Jul 19, 2011

Mountain Solitude

Off to Switzerland for two weeks. Five days of solitude in a chalet at the base of the Eiger and ten days of drama teaching at a summer camp for international school students.

Books I'm taking with me:

JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters by Jim Douglas

What I Believe by Hans Kung

American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection and the Road to Afghanistan     by Peter Dale Scott

I Shall Not Hate by Palestinian Doctor Izzeldin Abuelaish (whose 3 daughters were killed by the 2008 Israeli assault on Gaza)

Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to His Interspiritual Thought, by Wayne Teasdale

Peace and blessings upon all of us as we strive to heal a wounded world


Jul 16, 2011

Conspiracies and The Unspeakable

 It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience ... (Raids, p. 4)

Thomas Merton from Raids on the Unspeakable
This quote is in reference to Catholic Peace activist and theologian, Jim Douglas's book JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, which I comment on at the end of this reflection. But first -

I've just returned from a whirlwind tour of theatre in London and the UK, traveling by train to Southampton to catch the touring production of the musical, Grease, which my school is putting on in the fall. Many heartfelt thanks to Buon Gusto Italian Restaurant right across from the Mayflower Theater in Southampton for that scrumptious meal you cooked up for me right before the 5:30 performance.

I paid my usual visit to Westminster Catholic Cathedral (not to be confused with the more famous Episcopal burial place of poets and coronation spot for kings & Queens up the street a ways). I've always liked this Cathedral for some reason, partly because of the great, iconic byzantine Cross that hangs over the central aisle and partly because the ceiling of this majestic cathedral is burnished black, no frescoes or decorations of any kind, giving it a burned out unfinished look, more appropriate to a war time church, one which has passed through the fires of human suffering and contradiction. And of course there is a great peace about this Cathedral, thanks to the heartfelt prayers of its many visitors.

I can't say the same for the Cathedral bookshop, St. Paul's, which is right next door. Every time I walk into it, I feel I am entering the off-kiltered offices of a bizarre religious cult, in which all reason has been left at the door, somewhat like Alice entering the looking glass - the cult of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, whose photos are prominently displayed, the one of JPII in his old age sporting a glowing phosphorescent halo. Also on display this time was a near life size photo of a nun holding up the bloodied undershirt of JPII after the assassination attempt on his life. Obviously considered a holy relic of a holy saint. It made me feel very uncomfortable, as if in the presence of false idols. And I have to say the staff have always made me feel very uncomfortable as well, because of a dark aura of unctuousness coupled with an irritability, which seems to be characteristic of 'official' Catholic bookshops worldwide. What a terribly judgmental thing to say, but I remember having exactly the same reaction to the staff of San Francisco's main archdiocesan Catholic goods store and the same reaction in New York as well, and the same again in a shop offering fancy goods for bishops in Rome. Why are all of these people in these 'official' mainstream Catholic shops in such  bad moods and so testy, as if laboring under a dark cloud? And I say this with genuine concern. There is "something" unhealthy about working in these places, some indescribable pressure upon the soul, or a heavy weight upon the heart, which leads to a subtle deformation.  Of course I'm exaggerating for effect, but not by much. The woman behind the back counter at St. Paul's, selling the gold chalices and monstrances and hosts and fancy priestly costumes, didn't even manage a smile. She seemed so unhappy being there that I leaned over and gave her a little pat on her hand.

Contrast that with the lovely nuns at the wonderful bookshop of the Vedanta Society in the back hills of Santa Barbara, California. These lovely women exude a sense of deep inner tranquility and peace, cheerfulness and good humor, sanity and wholesomeness, and their shop is filled with books across the wide spectrum of religious and spiritual experience, honoring multiple religious traditions, with artifacts, statures, icons from numerous religious traditions as well. Of course, when one enters their beautiful chapel, there is their patron saint, Ramakrishna, in a position of honor at the center altar, and glowing icons of Jesus and the Buddha to the left and right. It's such a wonderful feeling to go in here (both chapel and bookstore) - which helps sales immensely I should imagine.

