Priuses, reading lots of books, being highly educated, mocking American football, feeling vaguely like they should like soccer but never really being able to get into it, getting conspicuously upset about sexists and bigots, marrying later, constantly pointing out how much more civilized European countries are than America, and listening to “everything except country.”

Alexander’s analysis of this tribal divide is textured and complex, well worth reading in its entirety. For my purposes here, though, three points stand out as particularly salient. The first is that members of the Red and Blue Tribe rarely encounter each other. Scanning his social circle, Alexander finds he doesn’t know a single person who holds evangelical religious beliefs or opposes LGBTQ rights. For him, Red Tribe members are like dark matter – he knows they’re nearby, but he never meets them.

The second point is that both sides deny their enmity toward the other. Perhaps they cloak it in a positive value – such as the Red Tribe’s devotion to “true patriotism,” which, in their view, left-leaning sillies like me lack. Meanwhile, Blue Tribe members pride themselves on being open and tolerant to immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ communities, and other marginalized groups…But, as Alexander astutely notes, these “tolerated” groups are generally part of the Blue Tribe anyway. Meanwhile, Blues often give off a sense of disliking America, constantly taking a critical stance toward their home country. But in Alexander’s analysis, it’s not true that they hate their own country. The word “America” is used as a cover for just one half of it – the Red Tribe.

The third point that stands out from Alexander’s observation is that these two groups, despite being socially isolated from each other and perhaps despising each other, actually have a lot in common. They drive on the same roads, send their children to the same schools, and eat in the same restaurants (I have managed to order arugula salads in steakhouses). And from here comes Alexander’s most chilling observation. Our worst enemies are generally not people who live on the other side of the world. Rather, they are our neighbors – the same neighbors we’ve been commanded to love:

Freud spoke of the narcissism of small differences, saying that “it is precisely communities with adjoining territories, and related to each other in other ways as well, who are engaged in constant feuds and ridiculing each other.” Nazis and German Jews. Northern Irish Protestants and Northern Irish Catholics. Hutus and Tutsis. South African whites and South African blacks. Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs. Anyone in the former Yugoslavia and anyone else in the former Yugoslavia.

In 1930’s Germany, Nazis and Jews lived in the same communities and moved through the same social spaces; the same was true of Hutus and Tutsis in 1990’s Rwanda. While I am quite dismissive of Michael Savage’s alarmist stance, I concede that he does have a point. The polarization in today’s US does indeed contain the seeds of civil war.

As Christians, we have been called to love our enemies. It’s easy to care for those people who love us in return. It’s easy to “tolerate” people whom we already empathize with to begin with. But our enemies? That’s a different story. Both Alexander and Savage reveal that we rarely know people who are different – I mean truly different – from us. We may think we know what they stand for. It may repulse us. But, have we ever sat down to talk with them, to find out where they are coming from?

With these thoughts in mind, I gritted my teeth and struggled to suspend judgment while reading Savage. And – believe me – it was a struggle (by this point my flu had taken on asthmatic overtones, and I found that every diatribe against amnesty for illegal migrants threw me into another coughing fit). But, eventually I discovered that Savage had some fair points to make. President Obama’s overconsolidation of power, the scandals around the 2012 Benghazi murders, and the threat to medical and military personnell’s right to practice freedom of conscience with regard to their religion are concerns of mine as well as his. He also touches on some points that leftists might actually agree with, such as the corruption of Wall Street executives and the injustice of NSA spying.

I also gained some insights into why a man like Savage – who was born during World War II and thus lived through the entire Cold War – might fear the left more generally. He views socialism as an international plot to create a totalitarian one-world government and consolidate all wealth and power into the hands of a global elite. At first glance this idea sounds absurd to me (how could such a one-world government even function?), but when I think back on 20th century history or reread Orwell’s 1984, his fears do seem plausible. Overall, I disagree with Savage, and I doubt that he and I could become close friends. But, I can at least try to understand where he is coming from.

As Catholics, we are in a fortuitous position to bridge this gap between Red and Blue. We walk under a big umbrella alongside pacifists and just war proponents, socialists and capitalists, reformers who’d like to have the Mass said in Latin and other reformers who’d like to see women’s ordination and marriage equality for LGBTQ couples. Looking at my mother and me, it’s not too hard to see how we ended up in different political tribes while remaining within the same Church. For her, abortion is one of the most serious wrongs plaguing the modern world, and she has devoted a fair amount of her energy to the pro-life movement. Given the US political climate, should I be so surprised that this work has led her toward a close affinity with the capitalism-endorsing, immigration-fearing Reds? Meanwhile, my education in Latin American studies has led me to care deeply about the pursuit of peace and social justice – causes like closing the School of the Americas resonate with me in a personal way. Is it really surprising, then, that over the years I’ve become more and more Blue?

For me, it is extremely hard to approach people in the Red Tribe – including my own family members – without fear, contempt, resentment, or judgment. Even within the Church, I am often scared to ask questions or voice my views. Will I be judged? Will I offend someone? What if my friend turns out to be an enemy? And yet, these difficult, uncomfortable conversations are just what we need if we’re going to heal the divisions that plague our world.

Many years ago, I attended a lecture by Frank Meeink, a former skinhead who travels around the US speaking about his personal journey from hatred to compassion. “It’s so easy to focus on how we are different,” he said. “Instead, we need to look at how we’re the same.” Those of us who identify with the Catholic Church are united by our faith in a God who loves us, who loved us so much as to assume our form and live among us, who called us to create a kingdom of justice and goodness that begins on earth and has its fulfillment in the realm beyond. Outside the Church, we are united by something even more basic: our common humanity. If we want to prevent a civil war, if we want to create a culture of compassion, I’d say that the first step is to turn inward. We must recognize that we all have enemies and ask ourselves just who they are. The next step – and this is the hard one – is to reach out and get to know them. This knowledge is the starting point for love.

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