Saturday, August 29, 2020

Big Questions

My mother had several mantras for her children. We knew them well and we not only heard them growing up but even after we left home. One of them was, "Remember who you are." She would bring that one out when we were whining or otherwise taking the low road in reaction to some perceived grievance. The mantra was a coded directive to claim the honour but also to live up to the challenge of what she considered was our family legacy. We knew exactly what she meant, in any case.

Looking back on those interactions, I see now that her directive was genius in its own way. She was not telling us exactly what to do, she was rather challenging us to buy into our identity. Who would turn that down? And yet if you accepted the premise of the mantra, you were in fact committing yourself to a course of action, certainly to a noble outlook on what to that point was a grievance or a worry.

Something similar would have happened if she had come at it from a different direction, with a question. What if she had said in the middle of our anger and argumentative interaction with her, "Well who am I then?" There is only one answer to that question, "You are my mother." Once again, however, in giving the answer, we children would have been making a commitment to what that stands for in the moment as well as what she stands for as a member of the extended family. It would be very difficult to give the answer and then to walk away saying, "Well I really don't care."

These kinds of thoughts ran through my head last week listening to the gospel and the ever so familiar question Jesus asked his disciples: "But who do you say that I am?" After all these years of hearing the answers given, doesn't it become clear that Jesus is not asking about himself, he is asking about the disciples. Once you have given the answer, you have made a commitment.

I recall when I was in my late teens and attending a seminary in the US, being saddened at seeing guys leave, and becoming aware that some of them were leaving the seminary, the church, and their faith, all on the same day. I do not know what process they were going through, but it would make sense if some of the problem was that the commitment to their answer to Jesus' question had become too onerous.

In our present day and age, there is arguably a significant fear of Jesus' question. There probably always has been. We sense just before the words come out of our mouth that we are about to make a big commitment to follow what Jesus stands for, and to follow Jesus himself. Too much, I can't do that.

And so we might hedge, as is very popular in our culture, by espousing a nonreligious spirituality, complete with a commitment to social justice.

Other hedges, popular in Christianity, certainly in Catholicism, are liturgical piety and ecclesial clericalism. The former is bound up with ritual, the latter is bound up with power. Both claim vociferously that they are following Jesus. Both are more likely to be ways of avoiding Jesus. They need to stand beside Peter and dwell on Peter's answer to Jesus’ question.

The era of the coronavirus pandemic, I think, is challenging all of us to stand beside Peter. We are post-resurrection people: we would have no trouble agreeing with his answer. (“You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”) We would quite possibly, however, have a lot of trouble letting the answer expand, letting the dough rise, as it were, into its full significance for us.

Remember who you are.

Out there in the everyday world are thousands and thousands of people who are hungry for a meaningful, active spirituality. They are not coming to church to satisfy that hunger, because it feels like the church is the purveyor of empty, repetitive ritual. Inside the church are people, including and especially in leadership, who are wringing their hands over the declining numbers in the worshiping congregations. Isn't it obvious, the question that is being begged here? Two groups are missing each other, two groups that have the potential to provide a synergy that would light up the world! Oh. Isn't that what the gospel is about? Isn't that where Peter's answer to Jesus question will lead you? If you spend time with it.
Sadly, there is division in the church on how to approach this. Some want to double down on preserving the liturgy in its purity even going so far as longing to bring back Latin. Others say that if we do not become a mission church we will have no one in the pews anyway, and we will have lost our relevance. The divide was addressed in an article I read recently, by Fr. Victor Codina, S.J., The article appeared in the Jesuit publication America, in September, 2019. The title of the article is: Why do some Catholics oppose Pope Francis? I won't try to summarize the article here, but Fr. Codina speaks to the pastoral flavour of the theology of Pope Francis. The article resonated with me, because it seems to me that Pope Francis was standing beside Peter when Jesus asked the question, Who do you say that I am? Pope Francis immediately thought of the poor, the sick, the lost, the wayward, that Jesus had been loving and supporting.

Here is a short excerpt from the article. If we are going to revitalize the church, if we are going to attract people to Jesus, then this commentary is on the mark.  

“It bothers people when he (Pope Francis) says that we should not build walls against refugees but bridges of dialogue and hospitality. He is annoying when, following in the footsteps of Pope John XXIII, he says that the church has to be poor and exist for the poor, that the shepherds have to smell like sheep, that it has to be an outgoing church that reaches out to the peripheries and that the poor are a theological locus, topic or source.”

For those of us who feel like we are clinging to our pews, the answer to building our communities is here. But we really will need to dig deep and remember who we are. Mom had that part right. It starts with ourselves, the leaders will follow us.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Leaving Anatevka - What to take?

    There is a great scene in Fiddler on the Roof in which the young tailor Motel Kamzoil - who marries Tevye’s daughter Tzeitel - celebrates the ‘new arrival’ of a sewing machine. The people of the village gather around and congratulate the couple as though they had just given birth. Times are changing and this machine will be very important to them. Coincidentally, there is a new current of independent thinking among the youth, and Tevye the father fears that this will destroy their traditions, their way of life. To add a further huge complication, the Jews of the area are under attack from the Russians who are doing their best to take away their livelihood and force the Jews to find new ways to survive. For many, this involves leaving the area. The sewing machine will become important in the transition. It itself is not the transition, but it surely marks it. The couple will never forget the times in which they received that sewing machine.

    Peggy and I were excited like Motel and Tzeitel when our new baby arrived: a new gym style treadmill. The sewing machine image readily came to my mind. And as I thought about it over the next few days, it occurred to me that the image fits more closely than I had imagined at first.

