Fratelli Tutti in Denver (3)– Diplomacy, Diversity, and Racism

In this third discussion of Pope Francis’ new encyclical on global social fraternity, I want to evoke briefly his emphasis on social friendship across ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries. And, of course, his awareness of fear and even violence across those same boundaries.

I note that Francis, while clearly concerned about all racial and ethnic differences, writes from a European perspective where “the other” in European countries are immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslims with Arab or Black African ethnicity and race. Yet our major “other” remains African Americans.

I will briefly discuss the relevance of Francis’ writing to our racial divide, but briefly since there has been so much good writing and thinking (and acting) of late about our “American” racisms many forms.

The Pope’s letter begins by recalling how St. Francis, one very tough Medieval Italian, crossed active battle lines to visit the Sultan in Egypt and seek peace during one of the Crusades. Then he notes a modern parallel in his own 2019 visit with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi. Their serious discussions led to a joint Muslim-Christian declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”

Francis is a real and hopefully, at least in the long term, very effective diplomat reaching to the world to preach the vision for peace he writes about in this letter. (I’ve previously noted his many diplomatic travels and talks.)

His letter is a major addition to the series of encyclical letters and the like from recent Popes and Councils – typically referred to in their entirety as “Catholic Social Teaching.” (A friend is writing a book which focuses on “the dynamite” for social reform contained in this tradition of social teachings were it only known and lived.)

Yet it is different in style and tone from so many of those prior documents. It draws on many sources, but one hears the unique voice of this pope behind every line. It is not content with a scholastic style (in the negative sense of the word) but takes up its focus on the reform needed for a recovery and nurturing of “social friendship,” not as some abstraction but as embodied on the streets of our cities, in workplaces and throughout our economic lives, in our political and cultural lives, and in our churches. In other words, in all of the corporate and civic structures which constitute the framework for daily civic life.

While Francis cites many sources, even a line from a Brazillian samba, to give flesh to his ideas, I suspect most readers need to stop often and to think about or imagine (as I’ve been trying to do with my LoDo vignettes) the meaning of what he’s saying.

So, whether you walk a dog or not, the basic question we all need to ask continually is how we each experience our own city or town? How might you think, as you read this or take a walk after reading, of your neighborhood? Imagining the many forms of social friendship which really are evidence of our living together, and also the forms of fragmentation and separation which are evident, though often hidden.

Racial and ethic divisions have (I suspect) always characterized human societies. Such boundaries are one of the major ways we maintain our identities and our special cohesion with those of our race and ethnicity. At best they are porous boundaries which enable us to learn from and cooperate in friendship with other cultures.

I’ve already mentioned the many Hispanic construction workers in LoDo. Yet the station’s traffic gives evidence of Asians aplenty and Blacks in increasing numbers — some Africans, some Muslims, most residents of our relatively decent but still mostly segregated Black neighborhoods.

I really don’t have significant and regular contact with many African Americans. Yet there are occasional and seemingly accidental meetings.

Some years back, waiting for a tire to be repaired in Aurora (Denver’s sprawling eastern suburb) and needing a haircut, I entered a shop across the street which immediately revealed itself as not only the local Black men’s barbershop/hangout, but as a Black Muslim place. I was politely invited to sit and await the next open chair. Then my barber confirmed that he was Muslim so I was able to say the standard greeting “Salaam alaikum,” to which he gracefully responded. 25 minutes later, and $ 25 bucks shorter, I returned to the tire place a much happier man than I’d been when miffed at how long the tire would take. Shows to go you.

And we too in Denver were blessed with several weekends of Black Lives Matter protests – which, despite some violence from mainly (???) white “antifas,” were both remarkably non-violent and very interracial.

Yet we know too well that relations across racial and ethnic lines are frequently fragile and often deeply discriminatory and violent.

Again, because there has been so much good writing about racism in our country, historically and still today, I will refrain from further comment.

Other than to say that the kind of careful and even prayerful reading of the Pope’s letter will illuminate our country’s racial and ethnic divisions and open paths to healing, just as it will open paths for European and African, Asian and Australian and South American readers.

And to again recommend my good friend and Regis colleague Chris Pramuk’s increasingly important book Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line (2013) as well as it’s with its accompanying and regularly updated blog of the same name.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (2+)

This short posting interrupts my series of discussions about the Pope’s new encyclical. It provides a pause to ask what may be the reader’s basic question: Will this encyclical make any difference in the real world? For what it’s worth, here is my response to that question.

