Thursday, 27 February 2014

An ecumenism of brotherhood

Francis abp welby

[Warning: long read.]

Already St. Paul was faced with factions and divisions among the earliest followers of Jesus - to the point of frustration, in the face of groups declaring their allegiance to one or other leader: “[I]t has been reported to me about you, my brothers, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you. I mean that each of you is saying, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). In other words: “Pull yourselves together!”

That there are divisions among Christians is a scandal and one that both mocks Jesus’ own call for his followers to be united and for us to love each other like ourselves. It is no wonder then that ecumenism - the desire to see all Christians reunited after centuries of divisions - is one of the most prominent themes of Pope Francis’ preaching and actions. To get a sense of how he is approaching this challenge (or “opportunity,” as it would be put using a politically-correct vocabulary), it is worth taking a look at what he has said on the subject so far. The following is, therefore, my attempt to pull all of Francis’ remarks on ecumenism together in one place (in chronological order):
  1. When addressing the Archbishop of Canterbury in June ’13, Francis focuses on ecumenism as a shared journey, undertaken with Jesus in our midst:
    “The unity we so earnestly long for is a gift that comes from above and it is rooted in our communion of love with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. As Christ himself promised, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Let us travel the path towards unity, fraternally united in charity and with Jesus Christ as our constant point of reference.”

  2. Later that month, addressing the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Francis draws attention to ecumenism not being about a lowest common denominator, but instead about an exchange of riches and a seeking of truth:1
    “It comforts me, knowing that Catholics and Orthodox share the same conception of dialogue that doesn’t seek a theological minimalism on which to reach a compromise, but that rather is based on the deepening of the truth that Christ has given to his Church and that we, moved by the Holy Spirit, never cease to understand better. This is why we shouldn’t be afraid of encounter and true dialogue. It doesn’t distance us from the truth but rather, through an exchange of gifts, leads us, under the guidance of the Spirit of truth, to the whole truth.”

  3. In his address to Baselios Marthoma Paulose II, Catholicos of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in September ’13, Francis calls for a culture of encounter instead of clashes, emphasizing both the need of individual effort and the work of the Holy Spirit:
    “I believe that on the ecumenical path it is important to look with trust to the steps that have been completed, overcoming prejudices and closed attitudes which are part of a kind of “culture of clashes” and source of division, and giving way to a “culture of encounter”, which educates us for mutual understanding and for working towards unity. Alone however, this is impossible; our witnesses and poverty slow the progress. For this reason, it is important to intensify our prayer, because only the Holy Spirit with his grace, his light and his warmth can melt our coldness and guide our steps towards an ever greater brotherhood.”

  4. In “the” interview to Jesuit magazines later that month, Francis emphasized the mutual enrichment that is a consequence of ecumenism: “In ecumenical relations it is important not only to know each other better, but also to recognize what the Spirit has sown in the other as a gift for us.”

  5. During a general audience at the end of September ’13, Francis emphasized two points with regard to ecumenism: first that there is an abundance of riches that Christians already share:
    “There is one body, that of Christ which we receive in the Eucharist; one Spirit, the Holy Spirit that animates and constantly recreates the Church; one hope, eternal life; one faith, one Baptism, one God, Father of us all (cf. vv. 4-6). The richness of what unites us!”
    second, that the work for communion among all Christians starts with each one of us - in the family, parishes, ... rather than being something removed from the lives of individuals:
    “Each one should ask himself today: do I make unity grow in the family, in the parish, in the community or am I a motive of division, of hardship? Do I have the humility to heal with patience, with sacrifice, the wounds to communion?”
    and, finally, a reminder that Christian unity is not principally a matter of political negotiation, but a gift received from God:
    “[W]ho is the motor of this unity of the Church? It is the Holy Spirit. Our unity is not primarily the fruit of our consensus, of our effort to be in agreement, but it comes from Him who makes unity in diversity, which is harmony.”

