He Followed Him

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of St. Andrew, the Apostle.

Andrew is not a figure that appears very frequently in the Gospels and we don’t learn very many things about him, other than that he was one of the Twelve.

St. John’s Gospel presents him as one of the disciples of John – one of those who to whom John said (speaking of Jesus), “Behold, the Lamb of God,” in response to which Andrew and his companion followed Jesus. When they ask Jesus where he is staying, he says “Come,” and they do.

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, we are told that as Jesus was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he came upon Andrew and his brother, Simon Peter. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” And we then hear that “at once they left their nets and followed him.”

We don’t learn many things about Andrew, but we learn perhaps all we need to know from both John and Matthew: He accepted the invitation to follow Jesus. He was invited by Jesus to proclaim the Gospel and he did. Legend has it that Andres preached the Gospel in what is now modern Greece and Turkey and that he was crucified at Patras.

Today I pray for the grace to follow Jesus as Andrew did.


Born Again

On Sunday afternoon, I was interviewed (via phone) on Kate Turkington’s Believe it or Not, a talk show that “offers a non-denominational but multi-dimensional approach to philosophical, moral and religious topics and issues drawn from our daily lives.” The show has been running for an amazing 19 years with the same host. Kate Turkington is extremely knowledgeable and it was both interesting and enjoyable to talk with her about my experiences with Buddhism and Christianity and about my new book, Growing in Love and Wisdom.

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past couple of days about my reaction to one comment that she made. As best as I cam remember the actual words she used (I haven’t yet gotten the link to the podcast of the interview, but will post it when I do), she said, “you sound – in your passion in talking about your experience of God and Jesus – like a born-again Christian.”

I felt myself immediately draw back as I head the question. “I’m not one of those,” was the first thought that went through my head. I immediately had a vision of several people I had known when I was younger, who announced they were born again, and in whom could not detect any visible sign of that label. And “born again” is not a term Catholic tend to use.

What I said to Kate Turkington in response to her comment was that I think I sound like anyone who has had a deep religious experience – that when we experience God, we are changed. I think it is impossible to sound anything other than passionate about a deep experience of God.

As I thought later about her comment, my reaction and my response, I realize that, despite the negative associations the term has for some people, the “born-again” is actually a quite good phrase. What came to my mind was Jesus discussion with Nicodemus about the need to be born again. (“You must be born from above.”) I don’t think Jesus is talking simply about baptism, but about a fundamental transformation of our being – a transformation that comes from our experience of God. Born again may be a good way of talking about the fruit of our foundational religious experiences.

Why Believe?

This morning I spoke with a twelfth grade religion class in Guatamala via Skype. The class had just begun a unit on Buddhism and the teacher, a UST graduation, asked if I’d be willing to talk with his class.

The students’ questions ranged far and wide. They were interested in hearing about Buddhist vs. Christian prayer practice, life as a Buddhist nun, what it was like to meet the Dalai Lama and all sorts of other things.

One student asked why we should believe in God when we can’t empirically prove God’s existence? How can we believe in God when we can’t verify it.

Believing in God does require something of a leap of faith, because it requires us to accept the possibility that there is something beyond that which we can scientifically and empirically demonstrate. (I still remember sitting through my Problem of God theology course at Georgetown, which examined various “proofs” for the existence of God that had been offered over the centuries. I remember thinking that the proofs were entirely unnecessary for those who already believed in God and entirely unsatisfactory for those who didn’t.)

We can’t “know” that God exists the way we can know that that the square of the hypotenuse of a triangle is always equal to the sum of the squares of the two sides or that water and oil don’t mix.

And thank goodness for that. A God no bigger than we are – a God we could totally understand and map out – wouldn’t be all that meaningful a God. We can’t come to scientific and empirical proofs of that which is so much bigger than we are.

Ultimately, I answered the student, I can only know God by experiencing God. And I can experience God in all sorts of ways. And what allows me to be convinced that God exists may be very different from what convinces you that God exists. But we can all experience God and come to that conviction.

Advent Retreat in Daily Living 2012 – Week 1

Although Advent doesn’t begin until Sunday, yesterday was the first gathering of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living at UST Law School. We began by each person sharing a little about their understanding of Advent. I then offered a short reflection about the meaning of Advent and talked about the prayer materials for this first week of prayer.

I began by talking about the story of creation, which helps us understand what we are waiting for in Advent and why.

Our Scriptures open with the story of creation – In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God then created and light and separated it from the darkness. Then God separated the water from dry land. God then brought forth vegetation and then living creatures on the land and in the sea and in the sky. And then “God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female – he created them. God blessed them.”

Out of chaos, God creates an orderly universe. The opening lines of Genesis highlight the goodness of creation and God’s desire that human beings share in that goodness.

