Sunday, December 22, 2019

Pre-Christmas Musings: Encouragement in Unlikely Places

So here we are, a few days before Christmas, and I'm in the midst of a flare-up of my mysterious health episodes that always leave me wondering which parts of my body will feel out of sorts tomorrow. The GI problems and general fatigue and malaise are more or less always with me, but now I'm getting, in addition to that, throbbing pains in my lower back, tingling fingers, a recurring sharp pain in my left heel, blurry vision, neck pains, dizziness, and insomnia.

For years I've struggled to find out what's causing all this. Sometimes the symptoms will stick around for days, sometimes for weeks or months, and then they'll mostly go away. There's no rhyme or reason to any of it, and no amount of blood work, abdominal CT scans, back MRIs, brain scans, pharmaceuticals, and visits to one specialist after another has made any difference. One doctor pushes me off to the next, and inevitably someone will tell me to make sure I eat enough fiber. Thanks. Hadn't thought of that.

The common denominator seems to be a malfunctioning autonomic nervous system, at least from what I've been able to piece together on my own. But the medical community has been unable to give me any kind of answer, or relief.

So with not a lot of energy and with things to do before the big day, this will probably be my last post before Christmas. I had every intention of journaling all through Advent, until that one scripture reading a while back tripped me up. I was struggling to think of something profound to say for each day's readings anyway, but I suddenly had to sit with the problem of reconciling an omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity with human suffering -- something I've wrestled with for a long time, as, I know, have many.

I haven't come any closer to a satisfactory answer. At first I entertained the idea that maybe the Gnostics had it right all along, that maybe the God of this universe was something of a mistake -- a deity that was either malevolent or stupid, or both, while the higher God, the true God, was unknowable, locked away from us so long as we remain trapped in this material world. Christ, according to the Gnostics, was sent from the higher God to show us how to break free from this material prison and reunite our spirits with the God who does not take a form and does not create but is a pure emanation of love, incorruption, perfection, a pure, unchanging, eternal light -- a First Cause or Unmoved Mover, not terribly different from the Tao, or the Kabbalistic concept of Ein Sof.

The Gnostic view is a tempting one to adopt, but at the same time it seems to overcomplicate things in search of a satisfactory answer. Buddhism gets at the same answer of suffering in this life and breaking free from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, and it does so with a lot more level-headedness. Maybe the gods exist, the Buddha said, and maybe they don't, but they're irrelevant to your personal journey toward enlightenment. You suffer, he taught, because of desire -- you want things you don't have, and you have things you don't want. Fair enough, but that still doesn't crack the nut of why innocent people must endure suffering in the first place. Why do children get cancer? It's not because they desired something. They just got it. Some Buddhists would say the child is living out his karmic debt from a past existence, which, frankly, is just a lame excuse to blame innocent people for their own illness. In the end, Buddhism has no satisfactory answer either.

The most obvious and logical answer, of course, is that nature just does what nature does. Trees fall, floods happen, kids get cancer. No punishment involved; no lesson to learn. Stuff happens. Of course, that removes the idea of a loving creator from the picture entirely, or at the best it leaves us with the indifferent God of the Deists who set the universe in motion and then went off on a permanent holiday.

So if that's the case, and if my logical brain tells me that's the most reasonable answer, why the heck do I still feel drawn to the religious stories I was brought up with? I can only assume it's because I still find deep wisdom in the ethical teachings of Jesus and I feel the unconditional maternal love of his Blessed Mother. I feel safe in her care.

Is my childhood conditioning just telling me all this? I have no idea. But I know I never felt quite settled when I was journeying through the religious traditions of the East -- save for Taoism, whose teachings I found deep, illuminating, and beautiful. But nothing else satisfied. When I was trying to be Buddhist, I was long perplexed at why so many of its teachers actually encouraged its Western followers to return to the faith traditions they were raised in. Do you not want us here? I often wondered.

But I don't think that was it at all. In hindsight, I think those teachers understood that we all seek a single metaphysical truth and that we all take different paths to make that quest. If you were raised on one path, it becomes difficult, once you've worn a deep and familiar trail into the ground and gotten accustomed to the terrain, to then switch to another path that may seem wholly unfamiliar. In the words of author Richard Smoley, who also never felt at home in Buddhism: "Christianity is not software. You can't clear it out of your head as you clear a program from your computer. It sinks in deep, and it stays. And it is hard to install another system on top of that."

I always felt like a foreigner of sorts on the Buddhist path, as if I was treading someplace that belonged not to me but to others. This was their native territory, and I could never hope to assimilate myself into it the way someone raised in that spiritual environment could. Likewise, Smoley said that when he was trying to assimilate himself into Tibetan Buddhism, it was as if he needed to "install another, equally elaborate but completely alien, theological contraption in my head besides the one I had gotten from Christianity." And in the end, he said, "There was no point in that: One contraption was quite enough."

So, like Smoley, I went home, albeit with a new appreciation for the teachings that I once found confusing, judgmental, and archaic, thanks to a shallow surface reading that was the only thing I was ever told I could believe in. I had to take everything at face value growing up. I couldn't question the literal interpretations of scripture or look for deeper meanings. I couldn't ask why. Now I felt comfortable doing so. And with the confusing and fear-based religion of my youth behind me, I was now free to find hope, truth, beauty, wisdom, love, and goodness in the teachings.

And yet the core problem of suffering in a universe with a loving and all-powerful God remains. What the heck am I supposed to do with that? And if it continues to be a problem for me, then why can't I just put the whole of the Christian story behind me and get on with life?

Well, I guess it's because of the deeply embedded nature of religion that Smoley talked about. Moreover, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it, "There is a God-shaped hole in the heart of each man" -- something that innately makes us seek out meaning in the universe and find our place within it. Just look at the fanatical stridency of woke leftist politics -- people might be abandoning traditional religion, but they just can't shake that primal religious impulse.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that the Christian story scratches that "God-shaped" itch for me, at least more satisfactorily than any other religious contraption I've come across -- though Taoism comes awfully close.

Also, I've had too many inexplicable experiences in my life to let myself become a pure materialist. I do think there's more to this universe than meets the eye, and I think it would be arrogant to simply assume that what we can perceive with our senses and calculate with our rational minds is all there is.

And I guess that, like a lot of people, I just need that spiritual grounding to check myself once in a while. I need the reminder, in a world that tells you to get what you can with little regard for anyone else, that we're all in this together, and that love and humility go a lot further than hatred and pride do. Other people can be in it for whatever reason they choose, whether it's to fulfill some kind of legal transaction between themselves and God, or to stay out of hell, or to use the Bible to condemn others, or whatever. I just want to focus to the best of my ability on the love, mercy, compassion, and forgiveness that Jesus taught. I want to follow his example the best I can. I need the reminder to love my neighbor, pray for my enemy, turn the other cheek, help the less fortunate, and do to others what we want done to us.

I also feel the need to cultivate the kind of faith and humility his Mother Mary exemplified. And I desire a God who looks like the reconciling, forgiving father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. I don't know if he's out there, but I sure hope he is. Otherwise, this universe would be a pretty sad joke indeed.

And so I keep on going to church every week, and I continue to find comfort in the rituals and the beauty of the Mass and the comforting words. I feel a peaceful buzz after leaving a good service. It's hard to explain, but I feel calmed and renewed and reassured.

It helps that my wife is willing to go to Mass with me now. She said today that she finds it meditative. She's never going to become a believing Catholic, and I'm OK with that. I'm just thrilled to have someone supporting me on my ongoing journey -- as I've always tried my best to do for her. I find her pagan interests pretty darn cool and inspiring, especially as they illuminate for me a sense of the divine in the natural world and help me connect more deeply to the Sacred Feminine -- that, and the Tao Te Ching is seriously the most amazing book I've ever read. We still complement each other spiritually, and I hope we always do. Mary and Jesus are my spiritual yin and yang.