  6. When addressing the president of the Lutheran World Federation in October ’13, Francis positions unity among Christians as a consequence of each individual, community and church drawing closer to Jesus and as being in proportion to the sincerity with which it is asked for: “In the measure in which we draw closer to our Lord Jesus Christ in humility of spirit, we are certain to draw closer to one another. And, in the measure in which we ask the Lord for the gift of unity, we are sure that he will take us by the hand and be our guide.” In other words, both as a consequence of fidelity and as a gift.

  7. A week later, in a letter to the World Council of Churches, Francis effectively calls for action as one Christian community, even in the face of our existing differences:
    “In fidelity to the Gospel, and in response to the urgent needs of the present time, we are called to reach out to those who find themselves in the existential peripheries of our societies and to show particular solidarity with the most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters: the poor, the disabled, the unborn and the sick, migrants and refugees, the elderly and the young who lack employment.”

  8. In an interview for the La Stampa Italian daily in December ’13, Francis further sharpened his insistence on what Christians all have in common:
    “Today there is an ecumenism of blood. In some countries they kill Christians for wearing a cross or having a Bible and before they kill them they do not ask them whether they are Anglican, Lutheran, Catholic or Orthodox. Their blood is mixed. To those who kill we are Christians. We are united in blood, even though we have not yet managed to take necessary steps towards unity between us and perhaps the time has not yet come. Unity is a gift that we need to ask for. I knew a parish priest in Hamburg who was dealing with the beatification cause of a Catholic priest guillotined by the Nazis for teaching children the catechism. After him, in the list of condemned individuals, was a Lutheran pastor who was killed for the same reason. Their blood was mixed. The parish priest told me he had gone to the bishop and said to him: “I will continue to deal with the cause, but both of their causes, not just the Catholic priest’s.” This is what ecumenism of blood is.”

  9. At the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at the end of January ’14, Francis highlighted that Christian unity won’t be something that suddenly happens at the end of a process, but that it is instead a journey that we share already now:
    “We have all been damaged by these divisions. None of us wishes to become a cause of scandal. And so we are all journeying together, fraternally, on the road towards unity, bringing about unity even as we walk. [...] Unity will not come about as a miracle at the very end. Rather, unity comes about in journeying; the Holy Spirit does this on the journey. If we do not walk together, if we do not pray for one another, if we do not collaborate in the many ways that we can in this world for the People of God, then unity will not come about! But it will happen on this journey, in each step we take. And it is not we who are doing this, but rather the Holy Spirit, who sees our goodwill.”

  10. On 18th February Pope Francis then addressed the attendees of a Evangelical Christians, via a video recorded by his friend - the Anglican Bishop Tony Palmer on his iPhone. Not only was the form of the message refreshingly friendly and informal, but its content too is significant in the completely fraternal level at which Francis places himself and the gathering he addresses. The very direct identification of past disagreements as sins on both side, the acknowledgement of God’s action among the gathering he addresses and his emphasis on the need for encounter and the recognition of each other as brothers further underline where he is coming from:2
    Dear brothers and sisters, excuse me because I speak in Italian, but I am not speaking English. But, I will speak no Italian, no English, but heartfully. It is a simpler and more authentic language and this language of the heart has a special style and and a special grammar. A simple grammar. Two rules: Love God above all else, and love the other because they are your brother and sister. With these two things we go ahead. I am here with my brother, with my brother bishop, Tony Palmer. We have been friends for years. [...] It is a pleasure to greet you. A joyful and wishful greeting. Joyful, because it fills me with joy to know that you are together to give praise to Jesus Christ, the only Lord. And to pray to the Father and receive the Spirit. This gives joy, because it can be seen that the Lord works all over the world.

    And wishful because ... Well, what happens with us is what also happens in some neighborhoods where there are some families who love each other and other families who don’t. Families who come together and families who separate and we are a bit - I’ll use the word - a bit separated. Separated because sins have separated us, our sins. The misunderstandings throughout history. It has been a long road of communitarian sin. But who is to blame? We all are to blame. We are all sinners. Only one is just - the Lord.

