Pope Francis: The Danger of Being ‘Merely Philanthropists’

mixed media 205 x 185 x 80 cm
Doubting Thomas poking at Christ’s chest wound by Michael Landy (Picture: National Gallery)

Below I include Pope Francis’ reflections this morning on the Feast of St. Thomas offered during Mass in the Santa Marta guest house where he lives. The accompanying art by Michael Landy illustrates to me the dangers of “mechanizing” our experience of touching of the wounds of Christ:

“After the Resurrection Jesus appears to the apostles, but Thomas is not there: He wanted him to wait a week. The Lord knows why He does such things. And He allows the time He believes best for each of us. He gave Thomas a week. Jesus reveals himself with His wounds: His whole body was clean, beautiful and full of light, but the wounds were and are still there, and when the Lord comes at the end of the world, we will see His wounds. Before he could believe, Thomas wanted to place his fingers in the wounds. He was stubborn. But that was what the Lord wanted – a stubborn person to make us understand something greater. Thomas saw the Lord and was invited to put his finger into the wounds left by the nails; to put his hand in His side. He did not merely say, ‘It’s true: the Lord is risen’. No! He went further. He said: ‘God’. He was the first of the disciples to confess the divinity of Christ after the Resurrection. And he worshipped Him.

And so, we understand what the Lord’s intention was when He made him wait: He wanted to take his disbelief and guide him not just to an affirmation of the Resurrection, but an affirmation of His Divinity. The path to our encounter with Jesus-God are his wounds. There is no other. In the history of the Church several mistakes have been made on the path towards God. Some have believed that the Living God, the God of Christians can be found by the path of meditation, and indeed that we can reach higher levels through meditation. That is dangerous! How many are lost on that path, never to return? Yes, perhaps they arrive at a knowledge of God, but not of Jesus Christ, Son of God, the second Person of the Trinity. They do not arrive at that. It is the path of the gnostics, isn’t it? They are good, they work, but they have not found the right path. It is very complicated and does not lead to a safe harbour.

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Richard Rohr: How We Carry Our Wounds

Pelican bleeding to feed her young, Sculpture, Musee des Beaux Arts, Angers

“Without a mythological context, sacred text, or some symbolic universe to reveal the greater meaning and significance of our life, we can become trapped in our own very small story. And in that limited story, without any larger perspective, our wounds can make us into embittered victims. We just keep repeating the story line to ourselves over and over, and soon it suffocates us like a python.

The Jesus way is to embrace our wounds and accept them as the price of the journey. We can choose to carry our wounds with dignity until the time comes when we forget why they were so important or debilitating to begin with. The wounds in Jesus’ hands, feet and side are still carried in his resurrected body—this is quite significant! (John 20:25-28) I think we carry our wounds until the end; they do not fully go away but keep us humble, patient and more open to trust and intimacy. The healing lies in the fact that those same wounds no longer defeat us or cause us to harm ourselves or others. My favorite mystic, Lady Julian of Norwich, puts it this way, “our wounds become our honors.” —Richard Rohr, ofm

Adapted from On the Threshold of Transformation: Daily Meditations for Men, p. 135

Thomas Merton: ‘God’s Creative, Dynamic Intervention’

Contemplation is the awareness and realization, even in some sense experience, of what each Christian obscurely believes: “It is now no longer that I live, but Christ lives in me.”

… It is awakening, enlightenment and the amazing intuitive grasp by which love gains certitude of God’s creative and dynamic intervention in our daily life.–Thomas Merton

From New Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (New Directions Books 1961,  p. 5)

Joan Chittister: To Be A Moral Force in the World

Sr. Joan's recent lecture in Boston was cut short due to a false fire alarm.

The invitation to be a “perfect fool” is at least an invitation to perfection.

As brother Paul says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Speaking up for justice within the incomprehensible love of God is part of the process of salvation, the journey of becoming “children of God.”

Sr. Joan reminds me of my responsibility to the process of my salvation, the ongoing practice of following Christ. She says:

There are three obstacles to our personal development that would make us a moral force in the world.

First, fear of loss of status has done more to chill character than history will ever know. We do not curry favor with kings by pointing out that the emperor has no clothes. We do not gain promotions by countering the beloved viewpoints of the chair of the board or the bishop of the diocese. We do not figure in the neighborhood barbecues if we embarrass the Pentagon employees in the gathering by a public commitment to demilitarization. It is hard time, this choice of destiny between public conscience and social acceptability. Then we tell ourselves that nothing is to be gained by upsetting people. And sure enough, nothing is.