And I heartily believe that people often come into your life just when you need an answer to something. Case in point: The church we've been attending is home to a priest in his late 50s who was just ordained earlier this year. And I love his homilies. He has a very personable touch, and he makes the stories of the scriptures come to life, in a dynamic way that makes them very relevant to modern life. I think a large part of what makes him so personable is that he led the life of an everyday person before he joined the priesthood. He was married, for one thing. Taking marriage advice from a celibate man who was never married has always been a hard pill to swallow when it comes to Catholic priests, yet here's a guy who actually lived the married life in the real world, just like so many of us sitting out in the pews. Turns out he wanted to be a priest when he was young, but his life took another turn, and he ended up marrying. Then his wife died from cancer, and before her time came she encouraged him to follow the dreams of his younger days.

That part of his story has stuck with me as I've tried to work through the problem of suffering in a universe with a loving God. Our priest could have grown bitter when he lost his wife, wondering the same things about where God's love and mercy went. But instead of abandoning his religion, he threw himself headlong into it and became a priest! Now if he can do that, then surely I can work through my own doubts and questions.

And wouldn't you know it -- in today's homily, Father made the point that we gather together at church so we can have a place to work out our faith together. He's not the kind of fire-and-brimstone priest who rages about what's wrong with the world and will remind you of why you're going to hell if you don't do this or that. Not at all. To the contrary, today he made the point that no one expects any of us to have all the answers. And that's why we come to church -- so we can lean on each other and explore our beliefs and press deeper into the questions we have even as we wrestle with them, all in a supportive environment that will lift us up when we need it.

I nearly broke into tears when he was saying all this, because it seemed that once again the universe was giving me just what I needed to hear, when I needed to hear it. I don't need to have all the answers, and in fact it's OK not to. The point, Father said, is to have faith anyway, trusting that things will work out the way they're supposed to.

It's funny, too, that I consider myself a pacifist, and here I am admiring the spiritual leadership of a priest who was also a Marine before he became a priest. I bristle at the very thought of militarism, and yet here I am. If God is out there, he sure does have a good sense of humor -- and quite a knack for cultivating humility in the parts of our lives that need it the most.

I don't have a clever Christmas analogy to work into any of this. I guess I could say that it's nice to be able to hold on to some much-needed spiritual illumination at a time when the Christ child is soon to bring light into a world filled with darkness. That would be a sort of cheesy thing to say, wouldn't it?

And yet there it is.

A blessed Christmas to one and all.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Advent Journal: An Uncomfortable Reflection in the Mirror

In the years my wife and I were vegetarians, we received frequent unsolicited opinions about our diet.

Humans are designed to eat meat. 

You won't get enough protein. 

Surely you eat fish, right? How about chicken? 

I could never give up meat.

How do you find enough to eat?

Those were the more innocuous comments. They got worse:

You know, plants have feelings too. A carrot screams when you rip it out of the ground.

Do you wear leather shoes?

Mmm, look how good this steak is. Want a bite? Cows are delicious!

After a while, you get numb to the mockery. But you also realize that the rudeness comes from a place of vulnerability, because your dietary choices hold up a mirror to the food other people consume without thinking about it. And it's easy not to think about what's on your plate, because we're disconnected from our food. We no longer hunt and process our own meat. We don't see the inside of a slaughterhouse. We only see the nice, neatly packaged burgers and T-bones in the cooler at the grocery store. So after a while, I (mostly) stopped taking offense at such comments and realized that, even though I was never an in-your-face vegetarian, the things I chose to eat -- and not to eat -- uncomfortably pricked at the consciences of some onlookers. And sometimes people lash out when you make them uncomfortable about their choices.

Those old comments came rushing back to me yesterday when I saw a Facebook post about a church that had taken its Mary, Joseph, and infant Jesus nativity figures and placed them in metal cages, all separated from each other -- an obviously pointed commentary on the nature of ICE detentions of migrants at the southern U.S. border. The comments spoke volumes about just how uncomfortable the display made a lot of people.

This is blasphemy! Don't politicize Jesus!

Let these people come back legally. If they break the law, they get what they deserve.

Jesus and his family didn't enter Egypt illegally. It was part of the Roman Empire.

The Holy Family weren't refugees! They were going to Bethlehem for the census! [Yes, I'm aware Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The flight to Egypt came later, when Herod sent out an order to kill all male children. Are you telling me you're not aware of this scripture passage?]

The people at our borders are drug runners and violent criminals. 

These people just want to come over here and get free handouts. 

What kind of irresponsible parent would endanger their kids to get to our border?

Let them go back home and fix up their own countries. 

And on and on. From self-proclaimed Christians, mind you.

When I see so many "Christians" acting so un-Christ-like toward their fellow human beings, I think about my dilemma of faith I talked about in my last post, and I wonder why I even bother to stick around. Because let's be very clear about this: Scripture abounds with passages exhorting the people of God to care for the strangers in their midst, not to dehumanize them and find excuses for why we shouldn't have to tend to their needs. Jesus himself says that those who welcome the stranger will be among those he gathers up as his saved flock, and of course the entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan was to impress on the person challenging him that your neighbor is anyone in need, not just people of your own tribe or nation. Jesus deliberately chose a Samaritan to be the good guy in his story, as that choice would have shocked his listeners in his time, since the Jews hated the Samaritans -- almost as much as some people today hate, say, migrants, or Muslims. Yet the hated Samaritan was the one who selflessly stopped to help the man lying along the road, while the good, pious priests and Levites walked right on by. No doubt they may have been thinking "What kind of irresponsible idiot would walk this dangerous road alone from Jericho? He should have expected he'd get mugged." Or "Let someone else take care of him."

That hits home. The nativity figures in cages hold up an uncomfortable mirror to what many American Christians support and defend. And when they lash out and ask if you're going to take care of all the people at our border, their anger leaves them unable to see that that's the exact same argument pro-choicers use against them when they rally against abortion -- "are you going to adopt and feed all those unwanted babies?" For I can assure you that many of the most vociferous anti-migrant voices, ironically, also consider themselves part of the "pro-life" community. Actions always speak louder than words, of course, and if "pro-life" doesn't mean all life, then it really doesn't mean very much.

I say things like this, of course, and right-wing Christians accuse me of being a hardcore liberal -- when all I'm doing is trying to follow the example Jesus set for his followers. In fact, truth be told, I have just as little patience for progressive Christians who constantly let contemporary culture shape their churches, as they try to turn Jesus into some kind of anything-goes hippie. Jesus did preach love of neighbor and enemy alike, of course, but loving doesn't necessarily equal permissive. Feeling out of place in right-leaning churches that had too much anger and too little empathy, I quickly grew weary of left-leaning churches that almost seemed embarrassed to talk about Jesus except as some sort of vague avatar for wokeness, with the result that progressive churches often feel bereft of spirituality and instead sound like some kind of NPR coffee klatch. I don't go to church to hear woke political harangues and endless virtue-signaling. I go for spiritual enrichment. And that's sorely lacking among progressive churches.

Catholic author Peter Kreeft helped me understand my unease with both sides when I read an article of his recently. I've always said that the right has no empathy and the left has no common sense -- and while that's certainly painting in broad strokes, I find it generally to be true. Mr. Kreeft said much the same thing, albeit in nicer terms, when he opined that the challenge for Catholics, and indeed all Christians, is to have a hard head and a soft heart -- for those on the right often have a hard heart to match their hard heads, while those on the left often have a soft head to match their soft hearts. Think of someone like Mother Teresa -- an old, withered lady who was as tough as nails yet would pour her heart into helping anyone in need of aid. When Jesus said we should be wise as serpents yet harmless as a dove, that's what he had in mind.

