Archive for the 'Lenten Obsesrvance' Category


Lent, Day 15, St. Bernard on “Your Kingdom Come”

This covers “On Grace and Free Will,” Section 12 and 13.

The point in this section is that, while we have total freedom from necessity — we do have free will — that no one is free from sin, and that part of the intent in praying “Thy Kingdom Come” is that we earnestly wish for that time when we will be free of sin.

There are a couple of statements here that I find worth commenting on:

“Freedom of counsel is possessed only in part, and that only in the few spiritual ones among us who have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires so that sin no longer reigns in their mortal bodies.”

Here I have a problem with something that I see as an antipathy towards the body in the thinking of late antiquity and the Middle Ages. This is especially true in St. Augustine and later, that somehow our mortality and physicality make us susceptible to sin and that only by denying our bodies can we get to some spiritual enlightenment. And though there is a problem with wallowing in physicality, or seeing valuable only the matters that can be perceived through the senses, a denial of the senses as a way to a spiritual understanding seems wrong-minded. In making such a statement, Bernard seems to be suggesting that only a few can come to an adequate spiritual understanding, which leaves the rest of us in the dust. I don’t see how the denial of the flesh is a balanced approach, or how one avoids such denial becoming its own idol.

If one is not a theist, what would be the greater truth beyond this world? Would it even exist? And how, beyond the senses and rationality, could you get to this higher state?

Later, Bernard makes the following statement: “In the measure that grace’s kingdom is extended, sin’s power is weakened. It is a process which is still unfinished because of this perishable body which weighs down the soul…”

Again with the body and the body weighing down the soul, so that the soul, which should take flight, is stuck on the ground by our body, which is little more than dead weight. And though I get the problems the body brings — illness, and urges that are not always in our best interest, I think the body should be celebrated, a gift and not some anchor which keeps us from enlightenment or union with some greater truth. I think all of us are capable of sin, which I see as error or a failure to love, and that all of us will sin from time to time. We are not omniscient, so our ignorance will trip us up from time to time, and we are not omnipotent, or fully in control of ourselves, and that will cause us to mess up. That said, the view of the body as dead weight, as some sort of disabling condition, I reject. It sets up a false dichotomy between body and soul. The two are not separate entities, such that, if only we were rid of one (body) we’d be in some sort of celestial wonderland. Again, I have to reject that. Not only does such thinking lead one to take stuff out on one’s body (starvation, or physical punishment), but one is likely to do that to others (like kids) as a means of betterment. Such efforts, especially with the young, can lead to bad self-image, and a sense that one is bad and must be punished, and that leads nowhere good.


Lent (Day 40) — we made it…

I did finish Breslin’s book, and I do appreciate his desire to not let the authorities and their short-sighted attempts to keep the whole sex abuse matter quiet for their own political reasons be the final word.  There are two ways of viewing the Church — the traditional view sees the clergy as the rulers and the rest of us the ruled, but the other view looks on all of us as the Church.  In that case, it is possible for the ruled to stand up and make their voices heard, and that is the best way to avoid the situation that has gone on for too long.  

But I have to admit that, on the last day of Lent, I played hooky. I watched Liberal Arts, a film starring Josh Radnor — I guess I was feeling a longing for Ted Mosby.  In the film, he plays the same sort of guy he played in How I Met Your Mother.  

