Phil Klay is a young American war veteran. His 2020 novel Missionaries was selected by former president Barack Obama last December as one of his “favorite books of 2020” and was named one of the “The 10 Best Books of 2020” by the Wall Street Journal.
In the address Klay delivered upon receiving the Hunt Prize in 2018, he elaborated on the connection between the violence of the world around us and the life of faith. “Paul tells us ‘the Kingdom of God is not in word, but in power.’ And, at times, I think I can feel that power around me. Catholicism is not, or should not be, a religion of force. Not of hard mechanical rules, but of stories and paradoxes and enigmatic parables.
It is an invitation to mystery, not mastery, to communion, not control. It is a religion that fits with what I know of reality, that helps me live honestly, and that helps me set aside my dreams of a less atavistic world in which men follow rational orders and never rebel. Perfect obedience, after all, comes not from men, but machines. Fantasies of control are fantasies of ruling over the dead. And my tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life.
This post is abridged and adapted from an article in America magazine October 2021. Follow the link to read it all. ‘My tortured God is not a God of death, but of new life’: Christmas is part of that paradox.
After Dr Johnson’s exploits yesterday, Sister Johanna has been considering another shared meal among, well, if not enemies, men who were uncomfortable in each other’s company. Unlike Sam Johnson, Jesus was not setting out to be polite in order to let the conversation flow smoothly.
Some gospel passages make me groan. They are the passages where Jesus confronts the Pharisees and scribes, the “professional religious,” with their hypocrisy. Those passages worry me. As a nun, I’m a professional religious, too. I go around in special robes all the time. I’m greeted with respect when I go out – there are plenty of perks that come my way. People are generous and kind just because I claim to belong to God. Do I live up to their expectations? I wonder. So, I always feel implicated when Jesus details the aspects of the Pharisees’ behaviour that are at enmity with the worship of the true God, and with a life that is truly given to God.
At the same time, I groan over each occasion when the religious authorities in the gospels react with defensiveness to Jesus – defensiveness that builds and builds, until it becomes demonic, until it is beyond control, until it has become murderous. As I watch this well-known story play out day by day in my lectio divina, I sometimes wish Jesus had not been so inclined to “stir” the situation with the religious authorities. If the Pharisees often try to trick Jesus with ridiculous questions in order to force him to say something they could use against him, Jesus, too, at times seems to “bait” the Pharisees. One of those times is recorded in Luke 11: 37-38.
Jesus had just finished speaking when a Pharisee invited him to dine at his house. He went in and sat down at table. The Pharisee saw this and was surprised that he had not first washed before the meal. But the Lord said to him, ‘You Pharisees! You clean the outside of the cup and plate while inside yourselves you are filled with extortion and wickedness.’
This was clearly a set up – by Jesus. Surely, Jesus was aware that in failing to wash before the meal he would be pushing the Pharisee’s buttons. I feel certain that Jesus was just waiting for the Pharisee to express his disapproval. And he does so, but he does it silently. We can say a great deal by body-language, as Jesus well knew. I imagine perhaps one eyebrow slightly raised as Jesus was “eyed” by the Pharisee. I suspect an awkward pause in conversation occurred when Jesus sat down at table, unwashed. Jesus is ready, and jumps in with his spoken criticism as soon as he sees the Pharisee’s unspoken one. Part of me wishes Jesus hadn’t. Jesus could have handled the situation differently from the start, done the done thing, washed his hands, sat down and told a set of inspiring stories, tried to win the Pharisee with a more honeyed approach.
But, Jesus wanted to “stir” it. He wanted to bring the bad feeling out in the open – lance the boil. And, superficially anyway, I’m not comfortable with any of it. Jesus was not an easy dinner-guest: no elephants were ignored in any living room Jesus ever visited. Why? As I ponder this question and reread the text, I gradually become more aware of Jesus’ side of things. I begin to see that for Jesus and his mission, so much was now at stake. I become more aware that Jesus’ hosts were not usually easy for Jesus to be with, either. The Pharisee who had invited Jesus to dinner was unwilling to see that the core of religious truth – ‘justice and the love of God’, as Jesus expresses it in this passage – was being eroded by the practices and attitudes the Pharisees espoused. A few minutes later in this scene, the lawyers will also begin to feel attacked, and they say so: ‘Master, when you speak like that you insult us, too’ (11:45). And, instead of backing off, Jesus uses even stronger language: ‘Alas for you lawyers as well, because you load on people burdens that are unendurable….’