We can see this more clearly when we stop trying to re-create Jesus in our political image and let his words lead the way instead. That's a tall order for a culture that fits Jesus into its politics rather than the other way around.  But it's the only way we can ever hope to walk in his footsteps and be the light of Christ that the world needs.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Advent Pause: "Do You Believe That I Can Do This?"

You never know what you're going to run across that might dredge up old wounds. For me, it happened during the keeping of my daily Advent journal this year.

In the reading from Friday's lectionary, we come across a Gospel passage that has Jesus healing the sick and even raising the dead. Central to the passage are two blind men who follow him and call out, "Have mercy on us!" Jesus turns to the men and asks them -- and this part is important -- "Do you believe that I can do this?"

"Yes, Lord," they affirm.

In response, he touches their eyes and says, "Let it be done to you according to your faith." And with that, their sight was restored.

Do you believe that I can do this? That's a heavy line, because it places the responsibility for the healing on the person receiving it. There's no question in the story that Jesus can restore sight to the blind if he wants to, but with this statement, Jesus implicitly tells them that he can't heal them unless they first believe he can heal them.

But if all it takes is for us to say we have faith, then if we continue to suffer, does that mean our faith is lacking? Jesus once said that faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains. So if a person fails to achieve the miraculous, does that mean we lack even the smallest semblance of faith?

In that sense, this is a very demoralizing verse, especially as it implicitly blames us for lacking faith if we don't receive the healing we seek. Of course, I'm not the first person to wrestle with the problem of suffering in a world with a supposedly loving God, and I won't be the last. But it's an idea that I continue to struggle with mightily, even as I've tried to deepen my faith and let the teachings I was raised with enrich my life and make me a better person.

Why are some people of faith healed and others not? Why is healing not offered to the innocent suffering? Perhaps my expectations were skewed from having grown up with parents who watched faith healers on the local religious TV station, or from having had a father who attended charismatic prayer services with laying on of hands, or from having had a girlfriend whose parents were Pentecostals who staunchly believed in miracles from the hand of God. I've even been to a few tent revival-type services with other people where folks were streaming down to the stage to receive their healings, throwing their suddenly useless wheelchairs and crutches away and bounding back down the aisles with their hands waving in the air, joyously offering their praises to God.

So why would God heal these people, seemingly at random, but deny healing to others? Why would he let children suffer? Why heal something as relatively minor as a limp for someone who comes before a faith-healing evangelist, while a 5-year-old child lay dying in a children's hospital, ravaged by cancer, suffering through the pain of the disease and the treatments, and the fear of death that no child should ever have to think about?

I know all the theological answers.

The Catholic answer to my dilemma is that suffering is redemptive.

The evangelical answer is that suffering came into the world through Original Sin, and now we all suffer its consequences.

Others would remind us that God always answers our prayers, but that sometimes his answer to our request is "no," and we can't always understand why. "God works in mysterious ways," and all that.

Some say that God gives us free will, and to intervene would be to take away our freedom to choose.

I think, too, of the movie The Shack, in which God reminds the dad whose daughter was kidnapped and killed that God is always with us in our times of suffering.

The problem is, all those answers feel like bullshit cop-outs from people who know they have no good answer to the question.

OK, great, God sits with us in our time of suffering. If he can do that, why can't he just end the suffering?

The "free will" answer doesn't cut it, because scripture tells us that God does intervene in human lives by performing miracles.

Original Sin is predicated on a mythological story that was meant to impart lessons about life's struggles. Original Sin didn't bring about sickness and death, as the theologians like to say. We get sick and die not because of the Fall, but because we have organic bodies that malfunction and eventually wear out.

And really, appealing to Original Sin in any of this has to be the worst cop-out of all, as it implies that innocent children suffer because of something their ancestors did. In more fundamentalist circles, this view actually leads to the justification of casual abuse against children -- when the baby won't stop crying, it's OK to smack the "little sinner" into silence.

Moreover, equating Original Sin with the suffering of children undermines the very argument so many theologians, especially in Catholic circles, try to make. When you say it's unjust that we should carry the guilt of our ancestors' transgressions, the theologians will be quick to correct you that we don't bear the "sin of Adam," only a mysterious "stain" on the soul that has to be removed in baptism, lest a child be sent to hell. But for what reason would the child be sent to hell, if indeed the child is not guilty of anything? And if they're not guilty of anything, why would they be allowed to suffer?

When I hear stories of children being sexually abused, starving to death, or slowly and painfully dying of a terrible illness, I have a hard time finding any redeeming qualities in their suffering. What greater good could possibly come from a child's suffering? Why allow an innocent child to come to harm to prove some kind of divine point? And if even the tiniest bit of faith can move mountains, yet even the prayers of the faithful parents of these suffering children don't change a child's fate, then is Jesus implying in today's reading that it's the parents' fault for not having enough faith? It sure seems like it.

The same applies, of course, to all who suffer. What lesson are we to learn from the fact that a God of love allows hunger, homelessness, rape, and murder? What lesson were we to take from the murder of 6 million Jews in Nazi Germany? Why allow innocents to die in terrorist attacks and natural disasters?

Likewise, what lesson was I to take when I was physically and emotionally abused by my birth mother before my grandparents adopted me away? Why did God tell me no when I begged on my hands and knees, tears streaming down my face, to please take away the debilitating panic attacks that would roll on for days, sometimes weeks, from my teens into my early twenties? Where was God's love when I was pacing the floor during sleepless nights, feeling like a nervous wreck, when my health started to fail a few years ago and no one could tell me what was wrong? I was terrified for the well-being of my wife and daughter in my absence, for I was convinced I was going to die. It was that bad.

And still, no miracles for me. Two blind men were given back their sight simply for saying they believed Jesus could heal them. What about the rest of us who have offered up our faith? Was it worth nothing? Is God love, or isn't he? Because, as a parent, I couldn't sit back and watch my own daughter suffer. I would intervene. I would help her in any way I could. Because that's what a loving parent does. He doesn't sit back and watch his child suffer. That's not love.

It's not a sign of love when a little girl is being molested by her father and calls out for God to help her as she cries herself to sleep every night, despairing of the nightmare that seems to have no end. Knowing that God is with her in her suffering, as The Shack would remind us, doesn't make me feel a whole lot better about what seems like divine capriciousness at best, and divine negligence at worst. If someone were sexually assaulting my daughter, I wouldn't just sit there with her and hold her hand, letting her know I still loved her and everything was going to be OK. That's ludicrous.

This is where the philosophy of Taoism holds a massive advantage over the idea of a benevolent God that paradoxically allows suffering. Taoism, as seen in the symbolism of the tai chi symbol representing the interplay of yin and yang, simply observes that there can be no good without evil, no sickness without health. The opposites define each other, and one could not exist without the other. This is the opposite of a dualistic mindset that would have us believe the pursuit of good can somehow eliminate evil. It may indeed be beneficial to pursue the good, but perhaps true peace comes not from defeating evil but from the acceptance of the idea that even if I pursue good to the end of my days, it will never make bad go away -- and, more to the point, that bad even can be eradicated.

Maybe it's worth considering that people just get sick because they get sick. Not so God can remind us that he's in charge. Not because someone is suffering the results of their karma from a past life. But just because this is how nature operates. Maybe it's enough to simply say that some people do terrible things to other people. We may say it's because they're not in harmony with the Tao, or we may look for other answers, or none at all.

