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Monday, January 11, 2021

A Baptism homily

Let us think today, on this feast of the Baptism of Jesus, about water.

Water is life-giving. I am sitting here looking out at the bare winter trees south of this house. The sky is overcast. I know that the sun is up there behind these clouds, and I think of Reinhold Link.

Reinhold was a diocesan priest who joined us friars. He was a “naturalist”—the story was that he was the state naturalist for Illinois and helped to lay out the state parks back in the 1920s and 30s. I have a snapshot of him with a sparrow sitting on his finger. Somewhere I heard him quoted: “Autumn—the season of mists and fertility.” Whenever the day is gloomy I think of him and of those words.

“The season of mists and fertility.” Water means life.

But water can also be deadly. Water is powerful.  I think of Psalm 29:

The voice of the LORD is over the waters;

the God of glory thunders,

the LORD, over the mighty waters.

The voice of the LORD is power;

the voice of the LORD is splendor.

Victory Heights, the Province’s summer camp in northern Wisconsin, gave me a chance to work with boats first hand. When you tie a boat to the dock, you had better have a strong chain and a solid ring in the wood of the dock. The waves can pick a heavy boat up and jerk it around, back and forth, 24/7. And of course water can kill.

Head under water.

I don’t think I ever had my head under water until I tried to take swimming lessons at the Decatur YMCA when I was in sixth grade. The experience was traumatic for me. They told us to jump off the edge of the pool into about four feet of water. I did that, went under, and I must have tried to breathe under water, because when I came up I was so upset that I got out of the pool and left. I felt totally disgraced—I can still feel myself walking alone away from the other swimmers back to the dressing room. It didn’t help that they wouldn’t let us wear swimming trunks.

I suspect that John the Baptist’s ritual involved pushing the penitent’s head under water, and possibly even holding it there for a period of time. Now remember that Palestine was a pretty dry land—there would not have been a lot of swimming pools around. Most of John’s penitents had probably never experienced having their heads under water. So the experience would have been traumatic enough to dramatize the repentance that John was calling for. It really could have been a near-death experience.

When Paul wrote about baptism meaning that we die with Christ, he may have been thinking about that kind of head-under-water experience.

And then there was getting in line with all the other sinners.

In 1968 I was in grad school. I became convinced that the Vietnam war was unjustified. I kept thinking of Ezekiel’s warning to the watchman: If you are the watchman and see danger coming and you don’t warn the people, you will be guilty of the death of the people.

I sent my draft registration card to Lyndon Johnson and shortly thereafter I got a letter from the Decatur Illinois Selective Service office classifying me as 1-A delinquent and ordering me to report for a physical.

The physical was a little like my swimming pool experience, and once again it involved nakedness. All the recruits were lined up, naked. I got put with a couple of doctors, and we were allowed to keep our shorts on. My feeling was “What am I doing here?”

Did Jesus feel that way when he got in line with the sinners: “What am I doing here?” Did Jesus see himself as sinless? Surely he wasn’t faking sinfulness. He must have thought he could use some repentance.

So Jesus gets to the head of the line and gets dunked just like all the other penitents. When you come up out of water, you cannot feel dignified. Water is streaming down over your face, along with your hair. You have not only had a near-death experience, but you feel disgraced. And it is at that precise moment, the moment of maximum disgrace and discomfort, that the heavens open and the voice says “This is my  beloved Son.”

What does that say about God? What does that say about Jesus?

That says that God is getting down here in the mud with us, the mud that can kill and that is also necessary for life. God is mixing with the molecules of water and plants and animals and humans. God is involved with us, wants to be with us in the worst moments of our lives. And of course that involvement went much farther. This time it involved water. The next time it involved blood. Maybe that is what the letter of John was referring to when he said “there are three things, the Spirit, the water, and the blood.”

What more can we say? What did Jesus feel walking away from the baptism? Did he feel anything? Was the voice from heaven a literary creation of the Gospel writer?

Even if it was, I think the deeper truth remains. The Creator of all the living world around us, and the creator of the human world around us, is with us, even in the worst moments of our lives.


Friday, December 25, 2020

A Christmas homily

[This homily comes from “functionalist” sociology. Question: what are the functions of religion? What purposes do religions serve for people? Answer: Religions provide meaning and belonging.]

    Jesus saves. That is the meaning of his name. Savior. What does Jesus save us from?

