Spiritual Writers: February 2007 Archives

You Are the Good News


from Mother Angelica's Little Book of Life Lessons and Everyday Spirituality
Raymond Arroyo (ed.)

The world is never going to see the Good News by reading the Good Book. Because they won't read it. They are only going to see it when you live it.

Again, nothing startling here, but a reinforcement of what we must understand in order to communicate the faith. No one who is not already part of the faith is going to run to the Bible to find out about Jesus. What they learn about Jesus they learn through those who supposedly act in His name. This is a sobering principle that should serve to guide all of our daily interactions: Are we Good News? Or do we tell the world some other kind of news?

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A People Without a Home

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from The Listening Heart
A. J. Conyers

This book is written for those who suspect that this modern western world, even with its wealth and its productivity, lacks something essential to the human spirit. They see with their own eyes the army of "homeless" in the cities and along the highways in a and of unimagined wealth. At the same time, they sense an even deeper displacement that is more than geographic and deeper than material poverty, though it is a related phenomenon. There are, as it were, refugees of the spirit in a wealthy but spiritually impoverished part of the world. Too many people are refugees in their own land, some outwardly wandering from place to place, some inwardly. They are displaced people, wanderers who do not really know what to call home. What is often referred to as "home" is merely a convenient place to rest between days of work. The majority of people they work with, and too often even the ones they live with, are little more than strangers. Deep abiding relationships are not altogether missing in this world, but they are all too rare. Acquaintances are referred to as friends; strangers are called by their first name; but friendship and even the kind of kinship that was built on long years of life together, mutual trust, and sympathetic spirit, are so rare in some places that they seem to be altogether missing from common public conversation. The experience of community is one that is much discussed because there is a deep hunger for it; but it is this very thing that is so elusive.

Peer groups, so-called, or really age-groups, become more significant than family in the socializing of the young and increasingly in the social life of middle-aged and elderly. A market oriented society, of course, finds this more commodious. Families naturally impose a hierarchy of moral judgments, based upon the interdependency of generations and the availability of experience. Markets often find this inconvenient. Families are frustratingly resistant to the persuasions of commerce. . .

In some sense this is what we seek in blogging as well. It is interesting that blogging gives rise to small communities--St. Blogs, for instance--and increases the influence of "web-rings" and other chains that link together people with similar interests.

The truth is that outside of small communities, it is very difficult to find people who want to discuss the important things in life, the things many in St. Blogs tend to focus on. For example, outside my Carmelite community, and indeed, inside it much of the time, people don't really want to talk about the possibility of union with God or intimacy with God in prayer. I'm sure that there is a relatively small number of people who are really interested in Thomistic analysis of issues of the day--but being here on the web, that small number can find any number of places to visit and to listen to and try to absorb some of that learning and erudition that visit us so infrequently in the ordinary world.

Community is essential, where there is none, one will be built. Analysts blame the internet for making people less socially aware and hence less community oriented. But the truth of the matter is that a transient society in which forming close bonds that are too-often sundered does not lend itself well to the formation of strong local communities. We know that and so we don't often aggregate in the communities our parents and grandparents may have known. The internet is not necessarily perpetrator, but salve for those who have witnessed the limited opportunity for community.

Community is also built on shared ideas, values, and ways of doing things. Within a community the ideas of courtesy and the ordinary boundaries of what is polite are clearly defined. However, in a diverse mix of people these notions are hard to agree upon and lead to weaker bonds between people who, while not wanting to offend are just too tired to learn all the ins and outs of what is acceptable.

The idea of community is slowly dying, and as it does so we are losing any sense of self. Self is often defined against the backdrop of community.

And so it is my hope that this book does not merely analyze the problem, but suggests concrete things that can be done to help foster community--intentional community. And there is good reason to hope:

This book, therefore, attempts to answer some basic questions for those who would like to know if their sense have failed them, or if, in fact, something significant is palpably missing from life in the midst of such a world. Walker Percy spoke of the plethora of life-affirming books in our culture; and where there is such a flood of materials affirming life, one can be sure there is a lot of death around. Is there a reason for some of this widely shared sense of alienation? Are there concepts that help us to understand what is missing and what need to be recovered? Is there a model for life that would help the recovery of real fellowship, of genuine life together? Can it be that the church is such a model when she has not, herself, succumbed to the prevailing anti-culture of late modernity?

Is there a reason that the community with the most far-reaching common vision, an ecumenical vision, began with a Man who claimed nothing of himself, bur answered a call that ultimately meant his death?

The chapters ahead trace the meaning of the religious experience of vocation, in terms of a Christian theology of vocation. Here we find an alternative to the centrality of "choice." For it is precisely "choice," when it is the first word in our ethical vocabulary, that pulls us apart, and likewise "vocation" that calls us together.

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As proposed by Fr. John Dear, nonviolence is the single, monolithic impulse of the entire Christian message:

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

The cross then is the way forward for Jesus and for anyone who wishes to pursue his vision of love and peace. None of us can sit by idly while the world consumes itself with violence and war. Each one of us--if we want to pursue the morality and sanctity of Christ, if we want to plumb the depths of the spiritual life--must engage in some public nonviolent action for justice and disarmament. Sooner or later, we too will turn toward our own modern-day Jerusalem and confront the culture of war and injustice. We too will have to speak out against killings, executions, racism, poverty, war, nuclear weapons, corporate globalization, and environmental destruction through public, nonviolent action. We too will have to face our culture's preference for violence, and suffer the consequence of social noncoooperation with systemic injustice.

