2. THE COMPLEXITY OF BEING ME! We are, in fact, each of us, intolerably complex: confused, bewildered, bombarded by discordant signals and demands, subject to conflictual desires and motives, unstable moods and fragile loyalties; driven by insecurity and ineffectively smothered fear.
Nicholas Lash 1.
You alone are the alchemist of your humanity. The power is given to you alone to turn base metal into gold, to turn such base energies as fear, worry, anger, deceit, hatred, and delusion into generosity, openness, spontaneity, kindness, courage and awareness.
Simon Parke. 2
“When Death Comes,” Mary Oliver.
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it’s over, I want to say all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.
“This is the spiritual life; the ordinary things one does from hour to hour.” 3
“Holiness means assuming total responsibility for all that we are and not simply for how we appear to other human beings – or even how we project ourselves to God… Our daily life is the matter, so to speak, which we are meant to transform into holiness… (This insight) awakens us to the exhilarating truth that every single moment of our daily life, every experience, at whatever time and at whatever place, can serve, and is meant to serve, as spiritual exercise – so long as we, by our attitude, recognize that the experience is meant for that purpose. Every single experience of our daily life is grist for the grinding stone of holiness. No experience is wasted… From every single event in our daily lives, we learn about ourselves and thereby come closer to our true selves; by the same token we come closer to the Holy One, who is even closer to our true selves than we are.” 4
Holiness, A Tentative Profile.
Prayer, of course, but this will be a later reflection.
Having a robust, varied, and daily spiritual routine, the daily work of conversion.
Basically liking life; being enthusiastic, not complaining.
Growing and learning from all experiences.
Knowing the meaning of forgiveness, for themselves and others, and not being resentful.
Being habitually compassionate, for both neighbor and self.
Being non-worriers, not agonizing over things which are not in one’s control.
Living in the present, simply because the present is all one has.
Not constantly seeking approval from others, and having a strong sense of inner direction; not being overly upset by others’ negative comments.
Being strikingly independent, respectful of others’ rights to make decisions, and encouraging self-reliance.
Finding joy in the world of nature.
Refusing to engage in useless fighting, but spending a lot of time and energy in helping others, and especially through acknowledgment and praise.
Being careful in one’s framing of others.
Trying to be healthy physically, and not letting illness get one down, and treating our bodies well.
Avoiding spending time talking about others, on what they’ve done or failed to do, not gossiping.
Possessing self-discipline, but not being organizationally neurotic.
Having high energy levels, being seldom if ever bored.
Raymond Llul, a thirteenth century Catalan mystic, wrote, ‘Lord, since you have put so much joy in my heart, extend it, I beg you, into my whole body, so that my face and my heart and my mouth and my hands — all of my members feel your joy. The sea is not so full of water as I am of joy.’” 5
1 Nicholas Lash, “On Learning To Be Wise,” Priests and People, October 2001, 358.
2 Simon Parke, The Journey Home (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2007), 9.
3 The words of fictional character Fr. Baddely in P. D. James, The Black Tower (London: Faber and Faber, 1975), 22.
4 Donald Nicholl, Holiness (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1981), 53-54, 87.
5 Timothy Radcliffe, OP, What Is the Point of Being a Christian? 56.
“I am confused about what to believe as a Catholic any more. There are so many different ideas that leave me so unsure of the church and my faith. What do I do?”
“The mysteries of the movements of the human soul fill an observer with awe. The drama of the inner life is spectacular, crowded with successive moments of dull pain, desperation, anguish, sudden hopes, shattering joys, turning points, loves, losses, doubts, wanderings”
“Every church, every religion, offers a poetic ancient form by which you will be able to welcome your children into life and bury your parents. Through its local ministers, churches, and rituals, the church offers you continuity across generations. This is no small thing. Humans are historical animals, and a church places us within an historical tradition. Invariably, this tradition is replete with stories of heroes, crises, struggles, lessons learned at great cost. Invariably, too, this tradition offers nourishment to those whose spirits need to study as deer need water.”1
The Four-Stage Evolution of Religion.2
Stage 1: The energetic, charismatic, and loosely structured foundation phase in which faith communities develop where people live in the spirit of the founder.
Stage 2: When the original disciples began to die-off and people become concerned about passing-on their faith heritage to the next generation. Beliefs are written down, scriptures/sacred writings take a set form, and specific rituals become more uniformly established. This is a necessary and unavoidable stage.
Stage 3: This involves a religious hardening of the arteries and barrel-vision gradually sets in. Doctrinal statements, rituals, and church structures that once sustained people become narrow restraints and may become barriers to growth and life. There is a growing emphasis on doctrinal fidelity (or what is taken to mean ‘orthodoxy’) and obedience to authority. Faith becomes more a matter of believing certain things than of living in a particular way, the way and spirit of the founder.
Stage 4: This is reformation, moving away from what might be termed rigid believing to a freer, more joy-filled religious living, not abandonment of doctrine/belief/ritual so much as a recognition that the primary goal is communion with God.
Considering the Insight of Friedrich von Hügel (1852-1925).3
For Von Hügel religion/faith/Catholicism is composed of three chief elements:
These dimensions correspond to the way we grow through the life cycle.
Intellectual (Adolescence) = Searching faith. Internal authority. The life of the intellect, reasoning, understanding, making sense of things for oneself.
Mystical (Mature adult) = Mature faith.
Going beyond the institutional and the intellectual, but without leaving them behind. Expressed especially in an explicit sense of being in the presence of God.
Considering the Insight of James Fowler (1940-2015).4
Pre-stage of infancy: establishment of trust, love, etc as foundational for the development of the person.
Stage 1: Intuitive-projective faith. Early childhood, 2-6/7
Stage 2: Mythic-literal faith. Childhood and beyond, 7-10.
Stage 3: Synthetic-conventional faith. Adolescence and beyond.
Stage 4: Individuative-reflective faith. Young adulthood and beyond.
Stage 5: Conjunctive faith. Early mid-life and beyond, unusual before mid-life – though what is
“mid-life” these days?
Stage 6: Universalizing faith. Rare.
Age and stage do not necessarily correlate!
Challenges and problems develop when people of different stages interact…Parents and children… Teachers and pupils… Pastors and parishioners…
Maturing in faith is dependent upon living with the tension generated by the three elements, so as to produce sanitas, health.
Continue to study and find about your faith. “To be quite blunt: those who refuse to do theology — to read, think hard, discuss — simply do not, in fact, care about the truth of Christianity or, at the very least, do not care sufficiently to seek some understanding of that Word through whom all things are made, into whose light we have been called, and which will set us free.”
Through novels and literature: “I shall argue that in many cases art and literature are primary expressions of religious ideas, and that, therefore, they may give us a more immediate, and sometimes deeper, understanding of these ideas than is offered by theology. You may on occasion learn more about redemption from a novel than from a theological treatise.”
Never fight about the faith. Converse, discuss, listen and speak, even good and solid argument, but fighting is useless compared to an “apologetics of love.”
Some Pointers from the Letter to the Ephesians, chapter 4.
(2) With all lowliness and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, (3) eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace… (25) Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. (29) Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. (31) Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you.
1 Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Tell Me Why (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998), 47, 30.