This all could have been very different, though. And not primarily because Jesus might have tried to be nicer. No, despite my discomfort, I suddenly realise that I emphatically do not want a nice, compliant Jesus.
What do I want? Let’s ponder this question for a day. What do you want from Jesus? Tomorrow we’ll resume our reflection.
Sister Margaret gave me the following week’s posts when Lent was already filled, so I’ve had them filed away. It’s a privilege to offer her Franciscan perspective on Lent this year.
In the first three verses of his Testament,Francis of Assisi reveals to us that he had discovered anew the true meaning of penance. He does this by saying: The Lord granted me to begin to do penance in this way: while I was in sin it seemed very bitter to me to see lepers. Note that, for Francis, the life of penance was a gift from God.
If we even begin to mention the word penance today the majority of people start to close up inside themselves as negative words and feelings flow into their minds and senses. Penance, they think, that awful practice where I have to do something that is uncomfortable to me.
How often, when the season of Lent in particular is drawing near, have we heard the question, or been asked it ourselves: What are you doing for Lent? The next words you might then hear are: I know what I am going to do. I’m giving up sweets and cakes – and I might even lose some weight while I am about it.
Is that really what Lent is all about, what penance is about, where the whole focus is on me with no mention of God and it’s all rather negative? Is that what Pope Innocent III was commissioning Francis to do when in 1209, orally approving Francis’ proposed Way of Life, he instructed him and his followers: Go with the Lord, brothers, and as the Lord will deign to inspire you, preach penance to all. Is that really what Francis meant when he sent his eight brothers out telling them: Go my dearest brothers, two by two into the various parts of the world, announcing to men peace and repentance?
Advent is a time of watching and waiting: Sister Johanna invites us to listen to the Word of God and accept the challenges it confronts us with.
My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and put it into practice (Lk 8:21).
Do I want to be part of Jesus’ family, his mother and brother and sister? Oh, yes. Absolutely. Then, the question to ask myself, and with some rigour, is: What are you hearing? Hearing the Word of God and putting it into practice is the prerequisite for being a mother and brother of Jesus. Well, am I hearing the word of God? Really?
What we hope to hear often affects what we are able to hear. Identifying my hopes tells me what I will be listening for. Ok. Be honest. Don’t I hope (at least with a tiny part of myself) to hear someone who teaches that the ‘wide way’ is the true way? That if something ‘sincerely’ seems good to me then it is good in itself (‘sincerity’ being the only test for ethical uprightness)? That good and evil are empty constructs, man-made, politically or sociologically engineered to foster a culture of guilt and unhealthy self-criticism? Or, if I can honestly say that I have no such hopes, isn’t it still true that I wish I could hear someone telling me that I am doing just fine, and don’t need to work too hard to get on the right track?
Hearing the Word of God demands something different of me. Such hearing requires some preparation, some awareness of the human tendency to evade the truth, to want things to be easy. To hear the Word of God means putting the false self elsewhere – the self that is focused on its outward appearance and that wants to impress others and be important. Those desires need to be seen for what they are: vain, addictive, and ultimately unfulfilling. The words these desires speak to our mind are not God’s Word, and they get in the way of hearing it.
I am a Benedictine nun, and strive to live by the teaching of the Rule of St Benedict, a profound spiritual document written in the sixth century for people searching for God in every century. Its very first word is the command to listen. How to listen better, more deeply, more honestly, without self-seeking: this is the crucial question.
The second half of the statement from the gospel of Luke is “…and put it into practice.” I suppose it is possible to listen and then carry on as before, without changing anything or correcting anything – possible, but I don’t know how. If one is really listening rightly, deeply, unselfishly, if one is really hungry for the Word of God, then the Word does what food does: it makes action possible, it strengthens us for the right kind action. The two – the hearing and the acting – are completed as one thing. The Word, if truly heard, results in a desire and ability to put it into practice. But truly hearing the Word is required first. What are you hearing?
Dr Johnson’s first sentence reminds us that the Catholic church was still regarded with suspicion in England in the 1740s, even if there was a growing degree of toleration. But he seizes a part of the monastic vocation in this paragraph, as well as presenting us with the mystery of death and dying. Right now, I would quit this life with reluctance, but I hope that I will be able to say my Nunc dimittis when the time comes. Meanwhile, free me from the tyranny of caprice, my own and other people’s!
