Sunday, February 21, 2016

Positive lessons for Lent

For Christians, Lent is time of introspection and penance; it begins with Ash Wednesday ("Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return"), a sobering reminder of our last end.

But the daily meditations I have been receiving by email from Richard Rohr and his Center for Action and Contemplation this year are, not surprisingly, upbeat. I have known for years that Father Rohr is uniquely gifted and a major spiritual master. He combines in a powerful way the best of many worlds: Franciscan spirituality, mystical theology, Jungian psychology, and Biblical reality. The result: dozens of books and retreats that provide a refreshingly hopeful and holistic view of the Bible, Christian belief, and human behavior.

In today's reflection, he typically singles out the problem of dualistic thinking that results from a misreading of the Bible and of religion as dealing with right or wrong. Rohr, seeing the big picture, provides a needed corrective to the negative emphasis of much religious practice because he makes connections others often miss.

He begins today's email newsletter (available at free of charge) with a quotation from D. H. Lawrence about how greatly we fear new things and changing old patterns.  Authentic religion is supposed to challenge us to deal with our own self-renewal and help us change our inner lives, even though human beings do all they can to resist change.

Can we change our perspective on sin, a big issue in Lent?  Rohr says Yes! We all make mistakes, but we are also "sinned against as the victims of others' failures and our own social milieu."  Think, for example, of racism and other prejudices. This for Rohr is what St. Augustine really meant by original sin. The negative notion that has haunted Christianity for 1500 years is that we have inherited a sinful nature. That, says Richard Rohr, was never Augustine's point; rather, it is that we carry the wounds of our ancestors: our sins are not entirely our own. We are, at the core, inescapably good because we come from and are connected to a Creator who is good.
No wonder, he says, Jesus was never upset with sinners; he was upset with people who didn't think they were sinners. His basic message was one of loving understanding and mercy toward our failings since he knew that each of us is essentially good. As Rohr writes, the bad is never strong enough to counteract the good because the soul carries the divine spark of God's essential goodness.

So the Gospel is a hopeful, optimistic text. Those who read it carefully,with the wide-angle lens of someone like Richard Rohr, see that the ones Jesus wishes to exclude are those who exclude others. No wonder Pope Francis and Donald Trump clashed this week in an interesting dust-up: Francis preaching inclusion and mercy, the Donald seeking more publicity as he rants against immigrants.

I need a positive corrective to the negative political propaganda I hear in the media as well as an optimistic approach to faith that does not emphasize hell and damnation. So I am grateful to Richard Rohr for providing the latter.  And for always being human.

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