    The Coronavirus has attacked our way of life. It has changed our ability to freely go places, it has robbed many of their income. Like Tevye and his family, we lost even our freedom to worship in the way to which we had been accustomed.

    For the two of us, the ability to move around in the community had included daily visits to the gym, high priority given our health histories. Those visits ceased, and we were left with walking in the community. Perfectly ok, but the weather has a lot to say about how and when you are going to do that! In particular, snow and bitter cold will be here in no time. Anticipating that, we made a big decision to transition to a new routine that would protect us in two ways: against exposure to the enemy virus in a gym, and against the weather elements that stop us from participating at all. The new routine is the treadmill in the basement.

    By itself, this is not at all noteworthy. But it is a bit like Motel’s sewing machine. It occurs as part of a transition to a new era. It does not make the transition, but it does mark it. As with many events in our lives this year, we will never forget when this took place.

    What was life like for those Jewish communities that had to leave everything behind? If you have seen the movie or play, you know that no matter how bad things were ever going to get, what they possessed to give them balance now and forever, was tradition. No-one could take that from them. The challenge, however, was how to incorporate it into the new reality of starting from scratch, and at the same time dealing with the perennial roiling that comes with kids growing up and thinking for themselves.

    Goodness, some of this sounds very familiar. My dad was greatly distressed by the changes brought by Vatican II in the mid 1960's. He kept asking me ‘What were we doing that was so wrong?’ I was so gung ho with Vatican II that I am not sure I gave him a full hearing. But he was upset.

    We are not in a Vatican Council circumstance right now, but we surely have experienced change in liturgies, starting with our ability to attend them. In the course of dealing with the disruption, parishes around the world have learned to stream their liturgies, and to get good at it. The upside of this is participation even if a step removed. The downside is no physical community gathering and no Eucharist. The convenience factor does not at all make up for those two losses. I think there is consensus on that.

    The next evolution - we are in the middle of it - has been the slow reopening of churches for liturgies, with limited seating capacity, strict social distancing rules, and significant limitations on the spoken and sung word by all those present. There is Eucharist, and there is community. And there is greatly slimmed down liturgical celebrations. Where is all that leading us?

    Not too long ago the National Catholic Reporter ran a series in which it asked the question, What next? The Church after Coronavirus.

    To my surprise, the authors and the people interviewed focused almost not at all on the details of the liturgies, as I might have expected they would. They focused instead on the nature of the communities, and what our gatherings are even supposed to be for. Massimo Faggioli, a professor at Villanova University worried that with our ability to choose the community we want to tune into online, we may be inclined to seek out groups with whom we resonate, rather than contributing to the local community of which we are a part. 

    Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator who is president of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, cautions against too much insularity wherein we look inward and end up trapped in bureaucratic and clericalist structures as before. This is an opportunity he argues, for us to look outward to those we have not included. After all, that is central to the teachings of Jesus. In saying this, he is anchoring all our changes in the biggest tradition there is - the Good News of the Gospel.

    Julie Hanlon Rubio is professor at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. She marvels at the ability to form or join whatever community one wishes, through Zoom. She adds: “Yet I also strongly believe in the idea of a local parish, where you show up to worship with people who aren't like you, but to whom you are connected as members of the Body of Christ. I'm grateful for Sunday mornings that feel like opportunity instead of struggle. But I'm worried about what will be lost when we choose the church we prefer over the one down the street.”   Again, she is pointing at the heart of the Gospel.

    I think that what is coming through here is that there are a lot of changes that may amount to transitions. Those transitions may well include changes within the liturgy. But that is not the emphasis these writers are discerning. Rather, there is a shared excitement that maybe, just maybe, the Church will return to its roots in the social/ redemptive mission of Jesus Christ, which is to bring all people together in love - no-one left out. In the words of Fr.Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator: “I am minded to dream of a post-coronavirus church with doors open to a new Pentecost that blows social distances away and frees consciences of bureaucratic, clericalist and hierarchical structures and certainties in which we were schooled to place our trust. I dream of a church receptive to new ways of practising solidarity and compassion in response to Jesus' commission to be women and men for others.”

    Isn’t this interesting. Doesn’t it hit you that if we emerge from all this with our eyes open and our minds attentive to who we are and to whom we belong, the liturgies will line up just fine? Changed or not.

    We are leaving Anatevka. Dangers of various kinds have forced that upon us. It turns out that difficult as this may be, and as unsettling as the experience has been, this is also a great opportunity. I am not sure what our sewing machine would be as we make our transition. But if we listen to voices such as I just referred to, we would have found our balance in the middle of change. Tevye said it well. Change all around us, anchored by a precious possession. Tradition.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Freedom and CounterWill in the Pandemic

In the middle of March break this year we heard that Ontario had declared a State of Emergency because of CoVid 19. Here we are now at the end of June, over 15 weeks later, and the State of Emergency has been extended into July. That is a long time to be living with serious restrictions on movement, shopping, and gathering.

And I suppose the big news at this point is not even that extension. It is that in some jurisdictions the infection rates are exploding again. Why? Because people got tired of waiting. People got angry at being told to wait. And people then refused to wait because they now turned the issue into one of 'rights.'When my rights are being violated by orders to stay indoors, to close my business, to wear masks, etc., than my freedoms are being violated. I will not tolerate that.

On Canada Day what a great time to reflect that somewhere along the line, a huge misunderstanding of freedom has taken place. Don't you hear the echoes of the three-year-old, "You're not the boss of me, I don't have to do that." Don't you hear echoes of the 15-year-old, "I'm old enough to make up my own mind. I'm going to go where I want."