I love the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount. But there are other teachings and beliefs that I'm just not sure I can reconcile. "Do you believe that I can do this?" Yes, I do, but my belief has never brought me any healing. As for the implication that if I don't receive healing it's my own fault, well, that's just too much of a guilt trip for a chronically ill person to deal with. It just seems cruel and mean. I find no divine love in those words. And as a result, I am left adrift with some questions to explore and some serious soul-searching to do as this Advent season unfolds.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 5: The Will of the Father

Readings: Isaiah 26:1-6, Matthew 7:21, 24-27.

Today's Gospel reading picks up at the tail end of the Sermon on the Mount. Just after telling the assembled crowd to be on guard for false prophets who come as wolves dressed in sheep's clothing, Jesus warns that "not all who say to me 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven."

The obvious question the reader is left to ponder is, what is the Father's will?

Let's start by looking back at today's first reading, from Isaiah. It concludes in this manner:

"Trust in the Lord forever! For the Lord is an eternal rock. He humbles those in high places, and the lofty city he brings down; he tumbles it to the ground, levels it with the dust. It is trampled underfoot by the needy, by the footsteps of the poor."

Now, if that doesn't mirror Mary's Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke, I don't know what does. In a passage so socially subversive that its public recitation has been banned more than once, for fear that it could spark revolt, Mary proclaims of that same God:

Ben Wildflower
"He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate. He has filled the hungry with good things and has sent the rich away empty."

Do you see a theme here? God takes the side of the lowly over the powerful, and that was the message Christ came to deliver to the world. He even lived out that message, by embracing the poor, the sick, the hated, the forgotten, the powerless -- everyone on the margins of society.

This is the point the scriptures try to drive home to us, over and over. We're less than a week into Advent, and already I feel like a broken record. This is how followers of Christ set themselves apart from the world. Not by condemning people for living imperfect lives. Not by giving comfort to those in power. Not by supporting vengeance and violence. Not by oppressing the poor. Not by demonizing the homeless and the migrant. No. Instead, "they will know us by our love for one another."

Indeed, Jesus tells us that we'll be able to pick out those false prophets, the wolves in sheep's clothing, by what comes out of their mouths. "By their fruits you will know them," he promised. I don't think I need to point out just how many so-called Christians you meet in the world today who talk of how in love with Jesus they are but then fail to act the least bit Christ-like. While certain corners of Christianity obsess over other people's private sex lives, support cuts to social programs and services, or praise war and the vengeance of capital punishment, God must surely be looking down and asking, "What have you done for the poor lately?"

Lest there be any lingering doubt, let's step for a moment into the book of Micah. This is a gem of the Old Testament, wherein we find the author reproaching leaders for their unjust actions while embracing the outcasts and the afflicted and defending the poor against the rich and powerful -- much like a certain Jesus of Nazareth some 700 years later.

In Chapter 6, God chides his people for falling short after all he's done for them. Micah, in turn, wonders what the people can do to make things right with the Lord. Is it sacrifice he wants? No. He's not going to let the people get off that easily. He wants not burnt offerings but a transformation of the heart. And what does that look like? Micah tells us:

"And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

That's it. That is the will of the Father. To dispense humility, mercy, and justice -- not the justice of retribution, but social justice for "the least of these."

This should not surprise us. That God will pull down the powerful and raise up the lowly was a theme that ran straight through Jesus' ministry. "The last shall be first, and the first shall be last," he promised. And so it should be for us -- speaking truth to oppressive power structures through acts of quiet subversion that lift up those who have been exploited, who have fallen through the cracks, who have nothing. They are Christ in our midst. Not the powerful. Not the political leaders or captains of industry. Everyone already sings their praises. But who will be the voice for those who have none? That's where Christ comes in, with all of us following faithfully in his footsteps.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 4: Who Feeds the Hungry?

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10, Matthew 15:29-37. 

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours.
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good.
Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands,
Yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes,
You are his body.
Christ has no body but yours.

That inspiring quote has often been attributed to St. Teresa of Avila, though it appears nowhere in her writings. (And I'd know, because I have all her writings.) But she would no doubt have agreed with the general sentiment -- even though any Catholic would tell you that Christ does still have a body on Earth, in the form of the consecrated Eucharist.

In any event, it reminds me of another old quip, wherein a man looks around at all the suffering in the world and thinks to ask God, "Why don't you do something about this mess?" But then he decides not to ask, because he's afraid God will ask him the same question.

Those thoughts came to me as I was reflecting on what to say about today's Gospel reading. The feeding of the multitudes is the only one of Jesus' miracles recorded in all four Gospels, and Matthew and Mark mention two such occurrences. So it would seem that these events are ones that the Gospel writers wanted us to pay particular attention to.

In today's reading, people come from all around to hear Jesus preaching. The sick were placed at his feet, and he healed them all, making the lame walk and the blind see, and all those present praised the God of Israel for his love and mercy. The crowds remained with him for three days, after which Jesus wanted to feed them all before they dispersed, concerned that they may collapse of hunger if they were to leave with their stomachs empty.

The disciples, always seeming to fail to understand that Jesus can do anything he wants, look on incredulously and ask how they could ever hope to feed so many people -- 4,000 in all. (Actually, 4,000 men, "besides women and children," because the Gospel writers were of an age when men counted more than women and children.)

Jesus, no doubt resisting the urge to facepalm, turns to the disciples and asks how many loaves of bread they have. "Seven," they tell him, "and a few small fish."

So Jesus blesses the loaves and fishes, gives them to the disciples, and has them distribute the food to the crowd. The thousands there all ate until they were satisfied, and after they left, the disciples picked up seven baskets full of leftover bread.

There are many lessons to be taken away from this passage. The most obvious is that Jesus can perform miracles, offering further evidence of his divinity. That's the surface reading. Also present is the message that God will provide in abundance to those who are faithful and trust in him -- a nod, perhaps, to the days when God rained manna down from heaven to feed the Israelites in the desert. And there may also be a foreshadowing of the Last Supper. If so, it's notable that Jesus fed everyone who came to hear him without discrimination -- a marked contrast to the Catholic Eucharist, which the church keeps fenced off from anyone who's not a member of the Catholic church, and even then only to those who are deemed to be in a state of grace. "I am the Bread of Life," Jesus says in the Gospel of John. "I will never turn away anyone who comes to me." Perhaps the church ought to take those words to heart -- but that's a complaint for another time.

But what struck me most about today's reading is that even though Jesus miraculously multiplied the food so that everyone had enough, he made the disciples distribute the food. That may seem like a small point, but I think it would be a mistake to gloss over it, as it speaks to the expectations Jesus had of his followers. In Matthew 25, Jesus separates the sheep from the goats -- the worthy from the unworthy -- according to how they treated those who had nothing. He condemned those who failed to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty. He didn't care about whether his followers went to church, or covered their heads, or said the correct prayers. He only cared about their treatment of "the least of these," for, he tells us, how we treat the lowest is how we treat him. And that's because he sides with the lowly -- the people who have no social standing, those who are poor, the sick, the hated, the condemned. He wants us to see him when we look into the eyes of the homeless man on the corner, or the refugee seeking a better life. And the only way we can do that is to carry on his work, in love and mercy, serving those who have nothing.

Therefore, we are his hands and feet.

Teresa of Avila may not have spoken those opening words, but two of the most revered saints of East and West have expressed similar sentiments for those who would claim to follow Christ.

"Do not grieve or complain that you were born in a time when you can no longer see God in the flesh," St. Augustine wrote. "He did not in fact take this privilege from you. As he says, 'Whatever you have done to the least of my brothers, you did to me.'"

Similarly, in the words of St. John Chrysostom, "If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door, you will not find him in the chalice."

