Jun 29, 2011

Matthew Fox's The Pope's War and the Return from Medugorje

I returned from Medugorje this afternoon only to find Matthew Fox's explosive new book, The Pope's War, waiting for me in the mailbox. The timing could not be more providential, coming right on the heels of a week's retreat in Medugorje. I'm now going through three books of very moving testimonies from persons whose lives have been changed by their encounter with the Marian shrine, and they encompass the full range of Christian belief and persuasion. Very inspiring and provocative accounts, which I hope to comment on further. But Fox's book makes the perfect complement for reasons I hope to reflect on at a later time.

At the same time, however, I've been reading the great Russian journalist (murdered in 2006) Anna Politkovskaya's collection of essays, entitled Nothing But the Truth, a harrowing account of her investigative reports from Chechnya and beyond and filled with stores of unimaginable atrocities and human suffering. Somehow this felt providential as well, and perfectly complemented my stay in the Bosnian Marian shrine, since there seems to be a connection between the witness of the Heavenly Mother, crying out for peace and reconciliation,  and the very worst of human depravity and cruelty. You cannot go to Medugjore and simply float in a cloud of euphoria and spiritual consolation. Something about the clear, limpid light of the place uncovers all illusions and forces one to remain grounded on earth where humans do terrible things to one another and corruption and duplicity seem to rule the day - except that the message of Medugorje is that they do not rule the day, the Lady in White through the power of the heavenly Mother/Father of us all and the suffering witness of Yeshua triumph over all.

However, truth telling must also apply to the darkness surrounding the shrine itself, and while I teasingly said in the first posting four days ago that 'the critics are full of shit,' that was only tongue in cheek in reference to my frustration at not being able to find a decent, classy restaurant in the village, despite the insistence of the harshest critics that such places exist. (I wined and dined pleasurably in Split last evening) No, underneath the extraordinary peace and joy of Medugorje darker currents swirl, the same viral currents that orchestrated the assassination/murder of the saintly reformist Pope John Paul I. The destructive evil in the church has reached its tentacles into this Bosnian village as well, and if one loves and cherishes the charism of Medugjorje and treasures it as the locus of Mary's holy manifestation, then one must long for, call for, Nothing But the Truth, so that Medugorje can be cleansed and purified and its precious holy mystery protected from all harm. 

I hope to say more about this later, but for now, here is Matthew Fox:

If you can no longer take the lies and theological deadness of the Roman Catholic church, then do as Jesus said to do: "Shake the dust from your feet" and find another community that nurtures you and where you do not have to give out more energy than you receive back. Be assured there is life after Roman Catholicism, lots of it. Become a 'had it' Catholic if your conscience tells you so. Do not settle for denial of what the truth tells you is really happening in the Vatican church today/ Do not waste your precious time or your soul trying to build up or reform that which your gut tells you is unreformable.

There will be some who, upon praying about it, will be called to stay, and others who are called to move on. Support one another in the overall spiritual vocation of invigorating an authentic spiritual renewal. There is no one path to church renewal. When you pray about staying or leaving, ask yourself the following questions: What does all this have to do with Jesus? With his teachings and life? Is this what Jesus would have me do ? Even if you choose to exit, do not imagine you are "out of the church." You are reforming it from another place of leverage. The church is not a box or even a noun. It is where the Spirit lives and comes alive.

postscriptum; I've decided to have a new button made here in Prague, one with a rainbow sash across it and the words, Gays for the Gospa (the affectionate term used in Medugorje for Mother Mary). I plan on wearing it the next time I visit the village. That should set a few wigs on fire. 

Jun 27, 2011

Medugorje Day Three: Peace and Reconciliation

Well, after the lull of yesterday (though the church was packed all through the day and night) the crowds have returned to Medugorje,the streets are bustling and the cafes are, well, at least half full. I've yet to find a quiet moment alone in the church this visit, which wasn't the case a year ago.

My final reflections on this pilgrimage will have to wait until I return to Prague this Wednesday. Some observations of a critical nature, however, are in order. I browsed through the various "Catholic" bookstores, which have a very narrow range of selections, most of them characterized by a very traditional mindset. This includes the largest English language bookstore in the village, whose shelves are filled with old classics of the most traditional piety and many editions of Tan Books, Visions of Catherine Emerich, etc. I found one book advocating Catholic home schooling, and immediately thought of my blogger friend, William Lindsey, of the blog On Bilgrimage, and the family of his partner, Steve. The woman author of the book boasted that she had seven sons and not one of them turned out to be a rebel son, because we all followed 'the teachings of Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Church." My heart sank at those words, what kind of an upbringing must these boys have endured? The woman also described the rooms of her house in detail, with holy pictures, icons, crucifixes, statues filling the walls and cabinets in every room, it was oppressive just reading about it, like being locked in a mad house. But here was her book - alongside many others of a similar mindset - prominently displayed on a bookshelf in Medugorje. There were old, old biographies of Catherine of Sienna, St. Martin de Porres, Margaret Mary Alacoque, with prefaces written by priests whose theological formation took place in the 1920's. This is very much old time Catholicism and it dominates the bookstores of Medugorje, leading me to believe that far from needing another restaurant with a decent wine list, what Medugorje most needs is a contemporary, updated theological Catholic bookstore to offset this dominance of the religious right. No wonder progressives feel uncomfortable about coming here! However, in one small corner of the store, I did come across (shock, horror) a selection of writings on devotion to the Sacred Heart by the saintly, socially progressive Father General of the Jesuits during my stay within the order, Pedro Arrupe. In Him Alone ... Our Hope, the book was entitled and I grabbed it immediately, together with a pair of fairly decent, trustworthy collations of Medugorje testimonies, gathered together by Sister Emmanuel of the Beatitudes Community. Inspiring works on Medugorje that do not offend a more liberal outlook do exist but one must search for them carefully. Generally, all the works of the saintly Father Slavko Barbaric can be trusted, though even his theological outlook can seem somewhat quaint and outmoded. Not so his personal holiness, however, which is of a profound nature. He died, fittingly, of a heart attack on Holy  Cross Mountain in the year 2000, at the age of 54, after having led a group of pilgrims on the arduous Stations of the Cross to the summit of this very sacred spot. His death, however, left a profound vacuum at the heart of the village, when it comes to truly discerning spiritual fathers. Father Jozo Zovko, however, whose books figure very prominently in all of Medjugorje's bookstores, is another matter. While undoubtedly a good and sincere man, there is something of the cult figure about him and his followers and a brief dipping into his writings has always left me with a very queasy feeling. Just not quite right. Disturbing. On a similar note, I opened at random another book of reflections on Medjugorje by another friar  and found a rant against uppity women who rail againts the 'proper order of nature' by seeking greater authority in the church, etc. etc. The Friar was presenting the Madonna of Medugorje as the perfect antidote to such uppity female heretics. Well, this is when I want to stand on a pedestal/soap box in the main street of the village and give a rant myself against the co-option of the Medugorje charism by these right wing extremists. Quite simply, because progressives are simply not interested in reflecting theologically on this phenomenon, the right wing has taken over, which is a shame. There is nothing, nothing at all, in the 'messages of Our Lady themselves which support any kind of right wing agenda. The messages scrupulously avoid taking sides in any of the most partisan, controversial issues in the church today - be it women's rights, ordination, contraception, gay marriage. There isn't even a suggestion of which direction the heavenly lady might bend on these issues, except her evident good sense and tolerance. All that can be said is that she is issuing a gentle call for a return to the some of the old devotional practices, but even these are limited to fasting, prayer, confession, the Eucharist, and contemplation upon the passion of Her Son. 