Second, personal comfort is a factor, too, in the decision to let other people bear responsibility for the tenor of our times. It takes a great deal of effort to turn my attention beyond the confines of where I work and where I live and what my children do. It lies in registering interest in something beyond my small, small world and perhaps taking part in group discussions or lectures. It requires turning my mind to substance beyond sitcoms and the sports channel and the local weekly. It means not allowing myself to go brain-dead before the age of forty. But these things that cost comfort are exactly the things that will, ultimately, make life better for my work and my children.

Third, fear of criticism is no small part, surely, of this unwillingness to be born into the world for which I have been born. To differ from the mainstream of humanity, to take a position that is not popular tests the tenor of the best debaters, the strongest thinkers, the most skilled of speakers. To do that at the family table or in the office takes the utmost in courage, the ultimate in love, the keenest communication skills. And who of us have them?

The process of human discourse is a risky one. Other people speak more clearly or convincingly than we do. Other people have better academic backgrounds than we do. Other people have authority and robes and buttons and titles that we do not now and ever will have, and to confront those things takes nerve of a special gauge. I may lose. I may make a perfect fool out of myself. But everybody has to be perfect about something. What else can be more worth it than giving the gift of the perfect question in a world uncomfortable with the answers but too frightened or too complacent or too ambitious to raise these doubts again? — Sr. Joan Chittister, OSB

Tokyo Drips With Sweet Honey

I’m fascinated with honey bees. I’m thrilled by the recent rise in urban beekeeping and glad to see that Washington, D.C’s, local beekeeping laws are finally becoming more amenable to this venerable tradition.

One of the earliest extensive treatises on beekeeping was written by Virgil in 29 BC (Virgil’s Georgic IV):

Of air-born honey, gift of heaven, I now
Take up the tale….
The others shine forth and flash with lightning-gleam,
Their backs all blazoned with bright drops of gold
Symmetric: this the likelier breed; from these,
When heaven brings round the season, thou shalt strain
Sweet honey, nor yet so sweet as passing clear,
And mellowing on the tongue the wine-god’s fire.

And the bee as Christian symbol was well-known in Europe. The honey bee has historically been a symbol of Christ’s attributes due to its honey and sting. The honey symbolizes gentleness and charity, and sting symbolizes justice and the cross. Bees are also a symbol of the resurrection. The three winter months when bees hibernate reminds Christians of the three days Christ spent in the tomb before rising.

The organization of life in the bees community, with perfectly delineated relationships and its dependence upon and service to the queen bee, also came to reflect an ideal of Christian virtues. Additionally, bees and beehives symbolize eloquence, and are represented with the three known holy orators called doctores melliflui (scholars sweet as honey): St. Ambrosius, St. Bernard of Clariveaux, and St. John Chrysostom. (See more on ancient Christian symbols.)

There’s also St. Gobnait of County Cork in Ireland who is the patron saint of bees. There’s even a contemporary Christian mission group in Uganda called Beekeepers for Christ.

Now, beekeeping is also taking wing in urban Japan! Here’s an excerpt from a recent article:

Eleven stories above the heart of the Tokyo concrete jungle — with its beehive office partitions and swarms of suit-clad worker-bees — enthusiasts have stacked up beehives dripping with golden honey.

“Let’s enjoy the harvest, but be careful you don’t have an accident,” urban beekeeper-in-chief Kazuo Takayasu tells his fellow volunteers from behind the protective fine-mesh net covering his face.

Clad in white body suits, the crew gets to work, squeezing out the glistening syrup using a simple centrifugal machine they crank by hand as a cloud of bees breaks free from the honeycombs. …

The honey is largely organic, he said, because pesticide use has been banned in Tokyo city parks and gardens including the Imperial Palace, about one mile away, where the bees collect much of their nectar. …

Read Beekeepers Add Buzz To Japan Urban Jungle.

Prayer is Infiltrating Christian Youth Groups

A group in Eureka, Montana, called Lighthouse Trails, recently warned people against me, Jim Wallis, and Sojourners because of our association with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and contemplative Christian spirituality.

The folks at Lighthouse Trails describes their mission thusly: “In the year 2000, we learned that a mantra-style meditation coupled with a mystical spirituality had been introduced to the evangelical, Christian church and was infiltrating youth groups, churches, seminaries, and Bible studies at an alarming rate.  Thus, in the spring of 2002, we began Lighthouse Trails Publishing with the hope of exposing this dangerous and pervasive mystical paradigm.”

At the same time I was reading the reports from Lighthouse Trails, I was also re-reading parts of Merton’s book Life and Holiness in which he lays out a few basic ideas in Christian spirituality.

Henri Nouwen writes in the book’s introduction, “It is not a book about doctrines or dogmas, but about the life of Christ. … In its great simplicity, this is a radical book. It calls for total dedication and a total commitment [to Christ].”

Here is an excerpt:

“Prayer is then the first and most important step. All through the life of faith one must resort constantly to prayer, because faith is not simply a gift which we receive once for all in our first act of belief. Every new development of faith, every new increment of supernatural light, even though we may earnestly working to acquire it, remains a pure gift of God.”–Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness by Thomas Merton (Image, 1963, p. 81)

I don’t have anything in particular to say about Lighthouse Trails, except they are located in what must be the most beautiful place in the world at the northwest tip of Glacier National Park.

I understand their concern about Christian mysticism. Christian mystics are those who have a direct spiritual experience of God through Jesus. (See John 10:30 on union with God.) It may be a one-time experience that informs one’s faith or it may be an ongoing experience that radically affects one’s faith journey. It is not about belief or catechisms or rational assent to dogma. It is about a total transformation in Christ — about being “born again.” And this is inherently uncontrollable by religious authorities or dogmatists.

Christian mystics have a long history of being a threat to institutional religions and dogmatic believers. Conversely, the danger to Christian mystics is that they may put too much authority in their personal experience of God, rather than submitting their experiences to the wider wisdom of the Christian community.

This is the paradox that Merton, Nouwen, and even I, know well. As a result, we try to live attentively and, as Merton wrote, “resort constantly to prayer,” asking always for Christ to have mercy upon us.

Dorothy Day: Previously Unpublished 1933 Essay ‘Our Brothers, The Jews’ Published for First Time

Dorothy Day, 1925
Dorothy Day, 1925

Fr. Charles Gallagher has discovered a previously unpublished essay by Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, which lay in a correspondence file in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University. I’m stunned!

Dorothy Day was a lay Catholic woman with radical politics, a deeply rooted faith, and a phenomenal amount of courage. She co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s.

The manuscript titled Our Brothers, The Jews was written in autumn 1933. It is published for the first time in the November 2009 issue of America magazine.

Five years before Adolph Hitler became “The Fuhrer,” when he was still chancellor of a coalition government and head of the Nazi party with the Nazis holding a third of the seats in the Reichstag, Dorothy Day called to account Catholics who supported and fostered Hitler’s hate-based political agenda in the U.S.

Her point of view was very unpopular at the time. So unpopular in fact that she had a hard time getting her essay published anywhere. (America magazine rejected it when she submitted it to them in 1933.) But race-baiting and Jew-hating was on the rise in the U.S. and Catholic speakers in Brooklyn, near where the Catholic Worker was based, were drawing cheering crowds when they excoriated Jews.

“She keenly foresaw the dynamic that five years later would lead to the rise of Brooklyn’s powerful Christian Front movement and its quasi-terrorist anti-Semitic plot, which was scuppered only by a spectacular set of arrests in early 1940 by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Day’s warning about how Catholics ought to deal with Hitler rested on two of the main pillars of her faith—scriptural reflection and concern for social justice. Her deep beliefs rested on an apostolic zeal that held out the possibility for all men and women to be fully integrated into the mystical body of Christ,” the editor’s note concludes.

Here’s an excerpt from Day’s essay:

For Catholics—or for anyone—to stand up in the public squares and center their hatred against Jews is to sidestep the issue before the public today. It is easier to fight the Jew than it is to fight for social justice—that is what it comes down to. One can be sure of applause. One can find a bright glow of superiority very warming on a cold night. If those same men were to fight for Catholic principles of social justice they would be shied away from by Catholics as radicals; they would be heckled by Communists as authors of confusion; they would be hurt by the uncomprehending indifference of the mass of people.

God made us all. We are all members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. We don’t want to extirpate people; we want to go after ideas. As St. Paul said, “we are not fighting flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”

Read the whole essay here.

The discovery of this Day manuscript is astonishing–for its historical resonance and insight into social activism. Day’s examination of hate politics from the perspective of her deeply rooted Catholicism provides us with clues for today. It forces the question: How do we bring scriptural reflection and the concerns of social justice to bear on the Tea-Partyers, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others who use hate as a political strategy to gain power?

I was particularly touched by the comments of one contemporary reader of Day’s article who wrote, “I am an 80 -year- old Jew who lived thru the 30s in New York, and my hard heart is melted at seeing for the first time that we had such a beloved advocate. Is that what makes a saint?”

Indeed, Dorothy Day is on the path to official canonization in the Catholic Church (read my article on that here), but papal process is not what makes her a saint. Her prophetic stance rooted in faith and the response of an 80-year-old Jewish woman are.