Golfing for Enlightenment: An autobiographical review of Chopra’s book (in three parts)

It’s summertime. And although it may seem out of character to many of my friends – and somehow misplaced in these pages – I must confess I am a golfer. My son, Brendan, gave me a new set of sticks (Adams “Speedline Fast 10”) for Christmas. I love the clubs, and have been breaking them in all summer. So golfing is on my mind.

Let me begin by correcting that opening line. I said I’m a golfer. To phrase it more accurately, my life has been cursed by golf! Yes, I love the game. The beauty of golf courses truly brings me back to the Garden.  When Tiger’s playing, I feel compelled to monitor his every shot. When he’s “on,” his game reminds me of the near perfection that’s possible in life itself.

And yet, I hate the game too. I wonder about a sport that’s so white, so elitist, that uses so much water, and that’s so chemical-dependent in terms of fertilizers and pesticides. In those respects, it’s like the world in general. As for the game itself, whoever called it “a good walk spoiled” was right. For me its downs are so frustrating; its ups so few by comparison. I guess that’s like life too.

In Golf for Enlightenment: the seven lessons of the game of life, Deepak Chopra agrees. He shows how the two – golf and life – are deeply interrelated and connected with the spirituality that none of us can escape. Reading it caused me to reflect on my own experiences of all three – golf, life, and spirituality.

Let’s begin with golf. . . . I inherited the game. All the men on my father’s side of the family were avid golfers. And when I was in grade school, my dad often took my brother Jim and me to a course near our home on the northwest side of Chicago to introduce us to the game.

That doesn’t mean that I come from the country club set. I don’t. My background was working class. I grew up in the 1940s. My father was a truck driver. His three brothers (he also had four sisters) were brick layers, bar tenders, and construction workers; one was a sometime bookie. But they all started out as caddies at Butterfield Country Club just west of Chicago. And that’s where my father, Ray, and his brothers, John, Leonard, and George learned the game – as caddies.

That’s where I learned the game too. In my early teens, I caddied at Bryn Mawr Country Club in Lincolnwood, just north of Chicago. I was Caddie # 339, when the best caddies would be #1 or #2. Somehow though the caddie master, Jack Malatesta, took a shine to me, and throughout my years at Bryn Mawr, Jack kept calling me “339,” even though he ended up giving me some of the best “loops.”  Later, beginning in high school, I worked on the grounds crew at Arrowhead Country Club in Wheaton, Illinois. I remained there for fifteen years. As I said, golf’s in my veins.

In fact, I’ve been swinging a club since I was seven or eight. And by the time I got to Bryn Mawr, older caddies were telling me that I had one of the best swings they’d seen. That made me feel good. Little did I know such compliments would represent the high point of my golfing life. Problem was, my swing looked great, but it never got me straight shots or low scores.

Let me put it this way:  it wasn’t till my 21st birthday that I broke 100 for the first time! And it’s pretty much stayed like that till about the age of 30 when I walked away from the game.  Its frustrations along with my work and family obligations (not to mention the high cost of playing golf) made me stop.

Next week: How my sons brought me back to the game (of life)

Why I Left the Priesthood (Pt. 5, Conclusion)

A couple of years ago I took part in a wonderful reunion of my Columban brothers in Boston. It was invigorating to see everyone again, to recall “old times,” and especially to spend time with professors like Eamonn O’Doherty who as our scripture professor marked so many of us in positive ways that only God can know. The meeting filled me with hope, and for a split second I thought the Society of St. Columban might actually revive in some form – calling on the tremendous intelligence, good will, training and experience of the world I witnessed in my former colleagues and teachers. Maybe we could re-group, I thought, and give the world the benefit of (despite everything) the good we gained in our training as Columbans, and of what we’ve learned in our long, rich and varied experiences since leaving the Society.

Second thought however made me realize that such considerations are wishful rather than realistic. No, as I remarked earlier, the Society of St. Columban, the priesthood, and the Church in general have painted themselves into a corner. The crises of all three institutions are irreversible. There is simply no way back. Rather than trying to revive any of those moribund institutions, we need instead to envision entirely new forms of faith, church, priesthood and mission. Faith needs to be radically ecumenical in the sense indicated in my posting last week. The church itself needs to be no less radically exorcised of all elements of patriarchy. This means opening the priesthood to women, who in every age, including Jesus’ own, have been and remain the backbone of the believing community. When women become priests, the church will ipso facto (and thankfully) change beyond recognition.      

