Hit Counter

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Opioids and steroids

Karl Marx once said that religion is the opium of the people—it puts them to sleep so they don't do anything to lessen their pain.

A colleague of mine at QU, Mobray Allen, said once that, no, religion isn't a depressant, it’s a stimulant. It puts people on steroids. They get hyped up and do wild and crazy things.

The Roman Catholic Church, my home all my life, says that its hierarchy needs to control people so they don't do wild and crazy things. That's a noble thought, but reality says that too many of its hierarchy want to control people because controlling people is fun. And control can have economic advantages.

But we need not focus on the extremes. Religion, in less lethal doses, can alleviate pain and can add zest to life. Religion is like music.

Music can alleviate pain and it can add zest to life. This is so true that music is found in all kinds of cultures and is performed in all kinds of ways.

Music and religion are not the only things in life with such properties. Visual art, poetry, cooking, can produce such good things. Even science can have that effect.

Recently I came across the idea that beauty may be the best argument for the existence of God. That means that music, art, and poetry can all be ways to experience God. Religion doesn't have a monopoly on God.

There is much grieving among religious professionals these days that people are deserting religious affiliations in droves. This is especially true of our young people—at least young people in "western" cultures. Are these young people lost?

Look at it this way. We church people have seen ourselves as responsible for saving the world. I think we have misinterpreted our calling. Jesus called us to "make disciples of all nations." He didn't tell us to enroll everyone in the Roman Catholic Church. He told us to help everyone become learners in what God is like—the word "disciple" means "learner."

There are many ways to learn what God is like. Surely someone whose life becomes centered on music is learning what God is like. So is someone who mindfully speaks words from the Q'uran each day.

Of course, not everyone who speaks religious words is learning God. Religion has its pathologies just as music does. But the real danger for so many of our fellow humans these days is that they are not learning about God at all. Older generations might say they are worshipping idols. Someone whose life is focused on profit—on numbers displayed on spreadsheets—is traveling down the wrong track. So are all the people who seek enlightenment alone, all by themselves.

Which brings me to a crucial point. All of these ways of learning God—religion, music, art, poetry—create relationships with other human beings. We do all these things with and for other people, at least most of the time.

To be "with someone and for someone" is a fairly decent definition of love. In other words, those things which help us be with others and for others are manifestations of love.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself. These two rules sum up the Law and the Prophets.

Ivan Illich once said that the Catholic Church lets mushrooms grow. I think of a lattice of broken machinery within which soil settles and life emerges. The Church takes itself too seriously. Its leaders need to get out of the way and let God work. Let life and beauty happen. That's what salvation is.

Ever so often I am privileged to preside at weekend Masses in parish churches. The churches are well attended. I know that some people are there for what I consider the wrong reasons. Maybe they're running for office and want to be seen as pious. The number of young people there is not statistically promising. But these people are there. And I am with them. They carry me along a little closer to God. I am blessed. We are blessed. Mushrooms are growing.

Who am I to say that a similar thing isn’t happening in the Lutheran church down the street or in the mosque across town? Who appointed me God's gatekeeper?

The people we need to care for, who we fear are missing out on salvation, are the ones who are not captivated by beauty in their lives. The ones who are traveling alone down some path. They are the ones who need to become disciples—learners of God.

Scientists warn us that there are increasingly grim times ahead. We will need each other. We will need God. Religions have always helped people get through bad times. That can delude us into thinking that religion is only good in bad times. No. Religion, and its siblings, music and a whole host of other beauty-creating behaviors—can bring life to the good times too.

They can all help us learn God.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Prison bars

Two men looked out from their prison bars.
The one saw mud, and the other stars.

That little ditty came from a pious book that someone gave me as a child, The Young Man's Guide. I would not recommend the book to anyone today. It was the kind of book that could spend pages talking about purity without ever mentioning sex. But the ditty has stuck with me.

