Thursday, May 23, 2013

The Risen Christ in Our Lives

This week it’s something different. Geoff Wood is someone whose writings are little known to the general population. He writes for his parish in Sonoma, CA, and I’ve spent a wonderful morning speaking with him. He writes a weekly reflection on the Sunday Gospel. This reflection is for the Gospel for this Sunday (John 15: 12-15), when Thomas learns more than his pessimism might allow for. Geoff’s other reflections are online: I decided to substitute this one for mine this week because 1) I can’t think of anything better to say, 2) his words describe something that echoes my own experience, and 3) it’s good to share interesting reflections by other people. On the weekend when we celebrate Buddha’s birthday, the openness of the human spirit to realities thought to be beyond our reach is a good thing to think about.

“I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.”

With startling rapidity the faith of our civilization seems to be slipping away.  As recently as my childhood Catholics and Protestants for the most part didn’t question their creed.  They were born into it and, as they grew up, it was reinforced by a prosperous Church, plenty of priests and ministers, family solidarity.  We had no doubts where we came from cosmically.  The catechisms were full of answers that were easily memorized.  The sacraments were accompanied by gestures that had become habitual, collectively uniform.  Now, I am speaking as an old man; I’m not sure someone born even 30 years ago has had the same experience.  But that’s my point!  Times have rapidly changed.  The ethnic, creedal solidarity we once assumed had been around forever has broken up.  People of different cultural and even global background have become our neighbors.  And then, 300 years of secular philosophies, of the “supremacy” of science over religion have reduced Christ, for example, to another Socrates, at best – and all options seem open as far as what truth might be.
                And so I read today on the Internet a blurb by an ex-Catholic who boasts of his newfound freedom – from the whole “myth” he was taught in his youth.  He doesn’t take the Gospels seriously either literally or metaphorically.  He now embraces an existence (for his kids too?) that stops dead at death!  And yet he’s laughing.  Obviously he has not reached 40 let alone 50.  And he is raising his children as dogmatically in his skepticism even as he was raised dogmatically in Catholicism.  Except again – there’s that Berlin Wall called death that he’ll have to deal with some way or other – or steel himself to it with a display of theatrical defiance?  But is it his fault?  One must admit our Christian tradition shares the fault.  The essence of biblical and liturgical theology poorly taught, poorly understood even by teachers can contribute to disenchantment.  Young people in this day and age and under the influence of bright atheists or agnostics are going to be better impressed.
                But is it, after all, a matter of a better Christian education?   Teaching, be it “literally” or “abstractly” done, won’t be enough.  What has to happen is “conversion”.  This being the Pentecost season, we should be aware that conversion happens when one wakes up one morning a different person, suddenly alive, aware of a spark having been struck in one’s mind, one’s imagination, one’s soul.  The mission of teaching is to arrange the dry grass and wood chips, to strike the flint, to create the spark – in other words educate in a way that allows a tongue of fire to enkindle a blaze of genuine, living faith, hope and love within even possibly a 60 year old Catholic who may have recited his creed his whole life long - but never with a “tongue of fire”.
                “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now.”  Jesus said this at the Last Supper and scholars think he’s foretelling his coming resurrection when he will deepen his disciples’ understanding of what he is all about.  Yet those words are addressed to you too – that if in fact what you have learned about Christ and his mission and origin is still a lot of “information” or piety – then he is telling you there is more to come.  It will not just be a good course in theology.  It will be that waking up one morning aware of a depth and expanse to this universe far beyond the range of any telescope, a sense of a grace permeating creation that becomes a turning point you will never be able to reverse or explain to others.  It means suddenly seeing the risen Christ and dropping to your knees not in a servile way but with astonishment and blurting out: “My Lord and my God.”   - Geoff Wood

Founder's Day 2013

St. John Baptist de La Salle wasn’t always a saint. He was given that title 180 years after he had died. He was made a saint because what he did made such a big difference to so many people, especially people who were involved in teaching and in schools.  And in 1950, on May 15th, he was also made the Patron Saint of All Teachers. He is the one that teachers can pray to for help when they need some help. That is why May 15th is celebrated as Founder’s Day in many Lasallian schools.

     The saintly things that John Baptist de La Salle did were not amazing building projects, impressive miracles, or rousing speeches. He wouldn’t have been on the front page of the newspaper, or be mentioned in a blog, or be a singing sensation, or be part of a famous sports star. Those things may have their value, but most of the people who become famous that way usually aren’t saints, and most saints usually aren’t people who become famous that way.

     Instead, John Baptist de La Salle became famous because he did something that each one of us can do. He decided how he wanted to live his life, what kind of person he wanted to be, and then he followed those decisions. Saints make choices that they follow with stubborn consistency.