But above all, mission must be rethought and re-formed. This entails recognizing the “division of labor” shared by the world’s Great Religions. Such recognition acknowledges that the best interpretations of Christianity are pretty good in directing believers towards changing the world. Here is where the insights of liberation theologies need strong affirmation. Meanwhile eastern forms of faith such as Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Sufism have a great deal to teach the world about the interior life and recognizing that divine spark or indwelling I referred to at the beginning of these reflections.

Mission then involves cooperation between persons of faith across the spectrum. It entails a deep dialog about how those with faith in life’s unity might cooperate to address the real problems of the world. These are not sectarian or “religious.” Rather they are about eliminating or diminishing violence, torture and war, hunger in a world of plenty, and environmental destruction. People of faith across the world need to reject the spirit of Dominus Jesus, and get on with the business of saving the planet.

In a word, it’s time to forget the past, as wonderful and painful as it might have been, and get on with building the “other world,” the other Society, the other church and the other priesthood we all know are possible.

Next week: the 100 books most responsible for my spiritual and intellectual formation

Most Christians Hate People like Jesus: 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Ps. 123; Ez. 2:2-5; 2 Cor. 12:7-10; Mk. 6:1-6

Today’s liturgy is about prophecy, and about how difficult it is to be a prophet. Prophets are usually vilified and hated. That was the case with Ezekiel whose vocation story we find in today’s first reading. There he is warned that many will reject what God tells him to say. After all, his message was so shocking and blasphemous. At the beginning of the 6th century B.C.E., Ezekiel said that God’s People had strayed so far from Yahweh that the Babylonians would come and destroy the Temple – the very dwelling place of God. That was like predicting the death of God. In modern terms, it was atheistic.

Jesus of Nazareth was also hated right from the start. Today’s second reading shows that. There Jesus finds himself a “prophet without honor” in his home town and even among his own family members. Nazareth saw him as a hometown boy who (as they say in Kentucky where I come from) had “gotten above his raisin’s.”

Who did he think he was trying to teach them anything? He was that kid whose nose they had wiped growing up. He wasn’t a scholar. In fact, he could barely read. He was just a working stiff carpenter. He was the son of that woman, Mary. Who knows who his father was?  (By the way, identifying Jesus by his mother’s name and not by his father’s was extremely insulting. It indicated that his father was unknown. It was like calling him a bastard or S.O.B.) So Jesus was rejected by his neighbors and relatives in no uncertain terms. It is told that following his first sermon in Nazareth, they actually tried to kill him.  

And it got worse from there. Like Ezekiel, Jesus too predicted the destruction of the Temple – a successor to the one that was rebuilt after the Babylonians did what Ezekiel said they would – level it to the ground. When they heard Jesus’ prophecy about God’s dwelling place, everyone who mattered scorned him – the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, the Temple high priests, the Romans. In their eyes, Jesus had turned against religion. Even his disreputable mother and the brothers and sisters mentioned in today’s Gospel accused Jesus of losing his mind. They thought he had gone absolutely crazy.

As far as the powerful were concerned, Jesus had not only gotten above his raisin’s; he was not merely (in modern terms) atheistic; he was an agent of the devil himself. Jesus was possessed. That was the worst insult anyone in Jesus’ culture could deliver. It would be like calling him a terrorist or Communist today. In fact, the Romans did consider Jesus a terrorist. That’s indicated by the form of execution they used on him. Crucifixion was reserved for insurgents and terrorists. Politically and historically, it speaks volumes to say that Jesus was crucified. (What did he do to make the Romans classify him as they did?)

And yet Jesus was wildly popular among the poor and powerless outside of Nazareth. He was one of them. He looked like them. He was unimposing – probably about 5’10” and weighing about 110 pounds (if we are to believe forensic archeologists). His skin was brown. His hands were calloused. And his message was tailored especially for the poor. His initial sermon in Nazareth began: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” That was Jesus’ program – a message of liberation for the poor.

Jesus’ message then was not about himself. It centralized what he called “the Kingdom of God.” His was a utopian vision of what the world would be like if God were king instead of Caesar. In that realm everything would be turned upside down. The poor would be rich; the rich would be poor; the last would be first, and the first would be last. Prostitutes would enter the kingdom; the religious leaders would trail after them. No wonder Jesus’ message resonated so well among the downtrodden, the poor and sex workers. No wonder, he was feared and vilified by the rich, powerful and respectable.

