The Fire of Divine Love — Pentecost and Black Lives Matter

At some point during the Black Lives Matter protests, it struck me as more than just coincidence that the protests broke out during our Christian celebration of Pentecost. So if you’re up for another read about racism (and I know you may well have your plate filled with other good reads and deeds), I invite you to join me in reflecting on the presence of the Holy Spirit within our current crises.  I say reflecting, since that’s my purpose, but my writing is also part remembrance, part stories, part my typical sermonizing, and as always too long.

1. “Come Holy Ghost and fill the hearts of Thy faithful.” That’s the way I remember the opening line of a prayer we Catholics said quite often back when I was a child.

These days Her name is officially “The Holy Spirit” and there’s been of late much good theological and spiritual writing about this too-often “forgotten Person of the Trinity.” Yet strangely, of so it seems to me, while the leadership is paying more attention, so-called “ordinary Catholics” pray less often and less poignantly to the Holy Spirit than they did in the good old days. Perhaps I’m wrong about that.

The prayer continues: “Enkindle in [the hearts of Thy faithful] the fire of Thy divine love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created. And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”

Memory also calls up the hymn “Come Holy Ghost,” sung full-throated by the whole congregation, creating an upswell of sound like a gust of the Spirit’s breath on the congregation. It was sung, if memory serves, at the end of Mass or some other ceremony. Here (courtesy of Google) are its words:

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest, And in our hearts take up Thy rest;
Come with thy grace and heav’nly aid to fill our hearts which thou hast made,
To fill our hearts which Thou has made.

O Comforter, to thee we cry, Thou heav’nly gift of God most high;
Thou fount of life, and fire of love, And sweet anointing from above, and sweet anointing from above.

I was going to highlight some of the phrases in these texts, but it would be better, if you’re interested, to re-read the texts and find words and phrases you’d highlight and take in.

2. I’m far from the only one who has seen a co-incidence, some actual spiritual or spirit filled connection, between what we celebrate in Pentecost and what we’re experiencing on the streets and more generally in our public life.

Here’s the way I see that co-incidence. The Holy Spirit has indeed burst forth again in our streets and sermons, in public debate and private reflection. She has filled many hearts with the fire of her divine love, given sweet anointing to many for a holy work, called all to renew the face of the earth. This I believe.

Of course, the Holy Spirit is always with us, always filling hearts with divine love, often with consolation, often with challenge. Yet from our human perspective, it is at special times or moments that the Holy Spirit is most obviously filling human hearts with the fire of Divine love. Pentecost itself was such a moment in the life of the earliest church. Theologians speak of these as kairos moments in contrast to the day-by-day passage of chronos or ordinary time. I’m suggesting that we are living within such a Spirit-shaken and spirit-shaking moment.

Many talk about these days as a turning point – a definitive or at least major turning point in the life of our country. I believe and hope that this is true. Yet even more I hope that within this turning point in our history, most have been radically opened to the movement of God’s Spirit (however unreflective or unconscious that openness) as it seeks to  lead all towards active and even angry love of neighbor. This would make any turning point a true metanoia – a deep conversion of spirit for God’s people.

3. Examples are everywhere.

Perhaps most obviously in the new and growing public ritual of kneeling. “Taking a knee” probably means many things to many of the kneelers.  Perhaps for some, its sports meaning stands out:  taking a rest, stepping back to the sidelines, away from the struggle. Yet its religious roots are inescapable, especially when we are kneeling seriously before unjust death. So I do belief that the Holy Spirit has been moving through this new ritual, especially through the many who kneel before the mystery of life and death, good and evil, and allow, in effect if not intentionally, the Spirit of God to move within them.

I wish I knew what music is being sung in the streets and will grow into popularity through this moment. Whether it might create beautiful and challenging rhythms for the Holy Spirit’s movement in our hearts and minds.

I remember that the music accompanying and growing around the civil rights and anti-war movements of “the 60’s” often expressed spiritual hopes.  Often even with explicitly religious words.  This was especially in the civil rights movement.  Indeed, I think that the Black Church in its many forms remains today, as it did then, one of the major sources of openness to and expression of God’s Spirit in this country, for the good of all of us.

As a different kind of example of the movement of the Holy Spirit during the present moment, I note the many ways that something has moved so many to “speak out” again — perhaps not in diverse tongues, but in new ways with friends and neighbors, and within that community of public conversation which our media, at their best, can be.

I note specifically a recent and seemingly orchestrated campaign of messages to the US from Francis and the Vatican in response to this moment of brutal murder and COVID-19 death rates among black Americans .  Francis’ communication affirms Christian belief that the Holy Spirit speaks especially through the Church, and Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit speaks especially through the Pope. Yet I also believe that the Holy Spirit is speaking and moving today through many in different churches and synagogues and mosques.

The particular point of Francis’ media blitz seems to be to use the current moment to remind all Americans, but especially American Catholics, that the defense of life must be broad – not limited to the defense of the unborn, but including the defense of black lives and immigrant lives, the defense of lives limited by poverty and unjust working conditions. His speaking is explicitly directed to those “conservative” Catholics in the US – especially among the rich with their media connections, among many well-connected US Bishops, and among many “ordinary” Catholics – who have waged a campaign to discredit Francis’ papacy since it’s first day.  And who, not at all coincidentally, have funded and voted for Trump and are doing so again. Francis especially challenges bishops like New York’s Cardinal Dolan, now national chairperson of Catholics For Trump.  Dolan  supports Trump, as he has explicitly said, since nothing else matters but stopping abortion. Yet the Pope’s words directly contradict and seek to correct that narrow, one isssue war cry of the US Catholic right.

The Pope’s messaging is one among many examples of the fire of Divine Love informing our public conversation.

4. As a final reflection, I recall the Ignatian or Jesuit emphasis on “the discernment of spirits.” For if I believe that the Holy Spirit is present and active at this special moment, I also know that many other spirits, some downright evil, are at work among us.

Racism and a wider spirit of intolerance and exclusion, as well as the deep joy of hatred and our culture’s love of violence – these are but a few of the spirits at work in us and in the body politic. Greed is always there too, as also power-lust, arrogance, narrowness, narcissism, willed ignorance, escapism. Such spirits are always active in human life, at every level and location – from the President to the prison guard to the guy next door, and probably among protesters as much as among police.

Thus we need, individually and collectively, to be involved in discerning among the spirits that move us – in asking which are truly of the Spirit and which not.

That’s, of course, what I believe Francis and the Vatican are trying to help American Catholicism think about. It’s what the best public discourse and the best zooms with friends are in-effect helping us with.

It’s what we need lest this moment  lose direction and then momentum. We need to discern the spirits and struggle to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit.

As a concluding twist to the story, I further note that Holy Spirit Herself nourishes in us the gifts we need to discern and follow Her today.

5. Here, then, as a conclusion, I list the traditional Seven Gifts of the Spirit (which I had to look up) with my own brief “explanation” of each:

1) The gift of Wisdom can be stern like Solomon’s or playful and joyful like Sophia. It’s needed in both both streets and senates.

2) Understanding is like a Spirit-grounded liberal education, with breadth, openness, critical ability, and reasoned response.

3) Counsel is needed when standing before the mirror, talking with sons and daughters, listening to friends….

4) Fortitude is the courage to acknowledge the past and sustain the long road ahead.

5) Knowledge means getting the facts right, even with confusing media and the fog of a war like this.