My Presbyterian wife asked a good question: “What’s an encyclical from the Pope supposed to do?”

Well, I answered, it’s supposed to be read and discussed by all kinds of folks, writers and pastors and teachers, reading groups and political analysts, and so on…. Hopefully they will help spread its word about social love – even if only by short references and quotations or by discussion of this or that particular topic.

Hopefully, then, the spread interest in what the pope is calling us to will join with many other spiritual voices and cultural movements seeking greater human solidarity at all levels of our lives. Hopefully, too, such movements, empowered by the breath of the Holy Spirit, will continue to “transform the face of the earth.”

In ways akin to the way Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, has made a major contribution to work for environmental restoration.

Of course it will encounter resistance from many directions. Mainly it will be ignored or just assigned to the category of “pious idealism” and thereby dismissed from serious concern. It will be resisted by many Catholics who already oppose Francis, especially (as I see it) many wealthy Catholics (as so many others) who are deeply invested in “our economic system.” They will once again confine papal teaching to the nearest trash-bin.

So will it do any good? Yes, but it depends where you look. I hear Francis asking us first to look at the little and ordinary as a place to begin to transform social relations. Look to the poor and the lame, those struggling for justice and working for peace. Look to all the good of solidarity already at work nearby. Look at the little steps you may take.

Francis also calls us regularly to focus on trends rather than the present distribution of power. Slavery exists today, and in some ways is growing still, but it can no longer claim legitimacy and is being fought on many fronts. Anti-slavery remains a major social trend or force for justice So too with the equality and empowerment of women. It’s a trend, suffering fits and starts, but another example of the slow and so often checked work of the Spirit for the liberation .of our species. So too, as already noted, with the gradual development of active concern about our environment.

Perhaps Fratelli Tutti comes to our earth at the right time as another source of leaven raising the bread of life for all during a period of such hunger.

Or perhaps I’m just another dreamy idealist.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (2)

This posting continues my previous post (just scroll down) about Pope Francis’ latest encyclical on social friendship and my attempt to relate it to my experience of living in “LoDo” or lower downtown Denver.

Early headlines saw the encyclical as a response to the pandemic, a call for renewal of the social world as we move through the crisis and suffering and begin to rebuild the fabric of social live at all levels. 

Indeed, Francis tells us in his prefatory paragraphs that the pandemic erupted while he was in the midst of writing.  The pandemic is not the cause of the encyclical, but it tragically exemplifies the fragmentation of social life which is central to Francis’ concern.  Fragmentations and divisions at home and globally which have made the pandemic far worse than it might have been. 

Yet the pandemic also has brought to light all the many ways that social solidarity has arisen to deal with the virus.  Yes, the courage and love embodied in first responders of every kind – including store clerks and truck drivers who maintain the social good of our food chains.  And now the teachers and parents and zoom technicians working with such dedication to continue the education of our children. 

The pandemic emerges at various points in the letter as evidence both of our fragmented social relations and of our continuing forms of solidarity.

Denver’s on partial lockdown or whatever they call it.  Restaurants in LoDo, of which there are many, are bracing for weather that will drive fewer diners inside.  Most folks on the street wear masks.  Especially true of the hundreds of construction workers who seem on strict orders to mask up.

The letter’s opening chapter, “Dark Clouds over a Closed World,” is a lengthy discussion of the fragmentation and loss of “social friendship” which prevails around the globe.  Like all of the letter, the chapter is both informed analysis and moral argument.  It is informed by good social science and philosophy and religious knowledge, and also by Francis’ own personal engagement with the events and trends, the tragedies and the goodness of our world.  And it is written in a style which, as he says in the beginning, enables him to bring together many ideas and themes about our world and our great need for social solidarity.

One example of Francis’ scope and detail is his discussion (in par. 47) of the fragmentation and isolation caused by social media. They involve, he says, a real “risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development [especially for the young] of authentic interpersonal relationships.”

Then he continues, with a marvelous sense of our human need to touch and taste, these media “lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.”

This detailed and discursive form of writing can bother any reader who wants to get quickly to the bottom line.  Like students asking for short answers. 

It’s the writing of a master teacher who leads students slowly towards real and not merely notional understanding.  Only slow, even meditative reading will lead to real and transformational understanding.