And no wonder that kind of Jesus is virtually unknown today. The fact is, he continues to be hated even by those who call themselves “Christian.” I mean, we still don’t like scruffy or poor. We don’t like small, brown, working class or barely literate. We don’t like prostitutes. We don’t like utopian. And we don’t believe, as Jesus did, that another world is possible. So if Jesus came among us, we’d probably respond like his hometown crowd. We’d be like Ezekiel’s audience described in our first reading – “rebellious,” “obstinate,” and “stubborn.” We’re not only unreceptive to people like Jesus. We’re positively hostile – ironically in the name of Christianity itself.

Why is that? It’s because Christianity was hijacked way back in the 4th century. At that point and for various reasons too complicated to rehearse now, it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. To achieve that status, the scandalous prophetic faith of Jesus had to be domesticated beginning with Jesus himself. So the champion of the poor was transformed from a counter-cultural outlaw to a “King” – and yes, to a “God” resembling quite closely those war-deities the Romans worshipped like Jupiter and Mithras.

Jesus’ message then became not about God’s Kingdom, not about the “other world” that is possible here and now, but about himself and that familiar “other world” up in the sky to be inherited when we die. Being Christian became about “accepting Jesus as your personal savior,” about being a Good American, and supporting a military whose chief task, by the way, is to keep people like Jesus in their place. That kind of Jesus, that kind of message was acceptable to the Romans and their successors as well as to the equivalents of the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and High Priests. It was acceptable because it was anti-Kingdom as Jesus understood it. Christians don’t like that Kingdom.

Such considerations are not trivial. They are necessary not only for rescuing Christianity from its centuries-long perversions; they are required for saving our very world. I mean Christianity has been turned upside-down and its ship needs to be righted. Ever since the 4th century, Jesus and the church have been used by the forces of conservatism (those who would keep the world as it is) to subdue the weak and support the wars of the powerful against those without public power. It’s happening now before our very eyes.

But who can believe that? We are so brainwashed! Believing that would mean honoring the poor and turning against the rich and against empire. It would mean loving and honoring scruffy, small, poor, brown, working class, utopian, disreputable, illegitimate, and illiterate. It would mean seeing the prostitutes as holier than the pope! In Paul’s terms in today’s second reading, following the Jesus rejected by his townspeople entails finding salvation in what the world rejects as weak and without honor. And which of us can do that in the “most powerful country in the world,” where “pride” is not the leader in the list of Seven Deadly Sins, but an honored boast? “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

No, we just don’t like people like Jesus. Repentance  (for me at least) means reversing all of that. What would such reversal entail? And what does repentance mean for you in the light of today’s readings? (Discussion follows)

SPIRITUAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD (Pt. 4: Why I Left the Priesthood)

Last week I argued that under the last two popes, the church has proven tone-deaf to completely reasonable arguments against mandatory celibacy. As a result, the end of that requirement and its attendant disasters is as far away as ever. Equally distant seems any practical recognition by the official church of the profound spiritual conclusions inescapably drawn from the ecumenical movement and its powerful expressions over the last century and more.

Closer to our own day, read the current Pope Ratzinger’s reactionary Dominus Jesus (DJ) written in 2000 over the signature of John Paul II. It’s a clear reassertion of a pre-Vatican II vision. Discouragingly it identifies the Roman Catholic Church as representing virtually the only path to salvation. It insults Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam with criticisms about their “superstitious” content. Meanwhile, protestant churches are identified as failing to qualify as “church in the proper sense of the word.” Additionally, Dominus Jesus is totally Eurocentric, and overlooks almost completely not only the documents of Vatican II (e.g. on Revelation, Mission, Ecumenism, and the Church in the Modern World), but also theological developments that have taken place in Latin America, Africa and South Asia, where the majority of church members reside.

This is pretty much the point where I came in nearly 50 years ago, when I took my first hesitant steps towards the priesthood and membership in the Missionary Society of St. Columban. But as indicated in earlier posts, I’ve changed a great deal since then. More importantly so have the Columbans themselves, the church in general, the priesthood – and the world. There is no going back. Attempts to do so as articulated in DJ and elsewhere not only cannot work. They signal as well an irreversible crisis of the Roman Catholic Church, of the priesthood, and of groups like the Society of St. Columban. A crisis is “irreversible” when new consciousness has dawned, problems have been reframed, and old answers prove irrelevant. In the case at hand, nothing less than new forms of church, priesthood and understanding of mission are demanded by the signs of these particular times.