6) Piety no longer means pious obedience but deep loyalty — to family and friends, to fellow citizens, to the best of our nation. Piety should inform the kinds of patriotism which are expressed in daily civic life, not in mostly superficial song.

7) Fear of the Lord is the most needed gift, and the most misunderstood.  The Hebrew Bible constantly urges “fear of the Lord,” yet a Greek source has led me to substitute the word “reverence” for the misunderstood “fear.”  It suggests that “Reverence is the matrix of nobility.” A fundamental attitude of reverence — for the good, for creation, ultimately for the gods and God — is the the sustaining ground of those other gifts of courage and wisdom and knowledge.  Without reverence — which does involve fear but also an equally fundamental love, of beauty and goodness — without reverence,  an openness to the Spirit cannot be sustained.

PS. I hope my reflections may help. As always, I’d love to hear your disagreements, agreements, additions….

The “Eternal Question”: Reading Dostoyevsky in a Time of Pandemic

I have not written for this blog lately. Yet I have recently immersed myself again in Dostoyevsky, especially in his greatest work The Brothers Karamazov. Many of his ideas seem pertinent for our present crisis. Here I attempt to note several of them.

1. I first read “The Bros K” at the suggestion of a high school mentor. Most of it was far beyond my ken, but I nonetheless really felt the book’s great passions. And that first experience led me back to a number of re-readings along with some study – almost always with a fresh sense of those deep human passions which move us towards both evil and good.

2. What most attracted me from the first was the figure of Aloysha, youngest of the brothers, whom Dostoyevsky on his first page tells us is the hero of his tale. We meet him as a young novice in the local monastery, obedient to the holy elder Zosima, who before dying commands Aloysha to leave the monastery and seek holiness in the world. In the crazy world of greed, lust, and so many unruly passions. In a world of crime and punishment. Yet also a world of so much good, so many passions for good, perhaps especially in “ordinary worldly heroes” like Aloysha.

I still remember the surge of emotion I felt on first reading the great scene when Aloysha – in terrible grief at the death of his elder — stands alone under the star-filled sky and throws himself down to kiss the earth — thereby embracing his calling to work with the town’s youth.

Re-reading Dostoyevsky during this time of pandemic, I think of the many, many “Aloysha like” heroes we increasingly take notice of – front line workers, to be sure, but also those maintaining the food chain, those continuing to educate the young at home and online, mail and sanitation workers…. Perhaps try to imagine those you’ve most noticed and appreciated.

3. I once tried to use “The Bros K” with college students in an “Intro to Religious Studies” course. They were mostly good students (with the inevitable mix of tired and bored). But it didn’t work. Because of the book’s length, the complexity of its characters, the density of its prose and imagery, and the challenge of its conflicting ideas and themes. I never tried it again. Yet who knows? Seeds may have been planted, even in the bored.

I did not challenge them to read the entire book. Since it was a religious studies course, I focused above all on those chapters focused explicitly on the “eternal question” (Dostoyevsky’s term) about evil and God – how can one possibly believe in a good God or the goodness of God’s creation when the world is so filled with evils.

The question arises for all of us – or perhaps is already settled for many – because real evils are so inescapable in our lives and our world. Indeed, this pandemic is clearly an experience of evil, both the “physical evil” of a natural disaster, and the “moral or culpable evils” involved in its spread. I think, for instance, of the ways human hope is crushed through unemployment and poverty, through greed and intolerance (now so clearly visible), and through the violence which will inevitably ensue.

4. As many know, it is the middle brother, Ivan (the intellectual) who provides one the greatest articulations of the problem of evil and one of the most powerful accusations against God (Christ) for silence in the face of that problem. Yet Ivan is not simply a “rebel” against traditional belief. Despite his immensely powerful argument for nihilism — that there is no good or evil; nothing is immoral — he too suffers great internal torment about this question, to the point of succumbing for a time to deep depression and despair.

5. And then there is Dimitri, the oldest brother – a military man of action and often violent passion, convicted in the end of the crime of killing his depraved and wealthy father Fyodor Karamazov. It’s a crime he did not commit, though he openly admits to many other crimes of passion, blaming the curse of the “Karamazov lust for life.”

I recommend the 1958 English language film version of “the Bros K”  which gives a very good depiction of Dimitri, played with great skill by Yul Brenner. Unfortunately the film displaces the centrality of Aloysha and Ivan, thus giving very little sense of the political-theological concerns which were so central for Dostoyevsky.  The other brothers are simply supporting actors in Dimitri’s story. Yet the film does give a good sense the depth of human passion for both good and evil. (I just saw it again and was surprised to see that a young William Shatner had played Aloysha.)

5. So why write about this “during a time of pandemic”?

In part because, as I’ve already suggested, the pandemic itself and the political and economic effects we are already experiencing pose for all of us (at least at some intuitive or implicit level) the deeply troubling problem of evil.

But perhaps more, because, as a believer, I want agree with the dying elder, Fr. Zosima. After Ivan’s intellectual “rebellion,” subsequent chapters  give Dostoyevsky’s account of the elder’s life and teachings. They too, like Ivan’s words, are compelling and not easily summarized. Suffice here to say that Zosima’s wrestling with good and evil is grounded in his understanding of the Christian Gospel – his focus on God’s mercy and forgiveness, on love of neighbor as the essence of human life, and on the fact that love in reality, not just in words and dreams, is so often “a harsh and dreadful thing” whose exemplar is the suffering Jesus.

Many think that Zosima’s teachings are Dostoyevsky’s attempt to refute Ivan and the atheism which he represents. Yet I think it is far more accurate to suggest that, as a novelist, Dostoyevsky writes less to provide answers than to challenge his readers to face “the eternal question” for themselves.

And as I’ve suggested, this pandemic – this plague – may have raised that challenge again, at least for many of us.

6. So let me end on a perhaps provocative note.

As I see it, we are today witnessing a great (if mostly implicit) affirmation of Zosima’s gospel proclamation about real and costly love of neighbor. By “front-line” women and men, but also right on the street where we live, in the places where we shop, in the many good people whose stories are now carried in our media. Also in what seems a growing awareness of the needy, the ill and unemployed and homeless among us. I clearly know that these many folks are a mix of humanists and believers, of Jews and Muslims and others as much as Christians. Yet I firmly believe that they have, by their active love of neighbor, joined Zossima against Ivan.

Just as I fear that Ivan’s side of the story will continue to play itself out in the actions of those among us who are fundamentally motivated (whatever their pious professions) by rapacious greed and power lust. Our many second-rate nihilists.

In the end, like all of Dostoyevsky’s major characters, like most of our heroes and neighbors and perhaps even some of our nihilists, we too live between good and evil — in the tension of opposing passions. And the challenge (for a time of pandemic isolation) may be that of discerning their movements in our lives (and our world) and then seeking to shift in ourselves (and in our world) the “balance” between them.


Ps. I regret I have not commented on the complex passions for good and evil found in the book’s two central women, Katya and Grushenka.

Soul Talk in a Time of Pandemic (Lynch # 6)

This writing simply suggests that, in addition to good medical information and advice about the pandemic, there is another, a spiritual or soul dimension to our response that also needs attention.

Put too simply, most of the commentary I’ve seen does not yet address the spiritual resources and practices we need as we move through this health crisis, words and ideas to help us endure its sufferings and experiences its opportunities.

As my contribution to that latter effort, I will below share just one of my mentor William Lynch’s teachings which I think might be helpful for us in the present. And then will add some wisdom from Dorothy Day.

