April 20, 2014
Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?
We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.
We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.
For he who has died is freed from sin.
But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him.
For we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.
The death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God.
So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
– Romans 6:3-11
of which it is written
The night shall be as bright as day,
dazzling is the night for me
and full of gladness…
when the things of heaven are wed to those of earth,
and divine to the human.
– From the Catholic Easter Proclamation recited at the annual Easter Vigil Mass
Easter Sunday. The sky is blue, the crocuses are pushing up from the ground, cardinals are hovering around the bird feeder. After a long winter, spring has finally come to Western New York, where I am spending this Easter as I usually do, with my parents and other family members. Over the past week I have engaged in traditions that, for Christians, mean temporarily setting aside our daily concerns behind and entering into another dimension: the realm of story and myth. During these days, Christians commemorate the end of Christ’s earthly ministry, the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, his unjust suffering and death, and his glorious resurrection three days later. During these days, we celebrate the centre of our faith: the belief that God is alive and moving through our troubled world, transforming our pain and suffering into grace and salvation.
During this week, I have found myself meditating on faith. Looking at the world we live in now, with its continued war and violence as well as the destruction of human and non-human life, it can be difficult to maintain a belief in God’s mercy. And for me, as an academic in a secular milieu where atheism or at least agnosticism is most often the default belief system, I find the premises of my religious faith are constantly being challenged. When I look at the history of Christian apologetics (the efforts by theologians to justify the truth of faith through the use of reason) for guidance, one of my favourite arguments is that put forward by seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal. According to “Pascal’s Wager,” as it is called, all of us human beings bet our lives on the possibility of either God’s existence or non-existence. If we do not believe in God, we are unlikely to seek to live according to Christian principles; we are more likely to pursue earthly pleasures and personal gain. If we believe in God, however, we will set our aim on salvation and the infnite reward of heaven. For Pascal, even the possibility of this infinite reward should be enough to convince a rational person to embrace a life of faith.
Though groundbreaking in its time and still invoked today by many Christian apologists, Pascal’s Wager has also met with much criticism. While it might be true that we bet our lives on whether or not God exists, these critics say, we do not know what kind of God this might be. For example, what if God is evil? In that case, any sacrifices we might have made in the hope of an eternal reward will have been in vain. Conversely, if God is truly benevolent and merciful – if his love is unconditional and universal as Christians believe it to be – then why do we need to live according to a set of precepts or even profess belief in order to obtain a divine reward? Then, there is the argument of inconsistent revelations – what if, for example, the God that exists is not the Christian God, but perhaps Zeus, or Odin, or one of the many other divine figures that have graced the stage of human belief systems over the centuries?
For me, there is much truth in Pascal’s wager. As of this writing, God’s existence (or non-existence) has not been proven. Whether we choose to believe, disbelieve, or remain undecided, not one of us can claim to know for sure. Knowing full well that I could turn out to be wrong, I choose to believe – but not for the reasons that Pascal has argued we should. While I hope that I will some day meet Christ face to face in heaven, the truth is that I am already meeting him here and now, on this earth, every day.
Contrary to its public image, the Christian life is not about devaluing our earthly existence. Yes, it is true that we hold a dualist view of the world; we believe that there is a transcendent realm beyond this one where God lives – a transcendent realm we all aspire to reach. At the same time, we also believe that God is immanently present in the world we inhabit: in nature, in our joys and sorrows, and most important, in our relationships with one another.
For me, there is no need to make a bet on eternity. My own experience of Christianity has much more to do with my llife here and now. As a Christian, I am given the opportunity to have a relationship with a loving God who consistently offers strength and mercy – to constantly strive to overcome my innate tenency toward wrongdoing, knowing that God will help and support me every step of the way. As a Christian, I am admitted into a two-thousand year-old community of imperfect but courageous people who are striving to transform our world into the image of the one whom we dare to call its Creator – people like St. Augustine, Michelangelo, Teresa of Avila, Maximilian Kolbe, Oscar Romero and so many others who have lived out their faith in the best way they know how. As a Christian, I am encouraged to constantly seek divinity in my daily existence, to see God’s face in every person I encounter, to find strength even in times of hardship. I am called to love all, to give of myself generously to others, to seek peace through justice, to see beauty and meaning in our world, even when it is at its most chaotic. If this is not the recipe for a happy life on earth, then I do not know what is. And if I can do this, then even if my initial bet on God’s existence (and benevolent nature) turns out to be false, I will not have lived in vain.
