Thursday, 24 April 2014

Dear Karol, thank you!

Jp2 camping s

That I have remained a Catholic as a teenager is in large part thanks to Pope John Paul II, who was elected when I was 4, whose papacy has lead me into my 30s, and who is now only days away from being declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

At a time when the vast majority of sermons I heard in church were confused, banal and/or plain wrong, and the behavior of certain bishops scandalous (some spouting nationalist idiocy, others visiting casinos and boxing fights),1 John Paul II was an unfailing source of razor-sharp reason, profound compassion, universal openness and a discipleship of Jesus worthy of the apostles. While listening to the drivel that passed as a sermon (or even more offensively as a homily), I had recourse not only to reflecting on the Gospel and the preceding readings, but - and crucially for my Catholicity - also on the brilliant words and actions of my Pope.

Thankfully, there were many others too who gave me great hope in the Church - priests, religious and lay people alike - but it was John Paul II who made any thought of doing a runner unthinkable. That Catholicism made sense even in the 20th century and that it involved the whole person - with an alert and questioning mind and with a body made of flesh and bones - was not only theory, but was lived by it’s head on Earth. The Servant of the Servants of God was a philosophy professor of epic intellect, a brother to the world’s population and an avid skier. The ultimate proof points for my teenage self :). This guy certainly put into practice what he preached and what he preached was as satisfying - both intellectually and emotionally - as anything could be. Being a Catholic wasn’t (and isn’t) some compromise, some ovine brainlessness, some flavorless routine, some wager or safety-net. Instead it was (and is!) an invitation to love, closeness, truth and beauty.

To make the above a bit more specific, let me share some of my favorite thoughts by Pope John Paul II (in the order they come to mind):
  1. “God is one, but not alone.”
    (My favorite explanation of the Trinity and of communion as its - and our - inner life.)

  2. “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth.”
    (The foundation of the need for dialogue between faith and reason and the opening line of one of my favorite encyclicals ever - Fides et Ratio.)

  3. “[W]e all hold conscience and obedience to the voice of conscience to be an essential element in the road towards a better and peaceful world. Could it be otherwise, since all men and women in this world have a common nature, a common origin and a common destiny? If there are many and important differences among us, there is also a common ground, whence to operate together in the solution of this dramatic challenge of our age: true peace or catastrophic war?”
    (His words during the conclusion of the 1986 World Day of Prayer for Peace, where he called together representatives of all Christian denominations and other religions for a first-every joint prayer.)

  4. “Every genuine artistic intuition goes beyond what the senses perceive and, reaching beneath reality’s surface, strives to interpret its hidden mystery. The intuition itself springs from the depths of the human soul, where the desire to give meaning to one’s own life is joined by the fleeting vision of beauty and of the mysterious unity of things. All artists experience the unbridgeable gap which lies between the work of their hands, however successful it may be, and the dazzling perfection of the beauty glimpsed in the ardour of the creative moment: what they manage to express in their painting, their sculpting, their creating is no more than a glimmer of the splendour which flared for a moment before the eyes of their spirit. [...] Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.”
    (His letter to artists from 1999 has, in my opinion, been the foundation for more recent improvements in the relationship between the Church and contemporary art, as championed by Cardinal Ravasi.)

  5. “[S]ex expresses an ever-new surpassing of the limit of [one’s] solitude [… and] always implies that in a certain way one takes upon oneself the solitude of the body of the second “I” as one’s own.”
    (Just a snippet, but a beautiful example of his analysis of human anthropology, psychology and sexuality in another exceptional piece of thinking - his “Man and Woman He Created Them,” originally delivered as a series of General Audience catecheses(!).)

  6. “[I]n Joseph, the apparent tension between the active and the contemplative life finds an ideal harmony [... W]e can say that Joseph experienced both love of the truth-that pure contemplative love of the divine Truth which radiated from the humanity of Christ-and the demands of love-that equally pure and selfless love required for his vocation to safeguard and develop the humanity of Jesus.”
    (One of my favorite passages from another masterpiece of an encyclical - Redemptoris Custos - where John Paul II emphasizes Jesus’ humanity by reflecting on the instrumental role St. Joseph played in its development.)

  7. “[W]e cannot fail to recognize the infidelities to the Gospel committed by some of our brethren, especially during the second millennium. Let us ask pardon for the divisions which have occurred among Christians, for the violence some have used in the service of the truth and for the distrustful and hostile attitudes sometimes taken towards the followers of other religions. Let us confess, even more, our responsibilities as Christians for the evils of today. [...] We humbly ask forgiveness for the part which each of us has had in these evils by our own actions, thus helping to disfigure the face of the Church.”
    (A key passage from his powerful apology for the wrongs committed by the Church over past centuries, made during the Jubilee Year 2000)

  8. “The Jewish religion is not ‘extrinsic’ to us, but in a certain way is ‘intrinsic’ to our own religion. [...] With Judaism, therefore, we have a relationship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers, and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers.”
    (A fundamental repositioning of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism, as initiated during Vatican II and then further carried forward by his successors, made during an unprecedented visit to a synagogue in 1986.)
I hope the above at least gives a flavor of why I am such a fan of John Paul II and of how his words have been an inspiration and an encouragement to me. My debt and gratitude to him are immense!



