My previous blog (scroll down for “Breaking Bad”) described the cancerous oligarchy whose disease has metastasized into our civic “body of faith.” Today I write about healing that body. I hope it doesn’t get either too academic or too homiletic.
But first a crucial point: threats to the health of our body of faith don’t just come from the kinds of politics I last wrote about. They come from many sources of our wariness and fear, from daily diminishments in courtesy and respect as well big hassles with impersonal systems.
How, then, do we nourish what remains of our body of basic trust, and grow its healing strength into the malignant parts of ourselves and our society? For that, nothing less, is the challenge we face.
First, two simple examples.
I recently talked with another scholar about the Yankees. It was actually quite serious. I’d made reference to my childhood kinship with Yankee fans, but he missed the point and dismissed professional sports as “just entertainment.” So I asked him, a Chicago resident, whether the Cubs were “just entertainment” in Chicago. When he hesitated, I told him my experience of “Bronco Sundays” in Denver. Here, if just for a moment, our many real civic, ethnic, racial, and economic divisions are typically set aside when the Broncos play. In the stands, at pubs, on the streets, the African-American bus driver shares groans and high fives with an Anglo businessman and an Hispanic construction worker. When so many wear Broncos shirts, orange is the only color that matters. It’s not “just entertainment,” though it certainly is that, and very good business as well. And it too often involves the corruptions of big money, superficial celebrity, and impersonal systems. Finally, though (this was the missed point), the sports teams in places like Denver and Chicago and New York, and local teams in all parts of this country (and every country of the world) embody and express a feeling of shared pride and hope for city or town or even for the whole country (think Olympic women’s soccer). It’s a small thing, and temporary, yet still contributes significantly (as do so many “small” things!) to our body of faith. And thankfully the Colorado Rockies are winning big so far this year, as are the Yankees. (Dreams of an improbable World Series.)
There’s also a much simpler story you may have seen on the news. Jimmy Carter recently got on a flight leaving Atlanta and proceeded down the aisle to shake hands and exchange greetings with everyone on the plane. Perhaps Carter can do this sort of thing since he’s known for tireless church work, for supporting groups like Habitat, and for the Carter Center’s peace work around the world. He’s know to be trustworthy and generous, so his walk down that aisle was newsworthy for its simple way of expressing our shared body of trust.
Take a moment and you’ll find many other examples from your own experience.
That such interactions both express and nourish a “body of faith” is an idea I take from my mentor (and fellow Yankee fan) William Lynch, SJ. He argued that our human city (in all its many forms) is above all a “body of faith” and not just a complex tangle of structures and interests. He asked us to imagine the city realistically, in its rich complexity. It grew and lives most fundamentally because enough people trusted each other to join their resources and energies – people as different and often in conflict as business owners and workers, Catholics and Jews and Protestants, teachers and bureaucrats and parents, cops and kids, courts and lawyers…. And, yes, women and men. So while building a city (or town or country) clearly takes money and work, streets and structures, systems and skills, the city doesn’t work well (and often not at all) when wariness and distrust grow beyond a tolerable (and necessary) level. Without a sense that “the other,” even when we really differ and disagree, is basically trustworthy, the human city starts to die, replaced by warring camps and walled enclaves.
In classical political thought, we need the “cardinal virtues” or fundamental strengths of prudence, justice, courage, and moderation to build up our human city. Christian belief urges as well that we open minds and hearts to the “theological” virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These virtues, named abstractly here, are the resources we need to fight the cancers of fear and distrust and to build a more human city
Yet we learn and develop such virtues in real life and not from abstract concepts. We inherit them as practices already embodied in the life of our families and schools, in commerce and sport. They hopefully become personal habits or strengths as we grow, habits in our individual lives and in our society. And then we together, often with great difficulty, develop new forms for their practice in face of the challenges of our times.
We are, then, very blessed to find many forms and practices of real virtue among us — real habits of the heart, embodied in institutions and folkways: in hospitals and shops, governments and clubs and churches. And expressed daily in many kinds of ritual and gesture such as Carter’s aisle-walk or the sports-fans’ high fives. Sure much of this can be phony, but fortunately much of it is quite real.
