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Elizabeth Johnson: "Is God's Charity Broad Enough for Bears?"

At the Maryknoll Mission Center on Sunday (appropriately the feast of St. Francis of Assisi), theologian Elizabeth Johnson spoke to an audience of about 200 priests, brothers, sisters, and laypeople on whether “God’s charity is broad enough for bears.”

The question comes from a story about the American explorer John Muir. One day Muir came across a dead bear, still bleeding, in the middle of the woods in Yosemite National Park. That night in his journal he wrote a biting criticism against religious folks he knew who made no room in heaven for such noble creatures: "Not content with taking all of Earth, they also claim the celestial country as the only ones who possess the kinds of souls for which that imponderable empire was planned"—that is, do humans think they are the only ones with souls?

“Theology,” Johnson began her address “calls the natural world 'creation' because of its relationship to God… and it’s under threat now.” We stand sickened at the deadly damage being done to the world. We know about it through headlines: ice caps melting, air and water being polluted, species becoming extinct by the tens of thousands per year. We know now that our planet has become “unfit for life,” and we know that ecological damage leads to social damage: poor people suffer the most from environmental destruction.

Although she has written theology about ecology and eco-justice for years, Johnson has never had the degree of papal support for her theology that she does now. She called Laudato Si'' “the most important encyclical written in the history of the Catholic church,” because of its broad scope—economic, political, social, scientific, psychological, spiritual, theological, and ethical—because it is corrective to past failures of church teaching, and because it ends on a note of joy, that we can be introduced to a new way of being human that will strengthen all parts of creation with diminishing any.

In Laudato sí, Francis calls for a conversion to this new way of being human—and conversions are usually met with resistance. Yes, we may resist converting to a more ecologically sustainable way of living because of hard-to-break habits of consumption, waste, and greed—especially those of us who live in powerful, wealthy, and developed nations like the United States. But Johnson focused her talk on a deeper problem: the theological resistance to conversion toward the earth, present in Christianity. John Muir’s story “crystallizes” this problem because Muir, in criticizing his religious friends, criticizes their God. And rightly so. Johnson says that we need to ask ourselves: “Is the God I believe in madly in love with bears?” And trees, and dandelions, and river currents, worms, and sparrows? How can we weave the natural world into our religious preaching in ways that will promote its flourishing? How can we foster a spirituality that makes love of nature an intrinsic part of faith in God, and not just an add-on to it?

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Peter Steinfels on Politicizing Pope Francis

Over at Politico magazine, Peter Steinfels has written a frank, thoughtful, and (for liberal Catholics especially) challenging take on the pope's upcoming visit. He cautions against frenzied papal-centrism and the temptation to use the "banner of papal authority" in political arguments.

Christian faith has political implications. But you can’t go directly from breaking bread with the homeless to a public housing program anymore than you can go from affirming the humanity of the unborn to particular laws restricting abortion. If in our enthusiasm for Francis’ emphasis on poverty, immigrants and climate change, liberal Catholics fail to acknowledge this, if, for example, we dismiss reasonable questions about the pope’s economics, we will be undermining our own political consistency as well as Francis’ attempt to assure room for disagreement within the Church.

Steinfels reminds us that the Catholic Church is not a "kind of religious Marine Corps that barks orders from the top for its well-drilled troops to follow blindly"—a common misunderstanding in the United States, where

the image of the church as an unquestioning, dutiful force bending to the pope’s will is deeply engrained. The “Catholic vote” is still discussed as a monolithic whole. [And] Polls detecting disagreement among Catholics over church teaching are treated like the discovery of new planets.

And, Pope Francis himself has long been opposed to the "over-centralization of church decision-making in Rome." When Francis was Archbishop of Buenos Aires he referred to his trips to Rome there as “penances,” and as pope, he has

acted to renew the periodic synods of bishops from around the world as occasions for genuinely free discussion. Vatican officials have previously controlled them with a heavy-hand. Francis recently delegated oversight of marriage annulments to local bishops rather than a Vatican office. He has put lay people in key positions in the Vatican. Francis, too, doesn’t want the church to be all about him.

