It Is Impossible For Us Not to Speak

The Lineamenta for last year’s Synod of Bishops (for those who may be unfamiliar with that term, a limeamenta is a text written in preparation for a General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops) reminds us that we can transmit the Gospel to others only on the basis of our own personal encounter with Christ. In simple terms, we can’t share what we don’t have. We can’t effectively evangelize others unless we ourselves have been touched by Christ.

And if we have been touched by Christ, we can’t help but share it. That truth is illustrated in today’s first Mass reading, which is taken from the early part of The Acts of the Apostles, a book from which we hear each year in the Easter season. In today’s reading, the leaders, elders and scribes are upset at the boldness of Peter and John in proclaiming the Gospel and they want to put an end to the spread of the message of Christ. So they bring Peter and John before the Sanhedrin and order them not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. However, Peter and John, in no uncertain terms, proclaim: “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”

It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.

When I read those lines, I think of the feeling I have at the end of a retreat (and that I hope the women here with me this weekend feel by the end of our time together tomorrow). I come to the end of a retreat, filled with all of the blessings of the experience, overflowing with joy, and marveling about how great God has been to me. And I have the burning desire to climb to the highest mountain and yell out to all the world, Hey, don’t you know what is going on here? Can’t you see that (in the words of the Hopkins poem) all the world is charged with the grandeur of God?

That is the urge that I think Peter and John are expressing. Once we’ve experienced God, we can’t not share what we have seen and heard. For me, that urge prompted me to become a spiritual director and retreat leader. For others, it plays out in a different way. But however it plays out, it is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard. When we experience God, we are changed and I think it is impossible for us to sound any way other than passionate about a deep experience of God.


Reflecting on Our Stories

My friend Bill Nolan, pastoral associate at St. Thomas Apostle church, writes a weekly column for his parish which he also distributes by e-mail.

During his public ministry, Jesus often taught through the use of stories. The Gospels record something in the range of 30 parables he used to teach his followers. Jesus understood something that Bill realized early in his ministry: the power of stories to compel us.

In his weekly column he focused on the stories we hear in Lent. Bill writes:

The liturgical readings of Lent include some of the greatest of all Scripture stories. From the Old Testament, we have the tales of the creation and the fall of humanity; the call of Abram, who became Abraham; the panic and lack of faith shown by the Hebrews in the desert; the call and the anointing of David as King. From the Gospels, we have the stories of the devil’s temptation of Jesus; the Transfiguration; the Samaritan woman at the well; the man born blind; the raising of Lazarus. All incredible stories, filled with wisdom and sources of moral reflection. They are not stories of perfect people, but perfect stories of real people struggling to live the life God calls them to live and trying to overcome the doubts and struggles of faith that all – yes, even Jesus – had to entertain as a part of their human nature.

Stories are teaching tools because, unlike doctrine alone, they are personal. They allow the hearer to go inside the characters and feel their struggles, relate to their questions, identify with their suffering. Stories don’t tell us what to do or not do, they show us people doing and not doing it. Stories don’t warn of consequences for wrong behavior, they illustrate the consequences that characters face as a result of the choices made. Stories do not promise rewards, they invite us to experience the joy that rewards provide by mimicking the good behavior of beloved characters.

Bill encourages his readers to reflect on the stories of Lent. You might want to ask yourself some of the questions he suggests:

Which characters do you most identify with?

Which situations have you experienced in your own life?

Which lessons have you also learned? Which ones do you still need to?

Bill ended his column with a line he uses frequently when talking about the stories we read in the Bible: All of them are true and some them actually happened.

Build a House on Rock Not Sand

In today’s Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples that a wise person builds his house on rock, not sand. When a house is built on rock, the rains can fall, the floods can come and the winds can blow, but the house will not collapse. When it is built on sand, the rains, floods and wind will collapse and completely ruin the house.