However.....I go into St. Paul's because there are always some wonderful surprises hidden on its bookshelves and some of the 'old time' Catholic devotional books have merit as well, some great classics of spirituality. Someone stocking these shelves knows what s/he is doing and interspersed among the more traditional, accepted pious works are a few timebombs. Naughty, naughty, I feel like saying (to whom I don't know) and wagging a finger.

While I wouldn't expect to find Matthew Fox's The Pope's War here, I did find Hans Kung's latest, What I believe, and (shock horror) Brother David Steindl-Rast's revolutionary demytholgizing reformulation of the Apostle's Creed, Deeper Than Words This is a work that goes so far beyond the present Pope's level of tolerance regarding Christology and religious pluralism that Brother David himself expressed mild surprise (in a You Tube video) that he has not been 'found out,' concluding wryly that he's so far off the Vatican radar they haven't noticed him. After all, he's not an official theologian - with no degrees or credentials - and, more importantly, he's only a brother (and not a woman). Well, well, well, I thought, subversives in the ranks of St. Paul's. What is the world coming to?

I was drawn to four books - in that way that books have of speaking to you off of the shelves, a gentle interior light that draws you to them, intimating that there are deep mysteries within their covers that are meant just for you at your particular phase of life. The first was James Carroll's Practicing Catholic (which I've almost finished), his tumultuous, deeply moving memoir of being a Paulist priest during the 60's in America. Reading it was an emotional roller-coaster ride, since it took me through my own past and the tragic events in the US of those times, the first Catholic Worker protests against the Vietnam Warn, the spate of horrendous, tragic assassinations of the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Malcom X. Carroll also follows closely the unfolding events of Vatican II, the setback with Paul VI and the encyclical of birth control, designed to protect Papal primacy and along with it the whole culture of clerical superiority. This leads him straight to the abuse crisis (from Humanae Vitae to sexual abuse)  and the restoration of JPII and Benedict XVI. In other words, it's the perfect companion piece to Fox's The Pope's War, only it's somehow a much sadder read.

The second book I picked up was Bede Griffiths: An Introduction to His Interspiritual Thought, by Wayne Teasdale, and I haven't started it yet. But just browsing through it gave me the promise of a very inspiring, spiritual experience as he chronicles the development of this most extraordinary witness to Catholic Christian religious tolerance, pluralism and inculturation. Bede Griffiths is another singular saintly witness who 'miraculously' escaped the Vatican radar, flourishing unhindered in his Ashram in Southern India, Shantivan. (This was an oversight on my part. In fact, like so many others, Bede Griffiths was called before Cardinal Ratzinger to defend himself in 1990.) The kind of Hinduized Catholic Christianity Father Bede lived and practiced would be unrecognizable to most pew sitting Catholics in the west. And his liturgies would seem to have come from another planet. Yet as Fox reminds us at the end of The Pope's War, the universal catholicity of the community of Jesus should warmly embrace a very diverse number of religious expressions and practices.

Bede Griffiths is reputed to have said, "When I was young I might have been a homosexual." (Quote taken from An Overgrown Path)

This is how the NCR described him in 2005:

'This man, Bede Griffiths, is dangerous. That the Benedictine monk died at his Shantivanam (Forest of Peace) ashram in India in 1993 at the fine age of 86 does not alter the fact--except to the extent his death intensifies our understanding of our own situation.

Griffiths, this Hindu sannyasi (ascetic), a Catholic priest, elegant in his writing, in person charming, in death could too easily be diminished into icon-only status. His is a pleasing lithograph of shoulder-length flowing hair, neatly trimmed swami beard, handsome face, kindly if penetrating eyes bordered by haloes and swirling smoke of incense.

His writings belie the image. They are danger-daring prods, cautions, lures, inducements, challenges, barbs, warnings and reassurances from a man who found nature first, and through nature God, and through God Catholicism, and through Catholicism Benedictinism, and through the monastic life, Eastern mysticism.'