Both of these protests are perfectly normal developmental events. Handled properly they resolve just fine, and healthy development continues.

But the objections we are hearing in the pandemic are not from three-year-olds or 15-year-olds, they are from supposedly mature adults. "You can't tell me what to do."

The largest age group I saw over the years in my practice was the 15 year old group. Parents would be at their wits end, and the kids were angry at the arbitrary, rigid directives from parents who used to be so loving!

That age is a time for everyone to develop an understanding of freedom and ownership.

I used to take the youth to the window of my office and asked them to look out on the street.

Me: "What side of the road are the cars on?"
Youth: "The right side."
Me: "How did they get there?"
Youth: "It's the law."
Me: "What if they decided they didn't want to be told where to drive? That left side might be nice today."
Youth: "There would be accidents."
Me: "Yes. And so the drivers are showing you one of the really important things about growing up. Namely, that you do things because you know they are the right thing to do. If someone told the driver to be sure to drive on the right side of the road, they would reply, 'Why are you telling me that? That's exactly what I was going to do.'

 Growing up, it turns out, involves doing things in a particular way all day long, in spite of being told to do them, because you were going to do it that way anyhow. And in the process you are exercising your freedom to take ownership of a rule, a directive. You will also smoothly learn how to object, to problem-solve, and to negotiate.

The person who recently threatened to have a doctor arrested for issuing a wear-mask order, has not gotten through the adolescent stage yet in which he or she understands that their freedom includes the right to follow that order and take ownership of it. Instead, they are stuck in what we call "counter-will;" the impulse to do the opposite of what I've been directed to do, just on the basis of having been directed to do it.

Our faith is one massive exercise of our freedom to make our own something that has been given to us on authority. I have mentioned previously that the post-modern movement objects to religion partly on that very basis. "I'm not going to be told what to do or what to think. I am my own guide for all that."

I recently heard a wonderful motivational speech in which the speaker said to be true to yourself, don't let anyone else tell you what to think or what you have to be. Partly correct, but incomplete. Jesus said something more or less like that, but what he was referring to was the self that you become when you follow me, when you accept and make your own the truth that “I am the way, the truth, and the life." Using your freedom you then stand firm against anyone or any power that would try to move you off that. Of course, if you haven't moved past the counter-will stage of your life, you will be easy pickings for anyone who says "Why are you doing/ believing all that stuff? They sold you that all your life, time for you to grow up and reject it all! Be your own person!"

The thoughtful person of faith says "Thank you but this IS who I am. I have made it my own. Freely!"

The thoughtful person of mature citizenship has no problem freely accepting the authority of a stay home or don't open or don't gather or do wear a mask order. The counter-will person, by contrast will succumb to the impulse to defy that authority.

In a faith community, the counter-will person may cause you to lose your faith.

In a pandemic, the counter-will person is going to make you sick.

What lessons we are learning. Don’t miss them!

And Happy Canada Day everyone! What a great country we are blessed to live in!

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Gift in the pandemic?

It is the last week of May, 2020, and the Provincial government has just announced an extension of the pandemic state of emergency. Some stores are being allowed to reopen but schools will remain closed for the duration of the current school year. People are getting antsy with all this, and the sacrifices we made in the early going are getting harder and harder. The restrictions are a great burden especially on a warm sunny day. People want to get out, and they want to mingle!

At this point, churches remain closed as well. And it is Pentecost weekend at time of writing. What a sobering thought. That event of 2000 years ago took place during a gathering of thousands of pilgrims who had come to Jerusalem for the annual  'celebration of the early harvest.' When the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and they started preaching, locals and travellers alike understood them, regardless of their native language. We are told that 3000 people were added to the growing community of followers of Jesus.

That gathering would simply not be allowed today in the pandemic environment. Moreover, we can't even gather to remember it! And so for the 10th+ week we are challenged to reflect on what our gatherings mean: what they mean to the community and what they mean to us individually.

I continue to be moved by the phrase 'transformative sensory experience', written by Randy Boyagoda a few weeks ago in the Globe and Mail, and referring to what happens to us when we gather as community for celebrations of Eucharist at Mass. That phrase sums up what we are missing in not being there. The transformation is in the experience of touching Christ in the Bread, in the community, in the Word.

I believe there is a longing for touch, for connection that makes us whole. Inside the faith context and outside of it. Physical touch, verbal touch, visual touch.

I recall years ago reading Ronald Rolheiser's book "The Holy Longing.' I dug it out again, and found this:  "....(S)pirituality is not about serenely picking or rationally choosing spiritual activities like going to church, praying or meditating, reading spiritual books, or setting off on some explicit spiritual quest. It is far more basic than that. Long before we do anything explicitly religious at all, we have to do something about the fire that burns within us. What we do with that fire, how we channel it, is our spirituality…… Spirituality concerns what we do with desire."

And of course that is where we humans also get in trouble. Where we need healing and redemption. Our desires, our tastes, our wishes for experience take us in all different directions, often contradictory within ourselves, often contradictory to good order, often hurtful – to ourselves, to those we love or don't love, and to our relationships with the God we profess to believe in.

All of this is the back story of the Incarnation. The Son of God coming among us. For us. Our redemption through his death and resurrection to set things right. To let us reset. To heal our hurts. But here's the point Fr. Rolheiser makes that is germane to our present discussion: we talk about the physical body of Jesus being with us for 33 years. "God came to earth and then went home." That language, he says, is misleading and wrong. The Incarnation actually continues. In the Catholic tradition we talk about the Body of Christ, and we mean three things: the physical presence of Jesus who walked the earth; the Eucharist; and the body of believers. Yes. Us. We are the Body of Christ. Christ continues to dwell among us.

