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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Opioids and steroids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They can all help us learn God.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Prison bars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 12, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

The rosary has fascinated me for several reasons.

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

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

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

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

That’s what physical beads can mean.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

The future of religion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 15, 2019


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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