A Spirituality for Climate Change Activists: Al Fritsch’s New Book, “Resonance”

Al Fritsch

Climate chaos activists and theoreticians are missing the boat, because they overlook their problem’s profound spiritual dimensions. The omission is not trivial, because at heart climate change represents the most pressing spiritual problem of both our age and, no doubt, in the history of the world.

This is the basic thesis of Resonance: Promoting Harmony when Confronting Climate Change.  by Rev. Al Fritsch.

The book points out that indeed many are familiar with the scientific dimensions of climate change. The science has been trumpeted for years by virtually the entire community of climate scholars. Similarly, the problem’s moral dimensions should also be evident in a world where giant corporations make billions by producing planet-destroying fossil fuels while at the same time sponsoring well-funded campaigns to deny that human-caused climate chaos even exists.

Nevertheless, the spiritual dimensions of climate chaos remain soft-pedaled – including by climate change activists. This is true even within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church, despite the brave efforts of its own Pope Francis who tried to underline connections between faith and climate change more than two years ago, with the publication of his monumental eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’.

In making such observations, Father Fritsch knows what he’s talking about. Like Pope Francis, he is a scientist himself. Dr. Fritsch owns a PhD in chemistry. He is also a life-long activist – a colleague of Ralph Nader in the founding of Washington D.C.’s Center for Science in the Public Interest. Later on, in his native Kentucky, Fritsch extended his D.C. work to the foundation and direction of Appalachian Science in the Public Interest and most recently of Earth Healing, Inc. (For years, my family and I have benefitted from the daily, down-to-earth practical recommendations Fr. Fritsch’s organizations have publicized in their Appalachia Simple Lifestyle Calendar.)

Most importantly, however, Al Fritsch is a Jesuit priest. His Ignatian spirituality has made him a mystic whose faith in the underlying unity of all creation finds evidence on every page of his inspiring book. Mystics, of course, are convinced that (1) there is a spark of the divine in every human being, (2) that spark can be realized – i.e. made real by expression in daily action, (3) it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) every great religious tradition embodies means and methods to facilitate such activation (e.g. meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, repetition of mantras, training the sense, slowing down, one-pointed attention, putting the needs of others first, and practicing community with similarly committed others), and (5) once the realization of the divine spark within dawns, the realizer finds that same presence in every other human being and in all of creation.

Even the most casual reader of Fr. Fritsch’s masterpiece cannot avoid perceiving his internalization of such convictions. In fact, they are all embodied in the very title of his book.

“Resonance” is about the harmony present in everything that exists – a synchronizing force caused by a shared divine presence in micro-organisms, plants, animals, human beings, the earth itself, our galaxy and the entire universe.

In the first part of his book, Fr. Fritsch displays his grasp of the scientific and social dimensions of creation’s universal harmony. There resonance is evident, he argues, not only at the physical levels of time and space, but below them in creation’s chemical and biological dimensions.

Socially, such harmony is also found in human communication, and in artistic creations, especially in music. Resonance then reaches its human apex in love, compassion, and in the type of human collaboration that enhances civilization. Entire chapters are devoted to each of these topics making Resonance a kind of reference work that can be delved into where interest and personal or research needs demand.

However, it is the second part of Resonance that makes its most important contribution. For it specifically addresses the spiritual dimension whose omission, Fritsch argues, deprives climate change activists of the enthusiasm necessary for continued hope-filled struggle in the face of odds stacked against their efforts by the previously noted forces of corporate greed and deception.

“Enthusiasm,” Fr. Fritsch reminds us, is related to his essentially mystical outlook. Etymologically, the word means “in God.” It refers to the energy derived from awareness that (as St. Paul puts it) we all live and move and have our being in a profoundly divine reality (ACTS 17:28). Without that awareness enhanced by daily prayer and meditation and frequent communal celebration of life (e.g. in the Eucharist) weariness, despair, and burnout easily replace the energetic action necessary for the long-haul struggle required of those aspiring to effectively defend the earth.