One reason it has stuck with me is that my teen years were years of stories about priests being imprisoned in China, forbidden to "say Mass." Outsiders would sneak them tiny bits of bread and wine so they could say Mass on their chests, lying in bed. Presumably they had prison bars, and were probably limited in their view to mud and stars.

So I think of prison bars when I look out my window this morning. The windows in my house are too high for me to see directly out. All I can see are the tops of trees. But when you are limited in such a way, you start to notice details. I watch the different ways that the maple tree develops buds or leaves (I can't tell which) from the walnut tree which has not yet started developing anything. The walnut tree was trimmed back so drastically a year ago that I assumed it would be cut down. Instead it sprouted small branches and by the end of last summer you could hardly tell that it had been trimmed. Right now all I can see are those thin bare branches reaching to the sky.

We live in an ecological desert, even though it is reasonably landscaped according to prevailing standards. The diversity of insects and birds that we had in our back yard when I was a child are long gone. It has been years since I have seen or heard a catbird. We have robins, cardinals, sparrows, house finches, crows, and starlings. Some other species pass through on their way north. But those few species that I can see from my prison bars are gift enough. I never missed the passenger pigeon because it was extinct before I was born. People fifty years from now will never miss the species that are going extinct day by day.

Sparrows and starlings are invaders from elsewhere who now dominate the scene. I used to resent them, but they are, after all, the lower class of the bird world. As a Franciscan, I now identify with them.

How long will I be able to look out of these prison bars? My health could put me in a nursing home tomorrow. My Franciscan Order is aging, and in a few years, if I am still here, there may be so few of us that we will have to move somewhere else. There is a certain freedom in knowing that almost any window could be a new set of prison bars. Whatever I could see from those bars would be as much a gift as what I can see from the ones right here.

I have not traveled much. I lived six years in Boston and visited most of the famous sites there. Faneuil Hall (the site of the "Boston massacre") was just a few blocks from where I lived. I have learned that I can visit a place like Niagara Falls, and a month later the memory is not much different from the post cards I could have bought. It takes time to get to know a place, and the people in the place. So what is the value of standing for a few minutes in front of a famous Roman fountain, snapping a picture or two, and moving on?

My three days in Assisi were special, because of what they have meant to me as a Franciscan. But I always thought: As a Franciscan I have pledged to live poorly. No poor person I know can pack up and fly off to Italy. The poor have to find beauty where they are. So that's what I will do.

Everything I can see from my prison bars is a gift. Every day I can enjoy seeing those things is a gift. I have only so many days left to enjoy such gifts. Today is good.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


I admit that the name of this blog, “ivyrosary,” is strange. Here is how it came about.

I used to have a website, but the service that supported it, AT&T, quit its support sometime in the early 2000s. I tried to find a free website platform, but none of them fit what I wanted. The process was so complicated that I gave up on the website idea. 

I discovered an alternate way to publish things, the blog. There is a free service called “blogspot.” I decided to use that and needed a name for my blog.

Back in my days of studying theology in Teutopolis, Illinois, my classmates nicknamed me “Ivy.” I think they were kidding me about my tendency to be in an ivory tower. They must have been onto something, because shortly thereafter my superiors sent me to an Ivy league school, where I took courses from the all-time ivory-tower sociologist, Talcott Parsons.

You can tell from this blog that I do a lot of ivory-tower thinking.

The rosary has fascinated me for several reasons.

First of all, it was part of my family’s life. My mother, father, brother and I started praying it kneeling by our parents’ bed. My dad was allowed to slouch over on the bed, and I, with the privileges of the eldest son, got to join him. My younger brother had to join my mother kneeling upright at the end of the bed, where there was a footboard that kept them from slouching. After a while we all yielded to nature and moved to easy chairs in the living room.

