Sunday, May 31, 2015

Careful The Tale You Tell

Why is the Church so obsessed with abortion? Why does the Church talk incessantly about homosexuality? What is this creepy Catholic obsession with sex, sex, sex all the time? Why can’t the Church be concerned about real issues—poverty, for example—instead of always being all about the pelvic issues? Why, huh, why?

This is more and more the typical attitude of many towards the Church, or towards organized religion in general. And we are solemnly informed that it is for this reason primarily that the millennials are being alienated from organized religion and from Catholicism in particular. It is the fault of the Church and its laser-focussed obsession with sexual purity.

Except… that’s not true. Not remotely. Not at all. This article over at National Review does a great job showing this definitively. The Church, including all the various Christian denominations, gives billions of dollars every year to the alleviation of poverty throughout the world; the budgets for groups combatting the various ‘culture war’ issues is miniscule in comparison.

Meanwhile, I would echo the author of the article’s experience. I have been a Catholic my entire life, and I honestly think I could count on one hand the homilies I’ve heard that have even mentioned abortion, homosexuality, or any other point of sexual morality. I would add that the single source where we can see exactly what ‘the Vatican’ is saying is the newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, which reports pretty much every speech, every document, every word that comes out of Rome. While I haven’t done a scientific study of the matter, I would have to say that issues of sexual morality wouldn’t crack the top ten, or even the top twenty subjects the Church talks about all the time. My impression is that world peace and world economic justice are actually the two most urgent social issues Rome talks about, and has talked about for decades now.

All of this, while interesting in itself highlights something I have been aware of for some time. And that is the danger ‘the narrative’ poses to ‘the truth’. ‘Everyone knows’ that such and such is the case. But it turns out that it’s not the case. And yet even upon that being pointed out, everyone goes on knowing it, somehow. The Narrative trumps the facts, every time somehow.

We see this all over the place—the question of the Church’s obsession with sex is just one example which happens to matter quite a bit to me. (I do find it fairly odd and—what’s the word—oh yeah, ironic, that a culture saturated in erotic imagery and awash in x-rated material has the effrontery to accuse anyone else of being obsessed with sex).

But the question of narratives is an important one, one which we all need to be vigilant about. For Christians, we have to resist the narrative that the secular culture and those who are of that culture are utterly depraved and vile—the tendency to demonize the ‘other’.

The Sondheim musical Into the Woods, recently made into a so-so movie, has a lyric that goes “Careful the tale you tell; that is the spell.” Stories have a capacity to shape reality for us, a magical ability to both reveal and conceal. Stories, in fact, yield prejudice, and prejudice has a great power to render us blind and deaf to whatever contradicts it. ‘Liberals and stupid and evil… conservatives are stupid and evil… Muslims are all terrorists… Christians are all judgmental hypocrites… atheists are all arrogant jerks… black people are such and such, Mexicans are this and that, Jews are all xyz, Asians are all blah blah blah, white people are all that way’ and so on and so forth. Careful the tale you tell—all of reality shapes itself around that tale.

Meanwhile, life and the world and humanity are so much richer, so much more varied and complex, at once better and worse than the narratives allow for. Simplistic stories with heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators are all well and good for Hollywood or beach fiction, but serve us poorly in actually navigating the world as it is.

Personally, I try to limit the tale I tell to the One Story that I believe is absolutely true, because it is told by God and not men. And that of course is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Paschal Mystery in which everything God is embraces everything man is, in which God so utterly enters the human reality that He dies and goes to Hell, and in which the human reality is so penetrated by Divine life and love that the man Jesus rises from the dead and raises up all men and women who are joined to Him in faith. God becomes everything we are so that we can become, in Him, everything He is.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Everything else is just fairy tales told by an idiot, to be taken with large grains of salt at all times. The saying today is ‘check your privilege’, but I would like to start a new saying: ‘check your narrative’, and be vigilant always, welcome continually the facts that contradict the stories you tell yourself and others. Stories are for children (in light of the Gospel this is no problem, as we are all God’s children). We are adults and should live our life as adults, narrative-free if at all possible.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Trouble With Mercy

The Jubilee Year of Mercy is coming, and while it is still some months off, I find myself thinking about it quite a bit, actually. ‘Mercy’ has been the word of Pope Francis’ papacy. Sometimes misused, sometimes abused, it is nonetheless the word we are being asked to contemplate and consider by our Holy Father at this time.

