Dr. Tali Loewenthal was born in Haifa and directs the Chabad Research Unit, lectures in the University College on Jewish Spirituality, and he has authored “Communicating the Infinite, the emergence of the Habad School” and many scholarly and popular articles. Here’s his reflection on Moses in the cleft of the rock, titled “At The Highest Level.” I found in it deep wisdom for Lent.
“Can sin be forgiven? Can it be erased? Can it even be transformed into good? In the book of Exodus we read about the events relating to the making of the Golden Calf. This was an unfortunate transgression in which large numbers of Jews took part, combining idolatry, immorality and murder. Wisely, the women in the community kept away and so did the Levites.
After this mass betrayal of G-d and His teachings, Moses had to plead with G-d in order to prevent the Jewish people from being destroyed. For forty days he pleaded, alone on Mount Sinai, and was finally successful. G-d would bring the Jewish people to the Promised Land, and the broken Tablets of the Law would be replaced.
The interesting thing about this revelation, is that it comes in the form of a prayer At this moment we are introduced to another aspect of Moses: the person who seeks the deepest level of contact with G-d. He asks: “Show me Your Glory.” Moses wanted to reach the closest intimation of G-dliness possible for a human being.
G-d answered that He will put Moses in the crevice of the rock and grant him a vision of something of the Divine Glory. However, not everything can be revealed, for “man cannot see Me and live.”
Then comes the promised revelation. This is one of the most remarkable moments in the life of Moses and in the entire Torah. The interesting thing about this revelation of G-d, is that it comes in the form of a prayer. G-d teaches a prayer to Moses, a prayer which we recite in the synagogue. It is called the “Thirteen Attributes of Mercy”:
“If we look forward to receiving God’s mercy, we can never fail to do good so long as we have the strength. For if we share with the poor, out of love for God, whatever he has given to us, we shall receive according to his promise a hundredfold in eternal happiness. What a fine profit, what a blessed reward! With outstretched arms he begs us to turn toward him, to weep for our sins, and to become the servants of love, first for ourselves, then for our neighbors. Just as water extinguishes a fire, so love wipes away sin.” —St. John of God
“We only become enlightened as the ego dies to its pretenses, and we begin to be led by soul and Spirit. That dying is something we are led through by the grace of God and by confronting our own shadow. As we learn to move into a Larger Realm, we will almost naturally weep over those sins, as we recognize that we are everything that we hate and attack in other people. Then we begin to become and to live the Great Mystery of compassion.
God’s one-of-a-kind job description is that God actually uses our problems to lead us to the full solution. God is the perfect Recycler, and in the economy of grace, nothing is wasted, not even our worst sins and our most stupid mistakes.” –Richard Rohr, ofm
Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem,” states in the refrain: “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” That is a much more poetic way of naming what we unfortunately called “original sin”—a poor choice of words because the word sin implies fault and culpability, and that is precisely not the point! Original sin was trying to warn us that the flaw at the heart of all reality is nothing we did personally, but that there is simply “a crack in everything” and so we should not be surprised when it shows itself in us or in everything else. It keeps us patient, humble, and less judgmental.
The deep intuitions of most church doctrines are invariably profound and correct, but they are still expressed in mechanical and literal language that everybody either adores, stumbles over, denies, or fights. Hold on for a while until you get to the real meaning, which is far more than the literal meaning! That allows you to creatively critique things—without becoming oppositional, hateful, arrogant, and bitter yourself. Some call this “appreciative inquiry” and it has an entirely different tone that does not invite or create “an equal and opposite reaction.” The opposite of contemplation is not action; it is reaction. Much of the “inconsistent ethic of life,” in my opinion, is based on ideological reactions and groupthink, not humble discernment of how darkness hides and “how the light gets in.”–Richard Rohr, OFM
“It is not dutiful observance that keeps us from sin, but something far greater: it is love. And this love is not something which we develop by our own powers alone. It is a sublime gift of the divine mercy, and the fact that we live in the realization of this mercy and this gift is the greatest source of growth for our love and for our holiness.”–Thomas Merton
“The eyes of the saint make all beauty holy and the hands of the saint consecrate everything they touch to the glory of God, and the saint is never offended by anything and is scandalized at no [person’s] sin because [s]he does not know sin. [S]He knows nothing but the love and the mercy of God and [s]he is on earth to bring that love and that mercy to all.”