The rosary involves beads. Beads are physical, and are used in more than one world religion. By the time I set up the blog I had several sets of rosary beads. One was my mother’s. It has two small medals attached, which I am sure my dad attached for her. One medal was from the shrine of Sainte Anne de Beaupre in Montreal, which we visited when I was in college. The other is a “miraculous medal,” a very popular medal featuring an image of Mary. She kept the rosary in a metal case, on whose inside cover I can barely read the numbers “1928,” the year my parents were married. Was the rosary a wedding gift?

Another rosary I got from my dad’s older sister, my Aunt Mary, shortly before she died. It has large beads, much larger than any that are seen on rosaries sold today. Its crucifix opens from the back to reveal a set of relics. I had it for years before I noticed how worn the crucifix was. It had obviously been handled enough to wear smooth the metal figure on the cross. Then I remembered a story that my dad told about this Aunt Mary. When their mother died, my dad was twelve years old. His mother had given him a little drum, but in the aftermath of the funeral and relocation of the family, Aunt Mary threw away the drum, which my dad never forgot.

It struck me that Aunt Mary may have been entrusted with the family’s possessions after their mother died, and that this rosary might have been her mother’s, and possibly even older than that. Somehow its crucifix had seen a great deal of use, enough to wear smooth a metal figure.

That’s what physical beads can mean.

Then there are the mysteries of the rosary: three sets of five, the Joyful Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. The five Joyful Mysteries are all focused on the infancy and childhood of Jesus. The Sorrowful ones are focused on his passion and death, and the Glorious ones on his resurrection and its aftermath.

That seemed to me to overlook all the events of the public life of Jesus, so I invented a set of five “public mysteries” and used them. This happened before Pope John Paul II had the same idea and composed a set of what he called the “Luminous Mysteries.”

Then there are the repetitious Our Fathers and Hail Marys that make up the oral part of the prayer. People have commented on the value of repetitious oral speech as an aid to meditation and prayer. But that has never appealed to me, and in fact kept me from using the rosary until about 20 years ago. After I began reflecting on the ideas I presented above, I started linking the mysteries to psalms in the daily “Liturgy of the Hours,” the prayers that priests and religious have prayed for centuries, 90% of which prayers are psalms. When I do this, my mind often wanders, just as it did when I prayed Our Fathers and Hail Marys, but as I keep returning to the stories recalled by the mysteries, I relive the scenes from the life of Jesus that the mysteries recall. I use the beads to count of verses of each psalm.

That is how “ivy” and “rosary” became my blog title.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The future of religion

Trends of membership in religious groups seem to be down pretty much all around the world. Billions of people are living out their lives without any connection to a religious group. If survey results in our country can be believed, many people still practice religion in some form--the "spiritual but not religious" folks. That label betrays an individualistic bias. You don't have to be involved with other people to be "spiritual."

The question of the future viability of religion has been around ever since the days of the Enlightenment. "Secularization" is the label given by sociologists to the idea that religion will eventually disappear.

I keep coming back to the analogy with music. Recently I attended a performance of the Quincy Symphony, which featured young artists--high school age musicians. The symphony and its incredibly proficient young performers tell me that music is not likely to die out.

True, 99% of the people in Quincy were not present for that performance, but I'm sure a larger percentage of the 99% watched the recent televised Grammy awards, which reward musical excellence of a different kind.

Quality music requires professionals--people skilled both in performance and in support for performers. Without both performers and supporters, music languishes. As societies grow wealthier and more peaceful, the number of professionals and supporters grows. Music is not dying out.

Religious groups need professionals and supporters. The Catholic Church has prided itself on the quality of its leadership. It has prided itself too much. The sex abuse crisis is just one aspect of the failure of its leadership to address issues. Even more important is its failure to motivate people to become its leaders on the local level (priests). Maybe the present structure of leadership will have to dissolve into ashes before something new can arise. But something new will arise.

One theory is that religion appeals to people when everything else falls to pieces. I believe that Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled that the "religion of the gaps." Religion can only flourish when people are hurting. Perhaps the world will face disasters such as nuclear war or total environmental degradation, and then people will turn back to religion.