But the main point of this writing is not Lynch’s or Day’s ideas, helpful though I hope they may be, but the need we all have to find spiritual resources or soul talk for living through these times. I suspect we can find such resource in many writers and saints who draw on the taproots of spiritual wisdom. I think of folks like Thomas Merton, of Therese of Lisieux whom Day wrote a book about, of Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr, of Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi. And of Francis, both of them, and of the many other folks (living or deceased, famous or familial) who are for each of us icons of spiritual sanity.

A teaching from Lynch about vulnerability and solidarity, suffering and seeing

Let me begin with a magnificent passage from Lynch’s book Images of Hope (1965)

As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives:

We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally and physically well and all the ill…. The idea of the city of man will have to remain eternally open and flexible, ready to adjust itself to the new, to new races and above all to new illnesses. How many [of us] are up to building this kind of city remains to be seen.

Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity will always be excluded. They will pose as ideal cities, but will always exclude the Negro, the sick, the different.

Then Lynch adds a realistically ominous note:

These non-human cities offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful men and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.

Images of Hope is a book about “mental illness and hope,” and as Lynch notes wryly but accurately, “we are all at least a little bit ill.” And perhaps more than a little worried at this moment.

Here’s the gist of Lynch’s ideas about hope: it is a not what is often imagined as hope — some great leap to transcend the bad news or a hopeless situation. Such fantasy ideas about hope do little to really help us, often making things worse. Rather real hope is nurtured by help experienced in daily living. It is a matter of small steps, reaching out to the actual world (and not to some fantasy). And it is being helped out of our fears and helping others in the same way. About the many small ways in which we daily find help – from friends, or just from a breath of air; from a smile or helping hand (received or given); from the many daily goods which persist amidst clouds of gloom.

This sense of help is itself grounded in a recognition of human vulnerability and suffering. Our own suffering and need calls out to others. Seeing (and not avoiding) the others’ suffering calls out to us. This is how the inclusive and hopeful human city actually grows; how hope is brought forward by little and by little, but realistically and not in some fantasy.

Of course, we can and do respond to need and suffering by turning away, retreating into some fantasy of walled separation. And as Lynch says, we would be fools to underestimate the fascination of escape mechanisms for the fearful folks we all are (and in important senses must be).

Thus, in good Ignatian fashion, Lynch urges us to careful discernment about the spirits or passions aroused by the suffering we see and the fears we have – discerning between those which lead towards flight and further hopelessness, and those which open hearts and minds to real help and hope.

Let me put this another way. Lynch at one point says that he especially admires the East River in New York City, just several blocks from where he grew as a child. Why? Because the river flows ever into a greater world – slowly, with the rhythm of tides, but continually, “a symbol of a passage of human beings into a wider and wider world, into the making of a port and then an ocean.” Then he adds quite dramatically, “We need such a world. Of all things we need, we need a world.”

Elsewhere he adds a remarkable aphorism about that need for a world. Comparing them to the Gospel’s pearls of great price, he says we need both “a good taste of self and a good taste of the world.” And he stresses that these good tastes are inseparable or mutually reinforcing. You can’t have one without the other.

And from Saint Dorothy

As a reminder that this essay is not primarily about Lynch, but about other saints and sages who might help us with the spiritual, I end with a simple listing of some Dorothy Day’s teachings which strike me as important for this moment.

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.

We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.

The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.

Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.

People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.

My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.

Everything a baptized person does every day should be directly or indirectly related to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

Please consider sharing your sources of spiritual wisdom with others, here on this site or among friends and colleagues where it may be of great help.

Why not Bernie? Why not Bloomberg? Why not…?

We seem to be entering the final stage of this season of discontents.

The noise of news and candidate debates grows apace, often furiously.

I just got my mail-in ballot for the Denver Dem. presidential primary, due back soon.

Several days ago, I had a surprising discussion with two old friends about the Democratic race.  Surprising because all of us were at least willing to consider the possibility of Bloomberg’s candidacy.  It was a good discussion that I hope here to share with more friends.

And I really hope that some of you will join this conversation by posting comments below.

Most of my friends and family support Sanders or Warren.  Indeed, just before sitting to write this post I received a very strong anti-Bloomberg posting from Rob Prince, a good lefty friend here in Denver.

The over-riding concern among my friends is that we must beat Trump.  Find the candidate who can beat Trump, one whose policies we like or at least can live with.

I agree, that’s a crucial goal, but only one of two.  The second crucial goal must be to work against the polarizations which grow increasingly worse and stymie efforts for much needed change.

Here’s my take on that second goal:

  • If Bernie is the candidate there will be a huge (and for many a frightening) up-swell of often very angry groups on the left. If he then loses to Trump, that up-swell from  will be confronted by an again empowered angry and fear-filled up-swell on the right.  And much the same if Bernie beats Trump.  In either case, our very dangerous polarizations will be exacerbated, deepened, worsened. Or so I fear.
  • Now play the same guessing game with other candidates, asking the same set of questions about how they might either worsen or begin to heal deep divisions. Might Bloomberg, for instance, actually satisfy the hope many of us have for pragmatic solutions and social stability?  Or will he so enrage Trumpers and radicals of all kinds, right as much as left, that “this rich Jew from New York” will only foment deeper hatreds among us.
  • And so on with Buttigieg, Warren, Biden, Klobuchar… Which can beat Trump with the least polarizing uproar from angry and fear filled groups, with some hope of beginning to heal deep divisions and thus some hope of actually bringing important policies to fruition?

My point is pretty simple.  Not only must we defeat Trump and his congressional minions, but we have to think hard about who can then better address all of our people in at least some movement against polarized fear.

David Brooks recently posted an opinion piece much related to my point.   He argues that both Trump and Sanders have been successful because they sell simplistic myths about the way forward – simplistic and deeply polarizing.  He then contrasts such polarizing myths with a serious alternative – what he calls “the gathering myth.” His remarks on that alternative are worth quoting at length:

Everywhere I go I see systems that are struggling — school systems, housing systems, family structures, neighborhoods trying to bridge diversity. These problems aren’t caused by some group of intentionally evil people. They exist because living through a time of economic, technological, demographic and cultural transition is hard. Creating social trust across diversity is hard.

Everywhere I go I see a process that is the opposite of group vs. group war. It is gathering. It is people becoming extra active on the local level to repair the systems in their lives. I see a great yearning for solidarity, an eagerness to come together and make practical change.

These gathering efforts are hampered by rippers at the national level who stoke rage and fear and tell friend/enemy stories. These efforts are hampered by men like Sanders and Trump who have never worked within a party or subordinated themselves to a team — men who are one trick ponies. All they do is stand on a podium and bellow.

In the gathering myth, the heroes have traits Trump and Sanders lack: open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.

The gathering myth is an alternative myth — one that has the advantage of being true.

I don’t agree with his simplistic description of Sanders whom I will in the end probably support.  But there is an important truth in that description.

Far more important is his call for attention to “the gathering myth,” though I fear he exaggerates its pervasiveness.  What he has to say about that myth is very much in line with what I wrote in my preceding post about “our better angels.” 






Polarization and Our Better Angels (Lynch # 5)*

I’ve not “blogged much of late, but a recent conference has changed that. The purpose and spirit of that conference is captured by these introductory citations from speeches before the US Congress:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
– Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861

But there is another temptation we must especially guard against: The simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. 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 into these two camps.
– Pope Francis to Congress, Sept 24, 2015

During these days increasingly bitter days of Trump’s presidency and endless electioneering, with slogan shouting across so many divides, many are concerned not just about political and cultural polarization, but about the ways that a polarizing spirit has become the new normal, making it extremely difficult (if not almost impossible) for people to work together across real differences for resolutions to the challenges we all face.