I’m glad that I watched Liberal Arts. As a film about people who are very much bound by books, and what that might mean, the film did speak to me as a person who’s spent his life in education and in libraries (and book stores, too). My reflections on Lent this year were book related, as was last year’s reflections on Dark Night of the Soul by St. John of the Cross. And just about anything I say or feel is likely filtered through books or film. I’m very much like Woody Allen’s film geek in Play It Again, Sam. His lover, played by Louise Lasser, leaves him at the beginning of the film because he’s a watcher, not a doer. The same might apply to Radnor’s character here, who is a reader, and not a doer. And yet, over the course of the film, Radnor, the reader, grows up and learns to say “yes” to life, a lesson he learned by a near romantic fling with a college student sixteen years his junior, who is part of an Improv Group. And I think that the # 1 rule of Improv is a good rule for living one’s life — say “yes” and add to the scene. That saying “yes” is what the “leap of faith” in my own tradition is all about. And when I think of the victims of abuse, one of the saddest things about them is that their experience as children, saying yes to an authority figure who abused their trust, has taught them to be very wary of saying “yes.” And some may never get that back, which is something no apology, however deeply felt, from their abuser, should any such apology come, will restore. But I think that some do learn to say “yes” again to life and love despite their experience.
But one of the great things about this film (which was not a great film, but a good one) is that Radnor’s character, when the college sophomore wants to sleep with him, doesn’t say yes. And though it is painful in the moment, and as we watch it, we’re thinking, “D’oh!” I think we realize that he made the right decision. The film opens with a line that “He that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow!” And, in a sense, it’s true. The more we know the more that stuff can get in the way of living life. But there is such a thing as wisdom, and learning can lead to wisdom. And pain, to a good end, is better than pleasure to a bad end. There is a danger in only doing stuff that makes us feel good. Life is not all joy, and would not be much of a life if that’s all we knew.
And I thought of Improv and what it can mean to someone who’s read a lot of books, and seen a lot of movies. I think that Improv can teach us (or maybe help us learn is better) how to take our life experience, but also all those words and plots and everything else we have in our heads, and play with that, to enter into a dialog with authors, and each other about ideas presented in literature. We can learn to be better in our use of language, become more poetic, and more graceful, and that’s a good thing. So, Happy Easter — a real time of new beginnings (so much more so than New Year’s Day, in the midst of winter). And my thoughts this Easter will be with the abuse victims, but also with James Martin, SJ, and Josh Radnor.


Lent (Day 29) — Jimmy Breslin’s “The Church that Forgot Christ”

Now beginning Chapter 3 of Breslin’s book, which opens as follows: “I am on my way to church on a Sunday as I’ve been doing every week since age seven.” And later in the chapter, in discussing the much more secular feel of walking along Broadway in Manhattan to the Church of the Blessed Sacrament, he recalls the religion-steeped feel of Catholicism in Queens. “Out in Queens, the sound of my religion always was a soft, lovely murmur of the footsteps of the faithful walking to mass at a few minutes before each hour on Sundady mornings. In all my Sunday mornings everywhere I’ve been, no place since then has been so dominated by religion.” That feel he describes of the religion of his youth is much like my own feeling. On Sunday, when I was a kid, there were at least 6 Masses, and before the 8a Mass, the kid’s Mass, all of the kids of the parish school would be heading to church, so the area around the church was a buzz of activity of kids in their Sunday best, heading to Mass, and all the nuns from the school, to make sure the little darlings behaved themselves. Before the 10a service (there were two, one in the Upstairs Church with the ceiling lamps that looked like rocket-ships or bombs, and the other in the downstairs chapel which had a cool and dark feel to it, even when fully illuminated), most of the people of the parish would be heading to church, and Bowdoin Street and Perceval, and Hancock, and Mt. Ida Rd. and the other streets around the church would be full of people converging on the Church. It gave a solemn but celebratory feel to Sunday mornings. Everyone (or so it seemed) was on their way to church.
And Breslin also talks about getting married at Blessed Sacrament. But now (after the pedophile scandal broke), it feels different going to Mass — he still does it out of habit, but there is a wedge between him and his religion because of the criminal activity of some priests, and the wholly negligent attitude of the administration that took pains to protect victimizing priests and the name of the Church over making sure that the victims were treated rightly and heard.
And though I had no longer been going to Church, and had become an Unitarian, that all encompassing atmosphere and the family feel I recalled came rushing back when I heard about the scandal in Boston, and I recall feeling very much betrayed. I never did like Cardinal Law, who seemed very much to be a well-connected pencil pushser, but nothing more (he lacked the charisma of Cardinal Cushing, the bishop of my youth), but my feelings shifted very much towards downright hostility, when I learned of his handling of this crisis. By his actions, and inactions, he was (and is) an unindicted co-conspirator in the whole affair. And that John Paul II allowed him to retire to Rome smacked of a desire on the part of the pontiff not to solve the crisis, but rather to make it go away, to put Law in a place where he could not be summoned to court, made to testify, and face criminal penalties. Some anger at that still lingers for me, and for Breslin too, I’m guessing.