You remember, of course, that healings took place when people touched Jesus. The woman in the temple who suffered from a hemorrhage is a prime example. "This text… lays out a pattern… Simply put… just like this woman, we will find healing and wholeness by touching the Body of Christ and, as members of the Body of Christ, we are called upon to dispense God's healing and wholeness by touching others… If you are a member of the Body of Christ, when you forgive someone, he or she is forgiven; if you hold someone in love, he or she is held to the Body of Christ.… Your touch is Christ's touch."

Father Rolheiser goes on to say this does not mean that we forgive sins or that we bind and loose. "It is Christ working through us, who does this… (I)n the Incarnation God has chosen, marvellously, to let his power flow through us, to let our flesh give reality to his power."

Father Rolheiser explains that even after this reconciliation through touching the community of faith, private confession is still needed. (The healing of the woman in the temple was completed when she spoke to Jesus after her bleeding stopped as she touched his garment. Mk 5:25-34) The point for us today is this: "… (T)he basis for Christian ecclesial community, church, is a gathering around the person of Jesus Christ and living in his Spirit."

This is marvellous and heady stuff to contemplate. But contemplate it we should, especially in the challenge presented by the lockdown of pandemic. Especially on Pentecost Sunday. The pain of separation and isolation we are experiencing is in its own way a gift. Or more accurately, perhaps, a pointing towards a gift that we often miss or even take for granted in our faith community. That gift is the gift of God's touch that we give and receive to and from each other through the continuing Incarnation of the Son of God. In us. As Fr. Rolheiser says, it almost seems too good to be true! Indeed. That's how marvellous It Is. That's how much we are loved.

Perhaps we will come out of this horrible time with a new awareness of who we are to each other, how important we are to each other in our brokenness. We are the Body of Christ.

The world should change because of that.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Pandemic and the human condition

In the relative quiet of our mandated ‘stay at home’ status, you get to notice things. Much is being written about such noticing, and I see photos documenting the new - if temporary - world order. One of my favourites was the picture of a man outside in the quiet with recording equipment capturing the sounds you never hear in the din. This is a nice metaphor for the listening we have been able to do while being still. Such is the case with me, anyhow.

And in this quiet time I love noticing dots connect. This time it started with the church being closed to all activities and Mass being streamed. You could attend Mass in the comfort of your home. In your pajamas if you wish. You did not have to worry about the schedule. If you missed the original streaming, it would still be there as a video later. I marvelled at the convenience. At the same time I wondered if the lifting of any formal requirement to attend church would erode church attendance further than it is. We know that attendance has been falling even apart from this new reality.

It happened that I was reading an intriguing paper written by an Anglican clergy friend of mine (thanks David!). It is on the evolution of post-modernism as it relates to Western religion and spirituality. Think of the Modern period as beginning around the industrial revolution in the 19th century. Think of the Post-Modern period as beginning after the world wars and really picking up steam in the 1950's and beyond. In recent years the author notes the influence of internet-based social media communication, and the instant flavour of messages. For example, research has shown that our attention span has decreased from an average of 12 minutes to around 5 minutes. A one second delay in the loading of a Google response results in greatly diminished readership of an item.

In the post-modern world, communications are there to serve us and satisfy our needs. They are generally one way (announcements) and implicitly say ‘respond to me,’ not so much with more information, but to ‘like (me).’

In that context, the ‘father-knows-best’ model of church authority (which in some instances evolved unchecked [read: clericalism] into ‘father-knows-all’), has given way to a tendency to look for a group that thinks the way I do. I become my own centre and have no need for a church experience or church teaching. And yet it turns out that people are interested in spirituality as much as ever. But spirituality devoid of religion. At one time those two were interchangeable.

So goes the argument. If all that is valid, then the pandemic reality that is ours right now has merely intersected a phenomenon that was already well entrenched.

I pondered my own experience of not being able to get into the church while all this was on. The sense of convenience with Mass attendance has given way to a longing. Something is missing, no matter how well done the Mass streaming (and I really like ours at St. Paul’s). What is missing is the community. And the sense of belonging, both before and after Mass. Something about being my own centre doesn’t sit right. Something about composing my own post-modern theology or my own rules or my own detached spirituality doesn’t work. Neither does experiencing the liturgy of Eucharist from afar. I have come to see that during this forced absence. I and a whole lot of other people are hungry for the experience and that is why we watch the streamed version. But our hunger stems from missing the engagement that you get when you are in the presence not only of the community but of the spoken word and the liturgical movements that have been handed to us - gifted to us - over many many centuries.  It matters that we are there for them rather than remaining a step removed from them.

Into these ponderings came an article sent to me out of the blue by a cousin - thanks Christine! It appeared in the Globe and Mail and was written by Randy Boyagoda Principal of St. Michael’s College. It was titled ‘Metaphysical distancing: Have we isolated ourselves from God, too?’ Mr. Boyagoda talks about being deprived of the most taken-for-granted experience of being able to intentionally spend time with God and others. “In the midst of this, I intensely miss the transformative sensory experiences of being in church, especially at this time of the year.” (Holy Week and Easter). He put that well! That’s what I have been missing and what I sense is wrong with making do as we are. He goes on to say that with the distractions in the house and with the ability to move around in the house while the streaming is on, there is the danger that religious rituals will start to feel pointless. Mr. Boyagoda closes with this lovely reflection: “Does that mean we should abandon millennia-old, ever-fresh ways of knowing and being known by God and one another? Does that mean giving up on such abiding and durable sources of sacrificial love and solidarity? Absolutely not.”