LoDo almost anytime.  Rushing hither and yon.  Always connected by some kind of gadget.  Quick lunch. Quick dash for the train or the free Mall-bus.  Working while walking.  Even couples walking in quick each connected to her/his own phone doing whatever folks do these days during their walking and riding times.

I know this risks stereotype, but the many Hispanic guys in construction here seem to be the only ones who just sit and shoot the breeze during their lunch and other breaks.

Maybe I see all this constant “busy-ness” because I’m so busy most of the time.  At least in my head.  What the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”

I’m pretty sure most of us have some sense of the “Dark Clouds over a Closed World” which Francis is talking about.  We typically sum it up in terms of the election, covid, climate change, and the resulting mess of poverty, dislocation, migrations, wars. 

Yet Francis, while addressing each of these topics in his opening chapter, is not content with a quick formulation of our ills.  He challenges us in this long chapter to journey with him through present darkness and isolation, always reminding us of alternative goods and developments which are also present.  Never allowing things to be reduced to the simplistic pictures of class or racial divisions which seem to polarize so many of us. 

This pope is one smart guy.  Way better than most of our pundits, even the good ones.

He travels to all parts of our world, often by jet, even more by speeches and letters to audiences around the globe.  A brief glance at the endnotes shows him speaking to people at key locations folks in both Israel and Palestine, in Nagasaki and Mozambique…. And also to youth groups, professional organizations, and activist meetings in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US.  

So he knows a bit about the fragmenting social realities of our world, the conflicts and crises.  And about the good work of so many to renew social solidarity.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver

I started this writing once I had occasion to read the Pope’s encyclical. Nothing to do with the election. Yet the writing has been shadowed continually by election hopes and fears and lies. Now I’m finishing this writing as we still await the election’s outcome. What we already know, very clearly, is that we will remain a deeply divided people who nonetheless depend on each other. For these reasons – our divisions and our inter-dependence, we very much need to hear Francis’ words, and to heed them. They are addressed to all people, not just to Catholics or other religious folk. He’s writing to all of us, now, in our fragmented and fear-filled time, urging us to think together about and find ways or recovering many forms of social friendship.

And as I wrote an simultaneously re-read Francis’ words, my own writing grew like topsey. Perhaps because of my effort to related the Pope’s ideas to realities I experience daily in Denver. So I will be posting what I’ve written in short, hopefully readable parts over the next several days.

And I ask the reader’s indulgence for the spacing and numbering in what follows. I am learning a new format from Word Press which hosts this blog.

I write to recommend Pope Francis’ latest encyclical “letter” Fratelli Tutti in the highest possible terms. In fact, “recommend” is too restrained a word. I urge folks, all folks and not just Catholics, to read the new encyclical and to get family and friends to do likewise.
Here I can do little more than recommend by highlighting this or that idea from and about the text of this beautifully written but still quite lengthy and detailed document.
I’m also going to try something different. To make the meaning of the letter more concrete (at least for myself), I will be describing local scenes which make present for me that meaning.

Such as the fact that I have the privilege of walking my dog daily around downtown Denver and witnessing the breadth of human solidarity or “social friendship” as the Pope calls it. And also some of the fragmentation and loss of solidarity he laments.

If you enjoy languages as I do, the role and repetition in the Italian title is beautiful. I can hear Francis saying it as he begins some talk – both St. Francis and our present Pontiff. A the single best review I’ve so of the Pope’s document focuses far more deeply than I have just suggested on Francis’ language – evoking its rhetorical depth by comparison with a protest song, “Sólo Le Pido A Dios,” originally from the terrible war in Argentina and now widespread in Latin lands, something like our “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

For sound and rhythm open our hearts to truth in ways that written words alone do not. And it’s not just the Pope’s musical Italian title. His mix of analysis and moral persuasion moves with its own rhythm when read with an open heart. And the letter is loaded with rhetorical zingers worthy of memorization and repetition.

I live in “LoDo,” the poetic way we refer to Denver’s lower downtown. Centered on our main train station. So I hear the trains when the come and go – the big twice-daily Amtrack, the many local light rail trains, and the constant movement of long freight trains. There’s also street noise – cars and trucks, the too frequent roaring of motorcycles and low riders down the tunnel streets created by old warehouses turned into lofts and new condo/office towers. And often, even during this pandemic, the sounds of children coming off trains or brought to the station by parents or teachers. Now and again one hears the sound of sirens – mostly ambulances coming for someone who’s faltered or fallen, but also the not infrequent police cars coming (hopefully) to restore social peace.