A Denver-based group, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, recently hosted a “Together in This” convocation — co-sponsored, I’m happy to say, by Regis University and a number of other academic and religious groups. It brought together national and local folks concerned to work against polarization by strategizing how “we” (especially religious folk) might nourish a broad public sense that we are all “together in this” and that all of us can and must work together for the common good — even with continuing and often very deep differences.

I have long admired this group from a distance since it had been my experience — as an invited panelist for one of their programs — that their very good work on immensely important common issues (“religious liberty, racial justice, and economic justice”) was nonetheless too controlled by a left-liberal ideology (think ACLU as well as most mainline Protestant and Jewish groups ) with whose orthodoxy (on abortion for instance) I at times respectfully disagreed.

Still, when they announced a local conference on working against polarizing orthodoxies and ideologies, I was very interested.

For the poisonous effects of a polarizing spirit was, already in “the 60s”, the constant concern of my mentor William Lynch, SJ. He continually worked for the development among us of an alternative integrating spirit – for a both-and rather than an either-or sensibility in both personal and public life. Thus I was immediately interested in this conference billed to take up precisely the challenge which occupied him – imagining realistic ways of nurturing collaboration across important divisions.

I admit to being far more than pleasantly surprised by the conference itself; indeed immensely grateful. Surprised because I went fearing more liberal orthodoxy. Grateful because the conference was, for me and many, a Kairos moment.

I hope that I might, in what follows, give a sense of the conference without being gracelessly long-winded.

The conference focused on the polarizations which characterize both our faith communities and our national situation. It was, as I’d expected, a gathering of the liberal/left choir. But “they” were deeply concerned with a coming together across our polarizations, reaching out from “our side” to “the others.” Put differently, this was a group of “liberals” concerned about how, with continuing commitment to “their” important causes, they might also work with the “others” to re-awaken a fundamental sense of civility or civic trust – what Lynch imagined as a “body of faith” and Lincoln called “our bonds of affection…sustained by mystic chords of memory.”

The opening evening panel was composed of local religious leaders – Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant. It began with a recognition of shared lament – recognition of the widespread sadness, anger, fatigue, and depression so many feel about polarization in families and communities, the wider culture and politics at every level.

The president of Denver Seminary (Evangelical) lamented the way in which his Evangelical tradition, historically strong (since anti-slavery times) in work for justice, has gradually been seduced and reduced by a narrow “conservative” ideology. The president of Iliff Seminary (mainline Protestant) lamented the recent split in his Methodist Church over sexual and gender issues. A Rabbi and a Catholic Sister each in turn lamented widespread polarization within their communities.

I was especially struck by this religious emphasis on lamentation, a rarely heard but very good term for what so many of us feel. Yet the panel then moved from lament to hope. Some even expressed the hope that increasingly bitter polarization might actually galvanize counter movements. Tthat was the topic of the next day’s workshop.

The day’s opening plenary described, with for me shocking statistical graphs, the increasing rates of polarization across so many dimensions of our society. Yet the speaker’s goal, given that big picture, was to argue that religious communities — despite the widespread cliché that religion is the cause of polarization — might again nourish a renewed “American Consensus” or “body of civic faith.” The speaker was Allen Hilton whose ideas are developed in his book A House United: How The Church Can Save The World (Fortress Press, 2018).

After his talk, Hilton led us into small group discussion about divisions in our religious communities and stories about healing those divisions. Indeed, for me the heart of the day’s program was successive break-out and small group sessions among the participants who were mainline Protestants, Jews, some Muslims, and at least one Sikh. (I was, I believe, the only Catholic.) They were clergy and church workers, seminary and grad students, many elders and (typically) far more women than men.

The morning break-out I attended was led by Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a national movement trying to get religious voters to oppose Trump’s deliberately polarizing spirit. Pagitt was in Denver for a rally later that day as part of a national bus tour. I urge you to check out their excellent website.

The afternoon plenary involved wonderful motivational talks by two leaders of the Interfaith Alliance . Rev. Amanda Henderson is the Alliance’s founder and executive director. Her colleague, Iman Jodeh, is a first generation Palestinian American, spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society (a rare Muslim woman elected for such a position), and is currently running for the Colorado State Senate (where she hopefully will be the first Muslim to serve). Both told compelling personal stories about their reasons for being “together in this.”

The afternoon break-out I happily chose was led by a local volunteer for Better Angels, a national movement started after the 2016 election to bring together Trump and Clinton supporters. Again, I urge you to explore their great website. For they have developed  a variety of meeting formats which carefully bring together an equal number of “red” and “blue” participants (in churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations) to meet as human beings and fellow citizens in response to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” For me their effort, which will continue well past the current election cycle, was a magnificent end to a great day.

* I recently append to my blogposts (this is the fifth such) notes about William Lynch’s writings which are relevant to the post’s topic.

In the preface to his 1965 book Images of Hope, Lynch wrote (here in an edited version): “As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives: We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally well and the mentally ill, [the red and the blue, women equally with men]…. Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity [the many  “others”] will be excluded.” He then added, realistically but ominously: “how many will be up to building this [inclusive] city remains to be seen” since walled-off enclaves “offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful people and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.”

Lynch’s final book, Images of Faith (1973), argues that any truly human and inclusive city is best understood or imagined as “a body of faith.” Put differently, a good city (whether a village or a neighborhood or a major metropolis) is actually constituted by many interwoven relationships of trust and collaboration. Such a city, in other words, is not just made of streets and structures, traffic and business, legal rules and economic processes. For such structures and institutions will work only when they actually embody a fundamental sense of trust and faith in each other. The alternative is all the patterns of distrust, fear, opposition, and withdrawal into walled enclaves which we today so often experience.

Of course the actual city where each of us lives is a messy mix of both faith and fear, trust and distrust. And the real question remains: how many of us will be up to working to build such trust by overcoming fear and distrust?

A final personal pique. At one point early in the workshop John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” was played while its words flashed on a screen. I love that song’s melody, but hate its lyrics. As if we actually should try to imagine no differences, no conflicts, all happy together in some la la land. These lyrics are romantic BS. The real task, as Lynch continually urges, is to develop a realistic imagination (not romantic-fantastic) which could guide us in work for the inclusion of differences amidst real conflicts. Just imagine that!  Despite the Lennon song, that’s what the conference actually (and for me successfully) tried to do.

All the News… (Lynch # 4)

This reflection grows from a recent discussion with friends for whom I am very grateful.

It seems these days that all the news fit to print or broadcast is pretty depressing.

Impeachment revelations about lies and lying liars. The making of fake news. The broad absence of decent leadership across the globe. Riots and police repression. All while the planet burns – from wars and terrorism, and above all from climate change. While the fossil fuel business grasps for the last bit of profit even as it assures us that it’s working for the future of our planet. Even while the prophets are silenced or ignored. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

(Pause a moment to conjure your list of depressing news.)

I have suffered from depression most of my life – manic public energy and mild private depression. Runs in my family and throughout my Irish ancestry. Yet depression isn’t limited to the Irish, and seems especially prevalent among men of a certain age.

I can’t imagine how depression affects those who work with mental illness since they know, more than most of us, how the cancer spreads throughout the people, and the terrible consequences to which it can lead.

William Lynch, SJ’s most widely read book, Images of Hope (1965 and still in print), is about “mental illness and hope.” And, as he notes, we are all somewhat ill, somewhat wanting in hope.