1 I have also met very many holy priests and bishops, both at that time and since, but my teenage years were marked by some of the worst preaching in exegetical, moral, ecclesiological and eschatological terms - to the point where I ended up popping outside during sermons and rejoining the mass once enough time had passed for them to be over. Something I am not proud of, but it had to be done to keep my sanity at the time.

Monday, 21 April 2014

A joy that’s made for sharing

Francis eg

[Guest post: The following is a talk about Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, given by my bestie, Dr. Ján Morovič, at a retreat. Reproduced here with the author’s permission]

Among papal documents, apostolic exhortations serve the purpose of calling to action, and Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium (The joy of the Gospel) does exactly that - it invites us to share with others the joy we have received from putting the Gospel into practice. It also shows us that sharing is a direct consequence of joy, and that such sharing is preceded by God’s presence in the life of every person.

Evangelii Gaudium is in many ways an extraordinary text. First, because of its directness, e.g., when Pope Francis says that “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems” (§184), and when he laments the “unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or [… a] bureaucratic way of dealing with problems.” Second, because of its eclectic imagery, e.g., warning us against becoming “sourpusses” (§85) or suggesting that the Church “is not [like a] sphere […], where every point is equidistant from the centre, and [where] there are no differences between them[ … but instead that it is like a] polyhedron, which reflects the convergence of all its parts, each of which preserves its distinctiveness” (§236). And third, because of the broad variety of topics that Pope Francis covers there:
  • He emphasizes the importance of reaching out to those who live at the peripheries - both in economic and spiritual terms, (§20)
  • he desires a Church that “has been out in the streets” instead of one that is entangled in “obsessions and procedures,” (§49)
  • he speaks out against today’s “throw away culture” and the fiction of “trickle down theories of economic growth” leading to justice and inclusion (§54),
  • he warns against the worldliness of “a purely subjective faith” or of a “self-absorbed […] trust in [one’s] own powers” (§94),
  • he calls for “a more incisive female presence in the Church” (§103),
  • he provides practical tips for giving better sermons (§135),
  • he highlights the need for not only embracing the poor but also for learning from them and being evangelized by them (§198),
  • he talks about the principles of “building a people in peace, justice and fraternity,” (§221)
  • he underlines the importance of dialogue with science, other Christians, other religions and those with no religious beliefs, (§257)
  • and he reflects on the role of Mary, as the “Mother of the living Gospel” (§287).
Pope Francis’ thoughts on each of the above subjects are true gems - full of insight, derived from putting the Gospel into practice and presented with razor-sharp clarity, directness and vivid imagery. Each of them - and others besides - could be taken as a starting point for deeper reflection and be further studied, elaborated and put into practice.

While I found Francis’ words on topics like the economy, dialogue, peace and the poor very enriching, and while these stood out for me when I first read Evangelii Gaudium, I would instead like to focus now on three themes that emerged for me when I re-read the exhortation’s 52 000 words a second time. I have since also seen these popping up in his more recent talks and have also found them when reading the sermons from his time as the archbishop of Buenos Aires.

The three themes are:
  • what Christian joy means and how experiencing it compels us to share it,
  • how such sharing is directed absolutely at every single person - without exception, and
  • how the desire to share the joy of the Gospel leads to the realization that God is already present everywhere, and that it is not only a matter of us bringing his gifts to others but that he has given them gifts for us too.
It is an image of a virtuous cycle of light, radiating from the Trinity and infinitely reflected and amplified in all of creation. I believe, these themes are also the roots of the analyses and recommendations that make up the exhortation’s 100 pages and that they can therefore also serve as keys for later reflecting on them.

The joy of feeling loved

Already in it’s first paragraph, Evangelii Gaudium highlights that joy is a consequence of meeting Jesus, who has a “boundless and unfailing love” for us that “fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter” him. The result is a “joy [that] is constantly born anew” (§1) and that leads to a “personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved” (§6). This in turn leads Pope Francis to extending an invitation “at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter [us]” (§3). Taking up this “most exciting invitation” then leads to the presence of “God with his people in the midst of a celebration overflowing with the joy of salvation” (§4) that Pope Francis let’s the prophet Zephaniah describe for us:
“The Lord, your God is in your midst, a warrior who gives you the victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing, as on a day of festival” (Zephaniah 3:17)
Francis then proceeds to underline the ubiquity of such joy derived from God’s presence among us and of it being right to delight in it:
“This is the joy which we experience daily, amid the little things of life, as a response to the loving invitation of God our Father: “My child, treat yourself well, according to your means… Do not deprive yourself of the day’s enjoyment” (Sirach 14:11, 14). What tender paternal love echoes in these words!” (§4)
Not only is joy a clear theme already for the people of Israel, but it is repeatedly underlined by Jesus too during his time with the apostles:
“The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice. […] His message brings us joy: “I have said these things to you, so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Our Christian joy drinks of the wellspring of his brimming heart.” (§5)
The joy of the Gospel that Francis speaks about is not a naïve escapism, or only a perk of good times. Instead, it must permeate all of a Christian’s life, like it did that of Jesus:
“I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.” (§6)
Francis reminds us that the promise of joy comes from Jesus himself, who said “You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20) and that a lack of trust in it “is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses”,” (§85) it makes our “lives seem like Lent without Easter” (§6).