Accordingly, chapters in the second half of Resonance address specifically mystical resonance as exemplified in Jesus the Christ. For many, Christ’s Spirit, Fr. Fritsch emphasizes, promises to awaken that earlier-referenced consciousness of the divinity resident at the heart of everything that exists. That consciousness in turn awakens compassion for the suffering earth and its vulnerable and wounded inhabitants.

But Fr. Fritsch’s call to spiritual awakening is by no means confined to those sharing the Christian faith or any faith at all. With homage to Karl Rahner, the author recognizes “Anonymous Christians” who can recognize the harmony of creation exposed in Part One of Resonance. Despite their lack of formal faith, they too need the spiritual centering of meditation practice that need not be Christ-centered or religious. To repeat: without such grounding, they run the risk of despair and burnout.

Resonance is a welcome complement to Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’. Activists, teachers, and discussion groups will find it an inspiration and source of practical energy fueling their efforts to save the planet for their grandchildren and generations to come.

“American History X,” Charlottesville, and President Trump: Mystical Consciousness Alone Can Save Us

American History X

Keeping in mind the controversy around the recent white supremacist rally and violence in Charlottesville VA, you might want to watch American History X again. Some probably remember it well, even though it premiered back in 1998 – nearly 20 years ago.

However, the events in Charlottesville make the film more contextually relevant than ever. That’s because it depicts the inner dynamics of white racist gangs, and the psychology of its leaders and members. Even more importantly, it expresses exquisitely the fascist mind-set of current “leaders” in Washington including most prominently the president of the United States. Concurrently, it calls us all to a mystical conversion as our only salvation from encroaching Nazism.

Recall the narrative. Like the Charlottesville backstory, the plot of American History X centers around white supremacists afraid that they’re losing control of their neighborhood and what they consider their country.

Derek Vineyard (Edward Norton) is the main character. Derek’s a Nazi white supremacist whose father, a Los Angeles firefighter, is killed in the line of duty. Crucially for Derek, his father’s killers were members of an African-American drug gang.

That personal tragedy leads Derek even further into the depths of white supremacy. As the leader of a skinhead gang, he uses his extraordinary leadership charisma and street eloquence to become its legendary head and inspiration.

Here’s a speech that Derek gives to gang members before they trash a grocery store owned by an Asian immigrant. See if it sounds familiar:

Again, does any of that sound familiar? I think we’ve heard highly similar (though slightly less crude) remarks from our current president. As if we needed it, they remind us of the simplistic world-vision such sentiments presume. It’s the immigrants, not the capitalist economy itself, who are responsible for the job=loss and for Americans’ falling standard of living. Like President Trump, Derek apparently doesn’t understand how globalist trade policies and endless U.S. wars and bombings have destroyed the livelihoods and homes of the immigrants in question. And, of course, there’s no trace of comprehending the shared spiritual identity that precedes nations and borders that are by comparison quite artificial.

The one chiefly influenced by Derek’s example is his younger brother, Danny (Edward Furlong), who idolizes his brother and so becomes roped into the white gang’s culture.

After Derek shoots one and brutally stomps to death another of two black men attempting to steal his truck, he’s sent to prison for three years. There interactions with other white supremacists whose actions reveal their hypocrisy, along with an unlikely friendship with an African-American inmate open Derek’s eyes. He emerges transformed from his prison experience. He rejects his skinhead ideology, formally leaves his gang, and makes it his mission in life to open the eyes of his younger brother who is already well along the path Derek’s own footsteps have marked out.

In other words, the former skinhead moves from a stage of nationalism to something like world (or at least multi-racial) awareness that makes him more understanding and accepting of those he previously despised.