Still another dot got connected in this sequence. This one came in the form of an article in the Toronto Star by Brandie Weikle titled ‘Social distancing shows nuclear family doesn’t work.’ My back was up before I started reading because I thought it was going to be a quintessential post-modern reflection on the next step in the evolution of ‘me’ wherein I do not even need my family. To my delight, it went in a very different direction. The point of the article was that in this pandemic time when parents are juggling many balls in the air and living the tension of paying bills, managing work schedules and so on, the disconnected life we are being forced to live deprives us of our best resources - our extended family!  She quotes a professor who stated that humans evolved to live in groups no smaller than 15-25 in number. This number made the group sustainable. The author quotes another woman as saying, “If my mother was here, she would know exactly what I needed or wanted.” Beautiful. The discussion continues with the author musing about how we will come out of the social restrictions we are in right now. We have the opportunity to rethink how to live a more connected life. A life that especially implicates family, and even includes things like larger family groups living under one roof.

The coming together of these dots affirms, I think, that being in ‘community’ is a basic need for humans, no matter our evolution towards the immediate and the disconnected. We don’t have to be prisoners of that evolution. We have a chance to step back and reflect and learn from the pandemic experience. While the scientists are discovering prevention and cure for the disease, the rest of us can be (re)discovering our need for each other and for transformative experiences. Religion is part of that. Religion and spiritual practices in the form of community participation in liturgies, are part of that. 

With the dots seemingly connecting like this, I am grateful for what the pandemic, tragedy that it is, has let us see and hear. I am excited by what it has to offer for the continuing course of our evolution. Will historians call the next decades the Post-pandemic Age? We - you and I - have a chance to shape it, in any case, not just watch it. That goes for our religious leaders as well! Pay attention, yes?

Best wishes to everyone.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Purification Rites and the Pandemic

People have been observing and writing about how some things have really changed for the better in the middle of the CoVid–19 crisis. Strange how it takes a difficult set of circumstances to bring about those changes. And if we look closely we will see that it is not just being in the circumstance, it is going through it with awareness that counts.

The word 'purification' came to mind as I was reflecting on all this, and right after that, a sentence in Luke’s gospel: "When the days were completed for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord." The Rite of Purification Mary submitted to was an ancient one, prescribed in the Book of Leviticus. It is a ritual cleansing that took place following childbirth. There was also a sin connotation in the ritual involving cleansing of inherited effects of sin.

The Jewish people had purification or cleansing rituals for a whole lot of things – preparation of food, offering sacrifice, etc., etc. The really interesting thing is that they took simple ordinary tasks and added a religious significance to them by the prescribed patterns and intentionality they added. Everything they did was elevated to inclusion in their relationship with God. Again, it is doing it that is important. We humans do well with significance and meaning when we enact it.

We have a ritual cleansing in the Catholic celebration of the Mass. Just before the preparation of the bread and wine for Eucharist, the priest washes his fingers. Again, a perfectly sensible thing to do before handling food, but in this case with symbolic meaning in the 'cleansing from our sin' as we prepare for Eucharist.

We humans appreciate that it is not enough to say it or wish it or intend it. Doing it, even ritually and symbolically, brings it home, makes it real.

I think why this is all playing in my head is that we are going through major upheavals in our world right now. With the pandemic of CoVid-19. Those upheavals have led to major changes in our behaviour. Everywhere. Changes involving cleanliness and sanitation. Respecting space while at the same time being supportive and caring. Being needy while at the same time being appreciative of front-line workers whose job it is to take care of our needs. Wanting to be active while at the same time restricting travel and thereby cutting back on use of fossil fuels. We can refer to all this as cleansing activities because the people of Wuhan have seen sky for the first time in years. The people of Venice have seen clear water in the canals for the first time in years. Politicians have stopped yelling at each other maybe for the first time ever!

A former colleague of mine re-posted a commentary on all of this (thanks Kathy C). Here is some of what it said: I don't know if you agree, but something invisible came and put everything in its place. Suddenly the gasoline went down, pollution went down, people started to have more time – so much time that they do not know what to do with it – parents are spending time with their kids as a family, work is no longer a priority, or travelling or social life either. Suddenly we silently see within ourselves and understand the value of the words "solidarity", "love", "strength", "empathy" and "faith". In an instant we realized that we are all in the same boat, rich and poor. That the supermarket shelves are empty and the hospitals are full. New cars and old cars also stand in the garages, simply because nobody can get out. Empty streets, less pollution, clean-air, the land also breathes.

This is truly amazing! But these are all things we would have said – indeed often did say – we wish we could have more of.

Now we do.

Okay let's link that thought to what we know about the value of ritual, the value of enacting. Biblical history and every day common sense have taught us that we must take everyday ordinary things that we are hit and miss about, and turn them into deliberate, intentional patterns. Rituals. Purification rituals. We will get our clean air, our clean water if we simplify, stop more often, and let go the fear of missing out – the fear that drives hyper-consumerism. We will get our relationships in right order, right priority, joyfully experienced, when we make time to be together. When that time is protected at all costs from intrusions by work, by electronics, by anything that isolates us.