People occasionally ask me whether I’m bothered by the “noise” of living downtown. In fact, I find that the many forms of street noise provide regular symphonic evidence of social cooperation.

Of course I need not romanticize. One also hears the angry noise of car horns, the cursed shouts at uber driver blocking streets, and the mad ranting or dance-singing of another mental ill and typically homeless pedestrian.

You may have read that there was some reaction to that masculine title – “brothers” – when the encyclical was first announced.  But the actual text released by the Vatican (just released in book editions) puts those concerns to rest with its first sentence’s address to “brothers and sisters.”  The content of the letter, as it unfolds, is clearly much and deeply concerned about the condition of women in our fragmented world.  Though he might have stressed more (unless I missed it) the role of women at all levels in nurturing and maintaining the reality of social trust and friendship. And, as some critics were quick to not, it doesn’t look like Francis reads or hears enough from women.

A mix of workers still “come downtown” each day – office and construction workers, restaurant and delivery and transportation workers.  Many more office workers stay at home.

The street traffic here suggests what research indicates – at least as many women are in the workplace as men, more in white collar and service than in construction and suits, and probably paid less than men.  I note especially the immigrant women with vacuums on their backs cleaning the office spaces at night here in LoDo.

I continue to believe that the women of Denver do more in more ways to maintain the city’s social fabric than we men do with our scribbling and designing and ordering. Perhaps I’m romanticizing again.

Political and Cultural Polarizations — Lynch Once Again

I am trying to write an academic article and just re-read a paper I’d given more than ten years ago. It struck me that it might make a good, though perhaps difficult, posting on this blog. So, for interested readers, here’s an updated and much abbreviated version of that paper. It’s title was “Politics, the Body of Faith, and the Vocation of Intellectuals In the Thought of William F. Lynch, S.J.” In what follows it I use the term “political” to mean both politics (in our modern sense of that word) and economics, as well as culture and society. I use it to mean the “City” (the “Polis”) as our classical writers understood that term.

I began my 2009 paper by evoking several “political moments” from that time of economic crisis and electoral frenzy as a way of providing some concrete context for Lynch’s ideas. Here I begin with just one of those past moments.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama and McCain were interview at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, a still very large and influential evangelical church   Asked about evil (whether it exists and how we should respond to it), both candidates acknowledged the reality of evil in our world.  Obama’s stressed that we had to confront evil, but that removing evil is finally God’s work and that a lot of evil has been done, and can be done, in the name of fighting evil.  That complex answer was met with respectful silence from the audience.  McCain, by contrast, jumped in at the very end of the question with a ringing “Defeat it!” which received loud.   He then went on to proclaim that he’d get Bin Laden “if I have to go to the gates of hell” and that radical Islamic extremists present “the transcendent challenge of the 21st Century” – all again to resounding applause.

That was then.

Now, with the Trump administration, we’ve seen a period of far worse polarization (between political parties and between other religious and cultural groups) where the stoking of such polarization has increasingly become a deliberate tactic. Think of Trump’s tweets and speeches. And of similar rhetoric from obsequious Republicans as well as by too many on the other side of the aisle.

In 2009, I asked whether Obama would be able to use the economic crisis of that time to lead us towards a fundamentally different form of cultural and electoral politics?  Or would that crisis, with all its accompanying fears, simply provide more fuel for the polarizations of our political and cultural wars, perhaps even leading again (God forbid!) toward the terrible violence which characterized so much of the 20th Century. Today I ask the same question about Biden and (hopefully) a new Democratic majority.

In 1973 Lynch published his last book, Images of Faith. There he most fully developed the idea that faith (not religious faith, but basic human trust and hope – to which, of course, religious faith may and thankfully often does contribute) – that such faith is fundamental to the very possibility of politics. Lynch asks us to imagine (that is, to really see) that such basic human faith and trust has “a body.” It is not some vague idea or “spirit.” Rather it actually exists (or fails to exist) as embodied in human relationships, embodied in the actual city — in its economics and politics, its institutions and folkways, its technical expertise and artistic expressions. For the city (or any smaller community, is the most concrete expression or body of human trust and hope. Of course, any human community, without foundational trust, becomes a “body of unfaith” which comes to expression in both political polarization and actual violence. More typically and perhaps more hopefully, the actual human city is at once an embodiment both of faith and of unfaith – of both trust and contempt, both cooperation and warfare.