He writes to fight a prevalent fantasy about hope – that it is a great leap to escape the bad news, the wasteland. Real hope, he argues, is a much smaller and more ordinary reality.  It’s above all about help. About the many small ways in which we daily find help – from friends, or just from a breath of air; from the floor under our feet as we get out of bed or rise from a chair; from a smile or helping hand (received or given); from the many daily goods which persist amidst the clouds of gloom.

That was a major part of Tolkein’s message — the little guys and friendships amidst the great war.

A friend who counsels addicts tells them to get out of bed with the alarm, wash your face, make the bed, pour a cup of coffee….

Lynch repeats the story told by a Holocaust survivor: One inmate asked another why he bothered to wash his hands and face each day, amidst the dirt and degradation and certainty of imminent death. The answer? Because such small actions maintain our sense of human dignity within the larger hopelessness.

So it is with so much news that goes unreported. At ground level, daily. Acts of kindness and courage, intentional and random, mostly small. While walking the dog. Opening a door. Washing dishes.  Or the many movements for small service, for linking hands in solidarity against evil, for collecting donations, joining in prayer….

I venture to suggest that at ground level our lives are filled with good news – if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear. Yes, that’s true for THE good news preached by Jesus. But it’s also true for the daily good news the media does not print – in part because there’s more profit in bad news; but also (!!) because there’s far too much of it to cover.

So walk the dog and notice – all the beauty that remains in nature, and in the folks next door, the barista, those shopping in the grocery….

NOT to escape the bad news. NOT to avoid the prophets. NOT to cease to struggle against lying liars and climate destroyers, against violence and racism and terrorism of all kinds. But to nourish hope in the midst of such struggle.

For finally the Kingdom is God’s. We must work for it, in ways large and small. It is SHE who will provide. In ways for me both imaginable and unimaginable.

Meanwhile, consider the lilies, smell the flowers. Share a smile, even if it be but a comforting grimace. Accept even the depression as a small sign that we’re still alive and aware of the evil.

And may the people say “Amen” while waiting in joyful hope. For it’s always Advent.

Immigration and the Vietnamese Contribution to American Life (Lynch # 3)

This essay takes up our conflict about immigration, the polarizing nature of that conflict, and the ways it further erodes public or civic trust – the trust William Lynch, SJ, imagined as the basic “body of faith” which makes civic life possible. My question is whether immigration itself endangers our shared body of faith, or whether that body of faith is eroded primarily by political interests spreading fears, economic blaming, and false news about immigrants. My “case study” is not the present crisis at the southern border, but the post war immigration of Vietnamese refugees. I will begin with the Vietnamese in Denver and then turn to comments about immigration and our body of civic faith..

1. Bridging Hope and Denver’s Vietnamese American Community

For more than a decade, folks from metro-Denver gather each Fall for the non-profit Bridging Hope’s annual fundraiser. It’s a dinner appropriately described as an “art and Vietnamese cultural event.” This year– as always with much Vietnamese music and dance and artworks for auction — it was held in the spacious parish hall of Denver’s thriving Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church. With roughly 400 in attendance – an almost equal mix of Vietnamese and other Americans – along with the young Vietnamese providing entertainment and the servers and auction managers who volunteer annually from University of Colorado’s Vietnamese Student Association. And with special guests like several Catholic Sisters from Viet Nam.

Many of the Vietnamese women wore the traditional Ao Dai, others elegant western evening attire. The men mostly wore suit and tie, though some dressed Denver casual. The non-Vietnamese Americans, both women and men, dressed in the full range of Western casual.

Now if this is beginning to read like a typical “women’s section” socialite fundraiser report, that’s deliberate. For this annual event is clearly a celebration of recent immigrant success. It both on the beauties of Vietnamese culture and the present needs of poor women and children in Viet Nam. Everyone came prepared with checkbooks and credit cards ready for auction and donation.

A bit more description. The dances featured both young women in traditional peasant dances and young men in a noisy and winding dragon dance. (My grandchildren and many Vietnamese children were entranced by the latter.) Music was provided by a superb pianist accompanying the parish youth choir. And later by a specially invited San Francisco women’s quintet (piano and strings) named Phuong Cam. They played and sang both Vietnamese and modern (Western) favorites, the latter often with audience participation.

The silent auction during drinks involved both classical (embroidered) and modern works by Vietnamese artists, as well as wine baskets and the like. The live auction ended with a minor bidding war for signed Denver Broncos’ footballs (the Vietnamese share our city’s love for our Broncos) and then a more significant bidding war for a beautiful wood-carved Vietnamese (Koto) zither-harp.

I here insert photos of two examples of the classical Vietnamese embroidery done by artists at XQ Hand Embroidery in Vietnam. The large originals (framed, 3’ x 5’) look, from a distance, like beautiful paintings. Only close-up can one see the silk threadwork of the eagle’s feathers and the old man’s hands.

I’ve chosen these two artworks since for me the old man represents Vietnamese tradition and the soaring eagle the spirit of the Vietnamese people here and in Viet Nam.

2. Now some commentary:

Judged by their broad participation in Denver’s business and professional ranks, and by their great achievements at some of our best universities (Regis University, of course, but also the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado in Boulder)…by their amazing fluency in English even as they preserve (in family life and religious community) their own language and traditions…and by their support for families “back home in Viet Nam” and for charities like Bridging Hope… By all such standards, the Vietnamese American immigrants are a remarkable immigration success story.

More than that, in these and many other ways they have made an equally remarkable contribution to civic life in cities like Denver and San Francisco and New Orleans. They have, in other words, contributed to the shared body of trust or civility which makes life in these cities workable and often very enjoyable.

Yet ‘twas not always so. Indeed, though I’d lived through those years I had forgotten the initial reluctance of many to re-settling these refugees onto our shores. And I had to be reminded that it was then President Gerald Ford who broke through that reluctance by opening our doors to the war refugees initially held in camps in places like the Philippines.

And I had to be told that to this day, despite their overall success, Vietnamese Americans in places like Denver still are regularly subjected to various forms of bigotry and discrimination.

Of course, none of this is new.  For despite the fact that all of us (with the obvious exception of the only truly “native” Americans) have immigrant ancestors, wave after wave of immigrants have been met with fear, distrust, and bigotry by our own forms of nativism or populism.

It didn’t start with Trump, though he now “capitalizes” on it (as he tries to capitalize on everything). His rhetoric of distrust for the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, whether African Americans or Muslims or the refugees imprisoned on our Southern Border, feeds on long-standing fears and prejudices.

Hispanic immigrants to this country have had, for longer and far more widely, the same kind of success story as I’ve described for Vietnamese immigrants. Indeed, here in Colorado (and in New Mexico and Texas and California) it is incorrect to speak about immigrants, since many Hispanics lived continuously here in the West well before we Anglos moved in with waves of conquest. I was recently reminded that Santa Fe (New Mexico) is the oldest continuous capital city in all of North America. Its full name remains the same as when founded in 1610: La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St Francis of Assisi”).

Yet, again, we still hear and way too many accept all the propaganda about rapists and murderers and unfair economic competition.

3. The Civic Body of Faith

What my mentor William Lynch called “the body of faith” without which civic life is impossible is not a body of shared religious faith, though religion has (in virtually every culture and nationality we know of) contributed significantly to that more fundamental faith.

