Saturday, October 30, 2010

George Harrison, Julian of Norwich, Etc: On the Same Page

Want to hear the voice of a recent mystic/poet (mystical poet?) who mirrors what the wisest saints say about our task on earth and our relationship with God?  Try this line from George Harrison's memoir I, Me, Mine, first published in 1980:
"The only thing we really have to work at in this life is how to manifest love". 
Can't you hear the voice of Francis of Assisi?  Or Julian of Norwich?  Perhaps Dorothy Day?  It's not about doctrine, not primarily.  It's not about clobbering anyone about the ears or going on a power trip.  Manifesting the love God implanted in the human soul -- sharing the love we've been given, allowing others to bring their inherent human dignity and love to the task at hand, reflecting God's compassion and mercy whenever and however we can find the strength to do so.  None of us live up to that all the time.  I sure don't.  But the core calling is indeed to "manifest love."

(Thanks also, George, for "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and a mess of other good stuff.)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Kathleen Norris on Conversion: More Than Having a "Saved on..." Date

Kathleen Norris writes in her book, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, about the tendency of evangelicals to focus so intently on the specific date they were "saved" on, an exact date on which they were "born again."  Norris (though a Presbyterian last time I checked) has an excellent grasp on the progressive teachings of Catholicism and mainline Protestant churches.  Nowhere is this more true, perhaps, than when she discusses what conversion means for those who choose not to point to a date-locked-in-time when discussing their own conversion:
"It does not mean seeking out the most exotic spiritual experience, or the ideal religion, the holiest teachers who will give us the greatest return on our investment.  Conversion is seeing ourselves, and the ordinary people in our families, our classrooms, and on the job, in a new light.  Can it be that these very people--even the difficult, unbearable ones--are the ones God has given us, so that together we might find salvation?  Taking a good look at myself and the people I live and work with, I might assume that God is foolish indeed.  I might also begin to have an awe-inspiring glimpse into the uncomfortable implications of Paul's exhoratation to the Philippians to 'work out your own salvation with fear and trembling' (Phil. 2:12)."
I'll confess that I've never fully understood the attachment many evangelicals have for their "saved on..." date.  Certainly, I do understand marking the anniversary of a time and event that had a profound effect on whom one is today.  I also think I get the desire to prize the date on which one realized for the first time that God cares for each of us personally, not simply as abstract representations of the human race.  But really, doesn't the concept of a "saved on..." date imply that it's all over; the supposed Christian destination--salvation for me, myself, I--has been arrived at?  I don't mean to sound cynical about what is truly a source of joy for many evangelicals.  Still, I much prefer the view that Kathleen Norris articulates in the passage above.

I also can't help but remember that Norris identifies strongly with the spirituality of the Benedictine order.  The Benedictines are well known for leaving a door unlocked in each of their monastearies, with at least one empty room always available for unexpected travelers.  That hospitality and openness to strangers is part of any complex, on-going conversion experience, isn't it?  And then also we have the metaphor of conversion as journey.  Leave a door open for those on the journey--for each of us is meant to be on that journey.  None of us are home yet.  We all are on the way.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Losing One's Life for Others -- Priestly Examples

I've been slow-reading (savoring) the Robert Ellsberg book, The Saints' Guide to Happiness.  Despite the title, the book explores the very real (sometimes messy) details of genuine, flesh-and-blood women and men who grew into their sanctity.  Some of the folks discussed in the book are recognized, canonized saints within the Catholic tradition.  Some have not been canonized and perhaps never will be, yet are wonderful examples of humans who ultimately ran toward, rather than away from, God's universal call to holiness, wholeness, and love.

Anyway, this morning Ellsberg had me reading about a dead priest whose name I had never encountered before:  Father Engelmar Unzeitig, who was ordained during the early 1940s and arrested shortly thereafter for preaching against the Nazis and in defense of the Jews.  Ellsberg describes Fr. Engelmar's time as a prisoner in Dachau:
In December 1944 the camp was hit with a terrible outbreak of typhoid.  More than two thousand prisoners died in the first month.  To stem the epidemic, infected prisoners were confined to a squalid barracks, where they were essentially left to die, alone and uncared for.  Within the hell of Dachau this was surely the inner sanctum.  Nevertheless, when a call went out for volunteer orderlies, twenty priests stepped forward.  Father Engelmar was among them.  Given the extremely infectious nature of the disease, the meaning of this gesture was clear to all; there was little hope that any volunteers would survive.  Yet into this void the priests brought their love and faith, doing what they could to bring some consolation and dignity to the place.  Simply caring for the sick and keeping them clean provided endless work.  But the priests also heard confessions, offered last rites, and recited prayers for the dead.  Because the SS would not enter this barracks, it afforded its own peculiar zone of humanity.
Ellsberg reports that Fr. Engelmar died of typhoid in March 1945, a few weeks short of the liberation of Dachau.  He willingly gave up his life for others, a wonderful imitation of what Christians believe Christ did.  Those in the typhoid barracks inevitably died, one must assume, but in their suffering their humanity was recognized and embraced.