I wish a happy Easter to all who celebrate it, and a blessed journey to all.
March 25, 2013
March 24, 1980. San Salvador. On that horrific day, in the middle of saying Mass, Archbishop Oscar Romero – a humble priest who dared to fight oppression from the pulpit – was murdered by the Salvadoran army. Now, thirty-three years later, Servant of God Oscar Romero (considered the unofficial patron saint of the Americas) continues to inspire those who seek peace and justice throughout the world.
It is often said that Romero’s brief ministry shares much in common with that of his Lord. Like Jesus, Romero led a relatively uneventful life for many years before beginning his mission. (When elected archbishop of San Salvador, he was considered a bookish intellectual who would make no waves in a time of political turmoil and struggles between the wealthy landowners and the exploited campesinos). Like Jesus, he lived most deeply and fully in the last three years of his life and became a champion of the poor and marginalized.
Initially moderate in his opinions, Romero was inspired by his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande (who was also murdered by government forces) to take up the cause of the poor. In his weekly sermons – heard throughout El Salvador and beyond by radio – he regularly denounced the government with his death squads, disappearances, and general reign of terror it was enacting on the country. Like Jesus, he ultimately paid with his life for his beliefs and commitment to justice. And, like Jesus, Romero is still very much alive in the minds and hearts of millions – Catholic and non-Catholic alike – who would seek to follow his example in standing up for the poor and oppressed.
The recent election of Pope Francis does not initially invite comparisons with Romero. As much of the media has eagerly pointed out, Cardinal Bergoglio also lived through a dictatorship, and he did not respond as Romero did. While some sources report his attempts to protect the lives of those in danger, others note his links with the dictator Videla. While this issue is certainly complex, I find myself in agreement with Brazilian theologian Leonard Boff’s statement that “What matters is not Bergoglio and his past, but Francis and his future”:
Francis is not perfect, and he is no hero…But then, neither was Romero when he became Archbishop. I am not sure what Bergoglio thinks of Romero, but in advocating a “Church of the Poor” he is certainly expressing the spirit of his continent’s unofficial patron. And while I know better than to place too many expectations on a pope – especially in the troubled Catholic Church of today – I hope that the Latin American church will be inspired to look at its richly progressive past, perhaps revisiting the theology of liberation and breathing new life into it for our twenty-first century world.
Meanwhile, I know I join my voice with millions when joyfully I cry out, “Oscar Romero…Presente!”
March 13, 2013
Francis I…Even the name fills me with hope. Let’s pray that our new pope – the first Jesuit, the first Latin American, the first in a long time to choose a new name – will renew the Catholic Church in the spirit of love and simplicity that Francis of Assisi revealed to be at the heart of Christian life.
February 6, 2013
“‘Put your sword back in its place,’ Jesus said to him. ‘For all who live by the sword will die by the sword.'”
– Matthew 26:52
I cannot believe the news today. According to the BBC, the US CIA has been operating a drone base in Saudi Arabia for two years: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-21350437
To this, all I can say is, “Who do we (Americans) think we are?” Do we truly fancy ourselves God? Do we really think it’s acceptable to send these killing machines to places where war has not even been declared?
It’s hard to believe that drone usage has increased exponentially under the administration of our Nobel Peace laureate president Obama. It’s likewise hard (for me) to understand all those voices that have come out defending drone warfare. While they may reduce American casualties in the short term, these drones – which can and do make mistakes – continue to kill innocent civilians abroad. As for us, I firmly believe that the age of American exceptionalism is over. He who lives by the drone will die by the drone. It’s only a matter of time before these machines which we so casually use will be used against us.