2 I am reliant here on some insights from Catholic historical theologian John A. Dick, from his blog entitled “Another Voice.” In his brief reflections I find echoes of Harvey Cox, The Future of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).
3 Owen F. Cummings, Prophets, Guardians and Saints (New York-Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2007), 155-166 on von Hügel.
4 James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1995) and Weaving the New Creation (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
5 Nicholas Lash, “On Learning To Be Wise,” Priests and People (October 2001), 357.
6 Patrick Sherry, Images of Redemption: Art, Literature and Salvation (London and New York: T. & T. Clark, 2003), p. vii.
“If you have understood, then it is not God.”
St. Augustine, Sermon 117.5.
We must continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God — ‘the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable’ — with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, # 42.
There is nothing very astonishing about a God who loves us relentlessly, except that we generally do not believe in one.
James Tunstead Burtchaell, CSC. 1
Some Basic Guidelines for Thinking about God.
The problem is not God but ourselves. More harm is done by people who, though lacking any profound degree of self-knowledge, are nevertheless quite sure that they understand God.
We are not clear. We are a jumble of conflicting desires, and of most of them we are not fully conscious, yet they are determining every decision of our lives. Gerard Hughes, SJ: “We are constantly attempted to make God in our own image, to divinize our narrowness and self-importance and then call it the will of God. God is mystery, a beckoning word, and he calls us out beyond our narrowness. Our one security is that he is, not in our formulation of how he is…. Our notion of God is mediated to us through parents, teachers and clergy. We do not come to know God directly. If our experience of parents and teachers has been of dominating people who show little affection and respect for us as persons, but value us only insofar as we conform to their expectations, then this experience is bound to affect our notion of God and will influence the way we relate to him. Our notion of God is not only inadequate; it may also be distorted.” 2
Common Distortions of God.
The Invisible-Super-Power who is Out-There-Somehow. “United in this global image are three sub- images: the God of explanations, who remains a vague but distant force, and with whom relationship seems impossible. This is a God who fades fast and becomes redundant when somebody takes responsibility for his or her own humanity…” 3
The ever watchful Policeman.
The God who doesn’t care about our “enemies.”
The God who despises human happiness, the solemn Bore or Spoilsport.
The God who says, “You will pay for that.”
The God who is a specialist in “souls.”
From J. B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952): If people “could see beyond their little inadequate god, and glimpse the reality of God, they might even laugh a little and perhaps weep a little.”
Getting God Wrong! Deuteronomy 26:17, and the Translators!
Comparing two translations of Deut. 26:17.
The New Revised Standard Version.
“Today you have obtained the Lord’s agreement: to be your God; and for you to walk in his ways, to keep his statutes, his commandments, and his ordinances, and to obey him.”
The Jerusalem Bible.
“You have this day made this declaration about Yahweh: that he will be your God, but only if you follow his ways, keep his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and listen to his voice.”
Read both translations. What do you notice?
Getting God Right! 1 John 4:7, 12, 16, 21. “God is love.” “God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God and God in him.”
George Herbert (1593-1633), “Discipline.”4
Throw away thy rod,
Throw away thy wrath:
O my God,
Take the gentle path.
For my heart’s desire
Unto thine is bent:
To a full consent.
Not a word or look
I affect to own,
But by book,
And thy book alone.
Though I fail, I weep:
Though I halt in pace,
Yet I creep
To the throne of grace.
Then let wrath remove;
Love will do the deed:
For with love
Stony hearts will bleed.
Love is swift of foot;
Love’s a man of war,
And can shoot,
And can hit from afar.
Who can ‘scape his bow?
That which wrought on thee,
Brought thee low,
Needs must work on me.
Throw away thy rod;
Though man frailties hath,
Thou art God:
Throw away thy wrath.
So, God is…
“Love is the Logic of the universe.” [D. W. D. Shaw, 20th century Scottish Presbyterian theologian].
“God is nothing but mercy and love.” [St. Therese of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church]
“God loves us so much that if anyone of us should cease to exist, God would die of sadness.” [Fr. Paul Murray, O.P., Dominican theologian-poet.]
“Our God is a God of second chances, and third and fourth and fifth and n-order chances.” Fr. Andrew Greeley (1928-2013).
“Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?
And have no compassion on the child she has borne?
Though she may forget,
I will not forget you!
See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.” (Is. 49:15-16).
Some commentary from Paul Coutinho, SJ: Exploring this text with his Scripture professor: “‘Engraved on the palms of my hands means tattooed.’ … My experience of God can be summed up in three words; You are mine. This understanding continues to define my reality with the Divine. God is tattooed on my body and I am tattooed on God. The Divine and I are one. I belong to the Divine, and nothing can take that away from me. The Divine belongs to me, and nothing can take that away from God. This understanding comes from Is. 43:1-7 where God says, ‘I have summoned you by name; you are mine.’ These are not just beautiful words. This is what I live by… I have been through much in my years, and I have grown because God has promised me that I am his.” 5
Taking this further with theologian-psychotherapist Tomáš Halik: “God happens where we love people, our neighbors. Jesus refuses to exclude anyone a priori from the category of neighbor, not even enemies… I am convinced that the two questions – Does God exist? and Does love make sense? – are not only conditional on each other, but they are actually… one and the same question. I know of no better translation of the statement ‘God exists’ than the phrase ‘love makes sense.’” 6
Praying with John Tully Carmody.
You give us two commands
and let them merge into one.
We are to love you with all our hearts
and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
More simply, we are to love always and everywhere:
our friends and our enemies,
the skies above and the earth under our feet.
For you are love,
and those who abide in love abide in you.
It could not be plainer, more sharply focused:
the greatest of your gifts is love;
love is our only crucial obligation.
I love you, God, and have for all my adult life.
I love you badly, distractedly, impurely,
but from first I knew what your name meant,
first received the slightest inkling,
I knew you were all I needed or wanted
and my life gained purpose and order.
What shall I return to you
for all the favors that loving you has brought me?
I shall dwell in the thought of you,
the hope for you, the trust in your care for me,
and the love that you pour forth in my heart
all the days of my life
and all your heaven to come.
1 James T. Burtchaell, CSC, Philemon’s Problem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001).
2 Gerard W. Hughes, SJ, God of Surprises (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985), pp. 33-35.
3 Michael P. Gallagher, Free to Believe: Ten Steps to Faith (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1996), 62.
4 John Tobin, ed., George Herbert: The Complete English Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 168-169.
5 Paul Coutinho, How Big Is Your God? (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2007), 73-74.
6 Tomas Halik, I Want You to Be: On the God of Love (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016), 8-15.
7 John Tully Carmody, God Is No Illusion: Meditations on the End of Life (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), p. 126.
Instead of knocking down the door to our interior heart, God knocks at the door to the interior heart, kenotically sheathing his power and requesting permission to enter.
David Fagerberg. 1
It is not enough to say prayers, one must become, be prayer, prayer incarnate. It is not enough to have moments of praise. All of life, each act, every gesture, even the smile of the human face, must become a hymn of adoration, an offering, a prayer. One should offer not what one has, but what one is.
Paul Evdokimov. 2
The Davis Declaration!
