The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

This year for our Holy Week Tenebrae service I presented a short reflection on Luke 22: 47 – 52 — the betrayal and arrest of Jesus.

Photo by Johnson Wang on Unsplash

The disciples are having a very bad day.

And it’s only just begun. They were up all night, and when they did manage to catch a little shut-eye Jesus yelled at them. And now one of their own has come with crowds and armed guards to arrest Jesus and to take him away. Not at all a good start to the day.

No surprise, then, that one of them should lash out. Not against the real problem – not against the priests or the officials here to arrest him, or against the guards who would fight back, not even against the betrayer whom they’d recently considered a friend. But they lash out against a servant, against the most insignificant person there.

It’s a typical response, really. If the problems of the day are too big, too intimidating, too frightening to confront head on, how often do we vent our frustrations elsewhere? How often do we seek the quick and easy catharsis of cutting off a servant’s ear?

It’s at times like this that we need to hear the voice of Jesus – Jesus, who is having a worse day than any of them, Jesus who alone knows how much worse it will get before it gets better. Jesus, who knows that, yes, it will get better. Jesus, who steps forward into the middle of it all and says “Enough!” Who takes a moment to heal the wounds, and then goes ahead with doing what needs to be done.

Book Review: The Saint and the Sultan

The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi's Mission of PeaceThe Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace by Paul Moses
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The basic story is well-established in the biography of Saint Francis of Assisi — how at the height of the Crusades, he ventured into enemy territory to meet with the Sultan and to preach to him. Some suggest that Francis was seeking martyrdom, though the prevailing thought takes the saint at his word: he wanted to end the wars and felt that converting the Muslims to Christianity was better than trying to kill them all.

Beyond that basic summary, the details of the story can vary widely depending on who is telling it. More than any other event in Francis’s life, I think, this episode tends to reflect not so much the ideals and worldview of the subject as of the biographer. In The Saint and the Sultan, Paul Moses delves deep into the history behind the incident, to try and get at the truth behind the spin.

Throughout his lifetime Francis played the role of conscience to the Institutional Catholic Church. His strict adherence to the Gospel ideals and a life devoted to Christ’s teaching tended to put him in stark contrast to the Medieval Ecclesiastical Hierarchy. And nowhere was this more evident than in his reaction to the Crusades. While church authorities were beating the drums of war, Francis embraced the call to “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.” More than any other event from his life, I think, this one put him in direct opposition to the religious authorities and called them to a depth of soul-searching that they were not willing to do.

And so, while the story could not be entirely stricken from the Saint’s biographies, it was watered down, reinterpreted, and revised, leading to the many variations we see today. Moses does a good and thorough job of tracing each version to its origin, picking apart the more dubious claims, and making some solidly educated speculations at the truth.

This book is more academic than most biographies I’ve read of Saint Francis, but I appreciated the author’s thoroughness. It really gave me a deeper and more profound appreciation for the Little Poor Man of Assisi, who has always been an inspiration to me. I feel this book helped me get to know the Saint a little bit better than I had before.

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To Know Her is to Love Her

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Wisdom seems to be in rather short supply these days. I think one reason I’ve found myself so drawn to my theology studies is that it offers a wider view of things. At a time when each of us seems wrapped snugly in our own little ideology, it helps to pull back for a God’s-eye view.

This past Sunday’s reading from the book of Wisdom served as a good reminder: Wisdom is a gift from God. And the author here uses romantic imagery to present Wisdom as the most beautiful and desirable of lovers.

In his introduction to The Light of Christ — the primary text we’re using in the introductory theology course — Father Thomas Joseph White ties these themes together.

… “knowing” translates the ancient Greek word episteme, which means being around or intimate with. It is this sense of the word that allowed early modern translators of the Bible to use “knowing” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse: “Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived.” We seek to know beauty in this way, wishing to draw close to that which is beautiful, seeking to make beauty a part of our lives.

In the fallen, sinful state of the world this “knowledge” — whether physical or intellectual — can too often be a violation of that beauty it seeks intimacy with. I’m reminded of Gandalf’s admonishment to Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring: “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” Knowledge for its own sake, knowledge as a trophy or symbol of status, might be at the heart of that first disobedience when Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge.

An internet meme I came across recently said that “Knowledge is the understanding that a bell pepper is a fruit. Wisdom is the understanding that it doesn’t go in a fruit salad.” Wisdom is the check and balance of knowledge. “For the first step toward wisdom is an earnest desire for discipline,” Scripture tells us. “For setting your heart on her is the perfection of prudence.”

