Thursday, July 24, 2014

Apathy a Virtue?

Here's a little story from John the Theban, known also to fellow Christians living in the desert as John the Short:
One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, "I will not let you enter." But Abba Isaac persisted saying, "What is the matter?" and the angel replied, "God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother whom you have condemned." Immediately he repented and said, "I have sinned, forgive me." Then the angel said, "Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so." 
If we recognize ourselves in this story, to feel a little pluck at our own consciences, it's because this is hardly an uncommon occurrence. How frequently do we find ourselves in situations where we see something pass before our eyes and immediately pass judgment upon it? Often I find it much easier to see another - a brother Jesuit, a fellow citizen - acting in a way that is contrary to custom and I immediately thrust that person against a rule, or a law, and judge them to be wanting.

Mind you, I'm not advocating some anemic interpretation of the Holy Father's oft-quoted, "Who am I to judge?" line. Too often this has been taken as a warrant to persevere in some "I'm okay, you're okay" mentality, a feel-good response to Rodney King's immortal plea, "Can't we all just get along?"  This story certainly doesn't permit such relativism: in the second line, the narrator acknowledges that this brother was "committing a sin." The story does not deny the reality, or commission of sin. Instead, it forces us to look upon how we respond to sin in the world.

Embedded within this story, I think one can detect an inkling of apathy as a Christian virtue. To be sure, apathy gets a bad rap: the dictionary definition notes it as a "lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern" and offers as synonyms such as lethargy, ennui, and dispassion. Stoic philosophers lauded this as a state of indifference and, truth be told, I think some practitioners of Ignatian Spirituality read indiferencia as though it were a wholly dispassionate stance toward reality. For does not Ignatius counsel in the Spiritual Exercises
For this it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things in all that is allowed to the choice of our free will and is not prohibited to it? (§26)
Is the ideal, then, a sort passivity or aloofness to what passes before us?

Perhaps another way of looking at apathy, at least one more resonant with Christian life, would be to see it not as a "lack of feeling" but as a being so overwhelmed by love that it is hard to be jarred out of it. It's not that one doesn't feel anything but, rather, that one feels God's love so deeply that it's hard to be budged from this position.

In Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, we see just this type of Christian apathy. The Father has two sons who believe their relationship to be governed by economic terms. Especially in our money-conscious culture, the younger son is particularly reprehensible: he wastes money, frittering it away rather than saving it. The older son, by contrast, is adjudged at the least to be sensible: he works hard, puts his time in, and makes a long-term investment in the Father's project.

Yet this parable gives us a glimpse that Jesus' understanding of the Father is quite different from our own. The Father never succumbs to these economically construed relationships. Instead, he loves freely, gratuitously, and prodigally. The Father is so possessed by, so caught up in, a love that is beyond human judgment that (1) he rejoices when his wasteful son returns and (2) goes out to his self-righteous son refuses to come to the party. The Father doesn't play by their rules - he is enflamed by the love of God, by God's generous love, that he is apathetic and unable to be torn away from the love that animates him.

The Father, as a the paragon of apathy, is not bereft of feeling. Quite to the contrary, he is so full of love that he cannot not be swayed from his exuberant demonstration of God's joy and life. Christian apathy has nothing to do with "not caring" and everything to do with loving as God loves and not backing away from it.

Abba Isaac, above, was not summoned to look dispassionately upon a fellow sinner. Nor was he to turn a blind eye. He was, rather, to be an agent of virtuous apathy whose heart and mind were so infused with God's love that loving mercy, rather than judgment, animated his response. Instead of condemning and judging, he was called to charity and service toward his fellow sinner. Likewise Ignatian indifference is not about standing without passion. On the contrary, it is allowing that passion to be channeled by God for God's own greater glory.