Importantly, the film’s conclusion even hints at the dawning of a salvific mystical consciousness on the part of Danny who narrates the film. Just before the credits roll he quotes an unnamed author saying, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those words show a realization on Danny’s part that only a mystical recollection of a Higher Self (“the better angels of our nature”) will, despite contrary passions, prevent the severance of kinship’s bonds that precede the historical events that divide us one from another. To me, that echoes the dawning of a kind of cosmic-consciousness.

That consciousness alone can save us now (that and perhaps jailing those “leaders” I mentioned, so that they might share Derek Vineyard’s conversion experience). Put otherwise, we neglect our deep bonds of human spirituality at our own peril.

As the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, said about our future  so many years ago, “In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”

Unfortunately, Rahner’s nothingness now constitutes humanity’s very horizon.

So watch American History X again. And see if it makes you think about where we are heading.

On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton

merton5

Last week I received a surprise phone call from a good friend. It was Don Nugent, a University of Kentucky historian who once taught Peggy during her graduate years. Don told me that his “Thomas Merton Group” would be meeting on Sunday. It would be the once-a-year special gathering in Merton’s hermitage. Would we like to come? What a question! What a privilege! Wild horses couldn’t keep us away (although a severe cold did prevent Peggy from accompanying me). In any case, here are the thoughts the visit provoked:

“On Visiting the Hermitage of Thomas Merton”

I entered a saint’s house today,

Thomas Merton’s hermitage

In Gethsemane, Kentucky,

A stark cinder-block hut

With walls unpainted

Stuck incongruously

At the end of a long muddy path

Covered with stones

And fallen brown leaves

In a bleak December woods.

 

The journey to Gethsemane was tedious

But grand –

Two hours along twisting roads

Through Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch

With their stunning landscapes

Of rolling bluegrass hills

And endless farms

Dotted with double-wides

And red brick mansions

With identical Christmas lights

Following the contours of their disparate roofs

And bathtub Madonnas adorning their lawns.

Near the monastery

I passed huge black distilleries

of presaging Spirits —

Makers’ Mark, Four Roses, and Wild Turkey.

 

Merton’s hermitage had a large living room,

A bedroom with a narrow cot

On which (no doubt) the saint dreamed

Of that nurse in Louisville

Who won his heart

And made him human

For the rest of us.

There was a kitchen and bathroom

And a chapel too

With a small square altar

And a wall with the Coptic icons

So dear to that mystic’s soul.

 

We sat in a circle

Twenty of us

In Father Louis’ living room

On folding chairs

Spotted with rust

Between a smoking fire

And the desk where “Louie”

Used to write.

Jacques Maritain once sat with him there,

We were told,

And MLK would’ve as well

Had not the assassin’s bullet

Aborted his planned pilgrimage

To the Great Man’s feet.

 

We listened to Brother Paul

Read his poetry –

A gloss on Matthew’s words,

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

In the winter cold,

Some dozed,

One snored.

But brother Paul was on fire,

His breath’s vapor blending

With the hearth’s smoke.

For the wakeful,

His words lit flames

That made wood fire redundant.

 

All of us are poor

He said.

None of this is ours

Everything is gift.

Prayer knows the Reality

That is always there

But not perceived.

It is coming to realize

What we already sense

But normally do not recognize.

Prayer is a pause

That shifts the atmosphere

Of the soul.

It is encountering a Christ

Who comes in ways hidden,

But not recognized

For a long time.

 

Paul quoted Emily Dickinson

“I’m nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too? . . .

How dreary to be somebody!”

 

Suddenly Paul jumped up.

“It’s time for Vespers,” he said,

And ran off.

The rest of us scurried to follow him

To the monastery chapel.

 

“I used to live like this,”

I thought as I stared at the monks

In stalls opposed across a narrow aisle.

There were perhaps thirty of them

Mostly middle-aged and older

One black, the rest white, balding; some bearded.

“I did this for twenty-years,” I thought.

I wondered how.

All men, dressed identically,

Praying together seven times each day,

Keeping long silences

Punctuating endless hours of chaste study,

Now and then catching glimpses of women

And wondering about them

Before driving those thoughts from our minds.