Charles Davis (1923-2001), a popular theologian in England in the 1960s and a peritus at the Second Vatican Council. “They come to talks by speakers like myself. They hear about the new liturgy, about the new understanding of the layman’s role, about collegiality, about the Church and the world, about a thousand and one new and exciting ideas. They are duly impressed. But who will speak to them quite simply about God, as of a Person he intimately knows and make the reality and presence of God come alive for them once more?… Before such need, how superficial, pathetically superficial, is much of the busyness of renewal. We reformers know so much about religion and about the church and about theology, but we stand empty-handed and uncomfortable when confronted with the sheer hunger for God. Holiness is less easily acquired than fluency in contemporary thinking. But people who after listening to our enthusiastic discourses, quietly ask us to lead them to God are, though they do not know it, demanding holiness in us. I fear they may find everything else but that…”
In the Morning and in the Evening.
On waking: Psalm 17:15, “As I awake, I am content in your presence.” (NB Sometimes, translations differ).
Before bed: How aware was I of this presence throughout the busy complexity of the day? Was the day punctuated by such moments of awareness?
St. Paul’s Prayerful Awareness of God.
1 Thess. 5:16-18: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
2 Thess. 1:3: “We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters.”
2 Thess. 1:11: “To this end, we always pray for you.”
Romans 1:9: “For God… is my witness that without ceasing I remember you always in my prayers.”
1 Cor. 1:4: “I give thanks to my God always for you.”
2 Tim. 1.3: “I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day.”
Paul, quite simply, is aware of God…
“In Paul there was no schizophrenic cleavage between his relationship with God and his relationship with people. It was all one. Life was flowing into his prayer as his prayer flowed into life.” (William Johnston). 3
The Fourfold Shape of Prayer: ACTS.
To be authentic, prayer must be inserted into the texture of our actual life-journey, not floating artificially above that journey. So, ACTS: Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, Supplication.
It is a cumulatively intense awareness of and concentration on God as sheerly present. Acts 17:28: “In (God) we live and move and have our being.” To be is to be presenced in God. Adoration is the graceful recognition that it is so, that I am so.
Or, “The heart of Christian prayer, both for the individual alone and in the gathered community, has always been worship, adoration, the disinterested and preoccupying acknowledgment that at the heart of our reality lies a good and loving and self-dispensing Mystery who is Truth itself.” (Brian Daley, SJ). 4
Adoration changes a person: “The person who loses himself in the wondering contemplation of God begins to reflect something of the divine glory so that the image of God in which he was made becomes more manifest in his being.” (John Macquarrie). 5
Praise accompanies adoration and is the best ecology for growing in knowledge of God.
Contrition is saying, “I’m sorry.” It is taking ownership of our moral failures, our sins before God, not in the direction of excessive guilt and anxiety so much as recognizing that in the enveloping presence of God whose best name is Love, we are so unlovely. “It feels good not to have to matter, except to the mercy of God. It feels fortunate in my bones to escape from the narcissism so thick on the ground, in my past biography.”[John Tully Carmody] 6
To say, “Thank you,” is to acknowledge a gift and a gift-giver. “To say thank you for a gift (or as the Greeks would say, to make a eucharist of it) is to recognize it, to think of it, as a communication of love.”[Herbert McCabe, OP] 7
This is the mode of prayer in which we ask God on behalf of others or for ourselves. Matt. 7:7-11.
Sensus fidelium. A very strong sense of the faithful to pray for one another, and with trust to place all our needs in God’s providential hands.
“The reservations of religious-philosophical writers about petition spring from an understandable chariness about mechanical notions of the powers of prayer. They are unwilling to believe in a God who intervenes in the world in a violent and arbitrary fashion, as if his own creation were not good enough for him. Even more distasteful is the idea that God is brought to act in this high-handed manner by the force of our praying, one magic act setting another in motion.” (John Drury). 8
At the same time, an awareness that our requests to God should not be superficially egocentric or obviously trivial. “For many people, the entire purpose of prayer is to invoke God’s intervention in the course of their daily lives, to adjust the tilt of the universe in their personal favor, to redirect the stream of time ever so marginally so that benefices flow their way… I struggle to shed the shabby shawl of petitionary and formulaic prayer that I inherited as a child — to reject the default syllables ‘Me, Lord, Me’ — so that I might attend to things — to swallows and auroras — to the voice that whispers in all of creation, to the voice that is all of creation.”[Chet Raymo] 9
“Need and asking are so essential to being human that any watering down of it, let alone denial, is crippling.” (John Drury). 10
“(Intercessory prayer) provides, as it were, openings into the dense texture of the human situation through which can come the creative and healing power of the reality we call God; and because within that human situation our lives are all bound together in a mysterious solidarity, then God’s power is able to operate far beyond the particular person who offers the prayer, though through him. Prayer, as petition and intercession, helps to make the human reality porous to the divine reality — the whole human reality, and not only that part of it actively engaged in prayer.”[John Macquarrie] 11
Towards a Practical Conclusion.
Keep the conversation of prayer going!
Example: William Johnston, SJ, writes at 81 years of age: “I found this hour of prayer in the morning to be of supreme importance, not only as a novice but throughout my life. Without boasting I can say that I have observed this practice all my life and it has been the greatest treasure I received in my noviceship. I learned to pray, and without this prayer I could not have persevered.” 12
Be very practical!
Just do it! Esther de Waal: “The commitment to the time of prayer is the keystone (to the spiritual life). It is so easy and attractive to read about prayer and to talk about prayer. But unless we go to pray there is no prayer.” 13
1 David Fagerberg, Liturgical Mysticism (Steubenville: Emmaus Academic 2019), 24.
2 Paul Evdokimov, The Art of the Icon (Redondo Beach: Oakwood, 1990), 15.
3 William Johnson, SJ, Christian Mysticism Today (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), 123.
4 Brian E. Daley, SJ, “How Should We Pray? Five Guiding Principles,” Crisis (March, 1994), 29.
5 John Macquarrie, “Adoration,” in Gordon S. Wakefield, ed., A Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (London: SCM Press, 1983), 308.
6 John Tully Carmody, God Is No Illusion: Meditations on the End of Life (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 81.
7 Herbert McCabe, OP, God Still Matters, 68.
8 John Drury, Angels and Dirt (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 63.
9 Chet Raymo, Climbing Brandon, Science and Faith on Ireland’s Holy Mountain (New York: Walker and Co., 2004), 157, 167.
10 John Drury, Angels and Dirt, 73.
11 John Macquarrie, Paths in Spirituality, 2nd ed. (Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 1992), 27-28
12 William Johnston, SJ, Mystical Journey (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006), 30.
13 Esther de Waal, Lost in Wonder (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2003), 49.
6. PRAYING WITH GERARD MANLEY HOPKINS, SJ, 1844-1889.
Hopkins has communicated Christ’s real presence in his poems. Each poem is a sacrament of the encounter with Christ, not only in the sense of embodying spirit in matter, but in its ability to change the reader. For Hopkins, poetry conveys the real presence of Christ as does the Eucharist… He felt in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament a tranquil, soothing God of intimacy and tolerance and unquenchable love, who knew to each jot and tittle everything about him but chose to focus on what was good, even childhood kindnesses that he’d forgotten.”
(Maria Lichtmann, 11, 104).