Personally, Francis’ words have been an examination of conscience for me and I have found his positioning of joy as a benchmark of a genuine relationship with Jesus and those around me a great help. It also reminded me of a chat I had with Hans (the responsible for men focolarini) when I was around 20 years old, who told me - in the context of discerning my vocation - “You will know that you have made the right choice, because you will be happy.” These words have stayed with me since and have proven invaluable in trying to understand God’s will at particularly important moments. In this sense, and well aligned with Francis, joy is not only a reward and an effect, but can also be an indicator.

Thinking about what Francis emphasizes about joy, I am struck not only by its clear logic, but also by its close harmony with the Ideal. Already in the first six paragraphs, which have provided all of the above insights, there is reference to life in the present moment, to the presence of Jesus in the midst, to starting again, to joy flowing from suffering and to the primacy of love.

Joy compels us to share itself with everyone

A rich and deep joy, like the one Francis describes, is something that cannot be contained, something that we can’t keep just for ourselves. It is a joy that compels us to share itself with others. As Francis puts it:
“Thanks solely to this encounter […] with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being. Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? […] What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known?” (§8, 264)
Such a joy-inducing encounter with Jesus cannot be lived alone; it would make us burst if we didn’t share it and pass it on to others.

In the same breath as pointing out the necessity of inviting others to participate in the joy of the Gospel, Francis insists that it is intended for all, without exception. It is not only meant for those whom we like, for fellow Christians, or even for all men and women of good will.
“[I]t is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.” (§23)
And he adds later:
“Wherever the need for the light and the life of the Risen Christ is greatest, [the Church] will want to be there.” (§30)
As an example of such great need, Francis provides an analysis of how making everything disposable in contemporary culture leads not only to a marginalization but even to a total exclusion of some people from society:
“We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (§53)
Francis’ insistence on universality and on the desire of sharing the joy we have received from Jesus is also very much like how Chiara Lubich saw the consequences of unity, as she describes in a letter from 1948:
“The happiness we experience in the unity that you [Jesus] have given us through your death is something we wish to give to all those who pass next to us! We can’t keep it just for ourselves seeing that there are so many who hunger and thirst for this fullness of peace, this infinite joy that we were experiencing!”
But how do we help others develop a relationship with Jesus that then gives them access to His joy? Here, Francis makes several suggestions throughout Evangelii Gaudium. The first is to think about how it was that we grew our own relationship with Jesus and to pass that on to those we meet:
“All of us are called to offer others an explicit witness to the saving love of the Lord, who despite our imperfections offers us his closeness, his word and his strength, and gives meaning to our lives. In your heart you know that it is not the same to live without him; what you have come to realize, what has helped you to live and given you hope, is what you also need to communicate to others. Our falling short of perfection should be no excuse; on the contrary, mission is a constant stimulus not to remain mired in mediocrity but to continue growing.” (§121)
The second piece of advice is to be attentive to unexpected, informal moments that are open to our sharing of Jesus’ joy with others:
“Today, as the Church seeks to experience a profound missionary renewal, there is a kind of preaching which falls to each of us as a daily responsibility. It has to do with bringing the Gospel to the people we meet, whether they be our neighbours or complete strangers. This is the informal preaching which takes place in the middle of a conversation, something along the lines of what a missionary does when visiting a home. Being a disciple means being constantly ready to bring the love of Jesus to others, and this can happen unexpectedly and in any place: on the street, in a city square, during work, on a journey.” (§127)
The third recommendation, or better put, an invitation, is to imitate Jesus’ own method of sharing his Good News, which is that of “closeness.” Let me quote the entire paragraph in which Francis sets this method out, as I consider it to be one of the great jewels in this document:
“Jesus himself is the model of this method of evangelization which brings us to the very heart of his people. How good it is for us to contemplate the closeness which he shows to everyone! If he speaks to someone, he looks into their eyes with deep love and concern: “Jesus, looking upon him, loved him” (Mark 10:21). We see how accessible he is, as he draws near the blind man (cf. Mark 10:46-52) and eats and drinks with sinners (cf. Mark 2:16) without worrying about being thought a glutton and a drunkard himself (cf. Matthew 11:19). We see his sensitivity in allowing a sinful woman to anoint his feet (cf. Luke 7:36-50) and in receiving Nicodemus by night (cf. John 3:1-15). Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is nothing else than the culmination of the way he lived his entire life. Moved by his example, we want to enter fully into the fabric of society, sharing the lives of all, listening to their concerns, helping them materially and spiritually in their needs, rejoicing with those who rejoice, weeping with those who weep; arm in arm with others, we are committed to building a new world. But we do so not from a sense of obligation, not as a burdensome duty, but as the result of a personal decision which brings us joy and gives meaning to our lives.” (§269)
And finally, Francis also provides a particularly lucid synthesis of the basic principles of how to share the Gospel with others:
“All […] have a right to receive the Gospel. Christians have the duty to proclaim the Gospel without excluding anyone. Instead of seeming to impose new obligations, they should appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet.” (§15)
And he concludes by paraphrasing Benedict XVI: “It is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but “by attraction”.”