December 18, 2012
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Let your forbearance be known to all, for the Lord is near at hand; have no anxiety about anything, but in all things, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. Lord, you have blessed your land; you have turned away the captivity of Jacob
- Philippians 4:4–6; Psalm 85 (84):1
Christians throughout the world are now celebrating the third week of Advent. Two days ago we celebrated “Gaudete Sunday” – the day of rejoicing. I’ll admit that, as I dragged my feet to Mass and skulked into the church halfway through the psalm, I didn’t feel in anything like a joyous mood.
I’ve spent the past several weeks (or perhaps months) in a slight malaise. Lately I feel I’ve been going through the motions of my own life – dragging myself to class or choir rehearsal, but letting my mind wander during every meeting ; gripping the handrail in the subway, my face buried in a book I’m only half-reading, and refusing to notice the people around me.
Meanwhile, the current and projected future state of our world does not provide much cause for rejoicing. I’ll admit that the horrific reality of the Newtown, CT shooting has not quite set in with me. Somehow, any news transmitted by mass media lately has a way of feeling less than real. But unfortunately, rape, murder, torture, cruelty in every form is all too real. I firmly believe that we are all capable of committing these horrific acts, and they are taking place everyday, all around the world.
Where are we to find light amid all this darkness? How can we rejoice even when the reality around us looks so bleak? A partial answer in this past Sunday’s liturgical readings and also from the priest’s homily. Gaudete Sunday – the day of rejoicing. But what does it mean to rejoice? Does it mean the same thing as to be happy?
According to the priest celebrating last Sunday’s Mass, happiness and joy are two very different things. The former has to do with our circumstances. As he explained it, happiness is something often very fleeting that comes to us from outside – often from having our needs and desires met. Joy, on the other hand, is internal. It lies deep within us, perhaps buried at times, perhaps intangible when we find ourselves face to face with adversity. And yet, for Christians, this joy is nothing passive. It is a light that shines through every darkness, giving us the courage to keep walking in the night.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a very happy person, and my current profession (if I dare call it that) as a graduate student in the humanities is not the most conducive to happiness (parasitical and privileged as we lovers of learning may be, we inhabit a social space that tends to cultivate and validate the “Woe is me” attitude). But even before I became a PhD student, my moods tended toward the lugubrious, and I’ve often envied my more ebullient friends and acquaintances who, no matter what injustices or difficulties they encounter, never stop smiling.
And yet…I can also say that while I’ve never been particularly happy, I am very familiar with the kind of joy that is celebrated on Gaudete Sunday. It’s not the magical, radiant, festive joy of Christmas. It is much more subdued, a moment of rose amid a season of penitential purple. It’s not the joy of fulfilled desire, but that of eager, patient waiting for a fulfillment that we hope will come.
Just as I’m not a particularly happy person, I’m also not a patient person – especially in this age of instant communication and instant gratification. And yet, the joy we celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is very familiar to me. It was there when, as a teenager, I struggled at finding myself in the middle of my parents’ marital conflicts, and it helped me to give my mother the support she needed during what was a very difficult time. It was there in my last year of college, as I panicked at the prospect of having truly to take charge of my own life and decisions for the first time. It was there during my first job as a high school teacher, in which I found myself unable to overcome my inexperience and anxiety while dealing with some very unruly kids.
“Sometimes you’re happy,” a deeply spiritual Evangelical Christian friend said to me during that time. “Sometimes you’re unhappy. But God is always present.” I initially balked at what seemed like his trivialization of my misery, but as time went by I started to understand. Even when I most dreaded the morning commute to my job, even when I came home in the evening only to collapse on my bed in exhaustion, there were still moments in the day when something – an encouraging word from a colleague or an engaged class discussion – would fill me with the joy that comes in the midst of struggle.
As of this writing, I have not yet read C.S. Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy. And yet, I find the title intriguing. Joy is indeed something that tends to take me by surprise. I was shocked when last night, while reading about a small nonprofit organization’s efforts to save endangered languages in New York City, I experienced a feeling I hadn’t known in quite a long time: excitement. It was a sudden stirring, a sudden bubbling up of a feeling that, though not always felt, is nonetheless present, an underground river rushing below the surface of everyday life.