There have been some bad priests set loose in the world; the files of too many dioceses are filled with their names, and the court papers, too.  Yet most priests, I'm convinced, try to represent Christ's love as well as they are able.  Some do so with a great deal of effectiveness and at some cost to their own health.  And a few, clearly, lay down their lives, so great is their love for the brothers and sisters God places in their midst.

I'm reminded here of not only Fr. Engelmar, but also Fr. Mychal Judge, the NYFD chaplain who went into the North Tower on 9/11, along with the firefighters he was there to minister to, when it was clear that a disaster was in the making.  Fr. Judge too gave his life in a most Christ-like manner.

In all likelihood, unfortunately, he will probably not be canonized in any of our lifetimes.  Mychal Judge was a self-described gay (and chaste) priest--a variety of priest the Vatican seems incredibly skeptical about (if not downright hostile toward) these days.  May Fr. Judge rest in peace, and may his holy priesthood serve as an example to every newly ordained priest.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Two Archbishops: What a Difference!

Those of us in the greater St. Louis area survived the wanna-be papacy of Archbishop Raymond Burke (who reigned in St. Louis for four years before moving on to head the Vatican's version of the Supreme Court in Rome).  Burke loved being formal, glum, and aloof; he loved every last trapping of clerical dress available to an archbishop; he wanted more and more of the Mass to be full of Latin, a language that few of the people in the pews (not to mention most priests) understand.  Here's a picture of Archbp. Burke.

Raymond Burke (he's the one sitting down)

Next, here's a picture of a newly designated Archbishop, Gustavo Garcia-Siller, who is headed to the San Antonio archdiocese (after a few years as an auxiliary bishop in Chicago).  Garcia-Stiller celebrates Mass in Spanish and English, depending on the predominant language in the parish he's visiting.  He evidently likes mixing with everyday parishioners.  According to Rocco's Whispers in the Loggia, Garcia-Siller wears a small cross on a shoestring around his neck (because, one guesses, walking with Jesus need not involve glaring, outward signs that point to one's power or prestige).

Guess which archbishop impresses me more!  Guess which one would make me more likely, if I were not a Catholic, to want to check out the Catholic church in hopes of finding a path to the God who chose to be born in a manger!

Friday, October 08, 2010

Why Bishops Never Should Have Lawyered Up

Here's John Paul II, speaking not specifically about the sexual abuse scandal but Christian charity and justice in general.  He's commenting on the parable from Luke that depicts Lazarus, the beggar who lives outside the gates of the rich man (the parable that served as the Sunday gospel two weeks ago).
“…How can we exclude anyone from our care? Rather we must recognize Christ in the poorest and the most marginalized, those whom the Eucharist – which is communion in the Body and Blood of Christ given up for us – commits us to serve. As the parable of the rich man, who will remain forever without a name, and the poor man called Lazarus clearly shows, ‘in the stark contrast between the insensitive rich man and the poor in need of everything, God is on the latter’s side’. We too must be on this same side.”
 This is the spirit, the drive, that I love so very much within Catholicism.  Social justice.  The call to reject materialistic values and instead work for justice and peace.

Wherein lies some of my ambivalence as The Mighty Ambivalent Catholic.  The Church has for many decades (centuries, let's be honest) too often failed to live up to this teaching.  The sex abuse scandal (including the cover-ups; the shuffling of bad priests through a series of unwitting parishes; the lawyering up at the diocesan and archdiocesan levels, culminating in Cardinal Law's decision to flee Boston in late 2002, while under a legal cloud, for the safety of Rome) is the most flagrant recent example of the Church not living up to this call.  Too much of that occurred under John Paul II's watch.  (Sorry, this fact cannot be ignored.)  Cut the man some slack, if you like, because he was in poor health for the last decade of his papacy.  Perhaps his ability to tend to administrative details--reports of ghastly crimes, even--was diminished.  But there is no way to let him or his lieutenants off the hook entirely, not without suggesting that this call to favor the poor, the victimized, the marginalized only applies to individual Christians and not to the Church as an institution.  I don't see how we can do that or why we would ever want to do that.

Say a prayer, if you are a person of faith, that every cell of the Christian church--and the Roman Catholic church in particular--will recommit itself daily to giving preference to the needs of the oppressed and the poor; commit itself fully to putting victims' needs before its own earthly desires for prestige, unquestioned authority, material wealth.

Yes, you have to be a person of faith to chase after that prayer, to hope that such a thing is possible.  I have no idea how long it will take us, as a church, to get there.

(Hat tip to Whispers in the Loggia for JPII's lines.)

Friday, October 01, 2010

Random Thought from Henri Nouwen: On Gratitude

Thumbing through Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son, which I read and marked up last spring, I come across the following passage, which deals with the elder's son attitude toward his returning brother:
"Along with trust there must be gratitude--the opposite of resentment.  Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.  My resentment tells me that I don't receive what I deserve.  It always manifests itself in envy. . . . There is the option to look into the eyes of the One who came out to search for me and see therein that all I am and all I have is pure gift calling for gratitude."  The Return of the Prodigal (Doubleday), p. 85
In those eighty-odd words I find something I should chew on for days, if not weeks.  And this is so typical when reading Nouwen.  Words to take with me on the never-ending path of conversion.