When I think about my own experience in terms of relationships with others and with God, I clearly recognize the closeness that Francis speaks about and that he identifies as Jesus’ method. Spending a Saturday putting up shelves with one person, driving for hours to pick up some leaflets with another, or sharing a room with someone I have never met before but whose obvious love towards me was the start of a strong friendship, are all specific events, with names and dates, that stick in my mind as moments characterized by closeness. Closeness that attracted me to the other person’s choice of God, that filled me with joy and that built a lasting bond.

Wherever we go, Jesus is already there

Leaving our excursion through Evangelii Gaudium at this point - after having looked at what Francis means by the joy of the Gospel and how he sees it as something that we want to and must share with all - would already be an enriching experience. However, I believe that there is a third strand in Francis’ thought that very much complements the first two and that gives them a new dimension, which is both humbling and empowering. This third dimension is the realization that our efforts to share the joy of the Gospel with others aren’t a matter of us being in possession of Jesus and playing the role of grandees whose generosity provides Him to others. Francis puts it very clearly already in the third paragraph of Evangelii Gaudium:
“The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk [- the risk of being open to an encounter with Him]; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.” (§3)
When I read these words now, they strike me as having great importance, but I have to admit that they only made me stop when I read them a second time, after hearing the talk Francis gave to missionary families from the Neocatechumenal Way, before their setting off for faraway destinations. There he expands on the idea of God always preceding us:
“[W]herever you may go, it would do you well to think that the Spirit of God always gets there ahead of us. The Lord always precedes us! ... Even in the most faraway places, even in the most diverse cultures, God scatters everywhere the seeds of his Word. [… We need to learn] how to recognize the need of the Gospel, which is present everywhere, but also that action that the Holy Spirit has accomplished in the life and in the history of every people.”
These words immediately resonated with the relationships I have with friends from other religions, agnostics and atheist. It seemed to me like Francis put my own experiences in new terms, yet terms that fit them like a glove. Thinking about the close friends I have who are agnostics or atheist, and reflecting on the gifts I have received from them, I can identify features in them that do indicate actions of the Holy Spirit and seeds of the Word.

Armed with this insight from the talk to the Neocatechumenal Way, re-reading Evangelii Gaudium now looked like it was peppered with references to evangelization being a following after Jesus rather than a striking out into the unknown or a bringing of light into total darkness.

In fact, Francis takes this idea even further, by insisting that the gifts God gave others are there also for us to discover and enjoy:
“If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another! It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us.” (§246)
He then proceeds to apply this insight also to the followers of non-Christian and non-Abrahamic religions by saying that:
“God’s working in them tends to produce signs and rites, sacred expressions which in turn bring others to a communitarian experience of journeying towards God. While these lack the meaning and efficacy of the sacraments instituted by Christ, they can be channels which the Holy Spirit raises up in order to liberate non-Christians from […] immanentism or from purely individual religious experiences. The same Spirit everywhere brings forth various forms of practical wisdom which help people to bear suffering and to live in greater peace and harmony. As Christians, we can also benefit from these treasures built up over many centuries, which can help us better to live our own beliefs.” (§254)
In other words, the Holy Spirit guides the followers of other religions too on our collective journey towards God and helps them along the way with gifts that are treasures for us too and that also enrich our own beliefs and lives.

Finally, and more surprisingly, Francis looks for the footsteps of the Holy Spirit not only in other religions, where he follows the clear example of Vatican II, but also in secularized urban environments, where he encourages us to develop a new optics:
“We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares. God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice. This presence must not be contrived but found, uncovered.” (§71)
Reading the above passage made me think, e.g., of Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures from last year, where he spoke about art and where he noted the challenges of an artist’s pursuit of their calling in a world whose default method is “detached irony.” His response was to declare that “perhaps the most shocking tactic that’s left to artists these days is sincerity.” To my mind this is very much aligned with Francis’ words.

I also see the above passage as a concrete plan for how I can better relate to my colleagues and acquaintances in whose lives I see a great deal of good, often sought under challenging family and personal circumstances, but very clearly lived both for individual good and for the good of all. Instead of only feeling a desire to share Jesus’ love with them, I can also be more attentive to recognizing God’s presence in their lives - an aspect that I was already aware of but that Francis’ words have brought out with greater clarity.

In summary, Francis places repeated emphasis on God’s preceding us wherever we go to spread the joy of the Good News. Be it far away lands with cultures very different from our own, or the cities we live in and from whose culture religion is largely absent. In all of these cases the Holy Spirit is at work though, for the good of those, whose lives he enters without their even being aware of it, but also for our own benefit. God’s presence among all who sincerely seek meaning, harmony, peace, beauty and goodness awaits us with open arms and is ready to reciprocate our sharing of the joy of the Gospel.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

God is dead

Jesus tomb obrien

Today the Church remembers that Jesus - fully man and fully God - was dead for over 24 hours - from Friday afternoon until the early hours of Sunday (Sunday, which in the Jewish week starts at sundown on Saturday). Just like Good Friday is an opportunity to remember his suffering and self-sacrifice, and Easter Sunday is a celebration of his resurrection, so today - Holy Saturday - is a day for remembering his death. The death of God.