Thus Christian loves's challenge to the world: a humanly un-reachable goal of being authentically a-pathetic, "without undergoing change," because one is so caught up in grace that one cannot not love prodigally and act mercifully. I say humanly unreachable because I'm not foreigner to sin and temptation, to failing to live up to this - or any - ideal. Our goal in life is not to be perfect so that God might love us but to love ever more perfectly as God loves us. We are to be in the world what we have received from above, to offer to others what we have accepted, and to grow in Christian apathy enlivened and sustained by God's triune grace. 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Pick it Up and Bead

In the throes of his conversion, as his soul twisted and wrenched toward leaving his old life behind and embracing a new path, Saint Augustine experienced a profound breakthrough. This came, not from dazzling lights or fireworks, but through a single, unseen, voice:
...and weeping in the bitter agony of my heart, suddenly I heard a voice from the nearby house chanting as if it might be a boy or a girl (I do not know which), saying and repeating over and over again 'Pick up and read, pick up and read." At once my countenance changed, and I began to think intently whether there might be some sort of children's game in which such a chant is used. But I could not remember having heard of one. I checked the flood of tears and stood up. I interpreted it solely as a divine command to me to open the book and read the first chapter I might find. (VIII, Confessions)
The book, as you may well have guess, was the Bible. Augustine picked up up. He read. And in reading the words of Saint Paul to the Romans, "all the shadows of doubt were dispelled."

Fra Angelico's "Conversion of St. Augustine"
A recent story carried in the Washington Post (and other papers) reminded me of Augustine's "conversion" story. According to a recent study published in Science, a statistical majority of test subjects found it difficult to be alone with their thoughts for 6-15 minutes. Indeed, the majority of male test subjects preferred to be given low electrical shocks rather than sitting alone with their thoughts.

The results of this study are hardly shocking, especially if you've ever tried to help people learn how to pray. Over and again I hear, "I can't pray! I can't meditate! I'd go crazy if I had to sit quietly for ____ minutes!" The idea of of just sitting frightens many of us and, in our hyper-connected age with sound-alerts and vibrating phones, it's no wonder.

Yet I wonder if we might not adapt the child's voice Augustine heard. Instead of "Pick it up and read" perhaps we might say, "Pick it up and bead." And, by bead, I mean make use of the Rosary.

You know, the Rosary: that thing that hangs from the rearview mirror of countless cars? That thing that snakes around the bottom of your purse or that's shoved to the back of your underwear drawer? That "necklace" people seem to be wearing as though it were a fashion accessory rather than a centuries-old prayer device?

The nice thing about the Rosary, as a prayer aide, is that it gives you something to do: you keep count, there's a definite beginning and ending, it doesn't take terribly long, it's not always easy to do but it is relatively simple.

Almost 100 years ago, the great Jesuit philosopher Joseph Marechal wrote, in The Psychology of the Mystics:
If simple folk be told to make a quarter of an hour's mental prayer, the majority will not succeed; but if they be made to recite the rosary or litanies, or other...devotional exercises, with recollection, there will arise of themselves gently, unconsciously almost, on the concrete basis of the outward prayer, confused but captivating thoughts and affections, much more independent of the formulas recited than one would think. (158)
In other words, Marechal detects the same difficult the authors of the Science article have picked up, but he's offering a different pathway through it. If we need stimulation, it's better to let a person use the Rosary and walk down the well-trod paths of long-memorized prayers. In his estimation, repetition of rote prayers does not hamper or retard spiritual growth but, in fact, actually mark a helpful first step in developing further an interior life.

Prayer, like exercise, develops over time. Just as running a marathon is never easy, neither is sustained prayer ever simple. It takes discipline and effort: we need to discipline ourselves to relax into God's presence and friendship. The Rosary is one tried-and-true way of entering into the spiritual life, a venerable way of calming oneself and allowing the Mysteries of God's salvation to enter our hearts and lives.

"Pick it up and bead, Pick it up and bead." It may be as much the next ad campaign for Hobby Lobby as it is the opportunity for each of us to defy the statistics and enter more deeply into our interior lives.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

On Religious Conflict

I was happy to read a comment left recently by a fellow blogger named Roger who maintains a site entitled Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts. He raises a great, if baffling, question: from whence does the vehemence with which fellow Christians attack one another arise? When two people are bound by a common confession, "I believe in Jesus Christ, the only son of God," what is it that leads to often violent and vicious attacks against one another?