So, how can we re-organize the story of Catholicism so that it isn't centered on the pope? That's a good question, and now is a good time to mull it over.

New issue, now live

Our full August 14 issue is now up on the website.

Among the highlights, Cathy Kaveny explains how secular law can teach the church something about mercy for divorced and remarried Catholics that it already knows:

No legal provision is self-interpreting; each law must be understood and applied with reference to the good of the community it purports to serve, and Jesus regularly reminds us that the commands and prohibitions of the Torah must be situated in a broader context.... Catholicism viewed marriage as a symbol of the unbreakable union of Christ with the church—like the union of a bishop with his diocese. But from the beginning of church history, the symbolic value of both sorts of unions had always been balanced against other values.

Read all of 'Mercy for the Remarried' here.

Jo McGowan questions why the debate over same-sex marriage can cause rage:

Religious teaching reinforces that disgust with frequent reminders that gay sexuality is sinful and inherently disordered, subtly making it acceptable to discriminate against LGBT persons and adding to a climate in which outright persecution is also acceptable. There is no such hysteria about other “sins.” Greed, for example, robs the poor of a just wage, legitimizes mindless consumption, and destroys the natural environment. But while we may disapprove of it, we don’t isolate or target all those greedy people.

Read all of 'The More You Know' here.

Also in this issue: Fr. Nonomen's advises on how to do a funeral (step one: keep your glasses off the coffin...); Bethe Dufresne reflects on her experience standing between two confederate flags; Anthony Domestico reviews new, important books from Claudia Rankine and Jeffery Renard Allen about living with racism in the United States; and Jean Hughes Raber reviews Laura Swan's new history of a forgotten women's medieval movement .

See the full table of contents for August 14 here:

How to Worry about Selfie Sticks

There is a passage by Iris Murdoch from The Sovereignty of Good where she describes joy in teaching herself the Russian language. “Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality,” she writes. “Love of Russian leads me away from myself towards something alien to me, something which my consciousness cannot take over, swallow up, deny or make unreal.” Because the rules of Russian grammar are difficult to master, learning the language pushes Murdoch’s full attention into a humble posture. She’s describing devotional attention, in other words, and its devotional character is what’s most true about it because it makes one’s body and mind confront something you’re not meant to just use, but see. 

Matthew Crawford uses Murdoch’s lines in both his books, Shopclass as Soul Craft, and his latest The World Beyond Your Head (reviewed here in Commonweal) where he takes up the issue of “distraction.” His broader argument hinges on this idea that how we train—or don’t train—our focus, even more than what we set it on, shapes whether or not we become the kind of people who can make free and meaningful choices. It’s a philosophical stab at a moral, social, and economic problem: How can we be more than consumers, but free individuals? We can’t, really, if we hand over our focus to whoever and whatever wants it.

Attention, reality, consumerism—worrying about these things now means thinking about digital technology, especially since a lot of us carry a small machine seductively designed for infinite distraction in our pocket. Rand Richards Cooper recently wrote on how Smartphones allow us to check out from where we’re standing. He writes, “Technology is a majestic human story, and the benefits we’ve gotten from farming out our tasks to machines are incalculable. But what happens when what we’re farming out is consciousness itself—the ability to be ourselves, with ourselves, amid the glories of creation?”

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Same-Sex Marriage 'Reality Check'

Many who are responding to the 62.4% majority vote to nationally legalize same-sex marriage in Ireland are making much of Dublin archbishop Diarmuid Martin's frank but vague remarks in the New York Times:

The church needs to take a reality check.... It’s very clear there’s a growing gap between Irish young people and the church, and there’s a growing gap between the culture of Ireland that’s developing and the church.... [I]nside the church becomes almost alien territory to them in today’s society…

That there is a growing gap between young people and the church on this issue is not new news, nor is it exclusive to Ireland. Martin is right to point out that anyone who doesn't recognize this is in "severe denial." That's why I think this referendum is such good news. It's a reality check, yes, but it's also an opportunity to let go of the fight against same-sex marriage. If bemoaning the referendum becomes the church's basis for strengthening "its commitment to evangelization," as the Vatican's secretary of state suggests, the gap between young people and the church will only widen.

