Learning from the Martyrdom of John the Baptist

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Memorial of the Martyrdom of John the Baptist. Our Gospel reading for the day is St. Mark’s account of the beheading of John, a passage I’ve prayed with often and that most people are familiar with.

Herod knew John to be “a righteous and holy man.” Although he was perplexed by much of what John said, “he liked to listen to him.” He clearly was intrigued by John. And so when he is asked by Herodias’ daughter for the head of the Baptist, he is “deeply distressed.” He clearly feels great conflict when he hears her request. Nevertheless, he gives the girl what she asks for. Lust for the girl, the need to look good in front of his guests, pride – all combine into too large a temptation for Herod to avoid the evil act.

It is a frightening story. I don’t mean from John’s side, although I’m guessing he suffered an unpleasant death. Instead, I mean frightening in the sense that the story reminds us of the power of the forces that tempt people away from the path of light and love. Herod knew that killing John was wrong, but he did it anyway.

While none of us are going to face the temptation to behead another, this is a good passage to pray with. Looking at Herod we might reflect on when our pride, our need to look good in front of others, our desire for someone or something tempt us to act in ways that do not do honor to God. Actions that take us away from the path of light and love.


Sins of Our Past

Dave and I spent Saturday morning hiking in Fort Snelling State Park and then visited the fort itself. Despite the fact that we’ve now lived here five years and that we pass Fort Snelling every time we drive to the airport, we had never visited it before. It was well worth the visit.

In addition to some nice hiking on a beautiful day, we spend almost three hours at the Fort, listening to various historical interpreters tell their story. (I live historical interpreters!)

More sobering, we visited a display having to do with the 1862 war between the United States and the Dakota Indians (which appears to have been the result of bad faith treatment of the Dakota by the US), and the aftermath of that war. 1600 Dakota Indians – mostly women, children and the elderly – were forcibly interned at an camp at Fort Snelling during 1862-63. Between 130 and 300 died within the camp, due mostly to malnutrition and disease resulting from the poor conditions inside the camp, and the remaining were taken by steamboats to western reservations in May 1863.

The exhibit included several pictures of Indian women and their children, below which was this caption, which I found quite arresting:

These old photographs have an eerie quality….[T]hey show us the birth of an institution, the beginning of a whole new social practice of concentrating innocent civilians into an area and imprisoning them for protracted periods without charging them for any crime. The British used the same types of camps to intern Boer women and children during their war in South Africa. By the middle of the twentient century, the concentration camp had spread virtually around the world. The French used them in Algiers, the Germans constructed them in Europe and the Russians built them in Siberia. (Jack Weatherford, Native Roots.)

There are many things we can be proud of having created or popularized. This is not one of them.

We look at what the Germans did during World War II and we react (quite correctly) with horror. But we need to realize our own participation in such acts….our own guilt for the sins of our past.

Shadow vs. Sin

Having talked about sin in two posts in a row, I thought I’d highlight an important distinction. This is prompted by my reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards, which I mentioned in a post the other day. In the book, Rohr talks about our shadow.

The term “shadow” is familiar to many of us. Our shadow is what we refuse to see about ourselves, what we try to hide from both ourselves and others.

What struck me most in Rohr’s discussion was his comment that it would help many Christians to understand the distinction between shadow and sin. “Sin and shadow are not the same. We were so encouraged to avoid sin that many of us instead avoided facing our shadow, and then we ended up ‘sinning’ even worse – while unaware besides!”

What he means by that is that our failure to recognize and get in touch with our shadow ends up tricking us since our shadow is always disguised as good. Rohr explains

The shadow self invariably presents itself as something like prudence, common sense, justice, of “I am doing this for your good” when it is actually manifesting fear, control, manipulation, or even vengeance.

Thus we need to learn to be alert to the exposure of our shadow self. Rohr gives one good hint for recognizing such moments: look for situations where you have a strong emotional reaction that seems to be out of proportion to the situation at hand. That is a good signal of your shadow self. Such moments offer good opportunities for reflection.

Sinning Out of Our Strengths (or Failing to Bother to Love)

One of the books I’m currently reading is Mortal Wisdom: Lessons and Texts From the Catholic Tradition, written by James F. Keenan, S.J. I’m not entirely sure how the book ended up on my “to be read” pile, having no recollection of who recommended it or what otherwise prompted me to buy it. One of the early chapters of the book is devoted to the subject of sin.

In the chapter, Keenan poses the question whether “we really sin out of our strength or out of our weakness.”

Mostly, Keenan suggests, we spend our effort striving to overcome one or another weakness. And when we go to confession (those of us who do), we confess our weaknesses: our struggle with anger, with lack of courage, with lack of patience. That focus, he maintains, “allows us to avoid the real understanding of sin.”