And on the same note, I purchased a copy of the magazine, Medugorje Tribune. In its pages is an article entitled "Holy Mass for the Martyred Friars," and it describes the ceremony which takes place every year in the village on the feast of 'Blessed Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac.' Oh dear, I thought. Here is where Medugorje needs some profound and critically responsible theological reflection, of the kind that would most likely disconcert a great many people (and might finally cause the Vatican to shut the whole place down). The very simple, uncontroversial messages themselves call for repentance and conversion. But there can be no true repentance and conversion unless the Church in Croatia recognizes and repents of its own complicit crimes committed during World War II by the Ustashe and by many Franciscan religious themselves - horrific crimes of which Cardinal Stepanic was the pre-eminent enabler. Where is the Mass for their victims? As long as this denial exists and as long as Medugorje itself is used as some kind of holy screen or filter, then it's essential message and experience will not be acceptable to a great many thoughtful, informed persons. Medugorje, in a phrase, has been co-opted and its message of peace and reconciliation is only very selectively applied. The profound experience of that peace, however, is a reality, which can only lead truly prayerful, discerning people to a full uncovering of  'the truth.' There can be no true reconciliation and peace without it. 

Jun 26, 2011

Medjugorje Day Two: Crossing the Threshold

Last evening's 7pm 30th anniversary celebratory Mass was a profoundly moving experience, with record crowds of about 150,000 people spilling out of the amphitheater proper and spreading out over the green fields beyond. Many, many, many children running about freely, this was very much a family affair, and a notable number of 'progressive' nuns were also in view, to judge by their very liberated habits, some of the most beautiful I've seen. A very lovely elderly nun sat next to me, her silver hair tied in a bun and pined with a silver broach.  I'm ashamed to say I forgot the name of her order (French Franciscans), but she was dressed in a delicate linen blouse with sleeves to the wrists, a graceful medal of Our Lady around her neck, a  very long skirt to the ankles made of a lovely turquoise plaid pattern with white cross lines, very lovely to look at, soothing and rather reassuring as habits go, and of course, sandals and white socks. A moment later one of her companions came and sat next to her, with the exact same pattern on her skirt, but in cream color. When I remarked on this, she said with a chuckle, "Oh, yes, we're allowed to choose our own colors." I knew this had to be a very open minded order of nuns.  I wasn't mistaken in my judgement. She took one look at my "Gay is the Way" button and said with an impish smile, "For everyone?" I said, "Oh no, just for me." "Ah, just for you. Well, good for you!" Then she said rather sweetly, "Well, we do change in the church, we really do. It comes slowly, but it does come." And that was that. Both her words and her presence felt like a grace from Our Lady herself. Clearly there was no need for further discussion on the matter.  She was listening to a French instantaneous translation of the service on a transistor radio, which were readily available at the main center of the shrine as well as all over the shops in town. I hadn't known that before hand. Apparently the service was being translated on the spot in fifteen different international languages  including Hebrew, Arabic and Korean. What a profound phenomenon, just that in itself.  During the priest's deeply emotional sermon, the Sister (oh why can't I remember even her name, getting old!), gave me a running commentary, but the gist of it resonated with something I've felt for years about these Marian shrines. You do not come here with a list of requests to make to Mary. You come with only one question: How Can I serve? Then you listen in your heart to the voice of the Divine Mother, who clearly wants some very simple things, penance, sacrifice, prayer, peace, reconciliation, and above all a return to the Churchćs ancient tradition of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays. For each individual person, there will be something a little more specific to each one's unique vocation. Once you have listened in your heart, and responded with an open hearted, unconditional surrender to whatever the Divine Mother may ask by way of sacrifice, then you may make your requests, but not before. It was a beautiful thought, suitable to a beautiful day, a profound day, and a day filled with a sense of the holiness of family and the need for families to pray together, and of course that includes gay families, and thank god for the grace of gay marriage in New York.  

The cafes may have been zipping with happy, self-indulgent customers, the souvenir shops bustling with commerce, but once you cross the threshold into the shrine compound itself, silence reigns and it's all pervasive peace is irresistible and profound. The contrast is actually quite shocking, and suddenly you realize why all of the tackiness on the streets is so necessary - as a counter sign and contrast to the holiness of the sacred sanctuary itself. It's as if an invisible wall exists right at the entrance of the shrine, keeping out all of the hustle and bustle outside, but without necessarily passing a negative judgement upon it. Once you have crossed into Mary's space, however, you feel that this is a Divine Mother with a very serious intent and all frivolity stops at the door. Joy is pervasive as well, but it is a sobering joy of the inner heart that coexists with an equally sobering awareness of human sin and suffering, and the profound need for peace and reconciliation within the world and within the church itself. 

I was also surprised at the very few numbers of 'crazies' around, for some reason I was expecting more of them, but everyone in the area seemed composed, prayerful and - I can't quite find the words to describe it, not somber or serious, but clearly aware of a profound and holy will at work here. I'm thinking especially of the large tour groups with banners and flags, their group members wearing hats and bandannas. I expected (judgmentally and uncharitably), I guess, more frenetic energy, more frizzle, more...well, in a word, craziness, so I could look down upon them condescendingly. But this was not to be. Even the flag wavers seemed aware than a divine presence had manifested herself in this holy place with a cry of the heart that precluded all frivolity and co-optation. This was not a charism one could manipulate at will, but a deeply sacred intelligent mystery manifesting a loving request that required profound respect, silence and receptivity. There was one electrifying moment at the beginning of the service when the priest asked for silence, and to my shock, that entire crowd of 150,000 - children included - were instantaneously silent. It was the loudest silence I have ever encountered, and dare I say that Pope Benedict, when he visited Prague three years ago, could not have asked for nor received such a thunderous silence. Clearly the Divine Mother wins hands down over the Papa.

