Why Do Christians Look Outside?

windowVisitor Jeremia John offered a comment that is possibly timely, and certainly gives an opportunity for believers in dialogue to further explain themselves. He writes:

(I) could never understand the fascination that Thomas Merton had with other religions…why should we look further if we believe the words Jesus spoke about himself “I Am The Way, The Truth and The Life…nobody can come to the Father but through me”.

Only Thomas Merton can speak to his reasons. Perhaps a Merton scholar in the readership here can cite a passage from his letters or books.

Speaking for myself, and looking among my friends, I am fascinated by the choices they make in religion. On a personal level, if I am interested in a person, by extension, I’m usually interested in what drives them, what makes them happy or fulfilled, and such.

I can imagine Christian and Buddhist monks might harbor a mutual fascination. How are they alike? How do they differ?

In each situation, the fascinated person may not be seeking direct theological insights, but rather more information about persons. Learning about a friend’s monasticism is more likely an indirect experience of God, if one is prepared to take one’s experience to deeper examen.

I think it is possible to admire an opposing athlete such as Mesut Özil, but still root for one’s team, and lament the other side’s performance.

For me (I)slam is a false and twisted ideology born … of violence, spread by violence and fueled by violence. More than 100 passages in the (K)oran command violence against non-(Muslims). Certainly not a ‘religion of peace’.

Yes, this is difficult in the context of this moment. If you are moderately well-read in the Koran, then you have more expertise than most Christians on this point. I wouldn’t take a final talking point on the Koran seriously from anyone other than a Muslim. Of course, our friend Max would argue vehemently that Christianity, and perhaps no religions are “of peace.” But I wouldn’t take his word on anything having to do with religion.

The best we can say with accuracy is that many people who adhere to religion are women and men of peace. My sense is that to be a “person of peace” requires something of a personal commitment, beyond a casual practice of one’s faith. But that’s fodder for an in-depth essay on peace.

Beyond that, every religion has members, practitioners, and leaders who do not exemplify virtue. Some of these folks are true believers. And some are pretenders. How does one tell? I suppose one must study them carefully.

Some Christians think of themselves as evangelists, disciples, and apologists in the more neo-traditional sense. If so, it seems logical to want to know what others believe if one understands one’s mission is to convert them to Christ. The alternative is to treat everyone as uninformed duplicates of the self. Jesus’s words are powerful to Christians, certainly. But non-Christians have been reading the Gospels for centuries and millions walk away, unconvinced. I think we have to ask: why is that?

Image credit.

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Laudato Si 155: Into Morality

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website. Remember when Pope Benedict addressed a legislative body?

155. Human ecology also implies another profound reality: the relationship between human life and the moral law, which is inscribed in our nature and is necessary for the creation of a more dignified environment. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of an “ecology of man”, based on the fact that “man too has a nature that he must respect and that he cannot manipulate at will”.[Address to the German Bundestag, Berlin (22 September 2011): AAS103 (2011), 668]

Taking off from that point, a good summation on “Ecology in Daily Life” from Pope Francis, touching on gender issues:

It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God’s gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. Also, valuing one’s own body in its femininity or masculinity is necessary if I am going to be able to recognize myself in an encounter with someone who is different. In this way we can joyfully accept the specific gifts of another man or woman, the work of God the Creator, and find mutual enrichment. It is not a healthy attitude which would seek “to cancel out sexual difference because it no longer knows how to confront it”.[Catechesis (15 April 2015): L’Osservatore Romano, 16 April 2015, p. 8]

Are you in agreement? If not, how not so?

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Reconciliation Lectionary: Luke 7:36-50

mary-the-penitent.jpgThe Lord asks, “Do you see this woman?” Is he speaking only to Simon the Pharisee? Or to us as well? In considering Luke 7:36-50, may we ask if this is an illustration of a sinner who comes to Jesus as an act of metanoia and of love? Or is this a prick of our consciences not to be like the Pharisee? Or is this a theological lesson how God forgives us, and what that mercy might look like in real life?

One thing is certain: this is a rich reading that operates on many levels for the participants as well as us modern readers. Luke is a master dramatist, and no passage in his Gospel surpasses this for his skill as a storyteller:

A certain Pharisee invited Jesus to dine with him,
and he entered the Pharisee’s house
and reclined at table.
Now there was a sinful woman in the city
who learned that he was at table
in the house of the Pharisee.
Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment,
she stood behind him at his feet weeping
and began to bathe his feet with her tears.
Then she wiped them with her hair,
kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.