When we look at the Gospel narratives, Keenan reminds us, the stories we hear about sinners are not about people who sin out of their weakness, but those who sin out of their strengths. The Pharisee in the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector is in his strength. The rich man who steps over Lazarus is in his strength. And he gives several more examples of people who could have done something but did not, leading him to ask “Is is not odd, then, that the entire Gospel tradition has us sinning out of our strengths, and yet we think that we sin out of our weaknesses”?

Focusing on our “weak sins” trivializes sin; it allows us to avoid highlighting “our coldness of heart, our meanspiritedness, our pettiness, our deep-seated resentfulness, our sinfulness. When we name our ‘weak’ sins, we claim simultaneously that we struggled, that we sincerely made an effort, that we were, after all, vulnerable and excusable.”

Keenan gives an amazingly short definition of sin:
Sin is simply the failure to bother to love….Our sin is usually not in what we did, not in what we could not avoid, not in what we tried not to do. Our sin is usually where you and I are comfortable, where we do not feel the need to bother–where, like the Pharisee…we have found complacency, a complacency not where we rest in being loved, but where we rest in our delusional self-understanding of how much better we are than others. It is at that point of self-satisfaction that–like…the Pharisee, the prodigal’s older brother, or the rich man–we usually do not bother to love.

That should give us all something to think about.

The Cost of Others’ Lives

I was listening to a Danielle Rose CD on the way into work yesterday, one of the disks of Mysteries, a 2-Cd set. As I was listening to Crucify Him, a song that is spoken from the perspective of the mob of Jerusalem, the line that struck me was:

Do we stay silent while the world screams out its lies? Sell your body, buy your beauty, live at the cost of others’ lives.

Specifically, the line that stuck in my head was “live at the cost of others’ lives.” In what ways do we live at the cost of others’ lives? I’m thinking it is not too difficult to find examples.

Buying fair trade goods (e.g. fair trade coffee) costs a bit more than non-fair trade coffee. But, every time we buy non-fair trade goods, aren’t we living at the cost of another’s life? Shouldn’t we be paying more if “more” means a fair price for the goods?

When we buy chocolate that is produced by the labor of children who are the victims of trafficking, aren’t we living at the cost of others’ lives?

We can all come up with examples beyond these two, but the point is broader than any specific example. We we all need to examine all of the decisions we make to ask: are there ways I am living at the cost of others’ lives? Are there ways I am not valuing the dignity of all human persons? And if so, what do I need to do to change that.

Strenuous Yet Relaxed

One of the books I’m currently reading is Where God Happens, by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. I have no basis on which to evaluate Williams as a prelate, but I always benefit from his writing. In this book, he brings forth the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, focusing on the relevance of their teaching to our lives today.

One of the things Williams talks about in the book is the need for us to be “strenuous yet relaxed.” He observes that we know how to talk about being strenuous, that is, to “portray Christian life as a struggle, a drama, in which we’re called to heroic achievement and endurance.” We also, he says, know how to talk about being relaxed, that is our need to rely on God’s mercy. However, he observes, it is less easy for us to understand how to hold those two together.

The desert fathers help us understand how to do that. They had an enormous awareness of, and deep sorrow for, their own sinfulness. But they also knew that God heals and accepts us no matter what. Williams writes that the desert fathers

are not, in their tears and penances, trying to make up their debt to God. They know as well as any Christian that this is paid once and for all by the mercy that arrives in advance of all our repentance. They simply want to be sure that this assurance of mercy does not make them deceive themselves about why mercy is needed, by themselves and others. If they continue with this awareness of the sinful and needy self, it is so that they will understand the tears and self-hatred of others and know how to bring them to Christ by their unqualified acceptance and gentleness.

Thus, explains Williams, we need to be both strenuous in our “effort to keep before our eyes the truth of our condition,” yet relaxed “in the knowledge of a mercy that cannot ever be exhausted.”

Williams goes on to say that we can only fully understand what it means to be strenuous, yet relaxed in the context of community, for it is in community that we learn the nature of God’s mercy.

Unconscious Slights

In my last class of the law school semester, I was talking to my Employment Law students about the lack of financial sophistication of many of those who are responsible for investing their own 401(k) plan assets. As I often do, my explanation included a statement to the effect that those making investment decisions included, “Joe the mailroom guy,” who has no experiencing with financial investments.

Later that day, I happened to notice the Facebook status of one of my students. He wrote

Today in Employment Law, it was “Joe Mailman.” Today in Labor Law, it was “Joe Employee.” Today in a meeting with a third professor, it was the classic “Joe Schmoe.” Every time my name is used to denote a generic/featureless/inconsequential individual (aka: your “average Joe”), I die a little inside. Today has been a rough day…

I cringed a bit as I read the post. The truth is that I have used the expression “Joe the mailroom guy” (or similar such expressions) any number of occasions over the years in talking about issues like the one I was addressing in class. Not once did it ever occur to me to even consider how my use of the expression might affect someone in the class with the same name. Indeed, despite the fact that I know the student who wrote the Facebook status quite well and have talked and worked with him in different capacities, and despite the fact that he was smack in the middle of my class while I made the comment, I didn’t even connect my use of the name with him.