As I sat with the passage in prayer this morning, I was reminded of the parable of the sower, and the difference between seeds sown on a path, a rocky place or among thorns and seeds sown on good soil. I think both passages carry the same message.

I see four possibilities for those who have been exposed to the Word of God:

One can hear the Word of God and ignore it completely.

One can hear the Word of God and mouth assent to what it teaches, but do nothing to change one’s behavior to act in accordance with it.

One can hear the Word of God and, by force of will, try to act in accordance with the Word.

One can hear the Word of God and allow the Word to completely transform one, so that acting in accordance with it is no longer simply an act of the will but a natural product of a life given over to God.

I think only the fourth is a house built on rock (or “good soil” to use the language of the parable of the sower. If we do not allow the Word of God to transform us, we don’t really have a solid foundation. And that means there is always the danger that storms of one kind or another will weaken us. I believe what Jesus asks of us – what Jesus tells us we need – is a complete transformation of our hearts.

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.”

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.

Clean and Unclean Objects

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, the Pharisees are amazed to see that Jesus “did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.” He responds by chastising them, saying:

Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside? But as to what is within, give alms, and behold, everything will be clean for you.

The Pharisees, we know, were obsessed with adherence for the law. In fact, the law of Moses did not require washing for ordinary meals unless one had been tainted by something “unclean.” For the Pharisees, that teaching had morphed into an automatic ritual washing before meals; one commentator called their behavior an imitation of the ritual purity of priests in the temple.

Jesus’ problem is not with adherence to ritual (which may be an aid in our transformation) or even to an effort to try to do more than rules require. Instead, his response reminds us that it is easy to get caught up in traditions and rules to the point where they blind us to what true adherence to the law looks like.

Jesus’ response to the Pharisees invites us to reflect on what it really means to live a life of holiness. And he helps us answer that question, reminding us to focus on “what is within.” External acts of devotion unaccompanied by a transformation – by an interior cleansing – are empty.

Feast of the Transfiguration

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration of the Lord. The Transfiguration is one of the events recorded in all three of the Synoptic Gospels; our Gospel today is St. Mark’s account of the event.

Mark tells us that when Jesus led Peter, James and John to a high mountain, “he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”  The disciples see Jesus in all of his divine glory, getting a glimpse of the resurrected Jesus and seeing him in conversation with Elijah and Moses. After that, a cloud came over them, and from the cloud they heard God’s voice saying, “This is my beloved Son.  Listen to him.”

Now that sort of thing doesn’t just happen every day. Even for Jesus’ friends, who were used to seeing him do some amazing things, this must have been an extraordinary thing to behold. You might even expect it to be life-changing.

But, no. Peter, James and John come down off the mountain, and James and John still worry about whether they are going to get to sit at Jesus’ right hand, Peter still denies him and they still all run away when Jesus is crucified. 

I want to criticize them for their slowness, but I also have to realize that I am a lot like them. I’ve had some incredible experiences of God on retreat, in prayer and at other times. I’ve had experiences that have caused me to
marvel at what God has revealed of Godself, feeling like nothing will ever be the same. And, while at some level it is not the same, suffice it to say that occasions arise where I’ll think or do or say something that seems completely inconsistent with the revelations I have experienced.

So on the Feast of the Transfiguration, I pray, continue to reveal yourself to me, Lord. And let me thoughts, words and deeds more and more mirror that revelation.

Recognizing Our Addictions

When we hear the word addiction, we tend to think of substance abuse. Addicts are people who are hooked on drugs or alcohol. And for most of us, that means someone other than us.

Richard Rohr invites us to think about addiction differently. In Breathing Under Water: Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, he writes:

We are all addicts. Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and description for what the biblical tradition calls “sin” and the medieval Christians called “passions” or “attachments.”…

Substance additions are merely the most visible form of addiction, but actually we are all addicted to our own habitual way of doing anything, our own defenses, and most especially our patterned way of thinking, or how we process our reality. By definition you can never see or handle what you are addicted to. It is always “hidden” and disguised as something else. As Jesus did with the demon at Gerasa, someone must say, “What is your name?” (Luke 8:30). You cannot heal what you do not first acknowledge.