Poetry slows us down. Everything is much too fast… Lose perspective…
Many dislike poetry. Reasons? Perhaps two: First, we tend to want instantaneous meaning. Right away! The bottom line! And we want meaning to be entirely clear. A lust for immediate clarity… Second, because of school and the poor ways in which poetry may have been taught.
Poetry helps us to set things right in a particular way. A good poem has a transformative value. Helps us to see something, perhaps even something the poet did not actually have in mind.
Poems “of people’s own lives… poems that are Scripture… the poetry and drama of the Eucharist” we may begin “to discover a sense of the marvelous.” 1
Discovering a Sense of the Marvelous with Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889).
“(As a very young man) Hopkins was an unpublished poet with very little prospect of even getting into print, to say nothing of being honored by posterity. Now, however, the slow dialectic of time has brought in its compensations. Chiefly through the care and foresight of Bridges (one of Hopkins’s closest friends), the small but precious collection of Hopkins’s poems has been saved from oblivion. Not only has this ‘eccentric’ and ‘obscure’ Victorian poet-priest attained the once undreamt of distinction of being widely read, discussed, and lectured on, but we can now reasonably assume that he himself has been raised what might be called, in his own idiom, that ‘higher cleave’ of posthumous being – the status of a classic.” (Gardner, xiii).
1844. Born in Stratford, Essex, the oldest child of Manley and Catherine Hopkins, both parents being high-church Anglicans.
1863-1867. Study classics (Latin and Greek) at Balliol College, Oxford.
1866. Received into the Catholic Church by John Henry Newman. Consequent estrangement from his family and some friends.
His Jesuit years:
1868-1877. Formation with the Jesuits and ordination.
October 1877, Sub- minister and teacher at Mount St. Mary’s College near Sheffield.
July 1878, curate at the Jesuit church in Mount Street, London.
December 1878, curate at St. Aloysius Church Oxford, and then moved to Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow.
“He was frequently exhausted and suffered from physical ailments. Hopkins found parish work among the poor depressing, and his letters complain almost constantly of his never having enough time for things. He defended his choices by saying that his priestly work was ‘for the kingdom of heaven’s sake.’ He was oppressed by an inability to finish work that he undertook and indeed left many fragments of poems, lectures, and commentaries. The great and conflicting versatility of his talents, his feeling that in the order of things his parish duties should come first, scholarship second, and poetry only if time remained, and a constitutional tendency to nervous prostrations – all of these conspired to make his daily life one of suffering and affliction.” (Ellsberg, 10).
1884, became a professor of Greek and Latin at University College Dublin.
1889, died of typhoid and was buried at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
During the last five years of his life he dislikes living in Ireland, away from England and his friends and family. His general health suffered and his eyesight began to fail, leaving him feeling confined and dejected. Today he is considered to have suffered from severe periods of depression with consequent and deep sense of melancholy. His “terrible sonnets” come from this time. The only time Manley and Kate Hopkins visited Gerard as a Jesuit was on his deathbed in Dublin, in 1889, dying of typhus at 44 years of age. Ron Hansen describes his death in these words: “Hopkins whispered, and his mother tilted forward to hear him saying, ‘I’m so happy. I’m so happy.’ And then, at half past one in the afternoon, he died.” (Hansen, 205).
Some of Hopkins’s Poems.
Thee God I come from.
Thee, God, I come from, to thee go,
All day long I like fountain flow
From thy hand out, swayed about
Mote-like in thy mighty glow.
What I know of thee I bless,
As acknowledging thy stress
On my being and as seeing
Something of thy holiness.
Once I turned from thee and hid,
Bound on what thou hadst forbid;
Sow the wind I would; I sinned:
I repent of what I did.
Bad I am, but yet thy child.
Father, be thou reconciled,
Spare thou me, since I see
With thy might that thou art mild.
I have life before me still
And thy purpose to fulfil;
Yea a debt to pay thee yet:
Help me, sir, and so I will.
But thou bidst, and just thou art,
Me shew mercy from my heart
Towards my brother, every other
Man my mate and counterpart.
As kingfishers catch fire.
As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying What I do is me: for that I came.
I say more: the just man justices;
Keeps grace: that keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is —
Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
From The Wreck of the Deutschland.
Thou mastering me
God! Giver of breath and bread;
World’s strand, sway of the sea;
Lord of living and dead;
Thou hast bound bones and veins in me, fastened me flesh,
And after it almost unmade, what with dread,
Thy doing: and dost thou touch me afresh?
Over again I feel thy finger and find thee…
I kiss my hand
To the stars, lovely-asunder
Starlight, wafting him out of it; and
Glow, glory in thunder;
Kiss my hand to the dappled-with-damson west;
Since tho’ he is under the world’s splendour and wonder,
His mystery must be instressed, stressed;
For I greet him the days I meet him, and bless when I understand.
To Seem the Stranger.2
To seem the stranger lies my lot, my life
Among strangers. Father and mother dear,
Brothers and sisters are in Christ not near
And he my peace, my parting and my strife.
England, whose honour O all my heart woos, wife
To my creating thought, would neither hear
Me, were I pleading, plead nor do I: I wear-
y of idle a being but by where wars are rife.
I am in Ireland and; now I am at a third
Remove. Not but in all removes I can
Kind love both give and get. Only what word
Wisest my heart breeds dark heaven’s baffling ban
Bars or hell’s spell thwarts. This to hoard unheard,
Hear unheeded, leaves me a lonely began.
From “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.”
… Enough! the Resurrection,
A heart’s clarion! Away grief’s gasping, joyless days, dejection.
Across my foundering deck shone
A beacon, an eternal beam. Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal
Is immortal diamond.
In 1976 Hopkins was established in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey, the highest posthumous honor that can be bestowed on an English poet. His epitaph has only two words: “Immortal Diamond.”
Margaret R. Ellsberg, Created to Praise: The Language of Gerard Manley Hopkins (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987).
W. H. Gardner, ed., Poems and Prose of Gerard Manley Hopkins (London and New York: Penguin Books, 1963).
Ron Hansen, Exiles (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008)
1 Enda McDonagh, “Faith and the Cure of Poetry,” in Andrew Pierce and Geraldine Smyth, OP, ed., The Critical Spirit: Theology at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture (Dublin: The Columba Press, 2003), p. 133.
2 Hilary E. Pearson, “The ‘Terrible Sonnets’ of Gerard Manley Hopkins and the Spirituality of Depression,” The Way 46 (2007), 23-37.
The point of pilgrimage? Dislocation for fresh relocation.
T. S. Eliot: Four Quartets: We shall not cease from exploration And the end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.
Making an imaginative Eucharistic pilgrimage to: Corinth (Greece), Achaia (Greece), Jerusalem (Palestine), Hippo (N. Africa), Bingen (Germany), Antwerp (Flanders), Magdeburg (Germany), Norwich (England).
2. Paul, Luke, Cyril, Augustine.
Paul of Tarsus.
1 Cor. 11.23-29
vv. 23-26, words of institution
v. 27, eating and drinking unworthily
v. 28, self-examination
v. 29, eating and drinking “without discerning the Body”
1 Cor. 10.16-17, Communion/koinonia in the Body of Christ through the Eucharist.
This exquisite story is found only in this Gospel,
A Pressing Pastoral Problem: Where is Christ?
