Here is my latest Prairie Messenger column. It’s a reflection on Year of Faith resolutions. My biggest resolution is to nurture, maintain and promote a sense of optimism. You all have my permission to nudge me back on track when needed!
Category Archives: faith
Eugene Kennedy has written a thought-provoking article called, Catholicism’s central teaching: how to be imperfect. An emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago, Kennedy describes the pre-Vatican II Church’s obsession with perfection.
The demand for being perfect, based on Matthew 5:14, “Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” became the deranged and deranging discipline that was brought to an end by Vatican II’s healthier attitude toward spiritual growth.
Life in religious communities and seminaries revolved around an unhealthy focus on rules and regulations. “Keep the Rule and the Rule will keep you” was the battle cry. Spiritual perfection lay in following the rules, “most of them more like traffic regulations than spiritual insights”.
It wasn’t any easier for the laity. I was still a child in the transition years of the 1960’s. A very serious child, I had a fear of breaking rules, and the ensuing punishment. I realize now that I probably suffered from an overly scrupulous nature. I’m sure it wasn’t unusual at a time when so much about our religion was measured in both degrees of seriousness and in number.
Each sin had to be confessed – whether mortal or venial. We struggled to not only remember all our sins, but to remember how many times they were committed. The scales of justice were ever before our eyes. Missed Mass last Sunday? Then we had to trot off to the confessional to avoid the eternal punishment assigned to a mortal sin. No food or water could pass our lips before receiving Communion. Eating meat on Fridays was a sin. Worried about the purgatory time you were racking up? There were prayers, rosaries, and other holy actions that could earn you indulgences. So many prayers equaled so many days off purgatory. (I envied martyrs, because a martyr’s death guaranteed you a first class, non-stop ticket into heaven.)
Kennedy has hit the nail on the head. Religion at that time was focused on perfection; an unattainable, unreasonable, and inhuman perfection. It was the Pharisaical style of religion that Jesus spoke so angrily about; one that worried about clean dishes and hands more than a good and righteous heart.
Some say that the pendulum swung too far the other way, making us lose our sense of sin. Perhaps. We need to know what is right and what is wrong, and we need to teach our children the same. We need to listen to our conscience, for guilt can be a healthy indicator that we have screwed up and need to make things right. We need a moral compass to guide us. We need to regularly examine our consciences, ask for forgiveness and seek reconciliation with those we hurt. What we don’t need is to focus on our sinfulness to the point where we lose sight of the good in us, and the good in each other.
We are sinners and saints, just like the motley crew that Jesus gathered around himself. He loved them all, and called them to love themselves and each other. Kennedy sums it up beautifully.
The mystery of being human and certainly of being a Catholic lies in our embracing together the imperfect state known as the human condition. First and foremost, if we could ever be perfect or do things perfectly, we would eliminate mystery, an essential ingredient in the good life and the spiritual life…
There would be no need for love if perfection were possible. Love arises from our imperfection, from our being different and always in need of the forgiveness, encouragement and that missing half of ourselves that we are searching for, as the Greek myth tells us, in order to complete ourselves. In every mythic tale, it is where we stumble and fall that we discover the gold.
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council. It is also the 20th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In order to celebrate these two milestones, Pope Benedict XVI has declared this to be a Year of Faith; beginning today and ending on Christ the King Sunday in 2013. The purpose of the Year of Faith is to re-energize and revitalize the faith of all Catholics. But, how is this to be done?
Christopher Lamb, writing for the Tablet, suggests that the specific focus of diocesan efforts can reflect theological leanings. Some dioceses in England are focusing on the documents of Vatican II, while others are focusing on studying the Catechism. The former is considered more of a liberal approach, while the latter is more traditional or conservative.
It is true, that quoting from the Catechism as a black and white tool for apologetics removes the need for careful discernment of the many grey areas in our lives. Therefore, it becomes a favored means for debating right and wrong for fundamentalists. Apologetics, by nature, is a process of defending the faith. When doing so, official teachings and documents become weapons to debate with rather than resources to dialogue with.