I have always found the Easter Triduum a very special moment, since it is set up for a contemplation of Jesus’ death and resurrection in real time. The services are timed to coincide with the times recorded in the Gospels, which allows for a meditation on the Easter events at the pace at which they happened. They give a sense of scale.

This morning, when I went to pick up my son from the altar servers’ rehearsal for the evening’s vigil, I arrived early at the church and went straight to the side chapel where the tabernacle is located. As soon as I entered, I was reminded that today was an exceptional day, since the tabernacle, where the Eucharist is usually kept, was open and empty. Like the hospital room of a recently deceased patient. An absence with a very clear and strong message.

As I sat down, I realized that I won’t be spending time in Jesus’ presence and I quickly decided not to pretend otherwise and pray as if everything was normal. The emptiness of the tabernacle had to be taken seriously and responded to sincerely and honestly.

God is dead.

What must it feel like to believe that? To believe that there is no God, that there is no beloved in and beyond everything. Instead of paralysis, my thoughts turned to my close friends who are agnostics or atheists - the pull of transcendence was too strong. To be fully myself, I had to go beyond myself (to paraphrase Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium, §8) even as I tried to stop short of rushing to God. A great conversation with my überbestie JMGR - in the minds of a buzzing conference - then came to mind, when I asked him about whether transcendence meant anything to him as an agnostic (as I was thinking about Kenan Malik’s article). Together we arrived at a definition in the absence of religious belief - that “my transcendence is another’s immanence.” Thinking more about it now, I see that this definition works also for a Christian - only an “other” becomes the “Other.”

As I thought of my atheist or agnostic friends, I felt a particular closeness to them and a joy even as I attempted the impossible - to imagine what it is to be like someone else. This joy of closeness, reminded me of Pope Francis declaring closeness to be Jesus’ own method of spreading his message (EG §269). Feeling pulled to return to a direct conversation with Jesus and away from my trying to contemplate his death, I made another attempt by trying to experience the physicality of the chapel as if it were a Serra. Since it wasn’t, that was a bit of an effort :), but the morning light that filled the simple space and the perspective that the rows of chairs emphasized, nonetheless gave me joy too. The joy of being, of relating, of seeing, of experiencing. Again, I couldn’t help but delight in God’s creation and feel his sustaining presence.

Even though my attempts at imagining the death of God ultimately failed, I was grateful for the opportunity that Holy Saturday gave me. An opportunity to think of my friends, to feel the wonder of being and to have the focus directed to a world where God’s presence is absent, but where there is friendship, goodness and beauty.

Paraphrasing Giles Fraser’s great Guardian article from this morning, I can say that I am about 1/365th atheist. And with that, it’s off to the Easter vigil.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

The BBC’s Rev: Christian or “just” nice?

Rev

One of my favorite TV series of all time is Rev - the BBC comedy about an Anglican priest in a London inner-city parish, with a minuscule congregation of misfits, and facing a barrage of trials both internal and from within and outwith the Anglican Church. The casting and acting are superb, the story lines varied, the contrast between the Rev’s psychology and the supporting cast’s caricatures comedic and the insightfulness of observation razor sharp.

Unlike other religiously-themed comedies, like the legendary Father Ted, Rev is not only about laughs, but very much also about a portrayal of a man’s sincere desire to love God and his fellow men and women. It is a love that falters and falls, but a love that is sincere and persistent.

In one episode we see the Rev go out of his way to be welcoming to a sinner (a sex offender just released from prison) in spite of his entire congregation’s opposition and his own revulsion. In another episode he struggles with his Church’s and his own views on homosexuality while going out of his way to be welcoming of his gay friends. In yet another episode he goes out of his way to work with the local Imam in spite of the humiliation that their financial imbalance brings him.

In fact, the formula of a Rev episode is a going out of one’s way, in pursuit of the excluded, the peripheral, the needy, regardless of the cost to oneself. And throughout these trials and adventures, the Rev converses with Jesus, with whom he pleads, to whom he complains, but in whom he trusts and whom he loves. In many ways, Rev expands on Blessed Mother Teresa’s saying: “God does not require that we be successful, only that we be faithful.”

Why, you may ask yourself, have I gone to the trouble of writing the above, albeit short, review of Rev? The reason is simple - an article in yesterday’s Telegraph, where Rev is denounced as un-Christian by reducing Christianity to being merely “nice” and leaving out “that Christians do nice things not just because they are nice people but because they are commanded to by scripture.” The article’s author then proceeds to list 8 “against”s that Christians need to be, and concludes with the following, peculiar piece of moral theology: “Christians who fail to point out these sins are surely as culpable as the people who commit them.”

However, the most offensive aspect of this article is not so much its twisted view of Christianity, but the following anti-atheist statement: “Nice atheists don’t have to [tell people when they’re going wrong] because there’s no commandment to rescue others from themselves.” This is offensive not only because it suggests that Christians only do what they do because they are commanded to do so - rather than because they (like all men and women!) are made in the image of God and have a deep-seated call to participate in the Trinity’s life of mutual self-giving - but also because it suggests that atheists don’t have a desire to correct wrongs. This is absurd, offensive and factually incorrect. Rather than try to build an extensive case, let me just point to a single counterexample: Albert Camus speaking to Dominicans about what atheists expect of Christians, showing great concern for them and being an exemplary “external” conscience for them.