Incidentally, it is sadly typical of our unreflective era that, because some in the Church have misused ‘mercy’ to mean cheap grace or moral relativism, others in the Church have reflexively rejected the word and recoil away from its use. This is the great unwisdom of our era, the endless swinging back and forth of mindless pendulums, the mechanical ricocheting between seemingly opposing positions. This kind of senseless automatism is unworthy of rational minds and grace-filled hearts.

Meanwhile, God’s mercy is indeed at the very heart of our Catholic faith. To correct a misuse of a word requires using it properly, don’t you think, not rejecting it out of hand? In the service of that, may I recommend my book Going Home: Reflecting on the Mercy of God With Catherine de Hueck Doherty? It is all about the parable of the prodigal son, and the depths of God’s mercy that it reveals to us, drawing amply on the insights of Catherine Doherty in service of that. It would be good reading in preparation for the year.

Here is a brief excerpt from the chapter “God’s Panhandlers”, which deals with our struggle to receive and live by the mercy of God:  

The trouble with mercy, you know, is that it gets out of hand. I mean, we start by accepting that God is merciful to us. That’s a stretch, but most people can get there at least. Then we manage (barely) being merciful to those who we like or sympathize with, those whose situations are pitiable or who are obviously victims themselves of life’s tragedies.

But God asks more of us. Mercy grows, or it dies. Mercy expands, or contracts. To be merciful to the one we don’t like, to the ones whose situations inspire no pity at all in us. To be merciful to the evil-doers, the perpetrators, the blackest villains, whoever we may consider them to be. To be merciful to the ones who have no mercy themselves. To be merciful towards the ones who hate us or hurt us and don’t seem to care, much, what harm they do. To be merciful in the face of horrific injustice and oppression and wickedness, to everyone involved.

No, we cry! We want justice, not mercy. We want revenge, payback, we want to see them suffer—whoever ‘they’ are. In the tumultuous year of 1968, Catherine was deeply stirred by the protests and violence around the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and what she and many at the time saw as the brutal response of the city authorities [whether or not you agree with her assessment of that event, her point remains, and is a deep one]:

And then there is the terrible word, mercy. Did you ever stop to think what price mercy? Justice and mercy. Put them together. All of you cries out for justice, so that justice may be made to take place. But is there somebody who is merciful to Mayor Daley, to the police of Chicago? And yet the terrible words, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall find mercy.” 

Justice tempered with mercy is Christian. But it just tears your guts apart and throws our intestines out on the floor because it is awfully difficult to be merciful. To the whites when you’re black or Indian. To the Mayor Daleys and the police brutality. To Hitler and Stalin. In our Mandate it says identify with the poor, identify with Me [Christ],  which poor may be Stalin or Daley. They’re the acme of poverty. In the slums they are richer than them. [1]   

Oh, how we resist this, we in the hyper-polarized world of the 21st century. We who align into camps so readily, who spew hatred and venom at our opponents so freely, we who have raised factionalism and partisan division virtually to the level of neo-tribalism. We who are so quick to deride, despise, hate those who we disagree with.

Mercy calls us to cleanse our hearts from hatred, to allow God to remove from us anything that prevents us from loving anyone. Receiving and living by the mercy of God calls us to a totality of forgiveness, a surrender of all anger and violence that is nothing short of crucifying. No wonder we resist it, instinctively. We know we will have to lay down everything, every grievance, every hurt we hug to ourselves, even to the most mortal wounds we have borne.