That was yesterday evening, with massive traffic jams leading out of the city for hours afterwards far into the night. Today Medjugorje is almost, but not quite a ghost town in comparison. And it is wonderful to be here without all of the bustle and chaos, but I have to say - for any prospective visitors - choose your pensione wisely and stay out of the city center. For all of my silliness in describing the lively, hugely enjoyable cafe scene, it can be dis-edifying and even disrespectful to everything the Madonna represents in this holy place. Wise folk with a contemplative bent, and this includes a large number of nuns, choose the pensiones on the outskirts, in the countryside, where one can walk in the silence of the day, gaze at the hills, including Holy Cross Mountain and Apparition Hill, pray in silence and solitude and soak up the very special atmosphere  of grace that is Medjugorje. As St. Teresa is famous for saying, "When it is time to fast, I fast, when it is time to feast I feast."  Medjugorje is above all, a call to balanced and wholesome asceticism and self-abnegation, it is a gentle, loving, non-violent reminder that some values and practices of the old church, such as penance and fasting, need to be recovered, but not in such a way as to endanger the precious breakthroughs of renewal and reform that were ushered in by Vatican II. After all, Medjugorje's openminded religious tolerance would have been impossible before Gaudium et Spes, the great Vatican constitution on the Church and the Modern World. Likewise, the witness of the visionaries, not one of whom has chosen to enter formal religious life, is very much a post Vatican II witness in support of the importance of the laity. This was never more apparent than at the end of yesterday's very moving celebratory Mass, with over one hundred (male) priests  concelebrating, when the five visionaries (one being absent because of illness) were brought up to the altar for a brief prayer. Each of them was given a chance to speak, before disappearing again into the church. In the midst of all of that priestly finery and hierarchical splendor, here came the real channels of charismatic power, simple, unassuming, ordinary laypersons, four of them women, two of them men (altogether), and only one of them, Marija, giving evidence of rapidly ascending the heights of Christian holiness - which is why she has become, most fittingly, the chief spokesperson for the group. Genuine charismatic holiness brings with it its own internal authority, instantly recognizable, trustworthy and profound. It was such a moving sight, significant in its implications, and it left us all deeply stirred. Medjugorje is very much a post Vatican II phenomenon and succeeds in giving a loving, non violent witness to the necessity of healthy integration of the very best of the old with the very best of the new. There is no restoration here. There is only new life moving forward, while lovingly preserving the precious spiritual values of the ancient catholic tradition. Mary shows the way. 

Jun 25, 2011

Report from Medjugorje: Day One

Have just arrived in this great Marian shrine city and it is truly wonderful to be here (With News of New York's breakthrough victory for gay marriage ringing in my ears). The place is absolutely hopping, cafes are full to the brim, streets are mobbed with friendly, happy tourists, the whole spirit of the place is upbeat. 100,000 people are expected for this evening's 6pm Mass in honor of the 30th anniversary of the apparitions (together with most of the visionaries). It looks very much like a beach resort in the Cayman Islands or Pattaya, Thailand, in the height of the tourist season. Everyone is having a great time, cafes are making money hand over fist, the strawberry Sundays are piled high (no wonder those devout elderly lady pilgrims have such large behinds! I saw one of them eating one of these monster things and I told the waiter, "I'll have one of those!).  Everyone seems in a jolly mood, Irish, Italian, Bosnian, Croatian, Chinese, French pilgrims all pigging out in the cafes. In a word, Medjugorje in the summer is a fun place to be! This may seem a bit irreverent, but it's how I feel right now. The spirit of the place is joy, and judging by just a few conversations I've had so far (with some jolly Irish people at the table next to mine) people put aside their religious differences and just rejoice in being here. 

However, the one thing I can't find and wish I could are all of those five star restaurants with the fine wine lists and linen table cloths which the most hostile critics of Medjugorje insist are here as a testimony to the crass decadence of the place. All I can find are row after row after row of Italian pizzerias, all with the same prices (4.50 euros for a pasta dish) and all serving portions big enough to feed an elephant - and one fairly decent fresh seafood restaurant on the main road, fully booked. I asked the lovely  articulate young lady at reception at the Grace Hotel on the main road and she just shook her head, a bit  nonplussed by such request. She thought the La Casa Hotel outside of town had an upscale restaurant with a good wine list but it was for hotel guests only. "There's just not a market for this here right now." I slapped my bony chest and said, "I'm the market." I'm all for penance, prayer and fasting, but please give me at least one night with a decent bottle of wine and some haute causine. My remark elicited a tinkling laugh from the young woman, who said, "Well, maybe you should open one."

Bingo, I thought. That's why Our Lady has led me here, to open the first really classy restaurant in Medjugorje with a first class wine list. How could it miss? Unfortunately, I don't have any capital, so scratch that idea. Then I looked around and wondered what else the place could use. There are already some fairly decent shopping centers on the outskirts of town and several new sports centers, giving Medjugorje the look of a prosperous middle class California suburb - but still a long, long way from the upscale seaside suburbs like Newport Beach. There is one empty looking designer label store that seems to have gone no where. We certainly don't need a cineplex, with those horrible Hollywood blockbusters with their grotesque violence. And then it occurred to me, what Medjugorje really needs - and I ain't kidding (despite the fun I'm having with this tongue in cheek reflection). A first class, family oriented water park replete with whirlpool baths, water slides and multiple swimming pools. Medjugorje is hot in the summer, it's beautiful, the vistas of the blue mountains in the distance are stunning, it's brimming with a sense of profound peaceful wholesomeness, it is a safe place to bring the kids, but it's missing the final ingredient. After prayer, penance, Mass, the rosary - someplace to take the kids to make them feel that Our Lady and her shrine are a cool place to be. A water park would be it and the ingenious entrepreneur who financed it would make a fortune (not that that's the point). 

I spent last evening in the lovely Mediterranean home of my friend, Emil, in Mostar, the tragically divided city 30 miles south of Medjugorje which figured so prominently in the Yugoslav wars in the 90's. It was a peaceful time for me, eating outdoors by it's famous bridge, browsing through the bazaars, swimming in Emil's pool in the evening and playing with his beautiful sweet Hungarian retriever, Luna. I was completely relaxed. Then I boarded the bus to Medjugorje - and 30 minutes later disembarked, a twenty minute walk from the center since the traffic jams made it impossible for the bus to go further. Suddenly I was transported into an entirely different atmosphere of peace - utterly different from the relaxed mood of the evening before. This interior peace is subtle, gentle, sweet, unobtrusive, yet it penetrates the soul like a fine mist - and it explains the joy on peoples faces who are so enjoying themselves here. It is also a peace that envelops and includes everyone. I am presently wearing a small rainbow button that says, "Gay is the Way,' which has elicited some smiles from the waiters but nothing else so far. Just my way of being naughty and making a small statement, and I wore it into church this morning for Mass. No one seems to  notice or care. We are all having too much fun in the cafes. Pity about the 5 star restaurants, however. I would dearly love to find one. However, their absence has only further convinced me that the critics are full of shit. They've disappointed me once again, and so I say, if you haven't come here and judged for yourself - in an openhearted spirit of prayer and peaceful discernment - then your word lacks an essential ...verity. No doubt there are many elements about the phenomenon that need airing and exposure, and such 'truth telling' is undoubtedly healthy. But without the actual experience of breathing in the profound peace of Medjugorje, and asking those important questions here, in a spirit of openhearted discernment, then your word will lack that essential balance and will only lead to distortion and confusion. There is no need to affirm Medjugorje, it simply is for those who feel the need for it, others are free to find their spiritual nourishment elsewhere, and I for one feel no need to proselytize on its behalf. It's simply not important. What I do feel called to do is to resist its defamation. Only in a spirit of prayerful balance can one view the authentic and the inauthentic and discern the difference between them. Medjugore is simply a wonderful, fun place to be for the entire family. It is full of joy, full of peace.