In an attempt to bolster its credibility, the article also refers to Archbishop Justin Welby, who “disagrees with the show’s depiction of Anglican life because he notes that many churches are growing.” That is quite true - and a point I wholeheartedly agree with. However, it conveniently fails to mention that - in the same piece by the Archbishop - he also says that it is “great viewing.” Furthermore, the former Archbishop of Canterbury - Dr. Rowan Williams says that it tells us “something about the continuing commitment of the church to run-down and challenging areas. It also shows us someone who prays honestly.”

Finally, let me put one more card on the table - Pope Francis’ ever-versatile Evangelii Gaudium, where he has the following to say:
“[A] missionary style is not obsessed with the disjointed transmission of a multitude of doctrines to be insistently imposed. [...] What counts above all else is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6). Works of love directed to one’s neighbour are the most perfect external manifestation of the interior grace of the Spirit: “The foundation of the New Law is in the grace of the Holy Spirit, who is manifested in the faith which works through love”. (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 108, a. 1.)” (§35, §37)

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Humanist transcendence in religious art

Algebraicszoom s

A couple of weeks ago I read an excellent article in the Guardian, by the philosopher and Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association, Kenan Malik. While it is an article that clearly positions religion as deprecated, inferior and outmoded (sentiments I certainly don’t share), it nonetheless makes some very positive moves.

Malik starts out by recognizing a piece of Christian writing as “wonderful, luminous,” able to “discover the poetic even in the most mundane,” and proceeds to argue that the awe that inspires religious artists and the spiritual force that drives them to create are “a celebration of our ability to find the poetic and the transcendent,” which is “something very human.” It is this attitude of recognizing value in the work of another, whose beliefs the author of the article does not share and even opposes, that made me like Malik’s approach from the start.

Having established an openness towards religious art, Malik asks whether “non-believers can truly comprehend the meaning of religiously inspired art.” The answer he provides not only addresses this interesting question, but serves as a basis for even broader dialogue between religion and atheism:
“[W]e can think about the sacred in art [... n]ot so much as an expression of the divine but, paradoxically perhaps, more an exploration of what it means to be human; what it is to be human not in the here and now, not in our immediacy, nor merely in our physicality, but in a more transcendental sense. It is a sense that is often difficult to capture in a purely propositional form, but one that we seek to grasp through art or music or poetry. Transcendence does not, however, necessarily have to be understood in a religious fashion, solely in relation to some concept of the divine. It is rather a recognition that our humanness is invested not simply in our existence as individuals or as physical beings but also in our collective existence as social beings and in our ability, as social beings, to rise above our individual physical selves and to see ourselves as part of a larger project [...].”
Malik then proceeds to sketch out a brief history of transcendence in philosophy and art, noting its roots in religious belief and proceeding to present attempts made to transplant it into humanist soil in the 15th century, e.g., by Dante Alighieri in his Divine Comedy and by Dirk Bouts, whose “The Entombment” (shown next) Malik analyzes to great effect, arguing that it is an example of a “changing conception of the sacred” that reveals a “humanising impulse.”

Bouts the entombment s

Malik is quick though to point out a “growing suspicion of the very idea of transcendence” in the post-Enlightenment period when “the very rootedness of the idea of transcendence in religious belief made it an uncomfortable concept.” These were accompanied by a gradual ebbing away of the “optimism about human capacities that had originally suffused the humanist impulse,” leading - through the horrors of 20th century history - to a “darkening perceptions of humans.” At the same time, that century also witnessed a “revolution in the way that artists were able to conceive of the human.” Here Malik points to “Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time to Mark Rothko’s paintings, from Barbara Hepworth’s figures to Pablo Neruda’s odes” as “astonishing works of art,” but proceeds to declare that “[i]t makes little sense to call such works of art “sacred”.”

What is curious though is that Malik next quotes Mark Rothko as saying: “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience as I had when I painted them,” but decides to consider Rhothko’s being religious merely a being “religious”:
“What Rothko calls “religious experience” is not what would traditionally be seen as such. It is rather an attempt to grasp the meaning of our humanness not in its immediacy, nor merely in its physicality, but, to borrow a religious term, in a more apophatic sense.”
If anything, saying that something is apophatic is to align it with the most traditional and deep-seated of religious intuitions about God’s otherness, put particularly starkly by Blessed Duns Scotus: “We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being.” or by St. Cyril of Alexandria: “For we explain not what God is but candidly confess that we have not exact knowledge concerning Him. For in what concerns God to confess our ignorance is the best knowledge.” To Christians, God is - to borrow Malik’s words from a different context - “difficult to capture in a purely propositional form.” And this is not just the opinion of fringe elements or of eccentrics from a distant past - it is clearly stated in the Catholic Church’s current Catechism: “God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — “the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable” — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.” (§42). If that’s not apophatic, then I don’t know what is ...