“I do not wonder that, where the monastick life is permitted, every order finds votaries, and every monastery inhabitants. Men will submit to any rule, by which they may be exempted from the tyranny of caprice and of chance. They are glad to supply by external authority their own want of constancy and resolution, and court the government of others, when long experience has convinced them of their own inability to govern themselves. If I were to visit Italy, my curiosity would be more attracted by convents than by palaces: though I am afraid that I should find expectation in both places equally disappointed, and life in both places supported with impatience and quitted with reluctance. That it must be so soon quitted, is a powerful remedy against impatience; but what shall free us from reluctance? Those who have endeavoured to teach us to die well, have taught few to die willingly: yet I cannot but hope that a good life might end at last in a contented death. ‘
From “Life of Johnson, Volume 1 1709-1765” by James Boswell.
I hope you can forgive me for looking at other chains of thought these last two months. This was only partly due to a computer putting on a hi-vis vest and going on strike. A new hard drive sorted that out. But it is good to have Friar Austin back! I’ve taken the liberty to add a couple of footnotes. Fr Rathe’s book gives something of a flavour of the Church just before the Council, when things were already beginning to change.
Can the inspiration of God ever be in conflict with the law of the Church? The whole prophetic tradition suggests that can happen. How do we test the spirit of an inspiration that suggests breaking the law? We must judge what is in line with spirit of the law. For example, the relaxation of fasting before Communion enables more people to receive the Sacrament.1
Unhelpful are: an over-simplifying notion of moral law; a preoccupation with precise measurements; disproportionate concern with sexuality; judgement of isolated bits of behaviour divorced from the whole person; punishment of sin seen in terms of an angry God; reconciliation seen as a means of shedding guilt; blind obedience praised as good behaviour by those in authority; concentrating on private morality at the expense of the social.
The perspective of Vatican II’s Moral teaching was to reject the blue-print model of the natural law – God’s plan. It presents life as gift, a fruit of the Spirit [Lumen Gentium 7.]2, and stressing personal dignity.
Conscience is not infallible, and it can be dulled by sin. Faith is conversion from sin, not once but continually; nowhere does the Church suggest that Scripture, Teaching… provide ready-made answers; we have to discern in the everyday of life. Moral challenge is not to keep the law in order to get to heaven, but to develop the full potential of what it means for me to be a human being. Gaudium et Spes 28 emphasises human development, even to loving enemies – i.e. involvement of will. [Part 2 of Gaudium et Spes3. is a treatise on values].
1Monsignor Landru took us into the house where we enjoyed a glass of cold water before saying Mass. I wonder if the Holy Father ever thought of the tremendous refreshment he would be giving priests like ourselves, when he said: “Water does not break the Eucharistic Fast”. You have to go to the tropics, anyway, to appreciate cold water.From‘ Mud and Mosaics – a Missionary Journey‘by Fr Gerard Rathe MAfr, Published 1961, available in full at http://thepelicans.org.uk/histories/history40a6.htm#top
John may have been the pope who began to modernise the Church but he was still using what sounds like archaic language in this passage from Il Tiempo Massimo, on Obedience. But we should still get the message!
Here We address Ourself to those who have duties of direction and responsibility.
Demand a most generous obedience to the rules, but also be understanding of your fellow Sisters. Favor in each of them the development of natural aptitudes. The office of superiors is to make obedience sweet and not to obtain an exterior respect, still less to impose unbearable burdens.
Beloved daughters, We exhort all of you, live according to the spirit of this virtue, which is nourished by deep humility, by absolute disinterestedness and by complete detachment. When obedience has become the program of one’s whole life, one can understand the words of St. Catherine of Siena: “How sweet and glorious is this virtue in which all the other virtues are contained! Oh, obedience, you navigate without effort or danger and reach port safely! You conform to the only-begotten Word . . . you mount the ship of the most holy Cross to sustain the obedience of the Word, to not transgress it or depart from its teachings . . . you are great in unfailing perseverance, and so great is your strength from heaven to earth that you open heaven’s gates” (Dialogue, ch. 155.).
Luke tells us the young man was one of the aristocracy. He would have been well known to Herod and the High Priestly Families, and able to gain entry anywhere in Jerusalem, including the Roman fort. Luke tells the story in Chapter 18, 18-23
I know this man; He is a good man, a good man.
He seemed to have something, to know something, something I could never quite get hold of. Something I could not understand.
I kept the law as well as anyone — God knows I tried to live by the rules. I should have been happy, knowing I was doing what God wanted but happiness was always just out of reach.
The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is among you; it is close at hand, it belongs to the children. If you want to get there welcome the Kingdom like a child. Sell everything, give the money to the poor and follow me.