Jun 21, 2011

Return to Medjugorje with the Blessings of Sainte Foy

Tomorrow I leave for Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina and the beginning of a seven day retreat, which I'm spending partly on the sea south of Split and partly in the village of Medjugorje, the site of Marian apparitions since 1981. Most of my more progressive friends 'eschew' the Marian site, turned off (quite understandably, in my opinion) by the rumors of financial scandals swirling about the place and the expropriation of the entire phenomenon by the far religious right for their own 'restorationist' agenda (though many conservative groups are outraged by Medjugorje's seemingly tolerant attitude of religious pluralism). However, it is my own considered judgement, after years of prayerful reflection on this phenomenon, that both the corruption involving money and the theological expropriation itself represent profound and sinful distortions of what is inherently a truly sacred and authentic experience - at it's core. I don't expect anyone to agree with me on this, and mine has been a lonely path for the past thirty years, yet this witness is something I feel called to make, and will continue to make as long as the interior inspiration remains constant. Medjugorje, for me, is a perfect microcosm of the entire church, in that an inherent charism of great holiness is surrounded by genuine evil, which seeks both to repudiate it and employ it for it's own purposes. In other words, the corruption does not emanate from nor penetrate into the essential core of the holy mystery.  Just as I feel the very heart and soul of Catholicism at this point in history is under attack by a very vocal and powerful fundamentalist movement, so too Medjugorje's image and reputation have been sullied by these same forces. Just as I do not believe the entire Catholic tradition deserves to be scuttled because of the apparent 'victory' of restorationist forces aligned with powerful interest groups of vast wealth and money, so too I do not believe that Medjugorje should be repudiated, even though its very integrity is under attack by these same forces, which seek to harness it's charismatic power for their own corrupt purposes.

By their fruits you will know them - one must go to Medjugorje in a spirit of prayer and discernment in order to properly understand this holy mystery. As with all pilgrimages, you will encounter the persons and the experiences you are meant to meet.

Last summer at this time in Medjugorje, I met two lovely French ladies, both spinsters, who ran a pensione in the little town of Conques in Southern France. They were staying in the same pensione as I and we became friends sitting in the garden in the early evening drinking wine. Their tiny village in France is a pilgrimage site to the holy relics of the fourth century virgin martyr, Sainte Foy. These charming women both invited me to visit their village and stay in their pensione for free, a gracious offer I'm ashamed to say I have yet to take advantage of - but someday for sure I will make my way to their pensione and to the altar of Sainte Foy, when the time is right and when the tiny saint herself extends me the courtesy of an invitation. 

Here is how Hannah Green describes St. Foy in her charming book Little Saint, which my friends recommended to me:

She is the sacred center. Around her the wheel of the story with it's thousand starry spokes spins. It might begin at any time, from the hour when she was born at Agen in December of the year 290 to the hour of her martyr-death less than thirteen years later, and at as many shining points as there are gemstones on her statue or silver nails in arabesques on the coffer that holds her bones; but the story opens now in the mountains of the Rouerge, here at Conques, where, since 866, her bones have been enshrined and guarded.

We came first as travelers, Jack and I, in the springtime of 1975, to have our hearts caught unaware - Jack a painter, a Californian by birth, I a writer, an Ohioan from an old Swedenborgian and Episcopalian background, a stranger to saints; and yet I was given through Sainte Foy, in this remote and ancient place of pilgrimage, the gift of seeing into that zone which has been held sacred since the beginning of human consciousness.

The message I received from this fortuitous and utterly charming encounter with these two very charming French ladies and their stories of Sainte Foy was simply a reminder of the richness and beauty of the Catholic sacramental tradition, which enshrines, preserves, protects the folk religion of devotion to the saints and reverence for the mystery of Marian apparitions. Yes, there have always been distortions, excesses, fanaticism, extremes, but none of these are reason enough to scuttle the entire tradition, which has been a source of inspiration and sanctification for so many. As humans, we need the human touch, that sense of the finger of the divine emerging from the mists of faith for one brief moment, and touching our hearts, just here, just so.

The Blessed Lady of Medjugorje is reputed to have said to the visionaries - in almost the same breathe in which she  counseled that 'God' does not make distinctions between religions, only humans do - that there is a reason why the Marian apparitions have been entrusted to the Catholic Church. Just a simple statement, just that and no more, no explication, certainly no assertion of superiority on the part of the Catholic tradition, since as Marija has testified, "Our Lady has never said that the Catholic Church is the only way to Jesus." Amen. Just that...well, there is a reason why the apparitions belong within the Catholic tradition, since this is part of its special charism.

On the same visit to Medjugorje last year, quite by chance (not really) in a cafe just across the street from the main church, I encountered two high spirited and lovely lesbian women who had come to Medjugorje to ask for Our Lady's blessing upon their decision to have a child.  Both women glowed with peace and joy and were rapturously in love with the entire village and valley. Clearly, they felt that Our Lady had bestowed the blessing they had asked for, and who was I to doubt them. They radiated peace. We had a good laugh over much of the silliness around us, though thankfully we had not encountered too many Kooks with rosary beads around their necks ( I saw some). We also marveled at the mysterious coincidence of three gay people meeting in a cafe in Medjugorje, We imagined (with some sympathy) the apoplectic reaction of the more reactionary traditionalists among the pilgrims if they learned that lesbian women had 'received' a blessing from the Lady of Mejugorje to proceed with their holy project of conceiving a child. How many lesbian women would even consider such a pilgrimage of discernment to be necessary? Such a sign of contradiction, but here we were, all three of us joyful faggoty beings, receiving affirmation and love in the heart of Medjugorje. Such is its mystery and such is the power of the place.

Here - for those with eyes to see - is a video of the December 2009 annual apparition given to Jakov Colo, the youngest of the visionaries. It proves nothing, it will convince no one, it simply is on its own terms, as a witness to the prodigious mystery that is Medjugorje.

Jun 20, 2011

The Power of Faith

just read these moving words in Chris Hedges' latest column at Truth Dig, in which he speaks of the trial and sentencing of Tim Christopher, environmental activist recently convicted of two felonies for disrupting an auction of public lands. Read the full story here at Peaceful Uprising.

DeChristopher, who attends a Unitarian church in Salt Lake City, comes out of the religious left. This left, defined by Christian anarchists such as Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan and his brother Father Daniel Berrigan, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, takes a moral stance not because it is always effective but because it is right, because to live the moral life means that there is no alternative. This life demands a commitment to justice no matter how bleak the future appears. And what sustains DeChristopher is what sustained the religious radicals who went before him—faith.

“The connection to a religious community for me is a big part of the empowerment,” he said. “From talking with a lot of the old Freedom Riders and other folks in the civil rights movement, it was in the church community that people found the strength and the faith that, no matter what happened to them when they sat at that lunch counter or got on that bus, there would be another wave of people coming behind them to take their place and another wave behind that and behind that. And that is part of what is missing from the progressive community today. Part of my belief system is an appreciation of our connectedness to the natural world, the interconnected web of life of which I am a part. I am not an isolated individual, and this understanding is what empowers me, but also in a more direct way in that I am connected to the church community who I knew would support me. Sitting in that auction when I was deciding to do this I was thinking about whether anyone would support me. The people I knew would have my back were in the church. That helped drive me to action.” 