Rohr is right, I think, as to both the importance of overcoming our addictions and the difficulty in recognizing them in ourselves. And that means we often need the help of others in dealing with this.

I mean that in two fashions. First, as someone commented during our retreat this past weekend, it is always instructive to see what behaviors or traits in others we react strongly negatively to. Often, we find that what we are reacting to in them is something in us (although the trait or characteristic many not manifest in us exactly as it manifests in the other).

Second, just as addicts often benefit form an “intervention” by their friends and families, those closest to us can be helpful in pointing out to us our defenses and habitual ways. May we be grateful for the help of those who are willing to help us see those things we need to change in ourselves…and may we (with love) do the same for them.

The Bible as Sacred Space

A recent issue of America Magazine carried an article titled A Fundamental Challenge. The article included some depressing facts, including that many studies find that Catholics are among the most biblically illiterate people in the country and that a not insignificant percentage of American Catholics identify themselves as biblical literalists, ignorant of the fact that a literal reading of the bible is discouraged by Catholic bishops, pastors and scholars. The article identifies various possible causes of what it terms an “unconscious fundamentalism” and bemoans that lack of awareness of most Catholics of the church’s “rich tradition of biblical interpretation.”

The article suggests several ways of addressing this tendency of many to a literalist interpretation. One is that suggested by Prof. Dale Martin of Yale University, which offers a beautiful and useful image to help us think about the Bible. Martin proposes

that we think of Scripture as a sacred space we enter, like a church or cathedral. The Bible functions in much the same way as a sacred building; its very presence orients us toward God; and once we enter, we find many things inside to contemplate. A church building communicates the story of the Christian experience of God, past and present, through a variety of media – stained glass, statuary, paintings and icons. Likewise, Scripture invite us to contemplate God’s communication to us through such methods as historical narratives, poetry, wisdom sayings, prophecy, apocalypse and letters. As with our experience of beautiful worship space, encountering the Bible alone will be different than when the community is gathered to hear it.

The image of Bible as sacred space helps us to understand that there are a variety of interpretive methods for understanding the Bible that are part of our tradition. And, as Martin suggests, encountering the Bible as sacred space allows us to move “around in its communicative richness, allowing our imaginations, our very selves, to be changed by the experience.” And, after all, if we are not being transformed by the Bible, we might as well be ignorant of it.

Being Bread

At the suggestion of my friend Steve, I picked up Take This Bread, by Sara Miles. Miles is an engaging writer and her spiritual memoir has a lot to say to whose of us who struggle with certain aspects of institutional church (and, actually, to those who don’t as well).

As someone who loves to cook and to feed people, it is not surprise that I would be drawn to someone whose faith centers on hunger, food, and feeding people. A significant part of Miles’ ministry is physically feeding people – I’m awed by her determination, fortitude and just plain hard work in not only establishing one food pantry but in facilitating the formation of a string of others.

But physically feeding is only a piece. For Miles, living a spiritual life ultimately is about being bread to others, of letting the physical feeding become a source of transformation for her and those with whom she comes in contact. So the feeding includes listening, praying with, inviting others to participate, being in relationship with. And it includes everyone, without regard to what they profess or who they are Physical feeding becomes sacramental. In the words of a bishop she quotes, “There’s a hunger beyond food that’s expressed in food, and that’s why feeding is always a kind of miracle.”

It is easy to get caught up in the things that divide us in various ways. To get angry at those who have a different idea of what it means to be a faithful Christian than our own. We could all do with a bit more focus on being bread to the world, and we could all benefit from praying the prayer Miles wrote for her pantry:

O God of abundance, you feed us every day. Rise in us now, make us into your bread, that we may share your gifts with a hungry world, and join in love with all people, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.