We are not living in happy times. Violence continues to plague the world; many people are suffering due to the global economic crisis; inequality is increasing; environmental and technological upheavals loom ahead. As for the personal level…I have no doubt that the kinds of personal problems I’ve described in this post are trivial when compared with the ones that you have experienced. However, I am convinced that the joy that Catholic Christians celebrate on Gaudete Sunday is not specific to Christians or indeed to any religious people alone. Surely you can to relate to a moment when, in a time of great personal struggle, you also found yourself surprised by joy.
We are not the first humans to live in uncertain times. To rejoice – to follow that light still flickering within us, no matter how dark the road – has rarely been easy, at least not for the vast majority of human beings. And yet, we are still called to remember this river that sustains us, this nourishment from within that no one can take from us.
September 9, 2012
Every so often we meet someone whose every word seems to be filled with the divine inspiration. During my recent trip to Nicaragua, I was blessed to meet such a someone. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann: Catholic Maryknoll priest, former Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, former President of UN General Assembly, art collector, revolutionary, sage. Although he believes strongly in nonviolence, he also believes that the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979, which toppled the forty-year Somoza dictatorship, was a just war against imperialism. As the group I was with (a delegation of US and British citizens working for the closure of the School of the Americas) and I listened to Father Miguel talk, we were all struck by his insight and wisdom. I would like to share with you several quotations from his address to us, interspersed with images from his home (which he is gradually converting into a museum of Nicaraguan art).
“To follow Jesus means to live a life of risk. We cannot be Christians and reject risk. Otherwise, we run the risk of losing contact with Jesus.”
“I believe that the gospel of Jesus, my Lord, is radically nonviolent. There is no greater violence than imperialism.”
“The Church has never been in favour of a revolution to benefit the poor. This is because the Church is an old institution that for much of its history, has worked in cahoots with the empires and has accrued many privileges. The privileged classes hate, fear and despise revolution. This has been a lamentable fact.”
“When I was six years old, I asked my father why the Mass was so important. He said it was important because it pleases God. This answer was enough to carry me for a few years. But then, one time while attending morning Mass with my mother, I saw some people looking for food in the garbage. I asked her, ‘Mother, why are they hungry?’ She responded, ‘Because it is not true that we are Christians.’”
“Lord, help me to understand the mystery of your Cross, to love your Cross, to embrace my own cross in whatever form it comes.”
“The Cross was a death penalty reserved for anti-imperialists. The thieves that were crucified on either side of Christ were called bandits. That was the term used to describe people who opposed imperial power. When Christ was crucified, all Palestine was a beehive of anti-imperialism. Christ’s message could not be more subversive; he preached the kingdom of God as a counter-force to the kingdom of empire. The difference between him and those crucified with him was that while they were armed, he was not. His gospel was of nonviolence.”
“The worst crimes in the world have been committed in the name of obedience. Obedience must be to God and to the primacy of conscience, not to man.”
“What the world needs most is spirituality. The church has silenced its own prophets. By ‘prophets’ I don’t mean people who foretell the future, but people who see that humanity has derailed, who call us back to brotherly relationships.”
“Christianity has to do with moving from the logic of I and mine to the logic of we and ours.”
“Spirituality means being constantly ready to give our lives like our heroes and martyrs did.”
“There is no revolution without spirituality, and no spirituality without revolution.”
“Don’t fall into the temptation of not loving your country, or not loving our harlot mother Church. Thank God that we are all sinners, so that we might have compassion for other sinners.”
“If we receive applause, beware – we are betraying Christ. We must be foolish in the eyes of the world. The wisdom of God is foolishness for the worldly.”
“Our encouragement must be in Jesus. Forget everything else; cling to Jesus.”
“The world is in bad shape; we are in need of people inflamed with love. I pray that you all may receive a shot of divine insanity, the insanity of the Cross. It is this insanity that makes us yearn to risk our lives for those people on the other side of the tracks.”
According to Rui Dai, our liberal, secular culture isn’t the main reason more North American young people are turning away from religion. It’s conservative culture.