The above is not an attempt at an “aha!” or a “gotcha” though - instead it is meant just to suggest that what Malik sees as an areligious or a meta-religious transcendence - a “break[ing of] the shackles of the sacred while maintaining the sense of the transcendent”, in fact has the hallmarks of what I would wholeheartedly label as religious.

What I’d like to take away from Malik’s thought is a very positive point though, which is that the transcendence understood very differently by Malik and myself nonetheless seems like the one transcendence to me that we both appreciate and relate to. In spite of Malik’s efforts to distance contemporary expressions of transcendence in art from any and all religious associations, that exact same art is to me deeply religious and connects to the scared when I view, hear or read it.

Ultimately Malik’s moves can also be seen as a mirror to Pope Benedict XVI’s quoting Simone Weil saying that “all art of the first order is, by its nature, religious.” I have to say I like this picture: atheists claiming religious art is not really religious but humanist, and religious people claiming that secular art is religious after all. To my mind these are both profound compliments and a source of joy :).

Thursday, 10 April 2014

I’m with O’Malley: the Mexican border mass

Omalley 1

When an idea or an event that pushes the envelope (in the parlance of our times) arises, the most immediate reaction from some people is to oppose it instinctively, on the grounds of it just not making sense or being the done thing. This is pretty much ubiquitous in science, where new theories initially tend to be ridiculed or at least approached with skepticism, and no less at home in the Church, where new expressions of imitating Jesus often fall on deaf ears or are met with some form of the “crimes against tradition” objection.

Last week saw an event exactly like that - a mass celebrated at the Mexican-US border, where the concelebrands, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, Bishop Gerald Kicanas, and a dozen other bishops, were on the US side of the 20-foot-tall, metal-fenced border, while the congregation around them, numbering in excess of 500, was partly on US and partly on Mexican soil. The occasion was a two-day visit of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Migration Committee to the border, to experience first hand the conditions under which immigrants risk their lives on their way to the US and to mourn the loss of the many who die in the process. It was also an expression of the many divisions that emigration and deportations bring to families and a clear move to be with those at the peripheries, in imitation also of Pope Francis’ mass at Lampedusa.

During his homily, Cardinal O’Malley, puts the objectives of the event very clearly:
“We come to the desert today because it is the road to Jericho; it is traveled by many trying to reach the metropolis of Jerusalem. We come here today to be a neighbor and to find a neighbor in each of the suffering people who risk their lives and at times lose their lives in the desert. [...] We are here to discover our own identity as God’s children so that we can discover who our neighbor is, who is our brother and sister.”
Omalley 2

And he then proceeds to illustrate the scale of the tragedy:
“Last year about 25,000 children, mostly from Central America arrived in the US, unaccompanied by an adult. Tens of thousands of families are separated in the midst of migration patterns. More than 10 million undocumented immigrants are exposed to exploitation and lack access to basic human services, and are living in constant fear. They contribute to our economy by their hard work, often by contributing billions of dollars each year to the social security fund and to Medicare programs that will never benefit them. [...] We have presently over 30,000 detainees, most of whom have no criminal connections. The cost of these detentions is about $2 billion a year.”
When I first heard about the event, I was very impressed by it, as an expression of solidarity and closeness to those who suffer and are excluded from society, as Pope Francis put it so clearly in Evangelii Gaudium:
“We have created a “throw away” culture which is now spreading. It is no longer simply about exploitation and oppression, but something new. Exclusion ultimately has to do with what it means to be a part of the society in which we live; those excluded are no longer society’s underside or its fringes or its disenfranchised – they are no longer even a part of it. The excluded are not the “exploited” but the outcast, the “leftovers”.” (§53)
Imagine then my disappointment and disbelief, when I came across a condemnation of the border mass by George Weigel (introduced there as “papal biographer”), whose reaction was:
“It’s not clear to me how holding Mass in these circumstances can be anything other than politicized. [...] To turn the Mass into an act of essentially political theater is something I thought we had gotten over in the Church, no matter how noble the cause might be.”
And by the canon lawyer Ed Peters, who made the following assessment of the event:
“Canon 932 § 1 [...] states that “The eucharistic celebration is to be carried out in a sacred place unless in a particular case necessity requires otherwise; in such a case the celebration must be done in a decent place”. Obviously, no one suggests that the border is a “sacred place” in the canonical meaning of that term, so the question becomes whether necessity required holy Mass to be celebrated at the border. I think not. The intentions for which this Mass was offered (immigration reform and in memory of those who died crossing the border, both legitimate intentions of course) could have been amply asserted at a Mass celebrated in a sacred place as envisioned by c. 932 [...] Thus, the kinds of factors commonly invoked to justify Mass outside of a sacred space do not support this Mass at the border.”
It’s hard to know where to start in the face of such rule-based, status quo thinking - not for want of counterarguments, but for their excess. From among several alternatives, I could go down the Scriptural route, pointing to the instances of Jesus’ own “political theater” (did anyone say Caesar? (cf. Mark 12:17)) or to his take on “necessity” (did you say “withered hand” (cf. Mark 3:4)), but I wont :). Instead I’d like to re-tell a story about one of the Desert Fathers that I came across a while ago, but whose source eludes me now.1
“A poor couple came to Abba Irenaeus to cancel their wedding, since they were unable to find a venue for the reception that they could afford. Upon seeing their sadness, Abba Irenaeus felt moved by compassion and said to them: “Why don’t you hold your wedding celebration in our church?” The couple were overjoyed and accepted the offer. On their wedding day, well into the party, the local bishop happened to walk past, and when he heard music and cheers coming from the church, he stopped and proceeded to investigate. Upon entering the church he saw dancing and food being served to a merry crowd. Filled with indignation he sought out Abba Irenaeus and proceeded to scold him: “How can you desecrate this church by allowing such profanity? And in the presence of the Eucharist!” To which Abba Irenaeus calmly replied: “Wasn’t Jesus himself a wedding guest at Cana? Wouldn’t he have celebrated the wedding of this couple just as much if he were here today in person?””
[UPDATE (11/04/14): Within a couple of hours of publishing this post, my überbestie ML sent me another version of the above wedding story - thank you! This one is told by Anthony de Mello (re-telling Cardinal Martini’s story), is set in Italy, and the two takes on the Eucharist are embodied by the parish priest and his assistant pastor. The whole article that contains it is very much worth reading!]



