Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Making Connections

I enjoy finding commonality in my readings, seeing connections between otherwise unrelated topics. A case in point: a recent series of reflections by the Franciscan spiritual writer Richard Rohr and a New York Times article today (by Dan Kois) on swimming in Iceland.

What they have in common, believe it or not, is the very idea of connectedness and the danger of extreme individualism, which isolates one from community.

Rohr's point is that "the goal of the spiritual journey is to discover and move toward connectedness" on every level; the contemplative mind seeks and enjoys union. This might begin with our relations with animals and nature as well as people as we "grow into deeper connectedness" (love). 

"How you do anything is how you do everything," Rohr reminds us. The little things we do carefully, lovingly--the activities that seem trivial or boring--can, in fact, be reminders of something bigger. Our relationship to our surroundings, and the people we encounter daily, offers opportunities for love, in the broadest sense of the word. Think: care of the planet.

Rohr relates connectedness to communion with God as well as with what he calls "our truest selves."  He reminds us that, even at the cellular level, we are, like other organisms, part of a greater whole. We do not find wholeness/holiness in isolation but as part of a community of believers; that, at least, is the Christian vision.

On a purely secular level, in Iceland, where the nights are long and the days cold, people in every town and village, according to Kois's article, find solace in outdoor public hot tubs and swimming pools. It is their version of the pub or social center.

Kois says the people of Iceland, despite their remote locale, are among the most contented in the world. Why?  Perhaps because they are daily immersed in warm, communal baths, their mostly naked selves bared and shared with others.  You have to interact with others in a hot tub.

If clothing and a reserved Nordic manner keep people detached, naked Icelanders find a solution in their heated pools: connectedness. And they seem more than satisfied, craving, in fact, this daily ritual, this reminder that we are all part of one whole.

As someone said, a person alone is in bad company.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What Pope Francis Means

Catholics and others, reading accounts in the mainstream media of the Pope's most recent document on the family (released April 8), might easily conclude that the statement is a major disappointment, a setback for those wanting changes in the church's handling of divorce and remarriage, among other issues.

In fact, the document is radically important since it calls on those of us who are Catholics to act like adults. It indicates that the individual is more important than rules. Francis does not believe he has all the answers or that the church should dictate rules for moral behavior or tell people what to do.  Rather, the emphasis is on pastors giving guidance on a case by case basis so that individuals can make their own private decisions.

Although I have only read excerpts of the 260-page treatise, I have read the comments of John Thavis, a veteran Vatican observer, as well as Michael Sean Winters, Thomas Reese, and James Martin (among others) in America, Commonweal, and the National Catholic Reporter.

The key take-aways (for me) from what Pope Francis says, in summarizing two years of deliberations by the world's bishops, are inclusiveness, conscience, discernment, and collegiality.

One term at a time: collegiality is crucial because the Pope states clearly that many issues are to be settled at the local level, by the individual and his or her pastor--not by Rome.  The bishops and other clergy are being reminded of their role as guides.

Discernment: people are capable of their own moral choices in complex situations, as Chicago Archbishop Cupich said yesterday. Discernment re-states a key idea from the Second Vatican Council: that the individual conscience is the final arbiter of the moral life.

As Pope Francis states, the church has been "called to form consciences, not to replace them."  Each pastor is called upon to accompany people so they develop spiritual maturity.  As Winters states in NCR, "Francis is calling the church  to a deeper conversion than a mere change in rules." He is reaching out to the unchurched, disaffected, seemingly excommunicated members to reassure them they are welcome.

He wants Catholic lay people to have an adult discussion of doctrines, which many of us have thought were beyond discussion, such as can a divorced and re-married person receive Communion?  The answer (as Fr. Martin sums it up): the final decision about "the degree of participation" in the church is left to a person's conscience.

The Pope deftly avoids mentioning receiving Communion specifically just as his overall document deftly avoids coming down on the side of the liberal or the conservative wing of the church. He is, after all, a Jesuit.

This strikes Ross Douthat of the New York Times (today's Op-Ed) as disturbingly ambiguous: he prefers clear, authoritative regulations since he worries about a "deeply divided" church and a Pope who is "licensing innovation" and relativism. There is no mention in Douthat's column of the primacy of conscience or of the welcoming, inclusive attitude of "Amoris Laetitia," as the document is called (the Joy of Love).

So while conservatives like Douthat worry about a church becoming soft, the rest of us rejoice that, in preparing this major document, Pope Francis has thoughtfully listened to all sides on the moral issues involved and has done something more radical than change the rules: he has challenged us to think in Gospel terms, in terms of mercy, not judgment.

If all this sounds complicated, Francis sees complication as "wonderful" since, as he writes, "no easy recipes exist."  Amen.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Eyes Wide Open

Over twenty years ago, when she was a student of mine at the University of Central Florida, Marie-Helene Carleton shone in a way that suggested she might become a citizen of the world.

The daughter of UN officials, she was born in Beirut and spent summers in her mother's home country, France, where she and her sister mastered the language and saw much of Europe.

But I never expected her to risk her life as a journalist filming in some of the hot spots of the world.  In 2005, she published American Hostage, a gripping account of how she and others managed to rescue Micah Garen, her partner in Four Corners Media, from Iraq, where he had been kidnapped.

Since then, she and Micah have traveled the world making documentary films about the dispossessed. This January, they went to the tiny Greek island of Lesbos to film their forthcoming "Light on the Sea," showing how the largest refugee crisis to the Western world since 1950 is playing out.

An article about their work in Lesbos appears in VanityFair.com (March) and is important for what few people realize: 67,000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan poured into Greece in just one month--this January--the majority landing on Lesbos, where more than 80 relief organizations, including hundreds of volunteers, are doing what they can in impossible conditions. Does the world care about these refugees?

Marie-Helene says that Lesbos, the "island of goodbyes," has become the gateway to Europe.  Her concern is not about what policies European nations should develop to meet this crisis; rather her concern, and that of Micah, is for the plight of those affected. Her work comes from having always had eyes wide open to the human dimension of what often appears on the "back pages" of the news, at least in this country.

By putting the spotlight on refugees in Lesbos, Marie-Helene turns a crisis from an abstraction in the minds of many to a focus on specific stories, the daily suffering and death of our fellow humans; she also shows that her heart is also wide open.

I am proud to know her and to have had a tiny role in her education.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Seldom acknowledged realities

Two items in the current news cycle strike me as noteworthy because they are not widely acknowledged.

The first is the credit that President Obama deserves for the economy, among other issues. I was glad to see in today's NYTimes a piece by Jackie Calmes on why Obama is not given credit for the current low unemployment in America.  Could the reason have to do with his race, or is it that the anti-Obama narrative that has set in has obscured the reality of his many achievements?  For an answer, see Paul Krugman's op-ed piece in yesterday's Times.  (nytimes.com)

It is easier for many to protest and rally behind Donald Trump than to recognize the president's positive record.  Anyone who listens to the carefully worded, thoughtful and informed Obama, then listens to the rambling, inconsistent babble of Trump would be hard pressed to find two public figures more different.  One is being celebrated, the other denigrated.

This brings me to the second point: the "religious right," courted by Republicans since the Reagan years, is often blind and seldom right. Richard Rohr, whose recent comments I summarize, says it well: Many who call themselves evangelical Christians cannot see through the self-interest that cloaks itself in Christianity, as is apparent among several of the leading GOP candidates and their supporters.

The role of religion should be to offer a corrective to the culture of capitalism and materialism, to the lack of compassion so evident in people like Trump and Ted Cruz.  As Rohr says, cultural Christianity in America often has little to do with the Gospel.

 "Two thousand years of Jesus' teaching and compassion, love, forgiveness, and mercy (not to mention basic kindness and respect) are all forgotten in a narcissistic rage. Western culture has become all about the self. . . ." He doesn't mention Trump by name, but we know. It is often self-interest masquerading as Christianity.

I saw a woman in a T-shirt yesterday. It said, "Holler if you love Jesus. Holler if he is your personal Lord and Savior."  Doing the will of God is more important than proclaiming a personal devotion: What about loving thy neighbor? What about our connection with our fellow men and women?