Now, I can already hear my more conservative friends rising up to accuse me of being a cafeteria catholic, picking and choosing what I believe in. No. There are absolute truths of our faith that we are all called to give assent to. Top of the list in the hierarchy of truths is the existence of God, and our Trinitarian belief in three Persons in one God. Some of our other teachings have developed over time. Some are still in the stages of development. Who knows what new questions our world will produce in the next decade that the Church will be called upon to discern?
But, I digress. Many folks have an aversion to the Catechism because of the way it has been used – as a weapon of defense and judgment. But, if you actually read the Catechism you will see that it is filled with quotes and footnotes from scripture, saints, Church Fathers and ecclesial documents…including the documents of the Second Vatican Council. In fact, Vatican II documents have a pride of place in many sections of the Catechism.
So, it does not need to be an either-or issue. Both the Catechism and the Documents of Vatican II are valuable resources in faith formation. But, doctrinal formation is not enough.
Faith formation that focuses just on the head seldom leads to a true conversion of the heart. I have written previously about the need to find a balance between the two extreme catechetical paradigms of rote memorization with little or no understanding, and arts and crafts classes. We need to nourish and nurture both the head and the heart. We need to feel our faith, a faith of the heart, for then it impels us to action. But, we must also know what it is we believe in.
My hope is that this Year of Faith will be an opportunity to truly read the signs of the times, to discern the spiritual needs and yearnings of women and men of today. And, may we not be afraid to revisit the teachings and traditions of our two thousand year history, while seeking new methods for making it relevant and meaningful for modern times.
The news of the gospel is and always will be good. May we find ways worthy of proclaiming it so others may find the joy and passion that comes with the gift of faith.
Alan Miller has written an article for the CNN Belief Blog called, My Take: ‘I’m spiritual but not religious’ is a cop-out.
Miller makes many unfair generalizations. He paints those who identify themselves as spiritual but not religious as light-weights in the philosophical department. Too lazy to follow the clear cut paths of centuries old doctrine, they prefer to bask in feel-good exercises. Rejecting authoritarian structures, they flit like butterflies from one happy spiritual experience to another. They journey down a shallow, self-centred path, never stopping to drink deeply of the water from any one spiritual tradition. It’s not surprising that he considers choosing the spiritual over the religious as a cop out.
There are many good people who have turned from organized religion. While the reasons are varied, they often include anger, disappointment, disillusionment, or simply indifference towards the organizational structure and authoritarianism found in many religious communities today. Instead of judging others, religious communities need to judge themselves. Why are so many leaving? Why are we not meeting the spiritual needs of women and men?
Many who have turned from traditional religions have not turned away from a spiritual quest. They know, intrinsically, that there is a Divine being, a creative power. They also know, intrinsically, that humans are more than flesh and blood. Many have embraced an inclusive approach to spirituality that opens the windows of the mind and heart to seek wisdom in other spiritual traditions.
Ideally, the religious and the spiritual would be indivisible. As Catholics, we appreciate the rootedness of tradition, the sacred Word of God, sacramentality, communal and liturgical prayer, and a spiritual union not only with God but with each other and all the saints who have gone before us. But, as Catholics, we also know that religion can easily become focused on dogma, rules, regulations, and authoritative power structures. When this happens, the spiritual becomes hard to find.
There are many, self-professed religious people who seem to have turned their back on the spiritual or never really found it in the first place. They find comfort in black and white dogmas, hierarchical structures and unchanging liturgical practices. They wear their religiosity on their sleeves and around their necks. They vigorously defend the institutional church but show little joy or reason to follow them. They embrace and preach a religion of judgment and guilt. Their role in the church is to fortify her walls rather than open windows and doors.