Earlier, in his 1965 Images of Hope, Lynch gave a classic statement to his concern about foundational faith. “We are always faced,” he wrote, “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.”  This, he added, “will always require an act of imagination which will extend the idea of the human.”  It will and must be founded in basic human trust and hope. Or we can decide “to build various absolute and walled cities from which various pockets of our humanity will always be excluded.”  “They will pose as ideal cities [but] will exclude the imagination, the Negro, the sick, the different.”  He then warned that “these totalistic, 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.”  Whatever their form, they are embodiments of contempt, not faith, and thus they will be “self-enclosed” and their citizens will “spend their time reassuring each other and hating everyone else.” 

Are those words not a compelling description of present reality?

Lynch’s writings continually call us to work for that first alternative – “to build a human city in which all have citizenship,” a city which embodies a fundamental sense of faith, trust, and hope.  Much earlier (1950), his inaugural editorial for Fordham University’s scholarly journal Thought was titled (in a Latin quite acceptable then in the world of Catholic scholarship) “Ingredere in Civitatem” (Enter into the City). It was a call for Catholic and other writers and intellectuals (readers of Thought) to reject the temptation to withdraw into sectarian enclaves of secure specialization, and to bring their talents to the post-war task of building a truly inclusive, human and humane city.  That call articulated not only Lynch’s editorial agenda, but the purpose of all of his later writing. 

In these writings, Lynch discusses the many manifestations of contempt and polarization, of the withdrawal into sectarian enclaves or walled cities. Think but of the role of religion, then and today, in too readily legitimating, energizing, and even leading the development of such contempt and hatred, such destruction of the body of human faith. 

Yet rather than focus on such analyses, let me briefly give some indication of Lynch’s ideas about the therapy needed if we are to move from polarized politics towards a rebuilding of our body of civic and human faith. 

 There clearly is, he knew, no quick fix, no one way forward.  We face on all fronts many important concerns and and important conflicts – and we will increasingly face such concerns and conflicts in an environment of growing inequality and increasing fears, resentments, and anger.  Today’s pandemic has simply (!) made such fears and anger more manifest. Deep concerns must be addressed and real conflicts negotiated, even fought out.  Yet for Lynch quite literally everything depends upon the spirit involved in such cultural and political conflict – whether it expresses a sense of fundamental human trust or becomes increasingly captive to the fear and anger and resentment. 

What we as a people need, to put the matter in Ignatian terms, is a sustained discernment of the fundamental spirits at work in our political and cultural life.  Put differently, there is need for a major transformation of the fundamental spirit and the basic sensibility which operates in our body politic – and this especially at the level of leadership elites.  We need a gradual recovery of faith, a re-building and development of basic trust. 

Here again, Lynch’s writings involve much discussion of such much needed therapy for the transformation of “our” sensibilities and spiritualities.  He draws, for example,  on Socrates, especially on Socratic irony, with its ability to break through various absolutes and pretensions And on Christ (two of his books are entitled Christ and Apollo and Christ and Prometheus). In Images of Faith he calls Christians and others to embody and live through “the irony of Christ” – the great irony that the messiah would be a poor man and crucified failure whose words and life subvert the various “magnificences” of the powers of the world.  (This topic of irony needs much more discussion. I mention it here not only because it is so central to Lynch’s thought, but because today we only know of a very different kind of irony — what he calls an “irony of contempt” which pervades and builds our walled cities.)

And, of course, for us today, as for Lynch’s readers back then, the challenge is to understand such ironic subversion of the contempt which is so prevalent. To imagine it, and then to make it a way of living which will help rebuild our human city.

It may seem very strange to speak of faith as irony, and of faithful living as the practice of irony. Yet a friend just wrote me that the best way to dethrone dictators of all sorts is to laugh at them, and in so doing not only to expose their pompous (and dangerous) silliness, but to shed light on our more basic human traits of trust and solidarity. If we can also laugh at ourselves, acknowledge the poverty of our own efforts and the limitations of our ideas and causes — then perhaps we can also learn how to laugh pompous contempt from the stage of our politics and culture — and even of our churches.