And so it was that, in more recent times, Pope Francis said: "First you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That's how prayer works."

Thus, we become the change we wish to see in the world. And by doing so, we become instruments of God, the hands and feet of Christ himself, carrying out the merciful work of the divine.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 3: The Wisdom of a Child

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10, Luke 10:21-24.

"Stay childlike and be one with Heaven." So says the Taoist sage Lao-tzu in Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching.

In today's Gospel passage, Jesus touches on this idea of the virtue of being childlike in one's faith. He sends 70 emissaries out to several towns to prepare the way for his arrival, instructing them to preach the Kingdom of God to all who will listen, heal the sick in his name, and accept whatever hospitality is offered. Knowing that many will not accept their message, Jesus warns them that he is sending them out as lambs among wolves. Yet upon their return, the 70 joyously exclaim to Jesus that even the demons they encountered along the way were subject to his name.

Jesus in turn also rejoices and says to God, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children."

What does Jesus mean? Well, we know that he chose his inner circle of disciples not from among the great and noble and wise, but from among the common people, and in some cases from the ranks of the rabble and the despised. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were all fishermen. Simon was a zealot, a political agitator. Matthew was a tax collector, a profession that was hated then as much as it is now. There were no philosophers, scribes, or Pharisees among his chosen twelve. No scholars or learned priests. He chose his men over the people that his society would have deemed the wisest.

And what are we to learn from his deliberate choice? Well, Jesus leaves us a big clue in all three of the synoptic Gospels, when he says that to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, one must become as a child. And what is that children don't do that sets them apart from adults? They trust. They're teachable. They're humble -- not yet full of themselves and convinced that they're right and you're wrong, because the world is still full of awe and potential for them.

Jesus saw that same purity of heart in his disciples. They didn't need to be academic geniuses. They only had to let go of themselves and their need to control their environment and the outcomes of the actions of the world. And they needed to do that so they could have faith in the things Jesus taught them. Thus, they were in Jesus' eyes like "little children," not corrupted by what the world would view as wisdom.

Therefore, Sophia, the Wisdom of God as revealed in the Old Testament books of Proverbs, Wisdom, and Sirach, is not the wisdom of book smarts, but of the discernment that comes from humility and faith, from emptying one of oneself. The Zen tradition recounts a story of a scholar who came to visit a great Zen master. The master poured the scholar a cup of tea. But when the cup was filled, the master continued to pour, letting the tea spill out over the table.

"What are you doing?" the scholar demanded. "Can't you see the cup is full?"

"Yes," the master replied. "This cup is like your mind. So full of ideas that nothing more will fit in. Come back to me with an empty cup."

The image of the empty vessel is a cornerstone of Taoist philosophy, since a common understanding of the Tao itself is as a boundless and eternally fruitful emptiness, in the same way as the usefulness of a cup comes from its emptiness. And just as a womb can only be a portal for new life when it's empty, so it is only in emptying ourselves that we can be receptive to the deepest truths of existence. This is what Lao-tzu means when he exhorts us, in Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching, to "give up learning and put an end to your troubles." It's not that worldly knowledge and book smarts are bad; it's that they aren't what true wisdom is about. You won't find your true self, or unlock the secrets of the spiritual world, by sticking your nose in a book. You can only do it by emptying yourself of the things that have filled up your head and left no room for anything else to get in. (That's a piece of advice I need to take to heart myself.)

A similar Taoist metaphor is that of the Uncarved Block, suggestive of the pure state in which we existed before the influence of the world began to chisel away at us and tell us what to believe, what to love, and who we are. Benjamin Hoff explored this idea in his charming book The Tao of Pooh, in which the beloved Bear of Little Brain is likened to that Uncarved Block. No arrogance, no hidden agendas -- just pure, childlike simplicity and wonder. And thus it is that while Lao-tzu in the Tao Te Ching sees people rushing to and fro, busy with their lives and their social obligations, wearing themselves out trying to fit in, he sees himself as drifting along without a care, like a baby, drinking from the breasts of the Great Mother -- the Tao herself.

And that state of being, likewise, is what Jesus is commending in his disciples. In the Gospel of Matthew, he points us toward the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and has us notice how they don't fret about their lives. They don't fill their heads with knowledge. They just exist, not forcing things to happen, going with the flow, and trusting that God will provide for them -- or, in Taoist terms, that the Great Mother will nourish them.

You won't see me quoting Paul very often, but even he often noted that the wisdom of men is but foolishness to God. He understood what Jesus, Lao-tzu, and the Zen masters were saying, separated as they were by cultures and centuries. They even made their points in similar ways. Consider these passages:
  • Jesus, from Luke 10:19, on addressing his childlike emissaries: "I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you." 
  • Lao-tzu, revisiting Chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching, on seeing through the eyes of a child:

    Snakes will not bite, and eagles will not pluck your eyes.
    Though bones become brittle and sinews weaken,
    Spirit is forever robust.

This shared Christian-Taoist-Zen concept of the root of true faith and spiritual wisdom -- a state that arises from clearing out the mental clutter and returning to a state of childlike simplicity -- is probably the reason I've always been fond of the saints known as Holy Fools, or Fools for Christ. These were people who flouted social conventions to mock what most think of as wisdom, exposing the brutality and hypocrisy of a world that claimed to love God but often failed to love one's neighbor when put to the test. In a sense, they became as children to help lead others to the Way.

St. Isadora of Tabenna is one of the earliest recorded Fools for Christ, and I absolutely love her story. She lived in an Egyptian monastery in the fourth century and feigned insanity. She refused to eat with the other sisters, surviving on their food scraps and dirty dishwater. She performed the most menial tasks around the monastery without the slightest complaint and wore an old rag as her head covering. She never acted angrily toward anyone, yet the other sisters treated her with the deepest contempt, often beating her, for no other reason than that she didn't conform to accepted standards of behavior. In this way she followed in the footsteps of Christ, the humble master, who did no wrong yet was mocked and beaten for professing a way of life that flew in the face of social convention, professing love, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation in a world that thrived on hatred, division, and revenge. In other words, he confronted a cruel world as a child would, turning expectations upside down.

One day, a desert monk was given a vision of Isadora, and he went to visit her monastery. When he saw her, Isadora prostrated herself at the monk's feet and asked for his blessing. Seeing her childlike holiness, the monk in turn bowed down before Isadora and exclaimed, "No, venerable Mother, bless me first!" The other sisters, shocked and humbled by this revelation and suddenly ashamed of their abusive treatment of Isadora, begged their forgiveness. But Isadora quietly slipped out of the monastery, never to be seen again.

The lesson that Isadora and all her fellow Fools for Christ wanted to impart was the same one that Jesus expressed when he said that we must become like children to enter the Kingdom. We can't think our way into faith, as an adult would. (The Western church, with its overemphasis on an intellectual approach to the spiritual life, could learn much in this regard from the Eastern church, which is far more content to let the mysteries of faith be the mysteries of faith.) We have to let go of our rationalizations and force our critical minds to let down their defenses.

In a sense, the Fools for Christ set out to achieve the same thing a good Zen koan set out to do -- to so frustrate the logical mind that it eventually surrenders and lets the unfiltered truths of the universe come rushing in, truths that pay no heed to human understanding but work on a deeper, intuitive level. All the great spiritual masters across numerous faith traditions have understood this approach to lead to true wisdom. Jesus just happened to speak it in a language his audience would best understand.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 2: The Mystery of Faith

Readings: Isaiah 4:2-6, Matthew 8:5-11.

Today's Gospel reading is intended to show us the importance of faith, and also to help us see that the path Jesus forged was open to all, not just to his own people.