Living a true spiritual life means acknowledging that you are not the center of the universe. God exists. And this divine, creative power calls us all into being not for our sakes alone. We are created for the other; to be in communion with each other. The glory of God is woman and man fully alive, and fullness of life is found in caring, compassion, love, and acts of service. Life is a gift freely given, but we must be accountable for our lives.
As with many things these days, it’s a matter of balance. The pendulum, perhaps, is swinging naturally from the extreme of religiosity without grounding in the spiritual life to the extreme of spirituality that is not grounded within a religious tradition.
May it settle into that wise in-between where religious tradition and the spiritual life exist in seamless harmony.
The patron saint of Canada is St. Joseph. One of St. Joseph´s most ardent supporters and promoters was St. Brother André Bessette (1845-1947). St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montréal is Brother André’s testament to the prayerful intercessions of the beloved spouse of Mary, and earthly father of Jesus.
Brother André is one of those saints who tugs at your heart strings. A simple man, with little education and weak health, he was first denied entrance to the novitiate in the Congregation of Holy Cross in Montréal. He was finally accepted, but given the lowly job of porter at Notre-Dame College. In his own words, ‘’When I entered the community, my superiors showed me the door, and I remained there for 40 years without leaving.’’
In the ordinary task of welcoming people, he quickly became known for his holiness and prayer. When he met women and men in need of healing, he encouraged them to pray to St. Joseph. Soon, many healings began to take place and his fame spread. He remained humble, always sure to credit the healings to God through the intercession of St. Joseph.
Soon, a small chapel was built for all those who came. The chapel was replaced by a crypt church. Eventually the large Oratory was built which now stands gloriously on the hill overlooking Montréal.
As with many holy sites, visitors range from sight-seeing tourists to devoted pilgrims. I love visiting these holy places. While I may not partake of all the devotional practises and acts, watching those who do inspires me. I prefer to sit quietly, or walk slowly, and soak in the spirit of a place. I think of all those before us who have walked the same grounds; of the many prayers that have been lifted. And, in the presence, I find prayer.
Recently, we were chatting with friends and the topic of the Holy Spirit came up. What exactly IS the Holy Spirit? What does the Holy Spirit do? How do we know when the Holy Spirit is present? Hubby presented his own theological thesis, based on much deep thinking and pondering as a child. God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are like Dad, Son, and Uncle!
For me, the Holy Spirit is best expressed through her gifts, described by the prophet, Isaiah,
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
The spirit of wisdom and understanding,
The spirit of counsel and might,
The spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord….
The Holy Spirit is our divine inspiration (in-”in” + spirare “to breathe”), our creative force, the wisdom that is deeper than our own knowledge. The Holy Spirit is at work when we see clarity in the midst of muddiness. When we can dig into the dark recesses of our brain and pull out a wee nugget that brings understanding to us or another. When we have the courage to speak, and have the wisdom to stay silent.
Joanne McCracken, a dear friend and member of the Our Lady of the Round Table prayer community, shared a wonderful reflection with us this week. Here are her words of wisdom….
Back in the dark ages of my youth in Catholic school, the Holy Spirit was known as the Holy Ghost and came, it seemed, not in the shadows of some dark and stormy night but only when one was confirmed, in some invisible tongues of fire. Then he/she /it returned to the proverbial closet not to be mentioned except once a year, fifty days after Easter. On this annual visit he/she /it was mostly associated with speaking in multiple languages (all at once) further confusing in my mind. Who was this creature? Then, about 15 years ago I read this wonderful article in US Catholic entitled; God is More Than Two Men and Bird! Once I stopped laughing and read the article it all became so much clearer.
Holy One who is a Spirit;
who like a spirit is illusive yet ever present,
who rushes like the wind where you will,
who inspires hope
gives courage for the struggle
brings wisdom in times of doubt
grants patience with God’s time,
opens minds and hearts,
bestows strength on flagging souls,
blesses us with humility
and carries us on a stream of ever flowing graces,
who is with us today, tomorrow and always.