May 10, 2012
History is being made. Again and again we are told this. Every time a war starts or ends, every time a stock market crashes, every time a tower falls. But is history really made in sudden, monumental, movie-montage events? Or does it move more slowly, in the time of dinner table conversations and daily commutes, in the twenty years it takes to raise a child?
I’m afraid I barely noticed when President Obama made his first public statement on same-sex marriage. I was lazily browsing BBC News, and to be perfectly honest, stories about the increase of plastic waste particles in the ocean (a 100% increase in the past forty years) and Google’s plans to develop driverless cars caught my attention much more strongly than this. Maybe it’s due to my social privilege as a person who has not been the object of sexuality-based discrimination. More likely, though, I think it’s due to the fact that Obama’s stance really wasn’t any news to me. I’d known all along that he is a supporter of LGBTQ rights, even if in official discourse he previously hedged the issue. However, as scholar Sarah Wildman has stated in a recent BBC news article,
“Among many progressives, a feeble stance on gay marriage has become almost a political liability. Witness the quick hurrah! response from Nancy Pelosi and Mike Bloomberg to the president’s statement.
But it is far easier to make a statement as a governor, a congresswoman, a mayor. The country needed the president to take a stand here. The country needed this statement to come from on high: a clear-headed recognition that these are people’s lives, that rights can’t be traded or put off for later. The pomp and circumstance of the White House is no gimmick. A major new direction has been announced for the country.
“Historic,” in this moment is not a cliche.
However, Wildman also takes the long view, noting that this moment is part of a long, gradual process that is unfolding. While there may exist a realm of eternal truth and good, we who dwell in Plato’s cave know only shadows…and the shapes and sizes of those shadows change over time. We are in the midst of a value shift that has been developing gradually over much time, and Obama’s annoucement is just one of many movements in that shift. I rejoice with Wildman in the implications of this change for human rights and freedoms.
“Malia and Sasha Obama might, rightly, be shocked by all the fuss this is causing. Certainly, by the time they are of an age when their peers begin to marry, 15 or 20 years from now, this day will glow with that Instamatic glow through which we view many of the civil rights successes of the past.
You mean women had to ask their husband’s permission to work? You mean interracial marriage was… illegal? You mean gay marriage was once… banned?”
Like many others of my generation, I find it impossible not to be a supporter of same-sex marriage. I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage and family (and the lifelong commitment implied in each) are highly important moral institutions that should be preserved for the health of both the individual and society. Meanwhile, my postmodern education has suggested to me that traditions might be amended without forfeiting their integrity, that marriages and families can take on many forms, and that gender is a socially constructed as well as a biological category. However, when I try to discuss my perspective with my parents – who firmly see marriage as a union between a man and a woman with the goal of raising children – we reach a communicative impasse. On this particular issue, a gulf has formed between our values, and we stand on opposite sides.
But, for me the gulf is perhaps not so wide as it is for many of my fellow millennials. To an extent I can empathize with conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose opposing BBC opinion piece concurs with Wildman in acknowledging that a value shift is occurring. But while Wildman rejoices in the change, Dreher laments it:
“As is commonly known, polling data show a stark generational divide among Americans on same-sex marriage. The younger the voter, the greater the support. The demographic tidal wave on this issue is undeniable…As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it.”
Dreher discusses the many correlations made between the gay rights movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s (and tries to endorse the latter while distancing himself from the former). Ultimately, he argues that just as political and social pressure from elite opinion makers gradually forced small-town white Southerners to accept integrated schools, so this same pressure will ultimately force same-sex marriage opponents to accept the phenomenon as it spreads.
I believe that Dreher is most likely correct in his predictions, and while I don’t join him in decrying this change, I am intrigued by the conclusion of his article, in which he attributes the increasing support for same-sex marriage in America to a decline in religious practice:
Leaving aside the role of elites in forming mass opinion, it is not sufficiently appreciated why so many younger Americans support same-sex marriage.
It fits easily with what they already believe about the nature of marriage, of sex, of liberty, and of human nature. The high level of religiosity shown in US polls is deceiving.
More recent, comprehensive research by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and sociologist Christian Smith, indicates that young Americans are not only abandoning formal religious observance in large numbers (while still claiming to be “spiritual”), but they see religion primarily in therapeutic terms.