So then, it seems, we are not "many parts and all one body," but rather we are all to be a single part directed toward a single set of actions. If we are to achieve a spiritual life, we can't dedicate our lives to prayer within a monastery or to quietly raising a family to love and honor God. No, it seems that the only way to true spirituality are public acts of nonviolent resistance to injustice. So a great many of the Saints of prior times are not really so much saints as spiritual self-aggrandizers. Those who did not speak out against the injustices of their times--those who lived quiet lives behind solid walls, they did not achieve the heights of spiritual awareness.

People who quietly donate food to the pantries or who stock those pantries, or who counsel one-on-one with unfortunate women contemplating abortion--these people don't know the heights of spirituality.

It is this blinkered insistence on a single strain of the Gospel message that constantly weakens the real truth behind Fr. Dear's argumentation. My quiet avoidance of establishments that mistreat their employees and exploit migrant workers is not sufficient. I must get out with my signs of protest and make the whole world know what not to do. But the reality is that the informed person already knows what to do--all I do by carrying a sign is bring attention to myself as a holier-than-thou protester and rabble-rouser.

Jesus did not tell us that we all were to do exactly the same thing. We must work for justice in the social sphere, but it need not be public protest or public admonition of sinners or public anything. Our quiet charities and our continued prayers for those less fortunate than ourselves are actions that have every bit the validity of what Fr. Dear suggests. They are every bit the source of spiritual life and grace and they are the appropriate venues for most people. We are not called to be a people of constant outrage and in the public eye constantly. We are not called to be thrown into jail at every turn, regardless of Fr. Dear's contention that our actions must be public.

Indeed, the greatest nonviolent resistance to evil takes place when we participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, when we pray with the Church Militant, when we spend time with Jesus in contemplation and prayer. There our souls are refined and strengthened to our real work in the world--be that nonviolent resistance to social injustice or wiping away a child's tear. Both are productive, socially responsible, Christian acts that stem from the theological virtue of Charity.

We are not all called to the nonviolence of Father Dear--a monotonous, grey, wan, etiolated vision of the whole of the Gospel message. Many of us are called to some part in this as a portion of living a full-Gospel life. We stand holding hands to form a a chain of life on Roe v. Wade day. We serve in many ways. But those who cannot so serve may find other ways to strengthen the kingdom of God here on earth. We are MANY PARTS, each of which performs a function that maintains the health of the body of Christ. We cannot all be the part that spends our entire lives in public protest. Someone must feed those poor for whom others are demonstrating.

And, to be fair, perhaps Fr. John includes this in his vision of nonviolent resistance. But honestly, it does not seem so. If our service does not include an element of the public--in the sense of advertised or blatant--it seems that it does not suffice to bring us to the heart of spirituality.

Somehow, I find this message too restrictive, too small a vision of what Christianity is all about. Redemption and salvation seem to have little or no place in this vision of the Gospel--the only salvation appears to be social salvation--the only redemption public. Prayer's only purpose is to fuel this activist action. So we have, ultimately, Christianity as activism, the Gospel as manifesto.

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Compassion and Mercy


Father Jim points us to an on-line Thomistic Manual which attempts to make sense of some of the complicated concepts of Christian Theology.

These are compassion for the evil which another is suffering, especially when he suffers without his own fault. But compassion may embrace even sinners, not as regards the voluntary sin, for pity concerns the involuntary evil, but as fault has attached to it that which is involuntary. So the Lord had compassion for the multitude (S. Matt. ix. 36).

He that loves, regards his friend as a part of himself, and his friend's evil as if it were his own.

He "rejoices with them that rejoice;" and he "weeps with them that weep" (Rom. xii. 15). Anger and pride oppose this virtue, because the first lifts above the apprehension of evil; the other, because it leads to contempt of others, and to the notion that they suffer worthily.

(Emphasis added)

Now, the line above is simple enough with regards to those to whom we are naturally inclined, although even then we do not so readily take it on as we might. However, think about it in terms of yesterday's gospel reading. How easy is it for us to love, in these terms, our enemy?

And yet, as Christians to love one's enemy is not an option, it is a requirement. And the gate to that love might be through the natural springs of compassion and mercy. While we may detest the person, what the person does, or the company a person keeps, we can, nevertheless, put ourselves in the place of that person--a beloved child of God and a fellow-traveller and sufferer in this vale of tears. If we can for one moment be selfless, we can see in those who afflict us the children that they are.

Flannery O'Connor demonstrates the operation of compassion in "A Good Man Is Hard to Find." At the end of the story the whining and commanding Grandmother who has brought about the extinction of her family looks at the Misfit.

from "A Good Man is Hard to Find"
Flannery O'Connor

She saw the man's face twisted close to her own as if he were going to cry and she murmured, "Why you're one of my babies. You're one of my own children !" She reached out and touched him on the shoulder.

This action precipitates the finale of the story. It is, in fact, an act of compassion, the first truly selfless act that the old woman takes in the course of the story and, perhaps, in the course of much of her life. In it she becomes aware of an identity, a connection that does not really exist, but which reaches out to the Misfit in an attempt at redemption. While she does not affect the Misfit, the action itself may be seen as her own redemption. She has transcended herself and in a moment of transcendence attempts to bestow some small part of what God has imparted to her.

Compassion is the desire to share the sufferings of another not merely to suffer ourselves but to lift the other out of suffering and into knowledge of the greater good that alleviates suffering.

Compassion is one of the virtues that arises when we learn to love well and properly. And learning to love is a life time occupation.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Spiritual Writers category from February 2007.

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