And what would those new forms look like? At the most basic level, they would incarnate a theology and spirituality suggested by Vatican II and its emphasis on the normative value of Sacred Scripture. That means recognizing the reality of the Divine Spirit’s universal revelation. That revelation, I’ve come to understand, is quite simple – “beyond belief,” as Elaine Pagels puts it. Here there is no room for exclusivity in terms of 4th century doctrines and dogmas. Instead, understandings of revelation must connect with personal experience founded on a deep spirituality, and nurtured by practices found in all the world’s Great Religions. Those traditions tell us that all creation is one. The world itself embodies and communicates a Revelation open to everyone. We are brothers and sisters with one another and with life forms in the rest of the universe – which means with everything that is. It’s as simple – and as profound – as that.

The simplicity, profundity and mystery of it all have haunted me since my participation in a seminar at the Atheneum Anselmianum, my second year in Rome. The topic in this very international setting had turned to enculturation – making Christian faith understandable across cultural lines. A young priest from India asked a simple question. “How do you make the uniqueness of Jesus understandable to Hindus? They, after all, believe that every human being is a God-person.” That simple question drove me to examine my faith at the deepest level. I wondered: if I were to translate my Christian faith concept for concept into something truly understandable to Indians, would it come out Hinduism? I still don’t know the answer to that question. I know it’s way more complicated than I suggest. However, my musings sent me on a Merton-like quest to understand what the East had to offer in terms of understanding God and spirituality.

Eventually, all of that brought me to a position I’ve (re?)discovered over the last fifteen years. It’s centralized the practice of daily meditation, but in a form much simpler than the Ignatian method introduced to young Columbans during our “Spiritual Year,” when we all were about 20 years of age.  Other elements include repetition of the mantram (aspirations), reading from the world’s great mystical traditions, training the senses, slowing down, practicing one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and association with those who are following the same spiritual path. It’s all explained quite simply, for instance, in many books by Eknath Easwaran, but especially in his Meditation. However I’ve been drawn to this path, not on someone else’s recommendation, but because my personal experience has shown its effectiveness in terms of changes in my life and behaviour. Absent that, I’d stop the practices.

I sometimes wish that form of spirituality and spiritual formation had been the foundation of my training for the priesthood. In that case, I might still be a Columban, simply because such practice would have resulted in a radically different form of priesthood. Instead, the spiritual direction I experienced in the seminary and especially after ordination was as heteronomos as the (non)instruction offered us about celibacy. For the most part, both were formal, uninvolved and lacking in real insight for young aspirants desiring to lead genuinely spiritual lives. By no means was this the fault of the good men who tried to guide us. It’s just that the prevailing spirituality, the method of prayer and meditation, the books offered for “spiritual reading” and the spiritual practices we followed were all grossly tainted by dogmatism, formality and legalism.

Those are the very characteristics that eventually drove so many of us away from our supposed priestly calling.

Next week: Series Conclusion

Jesus Was a Radical Feminist: 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sunday’s Readings: Wisdom 1:13-16, 2:23-24; Ps. 30:2, 4-6, 11-13; 2Cor. 8:7, 9, 13=16; Mk. 5:21=43

All of us, I know, have been following with great interest the Vatican’s confrontation with U.S. nuns. Officials in Rome are disturbed because the sisters have adopted what the patriarchy considers a “radical feminist agenda.” That agenda includes advocating a priesthood open to women.  It also places service of the poor ahead of issues dear to our male church leadership such as contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage.

Towards resolving the crisis, the Vatican has insisted on placing a major national organization of sisters under the authority of a Rome-appointed bishop. The idea is that this man would determine what is best for the women religious.

Not surprisingly, the nuns find the Vatican’s action unacceptably patriarchal, patronizing and insulting. They also insist that the issues Rome finds objectionable are more in accord with the actual teaching and example of Jesus than the focus the hierarchy prefers. After all, the nuns say, Jesus said a great deal about the poor, but nothing at all about contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, or women priests.

Jesus himself might also be considered a radical feminist, some sisters hold.  They point out that in addressing specifically female issues, he favored women who spoke for themselves and courageously exercised their own initiative. Jesus even praised women who disobeyed laws aimed against them precisely as women. He ended up preferring them to females who were passive captives of the religious patriarchy. We find an example of such radical feminism on the part of Jesus in today’s reading from the Mark’s gospel.