It goes without saying that this spiritual solidarity applies to those resisting injustice within the church as well.

Jun 19, 2011

The Starchbishop vs. the Governor: Gay Sera, Sera

Thanks once again to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times for another incisive commentary on the sad absurdities of Roman Catholic leadership:

With his cigars, blogs, Jameson’s and Irish affability, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan prides himself on his gumption.

Certainly his effort to kill the gay marriage bill, just one vote away from passing in Albany, shows a lot of gall.

The archbishop has been ferocious in fighting against marriage between same-sex couples, painting it as a perversity against nature.

If only his church had been as ferocious in fighting against the true perversity against nature: the unending horror of pedophile priests and the children who trusted them.

(The two, of course, are intimately connected. The noise, smoke and mirrors of the attack against gays is meant to obfuscate the scandal of pedophile priests, and to create a false sanctimonious sense of righteousness. Perceptive, insightful, spiritual seekers will conclude that the religion behind such corrupt leadership cannot be trusted, no matter how earnestly some may insist that the leadership is not the church. Perhaps not, but we have 'enabled' these fools to speak in our name.)

In the second-generation round of the Church vs. Cuomo, Archbishop Dolan is pitted against Andrew Cuomo, the Catholic governor who is fiercely pushing for New York to become the sixth and most populous state to approve gay marriage.

(Thank god for Catholic governor's like Mario Cuomo, who demonstrate that spiritual and moral integrity within the Catholic tradition does not rely upon institutional power for its sustenance, but must drink from deeper springs of life giving water, not dependent upon the trappings of official ecclesiastical royalty.)

Governor Cuomo was already on the wrong side of the church for his support of abortion rights, his divorce and his living in “sin” with the Food Network star Sandra Lee. He was accused by the Vatican adviser Edward Peters of “public concubinage,” as it’s known in canon law, and Peters recommended that Cuomo be denied communion until he resolved “the scandal” by ceasing this “cohabiting.”

(Suddenly, I have an entirely new idea of the phrase, Living in Sin.)

And therein lies the casuistry. On one hand, as Peters told The Times about Cuomo and Lee, “men and women are not supposed to live together without benefit of matrimony.” But then the church denies the benefit of marriage to same-sex couples living together.

Dolan insists that marriage between a man and a woman is “hard-wired” by God and nature. But the church refuses to acknowledge that homosexuality may be hard-wired by God and nature as well, and is not a lifestyle choice.
(Despite the welcome repudiation from the JJ report of a necessary link between homosexuality and the priest pedophile crisis, the suspicion still lingers within the public at large about the presence of predatory gay priests within the clergy ranks - hence the necessary histrionics from the hierarchy against gay rights, in order to cover their profound sense of humiliation. The attack against gay rights has nothing to do with 'right's or logic or traditional Catholic moral teaching, which is why it is impervious to reason. This is all about damage control.(

Dolan and other church leaders are worried about the exodus of young Catholics who no longer relate to the intolerances of church teaching. He dryly told The Times last year that when he sees long lines of young people on Fifth Avenue waiting to get into a house of worship, it’s at Abercrombie & Fitch, not St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

The church refuses to acknowledge the hypocrisy at its heart: that it became a haven for gay priests even though it declares homosexual sex a sin, and even though it lobbies to stop gays from marrying.
(The refusal is a necessary, intrinsic part of the denial. The two go together and are logically consistent, within a closed system of moral blindness. I pity any man who is elected to become a bishop these days.)

In yet another attempt at rationalization, the nation’s Catholic bishops — a group Dolan is now in charge of — put out a ridiculous five-year-study last month going with the “blame Woodstock” explanation for the sex-abuse scandal. The report suggested that the problem was caused by permissive secular society rather than cloistered church culture, because priests were trained in the turbulent free-love era. It concluded, absurdly, that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality were causes.

In another resistance to reform, the bishops voted on Thursday to keep their policies on sexual abuse by the clergy largely the same, with only small revisions, ignoring victims’ advocates who were hoping for meaningful changes.
(We should not be surprised by this. It is not going to get any better. We are going to be disappointed again and again and again, if we keep looking towards the official power structure for any meaningful change. It cannot heal and reform itself. God help anyone (I really mean this prayer) who gets inducted into this power structure.)

At their meeting in Bellevue, Wash., one retired archbishop from Anchorage actually proposed an amendment to get rid of the “zero tolerance” provision on abuse so some guilty priests could return to parishes. That failed, at least.

If God and nature are so clear about what marriage is, why do the well-connected have an easier time getting the church to sunder their marriages with annulments? (Yes, we’re talking about you, Newt Gingrich.)

In his blog, “The Gospel in the Digital Age,” Dolan invokes not just God but Orwell, denouncing the “perilous presumption of the state” in reinventing the definition of marriage, which, he says, “has served as the very cornerstone of civilization and culture from the start.”

The Starchbishop noted with asperity that “Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America — not in China or North Korea,” where “communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of ‘family’ and ‘marriage’ means.”

Yeah. Not like the Vatican.

In the same blog, Dolan snidely dismissed the notion that gay marriage is a civil right. “We acknowledge that not every desire, urge, want, or chic cause is automatically a ‘right,’ ” he wrote.
“And, what about other rights, like that of a child to be raised in a family with a mom and a dad?”

And how about the right of a child not to be molested by the parish priest?

Dolan acts like getting married (when done by gays) is a self-indulgent act of hedonism when it’s really a leap of faith and a promise of fidelity.

Worn out by the rampant sexting of Anthony Weiner and the relentless blogging of Archbishop Dolan, I’m wondering if our institutions need to rejigger: Maybe pols should be celibate and priests should be married.

I was going to comment on this, but then what is there to say? Does anyone still pay attention? The depth of personal delusion and self deception reflected by such views is so profound, that one despairs of penetrating the defenses of such a mindset. One thing is abundantly clear, however: Clerical power is profoundly inimical to one's personal spiritual and mental health, as well as one's personal moral integrity. Best to stay far away from it, and to keep one's children far away from its pernicious, corrupting influence as well.  The risk is great of having them inducted into a sect like atmosphere of false idolatry.  The grace of the Spirit to heal, inspire, sanctify must be found elsewhere. 

James H in the comments section asked me this question, to which I respond below:

Let me ask you about this quote

"The report suggested that the problem was caused by permissive secular society rather than cloistered church culture, because priests were trained in the turbulent free-love era. It concluded, absurdly, that neither the all-male celibate priesthood nor homosexuality were causes. "

Have you thought about the implications of that last line. I know its wonderful when the Dowd takes on the horrible Church for some. But just because she does that she is going to get a pass on that line?