As Jesus travels through the town of Capernaum, healing the sick along the way, a centurion approaches him and asks if he would heal a servant who was gravely ill. Without hesitation, Jesus says he will come and heal the servant. The centurion's reply suggests that he didn't think Jesus would actually do such a thing for him. This was a man, after all, whose existence was wrapped up in militarism and occupation, in controlling the people -- Jesus' own people, no less -- that the Roman Empire ruled over by force. Humbled by Jesus' gracious response, the centurion utters a phrase that is the basis of what we speak at every Mass, right before we come forward to receive communion:

Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed. 

Moved by the centurion's faith and humility, Jesus announces, "In no one in Israel have I found such faith." While many of his own people challenged and rejected him, here was a pagan military officer who simply took it on faith that Jesus was who he said he was. We, the readers, are likewise encouraged to place such faith in Christ.

Faith has never come easy for me. As attracted as I am to the spiritual life, I struggle to believe the extraordinary claims of religion. When I felt called to come back to my Catholic roots, the old lingering doubts I had were still there, and the only way I could work through them was to mine under the surface of the scriptures for their deeper meanings, while taking the more extraordinary claims on faith to the best of my ability. I suppose the important thing was that I was able to at least keep an open mind -- because as much as I might feel I want to be at times, I just don't have it in me to be a cold, hardened skeptic, like the combative atheist who finds a logical explanation to dismiss any and all supernatural claims.

Maybe it helps that I've heard stories of miraculous healings among those who believe. I'd certainly already come to accept that there might be more to this world than we know from having grown up in a house where just about everybody had some sort of bizarre experience, in the form of hauntings, that couldn't be rationally explained away with ease. And it most definitely helps that I've had my own profound spiritual experience in the presence of the Blessed Virgin, who herself has offered miraculous signs and interventions over the centuries to those who place their trust in her. After all, one could chalk up the story of the sun dancing in the sky at Fatima to pious tradition, yet tens of thousands were there who saw it and testified to the event. Even Pope Pius XII claimed to have seen it from the Vatican. Likewise for the Guadalupe tilma on which an image of the Virgin is said to have miraculously appeared: Scientific analysis has been unable to completely explain the origin of the image, and the cloak on which it appeared, made of simple cactus fibers, should have disintegrated within a few short years. Yet it's still with us, more than 500 years later.

On top of that, bearing witness to the miraculous in their own ways, are the holiest of saints, who have demonstrated the extraordinary ability to levitate and bilocate, who have experienced visions of the divine, who have possessed the gift of prophecy, who have been marked with stigmata, and who could not even be saints had it not been proved to the church's satisfaction that they had performed miracles.

And then there are many, many reports of weeping icons and statues.

And finally, there are the Eucharistic miracles -- the stories of consecrated communion hosts that have taken on actual human flesh and blood, many of them preserved for all to see, and some having survived now for well over a millennium. The Catholic church teaches that the bread and wine, after being consecrated, becomes the actual body and blood of Christ, and these incidents would seem to bear that claim out. Even more compelling is that any time the blood from these Eucharistic events has been scientifically tested, they have all revealed the very same blood type, AB -- which, in turn, happens to be the same blood type found on the Shroud of Turin.

At some point, even the most skeptical person has to look at the available evidence and conclude that either it's all an amazingly elaborate hoax carried out over the centuries or just an extraordinary series of coincidences -- or that maybe, just maybe, there's something going on that the rational mind can't explain. Something that can only be accepted with the faith that there are things bigger than us in this universe, things that we can't hope to ever rationally understand.

That doesn't mean we should shut off our thinking brains and simply regurgitate religious claims without critically examining them. What it does mean is that we should perhaps engage with the world around us as far as our logical minds will allow, and then leave our minds open enough to make a leap of faith if the circumstances appear to call for it. One assumes that's what the centurion in the Gospel of Matthew did when he encountered Jesus in Capernaum. Can we leave ourselves vulnerable enough to do the same, in a rational, skeptical world that would scoff at us for doing so?

That's a question we all have to grapple with. It's a question our priest left us with from his Sunday homily, when he proposed that the tenets of Catholic faith, including the resurrection, are objective truths that we should not be afraid to proclaim to the world. "This is a difficult teaching," as the disciples said in the Gospel of John. It seems too much for the modern mind to accept. Yet the people who knew Jesus firsthand went to their deaths defending their claims of being eyewitnesses to Jesus' own resurrection from the dead. If I were supporting a myth that I didn't literally believe in, I would surely recant before facing painful torture and brutal execution.

It makes you think. It makes you confront things that you might not want to confront. Your rational mind might push back against it all with great force. Yet there are the martyrs, the extraordinary lives of the saints, the Eucharistic miracles, the signs from the Blessed Virgin, all of them testifying in their own ways to some pretty bold theological assertions and challenging us to keep an open mind -- indeed, to ultimately make the same leap of faith the centurion did 2,000 years ago.

I can't say with complete honesty that I can do that on this point in my journey. Yet I also can't dismiss the claims out of hand. And so I sit at the intersection of faith and reason, doing my best to leave myself open to whatever comes my way.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

Advent Journal, Day 1: Questions on the Path

Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Romans 13:11-14, Matthew 24:37-44.

I'm going to try to keep a journal throughout Advent this year, inspired in part by a contemplative, Lectio Divina-focused Advent booklet from Lumen Ecclesiae Press I purchased a while back. As my own spiritual journey continues to unfold, I envision this journal as a place to explore my own thoughts, as well as share any inspirational words that might come to mind, regarding the Blessed Mother, her Son, and the lessons and traditions that have come down to us through the ages regarding this holy time of year.

As the church's liturgical year begins anew, and our family begins our annual tradition of lighting an Advent wreath and filling an Advent calendar full of little toys for our daughter, I feel very fortunate and grateful this year to have my wife and kiddo both coming with me to Mass. The kiddo comes with me sometimes, but my wife was raised without religion. She's always supported me on my spiritual journey, but organized religion has always been a mystery to her. We met at a time when I was exploring traditions outside the one I was raised in, and I've only come back home to my Catholic roots in the past few years, with a new respect for the teachings and traditions that I was lacking in my younger days.

My parents more or less expected me to embrace every word of scripture literally, even as I saw deeper meanings lingering beneath the surface, coaxing me in, waiting to be explored -- meanings that became only more brightly illuminated after my journey through Buddhism, Taoism, and other Eastern paths. Having come out of that experience and back home again, I'm sympathetic these days to the Perennial Philosophy, wherein we all seek the same essential universal truths and realities, only using different traditions to guide us on our way. Christianity -- and, specifically, Catholicism -- works for me as my home base, perhaps because I find it familiar and comforting, yet at the same time my wife and I are having fruitful theological discussions that cross the borders of traditions. She considers herself a Taoist, and so, when time permits, we'll be delving into some books that consider the words and actions of Christ from a Taoist point of view, from The Jesus Sutras to Christ the Eternal Tao.

For my part, I love the simplicity and nature-emulating philosophy of the Tao. The Tao Te Ching is probably my favorite book of all time. I've found commonalities between the Tao and my understanding of God, between the teachings of Lao-tzu and the do-unto-others, care-for-the-poor, turn-the-other-cheek message of the Sermon on the Mount. I hope I can help my wife see some of those commonalities as time goes on.