Follow him? Now?
Let us pray :
Lord, show us what we need to throw away to be able to take up our cross and follow you — now. Show us that you are at hand when life is difficult. Lord in your mercy.
People talk about blind faith, but this Ash Wednesday I want to look at bland faith. Two posts last November 6th used the word: a thought provoking conjunction. Here’s Friar Austin:1
Jesus belongs to anyone struggling with faith – and how to live it truthfully. It is clear that many who would call themselves agnostic or even atheist actually live by values closer to the Gospel than do many Church-goers.
Jesus appeals to the imagination in ways that make official teaching about him seem very bland. What is the reality of Jesus beyond dogma? He was very imaginative, to a degree more suited to story than to doctrine. How would he tell his own story?
There never has been a time when God was not fully involved with Creation. The Book of Genesis states that God takes great pleasure in the creative process – and God saw that it was very good – everything is good because it is of God, good only comes from goodness. With evolution the time came for the break away from our primate ancestors, when God adds a new dimension with the arrival of the human.
Something I think theology can learn from science is the inspirational ethos that can be created when faith is not merely approached as an intellectual discipline to be understood, but as an adventure to be lived and explored with deep passion.
Yes, we need high intellects in the Church to further the academic exploration of theology. However, we also need voices in the pastoral field who can take the complexity of the scholar and present it to the people of faith in a way that inspires them to embrace an adventure of faith, hope, and love. Unfortunately, all too often, I encounter a bland faith of practicality in which adventure is lost and is replaced with paying bills, developing programs, and keeping tabs on the number of parishioners in the pews.
My fear is that faith is become so pragmatic that even the idea of pilgrimage, a sacred journey, is being dropped in favor of pressing play on the DVD player to watch the latest series on Catechetical instruction. Put another way, I fear that we are living in the midst of “Living-room Catholicism.”
What set me off about bland faith was this description of a Lutheran minister from Siri Hustvedt:3
He was well-meaning if somewhat narrow in his views and comfortable in his faith without being smug. At the same time, it has always impressed me that in the hands of men like Lund, the strange, bloody and wondrous Christian story inevitably turned rather drab.
Let’s take time this Lent to put a little more colour into our faith and how we live it.
Relating says something crucial of God. Birthing seems to capture God’s activity. When asked what God does all day – Eckhart replied: God is giving birth all day long! The will-to-life always triumphs and always will – something primitive religions seemed to grasp with the worship of the Great Earth Mother Goddess. Despite all attempts to subvert this practice the sacredness of the earth itself and its ingenious capacity to survive surely calls for recognition.
This isn’t a gender issue – but about the human capacity and need to image God. Because we issue from the divine we must carry something of this. Obviously God’s continual birthing forth is more readily appreciated through the female rather than the male, while acknowledging that both genders contribute. Birthing is a motherly concept; and redemption does not come through mortality but through natality, celebrating the birthing of all Creation.
The universe is saturated with life in abundance – largely invisible to the eye and to science; becoming manifest through channels of energy in embodied forms of which the cosmos itself is the primary body and co-creates with the divine bringing forth the vast range of creatures, including humankind. God did not create a perfect world, which we spoiled and had to be repaired – God created a world able to become perfect by the way it is lived-in.
Embodiment is not just for humans. Creation is alive with a vast range of embodied expressions. Insofar as embodiment is a primary requisite for incarnation, God has been incarnating for billions of years. We have abused this by relegating embodiment to humankind. In a sense Jesus belongs to a timeless realm – he is forever urging us to transcend narrow and confining boundaries. The rational only considers real to mean what can be quantified and measured.
The Gospels speak of the Kingdom – royalty language doesn’t sit easily with us. Why does Jesus use this term, when he sought to transcend all confines. We have sanitised Jesus – making him a well-behaved adult of a middle class culture – through a felt need for convention, order and authority. Where is the Jesus of the Parables? The Kingly realm is now of a different character – now it is power with, not power over. No ruling classes, no privileges; simply equality through a love that gives unconditionally, inviting us to the greatest challenge we will ever face – to love as we are loved.
Discipleship is now different; no longer allegiance to an exalted figure at the top. Love is key, so too is justice, love without justice rapidly becomes sentiment. We have done great things in the name of charity, yet the poor remain poor, because they don’t know the justice which guarantees equality. The Kingdom is for practical change, for radical transformation. The Jesus story is not closed, it is open to the creativity of every succeeding generation.