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Friday, April 28, 2017

The Benedict Option

April 15, 2017

A couple of days ago I happened to read an article in America magazine, the monthly magazine published by the Jesuits. The article was a review of a book by a man named Rod Dreher, with the title of The Benedict Option.

At first I thought the reference was to Pope Benedict, but it is not. The book is about the first Benedict, the St. Benedict who founded the Benedictine order back in the 400s. The America reviewer disagreed with many of the ideas in the book, but said that nevertheless it is a must-read. So I bought it for my Kindle.

The thesis of the book is that the Church and the world today have become so hostile to the message of Jesus that the only option is to create, as Benedict did, islands of faith and devotion apart from that world. The author is just about as hard on the “conservative” politics of our day as on the “liberal” side. Liberals have sold out to a secularist, pagan, sex-obsessed world view that is very similar to the world-view dominant in the late Roman Empire, the period when Benedict lived. But conservatives have sold out equally to an individualist, market-driven philosophy that is just as destructive of Christian life because it causes people to withdraw from Christian community into their own private, self-interested, worlds.

Only by withdrawing into an environment where Christians can live in community with one another can we survive.

I thought of those ideas as I was preparing homilies for Holy Week, and as I prayed the psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours for that week. And not just the psalms, but the antiphons before and after the psalms.

The antiphons are short, one-line excerpts from Scripture prayed before and after each psalm that put the psalm into the context of the liturgical year. For example, the antiphon for one of the evening prayer psalms for Holy Saturday reads: “Just as the Son of Man was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” I sing those words and once again recall both the story of Jonah and the story of Jesus.

It struck me that praying psalms surrounded by such a context, with antiphons that make special the seasons of Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter, cause one to rethink the story of Jesus, over and over again. And that is what we need.

Because in order to be Christian, we have to live the story of Jesus and make it our story. Hearing and thinking about the story of Jesus year after year puts us again and again into that story, until we become natural inhabitants of the world of Jesus. And that makes us Christians.

I don’t think we have to withdraw from the world on order to do that. I live in a world where email and Facebook and text messages are present, but are under control. I am of an age where I don’t have to be present at every ceremonial event in town, or express an opinion on every topic that people are discussing. Of course, it helps that I am retired. But us retired folks can enrich our world as much as younger folks.

I would think that anyone can build a life around the Liturgy of the Hours, get more and more into the story of Jesus, and still live in a busy world, with enough discipline to keep life from destroying “the spirit of prayer and devotion,” the phrase that St. Francis used in his Rule.

It doesn’t have to be the Liturgy of the Hours. I have read that the Dominican rosary, with fifteen decades, was intended as a substitute for the 150 psalms. But my problem with the Dominican rosary is that its fifteen mysteries completely leave out the public life of Jesus. I fixed that by creating five “public mysteries.” I beat John Paul II’s “luminous mysteries” by a few years.

I have this feeling: I know who I am. We know who we are. We are people living the story of Jesus, and living all the stories that lead up to Jesus, such as the story of Abraham and David and Isaiah and Jeremiah. We are bathed in those stories. They are what make us Christian.

That’s what we need. I don’t agree with Mr. Dreher that we have to withdraw from the world. I don’t agree that same-sex marriage is a sign of the end of Christianity. Maybe it’s because Francis of Assisi rejected Benedict’s approach. Francis decided that his followers were to get out into the world and deal with it, not withdraw from it.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On the value of Scripture

April 5, 2017

News these days is depressing. Just this morning the U.S. Attorney General is announcing that the Justice Department will no longer push city police departments regarding discrimination issues. Russia says that the chemical attack in Syria is the work of rebels, not of their Syrian ally. The Senate is about to take one step further into polarization and deadlock by requiring only a simple majority vote to confirm Mr. Gorsuch as a Supreme Court judge. The people with money are more and more successful in steering both legislatures and courts in their favor.

I have the feeling that I am swimming in a sea where moral sensitivity has given way to power as the all-determining factor.

I shouldn't be so shook up. Most of the human race is living under conditions similar to what I am complaining about. And it always has.

Which brings me back to the psalms, and to the Scriptures in general.

I grant that the writings of what we Christians call the Old and New Testaments are the products of human authors, writing under the constraints of their times and cultures. Yet my Church maintains that overall those writings are guided by God's Holy Spirit.

Suppose that more people would live in worlds shaped by those Scriptures. They would know the stories and they would pray the prayers that have come down to us. True, those stories and prayers can be interpreted in many ways, some of them very destructive. But my experience has been that the world shaped by the Scriptures is a gentle world, sensitive to the needs of others, and conducive to lives characterized by passionate, respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvements of people with each other--in other words, characterized by love.

The psalms in particular remind me that their origins were in a world where the powerful took advantage of the powerless, and where people routinely betrayed one another. In other words, they lived in a world where sin existed. We don't live in a world where sin exists. We make mistakes, but we never sin.

We live in a world where the god that is commonly worshipped is the god of Profit, Income, Investments. This god is relentless and heartless. It demands sacrifices similar to what the ancient Aztec people demanded when they had to sacrifice a certain number of prisoners every day to appease their gods. Our world's god creates poverty, explains it as a temporary deviation from a process that will never end, and turns away when lives are destroyed by poverty. That god deadens its people by electronics, the opium of the people.

The Christian scriptures and their Jewish antecedents show us a different God. Their God is probably more like the God that a devout Muslim worships than like the god of Profit, Income, and Investments. They call God Allah. I rather like that name. God can handle more than one name.

Some of our Christian neighbors give the Scriptures a bad reputation when they equate the Scriptures with God incarnate, and then proceed to dictate what those Scriptures require. But we Catholics are guilty of the same mistake when we make the Pope God incarnate. Papal infallibility is a pernicious doctrine. It has locked Catholic orthodoxy into political demands that are destructive, such as the opposition to contraception that keeps poorer nations from receiving aid. In our country it has contributed to the poisoning of our political discourse about the abortion issue. When we decide that people who don't agree with us are evil, our worst instincts are fired up and we go to war.

So we too are sinful, just like the people that have prayed the psalms down through the years. I wish more of us could live in the world that the Scriptures create for us.