That is, they believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled – and that’s about it.
As the late sociologist Philip Rieff observed in his great 60s work of cultural analysis, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Western culture had by then abandoned the Christian moral matrix, especially on sexual matters.
Given the haplessness of the churches as a counter-cultural force to the hedonism and individualism celebrated by popular culture, it should surprise no-one that arguments, Christian and otherwise, for traditional marriage are hard for young people to conceptualise.
Traditionalists keep winning battles, but we have lost the war at the level of ideas... Like it or not, this is what it means to live after the passing of the Christian era.”
It is on this point – the “passing of the Christian era” – that I can empathize with Dreher. Although I do not lament the increasing support for LGBTQ rights, I admittedly bemoan what I also see as the decline in religiosity in American society and the increase in what he calls the “therapeutic” mentality (so seductive, but so shallow in the end). I also think that there are many traditional values – particularly loyalty, commitment, and devotion to ideals higher than the self and individual well-being – that are worth preserving.
But, while I relate to Dreher’s concern about religion, I can’t help but notice the glaringly obvious flaw in his reasoning. What is the relationship between this decline in religious practice and support for same-sex marriage? There may be a correlation, but can we really say that one is the cause of the other? Most important, why does religious practice have to be coded as socially conservative? What about progressive Christians and LGBTQ churches and openly gay priests? Dreher speaks of the Civil Rights Movement – let us not forget that many of its great leaders, as well as its detractors, were professed Christians. The LGBTQ rights movement is different, but still, Dreher is incorrect in his categorical linking of religiosity with social conservatism.
We human beings are constantly making history, both collectively and individually, and we have a choice about which morals we want to preserve and which we want to change. It is true, as Dreher shows, that societal pressures will often compel us to choose one value over another…but ultimately, the decision is ours. And, these values do not have to come in a neat pre-packaged set. Being pro-same-sex marriage does not have to mean being secularist or nonreligious. Being a liberal does not have to mean rejecting certain traditions that one deems worth preserving. As always, values are messy. What matters most is to understand our own motivations for having them, their influence on our actions and their impact on other people.
November 19, 2011
“I arise in the morning, torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.” – E.B. White
When I try to imagine the Roman Catholic Church from an outsider’s perspective (which can be hard to do, given that I was born and raised in it), I suspect that a lot of its traditions appear strange and even creepy. From the painful image of Christ crucified to the consumption of his flesh and blood during the Eucharist, so many Catholic customs are tinged with the grotesque. Excepting these rituals, I would suspect that one of the oddest concepts for most non-Catholics to grasp is that of sainthood.
Most readers of this blog will probably have at least a vague idea of what a saint is. Patrick, Thomas Aquinas, Teresa of Avila – all of them real, historical figures who, through their extraordinary actions, have been granted an official honor by the Church, allowing for the cathedrals under their name to be built and prayer cards bearing their image to be printed. Fine, you might say, but the next obvious question is, so what? Why do supposedly monotheistic Catholic Christians need to honor these people? Isn’t it enough just to pray to God?
What some of you may not know is that not all saints receive titles of honor from the institution of the Church – indeed, most do not. A saint is simply a witness to the power of God’s glory and goodness, an ordinary person who, in the course of what might otherwise be an uneventful life, does extraordinary things. As Catholics, we believe that we are all called to be saints. I would argue that human history has abounded with non-Catholic and indeed nonreligious saints as well. In every time and place, people have dared to go against the current, raising their voices against injustice and leading lives of holiness that inspire us all.
As for the ecclesiastically recognized saints…we Catholics admire them as models to follow. And, while we certainly believe in praying directly to God, there are many advantages to praying to the saints as well. For us the divine is both transcendent (standing above and beyond the physical world) and immanent (deeply, intimately embedded within it). Hence the Trinity: God the Father, who created the world and holds it in existence, is transcendent; God the Son, who was born a human, ministered to the outcasts of society and died a common criminal, is the supreme example of immanence. God the Spirit, perhaps the most perplexing of the three divine persons, is something of a mediator between these two planes of reality, a reminder that even though Christ has long left this world, his presence is still here among us.