Here too, in this very struggle, this very hesitation, mercy meets us. Here too we are God’s panhandlers, begging for the coin of his grace to help us. Here too, the Father comes out to us, when we are filled with rage and bitterness, when we are quaking with fear, when we are paralyzed with indecision, when we cannot quite go in. With infinite gentleness, with boundless tenderness, He looks upon us and says, “My son (or daughter), do you not know that everything I have is yours? Give me your sickness and sorrow. Give me your hatred, your fear, your bitterness of spirit. I will give blessing.”

“Enter into my joy.”

Read the rest here.

[1] Talk given in MH dining room, March 31, 1969.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

How Can One Be A Pacifist?

I am doing a tremendous amount of research in Catherine Doherty's writings these days for a project I'm working on (OK, it's my next book, but I'm not able to say what it is yet!). As a result, I come across gems from her now and then that seem worth sharing, so I'll do that from time to time.

This article is from 1970, and of course her specific examples and some of her vocabulary are slightly dated. Don't let that distract you--the woman is saying something here that badly needs saying in our own time and place, with our own issues and problems. She is deep, and is going deep in this article. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Not Counting the Cost

Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House

Love... love... love, never counting the cost. – We are going through the Little Mandate, the core words of our MH vocation, each Tuesday on the blog. Today we come to this most challenging sentence: love without ever counting the cost.

The three-fold repetition of love is not without meaning here. It implies a choice made over and over again in life. To choose to love is not a one-time affair; it has to be done every day, multiple times each day.

It sound cheesy and hippie-ish to say it, but it is my firm conviction (and in fact the clear teaching of Christ, which is rather more important) that this is the answer to all the world’s woes and the terrible evils of our time. To love without counting the cost, to love without measure or limit or end to our love.

It sounds like a hippy slogan (‘All you need is love, da da da da daaaa!’) because our notion of love is so poor and sentimental. Love for us is either warm cozy feelings and puppy dog cuteness or it is eroticized display. But neither of those things is love, particularly. You may have warm feelings or sexual desire for this or that person, and neither of these is contradictory to love, but love itself is neither of those.

To love is to desire the good for the other, and to pursue that good, to choose that good as if it were one’s own deepest good. In our world today, we think ‘love’ means never hurting anyone’s feelings, but this does not stand up to a moment’s analysis, does it? Some of the best things that have happened to me have involved very hurt feelings on my part, painful realizations of truth about myself or about life. It is not love, but cowardly selfishness, that seeks to protect the other person from some difficult truth lest their feelings be hurt.

Love and truth walk hand in hand. We cannot really know the good of the other nor pursue it as if it were our own if we do not know the objective truth of things and the subjective truth of where this person is, what their life is like. Love involves a lot of listening, a lot of careful and compassionate attention to the other.

And love requires interior integrity, my own fidelity to the Truth about reality. As a Roman Catholic, I firmly believe that truth about reality is revealed by Jesus Christ in Scripture and Tradition, preserved and handed on faithfully by the magisterium of the Catholic Church. And so a loving choice can never be a choice to compromise that truth or deny it in service of ‘friendly relations’.

At the same time, as love requires truth, so truth requires great love, great generosity, great kindness and gentleness and mercy. All of which comes at enormous cost, if we take any of this at all seriously and actually put it into practice. It is the hard and narrow path of the Gospel, and there are so many easier ways to live, constantly available to us.

The way of false tolerance, where we just pretend that everyone’s OK and that nothing really matters anyhow. The way of anger and harshness, where we set ourselves up as a little tribunal of judgment of everyone (and this is hardly limited to, or even especially typical of religious people these days – it is epidemic). The way of retreat into an enclave of like-minded friends. The way of oblivion, selfish concern for one’s own affairs.

And probably a half-dozen other easy ways, none of which do anything in the slightest to heal the world’s ills and make everything so much worse, really. To assume the cost of real love, real compassionate service, real sacrifice and real giving of oneself to everyone God puts before you, and to not ‘count’ that cost—that is what heals the world.

And this ‘not counting’ means that there is never a time that comes when we say ‘no more love for this one!’ Never a time when anyone can do anything, no matter how heinous, that would remove them from the circle of our love, our concern, our compassion, our prayer, our desire for their good. And that is of the utmost importance—it is too easy to write people off these days, to join the baying crowd of condemnation or to consign people to the outer darkness of our contempt.

