Archive for 2005
I’ve been pondering the Incarnation and what it says about the God who became incarnate. I’ve been realising that in my gut I have a deep-seated sense that it is somehow natural that God should take human form. As if God were in some sense already human-shaped and just needed pouring into a particular womb, there to be at home.
Theologically, I know God has no shape in that sense, that God is no more human than God is a wasp.
On that note, I’ve been watching David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Life in the Undergrowth and, by God, don’t the wasps seem to be the villains! As a species they seem to have come up with more nasty schemes for ensuring their youngs’ survival at the expense of other creatures, than any other. Surely God is less wasp-shaped than human.
The God I know in prayer speaks like one of us, nary a buzz to upset me, but I wonder what the Incarnation might mean to wasp-kind too — or to ET.
December 30th, 2005
There’s an interesting discussion about liberation theology going on over at Steve Bogner’s blog. I’ve been adding my own comments.
December 30th, 2005
Happy Christmas (belatedly) and a Hopeful New Year (prematurely?).
I’ve just upgraded to the latest version of WP and, after an hour or so of fiddling with plugins, everything seems to be running normally. Let me know if you find any glitches.
December 27th, 2005
Last weekend our team worked with a retreat group of gay Christians. The Vatican’s recent instruction on criteria of admission to priestly training was an unavoidable topic of conversation. In the course of the weekend we did an exercise asking the group to surface the kinds of consideration they felt were applicable to choosing ministers. What qualities and values and talents fit someone for Christian ministry?
The answers weren’t surprising, ranging from practical financial acumen through the capacity to communicate well, affective maturity, etc. to living, prayerful faith. All in all, the kind of recipe for a super-minister that puts actual ministers to shame. The exercise got me thinking about something I was given to pray with when I was a Jesuit novice praying through my 30-day retreat. The context was the Last Supper. My director gave me something written by another Jesuit, Michael Buckley, for some guys about to be ordained. I’ll quote a bit:
There is a tendency among us Americans, common and obvious enough, recommended by common sense and successful practice, to estimate a person’s aptitude for a profession or for a career by listing his strengths. Jane speaks well, possesses an able mind, exhibits genuine talents for leadership and debate; she would be an excellent lawyer. John has recognizably good judgment, a scientific turn of interest, obvious manual dexterity and deep human concerns; he would make a splendid surgeon.
The tendency is to transfer this method of evaluation to the priesthood, to estimate a man by his gifts and talents, to line up his positive achievements and his capacity for more, to understand his promise for the future in terms of his accomplishments in the past, and to make the call within his life contingent on the attainments of personality or grace. Because a man is religiously serious, prayerful, socially adept, intellectually perceptive; possesses interior integrity, sound common sense, and habits of hard work–therefore he will make a fine priest.
I think that transfer is disastrous. There is a different question, one proper to the priesthood as of its very essence, if not uniquely proper to it: Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Is this man deficient enough so that he cannot ward off significant suffering from his life, so that he lives with a certain amount of failure, so that he feels what it is to be an average man? Is there any history of confusion, of self-doubt, of interior anguish? Has he had to deal with fear, come to terms with frustrations, or accept deflated expectations? These are critical questions and they probe for weakness. Why? Because, according to Hebrews, it is in this deficiency, in this interior lack, in this weakness, that the efficacy of the ministry and priesthood of Christ lies.
Is this man weak enough to be a priest? Buckley’s question seems really important to meditate upon in these times. The full text is worth reading.
December 10th, 2005
Just published in the January 2006 edition of The Way is an article of mine “Receiving and Rejecting: On Finding a Way in Spiritual Direction”. Thanks to the publisher it is available for download at no charge. Have a look if you are interested.
It is a reflection on how we, as spiritual directors, navigate: what we look for, what we pay attention to, what we receive and what we reject. And on what lies at the heart of the art of spiritual direction.
I was sitting with my spiritual director a while back, bemoaning the recent drabness of my spiritual landscape, when she asked a question that split me in two: ‘If God were here now, what would you say?’
Two spontaneous responses rose to the surface more or less together. One was ‘Pull your socks up!’–a slightly irritated demand to God to tidy up my life and fix some of the health problems that have been besetting me. The second was ‘Hey, buddy!’ Now, I’ve called God many things in my life, including friend and lover, but this was the first time I’d used buddy, and I felt rather embarrassed by it.
I narrate this because it illustrates a question that is both practical and theological: to which of two spontaneous movements should a spiritual director give more attention? Which thread should they follow?
The issue often surfaces for directors once they have mastered the art of attentive listening. So much arises in a spiritual direction session and offers itself for exploration. The knack that we all struggle to acquire is that of winnowing the wheat from the chaff. How do we, during a session, encourage and develop those strands of a directee’s experience that are leading somewhere good, and how do we let go of those that aren’t? In this case, which way to go: socks or buddy? Do we have a rule of thumb? And do we have a rationale for our instruction and practice?
Download as a PDF file.
December 9th, 2005
Whenever Jesus starts talking about sheep all I can think of is mint sauce. I know I’m supposed to be thinking warm, woolly thoughts about care and concern, finding and feeding. But deep down what I think is ‘gravy’—why is Jesus comparing me to an animal being fattened for the slaughter? I don’t want to be a farm animal. I don’t want anyone eyeing me up for the table, nicely roasted with a sprig of mint on the side.
That’s the problem with words—you speak them meaning one thing but they get heard in ways you couldn’t imagine.
Saint Nicholas has accrued some strange stories on the way to becoming Santa Claus. One of the early ones places him, against the evidence, at the Council of Nicea. Once, when Bishop Arius was expounding his views, Saint Nick couldn’t contain himself and punched Arius in the face. He was thrown into prison but released the following day after the bishops were visited in dreams by the Virgin Mary telling them he meant well—it was only love for her son that made Nicholas so rough with heretics.
Then there’s the benevolent Nicholas. There’s the story of the three sisters too poor to have a dowry. Their father was on the verge of selling the eldest to make ends meet when Saint Nick got wind of it and quietly threw a bag of gold in the window while they were sleeping. The young girl married and moved on but still the family struggled and the father started eyeing up the next oldest for sale. Again, in Nicholas threw a bag of gold and another happy marriage was made. But by now the man of the house is seeing a pattern. He lets it be known the youngest daughter is on the market and then lies in wait through the night to catch the mystery gold flinger. In flies the gold and a chase ensues through the streets ending up with a breathless bishop and a properly penitent father. And this time the story gets its happy ending.
The saint’s icons show him with three bags or balls of gold—from which pawnbrokers get their sign—but a later story says they are the heads of three children caught and murdered and stuffed in a pickle barrel by a wicked innkeeper. Saint Nicholas comes calling and receives lavish hospitality from the landlord but before the saint will tuck into his dinner he asks for a pickle with it. It’s better than Columbo. The saint in magic mode resurrects the children and the baddie gets his comeuppance. … Though in some versions the three children grow up to be ruffians and murderers themselves.
Maybe that’s the root of other stories about St Nick in which he rounds up naughty children and takes them away in his sack to be drowned.
So who is he, Saint Nicholas? Hitter of heretics? Benefactor of poor? Wonder worker? Scourge of naughty boys? Or red and round usurper of Father Christmas? And why am I wasting your time with these tangled tales?
Who knows the meaning of any life till all the stories have been told? But are nothing more than the sum of the stories told about us? Nicholas must be squirming in heaven on days like this, protesting it wasn’t like that, that’s not what happened, that’s not me. Or at least he would if it wasn’t for God knowing him through and through and telling his story truly, deeply. That’s something we all have to look forward to, that and the look on God’s face as he tells it.
December 6th, 2005
Listen to two of the principal prophets of the Judeo-Christian tradition: Isaiah and John; Old Testament and New Testament.
Isaiah delivers his message as consolation to the people aching in their exile; John shouts his as last-minute, change-your-wicked-ways warning. But they speak with a single voice. What do they want? What do they promise? What do they demand?
A straight highway! A straight path! Iron out the creases. Fill in the potholes. Cover up the quirks. Level the mountains and build up the valleys. Make all straight and make all true and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.
That’s the vision and the promise of two great prophets. It’s stirring. It’s powerful. And it’s a terrible temptation.
Societies succumb to that temptation when they exclude and demonize whatever isn’t straight—the bent, the black, the female, the old, the poor. We know about that.
But we do it all ourselves too—to ourselves. Whenever we cooperate with the bruised and bargaining soul inside us that wants to make a deal with God. I’ll do it Lord—I’ll tidy up my act. I’ll work out my kinks. I’ll do whatever you want, God, in the hope that you will come. Bring on the bulldozer—there are mountains to move and caverns to fill. Let me make all straight and make all true and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.
But Jesus didn’t come that way—and doesn’t. His path is not straight. His way is bent way off course. He cannot be summoned with camel-skin and locusts and wild honey. He doesn’t come like Isaiah’s Lord—in power, his arm subduing all things—not even like his shepherd, gathering lambs close to his chest—we are not sheep.
He comes as a homeless baby, of questionable parentage, at an inopportune time, into uncertain and contested territory.
He is not what we expect and—if we are honest—scarcely what we want. But if we catch him, this Advent, creeping unawares into our bent and broken experience maybe we’ll learn to want him the way he is. The way he wants us. And who knows what hope there is in his company, his kingdom, off beam, off kilter, and off the straight path.
December 4th, 2005
“I could have been a contender” says Sylvester Stallone in the film “Rocky”. And most of us know what he means.Did you spot the ‘deliberate’ mistake? D’oh! I really meant Marlon Brando in ‘On the Waterfront’
One of our team, trained long ago as a zoologist, was reading the TV guide this afternoon and sighing wistfully at the thought of a new David Attenborough extravaganza about creepy crawlies—“That could have been me”, he muttered. I don’t think he meant the insects…
For my own part I remember as a teenager watching Jacob Bronowski’s “Ascent of Man” and thinking “that’s who I want to be”. Well I’m not. And the regret’s real—but so is the relief: I didn’t get to be a second Bronowski—I got to be me.
For most of us, life doesn’t turn out how our younger selves imagine it should. We lack the talent. We dodge the luck. We open door A and not B.
And then there’s disaster. I remember meeting a priest just back from a ten-year reunion with the students he’d been chaplain to at university. He was sad and shaken. “How come I didn’t prepare them for divorce, and unemployment, and disease?” That’s what he wanted to know.
And sometimes we get to follow our bliss and still it leads us places we neither imagine nor instinctively desire. I wonder how long into his ministry it was before Jesus realized his future held no grand reforms and no grandchildren for his knee?
Miguel Pro was exiled from his native Mexico and only returned because his doctors thought the air of home would cure his stomach problems. In a way it did. He got to be a martyr, someone else than he expected. His martyrdom is a strange thing because we have photographs of it. The regime wanted his death recorded as a warning. So we see him brought before the firing squad. We see him praying. And we see him arms outstretched crying “Viva Christo Rey!”—Long Live Christ the King. He found an eloquence and a wisdom that even the bullets couldn’t contradict.
The thing that moves me though is that—as Luke says today—he met a tragedy and took it as an opportunity. An opportunity not just to bear witness but to be a witness. He didn’t get to be the person his younger self imagined but he was surprised by something better.
Apparently he was something of a joker. Once, when the house was raided where he was saying mass, he managed to slip out in time, only to come back disguised as a police officer to berate the constables for not having caught him yet. I like that style!
The gospel says, “your endurance will win you your lives” but that seems far too serious. There’s something here about taking the opportunities life presents and living them … eloquently. And letting our lives surprise us and continue to surprise us—because we are unfinished as yet, the canvas not dry, the witness we bear still not fully born.
November 24th, 2005
I run the risk of appearing a groupie by offering a second“The long slow victory of gnostic over catholic christianity” link in a few months to an interview with John Dominic Crossan but it seems so relevant to our celebration of Christ the King. Here he is, comparing the imagery surrounding the Imperial cult with the titles and understanding the earliest followers used for Jesus.
Today, if you talked to most people and said there was a human being in the first century who was called Divine Son of God, God from God, Lord and Redeemer, and Liberator and Savior of the world, 99.9% of people would say it’s Jesus we are talking about. But Caesar Augustus was called all of those titles before Jesus was ever born. Those were his titles.
If you are talking to a Jew at that time, you might say Jesus is the Christ, and the Jew would understand that means the Messiah. But if you were talking to a pagan, Jesus Christ almost sounds like Mr. and Mrs. Christ’s little boy Jesus. But when you say Jesus Christ is Lord, than these pagans are going to understand what you’re saying. Whoever this Jesus Christ is, you’re claiming that person is supposed to be running the universe.When he says Jesus Christ is Lord, that is another way of saying, as Jesus did, that the Kingdom of God has already arrived on earth. One speaks directly to Jews and raises the issue of whether the world should be violent or non-violent. But Jesus Christ is Lord speaks to pagans–and it also raises the question of whether this is a violent or non-violent opposition to Caesar.
What we don’t catch is that the language of Paul is high treason, making a claim for Jesus that is ridiculous. Caesar was running the world, and he controlled the Roman Empire and brought peace to the Mediterranean–all of that at least makes sense because he is divine.
But Jesus? This nobody? Who was crucified on a Roman cross? He is actually the Lord of the universe? It’s either very stupid or you’re talking about a radically different type of world, a different type of God. You’re not doing fine-tuning–lowering the taxes, lessening the oppressive nature of the Roman Empire. Paul is saying that the whole system is not the will of God.
It’s not just long-forgotten empires that come under the Christian critique–it’s every way we apportion power, every way we subordinate peace to the violent pursuit of political ends, even when those ends are good.
November 20th, 2005
Both readings raise a question of purity: the purity of our worship, the purity of our worship spaces, the purity of our prayer.
Judas and his brothers set out to purify the sanctuary of Jerusalem from the defilement of their enemies. They make their sacrifices, re-dedicate their altars, offer their communion; they adore, they adorn, they sing, they feast.
But they take their whole army with them. Jerusalem is a contested space—always has been—but all sacred spaces are. Every place of worship is a battleground. Every Church a theatre of war. Because purity is always an issue. What keeps a space sacred and what defiles it?
And there always seems an element of violence about the purifying, whether it’s the armies of the Maccabees, or the anti-capitalist zeal of Jesus.
The Church is waging its own liturgy wars right now—a civil war I guess—over translations and texts, sanctuaries and servers, over sacrifice and communion, over mystery and what moves us. And as always the tussle for purity seems to bring out the violence in all sides, all greys sharpened against each other to blacks and whites.
But the violence should be a sign to us. The purifying, driven zeal of Jesus got him nowhere, got him killed. He couldn’t reform the Temple. All he could do was let it be destroyed in his own body in the hope it might be rebuilt, on the third day, from the roots up.
November 18th, 2005