I’m  glad I failed at that.

 

But Brother Paul was right.

It is all gift.

Trying to be somebody

Is quite dreary

Truly I was born without anything .

So were you.

My goal is

To keep most of it

Till I die.

What’s yours?

The Highest Mystical Truth: We and Our Neighbors Are Identical with God

Readings for 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time: Dt. 6:2-5; Ps. 18:2-4, 47, 57; Heb. 7: 23-28; Mk. 12: 28b-34 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110412.cfm

The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is the Hebrew prayer called the Shema. The prayer was the centerpiece of both morning and evening prayer services for the Jewish community throughout its history. It was taught to children as their bedtime prayer. The dying were encouraged to make it their final words as they shed their bodies to leave this world. In the King James Version the Shema’s beginning exhortation reads:

“The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength: this is the first commandment.”  

Today’s first reading details the origin of the Shema. The legend goes that Moses himself taught the prayer to the Hebrews at Mt. Sinai. It was a thanksgiving prayer for their liberation from slavery in Egypt. Of course, the Exodus was the first experience the ancient Hebrews had of the God they came to know as “Yahweh.” Their response to Yahweh’s signature blessing was to be complete love and commitment.

In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus quotes the Shema in response to the scribe’s question about the greatest of the commandments. What is the greatest commandment the scribe asks? Jesus’ answer:

“The first is, ‘Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

 While many of us might be unfamiliar with the term “Shema,” its concept is certainly familiar enough for us. It’s what many of us learned from our catechism or Sunday school lessons.  The first commandment is to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and with all our strength. The second commandment is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

What’s especially noteworthy in Jesus’ response is his linking of love of God with love of neighbor and love of self. That is, the Shema itself identifies love of God as the greatest of the commandments. It stops there. Jesus’ contribution was to connect love of God with love of neighbor and self, which was not part of the prayer Moses taught in this morning’s Deuteronomy reading.

True enough, Moses had given the command “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” in Leviticus 19:18. But that was not part of the Shema. By connecting the two, Jesus was following the rabbinical practice of “equal category.” That practice had rabbis linking identical phrases from Sacred Scripture and according them moral equivalency.

Here the phrase in question is “You shall love.” It appears both in the Shema and in the Leviticus reference I’ve just made. The bottom line here is that Jesus is placing love of God and love of neighbor on equivalent levels.  For Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor are morally the same. That’s a radical teaching.

But so is the inclusion of “self” in the equation. In fact, the inclusion of “self” is the key to uncovering the meaning of Jesus’ new teaching.  In his response to the scribe, Jesus equates God, neighbor and self. God deserves all our love. Our neighbor is somehow equivalent to God. But so is our very own self.

In this teaching, Jesus reveals his identity as the great Hebrew mystic he was. Mystics, you’ll remember, are those spiritual teachers and practitioners who recognize the presence of God in themselves, in others and in all of creation. In fact, mystics teach that God is our real Self, and what we identify with our names, birthdays, gender, nationalities, and the work that we do are only our “apparent selves” – the way the Great Self has chosen to manifest itself in the world. Our apparent self will die one day and be entirely forgotten in a generation or two. The Great Self will never die; the Great Self is God.

All of this means that God, we and our neighbors are one. In loving God (the Great Self) we love our Self and the Self of our neighbor all at the same time. In hurting our neighbor we not only offend God, but we deeply hurt ourselves. When we kill our neighbor in war or in capital punishment, we are actually committing a form of suicide. This is the highest mystical truth there is. Indeed, the mystics teach, there is nothing else to know in life.

But there’s more. Mark does not want us to miss the point about what the mystic Jesus considered most important in life.  So he has the dialog between Jesus and the scribe continue. After Jesus references the Shema, the scribe says, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself.’ – this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” That is, the scribe specifically places love of God and neighbor far ahead of formal worship.