But religion can flourish without such dire conditions. With proper leadership, religious activity of all kinds can enrich life just as much as music. Religion does not need to control everything, nor does it need to convince everyone of a vision held by a particular group. I believe my Catholic vision reflects reality, and I look forward to dialog with other faiths in order to see what I can learn about how others see God working in the world. The proportion of the world's population that will be Catholic is God's problem. In the Gospel of Matthew (10:23), Jesus is quoted as saying: "When they persecute you in one town, flee to another. Amen, I say to you, you will not finish the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes." This suggests that the followers of Jesus will never get universal coverage.

I want to share my vision of God's kingdom because that vision is life-giving, just as musicians want to share their vision about how music can enrich our lives. That is the proper motive for "evangelization." Evangelization gets a bad name when it turns into a tool for any kind of control.

We believe that Jesus Christ was God become human. Jesus didn't take over the world and get everyone to accept his vision of God's kingdom. Who are we to expect that we can do that?

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


The word "testify" is sprinkled all through the Gospel of John. John the Baptist testifies, Jesus testifies, the Father testifies, Jesus' works testify, the beloved disciple witnesses the blood and water from the side of Jesus on the cross and testifies about that, and his testimony is true. 

But science depends on testimony. When a scientist in a laboratory observes the results of an experiment, that scientist puts the observation into words, or perhaps into mathematical formulations of what has been observed. Other scientists have to depend on the truthfulness of the observer's witness. Occasionally an observer lies and is discovered. The observer has committed the unforgivable sin in science: falsifying observations. That scientist's reputation is ruined.

Scientists are expected to disclose the sources of their funding when they publish the results of their research, because it is always possible that their testimony may be biased in favor of the people who are paying their bills.

Thus even science depends on human witness. What distinguishes scientific observation from other human observation is the expectation that other observers are able to repeat the observation process and hopefully describe their observations the same way as the original observer. Scientific statements must be replicable. But all scientists are human beings testifying to what they experience when they observe their instruments.

Science is a massive operation of millions of people observing and testifying to what they observe. How is that different from millions of people observing phenomena in their spiritual lives and testifying to what they have experienced?

Religious experiences are replicable, not on an individual basis, but on a larger scale, across time. The fact that millions of people gather for religious rituals is evidence that something replicable is going on. This is the basis for the field called "sociology of religion." Scientists in that field do not judge the truth of the stories that people tell--they do not judge the statement that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. They observe the behavior of people who make such statements.

Of course there are millions of people who do not claim to have spiritual experiences. That does not invalidate the testimony of the people who do have such experiences. There are millions of people who report that they get enjoyment from listening to music. The fact that there are millions of people who do not enjoy music--who are not "musically inclined"--is not evidence that music is valueless.

Religious people turn off a lot of other people by behavior that other people judge as foolish. There are religious sects that promote handling poisonous snakes on the basis of a statement in the Gospel of Mark. We think such behavior is unwise and leads to harmful consequences, but that does not mean that people who attend Mass are behaving unwisely. There are scientists who use science for bad purposes, or who conduct their research in harmful ways. The Nazi scientists who performed experiments that caused people's deaths, or the research on syphilis done at Tuskegee have not caused us to judge all research as harmful.

Postmodern theory is correct in claiming that no statements are absolutely verifiable. They are correct in claiming that statements of truth can mask desires to control. I can accept the truthfulness of postmodern theory without concluding that making truth statements is worthless or harmful. To reject all truth statements is to repeat the ancient riddle: "All statements are false, including this one."

Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Transubstantiation. Big word.

The word goes back to medieval theology and the term "substance," which in turn went back to Aristotle. The "substance" of a thing is that which makes the thing what it is, regardless of the trappings which surround the thing (the trappings were called "accidents").

The substance of a table is tableness. The accidents are the color of the table, the number of legs it has, its weight, its use, what kind of a top it has, and so on.