This is not a phenomenon limited to Christians and Roger's concluding question which extends to address religion in general is incisive: Is religious faith always fraught with these kinds of difficulties?

Sadly, as another commenter noted, I certainly don't think this is an issue exclusive to the religious domain. People gathered around a shared center - a business, a team, a political party - frequently profess identical viewpoints and adhere to a common core of beliefs, but these are hardly immune from tremendous conflict. Not even blood-ties are impervious to these feuds, as we find no shortage of stories detailing rifts and rivalries in wealthy families.

Perhaps one way of looking at this issue is to recall that, for an adherent, belief is not simply mental lip-service. That is, it's not simply something one says or nods his head at. Instead, it's a claim about the very nature of reality. If Jesus is the son of the living God, if his life showed us how we are called to live as God desires for us to live, if his crucifixion is symptomatic of our sinful human reaction to destroy and reject what threatens to rouse us from our slumber, and if his Resurrection and sending of the Spirit create in history a new people to live out this revelation...then religious belief isn't about something on paper, it's the very core of one's life. Little wonder the first Christians were called followers of "the Way," for Chrsitian faith is not just about thinking as it, of necessity, is about being and doing.

But it is precisely because it has to be embodied and lived out, enacted on history's stage, that conflict erupts. Each finite being, in striving to live out the core tenets of faith, accents some things more than others. Some are more disposed to contemplation and others to action; some want to stress corporal works of mercy, others spiritual. And, I think, there's space enough in the Church to accommodate all of these. The problem, however, is when one group or faction thinks that its way is the only way. If "I" am unimpeachably right, then anyone who disagrees with me must be wrong and misguided.

To summon an example from a field other than religion, consider the recent case of philosopher Thomas Nagel. Nagel, an eminent philosophy professor at NYU, elicited a furious reaction with the publication of his Mind and Cosmos. Nagel's book questions the sufficiency of certain versions of the evolutionary narrative. By no means does he reject evolution, but he does point out certain lacunae and inconsistencies in certain renderings of the theory. Nagel's suggestion is to expand the framework in which we understand evolution; other academics heaped scorn upon him, one even Tweeting that Nagel's book recorded "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker."

You'd not need to go far to see instances of hostile rivalries erupting between people more united than divided: figure skating, economics, politics, medicine. Rivalry, hardly peculiar to religious traditions, seems to be endemic to the human condition.

Taken from
Jews and Christians hearken back to a shared myth, a story that attempts to explain the structure of reality, in Genesis. There believers detect the core of sin that marks just about all human relations: an inability to be who we are and a strong preference to forge for ourselves our own identities; a drive to grasp for ourselves than to be given from without. This self-assertive grasping creates an economy of rivalry in the world, for if "I am what I have grasped" and another person has two apples and I have but one, am I now less of a person?

It would be interesting to hear from Roger, who is by profession a professor of biologist, if this sort of acquisitive drive is present in animal species? Do they, as we, hoard excessive goods? Animals, it seems, are inclined to live in a homeostatic environment but humans are far less capable: it appears that we are driven to own and control rather than share and live together.

I resonate with Roger's question because I think it scandalous that Christians, those summoned by the Crucified Christ, continue to crucify one another. Followers of Christ who snipe incessantly at one another give witness, not to the Gospel, but to the dark side of sinful humanity. How can we we purport to proclaim God's Kingdom and invite others to join us if we, through our actions, seem more bent on tearing the Kingdom down through malice than in building it up with mercy?

Monday, July 07, 2014

An Unavoidable Temptation

...both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt. ~Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity
When I taught high school, it was not uncommon for students to give voice to their skepticism about religious faith. For many, the question of God's existence remained unsettled. The shadow of doubt cast a deathly pall over their hearts and they suspected that even a shred of doubt, any hint of uncertainty, undermined the whole of religious faith.

Many times, then, did I have recourse to the words above written by a very young Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI. Doubt, for this redoubtable theologian, acts to bind women and men together. Thus it is not a question of whether one doubts - for we all do - but rather how one lives with doubt. The human heart cannot but fail to confront the Unknown and Unknowable in one's life. Either she stands before the Mystery of existence and commends herself to it because she hears, in its silence, an invitation or he stands before it, detecting only silence.