The week beginning Sunday April 5 is the beginning of Holy Week. It will take us through a lot of ritual. The Palm Sunday procession, the Holy Thursday Passover Supper and washing of feet, the Good Friday death of Jesus the Lamb. The Resurrection of Jesus, Easter. Taken all together we understand this to be a massive purification ritual by the Son of God. The amazing thing is that he enacted the ritual and we benefited from it. During Holy Week and Easter we re-enact the components of this amazing salvation ritual in order to help us truly experience what Jesus did for us. In order to truly help us recommit to the changes that are needed in our lives in order to say yes to the great gift we have received in the form of our redemption.

It all seems to come together in a most remarkable way. Wouldn't it be terrible if we went through the purification rituals of Holy Week, and then walked away from it all when it was done. And wouldn't it be terrible if we went through the purification rituals that are going on at the hands of the coronavirus, only to later walk away from the experience as if it meant nothing.

So I extend best wishes, warm thoughts, and prayers to you who are reading this. To your family. And to all who are involved in caring for us through this challenging time. Think about it and maybe you and I can commit to new patterns that heal the earth, that heal relationships, that heal our souls.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Believing what we cannot see

When hostilities began in World War ll, people living in London England had their lives changed in major ways. They had to learn how to keep themselves safe when the bombs were falling. They rationed food. They conserved fuel and everything else. They helped each other.

The behaviour changes were the result of being told about the immense danger they were facing. They had no trouble believing this when the sirens sounded and the explosions occurred shortly after.

Today in Ontario - for that matter throughout the entire world - we are facing an immense danger to our lives from an enemy we cannot see. We can only know its effects. And based on what we are hearing about those effects, we are in the process of making significant changes in our daily living patterns. At time of writing, public venues are closing and a state of emergency has been declared in the Province. People have become ill, people have died. People are very anxious. People are stocking up on supplies in panic buying.

We still haven’t seen the enemy. But we know it is there. Because we have been told it is.

Humans are capable of mobilizing tremendous energy, making huge changes, in circumstances like this. And so we should.

It hit me as I was reflecting on the dynamics of all this, that I am not old enough for the WW ll experience. But something felt familiar about the change process resulting from an occurrence whose elements I did not see. In which I was left to believe without seeing what was making it happen.

And it came to me. Chemotherapy, December 2015 through July 2016. I knew that element. I could see it. I will never forget the bags of high octane cocktail going into my arm through the PICC line, or the kindness and professionalism of the nurses, doctors and technicians. But when it was over, I knew there was an element I could not see but that I believed was also responsible not only for the ultimate news of remission, but for what else happened inside of me. That element was the constant message of ‘we are praying for you’, ‘I am praying for you,’ that came from the parish community of St. Paul’s where I have been Deacon for 23 years. The message came both from groups and from individuals. Over and over and over. Continuing to this day, and I always plead, please don’t stop!

I have always prayed. For myself and for other people. I have always believed in the power of prayer. But that belief used to wax and wane by times. Not now.

Believing in what I cannot see. Isn’t it interesting? We humans are demonstrably so capable of that. And yet.... and yet.

I did not know how my treatment was going to turn out. But from very early on, that became less of the point than the ability to trust that it was in good hands, that it was in God’s hands - most importantly that I was in God’s hands. Because that is where those wonderful, marvelous parishioners and friends put me. In a way I could not put myself.

I guess the point of all this is that Covid-19 has put us a little bit in the position of those brave people in WWll London. And a little bit in the position of a person hearing a serious diagnosis. But it has also put us in the position of responding to something else we cannot see, and that is the power of prayer. This is an interesting power. Because it does not cause us to go panic buying. It may not lead to Covid-19 disappearing tomorrow or the next day. Rather, even in the midst of our taking all necessary precautions, it acts on us the way we need it to when that PICC line is in there doing what it does with an outcome we do not know. It settles us. It lets us know that there is something - some One - that is bigger than all of this and who holds us in his hands no matter how this turns out. We know this as the Good News. Our world has desperately needed this News and we know that too. But it waxes and wanes, our ability to mobilize around it, doesn’t it? Well now is the time to reaffirm. We will be ok. If you are reading this, know that I am praying for you. Believe what we don’t see.

I’m in, hope you are too.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Lent, Sin and Hypocrisy

I think that this Blog should maybe be re-titled From the Treadmill. I am enjoying how dots connect in my head when I am under the headphones at the gym listening to audiobooks or talks of one kind or another. But no, we will stick with the Orchard image which captures what this is supposed to be: Reflective thoughts in an environment of growth. The orchard referred to, by the way, is the (former) apple orchard at Ignatius Spirituality Centre in Guelph, that reflected my many retreat experiences.

The world we live in in 2020 seems to be quite a bit different than it was in the early retreat days in 1992. Politics worldwide has been characterized by increasingly deep angry divisions. And sadly, if we turn to our faith/church environment for direction or reassurance, we find ourselves knee-deep in disappointment and cynicism, with abuse scandals and, in the Catholic context, pockets of resistance to Pope Francis, all the way up to bishops and cardinals.

Psychologist Gordon Neufeld has a great term for the emotional response in children when they run into a deeply disappointing, hurtful relationship experience that they cannot control. The term is 'defensive detachment.' You will hear a child say, 'I don't even care.' Or, 'I didn't like that person anyway.' The person in question might be a parent who has left the home, or failed again to show up for a scheduled event. The child is desperately trying to protect themselves from the deep pain caused by someone who is so important to them. In the adult world, in the context I am referring to, defensive detachment may involve wiping one's hands of the whole thing. 'Who cares anyway?' It hurts too much to keep investing in this. The church is bleeding membership, and this figures prominently in the phenomenon.