From Seeds of Contemplation by Thomas Merton (New Directions Books, 1949, p 21)
I like Joan Chittister’s understanding of “the good life” and the wages of sin. Personal piety is important because it keeps us grounded in God. But we are grounded in God only so we can spread the good news to the world in which we live. Spreading that “good news” means consorting with those who society deems as “sinners.”
In American society, it is socially unacceptable to be poor. To be poor calls into question the great American “bootstrap myths” and the myth that market capitalism can advance humanity, and that myth that a system of American democracy that allows for an unfettered market will create a stable economy. What’s “good news for the poor” in this context is, indeed, revolutionary.
When Pope John XXIII talked about “the signs of the times,”–poverty, nuclearism, sexism–I began to read these new signs with a new conscience and with a new sense of religious life in mind. Most of all, I began to read the scriptures through another lens. Who was this Jesus who “consorted with sinners” and cured on the Sabbath? Most of all, who was I who purported to be following him while police dogs snarled at black children and I made sure not to be late for prayer or leave my monastery after dark? What was “the prophetic dimension” of the Church supposed to be about if not the concerns of the prophets–the widows, the orphans, the foreigners and the broken, vulnerable, of every society?
We prayed the psalms five times a day for years, but I had failed to hear them. What I heard in those early years of religious life was the need to pray. I forgot to hear what I was praying. Then, one day I realized just how secular the psalmist was in comparison to the religious standards in which I had been raised: “You, O God, do see trouble and grief…. You are the helper of the weak,” the psalmist argues (Psalm 104). No talk of fuzzy, warm religion here. This was life raw and hard. This was what God called to account. This was sin.
When the Latin American bishops talked about a “fundamental option for the poor,” I began to see the poor in our inner-city neighborhood for the first time. When Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. finally stood up in Birmingham, Alabama, I stood up, too. I was ready now. Like the blind man of Mark’s gospel, I could finally see. The old question had been answered. The sin to be repented, amended, eradicated was the great systemic sin against God’s little ones. For that kind of sin, in my silence, I had become deeply guilty.
I had new questions then but they were far more energizing than the ones before them. I began to look more closely at what “living a good life” could possibly mean in a world that was so full of suffering, so full of greed.
I began to realize that “a good life” had something do with making life good for other people. Slowly, slowly I began to arrive at the oldest Catholic truth of them all: all of life is good and that sanctity does not consist in denying that. Sanctity consists in making life good for everyone whose life we touch.–Joan Chittister, OSB
On the papal plane, Shepherd One, en route to Portugal to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, National Catholic Reporter senior correspondent John Allen got an interesting response from the Pope on the issue of the “sin within the church.”
Benedict’s emphasis on the greatest challenge to the church being from within, rather than attacks from the outside, is different from what other church leaders have recently claimed, that the media, the Jews, or secularists were to blame for unjust criticism of the church. (Really? That old playbook?)
The Pope’s response in the interview with Allen is intriguing because Benedict aligns the suffering of the church as embodied in the suffering of the pope – “because the Pope stands for the church” – but then states clearly that the greatest challenge of the church is sin from within. This raises the final corollary question – does the Pope carry the sin of the church within himself? The question is, of course, both theological and personal.
That the whole conversation is couched in the mysticism of the appearances of Mary at Fatima in 1917 is also fascinating. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:
John Allen: Now we look to Fatima, which will be the spiritual culmination of this trip. What meaning do the apparitions of Fatima have for us today? When you presented the Third Secret of Fatima in a press conference at the Vatican Press Office in June 2000, you were asked if the message of the secret could be extended beyond the assassination attempt against John Paul II to other sufferings of the popes. Could it also be extended to put the suffering of the church today in the context of that vision, including the sins of the sexual abuse of minors?
Pope Benedict XVI: First of all, I want to express my joy to go to Fatima, to pray before the Madonna of Fatima, and to experience the presence of the faith there, where from the little ones a new force of the faith was born. It’s not limited to the little ones, but has a message for the whole world and all epochs of history, it illuminates this history. As I said in the presentation, there is a supernatural impulse which doesn’t come simply from someone’s imagination but from the supernatural reality of the Virgin Mary. That impulse enters into a subject, and is expressed according to the possibilities of the subject, who is determined by his or her historic situation. The supernatural impulse is translated, so to speak, according to the subject’s possibilities for imagining it and expressing it. In this expression formed by the subject, there are always hidden possibilities to go beyond, to go deeper. Only with time can we see all the depth which was, so to speak, dressed in this vision, which was possible for the concrete person.
With regard to this great vision of the suffering of the popes, beyond the circumstances of John Paul II, other realities are indicated which over time will develop and become clear. Thus it’s true that beyond the moment indicated in the vision, one speaks about and sees the necessity of suffering by the church. It’s focused on the person of the pope, but the pope stands for the church, and therefore sufferings of the church are announced. The church will always be suffering in various ways, up to the end of the world. The important point is that the message of Fatima in its substance is not addressed to particular situations, but a fundamental response: permanent conversion, penance, prayer, and the three cardinal virtues: faith, hope and charity. One sees there the true, fundamental response the church must give, which each of us individually must give, in this situation.
In terms of what we today can discover in this message, attacks against the pope or the church don’t come just from outside the church. The suffering of the church also comes from within the church, because sin exists in the church. This too has always been known, but today we see it in a really terrifying way. The greatest persecution of the church doesn’t come from enemies on the outside, but is born in sin within the church. The church thus has a deep need to re-learn penance, to accept purification, to learn on one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. Forgiveness does not exclude justice. We have to re-learn the essentials: conversion, prayer, penance, and the theological virtues. That’s how we respond, and we can be realistic in expecting that evil will always launch attacks from within and from outside, but the forces of good are also always present, and finally the Lord is stronger than evil. The Madonna for us is the visible maternal guarantee that the will of God is always the last word in history.
Obama’s mere presence in the Oval Office is offered as proof that “the land of the free” has finally made good on its promise of equality. There’s an implicit yet undeniable message embedded in his appearance on the world stage: this is what freedom looks like; this is what democracy can do for you. If you are poor, marginalized, or relegated to an inferior caste, there is hope for you. Trust us. Trust our rules, laws, customs, and wars. You, too, can get to the promised land.
Perhaps greater lies have been told in the past century, but they can be counted on one hand. Racial caste is alive and well in America.
Most people don’t like it when I say this. It makes them angry. In the “era of colorblindness” there’s a nearly fanatical desire to cling to the myth that we as a nation have “moved beyond” race. Here are a few facts that run counter to that triumphant racial narrative:
*There are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.
*As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.
* A black child born today is less likely to be raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. The recent disintegration of the African American family is due in large part to the mass imprisonment of black fathers.
*If you take into account prisoners, a large majority of African American men in some urban areas have been labeled felons for life. (In the Chicago area, the figure is nearly 80%.) These men are part of a growing undercaste — not class, caste — permanently relegated, by law, to a second-class status. They can be denied the right to vote, automatically excluded from juries, and legally discriminated against in employment, housing, access to education, and public benefits, much as their grandparents and great-grandparents were during the Jim Crow era. …
When we pull back the curtain and take a look at what our “colorblind” society creates without affirmative action, we see a familiar social, political, and economic structure — the structure of racial caste. The entrance into this new caste system can be found at the prison gate.
This is not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. This is not the promised land. The cyclical rebirth of caste in America is a recurring racial nightmare.
You can read her whole article here. Alexander’s incriminating claim reminds me of this haunting poem by Carl Wendell Himes Jr. written about Martin Luther King. We have so far to go to reach the Beloved Community.
Now That He Is Safely Dead
by Carl Wendell Himes Jr.
Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him.
Now that he is safely dead,
Let us Praise him.
Build monuments to his glory.
Sing Hosannas to his name.
Dead men make such convenient Heroes.
They cannot rise to challenge the images
We would fashion from their Lives.
It is easier to build monuments
Than to make a better world.
So now that he is safely dead,
We, with eased consciences, will
Teach our children that he was a great man,
Knowing that the cause for which he
Lived is still a cause
And the dream for which he died
Is still a dream.
“Now That He Is Safely Dead,” by Carl Wendell Hines Jr. in “Beyond Amnesia: Martin Luther King and the Future of America,” by Vincent G. Harding, Journal of American History, 74 (September 1987, p. 468).
I’m a practicing Catholic. I practice and practice and practice. I hope when I get to the pearly gates, Saints Peter and Mary Magdalene will tell me that all my practicing made me perfectly eligible for heaven. God willing. Until then, we muddle along here in the earthly realm that, while shot through with light-bent beauty, is also riddled with sin-punched hearts.
The Catholic hierarchy is on trial right now in the world court of public scrutiny for aiding and abetting child abusers. If the Catholic church indeed represents “organized religion,” then – given the multiple jurisdictions crossed transnationally moving priests to avoid being caught and punished – this is certainly an example of organized crime. In this context Jesus’ words in Luke come to mind:
“Watch yourselves carefully,” said Jesus, “so you don’t get contaminated with Pharisee yeast, Pharisee phoniness. You can’t keep your true self hidden forever; before long you’ll be exposed. You can’t hide behind a religious mask forever; sooner or later the mask will slip and your true face will be known. You can’t whisper one thing in private and preach the opposite in public; the day’s coming when those whispers will be repeated all over town” (Luke 12:1-3, The Message).
Structural sin has long been a concept in Catholic theology. Structural sin, said Pope John Paul II, (see Sollicitudo rei socialis) proceeds from the accumulation of personal sins. It is, said the Pope, “a question of a moral evil, the fruit of many which lead to ‘structures of sin.'”
This is a time for the lens of such scrutiny to be turned on the Catholic church hierarchy itself. But the church leaders can not heal themselves from the inside out. They must humble themselves before the laity and ask for forgiveness and help in shaping the Catholic church more into a body that is less occluded with secrecy, silence, dominance, and clericalism, and that with greater transparency allows for the light of Christ the shine through.
Below are excerpts from a few commentaries I’ve found particularly insightful on the “scandal.”
They kept women far from any power, then and since. It’s a male-run church, now steaming ahead full throttle in legalistic mode. Shocking headlines pop up daily about what one or another Catholic bishop knew or didn’t know about pederasty in his diocese. From Munich to Milwaukee, across Ireland and into nearly every country in the world, the tales multiply.
What’s not been heard so loudly is the story of diversionary strikes emanating from the Vatican, perhaps aimed at discrediting U.S. nuns who built the charitable and educational infrastructure of the church.
Two separate investigations — one led by the Vatican department charged with overseeing religious institutes worldwide, another led by Pope Benedict’s successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith — are burrowing into the lives and work of U.S. Catholic sisters.
The Vatican appointed an American sister to lead the larger investigation, but didn’t fund the effort. She’s asking the convents her teams are visiting to pay for the intrusion. Some say that is typical of how bishops treat nuns: ask them to do something, as well as the money to do it.
The other investigation focuses on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for heads of most women’s religious orders and institutes. American Cardinal William J. Levada is directing a paper chase looking for doctrinal errors. He is the same man who called the (female) process server “a disgrace to the Catholic Church” when he was subpoenaed to testify about priestly pederasty.
Hello? What is going on? In the United States, not one bishop who oversaw pederasty or who used church money to break the minds and hearts of complaining victims has suffered any consequence. As Duquesne law professor Nicholas Cafardi points out in the lay Catholic magazine Commonweal, the only bishop to resign — Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston — got promoted to a cushy job in Rome. Law also belongs to the Vatican congregation that nominates bishops.
That’s right. The U.S. bishop who presided over the biggest pederasty scandal in history helps choose new bishops, and can even vote for another pope (at least until he turns 80 in November 2011).
The capital of trust between the people of the church and their leaders is dangerously close to empty. The bishops cannot take the people for granted any longer. We were raised to love the gospel, to seek the truth, to serve justice, to grow in the bosom of the sacraments. But we will not do it under their leadership unless they change.
What’s needed is a conversion of the bishops and the pope himself. That’s right: It’s time for the pope and the bishops to convert their culture to one that is centered on loving God from the depths of their souls and to leading a church that is as much mother as father, as much pastoral as theological, as much spiritual as doctrinal. It is time for them to listen to the deep and authentic witness of the people of faith, to trust the spirit that blows where it will, to abandon their defensiveness of their positions and trust only the gospel, and not their edifice of control. Conversion is a total experience — letting go of the old and putting on the new.
The conversion we seek for them is the same conversion they invite for us: Put on a contrite heart and fall in love with God, recklessly, totally and passionately. Let the love of God be the only measure of their actions.
For American Catholics there is no consolation in the confirmation of what we have known all along: namely, the sexual abuse crisis is not uniquely American. Our season of Lent is long and protracted, and the heartbreaking discussions, discouragement and dismay are as fresh these weeks as they were in 2002. There are multiple opinions– constructive, emotional, factually inaccurate, prejudicial, insightful and heartbreaking. Whether one’s objective is to exonerate or excoriate the pope, surely what matters most for those who belong to and care about the Church is that the outcome be a genuine commitment to penitence and penance, stronger accountability, deeper humility, exemplary managerial and governance oversight practices, openness, restored trust and credibility.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, likened the spreading sex abuse scandal to other recent causes of “suffering in our lives,” including earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and this week’s attack by terrorists on the Moscow subway.
“In many cases the victims could not put their injuries into words,” Zollitsch wrote, in a statement posted on his archdiocese’s Web site. “The wounds inflicted on them can scarcely be cured … This is a painful reality that we have to face.” Writing on the day when Christians commemorate the death of Jesus, the archbishop likened children and young people molested by priests to the crucified Christ, as fellow victims of “injustice and violence.”
The church needs to cast aside the lawyers, the PR specialists and its own worst instincts, which are human instincts. Benedict could go down as one of the greatest popes in history if he were willing to risk all in the name of institutional self-examination, painful but liberating public honesty, and true contrition.
And then comes something even harder: Especially during Lent, the church teaches that forgiveness requires Catholics to have “a firm purpose of amendment.” The church will have to show not only that it has learned from this scandal, but also that it’s truly willing to transform itself.
MARK SHIELDS: I think — I say this as a practicing Catholic. I think that the church has handled the child abuse scandal from the very beginning in the worst possible manner, that their first inclination seemed to be to protect the priests, and then to protect the bishops who were protecting the priests. And there seemed to be minimal concern, in too many instances, for the child, especially the most vulnerable and the least powerful, and, in some cases, handicapped children who were abused. Are there people who are delighting in seeing the church embarrassed and humiliated and exposed? Sure. But that — that is not — the facts are the facts. That was the first charge that was leveled against The Boston Globe when they revealed the stories about Cardinal Law, that this was part of an anti-Catholic — maybe there was a concern, but the facts stand for themselves.
JIM LEHRER: What about — what about this — the anti-Semitism angle?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, as a semi-practicing Jew, the comparison between a child molestation scandal and the victims of the Holocaust is an offensive comparison. And I think Jews and most people are offended by that comparison. And I think — but what it speaks to is not — is an insularity in the response and a tone-deafness to the response. At least a small coterie of people who are making statements — and this was not reflective of church policy — but who are making statements who have been inside the corridors of a world and have difficulty perceiving how things are understood and interpreted outside.
MARK SHIELDS: The archbishop of Dublin, archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop Martin, made a compelling statement echoing — really taking great issue with the Vatican and its handling of this whole crisis and scandal.
JIM LEHRER: As a semi-practicing Protestant, who is going to win the Final Four?