I have no problem with the last line, since I was a little disconcerted by the JJ's inference that sexual orientation had little to do with the choice of victims, much as I welcomed the repudiation of any intrinsic connection between homosexuality itself as an orientation and a propensity to molest minor males. In fact, I believe the Church did become (and still is) a haven for a disproportionate number of damaged gay men with pedophile tendencies. But the very homophobia and the concomitant self-loathing such men had to internalize as part of their training and role identification, did significantly contribute to their inability to integrate their sexuality in a healthy manner. When one is taught by the highest moral authority of one's church that one's deepest, most intrinsic core of identity is an abomination (the language of the 30's) or an intrinsic moral disorder (the slightly less offensive modern expression), the temptation will be to cut oneself off entirely from sexual identity itself and to split it off from one's overall personality. Fortunately, most gay men within the priesthood were able to resist this  destructive teaching simply by the power of the Spirit healing them from within through profound peace and interior joy found in prayer and discernment, a spiritual peace that gave them strength in the face of oppression and  that led them to discern the sinfulness of the official teaching, founded upon a faulty anthropology.  This is not to deny the  moral culpability of the pedophile molesters or to place the exclusive blame upon the distorted teaching of the church, but such teaching was a contributing factor to the 'dissociative personality disorder' that so crippled such men. The JJ report's suggestion that greater 'availability' of male altar boys accounts for the greater number as victims (and the attraction to such victims being one of power rather than sexual orientation) only explains the crisis in part, and seemed a little too neat to me, just as neat as equating homosexuality itself with a pedophile inclination. And of course, we mustn't forget SNAP's insistence that the number of girl victims is significantly under- reported. 

Speaking for myself and many of my friends and associates, we do not find Ms. Dowd's honest, forthright reporting on this crisis to be in any way 'wonderful' at all, nor any cause for petulant, adolescent glee at 'sticking it ' to authority. Quite the contrary, I find her reportage to be utterly tragic, demoralizing, and sad,  as indeed it should be for anyone who truly loves the church as it should be. The only proper response to this crisis of moral leadership within the church is profound moral outrage, and I commend Maureen Dowd for demonstrating what should be the appropriate prophetic attitude on the part of truly loyal Catholics. 

Jun 12, 2011

Tongues of Fire Burning the Building Down

 (Mother of the New Pentecost:: taken from the wonderful site St. Andrei Rublov Icons)

I've been reflecting today on the wonderful interview given by Matthew Fox, regarding the publication of his new book,  The Pope's War. Fox is also one of the keynote speakers at the ongoing American Catholic Conference in Detroit. Thanks to Colleen Kochivar-Baker of Enlightened Catholicism for alerting us to this interview and for her insightful comments, and thanks to Betty Clermont's posting at Open Tabernacle, with her provocative question about possible reform, which prompted these reflections: I am waiting for anyone to suggest a path to reform of the Roman Catholic Church which would be more effective than Catholics staying away. )

I've chosen several passages from Matthew Fox's interview which particularly struck me as very prescient of the future of Christianity, and have followed them with my own reflections:

As a theologian I am trying to ponder how the recent events of Catholic history can be seen through the eyes of the Holy Spirit. Is there some good that come out of so much anguish, so much betrayal, so much disappointment with the false direction the church has taken under Pope John Paul II and Ratzinger?  And I come to a clear conclusion that Yes, the Holy Spirit is still at work in the events of deconstruction and reconstruction that are at hand.  It is time to restart the church.  Let many of its forms go; let them die as they are doing.

(With the death of Pope John Paul I in September 1978 [most likely by assassination], I felt that we were being given a sign by the Holy Spirit that we were not meant to have a 'reformed Church' along the lines proposed by Vatican II, as so many of us of the Vatican II generation were longing for. In a way my hope for meaningful 'reform' of the Church died along with the saintly, gentle, collegial and open-hearted Albino Luciani, who reined for only a short 33 days, and who died in such mysterious circumstances which have never been adequately explained to this day. If one ventures down into the crypt beneath St. Peters, which contains the remains of past Popes, John Paul I's coffin has been placed on the side of the central aisle, the least significant location for any pontiff. Pilgrims rush past it, oblivious to this genuinely saintly martyr to reform of the Church, in their haste to get to the far more dramatic and spacious alcove which contains the remains of his successor, John Paul II,  with the 'eternal flame'  burning to the side and the permanent guard standing by. I always bring a bouquet when I visit Papa Luciani's tomb, but I have never seen any other evidence of tokens of devotion and affection for this most 'perfect' of collegial minded Pontiffs. If the Spirit had intended us to have a reformed Church, without any radical reconstruction, John Paul I would have remained alive to have fulfilled that destiny. His death must be read as a sign of the Spirit that a much more radical purging of the Church was intended and that we were being asked to 'let go' of the forms of the old Church, to surrender our longing for renewal itself, even to cut the umbilical cord to Mother Church herself (in her present institutional structure) and to find the courage in the  Spirit to venture out into the unknown, living in trust that the Maternal Spirit of Wisdom would find a way to preserve the lineage of Catholic Christianity outside the present, moribund institutional structure. However,  I could not have imagined a more terrible or more profound purging and deconstruction than that enacted, albeit obliviously, by Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II.  Such is the irony of history that the genuine saint is ignored and (taking my cue from Matthew Fox) the 'schismatic' Polish Pope in his spacious alcove down the aisle is honored beyond belief. Using the "S" word will be seen as contentious, but I am in agreement with Matthew Fox here when he says:

The “S” word rarely gets used these days but I think that Schism properly summarizes what the past two papacies have been about.  They deliberately turned their back on a valid Ecumenical Council and in doing so are in schism.  This means that its appointed cardinals and bishops are in schism. They do not represent the lineage of the church.  This opens up whole new possibilities of seeing the church anew.  All the Yes men and sycophants that have lined up at the papal trough for a piece of the power these recent decades are seen for what they are in their transparent reality.

An ecclesiastical system in schism? Is that too strong a word and does it not make us similar to those ultra conservative Catholic sects (St.Pius X), who consider Vatican II itself to be in schism and every pope elected after Pius XII? A contentious issue and a very strong word, but sometimes honesty, courage and directness in language are  necessary instruments to pierce the boil that is infecting the Church. However, rather than hurl invective, I prefer to follow Fox's inspiration and ask what the Holy Spirit is telling us through these powerful and painful 'signs of the times.' It is my own view that we cannot understand the present crisis in the Church without taking into account the overall shift in religious and spiritual outlook in the culture at large. Sincere spiritual searchers are no longer so dependent upon or so trustful of large religious institutions, but are finding alternative sources of nourishment in a variety of places and religious communities. The time for the great institutional structures has past, and what is to replace them remains a mystery and perhaps a cause of anxiety, as we fearfully contemplate fragmentation, splintering, chaos. But I feel such fears must be faced and overcome in the peaceful, interior conviction that the Spirit is leading us towards a radical reconstruction of the whole Catholic tradition and to forms of community which are at present beyond our imagining. Fox continues:

I have tried to sketch out some directions for new versions of Christianity that are needed today with of course the primary emphasis on lay leadership.  We do not need another Council (after all the last one was totally stuffed); what we need is a rise and indeed a take over of the church by lay leaders.  Jesus was not a clericalist.  He never heard of the Vatican (or of cardinals) all of which developed centuries after his death.  Time to start over.  And with the courage and imagination and generosity that characterizes all authentic spirituality.