The believer responds to a summons that comes from outside of herself yet seems to well up from her innermost core. She confronts doubt, the possibility of meaninglessness and absurdity, and allows herself to be drawn into the Mysterious abyss. The skeptic, too, faces this doubt yet does not blink. His ultimate commitment of himself is itself the stance of doubt because unable to detect in the darkness any call or invitation.

It is doubt, I'd counsel my sophomores, that prevents the faithful from flying airplanes into buildings. A hyperbolic example, yes, but not untrue. It is the presence of doubt in our lives that forces us to confront our own created nature, our fragility and dependence upon God. When we have eradicated doubt, dispelled the darkness and asserted our mastery over creation, we become Lucifers - light bearers - who illumine creation. Skeptics may cite the Crusades and the Inquisition as an instance of Christianity's depravity. Fair play. Walk, however, the history of the 20th century and behold a trail drenched in blood as we see what happens when humans act solely according to their own lights.

In our lives, we are all of us beset with the unavoidable temptation to purge doubt from our hearts. The result of this becomes a ferocious self-righteousness and a tendency toward violence. It dismays me that fellow Catholics are so quick to unleash torrents of vile, hateful invective against those with whom they share a common baptism. Being so convinced of their rectitude, they see it as part of their holy crusade to belittle and demean others who disagree with them.

This is not the post where I offer a plea for civility. Instead, it is a recognition that we have within the Body of Christ those would bully and belittle fellow disciples while seemingly cloaked in anonymity. I believe it true that "before God there will never be an anonymous hero" (Ante Dios nunca serás héroe anónimo). It's a bitter irony when those who would deem themselves "heroes" do so clandestinely and with invective. Yet, as Jesus reminds us, "nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light" (Luke 8:17). As those of you who read recent comments made on this blog, you'll know that a shadow recently fell upon these pages. You can be assured, though, that through several channels the truth has come to light and the has given a name.

Isn't that right, C. W. K.?

As I said in my comment to him, and I say publicly, it is not my desire to shame or menace this man. As a brother in the Lord, I want to offer mercy and forgiveness. Make no mistake: my desire for mercy does not mean that I will cowtow to the whims of a bully. I want to handle this in an adult, Christian manner. But if I must make public the scurrilous and libelous commentary made, so be it. I should hope it not come to that, but I will not be intimidated.

The world hungers for the Good News of the Gospel, to hear and feel God's Word made alive. We can work together to bring this about, to introduce the world's darkness to Jesus' light, even if we do so in different ways. We can practice what we have received in the Sacraments of the Church: God's free and forgiving love, drawing us together, as a pilgrim people journeying toward the Kingdom.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Go and Learn...

Jesus, in Matthew 9:13, admonishes his listeners:
Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners. 
This is one of those brilliant "bridges" connecting the Old Testament with the New Testament. From Jesus' lips, we hear a prophetic echo: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.

What is this mercy? Is it being nice? Turning a blind eye? "Living and let live?"

Jesuit moral theologian Father James Keenan describes mercy as, "a willingness to enter into the chaos of others." It is a disposition on the part of a person to go where many fear to tread: the muck and mire and messiness of another's life. This is hardly a polite virtue, a breathless cry of "Mercy me!" Instead, it is a messy virtue requiring a person to get dirty, to get grime under the finger nails, to take on the odor of those in need.

A rather unglamorous virtue.

Nevertheless, it is the one to which we are called. For is it not mercy that:

  • Gives strength to the parent to rise from bed at 3:00 am to soothe a crying baby?
  • Enables a spouse to sit, night after night, with someone fading into the dusk of dementia?
  • Permits a teacher to prepare, day in and day out, to prepare so that he or she can be a vital force to the students?
  • That helps each of us, when called upon to do so, to stand with a sister or brother in need...not in order to take away a burden, but to share it? 
As I survey the issues that face the Church and our society, I cannot help but to think that what we need now, more than ever, is to attune ourselves to Keenan's definition: we must, as part of our baptismal call, be willing to enter the chaos of others. We cannot, we must not, content ourselves to stand aloof as children starve, as women are discriminated against, as any of our sisters and brothers in the human family are trampled upon, denigrated, or marginalized. 

