Pattern of Sinfulness

This weekend I gave an Ignatian retreat for UST undergraduate students. For many of the students (quite a number of whom were freshman or sophomores), this was their first silent retreat and their first exposure to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Igantius. I was impressed with their diligence in keeping the silence and engaging seriously in the prayer exercises, and absolutely thrilled at the depth of many of their prayer experiences. For all of us involved, it was a grace-filled weekend.

One of the talks I gave focused on Week 1 of the Exercises, during which we seek for God to reveal to us our sinfulness. It is when God reveals my sinfulness that I can let God begin the process of healing in my hearts.

The grace of Week 1 of the Exercises is not a laundry list of our sins, but rather a sense of our sinfulness and a greater understanding of our patterns of sinfulness. For the students the movement from simply looking at sinful actions to trying to get underneath the acts themselves to the underlying ways in which we are broken, the underlying causes of our sinful acts was a very significant one. So too was the movement from thinking of sin merely in terms of breaking a rule or law to understanding it as a rupturing of the proper relationship between myself and God, and between myself and those whom God has given me to love and to move from thinking about punishment to an awareness of our need for healing.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 35:31 and addresses both the subject of sin and the basic exercises that are part of Week 1 prayer.

Note: I also recorded my talk on Week 2 of the Spiritual Exercises, which you can access here. That podcast runs for 39:53.)


Gossip and Twisted Emotional Responses

In her book Rooted in Love, Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle talks about being a “virtuous presence” in the workplace and community. In so doing, she talks about how gossip can interfere with our ability to be such a virtuous presence.

I was struck by O’Boyle’s quotation from Fr. Michael Gateley, who said, “Gossip and envy are especially effective at hardening hearts because of the way they twist our emotional responses to the suffering of others…Instead of feeling sorry for someone who suffers, gossip and envy get us to rejoice and delight over his suffering.”

Gatele’s words ring true to me. The problem with gossip is not only what it does to the other person – although the effects on the subject of gossip can themselves be quite serious. Gossip can lead to harm to the other’s reputation and cause them emotional pain.

But, as Gateley’s words suggest, the activity also does something to the person engaging in the gossip, twisting our emotional responses, hardening our hearts to the needs and sufferings of others.

It is a useful point to keep in mind because gossip is one of those things it is so easy to fall into doing. It can seem so light, but what starts as looking like harmless fun can grow into something that hardens us.

Unity vs. Uniformity

I just finished reading Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope, by Christian Salenson (aspects of which I’ve already written about here and here). When my friend Richard gave me the book, he described it as transformative, and that is no understatement.

Salenson’s book is “intended as an introduction to Christian de Cherge’s theology of ‘religious encounter,'” particularly the encounter between Christianity and Islam. Salenson uses the term “theology of religious encounter” rather than “theology of religions” to underscore de Cherge’s understanding that “it is a matter not solely of considering Islam from the point of view of Christian faith but also of how this encounter allows Christian faith to be deepened.”

De Cherge was not an academic theologian. His thoughts were born of his lived monastic experience in Algeria during a time of tremendous conflict and are shared not in books or academic journals, but in his homilies, chapter talks, supplemented by a few retreat and lectures.

There is much in de Cherge’s thought as reflected in Salenson’s book that will impact my prayer and reflection. Let me share here two related observations of de Cherge, which I think are so necessary for us to keep in mind in the pluralist world in which we live: “seeing things differently does not mean that one is not seeing the same things,” and “speaking otherwise of God is not speaking of another God.”

De Cherge understood that we are all united in having our source on the oneness of God. We may pray differently, we may call God by different names, we may have different conceptions or ways of talking about God.

But those differences do not change the reality that there is not a Christian God, a Muslim God, a Jewish God – but only God, the one God from whom we flow and the one God who constantly calls each of us to union with God and each other.

De Cherge takes this further, saying something else we might also profitably reflect on. “Could we not imagine that the difference which identifies someone as belonging to Christianity or Islam is rooted in the One God from which it proceeds?” That is, not only our unity has its origin in God, but so too do our differences.

If we can see that, then we can more easily understand the difference between unity and uniformity. Our quest is not for (in Salenson’s words) “a uniformity that is merely a caricature of unity,” but rather an understanding that difference itself “is a sacrament of unity to God.”