(These words themselves need to be deconstructed and their implications laid bare. A "take-over" of the church by lay leaders ultimately must mean a take over of the sacramental system, and a refusal to be intimidated by the monopoly of control the hierarchy presently maintains over the sacraments through the myth of 'apostolic succession.' (Readers of Terrence Weldon's blog, Queering the Church can find an abundance of documentation for exploring the justification for calling this doctrine a myth.)  And here I am in complete agreement with another key note speaker at the Detroit conference, theologian Anthony Padovano, who is simply following the great Dutch theologian Edward Schillebeeckx by insisting that a 'validly ordained' minister is not an absolute requirement for a genuine celebration of the Eucharist. In the absence of 'ordained priests,' communities must find the courage within themselves, through the most profound and heartfelt prayer and discernment, to bless their own lay leaders and celebrate the sacraments independently of episcopal approval. This is a radical act that requires the utmost trust in the Spirit, because 'the real presence' is among the great treasures of the Catholic tradition. Such communities will find themselves under fire and will endure censure and 'excommunication,' but it is already happening in increasing numbers of breakaway communities. Until increasing numbers of communities are willing to take this painful step - in the absence of 'officially ordained' priests - no real revolution within the church is possible. Lay leaders must rise up and take back the church and that means listening to the interior movements of the Spirit, experiencing the peace and joy which are the signs of the Spirit, when and as they celebrate the Eucharist on their own. The Holy Spirit is already imbuing communities with the fire of Pentecost, the interior joy and consolation that bring with them the assurance of conscience that this step is the right one. We are already being blessed, we are already being assured, we are already being led into the new Church of the Holy Spirit. It simply requires more and more laypersons to listen to this interior call. This will not happen overnight. It is too radical, too frightening, it calls for too great a sacrifice, too painful a wrenching from the security of the Mother Womb, but in my opinion it is way the Spirit is leading increasing numbers of us.  The official organizers of the American Catholic Conference in Detroit are 'following the rules,' but I would not be surprised to learn that informal Eucharists on the periphery of the conference are fulfilling Archbishop Allen Vigneron's worst fears. To take such a step, however, requires the most prayerful discernment and this brings me to Matthew Fox's final points.

I believe, the most important direction that religion needs to go in its reconstruction—that is spirituality, the experiential dimension of religion.   The mystical-prophetic tradition I have been recovering including the Cosmic Christ, Hildegard, Aquinas, Eckhart, Julian and others, together with today’s post-modern science, offers new and deeper expressions of healthy religion.  They are among the treasure to take from the burning building.

Let us remember what Thomas Aquinas taught about religion.  That it is, he felt, primarily a virtue, that is a habit that persons carry within them.  Indeed, for Aquinas religion’s essence is Gratitude.  Gratitude for existence.  This means that institutions are NOT what religion is primarily about.  What goes on in the heart and mind and gives birth to outer form is what is at the essence of religion.  This means that social constructs like basilicas, cathedrals, churches, vaticans, popes, cardinals, bishops, canon laws, etc. are on the periphery of real religion.  And they render themselves religiously irrelevant when their thrust at certain times of history is very far from the love and compassion and service that Jesus preached.  They have more to do with accumulation of power and prestige and institutional and personal ego.

(All the more reason, then, for alternative communities to branch out of their own, while maintaining their ties to the larger community through prayerful discernment, counseling, advice, and listening to the authentic voices of wisdom within the community,  born of contemplation and prayer. Nothing could be more important than the spiritual witness in peace and joy of lay led communities, celebrating the presence of the Resurrected Lord. The time for waiting upon ecclesiastical  leaders for change has past. The ecclesiastical system must be bypassed, and only when increasing numbers of lay led communities are forced by circumstance to take this painful step, and discover within themselves the Pentecostal peace and joy assuring them that the Spirit is with them, will the real revolution of the Holy Spirit within the Church have begun. For this to happen, we need increasing numbers of genuine prophets and mystics who are attuned in the depths of their being to the life giving movements of the Spirit. 

At the bottom, the crisis in Roman Catholicism is a crisis in spirituality or the lack thereof.  Real people want spirituality.  The church as we know it today is the last place they go looking.  We are talking about the future of religion, the future of spirituality and very likely the sustainability or unsustainability of our species on this planet.  This is why the issues at hand are of deep importance to us all, whether within or outside of organized religion.

I would like to close these reflections with these moving words from another contemplative teacher of the Catholic mystical tradition:

DIARMUID O'MURCHU: There's certainly a part of me as a human being, a part entirely of being a Christian, that feels I don't want to abandon any sister or brother on the journey of life and the journey of faith. But this is a very real question for me and for people who are like me who facilitated for renewal programs and chapters of religious congregations, because this one comes up often. What do you do with the people who don't want to move, that want to keep things as they always were, and are so rigid and frightened and scared, and you can't get them to move without badly damaging them, which I don't feel I have any right to do or anybody else has a right to do. And so I think the delicate balance has to be something like this and for me Gerry Arbuckle is the person who has named this very, very clearly. Supposing you have this group...and let's put this into percentages...and you have 50% that are totally rigid and stuck, if you like, and you have 50% that are yearning to go. Insofar as there are people that are committed primarily to life and to the evolution of life, the primary energy should move with the 50% that want to move. And then we keep a secondary energy to try and help and maintain the others in a meaningful way. So this principal is that you go primarily where the life is! I think the tendency, particularly in churches, is that we try to keep everything at the lowest common denominator to please those who want to keep things the way they are. That, in my opinion, is not what Jesus would do. That is not Christian gospel. I think we need to go where the life is, primarily, without abandoning the others. And we need to try and bring them with us, in so far as we can, in love, in charity, and also in challenge! And ok, if they choose to remain totally stuck, or totally where they are - let me not be too judgmental about it - ok, that is their freedom, that is their right if you like, but I think in the overall sense of things, whether at the human level, at the religious or spiritual level, I think this commitment to life always has to be honored. And so go where the life is primarily, put your energies primarily there. And then also spare some to try and maintain, in kindness and dignity, those that pretty much want to remain. And a corollary of that, of course, which is much more difficult and this requires a lot of skills, we do not allow this subgroup to dictate. And I think that's where leadership has a huge responsibility. Leadership has to put it's commitment with the new primarily.

Jun 9, 2011

US California Anglican Bishop ends ban on blessing of same-sex couples.

Nice bit of news from the Guardian today:

US bishop ends ban on blessing of same-sex couples

Gay marriage still unauthorised but California bishop gives support to same-gender civil marriages, domestic partnerships and relationships.

A bishop in the US Episcopal church has authorised the use of blessings for same-sex couples, breaking a ban on one of the most divisive issues affecting the Anglican communion.

Chester Talton, from the diocese of San Joaquin, in California, has told clergy they may perform blessings of "same-gender civil marriages, domestic partnerships and relationships which are lifelong committed relationships characterised by fidelity, monogamy, mutual affection and respect [and] careful, honest communication".