    There are two evils that every human being faces, and from which every human being needs to be saved. The two evils are 1) lack of meaning, and 2) lack of belonging.

    We all need meaning in our lives. We need to perceive every event as meaningful. Meaning is the story that surrounds an event or object.

    I have a pen with a small rubber tip on the upper end of the pen. What is the meaning of that rubber tip? Answer: it is intended to be used as a stylus for typing letters and numbers into a cellphone. When I see the pen, I think of the story of how it is used.

    We all need to see our lives a part of a story that is shared by others. The birth of Jesus begins a story that all of us are invited to become a part of. Actually, the story did not begin with Jesus, but goes back all the way to Adam and Eve.

    I like to think of how I first learned the story of Jesus. I am sure my parents, and maybe especially my mother, told me some of the story of Jesus. But I really learned his story when we went to church together and heard the Gospels and sermons about the Gospels. Then I went to St. James School in Decatur for eight years and heard more and more of the story of Jesus.

    I became a participant in the story because I was part of a group of people who were involved with each other and especially with me. When those people shared the story of Jesus with me, I became involved with those people, and sharing the story told me who I was and where I belonged. So I had both meaning and belonging.

    I think of children growing up in today’s world who have no coherent life story given to them by others. Their story gives them no sense of direction for their lives.

    And along with that deprivation, many children suffer from a lack of belonging, a lack of involvement with some other person or persons that is life-giving. They do not experience involvement that is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, and faithful. Perhaps one parent has abandoned the family, and the other parent is so stressed out by work and other pressures that she does not have time to foster a life-giving involvement with her children. Or perhaps she does not know how to foster such an involvement.

    Pope Francis, in his encyclical letter Evangelii Gaudium, says that there are structures in the Church that promote involvement with other Christians and with God. The parish is an important one, one that should be strengthened.  

    Quincy University is one of those other structures that the Pope refers to. Just by continuing to call itself a Franciscan Catholic institution, it is a standing invitation for people to become part of the story of Jesus and the community that is centered in Jesus.

    One of the most important things about the story of Jesus is the way the story images God, or, to use less religious terms, reality. What is my place in the universe? Does anyone or anything care? The story of Jesus says that God cares, that each of us matters in the eyes of God, and that God even loves each of us. That is a powerful story.

    That story invites us to be involved with other human beings who are equally loved by God. If they are loved, they must be lovable, no matter what they look like right now.

    So I think this Christmas calls us to be marketers of meaning and belonging.

 

    Let me start this over.

    I sit in my room and look out the window. Even though at night I cannot see the stars, I know that science tells me about how many billions of stars there are in our galaxy, and how many billions of galaxies there are in the universe that we can observe. Then science tells me that this whole universe began 13.8 billion years ago from a mass millions of times smaller than  a pinhead, which exploded and continued to expand till now and is still expanding.

    And I say to myself: something or someone caused this. That seems obvious to anyone who takes science seriously. The next question is: what is that something or someone like?

    Somehow, on this tiny planet which has spun around the sun for the last several billion years, life emerged and eventually human life. With human life came love. This says to me that whatever or whoever started this universe must be loving. We call that someone God.

    The stories we have about how God dealt with us humans developed over several hundred years. Then came Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth we celebrate today. We Christians say that this person Jesus was God become human. That statement is the first statement in a story that has exploded out into human history the way the Big Bang exploded to become our universe. My story is part of the story of Jesus, and so is yours and the stories of all the people who have ever lived.

    We all feel pretty helpless in the face of things that are going on in the world these days. St. Francis tried to dramatize the helplessness of God by presenting the story of Jesus’ birth in an outdoor peasant setting. He was demonstrating how God works.

    So God is working in our world today, which is just as messy and primitive as the place in Greccio where Francis put on his demonstration. We humans are in the process of turning the world into the lifeless place that it once was, by destroying species after species, and making our environment less livable. Yet God built up the world once, and Jesus showed us how God’s love can change history. We hope that God’s love can change the future of our planet in coming years, even though we will not see how that will work out.

    What we are called to do is to help people see their life stories as part of the story of how God loves all of creation, and to see how that love calls us to belong to one another.

    Redemption for human beings is experiencing meaning and belonging.

 

 

Monday, December 7, 2020

Psyche

         The idea keeps coming back. I wrote about it a long time ago, but decided it’s time to refresh it.

It all started with Matthew 10:28: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.” The Greek word for “soul” in this verse is “psyche.”