But something happens to disrupt what God intended. Genesis 2 offers a myth to explain that reality – the story of Adam and Eve eating the apple at the instigation of the serpent. Some people believe the account in Chapter 2 is a literal account. But it is not all the important whether one believes it or not. What is important is the reality the story is designed to convey. Joseph Tetlow, in his contemporary rendition of the prayer exercise in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius dealing with what Ignatius calls the Sin of Adam and Eve puts it this way:

I think about this. Even though I may believe that God brought humankind onto the face of the earth through evolution, I have to believe that at some point in time and on some spot on the globe, the earliest humans came into life. They grew intellectually aware of right and wrong, and some among them – the church has always believed it was the very first – chose to do evil. They abused what was given them. They chose to use what was forbidden by their own consciences. They decided willfully to make their own value system instead of letting the Spirit of God instruct them. From that sin came others, more and more. From that sin came death. So, from this earliest sin came flooding down all the misery, wretchedness, evildoing, and death-dealing in the world.

It is not about an apple. Or a serpant. And it doesn’t really matter whether it was a woman or a man. The point is Sin entered the world. And from that first entry of sin into the world, more sin came. And we see the effects of that all around us. Violence. War. Famine. Pollution. Racial and ethnic strife. You see the effect everywhere.

I asked the participants to imagine the heart of God seeing all of this. Seeing much more than we see – we see only a limited piece. God sees all of it – past, present and future – in a single image all of the time. What does that do to the heart of God? To contemplate the goodness of what he created and see this. To see in a single moment: Auschwitz, the sacking of Constantinople, the bombing of Hiroshima, early Christians being fed to the lions in Rome, slavery, child prostitution, the effects of drug abuse. And we can go on and on. God looks out at what he created – what he termed good – and beholds all of that.

The first meditation I inivited participants to pray with this week asks us to imagine just that. The meditation is that which begins the Second week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Ignatius asks us to “look at all the people of the earth” – the different ethnic, racial and religious groups, some in families, some alone, some young, some old. And to watch God watching all of thie. Then he asks us to see the realities of the world around us – the reality of sin. AND to imagine God looking down on it. To see what it does to the heart of the Trinity to “look down upon the whole surface of the earth, and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into heal.” He wants us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at our suffering. And to listen to the thought of the Trinity: This is what we’ll do. We’ll become human and show them the way. It is a powerful meditation.

After that, I talked about the remaining prayer material for the week. Having neglected to check the recorder before I started speaking, I didn’t notice that it was low enough on battery that it stopped recording three minutes into my talk. So I have no podcast of the talk to post this week. However, you can find a copy of the first week of prayer material here.

Happiness and Gratitude

As we come away from our Thanksgiving celebration (although I am guessing many of us are still eating leftovers from our Thanksgiving dinner), I am reminded of a simple quote from Brother David Steindl-Rast.

In A Listening Heart: The Spirituality of Sacred Sensuousness, Brother David writes: “Happiness is not what makes us grateful. It is gratefulness that makes us happy.”

A grateful heart is, indeed, a happy heart. When we realize that all we have, all we are, is gift from our loving God, it is impossible to do anything other than smile. Whether it is the beauty of the winter sky, the smell of incense during during Mass, a tasty meal, the voice of a friend, a beautiful voice raised in song – all there is reminds us that we are held in the hands of our loving God. And that is cause for happiness.

I posted a link on Thanksgiving morning of a video Brother David once did that reminded us that we have cause to count our blessings from morning to night. If you didn’t get a chance to watch it then, check it out today.

The Solemnity of Christ the King

Today we bring the liturgical year to a close with the solemnity of Christ the King, a solemnity John Paul II once termed “a synthesis of the entire salvific mystery.”

In today’s Gospel, a piece of St. John’s account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” The idea of Jesus as king is part of what made some people – including Pilate – nervous during Jesus’ lifetime. People like Pilate and Herod saw Jesus being king as a threat to their own power.

In reply to Pilate’s question, Jesus acknowledges his kingship, but makes clear his kingship is not the sort Pilate had in mind, replying, “My kingdom does not belong to this world….My kingdom is not here.”

Jesus’ acknowledgement of his kingship in the context of the trial that will result in his execution reminds us of the paradoxical truth that we Christians celebrate a king crucified. Not a king who rules triumphantly over an earthly kingdom, but one who dies an ignominious death.

Jesus’ kingship is not the sort Pilate could understand. As Pope Benedict once explained, Jesus is a new kind of king. “This king does not break the people with an iron rod (cf. Ps 2:9) – he rules from the Cross, and does so in an entirely new way. Universality is achieved through the humility of communion in faith; this king rules by faith and love, and in no other way.”

