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dotCommonweal Blog

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

An interview with Cardinal Kasper.

Cardinal Kasper (CNS/Paul Haring)Last week Matthew Boudway and I spoke with Cardinal Walter Kasper here in New York. We covered a lot of ground over the course of an hour. Naturally, some territory was left unexplored, but here's a sample of our conversation, which we just posted to the homepage.

Commonweal: In your book Mercy, you argue that mercy is basic to God’s nature. How is mercy key to understanding God?

Cardinal Walter Kasper: The doctrine on God was arrived at by ontological understanding—God is absolute being and so on, which is not wrong. But the biblical understanding is much deeper and more personal. God’s relation to Moses in the Burning Bush is not “I am,” but “I am with you. I am for you. I am going with you.” In this context, mercy is already very fundamental in the Old Testament. The God of the Old Testament is not an angry God but a merciful God, if you read the Psalms. This ontological understanding of God was so strong that justice became the main attribute of God, not mercy. Thomas Aquinas clearly said that mercy is much more fundamental because God does not answer to the demands of our rules. Mercy is the faithfulness of God to his own being as love. Because God is love. And mercy is the love revealed to us in concrete deeds and words. So mercy becomes not only the central attribute of God, but also the key of Christian existence. Be merciful as God is merciful. We have to imitate God’s mercy.

[...]

CWL: You also note that mercy and justice cannot be finally established here on earth, and that whoever has tried to create heaven on earth has instead created hell on earth. You say that this is true of ecclesiastical perfectionists too—those who conceive of the church as a club for the pure. How dominant is that view among church leadership today?

Kasper: There are those who believe the church is for the pure. They forget that the church is also a church of sinners. We all are sinners. And I am happy that’s true because if it were not then I would not belong to the church. It’s a matter of humility. John Paul II offered his mea culpas—for the teaching office of the church, and also for other behaviors. I have the impression that this is very important for Pope Francis. He does not like the people in the church who are only condemning others.

When it comes to the CDF’s criticisms of some theologians, there was not always due process. That’s evident, and here we must change our measures. This is also a problem when it comes to the question of Communion for divorced and remarried people, which is now under consideration in preparation for the Synod of Bishops this autumn. On the other hand, we have positive signs of mercy within the church. We have the saints, Mother Teresa—there are many Mother Teresas. This is also a reality of the church.

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Kasper & Kaveny at Fordham.

Last night Cathleen Kaveny interviewed Cardinal Walter Kasper at Fordham University in front of a packed house. The cardinal has been making the rounds in New York and Boston, promoting his new book Mercy: The Essence of the Gospel and the Key to Christian Life. It was a fascinating conversation, veering from the abstract (How is mercy the key to understanding God's nature?) to the practical (How merciful must I be when grading students' papers?) and back again. Kaveny asked excellent questions, as did the audience, and Kasper offered fascinating responses, some of which I live-tweeted. After the event, one of my Twitter followers suggested I collect some of my my tweets via Storify. So that's what I'm going to do--or at least try to do. Caveat lector: unless you see quotation marks or I say otherwise, I'm not directly quoting anyone, and it's possible that I misheard some of the Qs & As (and sorry for any typos--autocorrect is against me). I've never Storified before, so bear with me--and let me know whether this is remotely useful--after the jump.

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Losing my religion? I blame the Internet!

This is kind of an old story in online time, dating all the way back to last week, on a study that links declining interest and participation in religion to the rise of the Internet. Of course, there's been handwringing over the weakening of interest in religion almost as long as there's been organized religion, something Elizabeth Drescher tidily sums up (again) at Religion Dispatches: from the piper on the English green to colonialism in the New World to Industrial-age indifference to--according to "research" from 2010--Facebook, there's always something steering people away from church. And she doesn't even mention radio, TV, professional football, or kids' soccer games. 
 
Never mind whether any of these have been definitively linked to "the problem" anyway; like video games and gun violence or vaccines and autism, blaming the Internet for [insert name of ailment here] has that easy intuitive appeal that comes with any simple, single-cause explanation for something that had seemed too complex or concerning to consider more deeply.
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Praying with the Psalms, Part II

The first thing that struck me in reading André Chouraqui’s essay on the psalms (see Praying with the Psalms Part I) was his passionate and lyrical affirmation of a kind of mystical reality that speaks both to Israel and to the whole of humanity through the psalms. Here is how he describes it:

In this book the world has come to know and recognize itself. Just as it narrates the history of us all, it becomes the book of all, the untiring and penetrating ambassador of the word of God to all peoples here on earth. …

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The Law of Christ

The twelfth century Cistercian reform movement was characterized by both mystical sensibility and practical wisdom. Among its lesser known figures (but one deserving to be better known) is the abbot, Isaac of Stella.

Today's "Office of Readings" offers an example of the concrete teaching he gave to his community:

  This is what the law of Christ is like, the Christ who bore our griefs in his passion and carried our sorrows in his compassion for us, loving those whom he carried and carrying those whom he loved. On the other hand, whoever turns on his brother in the brother’s time of need, who exploits his weakness, whatever that weakness may be – without doubt he has subjected himself to the law of Satan and is carrying it out. Let us have compassion for each other and love the brotherhood we share, bear each other’s weaknesses and fight against each other’s vices.
 
  Whatever religious practice or observance it leads to, any teaching or discipline that fosters a stronger love of God and, through God, of our neighbours, is most acceptable to God for that reason. This love is the reason why things should be or not be, why they should remain the same or be changed. This love should be the reason why things are and the end to which all things are directed. For nothing can be considered wrong that is truly directed towards and according to that love.
A fine presentation of the great Cistercian writers, including Isaac, can be found in volume two of Bernard McGinn's monumental, The Presence of God: A History of Western Mysticism.

Wait, I thought that was a Muslim thing?!

A Christian husband and wife, both wearing traditional Jordanian head scarves, after a Mass celebrated by the Latin Patriarch near the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.

On a bright, sunny morning in central Jerusalem, two friends and I approached a domed house of worship. A sign outside the door asked us to remove our shoes, so we slipped off our sandals and walked inside, where elaborate carpets covered the floors. A woman wearing a long floral skirt and a sweeping white headscarf bowed and prostrated in prayer, her forehead and lips touching the ground. These images and practices were ones I was used to encountering in Muslim communities, both in the United States and the Middle East. If it weren’t for the icons and crucifixes on the walls, I would have thought I was visiting a mosque. 

But this place was an Ethiopian Orthodox church, a Christian sanctuary. Many of its features—a shrouded altar for consecration, images of Mary and St. George, and twisting crosses that reminded me of Celtic ones—gave away its Christian affiliation. But other qualities, like the practices and attire of those who prayed there, to me were reminiscent of Islam. 

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