We should be accustomed to the power of Jesus and his message that people, just on hearsay, are prepared to do highly unusual things to get to him. A woman invades someone else’s home and performs hospitality rituals with two very intimate parts of her body: her tears and her hair. Without any words being spoken, we already know something is afoot (so to speak).

My sense is that the believer often approaches Christ with great openness and expressions of intimacy. Sometimes that occurs in the Sacrament of Penance. But sometimes, the inner voice of reason overtakes us. And we have good cause, so we think, to clamp down on what is heartfelt, and keep things in the mind, what is in-the-know:

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this
he said to himself,
“If this man were a prophet,
he would know who and what sort of woman this is
who is touching him,
that she is a sinner.”

I have always found it deeply amusing that Jesus doesn’t reveal if he knows about this woman, but he has certainly discerned what a person has said to himself:

Jesus said to him in reply,
“Simon, I have something to say to you.”
“Tell me, teacher,” he said.
“Two people were in debt to a certain creditor;
one owed five hundred days’ wages
and the other owed fifty.
Since they were unable to repay the debt,
he forgave it for both.
Which of them will love him more?”

A brief but powerful parable. What does it mean for today? For example: do remarried Catholics reconciled with the Church love Jesus more? Do returning sinners have a leg up on those who have always been faithful? Does that seem unfair in some way, offensive to our elder sister and brother sensibility?

Simon said in reply,
“The one, I suppose,
whose larger debt was forgiven.”
He said to him, “You have judged rightly.”

We are capable of having our eyes opened, and of making good judgments. But sometimes we need a nudge.

Then he turned to the woman and said to Simon,
“Do you see this woman?
When I entered your house,
you did not give me water for my feet,
but she has bathed them with her tears
and wiped them with her hair.
You did not give me a kiss,
but she has not ceased kissing my feet
since the time I entered.
You did not anoint my head with oil,
but she anointed my feet with ointment.
So I tell you,
her many sins have been forgiven;
hence, she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
He said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.”
The others at table said to themselves,
“Who is this who even forgives sins?”
But he said to the woman,
“Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Jesus gives two assurances and a mandate to the woman. If the Pharisee is bothersome to think about, let’s keep it simple and “see” the woman, as Jesus also recommends. The Lord tells her two things: sins are forgiven and faith saves. Traditionally, Catholics see faith as a gift from God. We might strive for it, and have some imperfect outline that is like it. But it seems that when we are willing to meet God part way, God willingly fills in the gap. But sometimes, we might do outlandish things like breaking open a roof or crashing a Pharisee’s party. I hope God looks on such acts with great affection.

If we are tempted to look back on our sins, let’s remember the Lord’s mandate here: go in peace. That is how we are supposed to go.

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Laudato Si 154: Neglect in City and Rural Areas

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website. More of the narrative of the widespread lack of dignity for people not only in cities, but in rural communities as well:

154. Respect for our dignity as human beings often jars with the chaotic realities that people have to endure in city life. Yet this should not make us overlook the abandonment and neglect also experienced by some rural populations which lack access to essential services and where some workers are reduced to conditions of servitude, without rights or even the hope of a more dignified life.

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Funeral Lectionary: Psalm 23:1-3, 4, 5, 6

One of the most-loved passages in all of the world’s sacred Scriptures.

The funeral lectionary version, given below, is significantly different from the RNAB version on which it is based. An expert on the inner workings on translations and preparation for liturgy could give you a concrete answer. I don’t have it.

Two refrains are given in the Order of Christian Funerals. One is the first verse of the Psalm–that’s the more common. The other, verse 4ab, was requested by a family in my parish recently, and I set it to music:

Though I walk in the valley of darkness, I fear no evil, for you are with me.

This choice highlights the mind of the Church in seeing the funeral as an outreach and ministry to the mourners. It is perhaps not a catechetical moment on the Last Things, and possibly not an explicit call for repentance and conversion. Rather than sinner-centered, the 23rd Psalm is about God. It is a prayer of gratitude for a generous God who is faithful. For the Jew, God remains faithful to the covenant.

The Lord is my shepherd;
there is nothing I shall want.
Fresh and green are the pastures
where he gives me repose.
Near restful waters he leads me,
to revive my drooping spirit.

He guides me along the right path
he is true to his name.
If I should walk in the valley of darkness
no evil would I fear.
You are there with your crook and your staff;
with these you give me comfort.