First of all consider Mark’s literary strategy. In today’s reading he creates a “literary sandwich” – a “story within a story.” The device focuses on two kinds of females within the Jewish faith of Jesus’ day. In fact, Mark’s gospel is liberally sprinkled with doublets like the one just described. When they appear, both stories are meant to play off one another and illuminate each other.

In today’s doublet, we find two women. One is just entering puberty at the age of 12; the other has had a menstrual problem for the entire life span of the adolescent girl. (Today we’d call her condition a kind of menorrhagia.) So to begin with the number 12 is centralized. It’s a literary “marker” suggesting that the narrative has something to do with the twelve tribes of Israel – and in the early church, with the apostolic leadership of “the twelve.” The connection with Israel is confirmed by the fact that the 12 year old in the story is the daughter of a synagogue official. As a man in a patriarchal culture, he can approach Jesus directly and speak for his daughter.

The other woman in the doublet has no man to speak for her; she has to approach Jesus covertly and on her own. She comes from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum from the 12 year old daughter of the synagogue leader. The older woman is without honor. She is poor and penniless. Her menstrual problem has rendered her sterile, and so she’s considered technically dead by her faith community. Her condition has also excluded her from the synagogue. In the eyes of community leaders like Jairus, the petitioning father in the story, she is “unclean.” (Remember that according to Jewish law, all women were considered unclean during their monthly period. So the woman in today’s drama is exceedingly unclean. She and all menstruating women were not to be touched.)  

All of that means that Jairus as a synagogue leader is in effect the oppressor of the second woman. On top of that the older woman in the story has been humiliated and exploited by the male medical profession which has been ineffective in addressing her condition. In other words, the second woman is the victim of a misogynist religious system which, by the way, saw the blood of animals as valuable and pleasing in God’s eyes, but the blood of women as repulsively unclean.

Nonetheless, it is the bleeding woman who turns out to be the hero of the story. Her faith is so strong that she believes a mere touch of Jesus’ garment will suffice to restore her to life, and that her action won’t even be noticed. So she reaches out and touches the Master. Doing so was extremely bold and highly disobedient to Jewish law, since her touch would have rendered Jesus himself unclean. She refuses to believe that.

So instead of being made unclean by the woman’s touch, Jesus’ being responds by exuding healing power, apparently without his even being aware. The woman is cured. Jesus asks “Who touched me?” The disciples object, “What do you mean? Everybody’s touching you,” they say.

Finally, the unclean woman is identified. Jesus praises her faith and (significantly!) calls her “daughter.” So what we end up finding in this literary doublet are two Jewish “daughters” – yet another point of comparison.

While Jesus is attending to the bleeding woman, the first daughter in the story apparently dies. Jesus insists on seeing her anyhow. When he observes that she is merely asleep, the bystanders laugh him to scorn. But Jesus is right. When he speaks to her in Aramaic, the girl awakens and is hungry. Everyone is astonished, and Jesus has to remind them to feed her.

What does all the comparison mean? The doublet represented in today’s Gospel addresses issues that couldn’t be more female – more feminist. The message here is that bold and active women unafraid of disobeying the religious patriarchy will save the faith community from death. “Believe and act like the bleeding woman” is the message of today’s Gospel. “Otherwise the community of faith will be for all practical purposes dead.”   

Could this possibly mean that we should imitate the women religious who evidently represent such a threat to the Vatican today? Could today’s gospel be telling us that their bold specifically feminist faith that sides with the poor and oppressed (like the hero of today’s Gospel) will be the salvation of the church which is otherwise moribund? Are they today’s real faith leaders, rather than the elderly, white, out-of-touch men who overwhelmingly claim to lead the church?

Consider some patriarchal history related to today’s Gospel reading. Does it suggest déjà vu?

As late as the 13th century Christian theologians were warning people that it was a mortal sin to have relations with a menstruating woman because sickly or possessed children would result from them. A hotly debated theological theme during the middle ages was whether a woman during menstruation (also called her “periodic pollution” or her “monthly venting”) could receive communion during mass or not. Even worse, the blood of a woman giving birth was considered to be more noxious that the menstrual blood. The Synod of Treves in the year 1227 established that after childbirth women needed to be “reconciled” with the Church – a disposition which combined the Jewish laws of ritual purification with Christian theologians’ rejection of the pleasure that is implicit in every sexual relation. In many cases of that epoch the religious hierarchy determined that women who died in childbirth could not be buried in Christian cemeteries because they had not been “reconciled.”