The medieval theologians used those terms to describe the Eucharist. The substance of the Eucharist is the person of Jesus Christ. The accidents are his body, but could also be the accidents of bread: its color, texture, and so on.

I don't want to scrap that theology. Not just because I would get excommunicated if I did, but because we no longer think in terms of substance and accidents. Those terms no longer speak to people today.

The story of an idea

I got to where I am today by reflecting on the scientific belief that most of the cells in the human body get replaced regularly. Only a relatively small number of cells that were in my body a year ago are still there. That caused me to ask, "then who am I?" I came up with the idea that I am really the history of my cells, and of the molecules and atoms that have made up my cells. A history is a type of story. I am the story built on what has been done by the cells in my body during the time they were part of me. Once they leave me, they are no longer part of my story, but  my story remains.

A story, of course, requires a story-teller. I am one of my story-tellers, but others have been telling my story ever since I was conceived. Others are still telling my story. We know from psychology that we are often not the best judge of how our stories should be told. We know that others can tell our stories in ways that are harmful to us, or they can tell our stories in ways that build us up.

A digression on junk

An heirloom is junk with a story attached. Once a physical object loses its story, it becomes junk. I have a tiny ivory emblem owned by my grandfather, who was a cooper, a barrel-maker. The ivory object was the symbol for the craftsmen who made barrels. I know what that little piece of ivory means. It has a story. If I discard the emblem, it will lose that story. Someone else may attach a different story to it--they may not know that there was an occupation called "cooper," and that the ivory is a symbol of that occupation--but that story is not the story that makes it important to me.

Junk goes to the landfill. The valley of Gehenna was Jerusalem's landfill. So when I read in Matthew 10 that I should fear the one who could cast me into Gehenna, I thought of Gehenna as the place where my story would be forgotten.

The Last Supper

Jesus took bread and wine and said "This is my body, this is my blood." He was attaching his story to bread and wine. That is not so different from people attaching my story to the particular set of cells that make up my body. But Jesus was doing more than that. He was saying that when his followers gathered, and used bread and wine that way, he became part of their stories. They became part of him. We are all part of the story of Jesus.

To be a Christian means to accept your own personal story as the story of Jesus, death and resurrection included.

So when I take the host and the wine at Mass and repeat the words of Jesus, I see those physical things as tied to the story of Jesus every bit as much as his story was attached to his physical body two thousand years ago. That way of thinking about the Eucharist is more meaningful to me than the language of substances and accidents.


I could not take this line of thinking very far without being faced with the phenomenon of idols. An idol is a physical object with a story attached. It is not a huge leap to think of a particular image as having a story that could be threatening to me, or beneficial to me, and therefore that I need to take seriously. The issue is, what kind of story.

There are religious movements that forbid the use of images for religious purposes. In Christianity they were called "iconoclasts"--icon smashers. I think Islam has a similar prohibition. Some of the Protestant reformers accused Catholics of worshipping idols because we had statues. The issue is, what kind of story is linked to the object.

This is all pretty poetic. I am too far along in life to get tangled in philosophical speculation and try to defend the ideas I just presented. Look at the ideas as poetry. The label "poetic" covers a multitude of sins.

I confess that I have never read Teilhard de Chardin. I was too much of a dutiful Catholic, and the Pope said his writing was dangerous. But the little I knew of what he wrote led me to conclude that he was mostly writing poetry with scientific language. Maybe that is all we can do in a scientific age.

My soul is my story. I tell my story. You tell my story. God tells my story. When my cells give out, God will remember my story, and will tell it some day in the most loving way possible--the Last Judgment. The Apostles Creed has the phrase "the resurrection of the body." That suggests that some day God will attach my story to another set of cells. The book of Revelation describes heaven as a city. That emphasizes the belief that we are all in this with other people. I would like to think of heaven as this present beautiful world, and all of us in it together. Since that is hard to visualize, perhaps those theorists have it at least partly right when they describe heaven as a single "now," without time, a resting in the reality of God and others in a perpetual instantaneous moment. 