A Pope Resigns

Earlier this week, Pope Benedict XIV announced that he would resign the papacy – something that hasn’t happened in over six centuries. The Pope prayerfully came to the conclusion that his “strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.”

Although he has many admirers, the current Pope is not the beloved figure his predecessor was. He faced controversy over remarks that angered Muslims, his handling of the sexual abuse crisis before he became Pope, his dealings with the Society of St. Pius X, and a number of other things.

My own views on the resignation are mixed, but I thought I’d share a couple of reactions to the news.

First, it takes wisdom, courage and humility to step down from a position of power and authority. It is actually pretty rare for someone to say, essentially, “I am no longer able to do the job to which I have been appointed in the way I believe it needs to be done, so I am stepping down.” That is especially true of this position, since there is no precedent in modern times for a Pope to resign. So I have enormous respect that Pope Benedict was able to do so. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of Pope John Paul II remaining Pope through years of illness until his death, I think the Catholic Church right now can not afford years of a pope incapable of putting full energy into the position.

Second, I think Jim Martin is absolutely right that one of the greatest legacies (Martin says “most lasting legacy”) of Pope Benedict’s papacy are his books on Jesus. Martin opines

Far more people will most likely read those moving testaments to the person who is at the center of his life—Jesus of Nazareth—than may read all of his encyclicals combined. Others may disagree about this aspect of his pontificate, but in these books, the pope brought to bear decades of scholarship and prayer to the most important question that a Christian can ask: Who is Jesus? This is the pope’s primary job–to introduce people to Jesus–and Pope Benedict did that exceedingly well.

If the Pope’s resignation allows him to write more books like this, that will be a great contribution, perhaps a greater contribution than he could make staying in the papacy. Whether that will happen is not clear; I read something yesterday suggesting he may not even write anymore.

We Are Created For So Much More

Yesterday morning I attended Ash Wednesday Mass at my parish. In his homily, Fr. Dale Korogi called the day a rallying cry to be our best Christian selves.

The season of Lent, Fr. Dale said, “announces that the current state of affairs, the status quo, that business as usual, is not good enough: we are created for, and capable of, so much more.”

We are capable of so much more. We know that. We know that, like Paul, it is sometimes (often?) the case that “I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” We have sinned. We have failed.

Fortunately, Lent, as Fr. Dale suggested (paraphrasing Sister Joan Chittister), offers us “the opportunity to begin again yet again: to be what we could be, but are not; to do what we should be doing, and do not; to change what we ought to change, but have not; to turn things around, to go beyond being halfhearted, only halfway turned to the Lord, and live more deliberately the way of Jesus Christ.”

Let us answer the rallying cry. Let us let this Lent (in the words of Chittister) be “about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now….a summons to live anew.”

In Secret and Hidden

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In Gospel reading for today’s Mass, Jesus gives his disciples some instruction on the traditional Lenten practices: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be in secret…

When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret…

When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.

We engage in the practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting not to impress our friends and colleagues with how pious we are, but as a way of turning ourselves more and more toward God. Although it has always been a popular pastime among Catholics to trade, “what are you giving up?” responses, Jesus is clear that this one is properly between us and God.

The advice is a little tricky though, because there is potential value in modeling our faith practices to others. We give witness to the centrality of our faith when we take Lent seriously. So for me the issue becomes one of motivation. Is my focus on God or on me? Am I letting someone see what I am giving up with the hope they focus on how good I am or with the hope they see how central God is? The hope that they praise me or praise God? Is it for God’s glory or my own?

Blessings during this Lenten season.

Lent Retreat in Daily Living: In the Desert With Jesus (Week 1)

Yesterday was the initial gathering of participants in the Lent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering this year at UST Law School.

The theme of this year’s retreat in daily living is In the Desert with Jesus. As I explained to the participants yesterday, by that I mean more than desert in the narrow sense of Jesus’ actual days in the desert facing temptation (although we will pray with that). But desert in the broader sense of place of testing, place of struggle, place of pain – place of darkness as well as light. During this retreat, we will walk with Jesus in the desert and, by so doing, get more deeply in touch with our own desires and longings, our temptations, our weaknesses…and our strengths.