I don’t have the polling data to prove this, but I can't imagine that many young Catholics enjoy being recruited to fight a culture war, especially if the opposition includes family, friends, and peers. They find it alienating when a priest homilizes about the essential differences between men and women; they would rather hear that “all are welcome” at Mass and rather the homily stick to the gospel. When Catholic identity becomes less about spirituality and more about political battles, something essential is lost…along with thousands of believers.

Is there a way for Catholics to simply disagree with same-sex marriage supporters instead of having to “defend traditional marriage”? Is there a widespread movement to force the church to change its teaching on marriage? Why can’t traditional marriage exist inside the church, with same-sex marriage outside the church? Agreeing to disagree relieves the opposing parties of the burden of needing to win. Ireland has decided, by majority vote, to legalize same-sex marriage. At least one front in this protracted culture war has gone quiet. What a relief.

Over at NCR Michael Sean Winters wonders if it’s possible that “those Irish young people did not vote for same sex marriage despite their Catholic education, but, in part, because of it?” That’s a very good question. I suspect they did. Catholics have imagination. Tradition isn’t a force that eternally battles advancing armies. It’s the way the substance (not the accidents) of church teaching is passed down through generations of believers who contribute to this process by reexamining and reexamining again what their faith means.

Now on the homepage

We've just posted three new stories to the homepage.

1. In his latest Letter from Rome, Robert Mickens suggests the possible reasons behind the Vatican Secretary of State's "apocolyptic assesment of the the Irish referendum" is culture, "particularly Italian culture," because Italy is "the most conservative country in all of Europe when it comes to social conventions and customs," especially concerning the family.

Mickens also reveals who exactly has been holding "secretive meetings and initiatives" in the run-up to October's Synod on the Family that deal with "some of the more thorny issues" the bishops will be debating, including the Kasper proposal.

Read the full Letter from Rome here, and if you need to catch up, here's all of them.

2. The Editors present reasons, if the Amtrak derailment isn't enough of one, for why the U.S. government’s failure to invest in infrastructure must change:

The United States now spends less than 2 percent of its GDP on infrastructure, less than half of what Europe spends—and less than half of what we were spending in the 1960s....The American Society of Civil Engineers gave [the nation's infrastructure] a grade of D+... [and] noted that the average age of the country’s 84,000 dams is fifty-two, and that one in nine of its bridges is considered structurally deficient. Every few years one of these bridges collapses, occasioning a brief outburst of bipartisan concern on Capitol Hill. Then nothing changes.

Read all of 'Signal Failure.'

3. George Dennis O'Brien, pondering the future direction of Catholic education, looks backward:

The dominant style of higher education in the ancient world was not academic but humanistic, directed at educating future political leaders who needed to learn the art of persuasion.... [T]he humanistic “classical curriculum” dominated American colleges from colonial times until the end of the nineteenth century.

Are Catholic institutions replacing the humanistic style with the "academic style of close argument and verifiable truths"?

Read all of 'Incarnation U,' and if you want more of the higher education debate, read Jackson Lears's excellent review of William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.

The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.

The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”

Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”

No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.” 

With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.

Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.

New issue, new stories

On the website now, our May 15 issue. Here are some of the highlights:

Jo McGowan examines the effects violence against children has on society at large—effects so drastic it is being treated as an "any other epidemic," “says forensic psychologist Karen McCluckey:

Isolate the contagion. Prevent transmission. Treat outbreaks instantly and aggressively.