The third book I felt drawn to made the perfect complement to the other three, only I didn't buy it at first, thinking I had way too much on my plate as it was. This was Rene Laurentin's lovely biography of that little known Marian saint, Catherine Laboure, Visionary of the Miraculous Medal, overshadowed by her more famous 'sister', Bernadette.  I walked out of the store, despite the tug at the heart that this book was somehow meant for me. That evening in my room, however, when I lit a candle in front of the Eucharist, as is my daily custom, it seemed peacefully clear that I had to return the next day and get it, which is what I did, not knowing that an explosive time bomb was also waiting on the shelves.

But the intuition was clear that part of my vocation, though not it's central focus, is to be a witness to the mystery of the Marian apostolate in the Church. In line with Fox's beautiful lesson on diversity, we must accept that this, too, along with all of the Marian apparitions and the rosary beads and the medals, is part of the Catholic charism and deserves a place at the table, alongside Bede Griffiths in his orange robes and his red Tilak spot on his forehead. The height and depth, the breadth and width of the great catholic Tradition encompasses them all.

I've almost finished the story of Catherine and it so beautiful and inspiring, the very best kind of story from old time Catholic spiritual piety. A hardy peasant girl, she had to take charge of her family and raise her siblings after the death of her mother. She was only 12. She already showed sings of deep spirituality, trudging for miles in the cold to the nearest church for prayer, even though in these times after the revolution in France, most churches had no priest and the Eucharist therefore was not reserved. Parishes were lucky to see a priest once every few months and such a priest would be traveling to as many as twelve parishes for Mass in a given day! Does this sound familiar?

At the age of 24, after enduring many trials and setbacks, Catherine was finally accepted into the novitiate of the Daughters of Charity. Six months later, while still a novice, Catherine received the three extraordinary apparitions of "Our Lady" which would make her famous throughout France and all of  Catholic Europe. The Lady in White asked that a medal be cast with her image, the 'Miraculous Medal,' and while Catherine's spiritual director thought the apparitions were merely products of Catherine's overwrought imagination, eventually he did take the heavenly request to the Bishop - who responded enthusiastically and the story of the Miraculous Medal began its remarkable journey, as a devotional wildfire spread all over France and Europe, with many stories of healings and conversions.

But what of Catherine? She goes back to what she knows best, feeding the pigs and chickens, tending the garden, raising the cows, and feeding and caring for the elderly. She does this for forty years and carries the secret of the apparitions with her to the grave. While France and all of Europe are afire with the devotion, with hundreds of thousands of copies of the medal being cast, none of her fellow sisters or her family know of her identity as the novice of the Miraculous Medal. Even the Bishop, without knowing her identity,  tries to get her to come to a formal conference on the medal. She declines. Well then, says the Bishop, would she agree to come to the conference wearing a black veil over her face so she cannot be recognized? Catherine declines again.  She remains in anonymity for forty years,  feeding the pigs and chickens. After her death, of course, the hysteria begins, with thousands converging on the mother house for her funeral and hoping to touch her remains and her coffin. No wonder she chose to remain unknown! It is one of the great stories of heroic sanctity from the old Catholic tradition and it takes it's place beside the saintly Bede Griffiths sitting cross legged in his ashram chanting versus from the Vedas.

But this brings me to the explosive timebomb waiting on the shelves of St. Paul's. Wandering around with the Laurentin biography under my arm, I came across this book:

JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters, by Jim Douglas.

I am half way through this book and am in a state of shock because of it. This is an assassination book like no other, a conspiracy story of such systemic evil contrasted with such astounding grace, that it defies categorization. What on earth was it doing on the shelves of the St. Paul's Catholic bookstore in Westminster, London? Someone in that store (naughty naughty) knows what she is doing, despite the stultifying atmosphere of false adulation given to dubious religious figures. Well, Jim Douglas, for those not familiar, is one of the great old time Catholic peace activists, along with Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton (whom he cites as his muse for this book) and the Berrigan brothers. Douglas wrote several classic works on  the Catholic theology of nonviolence, which were used as texts in my undergraduate theology classes at the University of San Francisco, among them The Non Violent Cross and Resistance and Contemplation. The original publisher of the hardback edition of the book was Maryknoll's Orbis.  And it is being praised, by those who have read it, as the greatest book by far on the Kennedy assassination - and that's in a field of over 2,000. Jim intends this as part of trilogy he's been contracted by Orbis to complete, which includes a book on the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Malcom X and the final work on the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Needless to say, he sees these assassinations as having been perpetuated by the same 'dark forces' in American society, a systemic evil so profound it defies description and which he sees extending its tentacles into our present day, through 9/11 and beyond. But it is a systemic evil resisted to and overcome by grace, and that is the miracle, both of the book and the story it tells. This is a work James Douglas was born to write and it comes in the twilight of his years. It feels like a calling and a grace. I intend to blog more in detail at a later date. But here is the best overall review I've found of the work, which encapsulates what is new about Jim's analysis and documentation.