The Trinity is undoubtedly one of the strangest concepts to arise within the last two thousand years of human thought, and its full meaning, history and theological implications lie far beyond the scope of this blog. However, what my brief explanation seeks to show is that, when faced with something as sublimely crazy as the Triune God, who wouldn’t want to pray to a saint?
The Christian God is indeed the gentle Jesus who cured lepers and befriended sinners, but he is also the angry Jesus who attacked the high priests and the Pharisees for their hypocrisy. He is the loving Father who led his people out of slavery in Egypt, but also the violent whirlwind who refused to offer Job any explanation for his suffering. God is in many ways a personification of the ineffable, the mysterious, the contradiction that evades all resolution, the truth that reveals itself in brief moments only to veil itself again. We approach this God with love and trust, but also with reverent fear. And sometimes, when faced with all this mystery, we need the guidance of someone who can make the divine just a little more tangible, who can serve as a bridge between this world and the next. For this the saints are just great.
This past weekend, I attended a retreat organized by the University of Toronto Newman Centre based on the theme of sainthood. I was hesitant to participate as lately I’ve been swamped with work (hence the decline in frequency of posts to this blog), but as the bus twisted its way out of Toronto and slowly headed toward Orangeville, ON, I knew I’d made the right decision. I spent the next forty-eight hours wandering the grounds of the Mount Alverno Retreat Centre, following a path through the woods marked by the Stations of the Cross, making a pilgrimage to the centre of a labyrinth (modeled on the famous one at Chartres Cathedral), and discussing life, faith and sainthood with twenty-five passionate Catholics from all over the world.
The retreat’s leader, Father Mike Machacek, delivered talks on three different saints of the Church: St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth-century founder of the Franciscan religious order; St. Therese of Lisieux, the nineteenth century “Little Flower” whose “little way” to Christ continues to inspire Catholics everywhere, and St. Gianna Beretta Molla, an ordinary twentieth-century woman who, at a crucial moment of her life, did an extraordinary thing. The basic message? There is no single definition of a good and ethical life, and each one of us must forge our own path toward the truth. But while our roads may be different, the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.
The story of St. Francis (1182-1226) is undoubtedly familiar to Catholics and non-Catholics alike: the son of a well-to-do cloth merchant, something of a playboy in his youth who, in a way reminiscent of the Buddha, underwent a dramatic spiritual conversion. While fighting in the war between Assisi and the neighboring city-state of Perugia, Francis was captured and taken prisoner. During a year spent in a dungeon (during which he contracted malaria) he heard a voice calling him to a different sort of life. Using his inheritance to rebuild the Church of San Damiano, Francis ultimately broke off contact with his father (who was very disappointed with his life choices), led the life of a poor beggar, and went on to found the Franciscan Order of priests, sisters and lay people, dedicated to leading lives of simplicity and helping the poor.
St. Francis is one of the most famous Catholic saints, and undoubtedly one of the most challenging. “Preach the gospel always,” he is often quoted as saying. “When necessary, use words.” Although this quotation probably was not uttered by Francis himself, it certainly captures the spirit of the Franciscan life: to lead by example, to live simply, offering up all possessions and worldly attachments for the greater good. And in more recent history, many people – religious and nonreligious alike – have answered this call. Groups like the Fifty Percent Club – whose members vow to give half of their income or more to charity for at least three years – certainly embody the Franciscan spirit. And a very close friend of mine has recently expressed his own desire to lead his life in this humbly generous way.
For me, however, the story of St. Francis is extremely challenging. While I strongly desire to live according to the Christian values and virtues with which I was raised, I must admit that I have many other desires which conflict with these. I like wine. I like the opera. I like trips to Poland and England and Uruguay. Hence the E.B. White quotation at the top of this post. I see myself as the hero of a nineteenth century novel, treating my own life as an artistic creation while yearning to make my own unique mark on my environment. Ultimately, while my conscience urges me to save the world, my heart remains bent on savoring it.