Which brings us to the topic: Lent, sin, and hypocrisy. The question has been playing around in my head for a while as to whether sin and hypocrisy are the same thing. Some of the messiness of our present era makes that an urgent question. Here is the problem: we are a broken people, we simply do not get it right all the time, no matter how hard we try, no matter how much we wish we could. We hurt each other, we hurt the world around us, and we do damage to ourselves. We have been created with an invitation to come to the home our God has prepared for us. We were also created with the freedom to turn down that invitation, and we do just that every day. We call it sin.. Fortunately our Creator God gave us a second chance in the person of his Son, who stood in for us on the Cross, with all our turn downs. His Resurrection then sealed the victory over what would otherwise be our permanent alienation. We get to reset the relationship. The season of Lent is designed to put us in the emotional and spiritual space where we freely and fully embrace doing just that.

Anyone who is a sinner (all of us) and seeks the forgiveness and reconciliation won on the Cross, far from being a hypocrite, has actually embraced the relationship with Jesus and all he is for us.

That includes those who preach the word of God. No-one escapes the title ‘sinner.’ But it does not include, I think, those who preach the word of God with no investment in how that word should impact their own lives. Who talk one way and live entirely another. That's a hypocrite. I shudder at times with that one and haven’t liked what I see in the mirror.

It also does not include, I think, those of us who say we believe all Jesus stands for. But only in theory. And so have no problem with turning down the invitation. And more importantly, have no investment in Lent.

For those who live in a defensive detachment relationship with our God, with Jesus, with the church, I am certain Jesus has a special place for them/ us in his heart. And all of us need to pray for the healing that is crying out to happen there. Above all we need to be instruments of encouragement by witnessing what Jesus taught - a life of love, forgiveness, welcoming, support, and compassion.      

We will still need Lent because we will never get even that right all the time.

And we need to acknowledge off the top that we cannot do it on our own power. Therese of Lisieux had the answer that most resonates with me: her 'little way.' She went so far as to say that her imperfections had the great benefit of reminding her of her dependence on the Lord (‘littleness’), and of her need to be grateful for all she had been given. The 'little way' was all about opening up to the great power of God's love.

I suppose that too is what Lent is about. A 40 day period in which we can just enter into the great love that will always encourage us to keep going even when we fall on our head, even when we turn down the great invitation. Sin is in there, but not hypocrisy.

Our own Bishop Mulhall recently sent out a very thoughtful Lenten message. In it he quoted St. Paul and said the following: “”See, now is the acceptable time, now is the day of our salvation.” These words… (lead) us into the interior truth of ourselves, our weak and sinful condition. The silence of personal prayer is the place where we encounter Christ. In his merciful care, he will carry us to the deep meaning of his death and resurrection at our Easter celebration."

“....interior truth of ourselves....” I like that. It is where we will find the difference between sinner and hypocrite; and where we will be shown the way to Easter.

Have a wonderful Lenten experience.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Dots in the Gym:Remedy for Discouragement

I wrote previously that the first thing I noticed after officially retiring from active diaconal ministry was how I was able to attend to the prayers and the music of the Mass. No need to double track about what was coming next in the liturgy and what I needed to get ready for. I think I understand why our former pastor used to say back in the days when we had 11 Masses of Christmas, that HIS Mass was the 10 pm Christmas Eve Mass. Things had quieted down and he did not have as many agenda items to keep track of as when the big crowds were present.

Another retirement phenomenon - somewhat related - seems to be the ability to be still with time. And this in turn causes dots to connect readily. I always enjoyed when that happened during homily preparation, but there is an easier flow now, it seems.

Which brings me to the gym.

We have been going to the gym for years. Treadmill is our thing (supplemented by stretching exercises at home.)  When I started chemotherapy in 2015 my doctor told me that my otherwise good health was going to mean everything for how I tolerated the chemo. That was our first confirmation that all that walking had paid some dividends. You may know the rest of the story. The full heavy treatment resulted in full remission. Then I read in The Lymphoma Survivors Newsletter that walking is vitally important for survivors and really for anyone, because unlike the blood system which has a pump - the heart - the lymph system which carries off impurities in your body, does not have its own pump. It relies on muscle activity. Thirty minutes minimum walking each day apparently does the trick, according to the cited research.

Which brings me back to the gym.

The development of technology, or at least my arrival at it, has meant that I can listen not only to music on my phone, but also books, podcasts, sermons, lectures, etc etc. I have been devouring texts by or about Jean Vanier, John Chrysostom, Cardinal - now Saint - John Henry Newman, Ignatius Loyola, Therese of Lisieux, (the Little Flower), and her parents (also recently canonized as a couple) Zelie and Louis.

It turns out that not only can you get the materials from a variety of sources, but there is a great website called Discerning Hearts. I do not know a whole lot about them, and I will explore further in due course. But for the moment there is a priest I am listening to a great deal, named Fr. Tim Gallagher. He is the easiest guy to listen to, ever! And guess what, he is a Spiritual Director in the Ignatian tradition (my background) and he is a very big fan of Therese of Lisieux, as am I. His series on the letters by Therese is simply wonderful for its clarity in unfolding the spirituality of Therese. He also makes frequent reference to a book by Guy Gaucher called The Passion of Therese of Lisieux. I prided myself in being aware of a lot that has been written by and about Therese, but this was new to me. On Fr. Gallagher’s recommendation I got it through Amazon and am now well into it. It pulls together her beautiful letters, her final conversations and her autobiography in a way that puts you in the room with her during her agonizing death (suffocation due to tuberculosis) over 30 months leading to Sept 30, 1897.