Her struggle, as we attend Mass together, is simply accepting some of the claims that Christianity asks us to accept. And that's not an easy thing to do. Heck, I still struggle with them, and I've been at this since I was a kid. That's why I was always looking beneath the surface of the words, convinced that there had to be deeper meanings that the literalists were overlooking. For example, what does it really mean to rise from the dead? What does it mean to be a Son of God? Is the Kingdom of God really within us, and if so, how does that recontextualize the ideas of heaven and hell? Are they states of mind on this earth, and is that what Jesus was trying to tell us? Do we reach heaven through the Orthodox teaching of theosis, wherein we take up our cross in imitation of Jesus and, in doing so, become more like God every day, through great struggle and faith and sacrifice? Is Mary our greatest human example of theosis? To become by grace what God is by nature, do we follow her example of faith and humility?

These are some of the questions I contend with on my faith journey. And it's perhaps good that I do, because if I were a literalist like my parents were, my wife would have probably have no interest in accompanying me on my way. Nor would I blame her. Fundamentalists of all stripes are difficult to deal with, whether in religion, politics, or anything else. Some people have all the answers and expect others to bow to those answers. Me? I'm content to embrace the questions, to wrestle with the whys and hows of faith, religion, and spirituality -- to encounter the stories from historical, symbolic, and psychological perspectives. How do we let these stories break into our lives and transform us? How can they make us better people? More generous, more loving, more kind, patient, tolerant? Because if they don't do those things, what's the point?

And this is where my wife and I find common ground. If Jesus is just reduced to a free ticket to heaven, it asks no sacrifice of his followers. It doesn't challenge us to transform ourselves, to step out of our defensive posture against the world where we see others as threats and enemies, to take up our cross and follow him. If we can't see the image of God in our neighbor, and treat him as such, what have we gained? If the only point of any of this is to get a reward -- or, worse, to avoid punishment -- it seems we've missed the point. Because if we're so focused on our destination in the next world, then we miss the work that needs to be done in this world, right here, right now, where we need to be the hands and feet of Christ to a world in dire need of more love, mercy, charity, and compassion.

I recently told my wife that I don't see Christ in probably 75% of American Christians, and I think it's because of this focus on eternity over the here and now. Combine that with the idea of "once saved, always saved" -- definitively not a part of Catholic or Orthodox teaching, mind you -- and you end up with people who have no motivation to do anything Christ-like in this world. Get your salvation and coast till you die, and who cares about anyone else?

Not that I'm a perfect exemplar of what Jesus called us to do in caring for "the least of these" in Matthew 25, but I'm aware that he said what he said for a reason. This is what he expects of those who follow him. It's all laid out there and in the Sermon on the Mount, as well as in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he makes it clear to the lawyer challenging his words that anyone in need is our neighbor, not just your friends, your relatives, your countrymen, your fellow Christians. If you love only those who already love you back, Jesus said, what have you gained? The challenge is to stretch ourselves, to expand our love and charity to all, to embrace those on the margins, to love the unlovable. Why? Because that's how the world gets better, and that's how we become more like Christ and more like God -- for God is love. Not a God with conditions. Not "God is love, but...". The God that Jesus proclaimed is like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son, welcoming us home without condition, no matter how much we may have messed up in the past. There is no condemnation, only reconciliation and mercy.

Someone in a Facebook group I belong to noted recently that "love is the razor that cuts the Gordian knot of scriptural interpretation." Truer words were never spoken. We can use scripture as a weapon to bludgeon people with, or we can use it to cultivate the humility within ourselves to serve others with love. Our ego rails against such an idea, yet it seems obvious that that is precisely what we are called to do. Not to say the right prayers in the right order, or to receive communion in the proper posture, or to put a veil on your head, or to condemn others for the specks in their eyes when we all have planks in our own. It is to love others as we would want to be loved. That's a tall order, but anything less leaves the world unchanged, and ourselves untransformed. The Kingdom of God has to dwell in our own hearts before it can flourish in the world.

The first reading in Mass today came from Isaiah, wherein the prophet foresaw an age when the people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and nation will not take up arms against nation anymore. This world, Isaiah promised, will unfold with the arrival of the Prince of Peace. That person came to us 2,000 years ago, showing us the way to peace, both in our hearts and in the world. But we didn't listen. His enemies silenced him by crucifying him, and we continue to silence him when we choose violence and retaliation over nonresistance and love of our enemies. Wars would be fought no more if we only stopped to realize that if we truly loved our enemies, it would be impossible to kill them. If we see the image of God in other human beings, how could we ever think of bringing harm to any of them? How could we write refugees off as invaders and the homeless as freeloaders? We couldn't, because when we confront the question the lawyer asked Jesus -- who is my neighbor? -- we could only ever respond to our brothers and sisters in love and charity. No, it's not always easy, but again, it's what we are called to do. Otherwise, Jesus' message for the world was no different from that of any other prophet down through the ages.

These are the thoughts my wife and I will ponder as Advent unfolds. We'll also be pondering the idea of objective versus subjective truth, which is something our priest touched on today in his homily. He definitely gave us some things to meditate on. I'll touch on those ideas in the days to come.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Of Signs, Coincidences, Telling the Difference, and Letting Things Come As They Will

My favorite icon! Sophia,
Wisdom of God, Kiev
Starring Mother Mary.

That's what I'd written on the side of the big, heavy, slightly dented-in box sitting in the basement of our new house. I was either feeling cranky, tired, or irreverent the day I pulled out the Sharpie for that box. The past year or so has been such a blur -- packing the old house, doing repairs before listing it, making the six-hour drive to look at new houses, buying the new place, and juggling unboxing with repairs and work here -- that it's hard to tell what my mindset might have been that day.

But boy, it sure is true. I do have a lot of "altar crap." I didn't realize just how much until I started wrapping up all my spiritual books, baubles, and statues at the old place. Years' worth of accumulation. Darn near enough to fill a church. And now, as I finally start unboxing them, I'm getting a chance to see, after being disconnected from all of it for a few months, what I really missed and what I can probably do without. The stuff that moves me when I see it will be a good candidate for my chapel-under-construction in the attic, three floors up. (Lord have mercy.) As for the rest, well, it's a good thing we have a lot of resale shops around here.

One of the first things that caught my eye as I rummaged through my stuff was this little round wooden box with the peace sign on top. Hmm. What did I fill this with?

Oh, boy. At least half a dozen little plastic rosaries, two brown scapulars, and my 108-bead Buddhist mala. If this box doesn't illustrate what a crazy spiritual journey I've been on, I don't know what will.

I've never had the heart to get rid of the mala. It's been with me for a long time. The rosewood possesses delicate and lovely scent, and it always relaxed me to bring the beads up to my nose for a quick whiff back in the days when I attempted to meditate. Some of the beads have cracked and been reglued. I once even sent the whole thing away to have a new red tassel put on when the old one became frayed and dingy, mostly from all the contact it made with the things around me as I wore it wrapped around my wrist -- which was most days.

The rosaries were either given to me by well-wishers on my return to the Catholic church or were ones I picked up from the free-take-one baskets at a few churches I visited. Sometimes I'd like the color. Sometimes I found a color I thought my daughter would like. Most of them ended up in drawers, forgotten.

Then there are the brown scapulars. I was visiting a Latin Mass church one time -- I can't even remember why -- when the priest announced that the parish had received a delivery of scapulars, handmade by Carmelite sisters in Valparaiso, Nebraska. At the end of the Mass, congregants were invited to kneel at the communion rail while the priest would place a scapular on us and invest us in the brown scapular confraternity.

Now, given that the contemplative practices of the Carmelites, like Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, were one of the things that drew me back to Catholicism, and given that my spirituality was and is very Marian, investiture seemed like a no-brainer. Tradition holds that Mary herself gave the brown scapular to St. Simon Stock, appearing to him in 13th-century England, and told him that those who wore it would be saved.