Such recollections do not inspire confidence in patriarchs making pronouncements on women’s issues. I mention them here only because they show those male “leaders” pontificating quite confidently about women’s biological processes, about the effect of sexual intercourse on fetuses, about God’s attitude towards women during menstruation, and about women’s “pollution” following sexual intercourse and childbirth. And in hindsight all of it turns out to be pure nonsense!  In summary, it reveals that male church leaders never have really understood female sexuality – or sex for that matter. Obviously, pronouncements like those just mentioned (however confident and supported by scripture) have nothing to do with “revelation.” Is it any different – can it be any different – in our own era? 

Today’s Gospel then suggests that it’s time for men to stop telling women how to be women – to stop pronouncing on issues of female sexuality whether it be menstruation, abortion, contraception, same-sex attractions, or whether women are called by God to the priesthood . Correspondingly, it’s time for women to disobey such male pronouncements, and to exercise leadership in accord with their common sense – in accord with women’s ways of knowing. Only that will save our religious community which is currently sick unto death.

All of us can imagine how such suggestions apply to the controversy between the Vatican and U.S. nuns. Let’s discuss that now. (Discussion follows).

PERSONAL STEPS AWAY FROM THE PRIESTHOOD: Why I Left the Priesthood (Pt. 3)

 Besides alienation of youth, another “sign of the times” of the late sixties and early seventies was the sexual revolution. Here too the church had lost a great deal of credibility in its refusal, especially at the conciliar level, to discuss clerical celibacy. Charles Davis helped me realize this with his A Question of Conscience justifying his own exit from the priesthood to marry.

The situation deteriorated following the publication of Humanae Vitae in 1968. Many of us wondered how Paul VI could simply reiterate the church’s traditional position on birth control in the face of statistics showing that something like the sensus fidelium had long since decided the question in the opposite direction. Sensus fidelium it should be remembered refers to a widespread harmony of belief and/or practice among Christians; such accord is considered infallible even according to official church teaching.

In any case, polling consistently showed that Catholic couples were practicing artificial birth control according to the same percentages as their non-Catholic counterparts. Was Humanae Vitae just another case of celibate, out-of-touch old men legislating behaviour in a field about which they knew virtually nothing? The answer seemed obvious even in 1968.

As far as I could see, something like the sensus fidelium had also kicked in among priests regarding clerical celibacy. The phenomena were showing that many of them had concluded that if the church were not going to remand legislation exacting clerical celibacy, they would decide the matter for themselves. This, of course, had long been the rumoured situation in Africa and Latin America.

From 1967-1972, while I was in Rome, the situation moved beyond the rumour stage to one of overt practice within the clerical sub-culture there. Dating and other more developed relationships between priests and women friends became common. “Dispensations” in the form of brotherly pastoral advice from priestly peers condoning the morality of it all were also normal. Failing that, approval took the form of wink and nod.

Despite such unofficial permission, the internal tension resulting from the contradictions evident in such relationships proved too much for so many. One by one they (we) left the priesthood, eventually to marry. I recall discussing all of this with Cardinal Wright of Pittsburgh in the Vatican itself, and his getting red in the face exclaiming, “And don’t tell me that the best priests are leaving!” Despite the cardinal’s visage and raised voice, my personal observation and common sense told me he was wrong.

All of this represented chickens coming home to roost. The training we had received in the seminary was truly inadequate regarding the integration of sexuality with our chosen vocation. How could it have been otherwise? Celibacy, I’ve come to understand, is a gift that “happens” to some as their spiritual lives develop. As this occurs, some evidently become so attuned to the unity of all creation and to their own undifferentiated oneness with the Source of Life that they experience little need for intimate sexual expression. Their lives are so consumed with service of others in a community that far transcends couples and families.  

However, the church and seminary training had gotten all of that backwards. Instead of nurturing a truly spiritual life and allowing the charism of celibacy to emerge naturally for those called, the church imposed celibacy on uncomprehending young men, and then asked them to develop a spirituality that would support that heavy burden. It did not work. It could not.

That was true especially for youths with my own background. I had entered the seminary at 14 years of age. My overwhelming desire at that point was to become a priest. Nothing else mattered to me. Celibacy was a sine qua non condition for realizing my dream. I remember as a high school freshman hearing our rector, Dan Boland, explaining that “You can’t carry a chalice in one hand, and push a baby carriage with the other.” At that point in my life, Father Boland’s words made sense.