But if we think hard and clear about that, that is the culture of death in action, isn’t it? The culture of death says that the value of a person is contingent on what they do or can do—fetuses and the disabled or elderly are less valuable and so can be killed, and so forth (to put it rather baldly). But if I decide that your value is lessened, that you are not worthy of my compassion or love because of some misdeed or sin, then I am as much part of that culture of death as an abortionist or a euthanasist.

No, love without counting the cost, love everyone, compassion and mercy for everyone, in truth, in integrity—this is what we need today. It is anything but sentimental and cheesy; it is the rocky road to Calvary, but beyond that to the joy and beauty of Easter.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Fret Not Yourself

 Fret not yourself because of evildoers; be not envious of wrongdoers!
 For they will soon fade like the grass and wither like the green herb.
 Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
 Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

 Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.
 He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, 
and your justice as the noonday.
 Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him;
 fret not yourself over the one who prospers in his way,
over the man who carries out evil devices!

 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! 
Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
 For the evildoers shall be cut off, 
but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
 In just a little while, the wicked will be no more;
though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there.

 But the meek shall inherit the land 
and delight themselves in abundant peace…
I have been young, and now am old, 
yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken
or his children begging for bread.
 He is ever lending generously, and his children become a blessing…

 I have seen a wicked, ruthless man, 
spreading himself like a green laurel tree.
 But he passed away, and behold, he was no more;
though I sought him, he could not be found.
 Mark the blameless and behold the upright, 
for there is a future for the man of peace.
 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed; 
the future of the wicked shall be cut off.

 The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord;
he is their stronghold in the time of trouble.
Psalm 37
Reflection – Back to the Monday Psalter, with bits and pieces of Psalm 37. There is quite a bit more in this vein in this rather long psalm (to be honest, and meaning no disrespect, it is rather repetitive).

This is a very human psalm, addressing a very human emotion we can all relate to a bit, I think. 
Namely, the resentment of the prospering wicked. The experience, which everyone has, that in this life justice is imperfect, bad people do quite well for themselves (often) and good people not infrequently get the short end of things. 

This bothers us—which seeing as how it is an incredibly common and normal experience of life in the world, actually is indirect evidence that we are not entirely made for this world, that there is something in us that years for a justice that is not of this world. The human passion for justice is one small argument for the existence of God.

Nonetheless, this psalm is concerned with helping us stay peaceful in the meantime. And the advice it gives is a nice little bit of homely wisdom. ‘Fret not yourself’. This could well stand as good advice for all those using social media. The Internet too often is an  Outrage Machine churning out fodder day and night for us to fret over. Whether it is the latest depredations of our political leaders, the latest misdeeds or silly comments by our celebrity class, some disagreeable or offensive move by some high church official, or just some bad behaviour by some random person that happened to get filmed and went viral—there is always something to fret about, something to get all upset over.

Fret not yourself. While Psalm 37 is an early psalm and there is little sense of an afterlife in it, and hence the psalmist has to assert that justice eventually gets done in this world (we know that it doesn’t, often), we who are Christians can confidently assert that all things will be set at right in the end.

If the wicked are prospering and the good ailing, it is woeful for sure, but it is temporary. And there is little good achieved, and much harm done, by climbing on board the latest outrage ride on the outrage machine, adding one’s voice to the latest Greek chorus baying for blood from the latest wrongdoer.

Fret not yourself. And this psalm is really about keeping your focus where you need to keep it, on doing what is good in your own life, in living righteously where you are, in not getting distracted. That is the harm done by the outrage machine—it distracts us, and diverts our natural human passion for justice from where it should go—to self-examination and zeal for the good—to an ultimately futile and useless expenditure of energy.

Fret not yourself, because it does nothing to add to the store of justice and goodness in the world. All flesh is in God’s hands, and we only need concern ourselves with doing the good that is before us today. So let’s get on with it.