Nor was Lynch in any way romantic about such civic faith and trust. For our national (or local) body of faith has always been and will always be shadowed and threatened by fear and distrust. Fears based on real differences and on serious conflicts, and too often on real instances of violence and counter-violence.

Nor do I wish to be romantic about immigrants and other “others” – whether African Americans or Vietnamese Americans or Hispanic Americans. There are thugs and gangs on all sides of our immigration debates, as we are reminded daily in news reports. (Though I honestly don’t know of such among the Vietnamese in Denver.)

Lynch loved (as do I) Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent West Side Story. About gang tribalism between Puerto Rican and Anglos on the west side of New York in the 1950s. And about the power of love and tragedy to finally overcome the tribalism and fear. Written and composed by a major New York Jewish artist who himself exemplified the great success of American Jewish immigration. Along with so many other Jewish American artists, merchants, and politicians, Bernstein in West Side Story and in other ways made a major contribution to the civic body of faith in New York and throughout our country. (I urge readers who’ve never seen the film version, or haven’t seen it recently, to find it on Netflix or elsewhere.)

Enough. Probably too much. But I hope the point is clear enough. We live with our body of faith torn and threatened on so many sides. Perhaps most notably these days by perceived and propagandized fears about immigrants and refugees. And, give the realities of global warming, we are only at the beginning of the greatest global migration in human history. We can continue to allow this reality to polarize us, to diminish our civic trust and increase the fear on our streets – or with Bernstein, with Lynch, with the folks at Bridging Hope, we can again and again take up the task of building the trust that makes the human city possible.

Isn’t It Ironic? The Agenda of the Catholic Right (Lynch # 2)

My most recent posting criticized conservative Catholic efforts to restrict the meaning of sacred rites and objects to church sacraments and sacramentals. In this posting I argue that this and other aspects of the Catholic right’s agenda face an ironic consequence. They are causing much the opposite of what they intend. Or so I believe.

Here is the gist of what follows: The agenda of the Catholic Right is to restore more traditional or “orthodox” forms of Catholic belief and practice, and to achieve this goal above all by restoring clerical and hierarchical forms of authority. I suggest that this agenda is ironic since it will actually result in quite the opposite – in a decentering of clerical authority and a realization of the central role of laity as envisioned by Vatican II. Yet (the crucial point of this writing) we all, whether of the Right or of the Left, will only achieve this happy result if we develop an ironic sensibility in the practice of our faith.

My writing remains complicated and lengthy. So feel free to skip or skip around. I hope that you may find important ideas and that some may respond on the website.

1. Several introductory notes:

I use terms like “conservative” and “liberal” or “right” and “left” as a shorthand. The realities both of people and of programs are far more complex.

Secondly, irony is a very complex topic. Yet my mentor Lynch says that irony is immensely important for faith, especially for Christian faith. I will just below give a brief introduction to what I mean by irony and, in an appendix, will explain Lynch’s idea that we all need to nurture an appropriately ironic sensibility.

2. Ironic reversals

I use the terms “irony” and “ironic” first to indicate a dramatic (real-world, actually-experienced) reversal of what is intended or expected. And then, secondly, to refer to stories (dramas) and sayings (jokes or proverbs) about such reversals of meaning. And finally, to refer a kind of sensibility (or way of seeing and responding).

Ironic reversals are called “tragic” when something begun with great expectations ends in failure. Shakespeare’s drama Macbeth and, in the real world, the “Great War” (WW I) to end all wars are both tragically ironic.

Comic irony is about a reversal which brings a truly happy or good result. Think Cervantes’ Don Quichote or the unexpected recent elevation of Francis, a poor man, to the Papacy. Or more generally the claim that the poor are blessed. Or, most significantly, belief that a donkey-riding and then derided and finally crucified “criminal” is really the Christ-Messiah. The Cross is then, for Christians, an ironic symbol of victory.

3. The Catholic Right’s Agenda

I want to suggest that the US Catholic Right’s agenda will in the long term be an example of comic irony. Short-term it may cause a tragic schism among Catholics. Indeed, it has already led to led to much de facto schism, and to many sad, at times even tragic, results – from good people losing jobs to so many leaving the church, and to so much deep distrust within the church. Yet long term, I believe it will result in the opposite of what it intends.

Let me be clear that I am not here writing about the abuse crisis, even though it continues to be a terribly ironic “event” in which the mighty are (slowly, with great suffering all around) being cast from their thrones – some literally cast down (defrocked, even imprisoned), others undergoing (one hopes) a transformative stripping from magnificence to service (after the example of Francis whom “they” ironically continue to castigate and blame). And an event in which the lowly victims, children and adults, are exalted by the vindication of their claims and the slow healing of their injuries.

For the broad agenda of the Catholic Right – led by many “John Paul II Bishops” and supported both by politically conservative money and by Catholics still disturbed by changes since Vatican II — is to restore clerical/hierarchical authority and thereby to reassert doctrinal orthodoxy and traditional morality.

It’s very important to immediately note that everything I say about the Catholic Right’s agenda is equally true for much of the Catholic Left. If attempts to restore things may lead to ironic results, so may attempts to reform things. Thus, we all need to look first to the log in our own eye lest we fixate on the splinter in others’. (Another of the gospel’s startlingly ironic proverbs.)

4. What’s so ironic about the conservative agenda?

As I see it, there are two great ironies in the Right’s agenda. First that, as already noted, it will eventually result in the opposite of what it intends. Second, that it will have this ironic consequence precisely because so many of the folks involved are so unironic about their agenda. (This latter irony is, again, equally true of so many on the Left.)

5. The Irony of Unintended consequences

It’s my belief that the long-term consequence of the reassertion of clerical power will be a comic (healthy, healing) development of a more lay-centered Catholic church. Yes, something like that intended by Pope Francis and opposed by the Catholic Right. It is the reversal proclaimed by Vatican II and gradually working it way throughout the church.

What would that comic consequence look like? I think we have long been seeing important developments in lay authority and ministry – from growing forms of lay ministry to a more fundamental appropriation of freedom (of conscience) as a crucial element of respect for authority.

We saw this recently in the huge outpouring of support in this country for Catholic Sisters when they were put under investigation by male/clerical authorities. Our Sisters are clearly not part of the hierarchical chain of command. Yet that outpouring was clear recognition of their very real authority in the history and current reality of the church, especially through long service in schools and hospitals, and increasingly as political voices and spiritual guides.

Such lay authority, as a second example, is also evident in the actual operation of so many parishes, even those still with resident pastors. The laity manage things as directors of liturgy, of religious education, and even at times (when Father isn’t home) of liturgies and preaching.

And who these days, as a third example, are those more sought out as spiritual teachers and guides, as writers and retreat leaders? It’s my sense that such leaders are increasingly women, many Sisters and single or married laywomen. Most of whom have advanced training in fields like theology or spiritual direction, often (my judgment) far better than that received these days in some seminaries.

More examples of such ironic consequences abound. As I suggested in my previous blog on sacraments: many now experience the sacred in nature and not in church. I do not celebrate this shift, rather I criticized it as an “either-or” approach to sacramentality. Yet I do hope that in the long run a renewal of the church’s sacramental understandings will lead to a richer “both-and” understanding of our experiences of the holy. That would be a truly comic result for the church.

Of even greater significance is the development of a broader understanding of “the apostolate of the laity” urged by Vatican II. Thus far it’s mainly meant the important but “second class” lay ministries in church service noted above. Yet the fuller meaning of the lay apostolate is the ministry or witness of lay women and men in and for the secular world – in the professions (medicine, law, and education, for instance) and in corporations and commerce as well as in politics and culture. Such development would really be an ironic de-centering of the meaning of “church” – from church buildings and rituals (both still crucially necessary) to the People of God working for the realization of  Kingdom in the messy and secular realities of our world.

