Friday, February 25, 2011

Learning from the Past

The vehicle I am assigned is a small truck that is shared with the parish for picking up goods and supplies. I mention that because when I am using it, the radio is rarely on the same station it was on during my previous use. Normally I will change it as quickly as possible, especially if it is on a country station (that’s not necessarily about country music; it is about me).

Last week it was on a station that played oldies from the early 70’s. I did not change it. Rather, I took a trip that was additional to the one I was driving. A trip of nostalgia. In the early 70’s I was just out of college and was living and teaching with the Holy Cross community at Notre Dame High School in Niles Illinois. I now realize that, since I had attended a high school seminary myself, these years were my own prolonged adolescence. I definitely identified more with the students than with the adults with whom I taught. It was, for the most part, fun, at leas at the beginning.

One of the trademarks of my teaching at that time was my use of contemporary music, many of the same songs I was hearing on the radio last week: Bridge over troubled waters; Let it Be; Hey Jude; War; Joy to the World; Maggie May; Don McLean; Gilbert O’Sullivan; Bill Withers; Dylan; Carole King; James Taylor; John Lennon; Neil Young; Joni Mitchell; Janis Ian; Jefferson Starship; America; The Eagles; Three Dog Night; and on and on and on and on. But wait! There’s More!

I used the Rock Opera Tommy by the Who as the entire text for a Junior Religion class I taught called: “Journey to the Center of the Soul.” That was the best. At least I thought so then. Was I a good teacher? That depends of who gets asked. I was creative. I’m not sure how healthy I was, which would be better answered by the faculty than by the students. At the time, I loved it.

If I were to go back in time, would I do it differently? Absolutely. Not the material or the techniques, but the ways of relating. I was very co-dependent. That got worse each year, so I was summoned back to the seminary to complete my theological studies on the path to ordination. Within 3 months, I was invited to leave the community I had been a part of for half my lie. That’s another story, sort of, but it should be obvious by my current state that it was not the end.

At that time, I saw myself as the best there was. Now, I know I wasn’t. I sometimes do an internal cringe when I get flashes of memory from that time, like when I am listening to the music of the era. I now know who I was, and sure understand the adage about life being lived forward but only understood backwards. I’m very grateful I know and understand that, because I know that in time I will look back on today and realize that some of what I consider to be me at my objective best now will embarrass me then. That’s life.

The more I know that, the more I am able to not take myself too seriously or to be overly adamant about everything. “Now, I see as through a glass—darkly; but then, face to face. Now I know in part; but then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. (1Cor, 13:12)
So how do I make then to be now?

Friday, February 18, 2011

I wonder if people who hold a position polar opposite of my own on any matter of faith, behavior, or life in general, are as convinced of the righteousness of their position as I can be of my own. In the face of a contrary position, I am compelled to deeply reflect on what I believe and do, and modify it if appropriate. Often, our disagreements with others have to do with our respective cultural heritages, experiences, and other factors too subtle to name. But sometimes there is another factor: evil.

I’ve experienced evil. You most likely have, too. Perhaps like me, you’ve even participated in evil, and then after reflection, immediately or years later, felt shame and embarrassment, realizing that you were, after all, wrong. I can remember too many times when reflection has caused me shame! I can get over it, though. Over time, I can understand myself not from the perspective of then, but of now. Through the grace of God, now is quite different from then, just as will be the case in the future, when now becomes then.

I’ve been thinking like this because of a section in a reading from Genesis a week or so ago. It’s from the story of Noah, God, and the flood: “When the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth…” Thus, the flood: “‘they are evil. Wipe them out.’” After the flood, Genesis shows God reflecting that perhaps sending the flood wasn’t such a good idea after all. God says: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start…”
We are evil from the start? Thomas Aquinas, upon whose thinking much of Catholic moral theology is based, disagrees. He contends that ‘evil,’ unlike ‘good,’ does not exist as an objective reality, but only in relationship to good. Evil is the absence of objective good. If our conscious mind has not been severely damaged, we make our choices with a will that is free. We choose for or against what is good but, Thomas would say, we instinctively know what is good and, eventually, we know when we have made wrong choices.

M. Scott Peck defines evil as “the inability to be reflective.” People participating in evil do not reflect on and re-evaluate their positions, and evil works at destroying what is good. Good and evil cannot co-exist. When I have done things that will cause me embarrassment only after reflection, I would not have said that at the time I did them I knew I was choosing to go against some good, but I can later see where that might be true. I come to realize that I was not acting at my full potential.
When I made the choice against the good, I was not at the same point of spiritual growth as I am when I realize I was wrong. “If only I could go back and have a do-over!” That dynamic is: wrong choice, followed by reflection, leading to shame and embarrassment and followed by repentance. I am pretty sure this dynamic will be active in me for the rest of my time on earth. Rather than depressing me, though, that thought gives me hope. It tells me that I can always choose what is good and continue to grow along spiritual lines. I do not have to live a non-reflective, self-righteous, stagnate and dead life. Through reflection, I can live forever!