Such shared virtue is also embodied in movements or currents of thought and action – like growing concern for good food (for all) and the corresponding growth of locavore economies. Like our much conflicted but fundamentally humanizing concern for gender respect and equality. (“For the rising of the women [really] is the rising of the race” as the labor song “Bread and Roses” once put it ). Or like our equally conflicted yet crucial movements for good education and health care in cities and towns across the country. And for better public transportation. And in the currently powerful movement of an ecumenical spirit among churches and between religions. And perhaps most fundamentally in our again very conflicted but growing awareness of environmental crisis and its connection to poverty and political unrest. And in many forms of response to such awareness — often competing, but more typically collaborative.
I realize, of course, that my listing of such movements reflects my experience and perspective. There undoubtedly are other movements I don’t understand, and even at times oppose, which nonetheless in their ways also contribute to building up our body of faith. I, for instance, don’t like the continual media drum roll of “puffed-up military patriotism.” Yet I’ve known so many folks whose years of military service contributed greatly to their goodness and contributes still to building up our shared body of faith. We clearly know as well that there are many movements of culture and consciousness which embody and embolden vice rather than virtue.
Pope Francis, in his first great writing “The Joy of the Gospel” called us to pay serious attention to the cultural and political movements of our time, and to discern what in them manifests aspects of God’s Kingdom and what might express forms of life opposed to God’s reign. See especially his second chapter “Amidst the Crisis of Communal Commitment.”
Of course, far more fundamentally than by his writings, it has been the person of this pope, his spirit and iconic actions, which have restored for so many around the globe a sense of civic hope and purpose. So I urge readers to dwell in prayerful imagination on the memory of public moments (whether by a pope, a president, or by any who evoke admiration), but even more to dwell in memory and awareness of similar but more “ordinary” moments from our day (something the Jesuits call “Examen”), and most fundamentally to allow such imaginative reflection to arise as we prayerfully enter into scenes from the Gospels (for this is the central form of Ignatian spiritual practice). By such imaginative (and prayerful) indwelling we gain strength to resist being overwhelmed by the bad news and bad faith which daily weaken us — to resist by attention to the broader reach of reality, by making our own in hearts and heads the real people and actual events (big or small) which embody trust and nourish hope. This is not an escape from all that is breaking bad, but regular recovery of the solid and real ground of prudence and courage, justice and charity.
Reading too can nourish such attention and imagination, so I do not hesitate to suggest that folks of all faiths take up Pope Francis’ writings. I’d especially recommend rereading now and then his Sept. 24, 2015 address to a joint session of Congress and to all of us in this country. It is a short but unflinching discussion of the great challenges we face, replete with continual calls for dialogue as the way of proceeding, important for emphasizing the iconic witness of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, and issuing a warning that “we must especially guard against the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. [For] The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.”
Of course there are many sources for such reading and meditation, classical and contemporary, serious and comic. And I hope some readers might respond below with their recommendations. Finally, though, such reading and dialogue (what Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin called the “clarification of thought”) would remain empty without daily practice or action in all our institutional and civic settings.
I suspect most of us struggle to find our own ways of making such contributions to building our body of faith in the many different settings of our lives.
So let me close with examples of contributions which suggest the importance of poetry and song for helping us in such struggle. Each example also provides a wonderfully different, quite different, woman’s voice to ways of “going good.” [As does the voice of Denise Levertov added by Kevin Burke, SJ’s comment below.] Readers, of course, surely also know other and better examples.
My first “example” is Rita Connelly’s remarkable rendition in Parliament of “The Deer’s Cry” (traced back to St. Patrick himself) at the November 2011 inauguration of Irish President Michael Higgins. Take time to look and listen.
Then there are the words of a poem by Mary Karr recently published in Commonweal. Here is the text:
The Voice of God
Ninety percent of what’s wrong with you
could be cured with a hot bath,
says God from the bowels of the subway.
but we want magic, to win
the lottery we never bought a ticket for.
(Tenderly, the monks chant, embrace
the suffering.) The voice of God does not pander,
offers no five-year plan, no long-term
solution, nary an edict. It is small & fond & local.
Don’t look for your initials in the geese
honking overhead or to see thru the glass even
darkly. It says the most obvious crap—
put down that gun, you need a sandwich.