Moving Through These Hard Times

After I first posted this blog yesterday, I began to feel some guilt about how “middle class” my reflections are.  They focus on those of us who have many resources for moving through these hard times.  Yet so many of the unemployed and poor do not have such resources and have found other ways, perhaps better ways, of moving through these times.  I feel guilty for not addressing their ways, but the sad reality is that I do not know what and how they are doing this.  So I write about what I know — middle class folks — and acknowledge what is missing from this post. 

1. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been in isolation for four months, with many more to come. I get discouraged by the isolation. Discouraged too by other crises we face in addition to the again spiking pandemic.  Economic injustice, racism, immigration, unemployment and a failing economy, Trump’s dangerous stupidity and campaign viciousness at all levels….   All within the dark horizon of global warming and mass population movements.

I hear similar discouragement voiced by friends.

And I just read about Michelle Obama’s recent podcast where she confesses the low-grade depression she lives with because of the pandemic and the constant news about racism.  She speaks of the “dispiriting” effect such hard realities have on her.

So I write here about how we might make it through these hard times, even if only to encourage myself.

My notes and suggestions make no pretense of completeness or of ordered sequence.

I also know that most of us have found ways of dealing with hard times and discouragement.  For there are many ways for moving through these times.  Many heads and hearts are needed to remind us of shared sanity and to imagine the endurance and encouragement and hope we need.  So I again ask for your thoughts in response.

2. In his last book, Images of Faith (1973), my mentor Lynch wrote:

Everything I have ever written asks for the concrete movement of faith and imagination through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ. (p. 81)

As I said in beginning my book about Lynch, the full meaning of that sentence takes a long time to unpack.  Yet one begins to feel its meaning by Lynch’s rhythmic repetition of the word “through”: through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ.  And by his emphasis on “the concrete movement” of both faith and imaginationthrough these realities.

So that shall be the theme of my notes – that we need to find good, sane ways to “move through” the challenges of our hard times.  Said simply, the only way to go is to go through.  NOT trying to escape hard realities by a retreat “within” or some sort of transcending “above it all.”

(A brief note about the perhaps puzzling final phrase of Lynch’s sentence – his call for the movement of faith and imagination “through the actual life of Christ”.  This is precisely what Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises call for:  moving slowly with our imaginations through the gospel stories about Jesus’ life.  This spiritual “exercise” or practice need not be limited to Christians.  It can be fruitful for those of other faiths and for secular humanists. More below.)

3. I begin negatively by stressing that we are regularly tempted NOT to move through hard realities, but to escape them by seeking refuge, as I’ve said, in some transcendence “above” or some separate peace “within.”  Of course, we do need escapes, at least I do.  Into superficial entertainment and fantasies, what I fondly call “junk” food for the soul.  Or the actual junk foods of sweets and drink.  These can all be legitimate ways to distract ourselves from present crises and provide momentary release from discouragement.

Yet such escapes can become habitual, even addictive, perhaps especially in hard times.  Then we risk becoming, as T. S. Elliot wrote, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

This can also be true for religion and spiritual practice.  Marx was not wrong to claim that “religion [too often, I add] is the opium of the people.”  Fundamentalist faith about “God’s Will” or retreat into prayer and meditation – these can easily become spiritual opium.  Though, of course, religious belief and spiritual practice can also be very important ways for moving through these times.

It’s equally true that political passion and ideological beliefs are just as often an opium, as we’ve seen in both the historical legacy of Marxism and the capitalist legacy of Adam Smith.  These days it seems that consumerism is the primary opium for many more people than either religion or politics.  As also the particularly “American” temptation to throw ourselves into doing, doing, and more doing.  “Just do it. ”  (Really?)

4. Of course, religion and politics, good food and drink, working and celebration, good books and films, even buying new things can be and often are crucial positive or realistic ways of moving through these hard times.

I repeat for emphasis (because these are good ways of moving through our times):

Religious celebration and meditation.  Good books and movies.   Good work of all sorts.  Drinks and food with friends.  Good conversation on zooms.  Gardening and walks in the woods.

These can provide soul food to nourish sanity, provide encouragement, and sustain hope in these times.