However, the result of all this was a terribly distorted attitude towards sex. Everything connected with it seemed mortally sinful — thoughts, words, deeds in that field could send you to hell. I recall going through three periods of “scrupulosity” before I was twenty-five. And all of them revolved around sex. Scrupulosity is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder that has its subjects worrying themselves sick about sin and going to hell. Seminary spiritual directors unwittingly cultivated this disorder in young seminarians by explaining elaborate methods for determining whether one had “given consent” to “impure” thoughts or feelings. I remember those periods of scrupulosity and their attendant sessions in the confessional as truly hellish.  

In accord with all of this, I had no real relationships with girls or women before ordination. I was not allowed to have thoughts of them, much less any friendly interaction. Once at the age of fifteen or so, when I had remarked to my own sister in a “happy birthday” letter that a picture of herself she had sent me was “pretty,” the seminary dean called me to his office to admonish that such remarks were inappropriate. I apologized, said the equivalent of “What was I thinking?” and continued to suppress a dimension of life absolutely central to personal development.

Such suppression was to exact its inevitable retribution later on in the form of immature expressions of developmental stages in a 30 and 40 year old that should have been left behind in my early twenties. For instance, once outside the seminary walls and in Rome more or less on my own, I remember being truly astonished by the beauty of Italian women.

Again, the insanity of all of this came home to me in some vague form just before ordination to the diaconate. I went to my spiritual director for advice. I had been reading about “reluctant celibates” somewhere or other, and came to the conclusion that I was one. My spiritual director advised me that I was merely experiencing pre-ordination jitters. Anyway, he seemed to agree with me, all of this was going to change soon; the days of mandatory celibacy were strictly limited.

Just nine years later, I found myself confessing to that same spiritual mentor (whom I still admire greatly) that I was indeed a reluctant celibate, and had decided to leave the priesthood.

Revocation of mandatory clerical celibacy seemed then, and seems today as far away as ever.

 Next week: Spiritual Steps away from the Priesthood

Faith Is a Subversive Activity: Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Sunday’s Readings:  Is. 49: 1-6; Ps. 138: 1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15; Acts 13:22-26; Lk. 1:57-66, 80

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. The liturgy this morning focuses on vocation, prophecy, and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist, Jesus’ own cousin. This is an important day because John’s ministry highlights faith as a subversive activity. His birthday calls us to adopt such faith in the midst of pedophile scandals, devaluation of women, official support of right-wing politics, and absence of visionary leadership on the part of those who hold the highest ecclesiastical offices.  

To grasp what I mean, begin by considering the Christianity we’ve inherited and its view of Jesus in relation to John the Baptist. Like most matters of faith, we have it backwards. Our understanding begins with Pope Benedict XVI and then runs to the Second Vatican Council, the Council of Trent, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, Paul, and ends with Jesus. That line gives us a church-centered Jesus concerned with esoteric doctrines and above all with the sexual preoccupation that has traditionally afflicted our patriarchal church officials.

 A more biblical approach begins in the other direction. It runs from Adam to Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, John, and finally to Jesus. It knows nothing of what comes after Jesus with all of its distortions, misconceptions, and patriarchal abuses. The Jesus that emerges here is not at all church-centered. He is less “Christian” and more focused on the Jewish tradition which is what Jesus knew. Jesus of course, was a Jew, not Christian at all. That more biblical approach helps us see both John and Jesus as engaged with their world specifically as prophets – as possessors of a subversive charism sorely needed by our world in severe crisis and in a church that finds itself in irreversible decline.

Already in today’s second reading, we see the more domesticated understanding of John emerging in Paul whose letters represent the earliest entries we have in the Christian Testament. Paul’s vision is what most of us are familiar with. For Paul, Jesus was the Son of David. John the Baptist heralded his coming as Messiah. He groveled before Jesus at the River Jordan when Jesus came to be baptized. “I am not worthy to loosen the strap of your sandal,” he says “You should be baptizing me; I shouldn’t be baptizing you.” For Paul, John ends up being purely instrumental for Jesus.

Paul’s view finds elaboration in the four canonical Gospels. There we can get the impression of the prophet as a kind of first century Billy Graham out there in the desert. His concern with Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife makes him sound rigidly moralistic and focused on sex – just the way the Church’s teaching has been all these years.

That’s not the John who emerges if we put him in that biblical context running from Adam through Moses, and the prophets. It’s not the John who discloses himself if we consider his historical context. In that perspective John becomes Jesus’ mentor and even his rival. In a sense, he becomes the founder of a Christian movement that understood faith as synonymous with religious and political subversion.