    I am wishful for this separation to end and for communion to come. I am wishful for that embrace that Holy Scripture speaks about when Joseph’s brothers, starving, went to Egypt so that they could buy food to eat. They went to buy, they had money, but they couldn’t eat the money! And there they found something more than food, they found their brother. All of us have “currency.” The currency of culture, the currency of our history, and lots of cultural riches and religious ones, of diverse traditions. But we have to come together as brothers. And we must cry together like Joseph did. This crying will unite us - the crying of love. I am talking to you as your brother. And I speak to you like this, simply. With joy and wishfulness. Let us make our wishfulness grow, because this will push us to find each other, to embrace each other and to praise Jesus Christ as the only Lord of history. [...] I ask you to bless me and I bless you - from brother to brother.”

  11. That emphasis on Jesus being the center of Christian life is then taken further in Francis’ Angelus message3 last Sunday, where he insisted that :
    “Saint Paul explains that [...] the community does not belong to the apostles, but it is them - the apostles - who belong to the community; but the community, in its entirety, belongs to Christ!

    From this belonging derives the fact that in Christian communities - dioceses, parishes, associations, movements - differences mustn’t contradict the fact that we all, through Baptism, have the same dignity: we are all all, in Jesus Christ, sons and daughters of God. And this is our dignity: in Jesus Christ we are sons and daughters of God! Those who have received a ministry of leadership, of preaching, of administering the Sacraments, mustn’t consider themselves to in possession of special powers, masters, but place themselves at the service of the community, helping it along the journey of holiness with joy. [...]

    May the Lord give us the grace to work for the unity of the Church, of building this unity, because unity is more important than conflicts! The unity of the Church is of Christ, conflicts are problems that are not always of Christ. [...]

    Pray for us [the new Cardinals, made the previous day, and the pope], that we may be good servants: good servants, not good masters! All together, bishops, priests, consecrated persons and faithful laity, we have to give witness of a Church faithful to Christ, animated by the desire to serve brothers and sisters and ready to reach out with prophetic courage towards the spiritual expectations and needs of men and women of our times.”

All of this is a lot to take in, but for me there are a couple of key points that Francis has made. First, that neither those who persecute or denigrate Christians, nor God, make distinctions between the different denominations. Second, that there are degrees of unity and that we can make it grow by working together for the good of all - including those who are not Christians, thereby contributing also to universal brotherhood (as stated also in Evangelii Gaudium §245). Third, that no one owns the Christian “brand” but Jesus himself. We are all on a level playing field, all having made mistakes, but all being recipients of God’s gifts and in a position to help, accompany and support each other. Fourth, that ecumenism is not akin to mergers and acquisitions or to a peace treaty - it is not about compromise or a lowest common denominator. The name of the game is truth, and differences, instead, are riches that will be brought together by the actions of the Holy Spirit. Fifth, ecumenism is both God’s work and ours and is part of our broader obligation - in response to Jesus’ own testament4 - to work towards unity in all contexts, which also reminds me of a great piece of advice by St. Ignatius of Loyola: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

1 Echoing one of Pope Benedict XVI’s most daring statements on the subject: “[T]he search for knowledge and understanding always has to involve drawing closer to the truth. Both sides in this piece-by-piece approach to truth are therefore on the path that leads forward and towards greater commonality, brought about by the oneness of the truth. As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”
2 The following is my translation of the original Italian - except for the first few sentences (transcribed in italics), which Francis speaks in (broken) English - another great gesture :).
3 Since the English version of the full text is not available yet, the following is my own, crude rendition. 4 “I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.” (John 17:20-22)

Saturday, 22 February 2014



Imagine waking up one morning, walking into your kitchen and finding the table set with your favorite breakfast, beautifully laid out and ready for you to enjoy. What would be your first reaction? Delight? Surprise? Curiosity? Gratitude? And what about when you started eating the food? Would you be savoring its flavors? Would you enjoy the taste?

Or, would the sight of this unforeseen setup stop you dead in your tracks, even preventing you from crossing the kitchen’s threshold? Would you be wondering who prepared the breakfast? What their motivation was? What recipe they followed? How they learned to cook? Where they sourced the ingredients? What other breakfasts they prepared? Who else prepared breakfasts? What they were trying to tell you by making breakfast for you? And would your inability to answer all of these questions put you off so much that you wouldn’t even sit down and eat?

The above scenario might sound very far-fetched and contrived - and it is! - but I’d like to argue that it is an analogy1 of how a growing number of my friends approach art. And I don’t mean to ridicule them here at all - their approach is eminently reasonable, but just to share my own experience2 of relating to art and appreciating it,3 that side-steps (but in some cases defers) what I see as my friends’ inhibitors to sharing in the same enjoyment that I receive.

Over the last couple of years I have, on separate occasions, visited galleries with close friends and have spent some time discussing questions like: “What did the artist want to say with this piece?,” “Is this really art?,” “What do you see in this?” and “What do you know about this artist / the period / the technique / etc.?” As far as I can, I try to dismiss such questions, since I believe them all to be of secondary importance at best.

In the first instance, I find that it pays to try and allow for an encounter between me and a piece of art, which is actually an encounter with a person - its creator - by proxy. And just like when being in the presence of another person, this is all about emptying myself of expectations, prejudices, stereotypes and allowing for the other to express themselves and speak to me. In some cases a connection is established - and it is worth letting it breathe before proceeding to anything else - while in others not - the same applies for art as for people. As Grayson Perry put it - “you don’t have to like it all.”

Second, in case a connection is in place - in case a piece of art has elicited a reaction from me, I can reflect on it and make its effects on me explicit to myself. I can think about how this piece of art fits into my world - what it makes me feel, think, remember, wish for, ...

Third, I can share my experience of this encounter with someone else, who is there with me, whom I speak or write to later, ... And this sharing can also be in the form of creating new art, that others can engage with without my immediate presence.

And, fourth, I may be compelled to learn more about the piece, it’s author, the technique, it’s context, it’s symbolism, it’s history, which in turn can allow for the sequence to restart and to take a different course, compared to this first, “uninformed” encounter.

A key idea here, at least one that helps me engage with a piece of art, is also to realize that not everything has a verbal equivalent - not everything is just an alternative to verbalized thought and the resolution of every encounter is not a verbalized thought. When looking at a painting by Paul Klee (to give a recent example), my great friend NP asked me: “What was he thinking when he painted this?” To which I hesitatingly and apologetically replied “This!,” while pointing at the painting. I didn’t believe that it was a visual translation of preexisting verbalized thought any more than a piece of music is. And while the answer was awkward, I believed it to be correct. Certainly, words can be said in response to visual art, but - at least in the case of great art, I don’t believe any amount of words can fully capture it, just like they couldn’t a person, whose expression art is.

Finally, I would also like to anticipate a likely objection: “Alright, what you say may be OK, but it doesn’t lead to an understanding of what the artist wanted to say - only to a subjective and potentially unrelated experience by a viewer. Aren’t you missing the point?” Here I’d like to argue that two scenarios are possible: first, that the artist wasn’t trying to communicate - they were “only” expressing themselves (if they wanted to communicate verbal content, they could have used more unambiguous means), in which case a quest to identify a message is futile and, second, that the artist was well aware of the the inherent disjointedness of the process, where the content they intended to embody in a piece of art may not be accessible to some (or even any) viewer, in which case an effort to cross the chasm, that is the piece of art itself, is likely to have arbitrary success.

A third scenario is possible though, I hear you say: that the artist has also written or spoken about what their intentions were when creating a piece. Then, if I am unaware of this proclamation, my viewing of their work will be incomplete and my lack of knowledge an obstacle to getting what they intended by their work. That may well be true, but even if it is, this only impacts the fourth stage of engaging with a piece of art as outlined above - a risk I am happy to take, especially since most artists I know of detested or flatly refused supplying such crutches for the viewing of their work.

1 Please note a key feature of analogy, which is its incompleteness - I don’t mean to suggest that art is the same as food (although it can have a nourishing effect) and I am intentionally staying away from the trap of trying to define what art is - only to argue that there may be a particular way to engage with it.
2 I am making no claims of universality or excellence of method here - this is only my attempt at introspection and sharing of what goes on when I come across a piece of art, in case it may be of some interest or help to someone else.
3 Just a word of warning - if you google “appreciating art,” you are far more likely to find junk - including statements like: “Visiting an art gallery or museum is a low-cost way to spend time with friends or a date.” or “Appreciating art is very easy once you understand art history.” from sources I won’t even link to ...

Friday, 14 February 2014

The demon of distance

Demon of distance

A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi lead another of the “courtyard of the gentiles” events, aimed at providing a space for dialogue between non-believers and Catholics. This time it took place in Budapest and Cardinal Ravasi’s address focused on the fundamental Christian principles, from which its understanding of morality, economy and society derives.

These principles include those of the person (created in the image of God and intrinsically being in relationship with others), of autonomy (of the civil and religious spheres, following Jesus’ words: “Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” (Matthew 22:21)), of solidarity and of truth (that precedes and exceeds us and that we inhabit rather than possess1). Each of these four principles is insightfully presented and analyzed by Ravasi and I would recommend anyone to read his talk in full (at the time of writing this post, only available in Italian). Here, however, I would like to focus only on the principle of solidarity, which Ravasi further differentiates into its aspects of justice and love.

The starting point of the principle of solidarity in Christianity, like that of the other three principles too, is the incarnation: “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), as a result of which there is a link between faith and history, between religion and political and social life. Cardinal Ravasi also emphasized this point during his brief opening remarks of the entire event, where he pointed out that, while in Eastern religions saints tend to be depicted with closed eyes (indicating an interiority of focus), in Christian art saints are typically shown with their eyes wide open - projecting out into the world around them. What is needed, Ravasi concludes, is both an interiority and a having one’s eyes open to see the great political, economic, social and cultural problems of the world.

In this context, the principle of solidarity in Christianity has its roots already in the Genesis account of creation, where
“the fact of all of us being human is expressed by the noun “Adam,” which in Hebrew is ha-’adam,2 with the article (ha-) that simply means “the human.” is used to refer to humanity. Therefore there is in all of us a shared “adamness.” Solidarity is, therefore, structural to our fundamental anthropological reality. Religion expresses this anthropological unity using two terms that are two moral categories: justice and love. Faith takes solidarity, which is also at the basis of lay philanthropy, but goes beyond it. In fact, staying with John’s Gospel, during the last evening of his earthly life Jesus says a wonderful phrase: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13).”
To illustrate the two aspects of solidarity - justice and love, Ravasi takes advantage not only of Christian tradition, but also makes reference to Eastern thought, in the spirit of inter-religious dialogue.

To present the essence of justice, Ravasi quotes the 4th century saint, Ambrose of Milan:
“The earth was created as a common good for all, for the rich and for the poor. Why, then, O rich, do you usurp an exclusive right to the soil? When you help the poor, you, rich, don’t give them from your own, but you return to them their own. In fact, you alone use the common property, given for the use of all. The earth belongs to all, not only to the rich, therefore when you help the poor you give them back their due, instead of providing them with a gift of your own.” (On Naboth)
Turning to the second aspect of solidarity - love, Ravasi takes advantage of the following Tibetan parable, showing that religious cultures, that are undoubtedly diverse, do at their bases have touch-points and contacts:
“A man, walking through the desert, spots something strange in the distance. Fear starts welling up in him, since, in the absolute solitude of the steppe, such an obscure and mysterious reality - maybe an animal, a dangerous wild beast - can’t but unsettle. Moving ahead, the traveller discovers that he is not approaching a beast, but a person instead. But his fear does not pass. If anything, it grows, thinking that the person could be a robber. Nonetheless, he has no choice but to proceed, until arriving in the presence of the other. At this moment, the traveller lifts his gaze and, to his surprise, exclaims: “It is my brother, whom I haven’t seen for many years!””
Ravasi concludes his reflection on solidarity by noting that “distance generates fears and demons; one has to get close to the other to overcome fears, no matter how understandable they may be. Refusing to get to know the other and to encounter the other is the same as saying no to the love that springs from solidarity and that dissolves terror and generates a true society.”

Personally, I have found Cardinal Ravasi’s reflection highly compelling and enlightening, both due to its deep roots in Scripture and its open and broad perspective that is equally at ease with drawing on the rich sources of Christianity as it is to benefit from the insights of other religions, even in matters as fundamental and core to Christianity as its understanding of love. Specifically, I have also found the Tibetan parable to be a great reminder to attempt closeness with all, instead of remaining at a distance and being put off by distorted, prejudice-filled, blurry perception.

1 Ravasi addressed this concept of the truth several times already, e.g. see also its coverage in a previous post here.
2 For more on the Genesis account and ha-’adam, see John Paul II’s “Man and Woman He Created Them,” discussed here.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Spirit of God always gets there first

Aiweiwei unilever banner 0

Today Pope Francis gave a stunning speech to around 8000 members, families of the Neocatechumenal Way (a million-strong Catholic movement focused on the Christian formation of adults), ahead of their departure for missions across the world. Before he gave them his blessing, he addressed them with words of advice, all of which I highly recommend. Instead of reflecting on his speech in full, I’d like to focus only on a single point he makes, which stopped me in my tracks as I read it, by its beauty, humility and post hoc obviousness :). Here is what Pope Francis presented as his second of (yes, you guessed it) three points1 of advice:
“[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. From here, flows the necessity to give special attention to the cultural context in which you [...] will go to work: it consists of an environment often very different from the one from which you come. Many of you will have to work hard to learn the local language, sometimes it will be difficult, and this effort is appreciated. Even more important will be your commitment to “learn” the culture you will encounter, knowing 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.”
To make the most of the above, let’s also put Pope Francis’ closing remarks during the same address on the table:
“I encourage you to bring everywhere, even in the most de-Christianized environments, especially in the existential peripheries, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Evangelize with love, bring to everyone the love of God. Tell everyone you will meet on the streets of your mission that God loves man as he is, even with his limits, with his mistakes, with his sins. For this, he sent his Son, so that he could take our sins upon himself. Be messengers and witnesses of the infinite goodness and the inexhaustible mercy of the Father.”
What emerges here is a very powerful picture, to my mind, where Francis first points out a consequence of Christian faith that is often overlooked especially when thinking about non-Christian contexts, which is that God is already there even before the first Christian arrives to announce the Good News. A Christian sent to “the most de-Christianized environments” is not the one bringing God to a place from which He is absent! Instead, they need to realize not only that God is already there (to suggest anything else would be heresy), but also that God’s presence brings fruits. A Christian needs to recognize that God is present in a non-Christian culture, that “God scatters everywhere the seeds of his Word.”2 Their reverence for God’s Word then obligates them to recognize also the “action that the Holy Spirit has accomplished in the life and in the history of every people.” The Christian does not arrive as the exclusive bearer of God to a place from where He is lacking, but instead as a fellow recipient of God’s Word. What a different perspective this is from the caricature of proselytism!

The second moment in Pope Francis’ advice that struck me is guidance on the kerygma to be used by the missionaries, where the emphasizes that “God loves man as he is, even with his limits, with his mistakes, with his sins.” God’s love is not conditional, or requiring merit. It is not a “do X, Y and Z and you will become worthy.” Instead, the missionaries are to announce to the people they’ll find at the peripheries of de-Christianized environments that God loves them as they are.

Wow! The mindset Pope Francis offers here is a breath of fresh air.3

As I thought about the above, I realized that I’d be making a mistake though if I thought about Francis’ words as advice that these Neocatechumenal types needed to hear. His words are addressed to me too. I too am often in “de-Christianized environments,” with their own “culture” and I too need to recognize that in those environments too God is natively at work, that I too can look for traces of His presence and His action also in these non-Christian contexts. This does not absolve me from sharing my Christian faith, but it further underlines the fact that I am sharing it with equals - with brothers and sisters.

1 The first point emphasizes the importance of these missionaries being united with the local Churches in the places they are being sent to - a very important point! - and the third - also super important! - is his insisting on the need for missionaries being merciful towards each other and leaving everyone free to change their minds about following the Neocatechumenal Way. Both of these, which in fact mirror some of the criticisms leveled at the Neocatechumenal Way, would be worth reflecting on and I may well return to them in the future.
2 A clear reference to the Ad Gentes Vatican II decree, which makes the same point: “In order that they may be able to bear more fruitful witness to Christ, let [Christians] be joined to those men by esteem and love; let them acknowledge themselves to be members of the group of men among whom they live; let them share in cultural and social life by the various. undertakings and enterprises of human living; let them be familiar with their national and religious traditions; let them gladly and reverently lay bare the seeds of the Word which lie hidden among their fellows.” This, in turn is at least a 2nd century AD idea by Justin Martyr ...
3 And, no, I don’t mean to suggest this in contrast to what his predecessors have done. It is more a matter of emphasis and directness of language rather than a change in guidance or dogma. See also footnote 2 ...

Apophthegmata Patrum: jokes of the Fathers

The temptation of St Anthony

Even though that is not what’s typically highlighted, I love the humor of the Desert Fathers and Mothers - 5th century Christian hermits and mystics from Egypt. The stories told about them, which tend to be of the form “Abba/Amma X said ...,” are filled with a deep concern for what matters and a wave-of-the-hand disdain for what does not. To me they are perfect examples of what it means to follow the example of Jesus, without getting bogged down into circumstantial, politically-correct, socially-dictated or procedurally-prescribed baggage. In many ways they are the Christian equivalent of Zen Buddhist kōans, which I enjoy just as much.

What I’d like to do today is just to share some of my favorite Desert Father/Mother sayings, which come from a couple of collections (here, here and here) extracted from their standard source, the Apophthegmata Patrum:
  1. Abba Abraham told of a man of Scetis who was a scribe and did not eat bread. A brother came to beg him to copy a book. The old man whose spirit was engaged in contemplation, wrote, omitting some phrases and with no punctuation. The brother, taking the book and wishing to punctuate it, noticed that words were missing. So he said to the old man, ‘Abba, there are some phrases missing.’ The old man said to him, ‘Go, and practise first that which is written, then come back and I will write the rest.’

  2. Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said, ‘One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, “Father, I am very thirsty.” He said a prayer and said to me, “Drink some of the sea water.” The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” Then the old man said, “God is here, God is everywhere.”’

  3. It was said of Abba John the Persian that when some evildoers came to him, he took a basin and wanted to wash their feet. But they were filled with confusion, and began to do penance.

  4. One day Abba Isaac went to a monastery. He saw a brother committing a sin and he condemned him. When he returned to the desert, an angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, “I will not let you enter.” But he persisted saying, “What is the matter?” And the angel replied, “God has sent me to ask you where you want to throw the guilty brother whom you have condemned.” Immediately he repented and said, “I have sinned, forgive me.” Then the angel said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. But from now on, be careful not to judge someone before God has done so.”

  5. A brother came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, “Abba, I have many thoughts and they put me in danger.” The old man led him outside and said to him, “Expand your chest and do not breathe in.” He said, “I cannot do that.” Then the old man said to him, “If you cannot do that, no more can you prevent thoughts from arising, but you can resist them.”

  6. Abba Macarius while he was in Egypt discovered a man who owned a beast of burden engaged in plundering Macarius’ goods. So he came up to the thief as if he was a stranger and he helped him to load the animal. He saw him off in great peace of soul, saying, ‘We have brought nothing into this world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.’(1 Tim. 6.7)

  7. A brother at Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which Abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to say to him, ‘Come, for everyone is waiting for you.’ So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug, filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said to him, ‘What is this, Father?’ The old man said to them, ‘My sins ran out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another.’ When they heard that they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

  8. Abba Theophilus, the archbishop, came to Scetis one day. The brethren who were assembled said to Abba Pambo, ‘Say something to the Archbishop, so that he may be edified.’ The old man said to them, ‘If he is not edified by my silence, he will not be edified by my speech.’