* During the time of the Church Jesus is present in the Eucharist, and so in the church.
* Center = Luke 22:7-38. “This is my body… This cup is the new covenant in my blood…” Body + blood = the living person.
Location of Emmaus geographically uncertain. Dominic Crossan – “Emmaus is nowhere, Emmaus is everywhere.”
Verse 30. Took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.
The fourfold action of the Eucharist.
The living One can be recognized in the breaking of the bread.
Verse 32. Our hearts burning within us…
As the Word breaks open the word…
Verse 33. They set out at once and returned to Jerusalem…
Word and Eucharist equip for mission.
Christ opens the Scriptures to us each week so that we can make sense of our experience, see the ways in which God is present and absent, and recognize our own foolishness. As with the Emmaus disciples, we are welcomed to the table of the Lord where he posts us and breaks the bread, and, thereby, we recognize the gift and giver. This meal enables us to go out and proclaim to all we meet that Christ is risen. (Richard Leonard). 1
Cyril of Jerusalem.
Bishop of Jerusalem, 350; sacraments of Christian initiation.
“We become of the same body and the same blood with him” Syssomos/synaimos = “Christ bodies and bloods us with himself.”
Christopheros… Approaching, therefore, do not come with your wrists extended, or your fingers open, but make your left hand as if a throne for your right, which is on the eve of receiving the King. Having hollowed your palm, receive the Body of Christ, saying after it “Amen.” Then after you have hallowed with care your eyes by the touch of the Holy Body, partake thereof, giving heed lest you lose any of it… Then after having partaken of the Body of Christ, approach also the cup of his blood… And while the moisture is still upon your lips, touching it with your hands, hallow both your eyes and brow and other senses.
Augustine of Hippo.
“At the heart of his ecclesiology is the notion of the whole Christ (totus Christus), according to which Christ is always present and active in his body, the Church; the Church and Christ form one person.” (Christopher O’Donnell, 32).
The Augustinian Vision – Church and Eucharist: All Joined into One Body, Eucharistic Body, Ecclesial Body OR Christ has three bodies and these three are one.
The Confessions: “I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.” 2
“I haven’t forgotten my promise. I had promised those of you who have just been baptized a sermon to explain the sacrament of the Lord’s table, which you can see right now, and which you shared in last night. You ought to know what you have received, what you are about to receive, what you ought to receive every day. That bread which you can see on the altar, sanctified by the word of God, is the body of Christ. That cup, or rather what the cup contains, sanctified by the word of God, is the blood of Christ… If you receive them well, you are yourselves what you receive.”
“What you can see on the altar, you also saw last night; but what it was, what it meant, of what great reality it contained the sacrament, you had not yet heard. So what you can see, then, is bread and a cup; that’s what even your eyes tell you; but as for what your faith asks to be instructed about, the bread is the body of Christ, the cup the blood of Christ… So if it’s you that are the body of Christ and its members, it’s the mystery meaning you that has been placed on the Lord’s table; what you receive is the mystery that means you. It is to what you are that you reply Amen and by so replying you express your assent. What you hear, you see, is the body of Christ, and you answer, Amen. So be a member of the body of Christ, in order to make that Amen true.”
3. Hildegard, Hadewijch, Mechthild, Julian.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).
“And after these things, I saw the Son of God hanging on the cross, and the aforementioned image of a woman coming forth like a bride radiance from the ancient counsel. By divine power she was led to Him, and raised herself upward so that she was sprinkled by the blood from his side; and thus, by the will of the Heavenly Father, she was joined with Him in happy betrothal and nobly dowered with his body and blood.” (Hildegard, 237).
“As the goldsmith first unites his gold by melting it in the fire, and then divides it when it is united, so I, the Father, first glorify the body and blood of my Son by the sanctification of the Holy Spirit when it is offered, and then, when it is glorified, distributed to the faithful for their salvation.” (Hildegard, 240).
“But if you, O human, say to yourself in your vacillating heart, ‘How did the oblation on the altar become the body and blood of God’s Son?’ I will answer you: Why, O human, do you ask this, and for what purpose do you inquire about it? Do I require you to know it? Why do you peer into my secrets about the body and blood of My Son? You should not seek out these things, but only keep them diligently and accept them in fear and veneration.” (Hildegard, 270).
Hadewijch of Antwerp (13th century).
13th century Beguine, writing in Flemish.
“And eats his flesh and drinks his blood: the heart of each devours the other’s heart, one soul assaults the other and invades it completely, as who is Love showed us when he gave us himself to eat… He eats us; we think we eat him, and we do eat him, of this we can be certain. But because he remains so undevoured, and so untouched, and so undesired, each of us remains so uneaten by him and separated so far from each other.” (par. 30).
“Then he came from the altar, showing himself as a child… He turned toward me, in his right hand from the ciborium his body, and in his left hand took a chalice… With that he came in the form and clothing of a Man, as he was on the day when he gave has his body for the first time… Then he gave himself to me in the shape of the sacrament, in its outward form, as the custom is; and then he gave me to drink from the chalice, in form and taste, as the custom is. After that he came himself to me, took me entirely in his arms, and pressed me to him; and all my members felt his in full felicity, in accordance with the desire of my heart and my humanity.” (Hadewijch, 281).
Mechthild of Magdeburg (ca. 1210-ca. 1280).
Younger contemporary of Hadewijch, also a Beguine.
“The heavenly Father is the blessed chalice-bearer and Jesus the chalice, the Holy Spirit the unadulterated wine… The whole Trinity is the full chalice and Love the mistress in charge of the wine cellar; then, God knows, I will be happy indeed if Love invites me into the house.” (Mechthild, 90).
“My soul flew to God so swiftly that she arose with no effort on her part and snuggled herself into the Holy Trinity, just as a child snuggles into its mother’s coat and lays itself right at her breast.” (Mechthild, 234).
“Jesus Christ shall I, the least of souls, take in my arms, eat Him and drink Him, and have my way with Him.” (Mechthild, 87).
Julian of Norwich. (Mid 14th to ca. 1413).
“And from the time it was revealed, I desired many times to know in what was our Lord’s meaning. And fifteen years after and more, I was answered in spiritual understanding, and it was said: What, do you wish to know your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Know it well, love was his meaning. Who reveals it to you? Love. What did he reveal to you? Love. Why does he reveal it to you? For love. Remain in this, and you will know more of the same. But you will never know different without end.” (Julian, 342).
“The mother can give her child to suck of her milk, but our precious Mother Jesus can feed us with Himself, and does, most courteously and most tenderly with the Blessed sacrament, which is the precious food of true life; and with all the sweet sacraments he sustains us most mercifully and graciously… And he says to us: All the health and life of the sacraments, all the power and grace of my word, all the goodness which id ordained in holy Church for you, I am He.”
Owen F. Cummings, Mystical Women, Mystical Body (Portland, OR: The Pastoral Press, 2000).
Owen F. Cummings, Eucharistic Doctors (New York-Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2005).
Hadewijch, The Complete Works, translation and introduction by Mother Columba Hart, preface by Paul Mommaers (New York-Ramsey-Toronto: Paulist Press, 1980).
Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, introduced by Barbara J. Newman, preface by Caroline Walker Bynum (New York-Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990).