5. Lynch especially stressed the importance of stories – in drama and fiction and cinema — as sources for such soul food.  He first acclaimed books were The Image Industries (1959), about cinema and TV, and Christ and Apollo (1960), about more serious literature.  In each book he first analyzed the many ways that our “arts and entertainments,” even our most serious arts, too often serve as escapes from reality into fantasy.  Yet the dramatic or narrative imagination (in literature or film) more fundamentally can serve as an invitation not to escape but to enter into a story as it moves through the difficulties and challenges as well as the joys and hopes of its characters.

Nor need we think only of “great” novels and films.  For the narrative imagination – the sense of moving through a story – is also nourished by folk tales, by children’s books and programs, and by a good number of popular TV series.  I’ve always loved and been helped by writers like Dickens and Dostoievski, but I’ve also found fun and consolation in stories read with my grandchildren.

Nor, of course, is the narrative imagination nourished only by fiction.  Most of us, to give but one recent example, have found courage and hope by following the media celebration of John Lewis’ life.  And my wife’s book club just read about Churchill and the Brits suffering through the London Blitzkrieg.

6. Of course suffering is itself one of the most central ways whereby we move through difficulty.

Suffering tempts us to escape.  Yet a clear recognition of and submission to suffering – even the final suffering of death – is crucial to sanity and hope.

Lamentation expresses such recognition, but it’s not something we hear much about these days. We Americans (at least those of us in the U.S.) prefer to “go boldly” and typically see lament as weakness.  Yet lamenting – in person or communally, at national tragedies as much as personal loss – is a crucial form of facing up to hard realities.  Just surf YouTube and listen to some of the great Black Spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” or “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and, above all, Billie Holiday’s wrenching rendition of “Strange Fruit.”  You will hear the power of lamentation from a people who have so suffered.

7.  Mention of suffering and lamentation evokes another essential spiritual practice for moving through hard times – the practice of silence.

Yes, Paul Simon’s magnificent “Sounds of Silence” is still a very relevant lament for the cancer of silence and separation in our consumer culture. Yet I here mean the practice of silence as a way of opening the soul both to difficulty or tragedy and to wonder and hope.

I’m someone who finds silence difficult.  What the Buddhists call my “monkey mind” keeps chattering its nonsense even when I try to be silent – try to wait with joyful hope.

Yet silence, to put it quickly, is perhaps the primary way to awareness of the great mysteries which are beyond words: the great fundamental mysteries of unity (the one), and meaning (the true), and purpose (the good), and joy (the beautiful.  For these are the mysteries which, even when we remain unaware, do sustain and encourage us as we move through time.

8.  Finally, let me return to the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth and the call from Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises that we move imaginatively through those stories.

My previous note about silence somehow led me back to that magnificent gospel lament “I Wonder As I Wander.”  Silent wonder under the sky, wondering why Jesus came but to die, for poor folks like you and like I.

Yet it is not just the story of Jesus’ death, but the stories of his life as he moves from birth to death – through the hard times that led to that murderous death.

For the Christian, these stories embody the reality that the Divine Mystery entered fully into human time – became incarnate as a fully human being, a man of his times.  From birth through coming of age to prophetic mission and challenges to his last days. Those  realities – perhaps especially when entered into by imaginative spiritual practice or more simply by Sunday Gospel readings and the movement of the liturgical year through Advent/Christmas to Lent/Easter – is for Christians the ground for meaning and courage as we move through the births and sufferings and deaths of our times.

Yet this is true in a different way for persons of other faiths, whether religious or humanist.  At least it seems true in Western cultures and also in some African and some Asian cultures.  For the stories of Jesus are iconic in these cultures.  They provide a cultural pattern for movement through time and suffering even for the non-Christian — which is perhaps why that pattern is found in so much of our secular literature and film — the pattern of beginnings and coming of age, of challenge and suffering, and of some sense of an ending, whether tragic or comic. Thus the imaginative exercise of moving consciously and attentively through these gospel stories has, in these days of interfaith collaboration, proven very helpful for many who do not share Christian belief.  Or so I’ve read and been told.

8.  Et tu?  What are your ways of moving through these times with courage and hope?

Media Bias Against Catholicism?

I originally wrote what follows at the invitation of the Denver Post.  I had sent a letter critical of the front page article noted below.  They then asked me to expand my letter into an OpEd piece.  Unfortunately they never printed it, so I now post it here. 