Lent (Day 21) — “I’m Not Funny and My Life Stinks…”

In chapter 7 of his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, James Martin, SJ lists five FAQs he gets in various lectures and appearances:
1. Does being joyful mean that I’m supposed to be happy all the time? Answer: No. Life has many tragic moments filled with incredible sorrow. Not to feel sorrow and loss would be inhuman. He cites the story of Jesus and Lazarus, in which “Jesus wept.” He also noted that when he has teared up at funerals of friends and acquaintances, he has been criticized by some for not focusing on the resurrection but on the earthly passing of someone. Again — he stresses that life is painful at times and not to recognize it is inhuman. But joy can come out of sorrow, and it is possible for humor to lighten the sorrow somewhat.
2. How can I find a sense of joy if I’m unhappy? Though he didn’t emphasize this, my response would be to let it come when it comes, and not to try and force it. Sometimes the way to joy is to let grief and sorrow play themselves out. But an openness to joy can help one get through most trying times.
3. I’m not a funny person. What do I do? Well, some people think they are not funny, but can be, and remaining open to the possibility of that gift is important. But also, it is possible to be around others who are funny and appreciate their gifts. In Martin’s eyes, humor is something akin to gratitude. So appreciating others who are funny can have the same effect as being funny oneself.
4. What can I do if I live or work in a joyless environment? His advice here is tough to follow when all seems dark, but one is not defined by one’s environment, and even the blackest situation has some bright moments, or moments that are incongruous. So, if work is tough, one can find friends to hang around with after work and laugh about the silliness of the workplace. Certainly a lot of great stand-up comics do this very thing, on a big scale.
5. Father Martin, do you want to hear a joke? Answer: Only if it’s a good one! Of course, it makes sense to end this chapter on a joke. But the idea of a “good” joke is double-edged. On the one hand, one wants to hear a funny joke. But on the other hand, one wants to cultivate a positive sense of humor, and not celebrate mean-spirited humor. This chapter seemed to me to be a bit of filler, and I didn’t find it quite as satisfying. Martin went over some of the territory he’s already explored.


Lenten Observance, Day 40, 2013

I have to say that the only thing I’m thinking at the present is “and then he rested.” Not that I’m comparing myself to God, or that I’ve done anything substantial, but I think I always feel that way at the end of any project I set myself — I’m eager to get it done, and move on. That might suggest a lack of seriousness on my part, or a certain laziness.
What I’m interested in watching the next few days is how the papal selection goes. The last two were done in only a couple of days. I’m not sure how long the two before that were, but I seem to recall the choice of Paul VI took a bit of time, and even the choice of John Paul I was more than a couple of days. I’m not sure what a short turnover would indicate — it could indicate a willingness to take on some of the tough issues and take a radically different approach. Given the conservatism of most of the cardinals, I’m more likely to believe the fix is in. I hope that the Lenten spirit is much with these guys and they really want reform and reconsideration of the old ways, but it’s tough to break out of a rut, even when you are determined to do so. We’ll just have to see.
I’m going to take some time off from blogging to rest my little grey cells.