Julian of Norwich, Showings, edited by Edmund Colledge, OSA and James Walsh, SJ (New York-Ramsey-Toronto: Paulist Press, 1978).
Mechthild of Magdeburg: The Flowing Light of the Godhead, translated and introduced by Frank J. Tobin, preface by Margo Schmidt (New York-Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1998).
Christopher O’Donnell, O.Carm., Ecclesia: A Theological Encyclopedia of the Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 31-35 (Augustine).
Jean M. R. Tillard, OP, Flesh of Christ Flesh of the Church (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2001).
1 Richard Leonard, SJ, Hatch, Match and Dispatch, a Catholic Guide to the Sacraments (New York-Mahwah: Paulist Press, 2019), 27.
2 St. Augustine, Confessions 7.10.
The worldview of the religious believer does not deny the benumbing winter that so often inflicts the human spirit, but sees the divine nature as manifesting itself ‘now’, even in the midst of that winter darkness.
John Cottingham. 1
The deepest secret of Christian virtues is accompaniment by Jesus Christ in our overwhelmings. ‘With him’ means unfailing accompaniment through all our failures, and the unfailing energy of resurrection and Pentecost encouraging and redirecting us ‘in newness of life.’
David F. Ford. 2
… We are so blind and deaf. The world is transparent. God is everywhere whispering to us, talking to us, shouting at us. Usually we do not hear. Sometimes we do. Then we know that everything is grace.3
Learning from the reflected experience of others…
George Matheson: O Love that will not let me go I rest my weary soul in Thee. I give Thee back the life I owe that in thine ocean depths its flow
Frances M. Young (1939-). Frances M. Young, Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990).
Looking back on a life complicated and made extremely difficult by caring at home for her severely handicapped son Arthur (born in 1967), severely brain damaged and unable to learn to do anything for himself, she writes: “I could only look back on all that had happened with a sense of gratitude and an awareness of the grace of providence. Somehow God seemed behind and before everything.” (3). “Nothing is more destructive than an unfulfilled mother tied to young children all hours of the day – not that that was ever quite my situation. There was always a bit of research ticking away.” (48). “There has been no easy triumph, but the pain is shot through with joy, and the joy is pierced with pain.” (50).
We do not simply make progress in these matters, but move back and forth. This is how she describes many years: “A close friend speaks of discerning an underlying faithfulness all through those years. But my experience was of an internal blank where God should have been. I had no hope for the future. Despair was lodged deep down inside, even if for the most part I got on with life and joked and played with the kids, and lectured in theology, and researched and wrote, passed for a Christian and went to church. Occasionally I would wrestle with meaningless prayer to a blank wall. It felt like a tragedy, yet my friend’s comment on the richness of my life, came across as a healthy rebuke. It is since that evening that I have been enabled to climb out of my black hole and find complete release from the doubts and guilts and fears and self-concern that had imprisoned me.” (54).
“I was quite overwhelmed by the sense that God had loved me all along, and somehow everything in my life fell into place… Above all I felt extraordinary exultation. It was sheer amazement that one who had so little deserved it had been brought through such a wilderness of desolation and loneliness, and had never in fact been left alone, but always loved and guided… My own experience is of a transfiguring something like that which is often expressed in love poems. The ordinary world requires an extraordinary dimension… Indeed it has been just like falling in love all over again… As far as I am concerned, on the one hand God transcends all anthropomorphic idols – he is a mystery, beyond the personal; on the other hand, I know him in a relationship to which the relationship with my husband is the closest analogy – that remarkable sense of trust and mutual commitment, that inability to imagine life without him, and moments of inexpressible joy.” (85-88).
“… (It is about) living fearlessly because we can trust God whatever. There is no way we can do anything about Arthur’s condition, but God is in the situation bringing to birth good out of evil; and who knows what that means ultimately? I do not believe even now that cure is possible. But I do know that we are in the hands of God, and nothing else matters.” (89). “In God’s presence the demand for explanation ceases. God is sufficient inhimself to bring a perspective which transcends and transforms. That is more or less my experience. Face to face with God, the problems do not disappear but they do appear different.” (91-92).
Kathryn Greene-McCreight, Darkness Is My Only Companion: a Christian Response to Mental Illness (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006).
“I have struggled with clinical mental illness for the last quarter of my life,” a diagnosis as manic and therefore bipolar disorder, bouncing between depression and mania. (11).
The constancy of her husband’s support, mediating the Love of God. “”Human loves, such as that of my husband, can certainly be a conduit for divine love, even for those who do not recognize love’s true source. If it is the love of God that we see in the face of Christ Jesus that is promised to pull us through, a love that bears out to the edge of doom even for the ugly and unlovable such as we, then the statement that love heals depression is in fact the only light that exists in the dark tunnel.” (24).
The importance of drugs and therapy/counseling, as mediations of God’s working.
The importance of prayer. “The assurance that people were praying for me, since I had so much trouble praying for myself, was a salve. My true friends during this time were the ones I knew were praying for me… I mean the fact that people were praying for me was key in my dealing with my illness…” (35).
From the pain – temptation to suicide, the awful agony of manic experiences, darkness yet again, stigma… “Stigma against the mentally ill can be so strong. How will people trust my intellectual and spiritual capacities if I once had difficulties with my memory, personality, and even speech and muscle control?… Part of the tragedy of stigma is that people do not understand that the mentally ill can be quite normal in many ways.” (62).
“My husband, Matthew, just wants to help. He keeps asking me what he can do. He says that he feels so helpless. He is helpless, and so am I. There is nothing he can do. Yet maybe there is. I tell him not to treat me like an invalid. When I can’t get up, when I can’t crack a smile through my plaster mask of a face, when I can’t do anything but weep, just hold my hand. But please don’t be in pain for me. Because then I can see that on your face, and it makes my pain worse. Just treat me in a matter-of-fact way: Kathryn is depressed again. Or when I am manic, don’t get scared of me. Don’t get mad at me just because I talk too much, have too much energy, burst at the seams with ideas for the garden, the house, vacations, books. It is not my fault that I swing from one extreme to the other: I know loving me right now is a big challenge. But that’s how I can be helped.” (73).
“The loneliness of mental illness only perpetuates the illness…” (82).
“What makes the soul and therefore the human is God’s love, not the soul’s love for anything else. Therefore we might best say that the ‘whatness’ of humanity is ‘I am loved, therefore I am.’…The soul is loved into existence by God.” (99-100).
“From a theological perspective, the most dangerous thing about mental illness is that it can lock us in ourselves, convincing us that we are indeed our own, and completely on our own, isolated in our distress. Darkness is my only companion. Mental illness is a veil that shrouds our consecration to God, blocking out the glory of the Holy One.” (116).
Daniel W. Hardy, with Deborah Hardy Ford, Peter Ochs and David F. Ford, Wording a Radiance: Parting Conversations on God and the Church (London: SCM Press, 2010).
Daniel Hardy (1930-2007).