Another dot. Fr. Gallagher also has a series on Discernment in the spirituality of Ignatius Loyola. I would never sit for an hour or 45 minutes listening to a podcast at home, but on the treadmill with noise cancelling headphones, time flies. Hence the devouring.

And the dots.

Discouragement. It hits me: how does one get out of bed each day with the news cycles we are going to be exposed to over and over and over. In a post-truth world where grown adults sell their souls every single day in favour of profit, electibility, illusions of legacy, power and influence, or whatever. Name your poison. And in the middle of all this when we try to turn to our faith, we find bad news even there, in the behaviour of our leadership, including the severe push back against our Pope by some members of that leadership.

And then we look in the mirror, and we notice our own struggles. I do, for sure. Interpersonal, moral, financial. They are the same as yesterday. And the day before. The thought of solving the issues with others, or of conquering our own struggles, is daunting, some days overwhelming. We try not to think about them, and we carry on. Doing pretty well for the most part.

The thing is, it is sometimes too big to think about all at once. And that is why the dots are important here. Because what they give us is a return to our roots, our foundation.

Here are the dots I have rediscovered.

Foundation is the word Ignatius used in the opening of his Spiritual Exercises: Introducing everything that was to follow, he said: “The purpose for which were created is to praise, reverence and serve the Lord, and by this means to save our souls.’ We were loved into existence, and our gifts, our desires, and deepest yearnings are included in there. Our job is to trust that, and to trust the God who has known us from all eternity (Ps. 139) At the end of the Spiritual Exercises, after going through all the implications of the introduction, Ignatius concludes with his famous prayer: Take Lord, receive, all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all that I have and possess. You have given all to me, now I return it. Dispose of it according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me..

That is an awfully big mouthful of surrendering. It basically means, Lord I know you love me. I place all I am in your hands and trust you to lead me even when things are going really badly. During my cancer treatment, I surely did not know where things were going. I leaned heavily on that prayer. It was very freeing and would have remained so with any outcome.

Therese of Lisieux comes at the same thing, but differently. She stated many times, I am not one of the great thinkers or theologians. My relationship with God is that of a little child to its parent. In the face of complicated teachings, she said she simply turned to the Gospels, everything was there, Yes indeed. In the face of lofty prayers, she looked into the face of God as a child would their parent. She cut through a lot of what we might call over-thinking. She said this: " ..... I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short and totally new."

Straight, short, and new. Her ‘Little Way’ was her contribution.

Between Ignatius’ grounding us in our relationship with God who loved us into existence and continues to hold us in his love; and Therese’s childlike (not childish) trust in this same loving God, we hold the answer to discouragement. Step back and get re-anchored. On the worst of days - of our own making or the making of others - we belong to God who will never forget us, will never stop loving us, will never stop supporting us. We are safe. Remember to keep the dots connected, is all.

Thursday, January 2, 2020


January 1, 2020  

I write this as a new beginning. First day of a new year, a new decade. First day of liturgical function that I did not participate in as Deacon. Retirement was effective December 29, 2019, Feast of the Holy Family, last day of preaching on the schedule. Two days later, on New Year’s, I watched others carry out the liturgy at Mass.

I confess it felt strange sitting in the pew rather than in the sanctuary. But I am determined to be true to my word in explaining why I chose the Holy Family day as my last official day. The reason was to create an optic of diaconate as being grounded in family not in clericalism. Being clerical is not the same as being a practitioner of clericalism. The latter is an opiate and it has given rise to complete failures of judgement, of morals, of just plain decency, all around the world. The news of the last decade attests to that with stories of abuse of power, sexual abuse, financial abuse. As I sat in the pew I felt the pull, the tug. I can see how easily it all can go off the rails and I ask forgiveness for any semblance of that shown by me.

Last Blog entry was March 6, 2017, After the big rounds of treatment, and before the end of maintenance chemo. Getting back to this is also, then, part of the new beginning.

Trying to monitor without overthinking. What’s going through my head? What am I feeling? What do I notice? With every leaving there is a sense of loss. In this case it is identity which has been part of the role for 26 years. I always counseled people to be present to the emotion that goes with loss. So I am doing that. At the same time I am noticing a freedom. It began at the New Year’s Mass. I was able to listen to every prayer, every song, participate in every gesture, every movement – and not have to be double-tracking about what I have to do next. Missing part of the richness of what was actually going on. I would not have anticipated such a difference.

The freedom includes thoughts of Peggy and me being able to be away on weekends to take in events with kids and grandkids. It includes thoughts of being able to support projects, initiatives, good ideas, without having to be front and centre public about it (nothing wrong with being front and centre public. In fact that is very much needed in good causes!). That thought occurred to me as I read a great New Year poem by Greg Kennedy S.J., who directed me on one of my retreats in Guelph. Check it out:

People who know me know that my go to saint is Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. She is here with me at this new beginning – her birthday is January 2, She died an agonizing death of tuberculosis in 1898 at age 24. For years I could not get into her writings. I rediscovered her during my cancer treatments, and she inspired me to trust the Lord and love the Lord at a whole new level. I am always asking her help, and in the last few weeks I have sensed her hand repeatedly in things coming my way, I will write more about that, I am sure. In the meantime, I have promised many people that I would pray for them during their own cancer or other treatment. I ask Therese to look after them and to pray for them in a way that is far more powerful than my feeble prayers. Mostly I pray that people with serious illness be granted peace, relief from fear, and trust that the Lord holds them in his hands.

The gift of freedom is a good one. To all my friends and family, may you be granted that one as well in 2020. To follow the impulse to do good and to take the leap into relationship with God, without overthinking it. Just go. More later.