Jerry Ryan reflects on his struggle to discover "what the person of Jesus means" to him, spiritually and theologically:

Classical theology has the angels deciding their destiny in a single, unalterable choice. I sometimes dream of being able to imitate such an act, one that would free me from all my ambiguities and contradictions, my half-hearted aspirations and ineffectual resolutions. This is not the way things work, however...

Read all of "Knowing Jesus" here.

Eve Tushnet reviews an exhibit produced by over 40 artists at the National Museum of African Art that recreates Dante's Divine Comedy on three floors:

I’m sitting in hell with a couple of little boys, who are trying to prove they’re not scared. We’re watching a cloth-wrapped figure prostrate itself and bang its fists against the floor, as sobs and wordless singing give way to a howled “I, I, I surrender!”

Read about the beautiful, horrific, beatific and redemptive show here.

Also in the May 15 issue: James Sheehan on how Greece and Ukraine are "testing Europe"; reviews of books about abortion, the short history of the black vote, a young Lawrence of Arabia, and secular humanism—plus poetry from Michael Cadnum, Thomas Lynch, and Peter Cooley; and Elizabeth Kirkland Cahill reflects on bodily decrepitude and wisdom.

Also featured on the site now, the latest from E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes about a senator's sensible stance on faith and secularism. Read the whole thing here.

More new stories on the website

E.J. Dionne Jr. provides a deeper look into social problems in Baltimore--how globalization of the economy, technological change, and deindustrialization have taken manufacturing jobs out of the city without ever replacing them. Dionne interviews Thomas J. Vicino, author of Transforming Race and Class in Suburbia: Decline in Metropolitan Baltimore, who explains:

“This is a double-whammy for poor black people left in the city....They are not in a position to share in the development downtown and, with the loss of manufacturing jobs, they are left, at best, with access to relatively low-paying service jobs. This, in turn, creates a spiral for those left behind, damaging families and devastating neighborhoods.”

This cycle hurt working-class whites as well, Vicino added, “but whites were in a better position to move elsewhere, whereas black mobility was limited by housing discrimination.”

Reading all of "The Roots of Baltimore's Anguish" is worth your time.

Also, in “Does the Earth Have Rights?,” Robin Darling Young writes on the anticipation (and political polarization) surrounding Pope Francis's upcoming encyclical on the environment. Both Climate skeptic Catholics and non-Catholics with assumptions about the church's views on science will be surprised to learn just how traditionally Catholic progressive scholarship is. In Young's view this raises serious questions:

 How [are we] to balance individual moral responsibility, described in the moral teachings of the church, against a general Catholic or human responsibility as developed in more than a century of modern Catholic social teaching?

More broadly and just as important:

What could it mean for nature itself to have rights—rights that are being flagrantly violated by human beings? And what could it mean for Catholic theology  if a pope says this?

Read the whole thing (and get thinking) here.

Ignatian LGBTQ & Ally conference turns two

Tonight at Georgetown University the second annual IgnatianQ conference kicks off a weekend of lectures, breakout sessions, dialogues and keynotes that uniquely focus on LGBTQ issues and Jesuit values, aiming to create a community of people active in their faith, community and campus, who continue conversations. The first IgnatianQ (after ivyQ) was hosted by Fordham last year—created, planned and organized entirely by students. It grew from one conversation between two people on a roof to a three-day dialogue of 96 participants traveling from six different Jesuit schools to attend. And now it's in it's second year.

Bolstered by the University’s mission statement and the powers vested in academic freedom, the group of organizers approached the Theology department first with a 12 page proposal they’d carefully put together through months of weekly meetings, unsure and anxious about how well it’d go over. They not only received “overwhelming support” of the idea for IgnatianQ but also a keynote speaker, $300, and a room to hold meetings on campus—legitimacy. Soon enough many other departments signed on and they had enough money and backing to let real preparations for the conference begin. Anthony, one of the originators, remembers with slight disbelief meeting with the University vice president, who’d need to talk with the president (both priests) who’d need to approve the conference. “I told him ‘I pray that the politics of man do not interfere with the work of the holy spirit in organizing this conference’” Plainly, “Don’t let your reservations about the word queer get in the way of what these students need right now.” And they didn’t.