My reflection, and the participant’s prayer this first week, focused on the invitation to each of us to follow Jesus, an invitation extended to each of us. I talked about some of the things the prevent us from fully accepting that invitation and also gave some instruction on praying with scripture for the benefit of the newcomers among the group.

You can access a recording of the talk I gave here or stream it from the icon below. The podcast runs for 30:17. You can find the daily prayer material for this week here. (Day 2 prayer is listed as a separate handout. A version of that exercise is here.)

A Pilgrim Spirit

I have been thinking a lot about pilgrimage, as I begin early stages of planning for my pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago this fall.

The other day I thumbed through a short book written some years ago by my friend Ed Sellner on pilgrimage, titled (fittingly enough) Pilgrimage.

At one point Sellner observes that there are bound to be hitches on any pilgrimage, even days when nothing seems to go right. One reponse to the inevitable hitches is to get frustrated and irritated. But that, he suggests, is not the “pilgrim spirit.” Rather, “the pilgrim spirit is about trusting that everything will (eventually) turn out for the best.”

Of course, what Sellner says about pilgrimage is no less true than in the rest of our lives. No matter how blessed we are, things don’t always go according to our plans. We face set-backs and suffering, large and small.

We are, thus, no less in need of a pilgrim spirit at home than when on pilgrimage. A spirit that trusts that (in the words of Julian of Norwich) “all will be well, and all will be well.” Maybe not today, and maybe not even tomorrow, but all will turn out to be well.

A pilgrim spirit is about trust. Trust that enables us to give up on our need to control every aspect of every situation. Trust in the God who loves us and is always with us.

Distorted Perceptions

When I was visiting Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist studies this past weekend, I was able to meet and spend a little time resident Geshe at the Center. He gave me a gift of a book that had been written by his teacher (the former resident Geshe at the Center).

As I was flipping through the book after I returned home, I came across these lines, which express something that is often true of us, whether we are Buddhist, Christian or something else. He writes:

Even if we notice many good qualities in someone we resent, our strength of perception that holds that person’s faults eclipses any perception of good in them. Also, even though we may notice many faults in ourselves, the great strength of perception that holds to just one type of good quality in ourselves eclipses the perception of faults.

We tend to see most things and people with an overlay of prior perception that covers how we see their faults and their virtues. An unpleasant or negative trait or action of statement of someone I am disposed toward may seem like a minor thing. Yet the same trait, action or statement in someone I have a low opinion seems much worse.

It is hard to let go and see each person and their actions as they are in that moment, without the prejudice of our perceptions of them. And I think Geshe-la is right that the same thing is true of our evaluation of ourselves.

The Word Was Made Brother

I mentioned in a post the other day that I’m reading Christian Salenson’s Christian de Cherge: A Theology of Hope. It is a book I will be sitting with for quite some time.

In his 1995 Holy Thursday homily, de Cherge used what is, for me, an extraordinarily powerful phrase, changing one word of a well-known line form the prologue of St. John’s Gospel. De Cherge preached:

The Word was made brother, the brother of Abel and also of Cain, the brother of Isaac but also of Ishmael, the brother of Joseph and of the eleven others who sold him into slavery, the brother of the plain and the brother of the mountain, the brother of Peter, of Judas, and of the Peter and the Judas within me.

The Word was made brother. What a powerful reminder of our universal fraternity! In a Lenten retreat that same year, de Cherge sayd that “in community we refer to the mountain dwellers, those who are called terrorists, as ‘the brothers of the mountain,’ and the armed forces we call ‘the brothers of the plan.’ It is a way of remaining in fraternity.”

This is one of those truths that we need to be constantly reminded of. If Jesus is my brother, he is also brother to every other person – those who commit horrendous atrocities as well as those who walk with love. And the brothers and sisters of my brother are my brothers and sisters – those who commit horrendous atrocities as well as those who walk with love.

De Cherge understood (better than many of us, given the conditions he lived under) that the challenges to fraternity are great. But he also understood that we are all of our brothers and sisters keepers and that love and prayer must be our way of being toward all.