We bless you and praise you
for we need you.
As we celebrate Pentecost this Sunday, may we join our prayers that God’s Holy Spirit might indeed blow freely through all minds and hearts.
And thank you, Joanne!
What image do you have of the Holy Spirit? How do you experience the Holy Spirit in your life?
As we journey through the Triduum, we are immersed in the two most basic of human experiences; intense suffering, and great joy. This is from my recent column in the Prairie Messenger, reflecting on Good Friday and Easter,
Embracing the fullness of the Paschal Mystery is one of the greatest challenges of our Christian faith. It demands that we plant one foot firmly at the foot of the cross in the darkness of agony and death, and the other in the glorious presence of the risen Lord. We are called into that unfathomable paradox of dying and rising, trusting that seeds buried and grapes crushed will become bread and wine of new life. read more
Thank you to all the kind souls who visit this blog; with a special shout out to those who have enriched the dialogue with comments and responses. A Happy and Blessed Easter to all!
I have a totally irrational fear of mice; alive or dead. We lived in a country home for seventeen years, so had to take preventative measures against these unwelcome house-guests. If a trap was set in the garage, the kids checked to see if it was empty before I headed to the car. One time my four year old son happily told me, “I’m not sure, Mommy. But the trap is upside down and a tail is sticking out!” Our family has an arsenal of Mama vs. mouse stories. While they chuckle, the memories still give me the creeps. I have not outgrown the fear. And I hate being afraid.
Of course, this is a minor fear compared to life-threatening situations for ourselves or our loved ones. And we know that some fear is good. I had a fearless daughter who would leap into the deep end of a pool before she could swim. We needed to teach her a healthy respect for the water. As parents, we wanted our children to be careful without being overly fearful.
As parents, we did not want to teach our children to be afraid of God.
‘Holy fear’ is different from normal fear, but it is a difficult concept to understand and even harder to teach. When I was growing up, God was too often presented as an awful arbiter of punishment. God kept tabs on everything we said, everything we did, and even everything we thought. Homilies and catechism classes reminded us about the mortal nature of sins like missing Mass on a Sunday. There was much to fear about God in those days. It had little to do with love and lots to do with keeping out of the flames of hell.
Ron Rolheiser, OMI, has written a wonderful essay for his In Exile column titled ‘Bad’ authority has caused us to misinterpret concept of ‘holy fear’ . He writes,
Holy fear is love’s fear, namely, the kind of fear that is inspired by love. It’s a fear based upon reverence and respect for a person or a thing we love. When we genuinely love another person we will live inside of a healthy anxiety, a worry that our actions should never grossly disappoint, disrespect or violate the other person. We live in holy fear when we are anxious not to betray a trust or disrespect someone. But this is very different from being afraid of somebody or being afraid of being punished.
Bad power and bad authority intimidate and make others afraid of them. God is never that kind of power or authority…
When King David asked for the temple bread for himself and his men, he discerned that God is not so much a law to be obeyed as a gracious presence under which we are asked to creatively live. He feared God, but as one fears someone in love, with a “holy fear,” not a blind, legalistic one.
Holy fear is love’s fear! A beautifully simple explanation for an often confusing concept.
An interesting dialogue has unfolded on the previous post regarding blessings. Are blessings given by an ordained man more effective or special? Here are some thoughts…
Many of us were raised to believe in a hierarchy of blessings. This reflected the church as a structure of hierarchical leadership, and was ingrained within our Catholic psyche. A deacon’s blessing was greater than a lay person’s. A priest’s blessing was greater than a deacon’s. A bishop’s blessing was greater than a priest’s. And a papal blessing was the best of all!
Promoting this belief has fed the great divide between the ordained and the laity – a divide that has benefited the ordained for centuries. It went beyond affirming the special sacramental gifts received in ordination, to a belief in an assumed wisdom. And, an assumed holiness. (Thankfully, our Church has been careful to teach that the efficacy of the sacraments does not depend on the holiness of the priests.)