To end on a reflective note: I met Jim Douglas sometime in the early 1970's  in Santa Barbara, sitting on a grassy hill over looking the Pacific Ocean. If I'm not mistaken, Jim Forest of the Catholic Peace Fellowship was also there (He has since moved to the Orthodox Church), along with several other friends. I don't remember much of the conversation, though it covered the wide range of peace activities in the US, the ongoing tragedy of the Vietnam War, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. It all seems so very long ago. But I do remember one amusing anecdote. We were discussing the final love affair Trappist monk Thomas Merton had with a nurse in his Louisville Hospital, shortly before he took off for his final journey to the Far East and his death by electrocution in Bangkok. We now know from Merton's Louisville psychiatrist that the couple consummated their union in the psychiatrist's office/apartment, which he had made available to them for one night. This incident has always endeared me to Merton more than any other, because it demonstrates his humanity, his vulnerability, and his liberated powers of discernment, capable of evaluating the ethical demands of the particular human situation, beyond the general requirements of rules and vows. There are exceptions to every rule and moments when vows - even of chastity - are called to be suspended or transcended. This may be an idealized view and not all agree, some commentators wondering about the well being of the young woman herself, half his age, whom Merton felt obliged to "let go" some months later. Yet 'rumor' has it that she herself has expressed gratitude for this one precious moment of consummation, especially in light of his untimely death so shortly after. In any case, Jim and the others were saying they were so grateful for this affair in Merton's life because it would now make it impossible for the Vatican saint makers to get their clutches on him. Merton would be free of their grasp and would forever remain the elusive, liberated and liberating figure of conscience and consciousness, the great figure of spiritual authority, for so many of us in late twentieth century Catholicism. To paraphrase Graham Green in his comments on the death of Henry James, After his death, there was no longer anyone left one could ask about anything. James Douglas took his book title, JFK and the Unspeakable from Merton's own collection of essays, entitled Raids on the Unspeakable, a word he used to refer to an evil within American society and government so pervasive, profound and destructive there were no words in the human vocabulary to describe it. 

Here is an earlier comment from Jim Douglas on The Unspeakable, delivered to the Thomas Merton Society in 1997:

The Warren Report gave us the unspeakable in prose, with a void at the center of its almost one thousand pages. Remember Merton's description of the unspeakable. It sounds as if he is describing the Warren Report:

It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said; the void that gets into the language of public and official declarations at the very moment when they are pronounced, and makes them ring dead with the hollowness of the abyss. It is the void out of which Eichmann drew the punctilious exactitude of his obedience ... (Raids, p. 4)

The Warren Report is a monument to the unspeakable. Yet it provoked no revolution. That void of citizen response remains at the heart of our national security state. The unspeakable that rules us now took power on November 22, 1963, and was confirmed by the Warren Report. By denying the void at the heart of our system, we have allowed it to undermine everything. The unspeakable rules by the power of our denial.

In conclusion, Douglass writes:

Is it not our right as a people to abolish the military-industrial complex and its intelligence agencies that have murdered our leaders and millions of other brothers and sisters? As we begin to be jolted out of our long sleep ... how can we come together again? What are the present seeds of that nonviolent revolution needed to abolish war, poverty, and racism, a global Poor People's Campaign? Must we begin by facing our own denial of the blood of the Sixties?