I mean John was a prophet before anything else – a reformer of Judaism. In today’s Gospel, Luke says John grew up in the desert. And that’s where he later realizes his vocation as a sharp-tongued social critic – the essence of prophetic identity. In the desert John led a flourishing reformist sect. As Luke says, people from all over Palestine came to listen to him. His message wasn’t that of Benedict XVI or Billy Graham. Rather, it was the one Jesus took up after John’s execution by King Herod, the Roman puppet. “Repent, the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  (The Kingdom of God, remember, is what the world would look like if God, not Caesar were king.)

John’s location in the desert wilderness is important for understanding the Jewish revival he was leading there. The desert was the original place of refuge for God’s people when they escaped from their first captivity in Egypt.  It was the spawning place for insurgency movements against the Romans who occupied Palestine in the first century.

Above all, the desert was not Jerusalem. It was not the temple. So Jewish religious authorities were deeply suspicious of John and hostile towards his movement. John was not one of them — not a priest or rabbi. He was an outspoken prophet operating at the margins of society. He was radically free from social obligations and expectations as defined by standard Judaism and by the Roman Empire. Literally, he was an outlaw (one living outside the law). Even his clothing and diet showed that.

Additionally, John’s criticism of Herod was seen as politically subversive.  One of Herod’s great rivals was a king called Aretas of Nabatea. Herod had divorced Aretas’ sister in order to marry the wife of Herod’s brother Philip. The people were outraged, and took that marriage issue as a cause of criticism and rebellion. Their concern was not inspired by some first century anticipation of Victorian “moral” scruples. Herod’s divorce and remarriage showed how much their supposed king had strayed from their own culture and had adopted the Roman oppressors’ ways. 

John sided with the people in their criticism. So Herod saw him as stirring up rebellion. He therefore had John arrested. Eventually, of course, he beheaded the prophet. That’s when Jesus then stepped in and took over John’s reform movement.

Jesus seems to have been completely devoted to John. In all the Gospel traditions he presents himself for baptism at John’s hands. The appearance of inferiority implied in that gesture is unmistakable. So the Gospel authors had to reverse that impression by that groveling I mentioned earlier. This was especially true since even forty years after the Baptist’s beheading, many still thought of him as the Christ. What I’m saying is that “Jesus Christianity” found a rival for itself in “Johannine Christianity”

 But despite their desire to emphasize Jesus’ superiority to John, the Gospel authors find themselves compelled to recall that baptism of Jesus at John’s hands. They also record that Jesus lauded John as the greatest of all the Jewish Testament prophets. Even more significantly, they associate Jesus’ message so closely with that of John the Baptist that Jesus is repeatedly understood both by his enemies and his disciples as John redivivus (come back from the dead). Some even see in Jesus’ final cry on the cross, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacthani!” as a cry to John (himself as Elijah redivivus), “John, John, why have you forsaken me?”     

All of that is to say that John and Jesus are like twins inseparably joined at the hip. And what does that mean for us?

It means that Christianity (Jesus or Johannine) must be prophetic. Remember though what biblical prophets were. They were not fortune tellers concerned with predicting the future. They were social critics with two tasks. The first was to denounce serious departures from the faith of Abraham and Moses. Their second function was to announce a new future – that another way of living out the Jewish faith was possible. That way stood in sharp contrast with the understanding of Judaism embraced by their chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees.  

Being prophetic today suggests that we open our eyes to the similarities between the situations of John and Jesus on the one hand and our own on the other. Both prophets found themselves involved with a faith that had sold out to the Romans, and their puppets (like Herod). It was a faith that identified with keeping arcane rules and social distinctions.

For John and Jesus, that had nothing to do with the faith that had begun in the desert outside of Egypt. In their eyes, it was time to move back to the desert, away from the temple, and reclaim their faith from corrupt “leaders.”

I’m suggesting that our church today has moved as far from the Gospel of Jesus and John as had the high priests and scribes of their day moved from the tradition of Abraham and Moses.

Isn’t it time for us to move back to the origins of the prophetic traditions we celebrate this day – returning in effect to the place where it all began. For John and Jesus that was the desert – away from the temple. For us, it’s home churches and lay-led liturgies like those that characterized the primitive Christian community.

In the subversive spirit of John the Baptist, we’ve got to let the corrupt Vatican and our local bishops know that we are no longer following them, no longer supporting them.  There are many ways of doing that.

Can you think of any?  (Discussion follows)