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Communion with Gornick, McDermott & Karr (and Eliot)

Many readers have probably experienced a feeling of communion when engaging closely with a work of literature, even if they're not apt to put it that way. Interviewed in the current issue of the Paris Review, Vivian Gornick speaks briefly but movingly about the time her elderly mother was nearing the end of an autobiography by a relatively unknown British writer. It was though the author were “right in the room with me," Gornick recalls her mother saying; "I’m going to feel lonely when I finish this book.” What more, Gornick concludes, could any writer want from a reader, than to be part of such a connection?

“Who is the third who always walks beside you?" begins the "third man" section of Eliot's “The Waste Land.” "When I walk there are only you and I together/But when I look ahead up the white road /There is always another one walking beside you.” In an essay recently featured in the Boston College alumni magazine, Alice McDermott borrows another line from Eliot in expanding the connection to include not just author and reader but the narrator (or voice) of the work itself. "We had the experience but missed the meaning," she says she sometimes tells her students when discussing a piece of writing, but in fact, she writes, that singular search for meaning can also get in the way of a truer experiencing of the work. “The wonder of the literary arts,” she writes, “of the way a novel ‘happens,’ lies first and foremost for me in its ability to make us look together, writer/narrator/reader, to see, together, what is there. …"

McDermott's essay is written with characteristic humility and acknowledgment of uncertainty, which has a way, as can be the case with her fiction, of making it all the more persuasive. Its title ("Astonished by Love") and stated topic (“storytelling and the sacramental imagination”) might not have initially drawn me to it; I'd probably head first for a Mary Karr essay with the title “How to Read 'The Waste Land' So It Alters Your Soul Rather Than Just Addling Your Head.” But McDermott is straightforward about where she's coming from.

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Pope Francis and Mother Teresa

On the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God Pope Francis gave a fine homily, in which he reprised one of Pope Benedict's key themes. Francis said:

Our faith is not an abstract doctrine or philosophy, but a vital and full relationship with a person: Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God who became man, was put to death, rose from the dead to save us, and is now living in our midst.

This morning, reading through the January issue of the monthly meditation aid, Magnificat, I came across this letter of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta to her Sisters:

I worry some of you still have not really met Jesus – one to one – you and Jesus alone. We may spend time in chapel – but have you seen with the eyes of your soul how he looks at you with love? Do you really know the living Jesus – not from books but from being with him in your heart? Have you heard the loving words he speaks to you? Ask for the grace; he is longing to give it. Until you can hear Jesus in the silence of your own heart, you will not be able to hear him saying, "I thirst," in the hearts of the poor.

Never give up this daily intimate contact with Jesus as the real living person – not just the idea. (Varanasi Letter: March 25, 1993)

Christmas Miracles? Mainline Millenial Finds a Church After College

Coming back to Chicago for Christmas means gatherings where I catch up with a lot of people. As someone who is a low-level Facebook user, I find it refreshing to hear “how things are going” in summary form. (And I miss some of those Christmas card updates, too.) This year, I got an unusual surprise: a cousin eager to make use of the theology Ph.D. in the family, asking questions like “what is the difference between the Apostle’s creed and the Nicene creed?” and “what did Luther do?” and “where can I find a summary of the whole story of the Bible?” (I welcome suggestions on that last one.)

The surprise is the demographic identity of my cousin: a 22-year-old recent state university business grad, who is single, who grew up mainline Protestant, who had shipped off to a distant city to take a management training job. Over the summer she found a nice trendy urban apartment complex in a city neighborhood. Shops and restaurants. The whole thing. And somehow she not only found her way to a Lutheran church, but also came home over Christmas with these questions noted down in her smartphone. All the surveys say: this is not supposed to happen. I wanted to joke that sociologists of religion would want to do in-depth interviews and publish a study. Data on this group is usually dismal: Christian Smith’s most recent results from his massive longitudinal survey continue to suggest the rise of the “nones.”