Blessings on this solemnity of Christ the King.

How We Evangelize

Before his Ascension, Jesus told his followers to go make disciples of all nations. From that instruction comes the belief of many of us who call ourselves Christians that we have an obligation to evangelize others.

But what does that mean? How do we evangelize?

I read a Facebook post from the Christian Left several days ago that prompted several thoughts. The post read:

“Believe exactly as I believe or be tortured in hell for all eternity.” Yeah, that’s a good way to evangelize. How ‘bout, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

To be sure, I don’t think evangelization by threat is exactly what Jesus had in mind. First, as I’ve said in many different ways in things I’ve said and wrote, I think Jesus was less concerned with a checklist of beliefs than with a total transformation of our lives. And second, I think we evangelize most effectively precisely by allowing people to see the effect of the our living in Christ. As did Jesus, we evangelize best by example, not by force.

Having said that, although the passage of Matthew quoted in the Facebook post is a great favorite of mine, I think it has the potential to mislead here. Jesus invites all; no one is excluded from the invitation. But in this context, those words might be read to suggest that “anything goes.” Be or do whatever you want to. And I’m confident that is not what Jesus had in mind.

Threats are not helpful. But neither is refraining from proclaiming the Gospel and standing against that which is inconsistent with the Gospel. It may not have been the intent of the Facebook post to discourage that, but it is an important enough point to clarify.

We need to do it skillfully. We need to do it with love, not threat. We need to do it by our example as well as (or even more than) our words. But we do need to proclaim the Gospel.

For The Truths that Still Confound Us

As Mass yesterday morning at Our Lady of Lourdes, the post-Communion reflection (sung by Elena) was For the Fruits of All Creation, with text accompanying a traditional Welsh melody. The song is recites various thing for which we thank God: the fruits of all creation, the harvests of the Spirit, for the wonders that astound us, and so on. For all these things, “Thanks be to God.”

The line that struck me was “For the truths that still confound us…Thanks be to God.”

My first reaction was, “Why be thankful for the fact that there are things we do not understand?”

But before that question was even fully formed in my mind, I apprehended the beauty of the song’s line of praise and thanksgiving. For a God we could fully grasp, who said or did nothing that confounded us, would be a very small God indeed. A God as small as ourselves.

That there are things we don’t fully understand, “truths that still confound us” reminds us that our God is bigger than we are, that God is mystery. That whatever we think we understand about God and God’s ways, there is still even more we do not and cannot understand.

Thanks be to God for the truths that still confound us.

I Take Stock of How Much I’ve Been Given

Today the United States celebrates Thanksgiving Day.

In his pastor’s message in the Christ the King bulletin this past week Fr. Dale Korogi spoke of the fact that we are entering a time of year when things are even busier than usual for us, we we approach Christmas and the end of the year. With all that is happening, things can sometimes feel “a tad overwhelming.” His way of dealing with that feeling is a good one.

When I’m feeling stretched, I have only to take a deep breath and remember to be grateful. When a lot is asked of me, I take stock of how much more I’ve been given.

Useful advice for all of us. As i read Fr. Dale’s words, what came to mind was a video made by Br. David Steindl-Rast a few years ago about counting our blessings, titled A Good Day. It is a good one to watch on Thanksgiving morning. Here it is:

A blessed and happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

As I Walked…

I spent time yesterday morning talking a long walk around the Lincoln Park area of Chicago. Some quick takes:

Walking around the Garfield Park Conservatory, I was struck (as I often am) by the variety of plant and tree life that exists in this amazing world in which we live. 170 different kinds of cacti, 75 kinds of palm, numerous varieties of orchids – each beautiful in its own way. Did you do this just so we could enjoy the beauty?, I ask God, as I look in wonder.

Speaking of orchids, which I’ve loved since my time in Thailand where they abound, I learned that they are a type of epiphyte. That was not a term I was familiar with. An epiphyte is a plant that lives by growing on other plants, but it is not a parasite, in that it gets its water and nutrients from the air. I’m not sure I have anything to say about my reaction, other than that I loved the form of cooperative living arrangement.

Wandering one of the paths outside of the conservatory, an older Asian woman was walking in the opposite direciton on the same path. She slowed as she approached me and dug into her bag. From it, she removed a pamphlet, which she handed to me as she passed muttering a few words I didn’t understand. “Falun Dafa” read the title of the pamplet, “A Trditional Self-Cultivation Practice to Improve Mind and Body.” Although I had some awareness of the efforts of the Chinese government to eradicate Falun Dafa five or six years ago, I know little about the ancient Chinese meditative practice. But I found it an interesting encounter on the morning of the day on which I would later talk about my book adapting Tibetan Buddhist meditations for Christians.