1 If you do know where the story is from (and its above version is very much just from my imperfect memory), I’d be very grateful if you’d let me know so I could credit it’s source - and you :).

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The emptiness of manufactured allure

South beach

Visiting South Beach in Miami a couple of days ago has provided me with one of the saddest experiences of recent times. A few brief moments there stunned me and left me unable to relate freely to the friends I was with. Since this event has had such a strong impact on me, I would like to use this post to try and make sense of it for myself, but also to share this, in itself negative, experience with you, in the spirit of completeness and openness.

Let me start by giving an account of what happened.

Last week I spent five days in North Miami on business, with PM and JMGR - two of my very best friends. One evening, for the sake of a change of environment from the conference hotel, we thought of heading out to do a bit of local sightseeing. The day before, some colleagues recommended a visit to South Beach and, without looking into what the destination had to offer, the three of us set out there.

After a lengthy and costly taxi ride, we were dropped off in front of Versace’s house (a destination that held no appeal to any of us, but one that the taxi driver considered de rigueur for tourists, which we obviously were) and set off down Ocean Drive, towards its southernmost tip. The first offering of local culture was a group of inebriated chaps, whose most extensive member immediately launched into what can politely be labelled as an invitation to a mano-a-mano, urban skirmish (with an unusually high frequency of references to mothers). Having spent years in large cities (thank you, London), this was no big deal, and a smile, shrug and feigned incomprehension dealt with the matter successfully.

What came next unsettled me deeply though. While, at first sight it was just a 15-20 second walk through an on-street restaurant, my experience of it was anything but a simple traversal of that space. Instead, I passed through a gauntlet. At the restaurant’s entrance I was met by a woman of approximately my own age, dressed in thigh-high boots and a skirt and top of microscopic square-inchage, counterbalanced by bucket-fulls of makeup and hair extensions reaching down to the top of her boots. The dagger to my heart then came from the expression in her eyes that met me as I tried to smile at her. It was an ashen look of resignation. An emptiness and absence so deep it made me flinch.

As painful as that welcome was, I tried to shake it off, while feeling deeply sorry for this woman. Instead, the rest of the walk through the establishment just kept dragging me deeper and deeper into its oppressive morass. I met three more employees, all wearing variants of the first one’s outfit - nominally with the intention to entice, allure and excite, but each making me more and more concerned for their wellbeing and worried about their mental health.

Walking out at the other end of this pavement-gripping setup left me unable to carry on the light conversation we have been having with my friends and made me a dour companion for the rest of the night (which we, thankfully, spent in a Cuban restaurant a couple of streets away from Ocean Drive - a place whose down-to-earth-ness would normally not be my kettle of fish, but whose normality was a welcome change from the void of Ocean Drive).

Where am I going with all of this though? First of all, I wanted to share a disturbing experience with you, since disturbing experiences tend to be opportunities. I don’t yet know what consequences to draw from it, but it has been undoubtedly unsettling and therefore important, even if in an as yet unclear way. This was also underlined for me yesterday when I saw Pope Francis tweet the following: “How good it is for us when the Lord unsettles our lukewarm and superficial lives.”

Thinking about these words, I can certainly see that the experience was good for me - in spite of it’s great negativity for all involved, and me wishing that that place didn’t exist - it shook me and gave me a heightened sensitivity to the wellbeing of those around me, who thankfully weren’t in distress like the waitresses of the South Beach restaurant, but who nonetheless each had their expectations and needs.

To conclude, let me just address what might otherwise seem like an implicit prudishness. What disturbed me about the women in the restaurant wasn’t at all what they were wearing. It wouldn’t be what I’d choose, but who am I to tell them how to dress. Neither was it about them exposing extensive parts of their anatomy. The human body is full of beauty, made even to God’s own liking (“God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good.” Genesis 1:31). And neither did I feel any resentment towards these four women. They were very likely in a position of limited choice and in existential need of income - some probably supporting families. Instead, I felt a deep rage against the owners of the establishment, who - to my mind - unquestionably exploited their staff and tried to turn them into cheap merchandise.