“He was not frightened of his tumor or of dying. He even found it very difficult when searching letters arrived saying ‘We’re praying for a miracle.’ He said it wasn’t right – ‘How can we expect to be excused from our humanity? He saw cancer and suffering as ‘normality’ in the world as it is now – that ‘tumors happen and need to be received’. And he believed strongly that it was part of the priestly vocation to teach and show people how to die well. (Deborah) asked, ‘How do you reconcile the fact that you want to live and fight the tumor for as long as possible, and being peaceful and ready to die when the time comes?’ ‘You can’t reconcile them,’ was his reply. ‘The task is to be open and available to be used by God for as long as he wants.’” (140).
“(Deborah) had a new sense of urgency: ‘I don’t know how much longer we have left together, Dad. Would you like me to anoint you?’ ‘Yes I would, I’d like that very much,’ he said; and (with a smile), ‘I need all the help I can get!’
Deborah: ‘I wonder what dying is going to be like?’ And he answered very calmly: ‘It’s just going to happen, bit by bit: it’s a matter of going with it.’ From that moment I handed over my priestly role: we now needed to be simply ‘father and daughter’ again and be ministered to as such. We later (following the administration of the last rites) celebrated Communion together as a family and were all hugely relieved at the end when the priest said, ‘Well, that’s the formal goodbye – but now you hold on to him for as long as you can.’ Later that evening, having already said good night to my father, I went back again: ‘Just in case anything happens tonight Dad, you know how much I love you, don’t you?’ He answered: ‘I love you too. Double. Complete.’ These were the last words he spoke to me: words of praise, just as he had hoped… The whole family was gathered – surrounding him with the ‘ordinariness’ of life and love that was also very special – and for the first time there was the sense that somehow ‘all would be well.’ Along with them later, I said, ‘It’s okay, Dad; we’re going to be all right. You can let go when you need to.’” (148-149).
Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ, Into Extra Time: Living Through the Final Stages of Cancer and Jottings Along the Way (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2016).
January 19, 2015. “I am struck by something so obvious. The world goes on without me and will go on without me. So who knows me except God? There is an unreachable aloneness, a core of each person where only God enters to love and create. It is a space of secret, often invisible, belonging or intimacy, where nothing is without meaning, where eternity begins now, where all is being embraced in the love.” (88).
April 2015. “In general I begin to realize that I am entering a whole new scene, a possibly final chapter… There will surely be mood swings, from times of tired emptiness and fear to rediscovering the presence of the Lord with me. Even with people, I don’t always know how to respond… From time to time I experience waves of unease or lonely awareness: I could be dead within a year, even after cycles of chemo. I have always said that I feared old age and its forms of weakness. But this is sudden and leaves me shaken.” (93).
May 2015. He completed six cycles of chemotherapy, three days in hospital every three weeks. “One of my Jesuit friends, who often drove me to the hospital where I went for three days of chemo every three weeks, once mentioned that it was sad to see me walking through the doors carrying my case. In fact that moment for me was usually one of great consolation because of a sense of the presence of Christ with me. I went through those doors knowing not only that I was not alone, but that the coming days could be strange times of grace – in the spirit of surrender.” (29).
September 2015. “I prayed today with the last passage of Romans 8. The core is so strong: nothing like tribulation or danger or sword can separate us from the love of Christ, and I can change Paul’s list: illness, decline into tiredness of life, possible trouble in lung or brain as well as the liver, and ultimately the increasing likelihood of death sooner.” (122).
Thomas G. Casey, SJ, Wisdom at the Crossroads: the Life and Thought of Michael Paul Gallagher, SJ (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2018).
1 John Cottingham, How to Believe (London-Oxford-New York: Bloomsbury, 2015), 20.
2 David F. Ford, The Shape of Living (London: HarperCollins, 1997), 64.
3 A fictional character in Andrew M. Greeley, The Bishop and the Beggar Girl of St. Germain (New York: A Forge Book, 2001), 246.
God will say to us at the end of things: ‘Did you so live in the experience of the Church, the Body of my Son, that a tormented world saw the possibility of hope and of joy?’ ‘Did you focus afresh on the one task the Church has to perform — living Christ in such a way that his news, his call, is compelling?’
Rowan D. Williams. 1
The Catholic Church is always an unfinished adventure. Much depends upon the response that you and I and other Catholics give to God’s call within us.
Michael Novak, 144.
The Present Situation of Many Believers.
Opening up the topic with help from Fr. Paul Crowley, SJ.
Belief in God has become problematic for many. “Most of us live in a world of religious diversity and multiple overlapping belongings and identities, one where certainties have given way to cascades of open questions, one evolving from another. There is now a cultural atmosphere, at least in the global North, for seriously asking what truth, much less ‘the’ truth, really is.” (Crowley, 1).
An older world of faith/believing has disappeared. “… The old world in which believing took root and grew and developed into religious practices and institutions has gradually evaporated. That former world is a world lost to many contemporary people. Along with the disappearance of that world has come the dislocation of God from the picture that once had a place for him: God has become unmoored from his bearings. It must be added that much of that former world was marked by what some came to see as a flimsy architecture of faith, or one indistinguishable from a dense and insulated culture interlaced with the church as an institution.” (Crowley, 1).
Today’s world is a hugely “commingled world.” “The entire world seems to be in motion, criss-crossing the globe and even within the borders of established nation-states. A visit to almost any of the world’s great megalopolises will reveal instantly the results of all this motion – a commingling of peoples of different ethnic, religious, and cultural backgrounds on a scale unprecedented in recorded history… There can be no easy or unquestioned assumptions made about ‘God’ – either what kind of God it is we are speaking of or where God is to be located in the midst of this experience. Students who worship Allah sit side-by-side with students who worship Jesus, and both the Christians and the Muslims sit side-by-side with students who worship no God – all breathing the same air, following the same sports teams, consuming the same fast food, tracking the same programs on Hulu.” (Crowley, 7).
The church for many has become a stumbling-block. “It is perhaps not surprising that the institution of the Roman Catholic Church has itself become a stumbling block for some, not least the young, even for believing in God, because the church itself, in the institution of the Roman magisterium, has claimed to interpret and teach authoritatively, and at times beyond question, what God has revealed. The ironic harvest of modernity, however, is the loss of faith in such institutional claims, whether from churches or from other institutions. When the authority of the institution begins to fade, however, so too can the power of its inner life, that which fuels and sustains belief in God – or in a God who has been so strongly correlated with the authority and traditions of the institution as such.” (Crowley, 11-12).
Changing views of God. Paul Crowley points to the typical God of modern theism that so many reject, using the words of Elizabeth Johnson: “This view envisions God on the model of a monarch at the very peak of the pyramid of being. Without regard for Christ or the Spirit, it focuses on what Trinitarian theology would call the ‘first person,’ a single powerful individual who dwells on high, ruling the cosmos and judging human conduct. Even when this Supreme Being is portrayed with a benevolent attitude, which the best of theology does, ‘He,’ for it is always the ruling male who stands for this idea, is essentially remote. At times he intervenes to affect the laws of nature and work miracles, at times not. Although he loves the world, he is uncontaminated by its messiness. And always this distant lordly lawgiver stands at the summit of hierarchical power, reinforcing structures of authority in society, church and family.” (Johnson, Quest, 14).
