On Leaving behind Our Childhood Faith and Becoming Adult Believers.

Borg
Readings for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

Recently, I had a long talk with one of my dearest friends in the world. After reading a book I recommended, he found himself in crisis.

“I don’t know what to believe now,” he lamented. “I have no idea who Jesus was or is.

I could sympathize with my friend. I even felt a little guilty that I had recommended that he read the book in question – Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. In laypersons’ terms, it acquaints readers with the search for the historical Jesus that has been in full swing for more than 100 years.

Borg concludes that the 4th century Council of Nicaea was correct in its assessment that Jesus was a divine person who was fully God and fully human. It just doesn’t say how that’s possible.

Borg’s own explanation is that Jesus was fully human before his resurrection and fully God in the faith of his bereft disciples after the event, whatever its exact nature might have been. That means that the pre-resurrection Jesus was in important respects very like the rest of us. He too shared our spiritual journey and grew (as the Gospel of Luke says) “in age, and wisdom and grace” (LK 2:52).

“Why wasn’t I told any of this before,” my friend complained.

Well, today’s liturgy of the word addresses my friend’s frustration. It highlights the faith quest that all of us share – even with Jesus.

For starters, think about Elijah from I Kings. At first glance, it seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread . . .

And then there are those words attributed to Jesus in the reading from John the Evangelist. There, Jesus claims that he is bread, and we’re supposed to eat his flesh?

It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. We’re told Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But, many of us find it harder and harder to believe even what we’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? It’s easy to understand how faith is threatened rather than strengthened by such readings. Spiritually it can be rather discouraging.

But my friend shouldn’t be discouraged by such thoughts. Neither should any of us. On the contrary, they can be seen as signs we’re growing up spiritually. Painful as it is, perhaps it’s time for reassessing our faith.

I mean (if we’re lucky) there comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reevaluated – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So, we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So, Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh. Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However, Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there, God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much subtler and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s evident that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However, by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.

In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism, not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So, Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to recommend the book I urged that friend of mine to read. I’m referring to Marcus Borg’s Meeting Jesus again for the First Time. His The Heart of Christianity is similarly helpful.

Like my friend, you might find them initially disturbing. But they will deepen your faith and help make it more worthy of a mature adult.

“A Course in Miracles” Meets Liberation Theology: A New Series on This Blog

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Introduction

Today I begin a series on the spiritual classic, A Course in Miracles (ACIM). I feel the need to share these thoughts, because the book has exercised such a strong and beneficial influence on my life since, under the tutelage of Marianne Williamson, I began studying it a couple of years ago.

My hope is that these blog entries will acquaint readers with the richness of A Course in Miracles, which Williamson describes as “basically Christian mysticism.” After all, according to the great Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner, such spirituality remains the last best hope for saving Christianity. Rahner, said “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.”

The same might be said for the world in general: either it will attain mystical consciousness of creation’s basic unity, or the world itself will cease to exist. That is, far from being irrelevant, mysticism as understood by all the world’s Great Religions as well as by serious human beings who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious” is the only thing that can save us now.

My hope in writing these pieces is also that the articles to follow might lay the foundation for a book I intend to write. It will connect ACIM with liberation theology, which I consider the most important theological development of the last 1500 years, and the most significant social movement since the publication of The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

The connection, I believe, is necessary, since without it, the Christian mysticism presented in A Course in Miracles – despite Marianne Williamson’s brave efforts – runs the risk of skimming over the most pressing socio-economic problems facing our contemporary world. I’m referring to the so-called war on terrorism, the threat of nuclear war, and the omnicide represented by human-induced climate chaos. I want this series to centralize those problems directly in the light of liberation theology’s historical Jesus.

Put otherwise, what I will recommend here is an engaged mysticism based on the magnificent insights of ACIM. But I intend to link them directly to the even more magnificent teachings and practices of Christian mysticism’s inspiration, Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth as understood by those he addressed historically during his brief life on earth – his poor and oppressed neighbors in imperialized Palestine more than 2000 years ago.

Jesus’ neighbors were like their counterparts in today’s Global South – brown and black people, impoverished by colonialism, considered terrorists by their imperial masters, and tricked by religious leaders who lay in bed with the rich and powerful.

It was to these nobodies that Jesus of Nazareth spoke when he announced the program he called the Kingdom of God. He said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free.” (LK 4:18). Notice the people addressed here: the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed and blind.

To repeat: the problem with Christian mysticism even as presented in ACIM is that it too quickly spiritualizes those categories. In doing so, it forgets the actual condition of those listening to Jesus for the first time. They were illiterate peasants seated before one of their own who articulated their fondest hopes.

Those hopes centered not on abstract spiritual enlightenment, but on a homeland free from imperial invaders who raped their mothers, wives, sisters and daughters and who tortured and crucified their insurgent fathers, husbands, sons and brothers. That was Jesus’ audience. And when his words are interpreted with them in mind, they take on a meaning that is revolutionary in every sense. They turn everything upside-down.

The same is true of A Course in Miracles. When its words are interpreted with the historical Jesus and his Jewish audience in mind, they take on a revolutionary meaning that inverts the world’s “truth” that (the course reminds us) stands 180 degrees opposite the truth of God. For starters, consider what that means relative to the practice of Jesus:

• The religious world tells us that God is neutral and loves everyone the same. The Judeo-Christian tradition itself along with God’s choice to incarnate as a poor person, and the programmatic words of Jesus quoted above, all express God’s “preferential option for the poor.” The poor and oppressed are God’s chosen people. They are special in God’s eyes.
• The world says that capitalism and private property represent the height of human economic development. In contrast, Jesus appearing in the Jewish prophetic tradition, held that the earth belongs to everyone. Private property as understood by capital’s apologists is a distortion of God’s plan.
• Similarly, the world maintains that market mechanisms of supply and demand will solve every problem. Jesus, on the other hand, proclaimed a Jubilee Year. As explained in the Bible, its intention was to reverse market distortions by having property lost to creditors and bankers revert back to its original (poor) owners. That was Good News for landless farmers.
• The world claims that the poor are guilty and deserve their lot in life. Jesus’ incarnation as a poor person directly contradicts such conviction. As noted above, the incarnation itself says the poor are God’s special people.
• The world lionizes the history of emperors, kings, generals, popes and bankers. Jesus had harsh words for all such oppressors. The historical memory guiding his life was that of a God whose first revelatory act in history was the liberation of slaves from bondage in Egypt.
• The world claims the right to use violence (even nuclear) against the insurgents it deems “terrorists.” Meanwhile, Jesus himself showed sympathy towards those Rome considered terrorists. In fact, he himself was executed as a terrorist by the Romans. He incorporated into his inner circle at least one Zealot insurrectionist and advocated a social program that paralleled in many ways (such as land reform) the program of the Zealot Party.
• The world (at least in the Global North) interprets religion as a mind-centered collection of beliefs compatible with nationalism and war. Jesus transcended all of that. He was a genuine mystic who crossed boundaries in the name of universal divine love and human brotherhood.

My hope is that this series will highlight contradictions like those and will embody the intersection between two splendid revolutionary sources – A Course in Miracles on the one hand, and liberation theology on the other.

So, let me get on with my project. In my next posting, I’ll begin by sharing my remarkable encounter with Marianne Williamson. Then I’ll move on to explanations of A Course in Miracles as explained by Marianne and to liberation theology as understood in the Global South. All of that will prepare for entries that will connect specific parts of ACIM with Jesus the Christ.

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

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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.