At times I’m almost sinfully delighted that some Catholic ox was gored by our media.  Especially when it involves Catholics I disagree with about this or that – including a good number of few bishops.  At other times I am immensely grateful for media exposure of Catholic crimes, as in the damming reports about sexual abuse and cover-ups.

Yet sometimes I am quite offended by bias against things Catholic in our media.  Even, for example, in the case of important reporting about sexual abuse.  I’ve questioned the seemingly exclusive focus on Catholic institutions – especially early on.  Did  such important reporting nonetheless involve some anti-Catholic bias?

And then the recent front page AP article in the Denver Post — “Catholic Church lobbied for taxpayer funds, got $1.4B.”   It really got my goat.  Let me count some of the ways.

Start with its title that the “Catholic Church lobbied” and the subsequent claim that “The church’s haul may [actually] have reached…$3.5 billion.”  Why that accusatory “haul”?  Why the Catholic Church when the article later and very briefly notes that church “affiliates” are receiving these payroll protection loans?  Why not report, in both headline and content, that many independent and affiliated Catholic organizations have benefited from loans to help employees make it through these times?  And, by the way, what’s wrong with lobbying?  Every organization does it — even the Denver Post!  Lobbying becomes an evil when its purposes are unjust.

Yet given Congress’ special exemption, at this time of economic crisis, allowing government loans to religious groups, why shouldn’t catholic dioceses and parishes, schools and charities, seek loans to help employees make it through these days?  Loans to help front line nurses and teachers, secretaries and office managers, grounds and building maintenance workers.  On the importance of such loans, check out the much more accurate RNS article “Yes, Catholic Church got billions in federal coronavirus aid — and thank goodness.” 

Reducing all these different employers and workers to “the” Catholic church is like saying that “American Jews” and “American Protestants” also made big “hauls,” when of course it’s a variety of Jewish and Protestant and other religious employees who will benefit from such loans.

Why, then, the article’s exclusive focus on Catholics?  Why did AP and the Post not also report on loans to Jewish and Mainline Protestant and other religious groups?

Finally, there’s the article’s gratuitous linking of these paycheck protection loans story to the separate story about Catholic sexual abuse crimes?  In its first sentence we’re told that “many millions” of the billion-dollar Catholic haul went “to dioceses that have paid huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection because of clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.”  Factually true, but what’s the connection of these two stories?

I’m one of many Catholics happy that sexual predators have been imprisoned and that Catholic institutions have paid huge settlements.  Again, credit the secular press for this just result.

But why should workers in Catholic institutions be disqualified from payroll protection because of malfeasance by some of their employers?    If we are, indeed, all in this present emergency “together,” why shouldn’t the nurses and teachers, cooks and cleaners, at Catholic institutions be as eligible as workers in bars and barbershops, banks and other businesses?  Congress saw fit to allow this.  So why the reporters’ continual tone of outrage?

The reporters seem to justify their linkage of the loan and sexual abuse stories by implying that the church needed its big “haul” because coffers had been drained by sexual abuse settlements.  Yet they make this insinuation without one shred of evidence.

If indeed loans do not go to payrolls but to refill church treasuries, then the leaders involved must face criminal prosecution – as should any employer pocketing taxpayer funds intended for workers.

Thus I await good (and not biased) reporting about loans to Protestant and Jewish and other religious employers.  And I especially await good reporting about any criminal misuse of such loans.

A wee apology for so oversimplifying Catholic realities might also be nice.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Nor do I hesitate to disclose a personal interest (bias?) in writing. For, though I’m now retired,  I’ve been a proud employee in Catholic education during my entire working life.


A Wee Bit More on Pentecost and BLM

This is a short follow-up to my previous posting connecting the Spirit of Divine Love to the protests, speeches, dances, songs and celebrations in the streets of our cities of late.

Commonweal (tied in my voting with America for best, and quite different, US Catholic periodicals) just published a spirited essay by M. Shawn Copland, one of the major voices in US theology, titled “Breath and Fire — The Spirit Moves Us Toward Racial Justice.”

I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It is rich with scriptural reference and explanation.  It’s also rich with the rhythms of black preaching.  And since it’s a bit long, I recommend reading slowly, listening to each paragraph for the black preacher’s (in this case a black woman’s) biblical sense and repeated challenging calls.  For not only is this fine writing and  very good theology, but it is constant in its gospel challenge.  Something I’m not always very good in responding to.

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.