So I ask myself, “how can someone destroy the soul?” At the same time I was thinking about heirlooms and junk. For example, I have a little statue of St. Anthony, maybe six inches high, that belonged to my Dad. He used to take it with him when he was on the road for the telephone company, staying overnight in various houses. One landlady used to turn its face to the wall during the day when he was away. He would turn it back at night. That story made the statue into an heirloom. When I am gone, no one will know the story. The statue might become junk.

An heirloom is junk with a story attached.

Gehenna. A valley on the southern edge of ancient Jerusalem, a site for human sacrifices, and, I thought (perhaps mistakenly) the Jerusalem landfill. Landfills are where junk goes.

My body is a bunch of chemicals with a story attached. When I die, my body will revert to its chemicals. Will my story survive? If both my corpse and my story were to go to the landfill, I would really be lost. That is what “destroy both soul and body in Gehenna” could mean.

As I continued to read the Gospels, in Greek, every time I came across the word “psyche” I would substitute “story.” It works almost every time. The English translations usually translate “psyche” as “soul” or “life.” Whoever wants to preserve his or her life (psyche) will lose it. Donald Trump is trying to preserve the story of himself as a genius businessman. He is losing the story.

 

Story

Stories are hugely important in understanding human lives. But the first thing to realize about stories of human beings is that the story of any person can be told in different ways. We often tell our own story in ways that are more negative than other people tell it. We so often “put ourselves down.”

One of the oldest concepts in social psychology goes back to George Herbert Mead, who was writing early in the 1900s. Every introductory sociology text I ever used mentioned his name. He said the self is composed of the “I” and the “me.” The “me” is the part of the self that other people define and that I accept as part of my own idea of who I am. The “I” is a part of the self that is not under the control of others. I think of the “I” and the “me” as stories that I tell about myself and stories that other people tell about me. The self is composed of stories.

Social psychologists like the term “self.” Suppose I say that the “self” is the “soul.” If the self is composed of stories, that would mean that my soul is composed of stories. Since there are many versions of my story, I conclude that my real story, my soul, is the story that God tells about me.

God is the great Story-collector and Story-preserver.

The Final Judgment is God telling everyone’s story in the most loving way possible. Purgatory is like a South African Truth and Reconciliation meeting: I listen to you tell your story of what I did to you, and you listen to the story of why I did the thing that hurt you. Then we cry together.

And heaven is my getting to hear your story, and the stories of every person I have ever met. But why stop there? Heaven is my getting to hear the story of every person that has ever lived. That will take a while, but eternity can handle it.

But then, as we share stories, we make new stories. It will never end.

 

Idols

We attach stories to other people. In fact, we cannot tell the definitive story of another person, and we sometimes learn that the person we have been dealing with for years is not the person we thought they were. We have to keep learning. Even people in a marriage have to keep learning, because we never exhaust the stories we can learn about people we love.

But we attach stories to objects too. Sometimes we name objects. Bomber pilots in World War II named their planes—“Enola Gay” was the name of the B-29 plane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Mechanically-inclined people refer to their cars as “she.” The car starts making unusual noises and we say “she’s acting up today.” My Dad used to say “Machines talk. You just have to listen to them, and they will tell you when something is wrong.”

An idol is an object with a story attached. Idolatry is the story, not the object. An idol to which people sacrifice other human beings is evil because the story behind the behavior is evil. The story says “when we don’t sacrifice people this way, the crops quit growing.”

 

Angels and devils

I like to think of an angel as a story that somehow sneaks into my mind and causes me to do something good. Sometimes the experience is so powerful that it feels as though some kind of personal force is behind the experience. Someone led me to do this.

A couple of years ago I foolishly put my eyeglasses on the roof of the car when I was leaving a church where I had just presided at Mass. When I arrived home, twenty minutes later, I took off my sunglasses and realized why my vision wasn’t so good during the drive home. No eyeglasses under the sunglasses! I despaired. What was the chance that I could find the eyeglasses? They could be anywhere between Quincy and Palmyra, fifteen miles across the Mississippi, almost certainly crushed on the road.

I resolved to do the responsible thing and try, no matter how hopeless the outcome, so I drove back to the church and searched the parking space by the church. No glasses. Resigned, I left the parking area and turned back onto the nearby street. Something caught my eye as I turned. Could it be the glasses? No, no chance, but maybe I should check anyway. I stopped the car, walked back, and there were the glasses, lying on the street, unharmed. What made me stop and look? It was almost as though someone or something told me to stop. An angel.