This assumption of holiness in the ordained has got us into a lot of trouble, and has allowed a lot of evil to go unchecked and unpunished in our church. So, no, I can no longer believe that the blessing of an ordained man is automatically holier or more effective. St. Francis might have had a big enough heart to prostrate himself before every priest merely because he was a priest; even if that priest was the greatest sinner of all. My heart isn’t that big.
Whether lay or ordained, God listens to the prayers of both sinners and saints. So, hopefully God will receive kindly the blessings of all. But, my own human nature tells me that when a true person of prayer tells me they are praying for me, then somehow that prayer will be given special hearing; because it is a prayer that comes from the depths of the heart. (This is why it is so wonderful to join our prayers to that great communion of saints.)
And, I feel the same way about blessings. A blessing is a prayerful shout out to God to shower graces on a specific person, event, place or thing. I don’t believe that the efficacy of the prayer depends on our official status in the Church, or even if we are Catholic or not! When a person that I love and respect for their deep faith offers to bless me, than I feel truly blessed.
A former pastor always invited the parish community to join him in special blessings. This was a powerful gesture, especially during the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) as women and men journeyed to the Easter sacraments. As he read the ‘official’ blessings of the Church, we all turned to the person and raised our hands in a blessing gesture. This simple action took the focus away from the priest as some magical dispenser of blessings, to a blessing community. And when the entire community blesses, then you can’t help but believe that the the blessings will overflow.
“You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live it.”
The highlight of this past Oscar weekend, was watching a non-Oscar movie. But what a winner it is!
I’ve been waiting and waiting to see The Way for about a year. I read about it when it was still in production. I read reviews when it finally opened in the USA and then in Canada. But, it never made it to our rural theatres. What a shame! We all need a break from the ongoing conveyor-belt of Hollywood block-buster, shoot-em-up shock-fests. Yet these are the movies that garner theatre releases and fill the rental -shelves a few months later. So, I was thrilled to see The Way offered on Apple TV. Hubby and I watched it on Saturday, and again on Sunday. It’s just one of those movies.
The Way is written and directed by Emilio Estevez. It stars Martin Sheen as Tom, an ophthalmologist who receives news that his son died on the first day of the Camino De Santiago pilgrimage. He flies to France to pick up his son’s remains and has the inspiration to walk the Camino himself, spreading his son’s ashes along the way.
The story is simple, but powerful. The friends Tom (unwillingly) picks up on the way reflect the classic, rag-tag of characters found in most pilgrim stories. Their reasons for walking the Camino are as diverse as they. Joost, from Amsterdam, is hoping to lose weight and win back the affection of his wife. Sarah, the Canadian, wants to quit smoking. Jack, the Irish scribe, is battling his writer’s block demon.
The cinematography is stunning. The many minutes devoted to the actual walk draw you into the experience. You imagine yourself walking the Camino. You wish you were walking the Camino. (New bucket list item?!)
The evening scenes were wonderful vignettes of Spanish late night table socializing; eating, drinking, and singing into the wee hours. It is no place for a quiet introvert!
The Way is a movie that draws you into deeper thought. As with any good piece of writing, art, or drama, it opens itself to layers of interpretation. My own take-away was the realization, yet again, that our personal efforts at self-discipline aren’t as important as the relationships around us. This is a good lesson for Lent. I remember hearing once that we are all, at one time or another, the walking wounded. And, we are not meant to walk alone. We need companions on the journey. We need to be companions on the journey. And, our loving God certainly has a sense of humour when it comes to matching us up!
If you are looking for a good Lenten meditation, I highly recommend The Way. Watching a movie may not be penance. But, we can all use a little inspiration on our Lent journey. Buen Camino!
(Click here for the movie trailer.)