Whether we like it or not, our shared baptism into Christ's dying and rising gives each of us the task of laboring with, of entering into, others. We are, as today's Gospel reminds us, to take up Christ's yoke. In the Incarnation, Christ entered into our own chaos as the enactor and revealer of God's mercy. In his life and ministry, Jesus showed us the shape mercy takes: radical inclusivity and reckless, prodigal welcome to those who have strayed. In his Risen Life and in the Church, he gives us a mission to "go and do likewise." 

We are not to talk about mercy. We must become it. 

As the sun rises each morning, and its rays dispel night's darkness, I must question myself: where, today, is the chaos into which I am being called to enter? If it takes more than a moment to for me to answer this, to recognize where the voices of my sisters and brothers cry out, then my prayers have been in vain. If I am unable to hear in my daily life the cry for mercy, the invitation to stand with another, then I have gone deaf to the rhythm that animates my faith and draws me ever more fervently into my discipleship. 

Thursday, July 03, 2014

An Archbishop's Gyre

From the poet W. B. Yeats:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
the falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
the ceremony of innocence is drowned. 

Grant Gallicho, a reporter for Commonweal, reported July 1st that Archbishop John Nienstedt is "being investigated for 'multiple allegations' of inappropriate sexual conduct with seminarians, priests, and other men." It should be noted immediately that this accusation does not involve minors. Nevertheless, the fact that Archbishop Nienstedt has been a vocal opponent of gay-marriage and, in 2012, reportedly committed $650,000 to support an amendment to the Minnesota state constitution that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. This effort, as Gallicho notes in his piece, failed to pass. 

Not surprisingly, the accusation against Nienstedt has elicited the expected tongue-clucks: he is now labeled a "hypocrite" and his criticism of gay-marriage and Brokeback Mountain are affirm that "the Archbishop doth protest too much." There is, sadly, among many blogs and Tweets a sense of glee that the Archbishop seems to be caught in an ever-widening gyre, or spiral. In the midst of this accusation and its publicity, things are indeed falling apart for him.

That there is an element of schadenfreude, or glee at the misfortune of another, is to be expected: the Archbishop's public stances on controversial issues certainly attracted a great deal of attention. And, for those who disagreed with his position, there is a sense of delight at his being exposed as a fraud and hypocrite. 

Yet rather than relishing what may be a man's calamitous fall, I should hope his critics - especially fellow Catholics - find it within them to show mercy, not judgment. If the accusations against him are true, he deserves mercy for never feeling at home enough with himself, never accepting himself, and for feeling the need to lash out against others. If the accusations are false, as he insists, then we should sorrow that a man has been wrongly libeled and his reputation has been tarnished forever. Regardless of the reality, the truth remains: the stain of this accusation will remain with him for the rest of his life. 

Social media gives each of us a ringside seat to watch these proceedings unfold. We will either succumb to baser instinct and delight in a man's very public flogging or we will find it within ourselves to look beyond our disagreements and see a fellow sinner, a brother by baptism, and offer him mercy and compassion. This will, without question, be far harder than deriving joy at his misfortune...especially if this accusation succeeds in exposing hypocrisy. Still, in trying to find the strength to have hearts open to a brother with whom we disagree profoundly, we have an opportunity to grow in grace. 

For my fellow Catholics, this episode may be a corporate opportunity in spiritual exercises. Will we follow sensationalized media where the tagline "If it bleeds, it leads" controls what we see and hear or will we act as your followers, as those who desire to see others as you see us, with love, forgiveness, and mercy? Will we practice the stance of hospitality and welcome, of love and mercy, or will we cross our hands over our chest and reject our brother? This time of spiritual exercise may be yet another, albeit difficult, opportunity for us to cease warring over who controls the Gospel and to begin living out, in our very selves and actions, the Good News. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame