Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Zealots and Lost Causes (not political!)

Today is the feast of Sts. Simon and Jude. That's "Simon the Zealot," and "Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes." Both of them were among the original 12 apostles chosen by Jesus. I'm going to take a minute for some basic catechism on the communion of saints in general and patron saints in particular, and another minute on these two saints celebrated today. But if you will keep reading, after that I want to say something about our own personal "lost causes," and reflect on "zealotry" as one of the ways we respond to them. I am NOT here to talk about zealotry in public causes, not a week before an election. In any case, I hope everyone reading this has already voted!

So first of all, some basic catechism on patron saints for the non-Catholics out there. What is a patron saint? Why do Catholics pray to saints, and why isn't this idolatry? So ... Catholics pray to saints, but not because they themselves have power, as if they were minor deities under God. We pray to saints for "intercession." It is exactly the same as asking your friends and relatives to say a prayer for you when you're about to go into surgery or take on a major challenge. Since we believe in everlasting life, whatever fuzzy ideas we may have about what happens to us basically good but flawed people (and Purgatory seems to be in a kind of doctrinal limbo these days), when it comes to the obvious saints -- apostles, martyrs, and others whose sanctity is generally recognized -- we believe that they are with God. And they are still with us, as God is with us. We can't see them, but they can see us, and being saints, they care about us. They pray for us, and we trust that such holy people's prayers are heard.

So that is the "communion of saints" in a nutshell. As for patron saints, they are understood as saints who take a special interest in particular human needs. Just like saints on this side of mortality, who have particular vocations. St. Francis of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Teresa of Calcutta, St. Benedict, were all holy people with very different ways of living out their holiness. A doctor might pray to St. Luke, because he had the same profession. If you're going on a journey, or out in a boat for pleasure, you might pray to St. Brendan, who made an epic sea voyage from Ireland westwards, maybe even as far as Greenland. You could say a prayer to St. Isidore the Farmer when you plant your vegetable garden in the Spring. I sometimes talk to my great-uncle Henry when I'm down in the marsh, because he had such a great love for the Great Dismal Swamp. And so on. 

What I love is the weirdness of some of the attributions of patronage. For instance, St. Agatha, whose martyrdom in the 3rd century included having her breasts cut off, is the patron saint of bakers and bellmakers. Why is that funny? Just, she's typically portrayed in art carrying her severed breasts on a platter, and people seeing the image without knowing the story thought they were loaves of bread or bells. Because unless you know her story, it would never occur to you that a pious image of a saint would show her holding a tray of breasts. And even knowing what a twist-up that is, she's still invoked as a patron saint of bakers and bellmakers. 

St. Joseph of Cupertino is the patron saint of aviators and astronauts, because he is supposed to have levitated during periods of intense prayer. St. Ursula is a patron saint of archers, not because she was one, but because she was shot and killed with an arrow. And St. Bibiana, the patron saint of hangovers (I'm not making this up!) -- not because she was a drunk, but just because her name is related to the Latin word for "drink." 


And so, back to St. Jude. Why is he the patron of lost causes? It's another convoluted one: his name is too close to that other apostle, Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. In fact, they have the same name, it's just anglicized differently so that pious people can think of Saint Jude without danger of mixing him up with Sinner Judas. That's why he's the patron of lost causes. In the old days, people would shy away from calling on Jude for fear of invoking the bad guy instead. So he would only be called on as a last resort, by someone really desperate. I don't know just when those "old days" were, but nowadays he's a popular guy.

OK, and then Simon the Zealot. We know that Judea in Jesus's time was an occupied territory, annexed by Rome. It was not a gentle occupation, and the Jewish people were not reconciled to it. "Tax collectors" were so reviled because they were collaborators who collected taxes on behalf of Rome, and moreover, stuffed their own pockets by extorting even more than the emperor required. "Zealots," on the other hand, were fanatical resistance fighters. I say "fanatical" because despite the overwhelming military advantage Rome had over little Judea, the Zealots seem to have opposed all accommodation with that power, either by the Jewish leaders or even by ordinary men and women. There's that little episode in Matthew 22:15-22, where the Pharisees try to trap Jesus into saying something that would discredit him with one of these two parties, the Zealots or those who accommodated themselves to the reality of the occupation, by asking him "is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?" His answer is to point to the image of Caesar on the coin, saying "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's." And really, it is one of the marks of Jesus's greatness that he was able to hold within his inner circle, apparently harmoniously, both Simon the Zealot and Matthew, the tax collector. 


So ... that's a whole ton of background! I'm finally ready to get to the idea that occurred to me in the conjunction of these two saints. It has to do with how we experience lost causes in our own lives, and how we respond to them sometimes overzealously, sometimes giving in to accommodating the unacceptable. 

I wrote a month ago about how discouraging it can be to repeatedly fail to live up to one's good intentions. This is how I experience the "lost cause" most sharply, by feeling that I myself am a lost cause. It's also where the abbot has done me the most good in spiritual direction, by encouraging me to ease up on myself. In practice, in my experience over the previous decades of my life, I could never become holy and sustain a holy way of life until I really internalized not just forgiveness but renewal, rebirth. My past is still my past, but I am not defined by it in the present. I still experience that kind of hopelessness on a smaller scale, in more limited ways, with various things I fall down on over and over until I gradually lose faith in my ability ever to succeed. That's probably pretty universal, isn't it? 

There are other kinds of lost causes that can bring us to our knees: terminal illness; broken relationships in which forgiveness and reconciliation are withheld for years; a loved one spiraling out of control with drug or alcohol addiction, or with the kind of severe mental illness that has, as one of its symptoms, the inability to recognize it in oneself. And yeah, OK, I'll say it: the ever-worsening polarization of U.S. politics, that we all suffer from but no one knows how to fix.

We can respond like a Zealot, raging away at a problem without strategy, moderation, or respect for our own or others' weaknesses or uniqueness. We can respond by giving up, which tends to lead to depression when what we are giving up on is something or someone really important to us. Or we can look for a third way. 

We can reclaim a vision, and then take the time to map it out, breaking down the first steps smaller and smaller until even in our dejection we are able to start moving forward. A little bit of forward motion can be a very powerful thing. Sometimes, when we've beaten ourselves up against a brick wall, if we step back and try to look at it with a new perspective we may find a door through it.

As for broken relationships, or loved ones spinning out of control ... I'm afraid this sounds weak, but what comes to mind is to recognize that we are connected in the communion of saints not only with those super-holy people who have died and gone to Heaven, but also with those beloved of God in this life. And being, say, a heroin addict, or a heroin dealer for that matter, does not take a person out of that category of "beloved of God." We are all beloved of God. And being unforgiving and judging does not forfeit God's love, it only awaken's God's compassion for the wound that is not being allowed to heal. It doesn't matter where the blame lies or how it's divvied up between estranged and bitter relatives. In the communion of saints, we are held together in the all-encompassing Love of God. That doesn't mean your lost daughter or brother or friend is going to all of a sudden start texting you hearts and smiley faces and pics of the grandkids. It doesn't, on the surface, change anything -- which is why I'm afraid it sounds weak. But for me, it's not weak, it's deeply meaningful. Just as I sometimes talk to Great-Uncle Henry, or my dad or my grandmother, I can talk to an old friend whom I still love even though the relationship is broken, while they're still alive. I can talk to them, and I can talk to God about them, and send them all my love and care and wishes for their welfare, and it really means something. The connection between us in that way is real, no matter how irrational and impalpable it is.

The crucifixion of Jesus is the perfect example of a lost cause that wasn't. He was expected, by many, to somehow bring about a restoration of Judea's sovereignty from Rome. Calling him "son of David" was code for "the person destined to re-establish, and lead, the kingdom." That's what Pontius Pilate meant by tacking up the sign (John 19:19-20) over the cross on which he was killed, that said in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew "Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews." He meant, "THIS is what mighty Rome thinks of your paltry pretensions to sovereignty!" It's what the Roman soldiers meant by the crown of thorns and the purple cloak (Jn 19:2-5); they meant to mock Jesus. These Romans and a whole lot of Jews were so caught up in the conflict between the two nations that it's all they could see when they looked at Jesus. Even Jesus, in his last moments, cried out the anguish of the ultimate lost cause: "my God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" 

The crucifixion of Jesus left his disciples and the movement he had led in chaos and despair. On the night of the arrest, Peter tried to blend into the crowd to watch the horror unfold, but being recognized he repudiated Jesus three times before finally running away. The conversation between the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-24) was all about their bewilderment and distress in the aftermath of the crucifixion of their hero. Encounters with the risen Christ in the first few days were scattered, and did not restore hope but only added more confusion. 

But it wasn't over. The true meaning of the Kingdom of God finally came clear at Pentecost, when the disciples received the Holy Spirit. It is in the Spirit that we can see impossible things, that they can be transformed into positive truths, that we ourselves can be transformed into living vessels of the Divine. It is in the Spirit that lost causes are turned around. It's not in zealotry, flailing away regardless at the intractable problem. It's not in giving up and settling for mediocrity. It's in acceptance of the present reality, vision for the future, and openness to divine (and sometimes human) help and guidance. 

*Whew* this got long. I guess I could have summed it up in three lines of someone else's words:

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.


Sunday, October 25, 2020


So in case y'all haven't noticed, Election Day in the USA will be this coming November 3, two Tuesdays from now. And you know what? It can't be over soon enough. I mean, I'm really glad I live in a democracy, but man, is it toxic!

I don't watch or read or listen to the news. I'm not on social media. I'm aware that it's really ugly out there, but -- well, that's exactly why I don't partake of it. It's too toxic. I'm not an undecided voter, in fact I already voted. I don't need to see and hear all the nastiness. When I am not sure which way to vote, in a primary or on some local issue, I look it up on the internet. Preferably on some non-partisan voter education website that can give me the information on the issues straight up, without all the hype and hysteria. 

I'm not going to rant on and on about this, just -- I miss my monks! I watched Mass livestreamed from the monastery this morning, but then I also went to Mass at a local parish so that I could actually receive the Eucharist. At the parish, the sermon was given by a deacon I had not heard from before. *sigh* Poor thing. It was not a good homily. I mean, it wasn't even a well-done bad homily, it was disjointed and rambling. He seemed, at the beginning, to be lamenting the way the media drive conflict and polarization, but then he went on to say a whole long series of such offensive things -- no, I am not going to list them. I'm not going to pass them on. Well, hell, you all have heard all of them already, anyway! You know. 

Meanwhile, at the monastery, my very dear Fr. Christopher preached about (go figure!) the gospel reading of the day. Which, by the way, is one of the very best passages in all of Scripture, and why anyone would want to ignore it in favor of rolling around in the pigsty of politics I don't know. It's Matthew 22:34-40, in which Jesus is asked "which commandment in the law is the greatest?", and he answers, "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your strength. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." That's what it's all about, and Fr. Christopher worked it. 

I miss my monks. I am reminded that there were plenty of parish churches in Italy when St. Benedict was a young man, but he didn't find spiritual sustenance in them. He left town and became first a hermit, then a coenobite (a monk in community). I don't know, there's just a different kind of wisdom -- maybe it's that they are first brothers, and only then, perhaps, sometimes preachers. Diocesan priests are first of all pastors. They are there for the people, people look to them for guidance, which maybe risks engendering a certain arrogance? Whereas monks are all monks together, community life is humbling. Only the abbot has a position above the rest, but unlike a parish pastor he's chosen by his own community, his own brothers who know him, warts, cracks, and all. 

For whatever reason ... *sigh*  Well, let me stop here and count my blessings. I have not gotten sick. I haven't lost a job. I'm not stuck at home with an abusive husband. I'm not trying to work at home while simultaneously directing my kids' schooling at home. I'm not depressed. I can watch one or another of my monks preach every day, through the miracle of the internet. There are dozens of parishes within easy driving distance of me, most with more than one Mass every Sunday, most with multiple priests and deacons alternating preaching duties -- and while some of those preachers make me want to give up and go convert to Hinduism or Wicca or something, some of them are the best kind of Christian saints. And I do live in a democracy, which may be pretty toxic these days, but you know -- Rachel Maddow hasn't disappeared, Joe Biden hasn't had any mysterious fatal accidents, and if Donald Trump tried to declare a state of emergency and call out the National Guard to avoid having an election when he's down in the polls, the National Guard would say "dude, no." This IS a democracy. And the election is almost over!

I'm sorry, that's as uplifting as I can get tonight. The bell has rung for Compline, and if I don't click "publish" now, it's just going to get more rambling, not any more inspiring. God bless you all, and let's keep the faith.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020


I have learned that the place wherein You are found unveiled is girt round with the coincidence of contradictories, and this is the wall of Paradise wherein You abide! The door is guarded by the most proud spirit of reason, and unless he be vanquished, the way will not lie open. --Nicolas of Cusa, Vision of God (15th century)

I am a contemplative, not a theologian. I am distrustful of "theology," and generally opposed to "doctrine." I am a Christian, and it is through the story of the Incarnation that I relate to God. I find great riches and depth in Christianity. It has to be admitted, though, that there's also an awful lot of garbage encrusted around it. Neither do I believe that Christianity's sacred Scripture and Tradition together, even at their best, give me any more than an obscure view "as through a glass, darkly" of God.

I object to theology, to the definition of doctrine, because it treats God as an object, or some kind of mechanistic process. We cannot "know" God the way we can "know," say, biology or history. Those are subjects which no candid scholar would ever aspire to reach the ends of, or ever claim to "know" in their totality. Nonetheless, they can be studied objectively and known rationally.

But God is not a thing, not a process, not a concept. God is a Person, to be "known" not with the mind but with the heart. It's kind of odd that English should have one word for such different kinds of "knowing," isn't it? And yet, in some ways, they are not only distinct but actually opposed.

In any close, long-term relationship, there tends to be a "getting-to-know-you" period at the beginning, which gradually turns into comfortable familiarity. There's nothing wrong with comfortable familiarity. It's what allows us to turn some of our energy and attention from the shiny new relationship, and get on with everything else in our lives. It's what gives us enough sense of security with one another to risk more self-revelation and vulnerability.

The danger is only when we start to think we "know" one another, and stop discovering one another. That is when "I know you" moves from the heart to the head. Then it ceases to be you that I know. It becomes: what I expect from you, what I have seen in you so far, what you believe about yourself, what you have been willing to reveal, and the pattern or role in my life into which I have slotted not you, but this fragmentary image of you that I can only ever see, really, "as in a glass, darkly."

When we allow "knowing" to move from the heart to the head, we shut the other person up into a box. To the extent that our "knowing" is very sure and fixed, as the other continues to grow and develop in life, they may either allow themselves to be stunted and deformed by the box or else bust out of it in a way that hurts both knower and grower. And we also box ourselves in, since it is through relationships that we principally grow. By defining the other in relation to ourselves, we simultaneously define ourselves in relation to the other.

When we "know" we cease to "wonder." We stop listening. We have claimed "mastery" over the other person's character, personality, thoughts and feelings. To judge based on what we can know of a person is to close off the infinite possibilities of that person's next move, change, choice. Rational knowledge is a kind of domination, of control. We "master" a subject in school, it is not a healthy thing to aspire to in relationships. 

I remember years ago, a young Capuchin friar laughing wryly at having achieved a "Master of Divinity" in seminary. It's so wrong ... just as wrong as aspiring to "master" a beloved human friend or lover. That kind of attitude closes off all possibility of real mutual knowledge, or of the self-knowledge that is gained only through relationships, through the mirror of the other's knowledge of oneself. 

The same is true in the relationship with God, with Divinity, who is not a subject to be "mastered," but a Person to be known and loved, Who knows and loves me. And just as in any relationship, the way to know this Lover is by:

listening, without preconceptions, with a willingness to be taken by surprise, an openness to wonder, trying not to project our own ego onto the Other;

being transparent, self-revealing, willing to look hard at ourselves and be seen and known exactly as we are; 

being willing to step up, to accept demands on our time and energy, to sacrifice, do things we don't like, stretch beyond our comfort zone.

To really know a person, whether human or divine, is to know them with the heart rather than the head. To know You is to love You!

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The pandemic is not the wrath of God

After posting to this blog two Sundays in a row, I was feeling very pleased with myself and thought that that would be a good schedule, and I meant to post again last Sunday. I started a post on Saturday, riffing off the Sunday Mass readings, but going again into my favorite theme of self-knowledge and self-actualization. I thought I'd finish and post it on Sunday.

And then I went to Mass. I hadn't heard this pastor much before, but I had a good superficial impression of him. But when he started to preach, I was appalled! I was so shocked that I just pulled my cowl down over my eyes and shut him out with a private meditation until the homily was over. 

The man was comparing this coronavirus pandemic with Noah's flood, and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the horrific conquests of the kingdoms of Israel by Assyria and Judah by Babylon. He said that when the world, or some part of the world, is irredeemably saturated in sin, God sends some cataclysmic event to "reset" society -- by razing it to the ground and letting it rebuild from the dust, chastened.

The last part of the sermon, as far as I could tell from the little bit that filtered through my determined efforts to block it out, I think had some value. That is, the overwhelming, global disruption of this pandemic may well provide the opportunity for a broad, society-wide rethinking of some of our negative cultural norms. I have said, for instance, that I think of George Floyd as a holy martyr, because his death has seeded genuine change. His helpless sacrifice has become an effective challenge both to the powerful and to the oblivious masses. And the great social "pause" brought about by the pandemic has laid us open to that challenge, in a way previous incidents failed to reach us. Likewise, I expect that the stay-at-home mandate will effect a deep change in family relationships, broadly, across all of society. And hopefully, we will be left with some new cultural norm for starting romantic relationships, since it's no longer possible to jump straight from "hello" to sex. 

But to say that God has visited this plague on humanity as a punishment for our sins ... NO. Just, no. No! Look, I'm not going to argue this from Scripture, because there are too many contradictory passages on either side. No, I am going to argue from the evidence of your own eyes and common sense. 

Who suffers most in this pandemic? Who is being punished? The destruction is indiscriminate, too broad a stroke to be punitive. Sure, it has raged through prison populations, but it's been even more devastating in nursing homes. The death toll has been highest in the rich U.S., and relatively low in poor Africa, and yet the economic impact worldwide is mostly a grinding down of the poorest of the poor. Here in the U.S., the middle and upper classes can work and study from their uncrowded homes, while the relatively poor are those who have lost their jobs in the face-to-face service and retail sectors, and whose housing is more crowded. 

This isn't to say, either, that the poor or the old are more virtuous than the young and rich. It is to say that the pandemic is discriminating according to vulnerability, not wickedness. And look around you: do you see virtue rewarded and evil punished, generally, in the world? Of course not. We struggle always, we will always be struggling, there will always be sin and oppression, inequality, undeserved good and bad fortune.

But I come from a religious tradition that recognizes a preferential option for the poor. This is understood to be God's preferential option, not merely a mandate for our own attitude toward the powerful and the vulnerable. All through the Old and New Testaments, there is unrelenting emphasis on justice, equity, mercy, and care for the most vulnerable. God brought the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. This is the foundational story of biblical history. The core Mosaic law is fundamentally about justice, about preventing the concentration of wealth and power in a few hands, about ensuring the protection of women and children within a whole network of family and clan and tribe, about defending the rights of resident aliens. So how can we ascribe to God a motive of vengeance and punishment for a phenomenon that so disproportionately affects the already vulnerable? 

But there are two things here that are really, deeply the matter with this punitive point of view. One is what it expresses about God, and the other is what it says about us. First, about us: if God is punishing the wicked and rewarding the good, first we have to define who is wicked and who is good. Which are you? How can you say? Aren't you a mixture of both? Isn't everyone a mixture of both good and evil? Where do we suppose that God draws the line? Most of us are generally well-intentioned, but most of us are also pretty complacent about our participation in an inequitous, exploitative global economy. We may look at someone else and think that they are truly saintly, or rotten to the core -- but what are we looking at? Only the visible, their outward show, their actions. But God does not see as we see or judge as we judge, because God sees inside us, He sees the heart. He sees our insecurity, and our ignorance, and our fear, and our loneliness. He sees our woundedness, and our blindness. He knows of what we are made; he remembers that we are dust. 

And then, you know, the whole point of the Christian story is that Jesus came to save sinners, and not the righteous. Sts. Peter and Paul, the two pillars of the church, were deeply flawed men. It is to Peter that Jesus said "get thee behind me, Satan!" -- three verses after he had called him "the rock on which I will build my church." Paul wasn't just some neutral, random member of society when Jesus called him, he was actively engaged in rounding up Christians for execution. Jesus was constantly in conflict with the religious authorities, befriending instead people outside the pale of official Judaism, prostitutes and tax collectors, people who could not help but be painfully conscious of failing to live up to even the minimal moral standards of society.

If the idea of dividing people into saints and sinners is problematic, so is the idea of God as angry and punitive. Jesus came for us, died for us, for us sinners. He did not come to pluck off some mythical sinless, deserving stratum of holy people. He came for us, us paltry, muddled, mixed bags of moral mediocrity. He came to us in love, to us who do not "deserve" God's love, because God is unmixed goodness and unmixed love. 

There is no wrath in God. As my favorite saint Julian of Norwich says, there is no wrath in God ... she points out, in God "we live and move and have our being." We exist, and continue in existence every moment, by the grace and favor of God. If God were to be angry for one instant, how could any of us continue to exist? How could the wrath of God not completely annihilate us, if we exist only through His love? 

Jesus came not to abolish suffering, but to embrace suffering alongside us. Jesus did not deserve a horrific death. Neither do you, neither do I, neither do the prisoners nor the old folks nor the doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers dying from this pandemic. Julian of Norwich had her visions, her "revelations of divine love," on what was expected to be her deathbed, in middle of an even worse pandemic of bubonic plague. She lived to old age, and then she died, and neither her survival of the first illness was a reward nor was her eventual death a punishment. 

Everyone dies. Despite the legends, Enoch and Elijah and Methuselah died, too. Jesus died. Death is sometimes swift, sometimes slow. Sometimes it is painful, some go easily in their sleep. Some die in the womb, some in the cradle, some in the prime of life, some few live 100 years or more. Some die from violence, some from disease. Death is universal. How can there be a judgment in it? 

Neither is death final. We die into peace and bliss and the boundless love of God, and there the veil of unknowing will be lifted, that veil that leaves some people wondering whether a global catastrophe like this 2020 pandemic is a divine judgment on the sins of humanity. The only really substantial "revelation" I have ever had is this, that to the soul after death, everything will make sense, and it will all be good. I guess that is my link with Mother Julian, whose most famous line is "all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well." The longer quote is this: 

"Our Lord God shewed that a deed shall be done, and Himself shall do it, and I shall do nothing but sin, and my sin shall not hinder His Goodness working. It behoved that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

God bless you. Keep the faith.