The US state recognises domestic partnerships between gay and heterosexual couples as long as one or both of the people involved is 62 or older. Same-sex marriages were also legal for a short while in the state.

A statement from the diocese said: "We must also recognise there are same-gender couples in relationships who have not entered in domestic partnerships, perceiving them to be inferior to marriage and who, for various reasons, did not or could not marry during the brief time when same gender marriages were legal.

"Couples in such relationships are part of the diocese of San Joaquin. They are in our congregations and in positions of leadership. They are our friends, neighbours and brothers and sisters in Christ. It is now time, to the extent permitted by California law and the canons of the Episcopal church, to extend to these couples the generous pastoral response necessary to meet their needs as members of this church."

Talton's authorisation states that no diocesan priest may perform a gay marriage until both sets of laws, and the diocesan bishop, allow it and that no priest is required to bless same-gender relationships.
His decision follows years of discussion in the US on how to be more inclusive towards homosexual parishioners and clergy, a direction that has angered conservative evangelicals.

The archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has frequently voiced his opposition to moves allowing the consecration of lesbian and gay bishops and same-sex blessings – two of the three temporary bans in place designed, supposedly, to keep the disparate communion provinces together until a more permanent solution to disagreements is found.

Jun 6, 2011

Through a Glass Darkly: The Silence of God

The Harrowing Effects of Religious Hypocrisy:

I've just finished Ingmar Bergman's magnificent trilogy exploring the dimensions of faith, which is composed of three very beautiful, but rather austere films; Through A  Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence. Winter Light is the most religiously explicit of all of Bergman's films, focusing as it does on the religious crisis of a Lutheran pastor, who's soul has simply been emptied of all palpable sense of God's loving presence. I couldn't help thinking of the many crises facing the Christian churches in this day, the Catholic Church in particular, as Bergman's three profound films carried me into their interior, deeply spiritual worlds - with all of their bleakness, darkness, despair - and the faint glimmer of a redeeming light seen in the far distance on the horizon. Faith is a distant glow, burning gently and barely perceptibly, in the burned out hearts of Bergman's characters, and  they must discover and nurture this glow themselves -without the consolations of a hypocritical religious structure - through their small acts of love and sacrifice for one another. A terrible doubt always hovers over Bergman's films and the characters within - will they discover within themselves this delicate glow of faith and meaning, or will there only be ashes?

What intrigued me about this trilogy is the manner in which it illuminates Bergman's own crisis of faith, since he used these three films to work through many conflicts stemming from his own childhood religious upbringing and the abuse he suffered at the hands of his minister father. Bergman's father was a Lutheran pastor and later chaplain to the King of Sweden. Ingmar would listen enthralled to his father's glorious sermons on Christian love - then find himself subjected to the most painful torments from his towering minister father. If Bergman were discovered to have wet the bed - as a boy of five!- his father would beat him mercilessly, then  lock him into a dark closet for hours at a time, only to remove him and force him to wear a red dress for the remainder of the day. Such torments continued for years and instilled in the young Bergman a profound distrust of all official ministers of religion and a life long disgust with all forms of religious hypocrisy. Ministers were capable of composing the most glowing sermons on Christian love, but within whose hearts no such love had found room  to grow and flourish-deserts of the heart concealed behind honeyed words of hypocrisy. Does this not remind us so much of the sexual abuse crisis of the Catholic Church - particularly of the failure of a fairly representative number of Church leaders to display even the most rudimentary concern and practical support for victims of abuse? The great crisis of faith this scandal engenders in the minds and hearts of sincere spiritual searchers is this: If the spiritual power that is supposed to be operative within and accessible through this religious institution cannot even penetrate the hearts of its ministers and leaders, cannot find room to grow and flourish there to the extent that they place the well being of children above the reputation of the institution - and cannot inspire it's own leaders with the grace and insight to prevent such a tragedy on such a grand scale - then of what use is it? This is the terrible doubt, which pursued Bergman all his life and which he explores in so many films, a doubt instilled in his own soul by the abuse he suffered at the hands of a minister of the faith. Fortunately, spiritually discerning persons realize that the efficacy of the Spirit does not depend on the witness of fallible leaders (and that not all leaders, to be sure,  remain unresponsive to the movements of the Spirit), but transcends them and flourishes on the margins, in the shadows, among the outcasts and those frequently deemed the least worthy of grace. Nonetheless, in the face of such a powerful countersign being given collectively by the leadership of the Catholic Church, the doubt still remains. This is why it is imperative for discerning Christians to offer their own countersigns to the negative sign of sinful, abusive leadership - and to offer havens of peace and serenity in the midst of trials and contradictions, witnessing to the delicate but ecstatic joy of the living flame of Love which burns brightly in hearts that have been opened through grace and the purging of the grasping ego.

This brings me to the moving climax of Bergman's film, Winter Light. Bergman has inserted into this film about profound religious doubt, one deeply spiritual man of faith, the crippled, hunchback sacristan who shares these remarks about his reading of the gospels with the exhausted pastor. In light of the failure of leadership within the Church today, they speak for themselves, words from a marginalized cripple, who is a humble servant to the despairing minister of religion, but who witnesses far more effectively to the spiritual efficacy of his religion than the minister himself. Such is the mystery of grace:

Now I’ve gotten as far as the story of Christ’s passion, and it’s given me pause. The passion of Christ, his suffering, wouldn’t you say the focus on his suffering is all wrong? This emphasis on physical pain. It couldn’t have been all that bad.  It may sound presumptuous of me, but in my humble way I’ve suffered as much physical pain as Jesus.  And his torments were rather brief. Lasting some four hours, I gather? 

I feel he was tormented far worse on another level.  Maybe I’ve got it all wrong.  But just think of Gethsemane, Pastor. Christ’s disciples fell asleep. They hadn’t understood the meaning of the last supper or anything. And when the servants of the law appeared, they ran away, and Peter denied him. Christ has known his disciples for three years.  They’d lived together day in and day out, but they never grasped what he meant. They abandoned him, down to the last man.  He was left all alone. That must have been painful. To realize that no one understands. To be abandoned when you need someone to rely on. That must be excruciatingly painful. But the worst was yet to come. When Jesus was nailed to the cross, and hung there in torment, he cried out, 

"God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

He cried out as loud as he could. He thought that his heavenly father had abandoned him. He believed everything he’d ever preached was a lie. In the moments before he died, Christ was seized by doubt. Surely that must have been his greatest hardship. God’s silence.

And yet...and it is a significant qualification ...a powerful spiritual beauty lies within the profound silence of all of Bergman's films, reminiscent of the silence of the Irish playwright, Samuel Becket - the silence of waiting upon God. Characters suffer in all of Bergman's films, they are bereft of normal human hope, they search within the desert of the heart for some spring of living water which does not seem to gush forth, and so they remain in silence, waiting. God may be silent, but his presence is revealed in the deepest inner core of the heart, a silence that is a deep inner stillness and which prompted the Catholic contemplative, Bernadette Roberts to exclaim that the most perfect name for God was Silence.