We have similar experiences with devils. “Something made me do it.” The cartoon picture of the devil whispering over the shoulder is not so far from the experience. Demonic possession is when I have accepted a false story about who I am and why I am doing bad things.

We float in stories, whirling around us, pushing us here and there.

 

What is a story?

I once got into a discussion with a friend who teaches English. We discussed the question “what is a word?”

We can say a word is a sound, but an object can be identified by several sounds. I call it a house. You call it a casa. Neither sound would mean anything if there were not a community of human beings who had together linked a specific sound to a specific idea. The real word floats between the members of the language community that uses it. A sound linked to an idea. What is an idea? An idea is a story. I see a table and my mind recalls stories of how the table is used.

I cannot observe a word. I can observe the physical sound, and I can observe the people who make the sound and listen to the sound, but the word is not the sound. It is something floating between the people. I say it is “spiritual.” A story is a spiritual event.

Philosophers back in the 1600s used to mock religious people. “Have you ever weighed a soul?” “Where is the soul located in the body?” The soul isn’t located in the body. I can’t weigh it because it is a story. It is floating between myself and other people and God.

 

The resurrection of the body

The Apostles’ Creed has us pray “I believe in the resurrection of the body.” The scriptural basis for this is Luke’s description of Jesus’ appearance to the disciples after the resurrection, when he asks for a piece of fish and eats it.

People say life after death will be timeless, an eternal NOW. I can’t buy that. When you say “body,” you say space and time. I believe that God preserves all our stories, and will re-unite my story with a body in a way that eye has not seen nor ear heard. The reason I believe this is not only that the Creed says it, but because God has put love into space and time, and I cannot believe that the God who lets us experience love will defraud us of that experience by dropping us into eternal storylessness. God is love, and the one who experiences love experiences God. What else do we need to know?

 

This can’t be right . . .

Maybe what I have written cannot stand up against professional critique. But Mead’s “I” and “me” are pretty simplistic, and they have held up for a hundred years. So I foolishly throw out these ideas. I’m too old and lazy to face the critique. Maybe the ideas will inspire some further development. It’s been fun to think about them.

 

Monday, October 19, 2020

Mortification

Brief history of Catholic monastic spirituality:

Monks alone in desert (going crazy), monks together in deserted places (Benedict), mendicant orders roaming world (Francis and Dominic), men and women organized for good works (Jesuits and Ursulines). Constant practice existing in all these movements: mortification—afflicting the flesh, ranging from penitential virtuosity (spiked chains under your clothing) to the everyday mortification of fasting and abstinence from meat.

Then came Vatican II, fasting and abstinence became optional, optional led to extinction.

Every Lent we hope to reverse the extinction. We look for some way besides fasting to observe the season. Let us go back to the basics.

Why practice mortification?

Old spiritual writers quoted I John 2: humans suffer from lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. Lust of the eyes meant yearning for material stuff. Pride of life meant wanting to disobey authority. Tactics against those two are hard to operationalize. Lust of the flesh—ah, here you have something to get your teeth into. Fast, wear hair shirts, sleep on boards. Authors who told the stories of saints competed to describe the means their saints used to mortify the flesh—one gets the sense that there was a spirit of conspicuous consumption operating—my saint is penitentially more drastic than your saint. The saints themselves were surely less competitive, and the readers of the stories not likely to imitate the virtuosos.

In the United States fish on Friday was a badge of persecuted identity in a predominantly Protestant nation, not always a way to come closer to God.

“Come closer to God.” Here is the deeper reason for mortification. When you voluntarily frustrate your desires you become more aware of your limits—you are a creature, which makes you think about a Creator. Mortification was meant to open our eyes to God. When we abandoned mortification, we lost an effective way of experiencing God.

Recovery in our day.

People around the world have been undergoing terrible suffering, made even worse by the pandemic. Climate change has made refugees out of millions of people when the rains no longer water their farmland. Poverty breeds violence, in the form of movements like Al Qaeda and ISIS, which magnify suffering.

There are things that wealthier nations can do to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty, not to mention freeing the imprisoned. But nations do not act without public support. In our country we have a leader who retains power by appealing to the worse instincts of the public. Ignorance of conditions beyond our borders is one of our worst instincts. Thus the leader can demonize immigrants and get crowds to cheer “Build that wall!”

