Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Sunday, 18 February 2012
I had a good visit with the archbishop of Kuala Lumpur the other day, Murphy Pakiam. I had met him once before (though he didn’t remember), but I was again taken aback by how informal and easily accessible he was. He showed up a little late for our meeting, very casually, modestly dressed in a nice pair slacks and an open neck shirt, sandals. He’s a very scholarly man, it seems, and talked openly about many things going on in his world. I didn’t know that he serves on the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. He said that he tells the folks in Rome that they talk about inter-religious dialogue but here in Malaysia they live it every day. He described various encounters he has had, how he encourages folks to reach out in very practical ways across religious boundaries, such as visiting a sick Muslim too when communion ministers bring Eucharist to the hospital, and involving oneself in common social problems. He also told of taking part in various rituals. He’s careful but creative. It reminded me of something that Fr Lucien Diess said to me often: “We can’t do everything, but we should do all we can.” So, for example, one time he was asked to venerate certain images in a man’s home. There was an image of the Sacred Heart of Jesus next to an image of Ganesh. The bishop gently explained that he could less the image of the Sacred Heart but that he “didn’t have the authority to bless the image of Ganesh.” The man accepted that humbly with no problem.
He is also very practical about things liturgical. Again asking him about the new translation of the Missal and the increased tendency toward the Latin Mass, he put it in the context of the fact that some of his priests and he himself sometimes have to have working knowledge of four languages already––English, Bahasa, Tamil and Mandarin. That sort of puts the new English translation in context. When he explained to the Holy Father that he simply couldn’t require his men to learn Latin on top of that, he said the Pope just raised his hands in the air and said, “Of course not!”
He also said that during his ad limina visit, the pope was a perfect gentleman, very courteous and kind, which I have heard about him often. Though many not agree with his philosophical and theological direction, one has to give him that. We also talked about the pope’s approach to inter-religious dialogue, and he thinks too that we have taken a step somewhat backward now. We talked about the fact the as Cardinal Ratzinger our present pope didn’t even attend John Paul II’s first Assisi convocations, and had the wording of the official record changed so that the words “Let us now pray together” were stricken from the record. He did convene another gathering this past year, but it got very lukewarm reception and coverage, at least in the Italian press. He corroborated for me that the Holy Father is really convinced that Greco-Roman philosophy and law were somewhat divinely inspired, and that it was providential that they grew up with Christianity. This of course puts a veil of suspicion over many Asian approaches to Christianity, and certainly over the thought of Fr Bede and, one would assume, even more over Abhishiktananda. This again is a step backward from John Paul II’s document Fides et Ratio where he declared that
In preaching the Gospel, Christianity first encountered Greek philosophy; but this does not mean at all that other approaches are precluded. Today, as the Gospel gradually comes into contact with cultural worlds which once lay beyond Christian influence, there are new tasks of inculturation, which mean that our generation faces problems not unlike those faced by the Church in the first centuries.
Then the pope went on to say that his thoughts “turn immediately to the lands of the East, so rich in religious and philosophical traditions of great antiquity. Among these lands, India has a special place.”
I was thinking of all that when I read the gospel from Mark 2 this Sunday. I love the image of the house that we heard in the gospel, there were too many people in the house so they opened the roof to drop a paralyzed man in so that Jesus could heal him. It reminded me of the Pantheon in Rome. It’s a first century Roman structure that’s built with an open space in the center of the roof, called an oculus, an eye, that lets in a shaft of light and also, sometimes, like the day I was there, the rain. I was remembering too our friends from the Esselen tribe in Carmel Valley, CA. The first time I met them we had a ceremony in their round house where they hold their prayers services and sacred rites. It also has an opening in the center, like a huge teepee, to let the smoke out, the smoke of course being a symbol of the prayers rising to the Great Spirit, as we sing in Psalm 140: My prayers rise like incense. My hands like the evening offering. I also really love the churches in Malaysia and India that are open. SFA the other night, for instance, has no walls, just pillars, and so of course the air comes through, and also sometimes a little bit of rain blows in, and often birds come zooming through like little jet fighters, or soar around the ceiling.
It leaves me feeling as if we have a tendency to prefer to trap God in in our churches, especially in the West. Our buildings seem to be built to keep God in! Maybe even in our theology, and that’s a bigger problem; whereas real faith likes to break the roof off. Jesus was amazed at their faith in doing that and rewarded them right away. Real faith let’s in the surprises, new ideas, new languages, new songs, the rain and the wind, the blind and the lame, and the poor smelly people that there is no room our in our cozy tiny little buildings.
Jesus, on the other hand, seemed to prefer the open air. Maybe that’s why he delighted in them opening the roof. Some of his best sermons were outdoors, on the mount, in the field, on the plain, at the seashore. I remember coming back from a little walk along the Sea of Galilee and looking out over the field and spontaneously came to my mind the words, Look at the birds of the air; learn from the flowers of the field! And all those images of the wheat, and the mustard seed and trees and shrubs that he uses––maybe Jesus knew something about God preferring the open spaces. I’ve been reading the book of Exodus lately, how God leads the people through the desert as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. That God didn’t like being confined to closed spaces. As a matter of fact when David wants to build God a house, God says through the prophet, “You want to build me a house?!” From then on out, God keeps escaping the house.
Often in the Gospels the scribes and Pharisees are contrasted with the people of faith––the people of faith as opposed to the religious people! I suppose the scribes were similar to the religious conservatives of our day. They were trying to keep order, defined by an exact set of “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots.” At least they liked to keep religion reined in. And let’s have some sympathy––conservatism then, just as it is now, is justifiable. They were trying to conserve and preserve a pure ethic, a sense of spiritual heritage and a cultural identity amidst a frenzied world of Roman persecution and centuries of exile and occupation. They were good people, but the circumstances may have made them a little narrow and scared.
They accused Jesus of blasphemy! Before we get smug––so would we probably, God rarely lives up to our expectations or, should I say, God rarely lives down to our expectations. At any rate, they weren’t ready for this Jesus who was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy which we also heard this week: See, I am doing something completely new; now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? They were not ready for a god who was going to take the roof off, to let God out and to let the poor in!
But mainly maybe they just couldn’t believe––as we have a hard time believing––that God could/would/did give such power to a human being. That’s the scandal of the Incarnation, the surprise that such power has been poured into us, the God cold come so close. And somehow it seems they couldn’t quite grasp this fundamental truth––that we matter; that created thing matter, that the flesh matters, our health, our bodies matter; that our happiness matters; that people matter; that matter matters; that God does not abhor creation. And that the real house of God is the human person, but not a house the holds God in, but a container pervaded by the spirit that surrounds and permeates it, like the burning bush that Moses saw, unconsumed by the flame.
A God who gives us a strict set of rules to follow with no surprises would be a lot easier. But of course that’s not an adult relationship and that’s not a real act of faith. That’s fire insurance; that’s self-preservation. Faith is walking on the waters of uncertainty, like Peter walking on the water. Faith is letting the roof off, letting in the sun and the rain, and the blind and the lame. Faith is being ready for surprises. Faith is also facing the future with confidence and hope, not with fear and protectionism.
At one point in my visit with the archbishop the other day we were talking about good Pope John XXIII. He was saying that after the very scholarly, stiff and formal Pope Pius XII, John was such a surprise and pleasure. There are stories of him smoking Galloises in the Vatican gardens, and the various charming comical things he said along the way. But the big surprise was when one day he told everyone that he had had a vision, and that there was going to be an ecumenical council to opened the windows and bring an aggiornamento–an updating to the Catholic Church. Talk about opening a hole in the roof! Who was ready for the surprises in store when the wind started blowing in the church. I’ve heard various folks talk about the “era of Vatican II” or even an end of the Vatican II era. It calls to mind the motto of First Congregational Church in Santa Cruz where we have so many good friends, the saying of that great feminist theologian Gracie Allen that they have emblazoned all over the place: “Never place a period where God has put a comma.” The church, and we human beings in general, are always in need of reformation and aggiornamento. And, as Fr Bede pointed out over and over, everything about us needs to constantly be renewed, so that we can speak a new language for a new age and a new generation, the language of our philosophy, our music and other forms of art, of our social justice and our ecological policies. There is a real tendency in the Catholic Church now to return to old forms and old ways, liturgically and otherwise. Whereas the prophet challenges us today to remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new! (Is 43:18-19) I hope we’re not putting a period where God has placed a comma. We at times need to open the roof to let in surprises, maybe also to let our prayers out, to re-circulate the air in our communities and our congregations and families, new forms of life and new ways of evangelization and catechesis and formation.
See I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?