Wearing the scapular marks you as devoted to Mary, particularly as Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and that if the person combines wearing the scapular continuously with a certain set of devotions -- daily recitation of the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example, or fasting and abstaining from meat two to three times a week -- then Mary would reward the wearer's faithfulness by rescuing the person from purgatory the first Saturday after his or her death.

As the Catholic church is quick to explain, the scapulars aren't meant to be lucky charms. It's the piety and devotion that comes with wearing them that confers the spiritual benefits.

One of my favorite Marian quotes, from a 1988 apparition.
So I wore mine faithfully, and I kept the suggested fast days for a good while. After some time, the scapular got frayed and dingy -- a lot like the red tassel on that mala of mine -- and I eventually bought a replacement scapular. It's not the particular scapular that's invested with the prayer, but the wearer -- so you can replace your old scapular with a new one and still have all the benefits and blessings of being part of the confraternity.

But at some point, both the new and old scapulars got set aside, for reasons I no longer clearly remember. And now, with my rekindled Marian devotion, I decided to put one back on when I found them both inside this little wooden box.

And here's where the story gets interesting. (I promise I have a point here.) I wasn't sure which scapular I wanted to put on, so I tried them both. I pulled out the old, ragged, and slightly smelly scapular -- the original one -- thinking back to when I was invested in the confraternity, and put it around my neck. And for no reason whatsoever, I felt a slight heaviness forming around my neck, coupled with a tinge of mild anxiety.

Wow! I wasn't expecting that. I took it off, and the feeling disappeared.

For curiosity's sake, I pulled out the replacement scapular and put it on. No heaviness around my neck, and instead of anxiety, I felt a gentle rush of calm and relaxation.

Now, understand that I didn't put either one on with any expectation of having a psychic reaction of any kind. The fact that I did tells me something about the power of the scapular and the prayers given to the person invested in it. I didn't question my experience and went with my intuition, which told me to choose the new scapular. Maybe the old scapular is holding a lot of the anxiety I felt when I was wearing it. Maybe it was happy to be retired and replaced. But for now it's back in the wooden box. As with the mala, I don't have the heart to throw it away.

Soon to be unwrapped and put on display.
Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
The funny thing about that experience is that I've always been the kind of person who asks for signs, and then gets discouraged when none are forthcoming. In this case, I didn't even ask for a sign, but it seems as if I got one anyway. I don't know what to think about that. Are my intuitive senses sharpening? Am I getting more tuned in to the sacred through Mary?

I don't have any answers at this point, but it's notable to me that I had that experience just one day after I got another unexpected sign. On Sunday morning, I knew I wanted to attend a service somewhere, but I left home not really knowing where I felt like going. I told my wife I'd decide on the way and let her know, so she could have an idea of when I'd be back.

As I drove, I narrowed down my choices to St. Thomas the Apostle, a lovely Novus Ordo Catholic church in Coeur d'Alene, or Saints Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Catholic Church over in Spokane Valley, about half an hour past CDA. As I was driving down I-90 and looking around in the car for a particular religious medal to keep in my hand, I suddenly caught a whiff of something. I stopped what I was doing and took another sniff. It was the unmistakable smell of the incense the priest uses at the Byzantine Catholic church. I know that smell because I love it. Eastern Catholics love their incense almost as much as they love their icons and chanting "Lord have mercy."

Again, I wasn't actively looking for a sign at that moment. Instead, the sign came to me. I took it for what it was, headed off to Saints Cyril and Methodius, and told my wife I'd be home around 1:30 that afternoon.

I never did find the medal I was looking for, but I did unearth a little Padre Pio chaplet rosary, with a medal of the good father on one end, and another medal of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the other. That would be good enough to drop into my pocket and keep me company during the morning's Divine Liturgy.

Getting down to business
Now that I've found The Way of the Rose -- a group of spiritual folks who center their spirituality around praying the rosary to Our Lady, in whatever form she takes for the people in the group -- I'm looking for a rosary from my considerable stash that I can connect with. One of my favorites has long been the jujube wood rosary I bought a few years back at Kaufer's, a Catholic religious-goods store in Seattle. (Happily, Spokane has a Kaufer's too.) The beads are big and chunky, and the rope between the beads is thick and strong. It's durable, it's very pretty, and it always feels good in my hands. Plus, I have a lovely zipper bag to keep it in, adorned with an image of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

Jujube rosary and OLPH bag; Cataldo rosary.
But then there's the rosary I picked up recently out at the Cataldo Mission gift shop. The mission, now situated on a state park, is the oldest standing building in all of Idaho. It once served as a frontier post for the Jesuits to minister to the Indians who lived there. The rosaries on sale there are pretty simple, with a plastic center medal, a plain bronze cross (not a crucifix), and colorful little clacky beads -- ceramic of some kind, I guess -- that roll nicely under the fingers. Cheaply made, but individually handmade, and that counts for something. I'm thinking of swapping out the existing cross for a Brigid's cross, and the plastic medal with something Marian and beautiful. But we'll see. I'm no good at cutting apart and re-threading rosaries. I've tried, and it didn't end well.

Episcopal chaplet with Holy Family; prayer rope;
Prayer Rule of the Theotokos.
I've also uncovered my Orthodox prayer rope -- good for saying the Prayer Rule of the Theotokos -- and a beloved 33-bead chaplet rosary with a Celtic cross, also one of a kind and handmade, that I bought at an Episcopal church gift shop. (It's designed to say a specific kind of Episcopal prayer, one that borrows heavily from popular Orthodox devotions.) I slept with that rosary clutched in my hand for many a night, when I was going through the worst of my health bouts, and it brought me some semblance of peace and comfort.

The way things are going lately, I figure one of the rosaries will call out to me when it's ready to.

Our Lady of Seattle.
Proceed with caution
At the same time, discernment is important, and I suppose you have to be careful to determine when something might be a sign and when it's just an interesting coincidence. For example, after expressing my Marian spirituality in my last post, I had a few chance occurrences that seemed to want to point me back to a conventional understanding of Mother Mary. One came from within a huge Catholic missal I was leafing through. The odds of landing on the theological note I read about Mary, in a book of 1,900 pages, seem vanishingly remote. Later, while reading an article on the relationship between Mary and the Holy Spirit, a key line from the Magnificat leapt off the page at me, one that put my confirmation biases to the test.

Both of these events would have me see Mary as the church sees her. What do I do with that? I'm just going to let Mary tell me in her own way, on her own time. If the signs keep coming, I suppose I'll have no choice but to take them as a nudge to pay attention.

The first Mary to summon me,
from Blessed Sacrament Church.
While rummaging through all my "altar crap," I came across a praying Mary statue that will fit nicely in a little alcove in our dining area, along with postcards of the two Mary statues back in Seattle that set me on my current path. One of the postcards shows Our Lady of Seattle, the century-old wooden figure of Mary that imparted an overwhelming message of love to me when I made contact with it. The other shows the statue at Blessed Sacrament Church, the one I kept looking over at while I, newly returned to Catholicism, huddled with a prayer team at a "Mercy Night" program in hopes of finding a way to strengthen my faith. Mary seemed to be calling me over for a chat that evening, and that's just what I did a little while later. That's how our new mother-child relationship got rolling.

I figure if I put those cards out, along with some candles and the praying Mary statue I found -- giving myself a temporary prayer nook till I can put my attic chapel together -- maybe I can tune in even better to what Mary is trying to say to me of late. Whatever it is she wants me to know, it seems to be important. She's been concerned with my spiritual well-being ever since I came back to the Christian path. And she hasn't led me astray yet.

Whether she gives me more indications of seeing her within her traditional role in the church, or whether she shows me something that centers her as the portal for my experience of the Sacred Feminine, I'll listen. I think she gives her children what they need from her. So we'll see where this latest chapter leads.

I'm all ears, Mom.