Lenten Observance, Day 39, 2013

Well, today I was watching a production of Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author. And it struck me that Pirandello’s absurd play could be entitled “Six Characters in Search of God.” The play does address permanence (the characters are ever-lasting — in a sense they never die, but humans die; the characters also have a certain fixity of emotion, as their lines and conception are always set, where humans change from person to person, from day to day — we are always reinventing ourselves). The figures in the play who represent people outside the play (the director, e.g.) are convinced that they have a permanent identity, until they are made to reflect on how different they are from how they were, and how their past is largely conditioned by the memory they have, so that their present version of themselves has largely rewritten past versions, in order to maintain an integrated and permanent identity. And this got me thinking of St. John of the Cross — I imagine he would believe in a permanent self, but that desires and other habits of life have encrusted that over. For St. John, the only way is to somehow break through to a deeper and truer reality than the world of appearances, which we cannot trust. But that concept itself is developed by a sentient being, one who feels and perceives, often incorrectly or inaccurately. So how valid is that concept? Can we ever know? As we have to evaluate it in a system of language, and any such system will itself be somewhat inaccurate. And yet, that union with God is something that is not negotiable with St. John — that has to be a fixed point which is true, beyond anyone’s conception of it. All of that sounds a lot like Plato and his concept of forms (which exist behind and beyond the world of things — that world is a world of shadows, but the world of forms and ideas which stands behind it is the light). And Platonism and Neo-Platonism have played a large part in Catholic theology, even when modified by neo-Aristotelians like St. Thomas Aquinas. As we do not see God as a physical being in the world around us, we must imagine God to be some unseen, but real, presence behind the world of sensation. And to get at that reality behind our illusion, we somehow have to short-circuit our senses. Of course, I can only reflect on this a bit, before my brain starts to swirl and everything goes through the Looking Glass.


Lenten Observance,Day 38

Here continuing my goal of getting 40 posts before I take a break from blogging for a while. What’s in the news lately is the whole brouhaha over choosing a new pope. I saw an article by Sr. John Chittister (she has a weekly article in National Catholic Reporter called “From Where I Stand…” She noted that this is the 6th papal conclave that has happened in her life. And she added that, as always, she looks on these events with a great deal of hope and promise, even though things have not always turned out as she’d like. But each time, I guess like Charlie Brown and the football, hope springs anew. As this is taking place during Lent (that hasn’t been the case in any of the papal conclaves of my life (58, 63, 79, 79, 2005)) I too take some hope that during this time of reflection and a purging of the soul that the cardinals in Rome will reflect deeply and take this chance to choose a Pope who will take things in a new and more open direction. Given that cardinals are naturally secretive, and that they have some dirt to hide, I’m not so hopeful. But I do hope that this season of Lent, with the promise of a new beginning, will sink in and short circuit the hard and fast rules of the College of Cardinals and we’ll get something new. We did get something new in the selection of John Paul II, but that did not turn out so well — a church that had been opening more and more to the world around it offered the papacy to someone outside of Italy (a good sign), but someone who was marked by his own history as a conservative Catholic fighting against the Communist rulers of his own country. And the Church’s phobias with regard to Communism have often led the Church to support very repressive regimes (e.g. Franco’s in Spain, Mussolini’s in Italy, and they made a deal with Hitler too) against those forces they fear as Communist. In Latin America, the promising new theology, Liberation Theology, was put on hold by John Paul II’s Vatican, though that theology alone was fighting the good fight for the poor in Latin America against the power structures with whom the Church had been aligned. And John XXIII, the beloved pope of my youth, was seen as an old guy who wouldn’t have much time to shake things up. Well, he did make a good start of shaking things up, but then his age and health allowed him only 5 years as Pope. So I wonder, will the church make a move towards greater solidarity with the poor? Will it make greater outreach to other faith traditions? Or will it use the next papacy to further turn the clock back, following in the steps of JP II and Benedict? Will it aim at a much more militant and restrictive church, smaller and meaner? Or will it open the tent more? I hope for change, and believe that people can change and that redemption (personal, not from someone long ago) is possible. Maybe we’ll get it. I hope so, even as I fear it is unlikely.