Compassion is the most powerful force on earth and in heaven.

Friends, when will we realize that?

To be continued with JFK and the Unspeakable. 

Jul 3, 2011

Brief Reflections on Medugorje and the Church

Tomorrow I leave for London for ten days, so will not be able to complete the reflections on my recent trip to the Marian shrine before then. I'm still absorbing the impact of the visit and the many graces I received there, coupled with the many contradictory experiences and paradoxes, among them the fact that this sort of devotional phenomenon attracts so many conservative Catholic folk, some good, decent and fair, others quite intolerant, rigid and suspicious, who assume, erroneously, that the Marian apparitions and messages endorse only their own righteous conception of the church. It is a mystery.

I am in the middle of reading Matthew Fox's great and prophetic book, The Pope's War, which I cannot recommend too highly. But he speaks of a conference he attended as a keynote speaker and the fact that a very aggressive group of fundamentalist Catholic watchdogs stood outside the venue, loudly praying the rosary, and then spat at him as he walked by. How utterly sad and how completely inconsistent with the deepest mystical intent of the messages of Medugorje. How does this happen and what does it mean? This is the mystery that I'm trying to unravel. I can certainly understand and sympathize with those fair minded and sensible people who take this sort of behavior as a negative sign against all of the Marian devotions, Medugorje especially. But I am convinced the matter is not so simple and it is part of an interior call in the Spirit (or so I believe through my own personal discernment) that I feel called to witness to the openness of the Medugorje messages and their complete compatibility with a more progressive view of the community called church. This is not an easy task, in fact, it's an uphill battle, but one I feel called to make.

I just finished watching a video of the January 10th apparition given to the visionary Mirjana, who is in many ways the most grounded, sensible and theologically open-minded of all six of the visionaries. The moment of her apparition itself, was profoundly moving, but it was marred by the technique of the camera person who insisted on extreme closeups of the visionary's face during her intimate moment of communion with the Mother of the Lord. I found this so intrusive and so offensive I had to turn away. What I see reflected in this disrespectful technique is the element of fanaticism that Medugjorje engenders and that is not a positive sign. The camera operator (like so many in the mass media in general) seems intent on satisfying his or her own addiction to sensationalism. There is a lack of detachment, a peaceful, reverent, respectful viewing of the event, which would have required that the camera be zoomed back. Instead there is a greedy engorgement in complete disregard of the dignity and respect which  should be accorded both the event and the visionary herself.

Kneeling next to Mirjana, on the right, was a man with one set of rosary beads in his hand, another around his neck, and another around his right wrist, together with numerous medals. On her left, was another man with an uncountable number of rosaries strung around his neck and numerous medals, and  a look of derangement in the eyes, and I don't mean that comment uncharitably.  It's simply an honest observation.  On the floor at her feet, however, was a young girl who was by far the most normal and composed of the entire group, and who I assume was Mirjana's young daughter. And in fact before the apparition began, Mirjana was tenderly stroking the young girl's hair. So ... signs of contradiction all around, which leads me to believe that in part, the Madonna is appearing here partly in support of such needy human beings who may be threatened in their faith by so many tumultuous events in the church,  changes and scandals both, and assuring them that She and her Son are still with the Church. And yet in the midst of all of this, is the visionary, Mirjana, herself,  whom China Gallard described in her book, The Dark Virgin, as "a woman without guile." I have to agree. The very presence of Mirjana, both before, after and during the apparition, communicates profound spiritual maturity, wisdom and peace. She is the sign of contradiction,  which both affirms the mystery and  transcends and subsumes all of the signs of imbalance and fanaticism around her. It is all such a mystery.

Below is a far more beautiful video of Mirjana, in which she speaks of the impact of the apparitions on her life.  Listen to Mirjana's advice that one must always pray before we attempt to speak to others of God, that we must always have peace first in our hearts and refrain from judging and criticizing others. Listen to her summation of the essence of the Medugorje messages and you will find nothing that all members of the Christian family could not agree upon - except, of course, those who feel the need to judge and criticize others whom they consider to be unorthodox. A truly wonderful, remarkable video.