And so, I’m afraid I can’t call myself a Franciscan in any sense. However, as the retreat continued, I realized that there may still be a way to save my soul. Looking through the variety of personalities, abilities and life histories of the saints, we see that in Catholicism there is more than one way to lead an ethical life.
It is often remarked that a sad saint is a sorry saint. Saint Gianna Beretta Molla (1922-1962) was neither. As a young woman in Magenta, Italy, she enjoyed living life to the fullest. After studying medicine, she dreamed of working as a Catholic foreign lay missionary, but unfortunately, this plan never came to fruition. Instead, she worked as a doctor, got married and had three children, and enjoyed many of pleasures of life – skiing, painting, dressing up, and travelling.
Just before giving birth to her fourth child, Gianna learned that she had a serious fibroma in her uterous and threatened her life. She was given three options: abortion, hysterectomy, or removal of the fibroma only. Interestingly, the second option would not have been considered morally wrong by the Church – even if it inadvertently led to the death of the baby. In this case, as in many others, Catholic ethics focus on purity of intention rather than desireability of consequence.
For Gianna, however, the consequence was what really mattered. She opted to risk her life for her child. One week after her youngest daughter was born, Gianna herself died.
Gianna’s life was not extraordinary. She did not save the world; she did not even bring any sort of goodness into it in the utilitarian sense. What makes her a saint is the consistent ethic by which she led her life, and the courage she exhibited in her final moments. “Gianna spent her whole life preparing for this final decision,” Father Mike told us. “And it’s the same way with us…We are all called to holiness, no matter what our status in life.”
The last saint discussed on this retreat could in some ways be seen as a synthesis of Francis and Gianna, displaying certain attributes of each. However, her path toward goodness was distinctly her own. The life of Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower,” 1873-1897) was brief, simple, and in its own way very extraordinary. Raised in an ardently religious family (all four of her sisters grew up to become nuns), Therese was determined to join the Carmelite Order already as a teenager. When the convent refused her, saying that she was too young, she accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to Rome and asked none other than the Pope himself to let her enter. With his blessing, she ultimately received the order’s permission and entered the convent in 1888 at the age of fifteen.
For the next nine years she led a quiet life among the sisters, enduring the austerity of Carmelite life despite her ill health, overseeing the novices (newcomers to the convent), and writing her now-famous autobiography, The Story of a Soul. This simple saint, so unremarkable by many standards, has been honored all over the world to this day, and the nun who never traveled beyond the confines of her Carmelite convent is now the patron of Catholic missionaries.
For me, Therese is similar to Saint Francis in that she renounced worldly desires in favor of a purely religious life; however, she is similar to St. Gianna in that her attention was focused primarily internally on her relationship with God. In many ways Therese’s life seems less remarkable than Gianna’s – a simply life in the convent, cut short when she died of tuberculosis at twenty-four. And yet, her “little way” to Christ – which consists of loving God like a little child and seeing his goodness amid the trials and irritations of everyday life – has inspired Catholics all over the world.
What does it mean to live a good life? As long as humans have existed, we have offered so many answers to this question, and in my opinion, no answer has been completely satisfactory. But for me, the lesson which these saints offer is that goodness, beauty and truth – however we might choose to define them – can still be found by those who seek them.
One of my favorite concepts in Catholicism is that of the communion of saints – the idea that we are all part of a great spiritual network that includes the living and the dead, joined together in the mystical Body of Christ. As I boarded the bus back to Toronto, I reflected on just how fortunate I am to be part of this community which, though created by humans, is guided by the love of the divine. And now, as I struggle to make the transition from wandering meditatively among falling leaves to the more laborious tasks of preparing for exams and marking papers, I must remember Gianna’s joy, Therese’s perseverence and Francis’ commitment. Life’s journey is not easy, but thankfully I find myself surrounded by companions. And, as Father Mike said, the roads may be different, but the destination is the same. We are all called to be saints.
November 4, 2011
The province of Quebec prohibits religious worship in any government spaces. Is this a case of secularism gone too far? How does one balance the desire for a secular society with the freedom to practice one’s religion openly? Where do we draw the line. And my personal question is…why couldn’t secularism entail embracing all religious traditions rather than none?
Read the article from Canada’s National Post here: