Wednesday, July 25, 2012

you're not special

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. ... Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others… And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. (David McCullough)
A few weeks ago an English teacher named David McCullough delivered this commencement speech that went viral, titled “You’re Not Special.” His point was that praise must be earned not just handed to you; if everybody’s special then no body is special––that kind of thing. What was even more interesting to me than the speech itself was the reaction to it. You could just about hear people licking their chops with headlines such as “a commencement speech that eviscerated the self-esteem movement.” That’ll show these spoiled, entitled kids! Even Rush Limbaugh liked it! Mr. McCullough had some very memorable lines in it, one of them that I liked a lot was, “Climb the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.” Of course in some way it’s the opposite of what Jesus says when he tells his disciples, “You are the light of the world, a city built on a hill,” but that’s another issue… 

I actually liked a lot of what he said, but I also thought it was a bit of an over-reaction, especially the response to it. I have spent my priestly ministry telling people the other side of the story––telling them how beautiful they are, and urging them and me to live up to their dignity, holding a mirror up to folks––which is what I think spiritual communities are supposed to do––and saying, “Look at yourself! See who you are! Live up to this! You are the image of God moving to likeness, called to share in the divinity of Christ, called to be participants in the divine nature!” 

In a sense, this is what Jesus experienced from his relatives and friends when he went back to Galilee. He had asked the question, “Who do you say that I am?” And now they were asking the question, “Who do you think you are?” They couldn’t believe that God would give such power to this kid whom they had seen grown up in dirty diapers, that such great power could be revealed in a human being. How could God come this close and be so ordinary?

Both of these things are operative though in our readings today, and in some way they are a subplot all through Jesus’ life and the spiritual life in general. My favorite image to describe this tension is from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians when he says we hold this treasure in earthen vessels to make it known that this extraordinary power comes not from us but from God. So we do hold an incredible treasure inside of us, but we hold it in a fragile, cracked vessel to remind us that it will blow us to pieces if we don’t deal with it with humility, and if we fail to recognize that this power is ours to share in, but it is not ours! And in case we forget, Paul gives us that great image that we hear today––we get these thorns in our flesh to remind us that on our own, without grace, we are nothing, just frail weak fallible hypocritical bumbling humanoid bipeds, but with the grace of God we are everything––prophets, priest, royalty.

And this is Jesus’ way; this is the key that holds those two things together. Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not deem equality with God something to be grasped at. Rather he emptied himself––took the form of a slave. That’s the key to Jesus way. It’s in that selflessness, in that humility that we are emptied of our bloated false self––all our masks we wear and roles we play––emptied enough to be filled with the very fullness of God. And actually Mr McCullough agreed with that. He says:
And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.
That’s also the key: because everyone is. The self-esteem eviscerating headlines miss that line: because everyone is.

I guess what I want to add to the discussion is just this: We use religion so often to wag our fingers at each other and tell each other to behave but, contrary to what Mr. McCullough says about praise, grace is not something that can be earned, even by good behavior. That would actually be a heresy in our tradition; it’s called Pelagianism. Grace, like love, is a free gift; as David Mamet might say, “That’s why they call it ‘grace.’” It doesn’t start with us behaving correctly; it doesn’t start with us doing anything. My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness, St. Paul says (2 Cor 12:9). It starts out with us being loved, the scriptures tell us, it starts out with us knowing who we are, knowing that we are beloved and cherished––and that is the strength to do something with our lives, and that gives us the strength to move, as Jesus did, beyond our selfishness to selflessness. We have to have a self to give our self away, but we have to have grace to become fully ourselves––that’s the real “God particle.”

Our  svadhyaya––the self-study through sacred reading, is like looking in a mirror; we find out who we are and we get food for the journey. So let’s hope we can someday know who we are, and recognize it in each other; and hope that that knowledge of who we are would give us the strength to do the dying, the emptying, the kenosis that we have to do to live up to our dignity, to lay our lives down for the sake of others, to be broken like Jesus and like the Eucharistic bread, crushed and poured out like the grapes and the wine, for the sake of the world. Then we will climb the mountain both to see the world, to love it as God so loved it, weep over it as Jesus did, and allow ourselves to be seen too––but to be seen for a very special specific reason, the reason Jesus gives: so that others may see us and our good works and give glory to God.

in peace you have received

“Arthur, you mustn’t feel that I am rude when I say this.  You must remember that I have been away in strange and desert places, sometimes quite alone, sometimes in a boat with nobody but God and the whistling sea.  Do you know, since I have been back with people, I have felt like I was going mad?  Not from the sea, but from the people around me.  A lot of the things which you say, even seem to me to be needless: strange noises: empty. You know what I mean. ‘How are you’–‘Do sit down’–‘What nice weather we are having!’ What does it matter?  People talk far too much. Where I have been, and where Galahad is, it is a waste of time to have ‘manners.’ Manners are only needed between people, to keep their empty affairs in working order. Manners maketh man, you know, not God. So you can understand how Galahad may have seemed inhuman and mannerless, and so on, to the people who were buzzing and clacking about him. He was far away in his spirit, living on desert islands, in silence, with eternity.” (Once and Future King, 460-461)

That passage is from the novel Once and Future King, which I loved very much. I’ve saved this passage for years. The book is a re-telling of the Arthurian myth and in this scene it’s Percival speaking, after he and Galahad have come back from the quest for the Holy Grail. It’s a sort of classic example of the Hero’s Journey. I remember meeting a Jungian analyst once, and I was telling her about some strong experiences I had been having of late, but how when I tried to convey them or share them it either all came out flat or folks would just kind of shrug and walk away. And she said to me something like; “You’ve got to be very careful whom you share your experiences with when you’re on the Hero’s Journey. If people aren’t ready to hear what you have to say, it will ruin it for you, rob you of the experience.”

Some other examples of this could be, for instance, after a retreat experience, that phenomenon of “coming down the mountain,” sometimes literally! Or maybe in the throes of a conversion experience, still caught up in the initial fervor and excitement, expecting people to catch on fire just by talking to you. I’ve got a young friend who has been on several months’ pilgrimage around Central and South America right now, and I sent him this passage too. Or maybe it could just apply to our enthusiasm for anything, our passion for social justice or environmental issues, or our love for the liturgy or yoga or meditation or interfaith dialogue! Our exuberance for life in general! How often does that get beaten out of us? And sometimes it could simply be our own experience of the tender compassion of our God that has gripped us, like the Good News that Jesus sent his disciples out to proclaim on their Hero’s Journey. In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 10, he tells his disciples first look for someone worthy. And if they really are worthy, share it. If they’re not––no need to call down the fire from heaven on them; if that’s what they deserve, apparently God will see to it. It’s one of those rare instances where Jesus is all but calling down the fire and brimstone of Sodom and Gomorrah. Actually, the harsh compassion that we hear in the prophet Hosea 11 is better. (We read these two passages on the same day.) God says instead, My heart is overwhelmed with pity. I will not give vent to my blazing anger. No, we have to have the strength to detach from the results and the fruits and not take it personally; we’ve done our job and we walk on, guarding that treasure and looking for a heart worthy to receive it. We have to accept the fact, sadly but without recrimination, that sometimes people are simply not ready to hear what we have to say or receive what we have to give.

And yet, if we’re patient with the journey and let it gestate in us, it will not go to waste; it can become something in us. One of the characteristic features of Jesus was his gratitude, his exuberance, his joy and his awe, his appreciation of the mirabili Dei–the wonders of God, which he received freely and from which he gave freely. Blessed are you Lord, God of heaven and earth! he says. And that awe becomes in him gratitude, thanksgiving; and that thanksgiving in turn became in him power, the power to walk on water, to heal the sick, drive out demons, raise the dead, to turn bread and wine into his body and blood. That’s what we’re looking for––that Eucharistic alchemy to happen in us, that wonder and that gratitude and ultimately that energy to be at work in us, for our experience of the wonders of God, the wonders of all creation, and the wonder that God made us, to turn into gratitude, and that gratitude is like jet fuel, that gratitude turns into power. That’s the energy of Eucharist, and that becomes our participation in creation and building the reign of God, in ministry, in creativity, in prayer, in community, in a heart broken with compassion for our world.

Let’s hope that the treasure would take root in us, that the Word would dwell in us richly, that the peace of Christ would control our hearts and become something in us, become the energy of the Eucharist, the energy of participation and creation and that we would become bearers of the Good News with hearts broken with compassion for our world.

Monday, July 23, 2012

the second naiveté

The Self cannot be won by speaking,
nor by intelligence or much learning.
It can be won by the one whom it chooses.
To that one the Self reveals its own form.
Katha Upanishad II:23

I keep running into this phrase lately––“the second naiveté.” I’ve heard it mainly applied to scripture and myth. So, perhaps at an early age we read the Bible, for instance, believing every word and fact and detail to be literally true, no matter the discrepancies within accounts or things that just don’t match up. Then comes the stage of exegesis, literary critique and historical critical analysis, and we could fall into a totally cynical approach, figuring out just what words Jesus might have actually said, and deciding that this is all a bunch of silly fairy tales. And then the second naiveté hits, when we just start to enjoy the stories again and appreciate the truths that they convey. I think this happens in very tradition. I’ve heard it referred to Hindu and Buddhist texts as well. I don’t think it’s a return to being uneducated; it’s something beyond our sophisticated rational minds.

Maybe the same thing applies to our understanding of God. So as a little Catholic boy I sincerely thought of God as an old man with a long white beard, and his Son looked just like him except younger and a little thinner with a brown beard, and then there was this dove. Every religion has its version of this too, I suppose. And then I went through my iconoclastic stage, smashing idols and destroying images, my own and those of others! But later can come another phase, in which I don’t think we recapture those images and icons necessarily, but instead we grow to love the mystery, and grow comfortable not knowing the answers, and being comfortable with that. Perhaps that’s the apophatic stage, the via negativa, the way of holy darkness, which could either freak us out or it could initiate us into awe, wonder, worship, joy. I don’t think it’s a return to childhood, really, but it’s a new childhood, a new innocence, in which we don’t “regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it”; where we don’t negate all that we have learned and gained, but we go beyond it, and with the help of all that we have gained we find a new sense of mystery and transcendence. Some people are lucky enough to remain innocent and childlike all their lives. Most of us are not that lucky––but we can hope for this place beyond our slick rational minds, beyond our cleverness. There are many things actually hidden from our cleverness that are revealed to our awe, hidden from our brilliance that are revealed to our trust.

So Jesus says in that beautiful passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Blessed are you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. What you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. It reminds me of the Tao te Ching, my favorite chapter 20. Taosim is perhaps the quintessential apophatic tradition. I think this passage describes well what St Paul calls the “fool for Christ,” and makes me think at what an absurd figure the monk can strike in this day and age. This my version of it, the one I adapted for the song “The Great Mother”:

Others are joyful and others can feast,
I alone do not know where I am,
a child not taught how to smile.
Others have everything, more than they need,
I alone have nothing at all––
I’m just a fool in confusion.
Others a brilliant and clear––
I alone still grope in the dark,
the insights of scholars escape me.
Others are clever and sharp;
I alone am stupid and dull.
I drift like a wave on the ocean.
Everyone else has got something to do,
I alone and aimless and sad.
I am different, nourished by the Great Mother.

“The Great Mother” there refers to the first manifestation of this Tao that cannot be spoken of, but gives birth to “the 10,000 things.” I am different, it means, I stay close to the source.

Let’s look forward to this passage into the second naiveté today, so that what is hidden from our wisdom and learning may be revealed to us as we are nourished at the table of the Word and Sacrament.

the whole field

Now that you’ve loved
it’s the end of your love and the
start of your loving career.
You’ll not love another;
you’ve gone from your mother for real!
Stand to me now and make
sense of the things that you feel.
                                                Danny Black

I was asked to preside at a wedding this past weekend. I always think that it’s kind of funny in the Catholic tradition that a celibate man stands up in front of a young couple about to be married and gives them advice. As if! But as I was thinking about what to say, I occurred to me that there were a few lessons that I had learned from the monastic life that could apply to the married life, so short of advice I thought I could share some things I’ve learned from experience.

The first one is the main vow we monks take. It’s called conversatio morum. Literally it translates something like “conversion of ways.” Thomas Merton called it the “vow of conversation,” and I think it applies well to the married state, too. What it means is that we are always in conversation with our vocation, we are always asking our state in life, what should a monk do? what should a husband do? what should a mother do? But for a married couple I guess it always means that there is a vow of conversation between them as well; from now on out they are not making decisions just for themselves, but for their partner and eventually for their children, their family.

When I made solemn vows I picked the gospel reading from Matthew chapter 13 about the man who found the treasure buried in the field. But he didn’t just grab the treasure and run––he bought the whole field! For me that whole field is not just walking around in white robes or chanting the psalms or sitting in meditation. It means whatever is going on with my monastic community and congregation, as well as lots of personal ramifications of the choice of lifestyle that I have made. And for the married couple the “whole field” I guess means all that they each bring to the relationship, each of their families, each of their background, each of their career choices, and whatever the future holds. It’s like two ecosystems meeting; sometimes it could lead to an environmental disaster! It’s like two weather systems meeting; sometimes it feels like a perfect storm! Their love for each other is the treasure buried in the field, but they find out that they have to buy the whole field. It can come as a shock along the way when each of them starts to realize what that whole field entails, but that treasure buried in the middle of it somehow makes the whole field holy.

Another one of my favorite images of monasticism is what our former prior general Emanuele said to me once. I was speaking to him about monasticism as a container (this is part of a longer story, but I’ll spare you…) and he said to me, “But, Cyprian, monasticism isn’t a container; it’s an energy.” I disagree a little bit with that––I think it’s both a container and an energy––but still his point is important, and the same applies to marriage. Marriage can feel like a container, “settling down,” and to some extent that is true. But, first of all, the couples’ love for each other is the energy inside that container. Maybe the word “container” isn’t the best even; marriage holds the energy and focuses the energy, but it’s not supposed to suppress the energy. It’s important that that energy be always cared for and nourished. We use the word “procreative” for married love; that word means even more than having children. Love is creative, love gives birth to other things. That’s just what love does. It gives birth to community, to art and beauty, to justice and peace.

The last lesson is something I heard just the other day from an 86 year-old monk. We were talking about how it is so hard for young people to commit to monastic life, and I thought that this could apply again to any vocation, including especially the married life. He said that the problem with young and old is that they think of a vocation as an end. But really what we commit to is a journey. Our vows are the beginning of a journey, and we have no idea where the journey is going to take us!  It’s a marvelous unfolding frightening mystery. And that somehow ties in to the other three already mentioned. It is the energy of our vocation that takes and sustains us on that journey. And on that journey we vow to stay in conversation and constantly convert ourselves. In that journey we discover the rest of the field that we have bought along with the treasure that we found buried in it.

There’s a reason that a couple gets married in front of a bunch of people, partly because all those people gathered there are a part of that whole field! And also because those people are there to remind the couple, when and if things get tough, that they have committed to the whole field, to remind them that this is a journey they are on and to which they have committed themselves.

I have found that the energy of my monastic life has led me to live my life in a way I never would have imagined 20 years ago. It’s been an amazing journey, especially these past ten years up in Santa Cruz and on the road. And the same with the young families that I have been lucky enough to be surrounded with these years; they have taught me so much as I watched them wade through the surprises, disappointments and even great tragedies in their lives; as well as I have watched older couples walk beside them, sometimes just being gently present and supportive, at other times really holding their feet to the fire, reminding them of the commitment that they made to the whole field, to the journey, just as my elder brothers and sisters in religious life have both encouraged me and challenged me to stay with it.

I especially wish Danny and Katy happiness, courage and prosperity in the years ahead, as well as Claire and Nick, married just two weeks ago. And I am feeling enormous gratitude for all the young couples and their beautiful babies who have surrounded me these years with their joy and life and courage and hope for the world.

not to conquer but to serve

The joys and the hopes,
the griefs and the anxieties of people of this age,
especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,
these are the joys and hopes,
the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.
            Gaudium et Spes

I’ve been doing so much reading about the Second Vatican Council these days, partly because there is so much interest around it this year as we commemorate the 50th anniversary of its convening. I just finished a wonderful book called “What Happened at Vatican II” by John O’Malley, that my confrere Fr Bruno recommended, that for me read like a action novel! I know that a lot of things have been excused, and sometimes wrongly, in a stretching of this nebulous “spirit of Vatican II,” and yet I came away from that book thinking that there really was a spirit to it.

The Roman Catholic church doesn’t like to think of itself as ever changing, especially when it comes to dogma and doctrine, so instead three different words were used––aggiornamento, development, and resourcement. That first word in Italian means “updating.” This is what the saintly Pope John XXIII wanted for the church, and updating, to open the windows and let the Sprit blow some fresh air in, especially after 500 years of a very solid post-Reformation counter-Reformation stance, protecting against all enemies, especially theological ones. Where the “development” came in was, for example, not 100 years earlier popes were condemning ecumenical dialogue, religious freedom and what they called under the large banner of “modernism,” which included things like new academic disciplines directed at Scripture as well as any talk of evolution. All of those by 1965 were embraced and encouraged, and many of the theologians who were silenced in the years before––Yves Congar, John Courtney Murray, Teilhard de Chardin––wound up having great influence on the final documents of the council. That was quite a development, and it left a small but vocal minority very unhappy, leading some even to go into schism, as in the case of Archbishop Marcel Lefevre. The resourcement, on the other hand, is a French word that basically meant skipping back, sometimes up 1,500 years, and returning to the sources, back to the apostolic times and the Patristic era, the earliest era of church teachings, and for religions orders and congregations it meant going back to the original inspiration of their founders and recovering their original charism, intent and hopefully fervor as well. That was all part of the spirit of Vatican II––updating, developing, and going back to the sources.

But there was something more, of which these three were just manifestations. Whereas the stance of the church at least for 500 years had been to circle the wagons and condemn anything that we didn’t agree with, there were no condemnations issued out of the Second Vatican Council. Instead, an unheard of theme got brought up over and over again––“dialogue with the world.” So much so that the Council fathers issued a document that was addressed not just to the church, but to the world! Gaudium et Spes––and it begins with those marvelous words:

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of people of this age,
especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,
these are the joys and hopes,
the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.
Indeed, nothing genuinely human fails to raise an echo in their hearts.
For theirs is a community composed of human beings.
United in Christ, they are led by the Holy Spirit in their journey to the Kingdom of their Father
and they have welcomed the news of salvation which is meant for everyone.
That is why this community realizes that it is truly linked with humankind and its history by the deepest of bonds.
Hence this Council, now addresses itself without hesitation,
not only to the children of the Church
but to the whole of humanity!

This was the spirit of Vatican II: dialogue with the world––not antagonism against the world––not circling the wagons and protecting ourselves against the world––dialogue with the world. As a matter of fact in his opening address to the second session of the Vatican Council Pope Paul VI called on the church to change its attitude toward the modern world, in these words I have reflected on countless times:


O’Malley adds this list, that the vision of Catholicism was moving

…from laws to ideals, from definition to mystery, from threats to persuasion, from coercion to conscience, from monologue to dialogue, from ruling to serving, from withdrawn to integrated, from vertical to horizontal, from exclusion to inclusion, from hostility to friendship, from rivalry to partnership, from suspicion to trust, from static to ongoing, from passive acceptance to active engagement, from fault-finding to appreciation, from prescriptive to principled, from behavior modification to inner appropriation.

We heard these wonderful words about Jesus in the gospel today, that he was move with pity for the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd. One might think that they are only addressed to those who officially minister in the church. But that’s not how I understand it. By our Baptism we all share in this triple vocation of Christ who was prophet, priest and king––and king as Vatican II was at pains to define it––king as servant. It is notable that the documents of Vatican II never refer to the papacy as a monarchy; the pope too is simply the “servant of the servants of God.” We are supposed to “rule” the world by being its servant. Why? Because they are like sheep without a shepherd, Christ wants to be their shepherd, and we are the body of Christ.

We have no idea what will face us in the future––but the signs of the times show, and some great thinkers among us believe that, us that it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could be heading toward some great ecological disaster, of worldwide financial collapse, or some horrible nuclear disaster––not to mention random acts of terrorism or horrendous senseless violence like we had this past week in Colorado. We are going to need each other, to be shepherds to each other. But even more, the world––which God loves so much––is going to need us as its shepherds: not to conquer it but to serve it; not to despise it, but to appreciate it; not to condemn it but, especially, to comfort it, in the name of Jesus who had compassion on the crowds; Jesus, as Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, who is our peace, who has broken down the dividing wall of enmity, who proclaimed peace to those who are far off and those who are near, through whom we have access in the Spirit to the Father.(cf. Eph 2:14-18)

21 july 2012