Did my cousin’s case provide an answer? I think the answer to what drives people to show up at church is individual and complex. I wouldn’t presume to know why people check out possible church involvement. There are many reasons. But what keeps them there isn’t nearly as complicated. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my cousin reported that she was welcomed personally by the pastor and her name was remembered. And that the pastor preached substantial messages that were meaningful and delivered with real care and conviction. The congregation, led by the pastor, was providing meaningful belonging. Not just belonging, and not just meaning, but both. The result? Someone asking good questions and growing in faith.

That’s the kind of gift a theologian likes to discover on the trip home. It doesn’t even take up any extra space in the luggage on the flight back…

The Shared World

We’re in the midst of the annual highest-days-of-travel now that Thanksgiving is near. With weather conditions changing, and the inevitable crowds, I am sure tempers will often be frayed. Perhaps you are reading this in an airport even now, wondering how much longer you’ll have to wait to get where you want to go. Well, better to read dotCommonweal than to brood—or fume. (I’ve often wondered why some people feel free to vent their feelings of frustration upon airline personnel who, as far as I’m aware, have no control over the weather.)

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Making others less alone

Friday's PBS Newshour featured a segment with the poet Gregory Orr, who discussed the accidental shooting by a nine-year-old girl--with an Uzi submachine gun--of her instructor at an Arizona gun range August 25. He wasn't there to talk about the root causes of the tragedy (political, sociological, cultural), but rather its aftermath and potential effect on the child at the center of it. When he was twelve, Orr himself accidentally killed his younger brother in a hunting accident, an incident he documented in his 2002 memoir The Blessing and which has figured prominently in his poetry over the course of a dozen or so collections, having in large part led him to writing in the first place, in which he has since found solace. "Because poems are meanings," he has said, "even the saddest poem I write is proof that I want to survive. And therefore it represents an affirmation of life in all its complexities and contradictions."

On Newshour, Orr reads his poem "A Litany" (go to the 38-minute-mark in the video below), which deals explicitly with the day he and his father and three brothers went out hunting. It opens with Orr's recalling "the dark stain seeping" across his brother's parka hood and includes the image of the deer "we had killed just before I shot my brother" hanging near the barn, as seen by Orr from the bedroom he'd retreated to on returning home. It's a haunting reading, the look in Orr's eyes and the sound of his voice adding something more to what is already pretty powerful on the page.

Orr, when asked, also talks about what should and shouldn't be done for children who have witnessed or been the cause of a death, warning specifically against "premature consolation," or the tendency of well-meaning adults to tell a child that it was "all a part of God's plan"--words that he, as a twelve-year-old, found "more terrifying" than reassuring. He had written more at length about this a week earlier in the New York Times:

[W]hen I try to think of what I might say to that girl, I think also of the danger of words used as premature consolation and explanation. I lost a (naïve and conventional) religious faith the day of my brother’s death, because a well-meaning adult assured me that my dead brother was already, at that very moment, sitting down in heaven to feast with Jesus. How could I tell her that my brother was still near me, still horribly close to me — that every time I squeezed shut my eyes to keep out the world, I saw him lying lifeless at my feet?

But even worse, Orr says, is not to speak of it at all: "Silence quickly transforms guilt into shame, and shame builds walls of isolation that can be almost impossible to breach." That, he has said, is what happened inside his own family. He offers very basic counsel: "Hold the child, and make her feel safe." And that simplicity of gesture, of giving oneself to another, seems in keeping with what Orr has suggested might be the larger purpose of the kind of lonely work he has dedicated himself to:

[T]he lyric (poem or memoir) is committed to the notion that the self telling and dramatizing its own truth can be an important human act. Not just for the self but for others also. My teacher Stanley Kunitz has a line where he speaks about “the voice of the solitary who makes others less alone.” That’s a social contribution out of a situation of lyric solitude.