At times I imagine Wisdom sounding like Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, admonishing us that we’re so preoccupied with whether or not we can do a thing, we don’t stop to ask if we should.

And just think how much of the world as we know it would be improved just by asking that basic, simple question. Should I have sex with a teenager? Should I tweet pictures of my penis to the women I work with? Should we dump toxic waste in our water supply? Should we get involved in a land war in Asia? A little prudence and discipline might go a long way in considering these questions.

Can’t Buy Me Love

Is money a form of idolatry?

This past Sunday, listening to the Gospel reading in which Jesus speaks of the lawfulness of paying taxes, I had one of those quick and fleeting drive-by thoughts. It hit me in the head and was gone before I could get a good look at it, but it lingered.

Whose head is on the coin? And whose inscription? Whose graven image?

Now I’ve always been fairly cynical about money. I often refer to Capitalism as our national religion. And on the whole I look at economics the same way many atheists regard religion: it’s really just a commonly held delusion which those in power use to keep their power while the rest of us find some vague but ultimately futile comfort and hope in it.

Really money has no intrinsic value. Its only value is what we decide to give it — and/or what we let our High Priests of Finance dictate to us. And yet this invented system somehow comes to dictate the worth of everything around us. Even our own sense of self-worth, all too often, is dependent upon how much of this imaginary value we can lay claim to.

No one can serve two masters, Jesus tells us. You can’t serve both God and Mammon. And if our God is a jealous God, Mammon is a manipulative one. It encourages us to trust in it and to distrust anyone else. It devalues our passions — “Time is money,” it tells us, and it will insist that time not spent in its service is time wasted. It promises the world (if we but prostrate ourselves in homage to it) and never delivers more than just enough to keep stringing us along.

Saint Francis of Assisi (never one to do things half-way) used to instruct his followers, if they should find a coin on the ground they should treat it as if it were dung. Not as a useless trinket, or as a bauble with delusions of grandeur. Treat it as something repulsive, filthy, unclean, as if its corrupting influence might worm its way into the soul. As with Tolkien’s Great Ring of Power, this wisest and most powerful would most emphatically refuse it. ” Its strength,” says Elrond, “is too great for anyone to wield at will, save only those who have already a great power of their own. But for them it holds an even deadlier peril. The very desire of it corrupts the heart.”

But I wonder if that too is a form of idolatry — to ascribe to money a malevolent will ultimately stronger than our own? It is a tool — a means to an end — and only has whatever power over us we choose to give it. To return a moment (because I can’t help myself) to my Tolkien metaphor: Bilbo Baggins used the Ring often in his adventure and for years afterward, with only very minimal and temporary corrupting effect — because to him it was never more than a useful trinket.

And maybe that’s all Jesus is saying. Money isn’t important. Use it as you have to, but don’t worry about it. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give to God what is God’s. Just make sure you don’t confuse the two.

Strange New Worlds

What does Catholic teaching tell us about extraterrestrial life? This might not seem like the most pressing of theological questions, but here I must admit to being a complete and unabashed science-fiction nerd. So it is in fact the sort of thing I might dedicate some inordinate amount of thought to.

In the Introduction to his Theological primer, The Light of Christ, Fr. Thomas Joseph White says of humanity that

we want understanding, insight, and wisdom. We want to know why and what for. We wish to perceive all in the unending light of what is and cannot be. Our hearts are restless with the desire to know the truth.

So it is in the spirit of this God-given unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding that I now delve into this conundrum which came to me in the course of my theological studies.

We begin with the basic understanding that God is Love, and that this basic essence of God is reflected in all His creation. As White says, “We can see in light of the Holy Trinity that the physical cosmos ultimately exists for spiritual persons and for relational love.” I found this a bold statement and one needing further reflection. And this blog post is my means of further reflecting on it.

Not long before reading that passage, I had been reading about some excitement within the world of astronomers, who had detected an occurrence of the elusive and mostly hypothetical gravity waves, which allowed them to observe how neutron stars collide to form a black hole, and how the Universe creates heavy metals, among other things.  But as these two readings came together in my brain they generated a question.

How can a cosmos of scattered worlds separated by unimaginable distances be seen as existing for communion, relationship, and love?

It is perhaps the spiritual version of Enrico Fermi’s famous paradox: based on everything we can know and observe about the Universe, there should be countless other civilizations out there. Many of them by now should be far more advanced than we are and better able to reach across those vast distances to make contact. So why haven’t they?