No one who follows international news can be ignorant of the plight of people beyond our borders. Catholics who use abortion as the only reason to vote for politicians who build walls and demonize immigrants cannot be sensitive to all the conditions that strangle life. My sense is that such Catholics are blissfully ignorant. Blissful ignorance needs to be cured by mortification.

Mortification for our time is paying attention to the world beyond our life space. It is watching, reading, listening to what is happening to people around the world. Doing that is uncomfortable. The 2020 hair shirt is informing ourselves and, when God calls, embracing respectful and patient political discussion and even action.  

Surely the Lord calls us to this. God did not give us democracy so we could eat, drink and be merry. What we do to the least of our sisters and brothers we do to the Lord. When we ignore the wounded person beside the road and pass on our way, we are not neighbors to that person. When we do not care whether our leaders feed hungry people, we become the ones who will hear “what you did not do to the least of my children, you did not do to me.”

Mortification was never easy. Staying informed about the plight of others is not easy. Vatican II did not abolish mortification—opening our hearts more to God. All of us need to use the means appropriate to our time.

 


Saturday, September 26, 2020

Truth

My good friend, Fr. John Joe Lakers, dead nine years now, rather proudly defended “postmodernism,” that has captured the imagination of the intellectual elites for the last forty years or so. Religious people, among them leaders of my own Church, routinely savaged the movement, accusing it of denying truth altogether—“truth is dead” would have made a good Time magazine cover. John Joe would answer, “No, no, that’s not what they are saying.” I created my own translation of what they were saying: “Any time someone claims to be speaking the truth, look out, because behind the claim there is likely to be a move to gain power over somebody else.”

However, we intellectuals enjoy debunking things and startling the less enlightened; too many of us still go around claiming there is no such thing as truth. Donald Trump has put that claim into political reality, to where he can say anything and his “base” will believe it and act on it. I think it is time to defend “truth.”

The reason it is time to defend truth is that we are on the verge of re-evaluating the history of our nation. The story we have told of our nation’s past has not been truthful. We need to get used to facing hard truths, uncomfortable truths. Truth really exists, and we owe it to our sisters and brothers, especially our sisters and brothers of color, to acknowledge the truth of what we white people have done to them for the last four hundred years. We not only owe them the acknowledgement of truth, but we owe them some reparation for the harm we have done them. Example: the average Black family in this country has less than half the wealth of the average white family. That is because for most of the years since the end of the Civil War, we made it difficult for a Black person to own a home in a desirable neighborhood, and home ownership is the main source of wealth for people. After World War II, the “G.I. Bill” offered mortgage benefits for returning war veterans, but the veterans had to be white. Black veterans were excluded, even though they had fought alongside white veterans. Farmers were excluded from Social Security, and in the 1930s, most Blacks were farmers.

When your parents have not been allowed to own a home in a good neighborhood, you are starting life with a heavy bag on your back. We say you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps like the rest of us did. But the rest of us were not restricted to substandard schools and low-quality neighborhoods. Not only were we not restricted, but our restrictive policies benefited us and cost you. The money that should have gone to your schools went to our schools, and the neighborhoods where you could not buy property were the neighborhoods where we kept our property values high because we kept you out.

We white people need to know the truth of what a hundred years of Jim Crow did to every Black person in this country. Jim Crow is the label for the legal gimmicks that southern whites used to replace slavery with a practical servitude—preventing Black people from voting, restricting them to certain neighborhoods, denying them entry into labor unions and good schools, and on and on. “On and on” covers a lot of truth that we white people are blissfully ignorant of. We need truth so that we do not go on piling weight on the backs of our brothers and sisters and then blaming them because they move more slowly than we do.

We need history. In the 90s we lamented the poor condition of much public schooling, especially public schooling for people of color, so we decided to punish poorly performing schools. In order to defend decisions about which schools were “poorly performing,” we created tests designed to show up the bad schools. In the process we forced teachers to spend a lot of time “teaching to the test”—it was a matter of survival if you wanted your school to continue existing. Then came the emphasis on “STEM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) and the soft areas like history and literature and art were crowded into a smaller and smaller space in the curriculum. We are raising a generation of children who do not know the truth about the history of our country. They are defenseless against those who want to keep their advantages and continue policies that burden some of us more than others.

When you do not know your story, you do not know who you are.

I am reading documents from the Roman Catholic “Synod on the Amazon” that took place in October 2019. It was a gathering of a few hundred representatives of indigenous people from the nations that make up the Amazon River basin. The gathering was preceded by a wide consultation of thousands of groups preparing for the meeting.

One of the recommendations that have come from the Synod is creating the goal of passing on of the history of each of several hundred unique cultures in that vast region. Too often the people involved have been driven further and further into the rain forest, only to be forced finally to migrate to the cities, where they form part of the urban underclass, poorly housed, poorly educated, lacking political power and basic economic well-being, cut off from the stories that gave them identity. These too are our brothers and sisters. If we cannot even acknowledge the stories of people living among us in our country, how will we welcome the stories of people living in Manaus or Rio or Belem?

How will we help Amazonian people to preserve the rain forest which is so central to our environmental survival without appreciating the value of those people’s ways of life?  

Bottom line: without truth we will not survive. Our appreciation of truth has been wounded. We need to heal. As we heal we will grow closer to all of our sisters and brothers all over the world.

Saturday, August 29, 2020

The Good Soldier

I was nine years old, in the spring of fourth grade, when World War II ended. My St. James Grade School sold so many war bonds that we got to fly the Minute Man flag at City Hall—we outsold the rest of the schools in the city, including public schools four times larger than ours.

I watched the progress of our forces through Europe and the Pacific, and played with miniature planes. I can still describe the P-51 Mustang which I thought looked really neat, the P-38 with its dual fuselage, the B-17 with its gun turrets on all sides, and the B-29, which carried the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I imagined being in the war and sacrificing  my life for the country. There was a book, They Were Expendable, which summarized my ideal: when the nation requires it, you are expendable. 

That set me up for later things in my life. The Franciscan Province sent me to Harvard—I would obey, even though prospects of success didn’t seem bright—who knows, I could even lose my faith.

In 1978 I was living with the community at Our Lady of Angels Seminary a mile north of Quincy College. The Province asked me to become “guardian” (superior) of the Franciscan community at Quincy College. There were thirty-two friars in the community, and they were split sixteen to sixteen on their choice of guardian. I was the dark horse brought in to break the tie.

I accepted the position. I was the Good Soldier, ready to do anything they asked of me. As I look back on the six years I was in that role, I almost shudder.

Example. The Province was dealing with the problem of alcoholism among the friars. The experts said that sometimes a friar has to be forced to go into treatment. Two friars during my tenure seemed to require treatment—I railroaded them into treatment—no thought of how they felt about it—there was a way to deal with it, I followed the plan.

Twenty years later  I was preparing to give a talk at Christian Family Camp to a group of adults, most of whom were parents. I had accepted Father John Joe Lakers’s definition of intimacy—intimacy is passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement. From sociology I had developed a definition of power: power is the ability to punish, and punishment requires threatening or inflicting pain.

How do you reconcile intimacy with the reality that sometimes a parent has to use power to get a child to do something? A revelation came to me in the form of a sentence: “The rose bush of intimacy gives rise to the thorn of power in order to protect the rose.” Translated: you shouldn’t use power until you can relate lovingly with a person. When you use power prematurely, it is oppressive.

As guardian, I was acting as an administrator, carrying out the duties of making sure the friars got fed. Sure, I knew I was supposed to love them, just as I was supposed to love my students and all the other people I met. But the love was abstract, theoretical, so it got pushed to the background. 

The Good Soldier did not have to worry about intimacy. The focus was on your own willingness to sacrifice yourself—there was no reflection about the people you met.

The Lone Ranger (radio version) was another hero of my youth. The Lone Ranger rode into town, got rid of the Bad Guys—not killing them—the Lone Ranger always shot the guns out of the hands of the Bad Guys—and then the Lone Ranger rode out of town. “Heigh-O Silver, away!” No involvement.

I would be the lone ranger priest.

Those old childhood scripts stay with us. They’re not always as admirable as we thought they were.

 

 


Saturday, August 15, 2020

Leaning

To learn means you change your mind.

Sometimes I hear of people who keep getting into trouble in the same way, over and over. We say, “Will they ever learn?” Will they ever change their way of thinking?

Matthew’s Gospel ends with the “Great Commission”: “Go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

“Make disciples.” The word “disciple” comes from the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.” “Make learners of everyone you meet.”

A learner is someone open to changing their mind. Another Gospel word for changing our mind is metanoia, repentance. To repent means to change your mind and your ways of doing things.

The Great Commission has two orders, make disciples and baptize. It doesn’t say “Go out and baptize people by the thousands.” We used to do that, but we have decided that it is not such a good idea. The two orders are sequential, and the second should not be rushed upon the first. By the time you get to thinking about the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, you need to have done a good deal of mind-changing.

Learning is dangerous. Changing your mind is dangerous. That’s why some people never dare to do it. I am a life-long Roman Catholic. Maybe I will change my mind about my own faith and become an atheist. Surely there are enough people around who have done that.

The word disciple has a connotation implying that you are changing your mind in a way that associates you with a specific group of people. I change my mind about touching hot stoves, but that learning does not bring me closer to anyone. To change my mind about my faith and become an atheist may also bring me closer to other atheists. This is an important point, because the Great Commission is talking about what we call religion.

Pardon my insistence on definitions. It’s a leftover from my undergraduate days studying philosophy. But the word religion comes from the Latin religare, which means “to bind together again.” Religion is supposed to bind you to other people. It is supposed to create a group. When you change your mind about your Roman Catholicism, that change should have implications about the people you associate with.

Yesterday I was in a conversation about Kamela Harris, the woman that Joe Biden has picked to be his running mate for the U.S. presidency. Someone in the conversation asked “Is she Catholic?” That was a most natural question for a cradle Catholic. We want to know if people are part of our group. When I was young we used to collect names of famous Catholic people in the news. They were part of us.

Sociologists use the term “master status.” A master status is a condition that puts you into a category in the eyes of other people before they know anything else about you. Being an ex-convict is a master status. So is being Black. For some cradle Catholics like myself, being Catholic is a master status. That is true of fewer and fewer people, which means that being Catholic less socially important than it used to be. In my case, being Catholic was a master status because I was growing up in a majority Protestant town, and we felt a vague and delicious sense of persecution. Persecution drew us together, at least in my mind.

The United States has a very individualistic culture. We do not want to be part of any master status. We stand proud, independent, and alone. Nobody tells us who we are. I suspect that when nobody tells you who you are, you get into a perilous state. What is sad is when you are afraid of changing your mind about your perilous state. In other words, you are afraid to “convert”—another word that means to change your mind and your relations with other people.

Conversion, like learning, is dangerous. I might convert to Islam. That would change my master status in religion. Will I do that? I can’t rule it out. If I am really a disciple. if I am really open to learning, to changing my mind, then I must be open to changing my mind about my Catholicism.

Jesus said that the road to the kingdom is narrow, and few there are who find it. Conversions are rare. They tell me that being born Catholic is not enough, that I have to have a conversion experience if I am to take my religion seriously. Actually, they tell me that I have to go through life open to conversion every day.

I like to think of this in the context of prophets. A prophet is someone who calls me to change my mind, and I tell myself that I want to be open to the prophets that God sends into my life. That means most of the people I meet day by day. That is also what obedience means.

As a member of a Catholic religious order, I take a vow of obedience. There are stories of young people being told to plant vegetables upside down as a test of obedience. I never had any teachers as foolish as that, but they did teach me that obedience meant that when I got a letter from my superior telling me to move to another place, I had to obey. Unfortunately, that has only happened once in my sixty-plus years in the Order, which makes obedience irrelevant in my life. But no, when I am open to the prophets God sends me each day, I am obedient in a more radical sense than planting vegetables upside down.

There is a political theorist named Karl Deutsch who said that good political leaders have to stay in the middle between two extremes: bullets and rubber balls. A bullet is programmed to go in a certain direction, totally inner-directed, impervious to change. It travels until it smashes into something. A rubber ball is open to every object it meets—it is totally other-directed. The leader has to be somewhere between the bullet and the rubber ball. I have to be open to changing my mind in conversation with everyone I meet, but I can’t be a rubber ball. I have to know where I am going, but know also that I may have to change direction.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to make learners of people, keeping in mind that we have to be learners ourselves. As we struggle with oher learners, we all learn more what God is like. If and when we come to know that God is Creator, Savior, and Spirit of Life, that somehow God is present in the physicality of our world and in the experience of love in our hearts, and then realize that we share that picture of God with others, we can talk about baptism. Baptism is just a way of making that relationship incarnate, because love has to be incarnate and cannot be lived alone.