But if my body is resurrected, there will have to be time and space. And when you say time and space, you say mountains and streams and birds and fish and animals. Otherwise what kind of fun would it be? And if Scripture tells us anything, it tells us that eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love God. Surely heaven will include beagles.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Existence of God

My fellow friar here at Holy Cross, Fr. John Ostdiek, 96 years old, is very disturbed by the loss of so many young Catholics to the Church. He says 40% of young people "raised Catholic" no longer consider themselves Catholic.

Then there is the disillusionment caused by clergy abuse scandals. The Church seems to be falling apart.

These realities are in the back of my mind as I prayed the psalms this morning. A question lurks back there: am I doing something that no longer makes sense? Am I just soothing my spirit with illusions?

Then I recall a remark of a professor during my brief stay at the Harvard Divinity School: "Someone should do a study of atheism in Hindu culture." He was commenting on the stereotype that millions of people in India are devout practitioners of the Hindu religion, and speculating that the stereotype is not true.

These days I am reading the prophet Jeremiah. He writes as though everyone in Israel is against him. They are all happily marrying, giving in marriage, singing, dancing, and not paying the slightest attention to God. In the words of one of the psalms, "God does not care, he never sees."

"Proofs" for the existence of God

There seems to be a consensus that Thomas Aquinas's five proofs for the existence of God are no longer convincing. I couldn't name the five anyway. Here is mine.

Science has developed a consensus that the universe as we know it began with a "big bang" 13.8 billion years ago. I know of no scientist who discusses what or who caused that event. They argue that such a question is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. That may be true, but science also refuses to accept that events are without causes. Something or someone caused that bang. The question is: what is that Something or Someone like?

Billions of people down through history have created stories to answer that question, so we have world religions. The sociologist asks: what is the cause of such a persistent human behavior? Emile Durkheim said it is that people realize that there is something beyond their individual realities, so they posit a god, without realizing that the something they call a god is really just the group, the society. Sigmund Freud said that people live yearning to return to the womb, and religion satisfied that yearning--we should just grow up. Karl Marx said that the dominant classes invented stories to keep the subordinate classes under control, and religion is the most effective such story. Religion is an opiate to keep suffering poor people from thinking.

Billions of people down through history have lived as though there is no god, which has caused no end of distress among religious people. We observe that people get religion when everything else in their lives falls apart. What does that say? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked the question: what are we going to do when science and technology solve all our human problems? We won't need God any more. Bonhoeffer didn't know. But science and technology do not seem on the verge of doing what he feared. His formulation of the problem seems naive.

And religion goes on. Atheism goes on. Prophets arise and no one pays attention, just like in Jeremiah's day. The Israelites paid no attention until Assyria and Babylon came in and destroyed their world. Our prophets these days are saying that no one is paying attention, and the things we have done and continue to do to our environment are going to come back and bite us.

Meanwhile, some of us continue to be convinced that the Someone who started the universe as we know it loves, and is delighted when we love in return. We Christians have a story of how that Someone intervened in our history, a story we accepted from the Jewish people, and which we have taken in new directions. The story has resulted in both good and evil down through history--one friend of mine thinks religion has been the source of most of the evils in our world. I think he overlooks the good that religious people do, but he has a point--our fellow religionists have caused a lot of suffering.

Religion has been for me a source of delight and a motive for living. I am not alone, but I may be in the minority, perhaps a tiny minority. But there are people around me, all over the world, in all kinds of cultures and languages and political systems, who see the world the way I do, and that reinforces my way of seeing the world. To use Peter Berger's metaphor, we create a "sacred canopy," a structure of meaning that envelops our world. We create it, but just because we create it does not mean it is an illusion. Maybe the Creator snuck into our hearts the seeds of that canopy.

That's my explanation for why I believe in the God I live by and for.