At some point in life we all figure something like this out. We have to figure out what direction we want to take. It’s a very basic decision because it’s not so much a decision about a career than it is a decision about our basic direction in life. Some people make it and follow it like a laser beam. Others take a longer time and do it gradually. The deliberate kind of decision is like that of a large whale swimming in the ocean, majestic and focused, slow and deliberate, concentrating on one direction and one direction only. The whale decides to go one way and the rest of the body follows. The alternative is more like a large school of smaller fish, where the final direction comes about because of a thousand little decisions, all of whom seem to be independent and without much direction individually. But because they get multiplied and effect all kinds things around them, it's soon apparent to others that a general choice has been made. Therefore, one small but deliberate decision about our life can lead us in a particular direction. But even if we don't make such a choice, all the little decisions that we make every day, in effect, do the same thing.

     For St. John Baptist de La Salle, he made such decision when he was about eleven years old and decided that he wanted to become a priest.  He stuck to that decision and eventually did become a priest, even though it wasn’t easy. But just when he thought that his life was now set, the whole thing changed. The big and deliberate choices were no longer as important as the small, daily ones. (Researchers  say that an average adult makes up to 35,000 decisions every day.) One set of these small decisions led him to do something that he had never even thought about doing, starting schools, training teachers, and beginning the Brothers Order. He said that God “made it happen in a small, hidden way and over a long period of time so that one decision that I made led to another in a way that I did not foresee in the beginning, until I ended up doing something that I really never thought I would do.”

     That’s a great lesson from De La Salle’s life for this year’s Founder’s Day. What we do with the thousands of decisions that we make every day is actually more influential than the one decision we made when we were much younger. They’re both important, but the ultimate effect of those small daily choices is what brings about our real future, shapes our true character, and defines our lived life. Therefore, things like the virtues and character and a compassionate heart end up being the actual guide for all those small choices. Paying attention to the inside parts of who we are will lead us to much more interesting places and people than paying attention to the outside parts of who we are. That was the experience of St. John Baptist de La Salle, and it can be our experience too.

Happy swimming.

Death and Life - Blessing and Curse

“I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse.
Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live.” 
(Deut 30:19)

This quotation came to mind as I was thinking about the issues surrounding a recent video that was posted by one of our students to express his frustration with those who choose to stereotype others and who use anonymous (or not so anonymous) means to be hurtful and mean, especially via current social media. Another word that might be used to describe the gratuitous, intentional act of demeaning another person is the word “evil” and all that it implies.

While this word may bring to mind images of fierce-looking beings from Gustave Dore’s drawings for Dante’s Inferno, in actual fact some of the more evil people in the world are and have been, to all appearances, the most common of men and women (characters from The Hobbit notwithstanding). It’s only in police photos that suddenly those who commit crimes look glum, expressionless, unappealing and ruffled; sort of like we look when we look at ourselves in the mirror each morning, which in itself is a good reminder that there is this same capacity for evil within each of us, and we neglect paying attention to it at our own peril. “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.” (GK Chesterton)

Traditionally, committing a sin is doing something evil, whether to a smaller degree (venial sin) or to a great degree (mortal sin). The three conditions that are given for deciding whether something is a mortal sin are also good gauges to see whether something is just a really bad thing to do. First, it must be something that is a grave matter, something that has serious consequences and truly breaks relationships with others and with God. Secondly, it must be something that is done with full knowledge, with a clear notion that this is something that will hurt others seriously. Thirdly, it must be something that is done with deliberate consent, with the conscious decision to do something that you know to be bad. The Catholic Catechism gives a straightforward definition: “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbour caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity.” (CC1849) Bad is bad even for the bad, because it is the good that defines our core.

Hiding behind an anonymous identity makes evil easy and even appealing. If others cannot hold us responsible, and if we don’t have the capacity to hold ourselves responsible, then all those hidden parts of our nature, the dark corners where the bad bits dwell, have an opportunity to come out.
Gollum wasn’t a bad guy when he started his life, but things went from bad to worse when what he thought was precious wasn’t, and what he thought was evil wasn’t. That’s the glamour of evil. When rain-water discovers a hole in the roof, it begin to drip into the house and ends up making things quite messy, uncomfortable and finally unliveable for everyone. But some people just get used to it.

The fact is that we have a choice, that we can make a choice. That is what the quotation on top is all about. The fact of being able to choose makes it possible for us to drift towards the evil side of things or to the good side of things. The habits of choice that we develop, drip by drip, shape the character we become. Things like anonymous identities, letters or postings, spoken words (gossip), and the like don’t have to be used for bad things, but they are unfortunately more likely to be used that way. It’s a problem that is related to what the church calls the “Original Sin” that is part of our nature, whereby we are “subject to the laws of creation and to the moral norms that govern the use of freedom.” (CC396) The tendency to doing bad things draws us with a thousand shiny baubles, while that of doing good things seems to require more work. The moral life is not reached for free.

We move our souls each day by the choices we make, online or not, and so change our world and the world of others for good or ill and in ways unknown and unimagined. It pays to pay attention.