One could, I suppose, take the anthropocentric view that there really isn’t anyone else out there, and the entire expanse of the Universe exists just to give us something to look at each night. Maybe astronomers are merely peering deep into the inner clockwork of Creation. Personally I find this unlikely, unsatisfying, and not very convincing.

Or it could be argued that we’re really meant to look to our own house before venturing outwards. Maybe the Universe actually is filled with civilizations and sentient beings, all separated by these immense distances to keep us focused on our immediate communities and not distracted by what is beyond our reach. And then we’ll all meet up in the Kingdom at the end of time and live, as it were, happily ever after. This seems more likely, but still lacking.

As stated earlier, God created us as inquisitive beings. It is part of our nature to look to the stars, to notice other worlds not unlike our own, and to wonder. We are also created as social beings, so it is equally natural for us to want to go meet whoever is out there.

The Star Trek franchise has offered up the idea that it’s only once a planet’s population learns to coexist and to work together that they manage to venture out to other worlds. Maybe we’re living on a kind of cosmic escape room, and the only way out is to work together.

But there is another intriguing idea which came out of my theological readings.

The problem of interstellar distances is, in some sense, a problem of mortality. We just don’t have the time within our natural lifespans to make any significant or worthwhile explorations beyond our own world. But what if mortality wasn’t supposed to be part of the equation?

As human beings we are both flesh and spirit — body and soul. But these are not two separate elements. We are created as a union of material and spiritual which are meant to be inseparable. So our experience of death, which separates the soul from the body, is the result of our fall from grace and is contrary to God’s original intention.

It’s been a few decades or so since I read C. S. Lewis’s science-fiction trilogy so I don’t remember it very well (maybe it’s time for a re-read?). But I do remember that the first book, Out of the Silent Planet, introduced the idea of an interplanetary spiritual communion which Earth was not a part of. Earth is the “Silent Planet” of the book’s title, having excluded ourselves from this fellowship through our Fall from grace.

From a spiritual, Catholic point of view this might be the best explanation. It is certainly my own favorite! We fallen beings, generally given to aggression and conquest, are separated from each other by impossibly vast distances, while the rest of the cosmic population enjoy exactly the kind of vision Fr. White was talking about. “The physical cosmos ultimately exists for spiritual persons and for relational love.” And God’s plan of Salvation is to lead us back to that ideal.

The Dream the Dreamers Dreamed

As the events of Charlottesville have deeply affected the national psyche — and, truthfully, even before this — as unabashed and emboldened racism has reared its head and proclaimed itself in the wake of the last election — I’ve seen and heard two different and distinct reactions against it. On the one hand are those who cry out that this is not our country, this is not what America is about! And on the other side, among minorities especially, comes the response, “Yeah, actually, it is.” On one hand, the idealist; on the other, the realist. And perhaps both are right.

America is a nation built on the backs and the blood of exploited peoples — built, ironically, by people looking to end their own exploitation at the hands of imperialist oppressors. Slavery and freedom, inextricably intertwined within our national DNA. What is the point of declaring that “All men are created equal” when the men who composed those words actually believed that some men are more equal than others?

And yet…

And yet, those words have resonated through the centuries as a perfect ideal crafted by imperfect people. It represents something we continue to strive for. Through the history of our country the abolitionists, suffragettes, unionists, beatnicks, peacenicks, and activists, generations of people have worked and fought and died so that someday, somehow, our country might live up to these ideals.

More and more lately, I find myself drawn to the work of the poet Langston Hughes. I was first introduced to the safer, less threatening of his works in elementary school. I don’t think it was even mentioned, then, that the poet who wrote, “Hold fast to dreams / For if dreams die / Life is a broken-winged bird / That cannot fly” was African-American. I certainly never learned anything about his more provocative (and, to my mind, more interesting) works. Not until I rediscovered him in adulthood did I find his passionate, pointed, sardonic musings on being black in 20th Century America.

But these days there is one particular poem of his that I come back to. Let America Be America Again.

For much of the poem, Hughes plays the Idealist. “Let America be America again. / Let it be the dream it used to be,” while parenthetically giving voice to the Realist. “(America never was America to me.)” And thus does the poet, both Realist and Idealist, debate himself.

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

He answers on behalf of all those left in the dust in pursuit of the so-called American Dream — “The millions who have nothing for our pay — / Except the dream that’s almost dead today.” But it doesn’t end there.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.

The land that never has been yet — and yet must be.

America is a work in progress, and we can’t give up on it. We must continue the work, the fight, the struggle to rise above what we have been, what we are, to realize what we can be. We must, as Langston Hughes might say, hold fast to that dream.