Friday, February 11, 2011

A fellow Holy Cross priest, Dan Groody, CSC, has written an article on migration for the February 7th edition of America magazine.  I am really impressed with how well it applies to our ministry here.    Dan is a theologian who teaches at Notre Dame.  His article is called:  “A Theology of Migration: a new method for understanding God on the move.”

He talks about an encounter with a homeless person early in his theological studies that radically changed his approach to theology.   “…we lived in two different worlds.  My reality was a comfortable home, a warm bed and a life of the mind; his was distress and discomfort, a brick mattress and life on the streets.”   If you have been following these columns, you can well understand why that first paragraph more than piqued my interest!
Dan started wondering how the world, and God, might be understood from the vantage point of the homeless.  He began to study theology with “the crucified people of today.”  He made “an attempt to understand the gift and challenge of Christian faith, beginning with those who live with acute human suffering, like undocumented migrants or victims of human trafficking.”   Or, I would add, the homeless and addicted and mentally ill people on the streets of Portland.

Some of Dan’s comments are worthy of long reflections:  “God (is) not a concept to be understood but a person to be encountered in the depth of one’s being.”  And: “…theology is not simply about ‘faith seeking understanding’ but also about generating knowledge born of love.”  As he says about migrants, so it is true here that our guests “do not care what (we) know, but want to know that (we) care.”

That God is encountered in the depth of human experience is not a mere piety.  Anyone who spends time here, guests and volunteers both, know this, whether through a night with Brother AndrĂ© CafĂ©, the Personal Poverty Retreat or only a single morning in the Hospitality Center.  How often people volunteering have said they came to help, and help was given to them.  They were challenged by their own encounters to grow in ways that were completely unexpected.  The experience touched the depths of their being through their openness to the depth of our guests’ beings.  Our word for what has been encountered but cannot be fully described is ‘God’.  Our Incarnate God has the face of our volunteers and of our guests, of those who live on the streets and those from the West Hills.  Once encountered, God cannot be ignored.  Perhaps that is why people keep coming back.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

At a recent meeting, one of our parishioners made a comment that started me thinking (which in itself made the evening worthwhile!). The comment was about the range of people who identify themselves as members of the parish and, at least as I heard it, how those who come to us for the reasons people come to any parish might not be getting full consideration.

Interestingly enough, while I have been thinking about how we might deal with that, I have also found myself this week being more engaged with those who might fit the definition of usual parishioner, coming with questions of faith, seeking understanding and clarification about what is and is not sin, wanting healing for past hurts and wondering how we live out our faith here.
I did a little research to get some deeper understanding of what people want from their Church, and found responses such as the following:

“theological compatibility, openness, community, challenging teachings, congregational liveliness, creativity, and fresh, contemporary worship music.”

“A community that is open to being transformed by God's love and open to being honest with each other throughout that process.”

“a place that values what they bring to the table in such a way that it's natural to get involved because their gifts/talents are both needed AND desired as part of the body of Christ.”

“As a convert to the Catholic Church, the main thing I was looking for was an encounter with Jesus Himself, which I found in the scriptures and in the sacraments, most especially the
Eucharist. I wanted the truth about what the early Christians did, believed, how they behaved. I feel like it was incredibly counter cultural then, and authentic Catholicism still remains incredibly counter-cultural.”

“Basically, the Catholic Church offered me the faith of history, the faith of the early Christians, I feel the faith of the Scriptures, all in the power of the Holy Spirit.”

“So to sum it up: what draws me to the Church? Jesus, the relentless insistence of the truth of the Word, the Sacraments (especially the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist), the liturgy, the ancient way of doing things, the timelessness of it all, and again, truth.”

“If there are three words to sum up my statements, here they are: relationship, practicality and accessibility.”

How about you? What do you need and want from your parish? The parish staff is here for you, and we need to always be sure that we are responding to what matters to you the most. If there is something you would like to share about that, let me know through a note, email, in person or though my blog. Then together, we can work at figuring out how to respond for you and for the parish as a whole. This is one of the two main reasons we are continuing the planning process. The two reasons are:

1. To develop a clear understanding of who we are as a parish community, so that everyone involved with the parish in any way experiences that we are a unified community with a specific mission related to the overall mission of the Body of Christ.

2. To identify and enact strategies which ensure our developing the resources of time, talent and treasure necessary for now and for the future.