And Jesus agrees with him. Mark says Jesus admired the wisdom of the scribe’s answer. He says, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”

So what we’re doing here in church is of only secondary importance. So is what we believe about God — doctrines and articles of faith. Those are means to an end. The end, today’s readings remind us is love of God, neighbor and self. All three are one.

Please think about that. (Discussion follows)

Mini-Class on the Historical Jesus: Early Development of the Christian Tradition

(This is the fifth in a series of Monday postings on the historical Jesus. Together the pieces are intended to assist those who wish to “dig deeper” into the scholarly foundations of postmodern faith and to understand the methodology behind the postings on the blog site.)

The modern scripture scholarship we’re exploring here has discovered that there were five stages in the unfolding of the tradition we encounter in the Christian Testament. Understanding these stages is important for grasping the difference between the Jesus of history this series is attempting to explain and the Jesus of faith who has come to dominate our understandings of the prophet from Nazareth.

The five stages I’m referring to include (1) the actual life of Jesus, (2) his disciples post-crucifixion “resurrection experience,” (3) the first proclamation of the disciples’ post-resurrection faith (called “kerygma,” a Greek word for proclamation), (4) a long period of oral tradition, and (5) the production of written reflections on the believing community’s experience of Jesus including his response to problems he did not himself encounter during his life. At each of these stages the Jesus of history recedes further from the Jesus of faith.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll devote a column a week to briefly exploring each one of the stages just referenced. This week I’ll  begin with some observations about what we’re able to say about the life of Jesus by applying the criteria for discernment I tried to explain last week. You’ll recall that those criteria were:  (1) Multiple attestation from independent sources, (2)  Dissimilarity from the apparent immediate interests of biblical authors , (3) Semitisms, (4)Content reflecting the circumstances of the early church rather than of Jesus, (5)Vividness of descriptionand (5) Coherence with acts or statements otherwise identified as authentically attributable to Jesus. Additionally, relevant scholarly insights are derived from the modern disciplines of linguistics, archeology, textual criticism, comparative religion, history, psychology, economics, physics, biology, medicine, etc.

Application of these criteria uncovers a Jesus who is:

(1) A teacher of unconventional wisdom: Jesus’ teachings largely deviated from those of the rabbis of his time. In contrast to them, we would say he was extremely liberal in his interpretation of the Jewish tradition and especially of its laws. Law was not a priority for Jesus. In fact we might say he understood himself as fulfilling the Law by breaking laws and teaching others to do so. His priority was a Higher Law which put positive response to human need ahead of legal requirements. Jesus method of teaching such values was parable and story.

(2) A faith healer. Jesus was more than a miracle worker. As scholars point out, miracle workers in the first century of the Common Era were “a dime a dozen.” All “great men” – including emperors and kings – were expected to work miracles and were remembered as doing so. It would have been remarkable had Jesus not been identified as a miracle worker. Instead, Jesus was a faith healer of extraordinary power. His presence and words were able to evoke the healing powers present within all human beings.

(3) A prophetic critic. Jesus was not a priest or a king. He was a prophet. Prophets were social critics. So Jesus addressed the problems of his day including Roman imperialism and the collaboration with that system of exploitation on the part of the religious “leadership” of his day – its priests and kings.

(4) A Jewish mystic. Mystics are spiritual practitioners and teachers who believe that: (a) a spark of the divine resides within each human being; (b) humans can know that divinity and live from that place within them; (c) it is the purpose of life to do so, and (d) once that purpose is realized, the enlightened human perceives the spark of the divine in all of creation and lives accordingly.

(5) A movement founder. Jesus was not a Christian. He was a Jew. His purpose was to reform Judaism. His specific interest was to proclaim a Jubilee Year which included debt forgiveness and land reform on behalf of the poor.  Following his death, Jesus’ Jewish reform movement evolved into a “church” overwhelmingly composed on non-Jews.

Next Week: Step One in the Development of the Christian Tradition: A portrait of the Jesus of History.