You have prepared a banquet for me
in the sight of my foes.
My head you have anointed with oil;
my cup is overflowing.

Surely, goodness and kindness shall follow me
all the days of my life;
In the Lord’s own house shall I dwell
for ever and ever.

One of my professors once mentioned the Hebrew sense of that verb translated into English as “follow.” Think of it as more like “pursue.” How can God fail in pursuit of a beloved? The end result is God’s presence, acknowledged by us or not.

I suppose when we acknowledge God’s presence we experience the graces described early in the Psalm: we are led to good places; we feel revival, or a newness in life; we are guided when times are difficult.

The final verses bring us to an expression of ancient hospitality in which we are the wanderers and desperate for rest and recovery, God invites us in. Where we English readers see “kindness,” the Hebrew language gives : חֶסֶד or hesed. Loving-kindness. Mercy.

Mourners and funeral planners often see the 23rd as their go-to Psalm. It’s not a bad choice at all. But perhaps the choice for a funeral liturgy invites some reflection. And in this Jubilee of Mercy, perhaps we can note this Psalm describes the principle of accompaniment–God walking with us; God who loves us so much, he pursues us to find us and make himself known. Even in moments of darkness. Even when confronted by death.

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Laudato Si 153: Transportation

Earth from Apollo 8The encyclical letter Laudato Si is available here on the Vatican website. More on cities, and how to get around in them:

153. The quality of life in cities has much to do with systems of transport, which are often a source of much suffering for those who use them. Many cars, used by one or more people, circulate in cities, causing traffic congestion, raising the level of pollution, and consuming enormous quantities of non-renewable energy. This makes it necessary to build more roads and parking areas which spoil the urban landscape. Many specialists agree on the need to give priority to public transportation. Yet some measures needed will not prove easily acceptable to society unless substantial improvements are made in the systems themselves, which in many cities force people to put up with undignified conditions due to crowding, inconvenience, infrequent service and lack of safety.

How to prioritize costly systems? Cars and trucks, of course, benefit from substantial government investment in paved roads.

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Reconciliation Lectionary: Psalm 106: 6-10, 13-14, 19-22

mary-the-penitent.jpgThe 106th Psalm is obscure, to say the least. No appearances on Sundays or feasts. Only a few times to sing it on ordinary weekdays. Nothing in the Liturgy of the Hours, 1970’s edition.

One even has to traverse the whole Rite of Penance, and deep into the second appendix to find it. Under sample penitential services, one finds a heading for celebrations during Lent. The first example is given with a theme, “Penance leads to a strengthening of baptismal grace.” Psalm 106 follows this reading and precedes the Gospel account of the lost sheep or the lost son (your option) from Luke 15.

This Psalm as a whole recounts the history of Israel with an emphasis on transgressions. The specific verses apportioned for the Rite of Penance cover the matter referenced in the 95th Psalm. You might remember the “hardened hearts” of that Psalm may also be found in the RCIA Lectionary for the First Scrutiny. The connection to baptism all around: Psalm 95, to 106, seems obvious to me.

The given antiphon sings:

Lord, remember us, for the love you bear your people.

As for the Psalm text, it reads something like an examination of conscience, doesn’t it?

We have sinned like our ancestors;
we have done wrong and are guilty.
Our ancestors in Egypt
did not attend to your wonders.

They did not remember your manifold mercy;
they defied the Most High at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake
to make his power known.

He roared at the Red Sea and it dried up.
He led them through the deep as through a desert.
He rescued them from hostile hands,
freed them from the power of the enemy.

But they soon forgot all he had done;
they had no patience for his plan.
In the desert they gave in to their cravings,
tempted God in the wasteland.

At Horeb they fashioned a calf,
worshiped a metal statue.
They exchanged their glory
for the image of a grass-eating bull.

They forgot the God who had saved them,
who had done great deeds in Egypt,
Amazing deeds in the land of Ham,
fearsome deeds at the Red Sea.

Memory, and the recovery from the disease of forgetfulness is a good theme for reconciliation. Do we remember we are baptized? Do we remember we are part of a greater faith tradition that stretches back to a wilderness pilgrimage of escaped slaves? Do we remember our ingratitude and unfaithfulness? Or has it all been conveniently forgotten?

As we enter into our Jubilee next month, it might be good to ponder that “manifold mercy” of verse 7.

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