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Wednesday, April 7, 2021


    “People need certitude.”

    Certitude is a mirage. Maybe it started with Descartes. He thought the only thing he could be certain about was that he was able to think. “I think, therefore I am.” But ever since, some people have gone off on the crusade to acquire certitude. Some of those people call themselves “scientists.” But there are other kinds too, who call themselves “religious people.”

    Science is based on observation. We use one of our five senses to observe something closely. What we look for are correlations.

    A correlation is a situation where when one thing happens, another thing tends to happen. We would like to say that when one thing happens, another thing always happens. When one thing happens and another thing always happens, we say that the first thing causes the second thing.

    But we can never say “always.” We can observe something 10,000 times, but the 10,001st time the correlation can fail. Because we can never say “always,” every scientific statement is a fiction, a story that we make up. The story is probably true but could be false. To claim that one thing causes another is creative writing.

    We keep on observing. We keep trying to find causes, even though we know we can never be sure our stories are true. We string together statements about causes and make the string into a theory, which is just a higher level fiction. We have to do this because otherwise all we have is a basket of correlations, and correlations without a theory are useless.

    Science is story-telling qualified by observation. Careful observation, like what we can do with a microscope, leads us to modify older stories we have told. They used to say that cholera was caused by bad air. When they could observe water with a microscope, the story changed: cholera is caused by microscopic bugs in the water. The effect of the changed story was miraculous—cholera disappeared. The miracle led people to look for certitude through science.

    Religious people look for certitude too. Some religious people look for certitude in a text, like the Bible or the Q’uran. Catholics look for it in Scripture and Tradition. Tradition is when the community always says something.

    How do we know that the community always says something? We don’t. The community may have said something 10,000 times, but the 10,001st time it may say something different. The history of Catholic doctrine is a history of the story changing as people observe things more closely.

    I was taught in my courses in theology that when an ecumenical council says something, we can be certain the saying is true. The First Vatican Council in 1870 said that when the Pope says something about “faith or morals,” we can know the statement is true.

    When the First Vatican Council made its declaration, there were people who thought the saying was a mistake, that the Council Fathers were trying to please an aging Pope Pius IX. Since Vatican I, popes have been locked into the statements of their predecessors. The locks have become increasingly strained. Pope Paul VI said in 1968 that the use of “artificial” means of birth control is immoral. He had appointed a group of people—all presumably faithful Catholics—to look into the question. The majority of the group did not think contraception is always immoral. But Paul VI apparently thought he did not dare go against what Pope Pius XI had said back in 1931, so he decreed that contraception is always immoral. Every pope since then has declined to say anything different, but the birth rate among Catholics in the United States has dropped dramatically since the 1950s.

    Conservative U.S. Catholics point to a correlation: when Catholics considered contraception immoral, the churches were full. Since they quit seeing it as immoral, the churches have emptied. The conservatives say that the cause of the decline in religious observance is the abandonment of the doctrine on contraception. The word “cause” is just as much a fiction here as it is in science. The conservatives are using a scientific argument to defend a religious statement.

    Catholics also look to “natural law” as a source of certitude. Scientists regard statements about “nature” as suspect. How do we know something is “natural”? Because people have always said it is? Because it seems self-evident? The authorities in Saudi Arabia apparently thought it was self-evident that women should not drive cars.

    Both science and religion operate on “faith,” which is to know things without being certain about them. That seems impossible—how can I know something without being certain about it? But we do it all the time.

    I know someone loves me. But I cannot be certain that the person really does love me. Yet without the “knowledge” that someone loves me, love is impossible. Love is based on faith.

    Science is based on faith. Scientists know that organisms have evolved from non-organic structures. But their knowledge could be wrong, because no scientific statement is invulnerable. The observation that falsifies the entire theory of evolution could be out there, waiting for someone to find it. What is more likely is that someone will frame the story in a new way, the way Einstein re-framed Newton’s story of how matter and energy operate.

    Both science and religion have people who know that we cannot have certitude. Such people acknowledge that even if they cannot have certitude, they believe that what they are doing can be good for people. They both operate with the assumption that faith can live side by side with questioning.

    For the last couple of hundred years, ever since people began applying scientific observation to the Bible, it has seemed that science corrodes faith. Seminaries turned out sceptics, who went about destroying religious faith and emptying the churches. The skeptical clergy made two mistakes: they thought that science can give us certitude, and they thought that religion should give us certitude. By making certitude a pre-requisite for the good life, they distorted science and destroyed religion.

    We are all human beings who live by the worlds that the people around us create. We live by the stories that our tribes believe. Scientists cannot work without a community of fellow scientists—we call them “peer reviewers,” and their very existence tells us that the truth of what we publish has to be verified by the community. Religious people cannot operate without a community of fellow religionists. Religion without community is magic.

    The fragility of knowledge does not lead to chaos. There is no way for coaches to develop foolproof ways to win games, yet we continue to play games. Games are rewarding. When they cease to be rewarding for players or fans, we modify the rules.

    The experience of “reward” in games is a good analogy for what Jesus called “life” when he said “I came that they might have life.” Games are rewarding when the players treat each other with respect—disrespect can get you thrown out of the game. They are rewarding when the players can lose—the players are vulnerable. When one side always wins, we change the rules. Games are rewarding when people continue to play even after they lose—they are faithful to the game and its players. Respect, vulnerability and faithfulness are the components of love.

    Games do not offer certitude. Science does not offer certitude. Religion does not offer certitude. Yet all three are worth doing. All three can help us love.

Friday, February 19, 2021

What we need in order to do religion


The most financially successful Catholic enterprise in the U.S. is EWTN, the Eternal Word Television Network, which has hundreds of radio stations, dozens of TV stations, the National Catholic Register, and who knows how many other media outlets. EWTN has money. The official U.S. Catholic hierarchy, the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops), is below the poverty line compared to EWTN.

Some young priests are wearing cassocks and Roman collars. There are not many of them, but there are more of them than there are of young priests who live the kind of Catholicism that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) proposed. Our local bishop of Springfield as much as admits that Vatican II was a mistake. He presides at Mass with his back to the people once a week. Bishop Paprocki is on the advisory board of the NAPA Institute, a conservative Catholic think tank.

Since 2016 here in Quincy we have an official Latin-Mass church, St. Rose. Every day Mass is offered in Latin, the old way, just like before Vatican II. The 2018 and 2019 diocesan October Counts, annual tabulations of people attending Mass throughout the Diocese on one Sunday in October, gave the following figures for church attendance at Quincy parishes (I omitted 2020 because the pandemic distorted the counts):

                                       2018            2019

Blessed Sacrament           517             554

St. Francis Solanus       1,341           1,617

St. Joseph                        110              102

St. Peter                         1,497           1,456

St. Rose                            184              169

The combined 2019 total count minus St. Rose was 3,729. St. Rose accounted for 4% of the Catholics attending Mass in October 2019. St. Rose has never had a count more than 190 since 2016 when the Latin parish began.

3,729 people in Quincy attended a post-Vatican II Mass on a typical October Sunday in 2019. Why? Why were they there? 

What people need in religion

We human beings need three things in order to do religion: we need to be involved with other humans, we need to be involved with God, and our involvement with God has to include involvement with other people. The third involvement is what we call “religion.”

Pope Francis has been producing “encyclical” letters every few years with one theme that keeps recurring: too many people are not involved with other people. Too many of us are hyper-individualistic—we are loners. Hand-held devices do not substitute for face-to-face involvement with other humans.

The Pope has also been emphasizing another theme: our shared involvement with God, our religious practice, should grow out of our own culture. Since there is a wide variety of cultures in the world, there should be a wide variety of ways to express our common involvement with God. 

 Involvement means spending time

I use the term “spending” deliberately. In white middle-class American culture, money plays a central role, and we spend money. We get into the habit of treating time like we treat money—we spend it. When we combine time frugality with our individualism, we end up not spending time involved with other people, and even less time being involved with God. We spend time with things: with information, with entertainment, with work.

 There is a psychological theory labeled “cognitive dissonance.” The theory says that when we sacrifice for something, we come to value it. The sacrifice comes before the value, not after it. We have to spend time with other people and with God or we will never value involvement with others or with God. The reason so many people do not take God seriously is because they do not spend time with God.

This is not a new problem. Why was so much Old Testament history a story of estrangement from God, with prophets challenging people to take God more seriously? Why did Jesus talk about seed falling on paths, rocky ground, and among thorns?

 I like to believe that God gets after most of us, and maybe even all of us, before we die, so that we snatch just a tiny bit of involvement with God on our way out of this life. But that is up to God, and we are human beings trying to develop a loving relationship with God in this life, over time, through years We are trying to do religion. That takes leadership. 


Leaders are people who motivate other people to do things. We need people who can lead us into the behaviors that will deepen our involvement with each other and with God. In Catholic middle class U.S. culture leadership lives in the parish. 

 The parish is a group of people, usually located in a shared geography, who are called together physically on a regular basis and motivated to do things that strengthen their involvement with God. One slogan describing what a parish leader does is a series of three phrases: “Gather the people, share the stories, break the bread.” 

You first have to gather the people. People are like sheep--they like to wander. You have to trick them, just like university professors have to trick students into experiencing new wonders such as art or literature. Food helps. It is no accident that the third phrase is “break the bread.” Even the tiny Eucharistic host satisfies. People like to get something physical. People who are not even Catholic line up to get ashes on Ash Wednesday.

 “Tell the stories.” We need stories, and we have stories, tons of them. The whole bible is full of them. It doesn’t take much—all you need is a bible and somebody to read it aloud. When a bunch of us share a story, we become a people. We share all the stories beginning with Adam and Eve, down through Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus and Paul and Augustine and Francis and Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis. And as we share these stories, our involvement with God grows, slowly, imperceptibly, like a fungus. 

The parish is where we Americans gather, hear the stories, and break the bread. The parish is not the only place where this can happen. I live in a Franciscan community that does the same thing. The Catholic Worker houses have their own style of doing the Catholic religion. Black Catholics in my country gather, listen, and break the bread a little differently from white Catholics.

 The parish is more than just a priest and a church building. The parishes in Quincy also involve some form of schooling. When the school is a physical building, just financing and running the school draws people into involvement. Parish picnics, celebrating feast days, creating weddings and funerals and baptisms all draw people into involvements. The buildings to be maintained, the parish staff—a typical parish in my world can have several employees besides the priest, or even employees without a priest—all these require time and money. Sharing time and money leads to involvement.

And all the while, as these processes go along, sometimes poorly, sometimes with great success, the gathering and the story-telling and the bread-breaking keep feeding the participants toward involvement with a loving God.

 The Church in the United States is suffering from some disabilities stemming from the wider Church’s inability to adapt to changing cultures. The primary disability is our U.S. Church’s inability to motivate its own young people to lead it. An increasing proportion of parish clergy in my country is from other countries—Nigeria, India, Poland. That is a fine thing for leading us to appreciate the oneness of the human family, but it is not helping us do religion in our own culture. This is not the place to discuss what might be done to remedy the situation. I will just say that Church leaders in Rome who hinder us from developing leadership from within our own culture are following the example of the Judaizers in the Acts of the Apostles. They think we need to follow the Old Law before we can be true to Jesus. 

Paul and Barnabas accepted conflict as the cost of freedom from the Law. Conflict simply means one party taking a stand and another party opposing the stand. We have learned that communication and negotiation can work through conflicts. Even in a conflict we practice respect, vulnerability, and faithfulness—we practice love.


Monday, February 8, 2021

Abba, Father

Father Bill Burton, one of our professional scripture scholars with a real gift for making scripture intelligible to people, used to get indignant: “’Abba’ does not mean ‘Daddy!’”

He didn’t say what it meant, but it clearly means someone Personal. And that is the crux of the issue.

The world can be divided into two classes of people: those who see the Source of All Being as personal, and those who don’t. The second class includes all those thoughtless folks around us who just don’t get around to thinking about God.

St. Paul says we cannot say “Abba, Father” unless we are helped by the Spirit. Being able to see God as Personal is not something that can be engineered by creative catechesis. Being able to see God as Personal is a gift, a gift of the Spirit.

This week the bishop of our diocese, Thomas John Paprocki, wrote in his diocesan magazine that the Second Vatican Council has destroyed the Church. He cites all the statistics: numbers of Catholics in church on Sunday, numbers of priests and nuns—all down, drastically. He has an engineering solution: go back to the way things were before Vatican II. He now presides at the Eucharist in his cathedral at least once every Sunday with his back to the people (“ad orientem”). Recently he forbade Eucharistic ministers, whether ordained or not, to bless children and non-Catholics at Communion. They are not even to touch the people, even after Covid is gone. There is only one blessing at Mass, and the priest is the one who gives it, and he gives it at the end of Mass and nowhere else. People who are not authorized to receive Communion should not even be in the Communion procession—they should stay in their pews. Mothers of small children raised so much objection to this that he backed down. They can bring their children with them, but the children are not to be blessed.

I am reminded of a joke I heard years ago. “What is the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? You can negotiate with a terrorist.”

But Bishop Paprocki is not so different from the way most of us have thought about the Church. I too have crowed about how Catholics outstrip other groups in church attendance. We Catholics are the best in everything. We have the best athletes (Notre Dame of course), the best entertainers, and now even the president and six of the Supreme Court justices, though the president’s credentials are suspect to the Republican half of the faithful.

Into the mix is another recent episcopal decree: Confirmation is to be celebrated along with First Communion. Confirmation is not a rite of passage to Catholic adulthood, which is how much of our catechesis has presented it.

Religious ed teachers use Confirmation preparation as a valiant effort to get young people to see their faith in a more adult way. Every year classes of such young folks come to our friary to get an informal lecture on what a friary and its inhabitants look like. I admire the effort, but I wonder how much impact that has on the faith of these young faithful.

Because adult faith, which I think means seeing God as Personal, and as Personal in a way that really impacts one’s life, cannot be engineered. We need to admit that, and accept the fact that the majority of people baptized and growing up Catholic, even if they attend Catholic schools, are likely to be indifferent saints. In this view I am not so different from Pope Benedict when he observes that the Church is likely to be smaller, more like a faithful remnant in a hostile world, than a world religion calling the shots to secular politicians.  

We need to quit wringing our hands at numbers. What is important is when each individual, young or old, opens his or her heart to the Lord. That is going to happen at all kinds of moments in our life cycles, maybe at the birth of a child, maybe at the loss of a child, maybe only when we are in hospice. All we can do as religious grocery clerks is to keep the shelves stocked, the doors open, and someone at the checkout counter to speak in person when we are approached. And then ask the Lord to send the Spirit to help each of the people we meet to be able to say “Abba, Father.”

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


         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.



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.



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


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.