I’m rambling, but hopefully the first point about the irony of the Right’s agenda is somewhat clear. And I’m sure the reader may add many other examples.

6. The Irony of an Absolutized Agenda

As I said above, the second major irony of Right’s agenda is that it will have this ironic consequence precisely because the folks involved are themselves so unironic.

Let me put this simply. And again, what I say about the Right applies equally to the Left.

If you have an absolute or ideological agenda – if you pursue your agenda with a bulldozer or with the constant charge of your brigades, with fixed and unwavering determination – you will inevitably fail and will likely produce the opposite of what you intend. For reality is always more complex than our fixed agendas. Reality will finally not submit to ideologies. A far more flexible approach to achieving goals is needed, as any good politician or planner knows — a flexibility that can respond to unintended consequences and incorporate other viewpoints.

It’s because of his fixed and fantastic inflexibility that Don Quichote is the greatest figure of comic irony in Western literature. He tilts at windmills and inevitably fails because reality will not submit to his fantasies. Yet Cervantes’ story is even more deeply comic and ironic since it is through the Don’s failures, and the commonplace sanity of his servant Sancho, that in the end the Don gradually becomes more realistically and humbly human. The “great knight” comes off his high horse and the servant rises to real esteem.

It is, then, especially ironic that recent retellings of the story of the “Man of Lamancha” are so much Romantic nonsense. Unlike Cervantes’ healing irony, these retellings urge us, with soul-stirring rhythm and song, to persist in the tragic American habit of dreaming impossible dreams.

Lets hope our Bishops might learn from the Don.  Let’s hope that all of our zealotry, on Right or Left, in church or society, might be tutored by a comic irony which laughs at itself and thereby humanizes its absolutized agendas.

Appendix: What Does William Lynch Contribute to Our Understanding of Irony?

And the answer is: he urges all of us to develop an appropriately ironic sensibility in the living of our faith – both in our religious faith and in our commitment to causes.

In his final book, Images of Faith (1973), Lynch argued that Christian faith should be deeply ironic. He grounds this recommendation in what he does not hesitate to call “the Irony of Christ.” Said another way, faith is not just a loving and hopeful way of seeing and experiencing the world, it also sees and experiences the world ironically. This probably sounds like nonsense for those of us habituated to associate irony with sarcasm, ridicule, contempt, and even hatred. Yet we Christians claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and reality is deeply ironic. For again, he embodies as a limited human being the fullness of God. And he is Messiah (or Christ or Lord and Savior) precisely by being poor, by walking with the regular folk, even the outcasts and sinners, and finally by suffering and dying.

Lynch’s book makes difficult reading and demand much rereading. Yet it is very rewarding. Here I tease out but one thread from that  richly-woven text.

We need to nurture an ironic sensibility (a habitual framework for seeing and responding) if we are to live a life of faith, or any realistic life of hope and love. And that is true not only for Christians and other religious believers, but for all of us in maintaining bonds of faith or trust in our families and communities, and in our political and social lives.

But not just any ironic sensibility. For today the prevailing ironies learned from jokes and stories, from our news and talk shows, and from TV and cinema dramas, are largely contemptuous. They involve forms of irony which express contempt for some person or group – for the bad guys, the political or religious idiots, for certain types of macho men and silly women, and so on.

It’s important to stress that we are all better ironists than we think. Often the term “irony” simply refers to folk wisdom we’ve learned since childhood. And the nurturing of a sensibility tutored by such ironies is a deeply comic or humanizing goal. But too often we’ve learned to embody our culture’s prevailing and contemptuous ironies. For they are usually very enjoyable. Indeed most of us, if we’re honest with ourselves, find it quite satisfying to regularly nurture our hatreds and resentments.

Lynch, on the contrary, urges us to develop those ironic habits of thinking and feeling which enable us to do two important things. First and foremost, to laugh at ourselves.  To be sure, we must stick with our convictions and causes, but we must do so with a sustaining sense of humor and flexibility. And second, we must learn to understand our opponents in an equally comic (and not contemptuous) way – to see them as fallible persons quite often held captive, like the Don (and like us), by  inflexible fantasies.

Faith isn’t only about doctrines or laws, but far more about habits and sensibilities, ways of seeing and feeling and acting. That being the case, Lynch urges us to reflect on our own ironic habits and to discern between those filled with contempt and those filled with real humanity. And then to nurture the forms of sensibility which embodies comic irony, the irony of faith.

Sacraments in both Church and World — Lynch # 1

This is the first in what I hope will be a series of posts exploring the contemporary significance of the thought of my mentor William F. Lynch, SJ (1908-87). They will be identified by their titles (Lynch # 1, # 2…) so those less interested can skip, but they will explore current topics and concerns just as my previous posts have.

Today’s topic, for instance, is about how we experience the sacred both in traditional Christian sacraments and in the wider secular world of places and objects and events. Towards the end I explain Lynch’s continual recommendation of such “Both-And” thinking as well as his other regular recommendation that we “enlarge” the scope of our imagining and thinking, since both ideas provide grounding for a “both-and” approach to sacraments.

These “Lynch postings” will have some links to further reading. They will also at points be explicitly philosophical since Lynch always sought to relate his discussion of contemporary concerns to the philosophical or deepest roots of such concerns. Yet I will make every effort to keep the discussion concrete and the philosophy clear.

The theme of today’s writing is straightforward: that we Christians experience God’s sacred presence and grace both in Church rituals or sacraments and in the wider secular world of nature and persons and events. It’s a both-and, not an either-or. Indeed, these two experiences of God’s grace need and reinforce each other: church sacraments make us more sensitive to the presence of God in the world, and the experience of God’s presence in the world helps us understand the fuller meaning of sacraments and rituals.

Yet exploring this theme is not so easy. As always, “it’s complicated.”

What I write below barely scratches the surface and focuses almost  entirely on Catholic ideas and experiences.  I believe it may be relevant to important developments in “sacramental” thought and practice among contemporary Protestants. And that it related to the role of sacramentality in other great religious traditions.

I recently went to morning Mass at a fairly conservative Catholic parish. I say “conservative” because these days the priests in such parishes are the new priests coming from the Catholic seminary in Denver. The small congregation that morning was almost entirely old folks, so I fit in. The ritual was wonderfully reverent and the sermon (given my prejudices) surprisingly good. After the Mass many stayed for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

I didn’t stay. Rather I went home and enjoyed a cup of coffee on my porch, surrounded by nature – birds and bees, trees and flowers, sun and wind. It was, I believe, an experience of the sacred present in the natural world (even in the coffee) at the same time that fellow Catholics at that church were experiencing God eucharistic presence in the Monstrance.

I once knew an older Irish American guy who drove his wife to Mass each Sunday, but never joined her in Church. He respected her practice, yet preferred to find God in nature by sitting outside the church. I also knew an Italian American man in my hometown who would bring his wife to church every Sunday and then sit in the car reading the Sunday New York Times. I never talked to him about this, but his practice reminds me of the great Protestant theologian Karl Barth’s  recommendation that we should pray with the Bible in one hand and the day’s newspaper in the other.

Recently I read Margaret Coel’s novel Night of the White Buffalo (2014), part of her best-selling Wind River Reservation mystery series featuring Fr. John O’Malley, SJ. He is pastor at the Mission Church and also an extraordinary detective. For there’s always a murder to be solved in each novel. Yet as a pastor, O’Malley is deeply involved in the lives of folks on the Rez. Thus in each novel we not only learn “who-done-it,” but much about contemporary Native American life.

In Night of the White Buffalo, a white calf born on a buffalo ranch near the reservation sends a sacred shockwave through the native world, especially among those who honor the traditional story about the “Woman Clothed in a White Buffalo Skin” who  returns to her People as a white calf when their needs are critical. (For me, this tradition is kin to Catholic belief about Mary’s Apparitions and to the apocalyptic Woman Clothed with the Sun in Rev. 12: 1.) Soon hundreds, and eventually thousands, of Native Americans from across the country will come to the ranch to see the white calf and to leave (sacramental) totems — feathers, pipe tobacco, jewelry, prayer notes – and donations on the fence around the herd. Many of the locals who come are Catholics who regularly receive the sacraments at the Mission church. O’Malley isn’t bothered by this overlap of “sacramental” practice and belief.

Then, on a recent summer morning, I took my granddaughter to join other children playing in the fountains outside Denver’s Union Station. Watching these little ones I experienced Jesus’ saying “they are of the kingdom of heaven.” Often, too, I sit with my dog outside the station and am amazed at the diversity of folks passing bye. More than amazed, I really sense that these are the body of Christ.

Yet my Catholic upbringing emphasized the Seven Sacraments and many “sacramentals” – lesser sacred objects like candles, holy water, medals, rosaries, and crucifixes that had been blessed by the Church.  Far more fundamentally, these Catholic teachings and practices separated such church-related sacredness from the larger world of essentially secular things and practices. One’s home was an exception because the presence (on walls and desks) of blessed candles and ikons, as well as the practice of family prayers before meals and at night, assured the sacredness of a Catholic  family’s home.

There was at that time much devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, but (at least in my memory) not much talk about the sacredness in the natural world or in public places.

And these days, at least in “conservative” dioceses like Denver, children must be baptized in Church by a priest (except in cases of emergency) and marriages must be blessed by a priest and only in churches (no outdoor settings). Mass is mandatory, at least on Sundays, and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament still much recommended.

Still, I doubt that even the most conservative Catholics any longer consider non-baptized children as limbo-bound pagans. And I’m not sure whether they any longer think of all  those married without benefit of the sacrament as “living in sin.”

I am trying to make a general point about traditional Catholic restriction of the sacred to things performed or blessed by priests and mainly in church buildings, at altars or fonts or (in some places still) communion rails. Yet I know I am simplifying terribly and overstating the point.

At very least, traditional Catholic veneration of the Saints sees them as signs and reminders of the sacred in daily and “worldly” activities like caring for the sick, feeding the poor, giving to beggars. Though it is noteworthy that until quite recently most of the saints have been church men and woman – priests and nuns.

These days there is serious theological discussion about “the Catholic or sacramental imagination” at work, for instance, in secular film and fiction by Catholic directors and writers. Priest Sociologist Andrew Greeley (1929-2013), who contributed much to that discussion, even argued that Catholics have better sex lives because of their “sacramental” sensitiveness to God’s presence in physical objects. And his wildly popular novels about Catholics are quite deliberately filled with racy characters and scenes — not so much to sell his books as to criticize “traditional” Catholicism’s narrow views about sexuality.

Then, too, Jesuits have long spoken about “finding God in all things.” Indeed, William Lynch spoke the following words in 1954 at a Mass for a Catholic Poets’ Society:

Our God is a God of Existence, and not of dreams . . . He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and being this kind of God, being a God of existence, then He can only be found in existence, in the things that are, in real people, real situations. This God is not to be found in the past, nor in the future, nor in a dream, but in the present, its people, its mud, its obscurities, its need for pain and decisions . . .

So we come, finally, to Lynch’s ideas which, for me at least, provide firm foundation to the both-and understanding of sacraments which I am urging.

Lynch’s constant battle was against the pervasive human tendency to absolutize particular practices or beliefs – to make them into “the one way” or the only way to see and understand. Such tendencies lead to polarizations, to seeing things in either-or ways. The way, I have been suggesting,  “conservative” Catholics tend to think about sacraments.

To combat such tendencies, Lynch regularly recommended what one of his later articles calls “The Task of Enlargement” (1976).  It’s a commonsense practice – pulling back from a too narrow focus on things, seeing the bigger picture. Yet when there is conflict or serious difference, especially when polarization has already set in, it is a very difficult practice.

In the case our understanding of sacraments and sacred presence, we need to enlarge our vision so that, to repeat, church sacraments and secular or natural sacraments (whether children playing or a white buffalo calf) are part of a bigger picture. Both are needed and reinforce each other. We find God in all things in part because we are sensitized to God’s presence by the physical/ritual reality of church sacraments. Yet our sensitivity to natural sacraments also enables us to embrace the fuller meaning of church sacraments and to avoid practicing them superstitiously.

In more philosophical terms, Lynch’s fourth book, The Integrating Mind (1962), provides a detailed exploration of what he calls “contrariety.”  The word is philosophical jargon for the fundamental fact that we humans, as finite and physical creatures, always and everywhere find ourselves living within many tensions between “contraries” — like past and future, self and world, body and mind, secular and sacred, church and state, nationalism and internationalism, and so on and on.

Our constant tendency is to simplify things by grasping onto one pole of such contraries and separating from the other – escaping from our bodies into mind or spirit (or doing the reverse), retreating from the world into ourselves, retreating from the globe into supposedly patriotic nationalism, escaping from the past by leaping towards the future or (perhaps more commonly) escaping some future by nostalgic return to the past.

Of course it never really works, at least not for long. Rather the realistic challenge for us is that of integrating these contraries — living with the tension so that each pole or contrary nourishes and develops the other — so that memories give grounds for hope, or being engaged out there in the world gives us a more real sense of ourselves.  Or, as the old Latin has it, we experience mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body).  Or (to repeat) a sense of the sacred in church opens us to the presence of God in all things.

So that’s my thought today – concern about God’s presence in both church and world, with (hopefully) some help from Lynch.  Of course,  there is much more to be thought and said, and I hope as always that some readers might add their thoughts on this site.

Let me end by highly recommending a recent short online article by Dani Clark, one of NCR’s staff writers. The title itself may intrigue – “St. Bernadette’s Rib Opened Something” – and the writing is wonderfully earthy and real. About food and drink on an Italian Island, about a relic of the Saint being honored in a local church, with memories of a miraculous medal and the real presence of Mary and other mothers. It’s a really good read which, in its way, gets at much of what I’ve been laboring over in this posting

Himmelfahrt (Again)

This morning I read the liturgical readings for today, the Catholic Holy Day for the Feast of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven.  Then I remembered the writing I’d first done for the Denver Post’s religion blog and reprinted on this site some years later.  It had gotten some very positive feedback.  So I reread it as part of my morning prayers, and now I’m posting it again.  Perhaps a re-posting is just narcissism; but perhaps its basic idea — that somehow God is involved in this mess and Mary’s Assumption, far from celebrating escape really celebrates that Presence — is  worth repeating.  Since the mess still seems as bad as ever, and the temptation to escape as great (whether to heaven or to some private place of reverie).  I at least need to be challenged continually to affirm that Presence and be aware of its reality.

So here, should you be interested, is a link to that former posting on “The Feast of Mary’s Assumption” (Himmelfahrt in German!).

And Happy Feastday!