Life Without Charley

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the removal of my cancerous prostate, and I'm not sure if I should celebrate it with a special cake or a good cry.

The operation itself went well enough.  The doctor opened me up with some sort of robot, but then compensated me with some really  good pain medication.  True, I also awakened with a catheter installed (which turned out not to be as pleasant a thing as I had been led to believe).  But after the catheter came out in a couple of weeks, it was time to get to work on the side effects of the operation.

The first of these was that my bladder leaked like a sieve and I had to wear an adult diaper.  "Without a prostate you will have to learn to hold your bladder like a woman" said the urologist.  "But most women manage it and you will learn how to also."  And he was right.

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Ignatius: Reform in Continuity

It is well known that during his convalescence, Ignatius of Loyola read the Life of Christ and this reading prompted his radical turning to the Lord. The author of the book that so influenced Ignatius was Ludolph of Saxony, also known as Ludolph the Carthusian, though he had been a Dominican Master of Theology before entering the Carthusians.

The fine "General Introduction" to the Paulist Press volume, Ignatius of Loyola, says of Ludolph:

Ludolph wanted his readers to have a warm piety firmly based on sound doctrine, and he hoped to lead them toward salvation and rich spiritual development. In all this he exerted a deep formative influence on Ignatius' mentality by orienting him in the same direction.

Ludolph gives directives for reading the life of Christ meditatively and prayerfully. This was the procedure used by Ignatius in his readings at Loyola, and it was to reappear in his Exercises, but totally reworded and fitted to his own purposes.

The "Introduction" then quotes from the beginning of Ludolph's Life of Christ a passage that reflects Ignatius' own procedure in the Spiritual Exercises. Rudolph addresses his readers and exhorts them:

If you want to draw fruit from these sayings and deeds of Christ, you should put aside all other preoccupations; and then, with the affection of your heart, slowly, diligently, and with relish, make yourself present to what the Lord Jesus has said and done, and to what is being narrated, just as if you were actually there, and heard him with your own ears, and saw him with your own eyes.

For all these matters are exceedingly sweet to one who ponders them with desire, and far more so to one who savors them. Although many of these facts are recounted as having taken place in the past, you nevertheless should meditate upon them as if they were taking place now, in the present.

The "Introduction" states that Ludolph concludes each chapter of his book with a prayer which serves as climax of the meditation, "much as Ignatius will later ask his exercitants to conclude their meditations by a 'colloquy' expressed in their own words." As with Rudolph, so with Ignatius (and with us), the prayers are offered "to the praise and glory of God"—ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Is this a new kind of ‘religious novel’?

Christopher Beha’s novel Arts & Entertainments can be read in a single evening; Rebecca Mead says so in her cover blurb, and I can attest to it. Not that that should be among the criteria for a recommendation, but it does say something about the style of prose and pace of the plotting—“breezy and breakneck,” maybe, if more cover-ready copy is ever needed. But is it also a religious book? The blurbs offer no clues to that.

Little surprise, given the likely intended audience, whose ranks would probably include the kind of people who inhabit its pages: thirtyish New Yorkers in and at the fringes of the creative class. Like the novel’s art gallery employee with a secret fondness for the religious works of the Renaissance says: “I can’t even tell people I believe in God. They find it ridiculous.” Arts & Entertainments may not be about belief: Beha’s main subjects are celebrity obsession and the insidiousness of reality television, the narrative kicked into action by the sale of a sex tape. But belief is in its pages, even if sometimes tough to square with the occasionally unlikely turns of the plot.

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Confessions of a Christian Zionist

In the Spirit of the day [Pentacost], here is a fascinating and unusual account of religious conversion and insight. 

From the Jewish Daily Forward