Perhaps the student wrote the status at least partially in jest. But, I suspect only partially in jest. Someone else commenting on his status wrote, “I can definitely sympathize. I’m glad I’m not the only one it bothers.”

In the schemes of sins we commit against each other, this is perhaps not one of the major ones. But I raise it to illustrate how easy it is for us to thoughtlessly say and do things that hurt someone else. Without any intent do to so, we have the capacity to cause others – including those we care for – to “die a little inside.”

We can all benefit from a reminder to be aware of the effect of our words and deeds on each other.

Ashes and the Words that Accompany Them

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance and the beginning of Lent. On this day, Catholics will “get their ashes” – we will all go to Mass or another service at which our foreheads will be marked with a cross made with ashes. As the cross is being made, we will hear the priest or other minister distributing ashes say to us either: “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return” or “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.”

Why do we get marked with ashes and why do we hear the words we hear?

The Old Testament makes frequent reference to the use of ashes to express sorrow for ones sins and faults. Job says to God, Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” The prophet Jeremiah, calling his people to repentance instructs, “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes.” The prophet Daniel says “I turned to the Lord God, pleading in earnest prayer, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” And so, as we begin this 40-day period of Lent, we express our repentance for our sins.

The words “Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” come from the book of Genesis; they are part of the words uttered by God to Adam and Eve after the fall. In the words of Pope John Paul II during his 1996 Ash Wednesday homily, “Original sin and original sentence. By the act of the first Adam, death entered the world and every descendant of Adam bears the sign of death within him. All generations of humanity share in this inheritance.”

So we hear these words to remind us of death. But it is the alternative words that accompany our receipt of ashes that remind us of what overcomes death. “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” These are the works in the Gospel of Mark with which Jesus begins his public ministry: “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

Although we hear only one of these two formulations when we get our ashes, it is only together that they provide a complete message. It is true that we are sinners and that – left to our own devices we share in the inheritance of death. But we are loved sinners. And because of God’s love for us, God offers a path out of death – a path to new life, life everlasting. And Christ is that path.

May you have a blessed Lent.

P.S. I’ve collected a number of links to sites with on-line Lenten resources here.

Failure to Bother

One of the books I’m currently reading is James Martin, S.J.’s most recent book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. In one of the early chapters, he talks about the Examen, a prayer that is part of my daily prayer and about which I’ve written before.

Talking about the step of the examen where we ask for the grace to know our sins – to know where we have turned away from God, he talks about why reflecting on our sins is neither unhealthy nor an invitation to guilt. He then shared a way of thinking about sin that he learned from his moral theology professor, James F. Keenan, S.J. Keenan explained that Jesus never had impatience with sinners “struggling to make amends.” Rather, his condemnation was for those “who could help if they wanted, but don’t bother to do so,” illustrated by the story of the Good Samaritan; the priest and the Levite are fully able to help the Samaritan, but pass him by. In Father Keenan’s words, Martin reports, sin is often a “failure to bother.”

Such an ordinary phrase – failure to bother – but it seems to me a helpful way to approach the examen. Martin suggests that we might confront our sins of omission by asking ourselves where we failed to bother. Father Keenan’s insight

can help you to see where you failed to respond to God’s invitation in your day. Where did you fail to bother? Where could you have been more loving? Perhaps you neglected to help a friend who needed just a few minutes of your time, or a sick relative hoping for a friendly phone call. You could have, but you didn’t – you failed to bother.

If your prayer includes a daily examen see if Keenan’s formulation is helpful to you. If it not a part of your daily prayer, consider making it one.

Casting Stones

Today’s Gospel reading is St. John’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman who had been caught in adultery. It is a story familiar to all of us. The scribes and Pharisees bring the adulterous woman before Jesus. They are prepared to stone her, in accordance with the law of Moses. They ask Jesus what he thinks they should do, hoping, as they often do, to trip him up – to force him to choose between promoting a violation of the law and watching the woman die.

Jesus makes a single statement. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One by one, the scribes and Pharisees walk away, leaving no one to stone the woman.

We are very quick to judge each other. Oh, we don’t put people in the middle of a circle and throw stones at them until they bleed to death. But we very much set ourselves up as the judge of who is or is not in a sinful state and deserving of punishment. You hear it all the time. Judgements about who is worthy enough to be called a Catholic or to receive Communion. Judgements that certain people should just leave the Church and not be part of the assembly.

I’m not saying there is not a place for fraternal correction and for encouraging and aiding each other to live in greater conformity to Jesus’ commands. But we would all do well to look at bit more at our own sins and a bit less at the sins of others. In the secular version of Jesus’ statement to the scribes and Pharisees, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”