Religions themselves can be problematic in our modern world. “It must be said that religion itself can be and has been its own worst enemy. There is the chronicle of wars and hatreds through the centuries, and now the further evidence of religion’s dark side: the abuse of religion that led to September 11 and its aftermath, the distortions of Islam by Isis and other extremists, the distortions of Buddhism and of Hinduism by so-called ‘fundamentalists,’ and, in another realm, the handling of the sex-abuse scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church. And there are so many other examples.” (Crowley, 27).
“Do I need the church? No!” Some Reflections.
There is a distinction between indifference to institutional religion and spiritual indifference. One suspects that “spiritual indifference” in some degree or another is a characteristic of every generation. It would be sheerly romantic to think of any particular historical period as entirely free of challenge in this regard. There are no golden ages in the history of the church, ages free of problem and challenge. But there are some challenges especially today…
Letting time slip past without adequate reflection on the meaning of life. “We bury our occasional intimations of mortality under what Wordsworth called ‘the lethargy of custom,’ that vast collection of illusions and diversions we refer to as our lives.” 2
Consumerism, one of the essential hallmarks of contemporary Western capitalism. Consumerism is the point of view that maintains that who you are is what you own, and the more you own the more you are. “The unconscious, and in many cases the conscious, mythology that moves people today is that of success, of moving up the ladder, of being rich, of having a beautiful body, of being well dressed, of having prestige, of luxuriating in material comfort, of achieving optimally, but in comfort, everything that is potentially attainable with our limits.” 3
An intellectual and moral relativism. Ironically this relativism is seldom chosen. Rather, it is picked up from popular culture, insisting that there is no truth to be known, or more frequently truths are only opinions. One may point out that from a logical point of view the notion that all truths are relative seems to exempt that particular truth, but logic is seldom successful in this area in winning people over.
The centrality of and demand for entertainment in our culture.
And so the consequence for many people is “drifting.”
As a result of these cultural factors many appear to experience a feeling of lostness in western culture. “Drifting”… “I suspect that it is fundamentally mistaken to see the widespread depression of our times simply as a problem of external circumstances, as if what we need is to find a way to fix things — in our world, in our personal lives — and then we could be happy and contented again. I suspect this is a mistaken view because depression is not so much a matter of being overwhelmed by this or that situation in life, rather it is a matter of being overwhelmed by the very task of being a self.” 4
Some Comments on the Institutional Church.
Why is institutional religion so unattractive to so many in our time? Impossible to answer in a total way, but at least we may posit some impressionistic ideas. 5
A permeative suspicion about institutions. One needs to acknowledge that institutions, including belief systems, often do get in the way of human flourishing, not through human malice so much as basic human ineptitude and complacency. “Every social institution is a clumsy thing.” 6
The mediocrity of the church. However, any reasonable human being will recognize that the mediocrity of the Church is no less obvious than one’s own mediocrity.
What we see of the church is always limited. One’s vision is always fragmentary and conditioned. There is more to the institutional Church than what we see.
People want to choose their existential identity in life rather than having it handed to them on a plate by their families or by their living contexts. It is a matter of wanting to shape one’s self rather than letting oneself be shaped entirely by one’s environment. In other words, one might say that the institutional apparatus of support for religious practice has largely fallen away. For many, institutional religious allegiance is making over some aspect of oneself to others in ways that seem to compromise both one’s freedom and integrity. It is about subjecting oneself to patterns of ritual and codes of behavior and beliefs that do not seem to integrate well with one’s growing sense of identity and appropriate autonomy.
Association with an institutional religious faith is often seen as aligning oneself to some kind of exclusivism when it comes to truth, insight and wisdom. If one is committed to a specific faith one seems necessarily to be committed to a refusal to recognize the values in other traditions of faith. Many contemporaries experience a widespread resistance to any kind of perceived monopolistic claims when it comes to religious truth. It is not so much the case that people no longer ask fundamental questions about the ultimate meaning of life. It is more the case that they wish to be determinative of their own answers to these questions, vis-à-vis a wide range of traditions including religious traditions, rather than to subscribe to answers that they are given in a particular tradition that sees itself as absolute and supreme.
An apologist for Christianity might say by way of response that Christian faith is participation in a comprehensive way of life, a comprehensive vision of all reality and one’s place in it. It is not in the first place simply assent to a system of beliefs, a code of moral values and a pattern of worship. Within this comprehensive vision and way of life there is room for individual maneuver. Christians are united in essentials but that unity is not the same as absolute uniformity. Fair enough! If the apologist’s answer has some measure of credibility, the question still remains “Why is Christianity not seen like that?” Why is it that for so many being a Christian actively is seen as joining a religious club in which one is expected to believe the beliefs, to live by the moral code, and to worship in a particular way? Why is it that Christianity is often perceived as opposed to individual initiative and to individual responsibility-taking?
There are also such factors as widespread theological illiteracy, inadequate catechesis at all stages of life, and poor preaching. If some of these things were attended to, perhaps Christianity would not be seen as a rigid and dogmatic system and set of institutions.
Do I want the church? Yes! Some reflections:
I don’t want to be idealistic, romantic or utopian about the church. Wherever there are imperfect people, there will be imperfect institutions.
The Church mediates to me and for me a living knowledge of Jesus, not simply knowledge about Jesus, but knowledge of Jesus as a member of his Body. Without the Church I have no knowledge of God-in-Christ-through-the-Spirit. And so, the Church not only connects me through generations and millennia to the originating community of Christ in Jerusalem, but to the living Christ of today and tomorrow.
At its best the Church is a communion of love, inviting me to make love the logic of my universe. A community of real love is the pre-condition for true belief in God. 1 John 4:16, “God is Love…” The controlling metaphor for God in the Christian tradition, and the basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. One cannot claim to believe in God without loving others in a non-tribal way.
Recognizing that the Church is for the world. 1 John — the emphasis that God is love, and passionately loves every human being. The Church is a means to an end, to proclaim this, to manifest this, until the Parousia.
“By baptism we are marked down, not simply as the saved but as mediators, mediating life to others both inside and outside the community of explicit believers; and the basis of that mediation is the way we all belong to Christ and to one another as members in varying degrees within the ecclesial Body of Christ. This truth might be expressed more immediately in the following manner. Each of us must become convinced that there exist certain souls, the quality of whose life before God depends on the quality of mine. They are what I call ‘my souls.’ I am a channel of grace for them, as they are a channel of grace for me. If I do what I should, they grow in love. If I fall down in the task, they are diminished in some way.” 7
The Church satisfies me intellectually! Adequately understood, living as a Catholic is immensely broad and rich, not confining and restrictive. Too often the church and its tradition are seen as intellectually infantile.
Whenever I speak of the Church, I always include myself!
Paul G. Crowley, SJ, The Unmoored God: Believing in a Time of Dislocation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2017).
Owen F. Cummings and Andrew C. Cummings, Thinking God (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 75-87.
Eamon Duffy, “Scandals in the Church: Some Bearings from History,” in his Faith of Our Fathers (London and New York: Continuum, 2004), 149-157.
Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Tell Me Why: A Father Answers His Daughter’s Questions About God (New York: Pocket Books, 1998).
1 “Archbishop’s Presidential Address, 13th Meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council, Nottingham, 18-28 June 2005.” www.archbishopofcanterbury.org/sermons_speeches
2 David Dawson, “Why are We So Indifferent About Our Spiritual Lives?” in Ronald F. Thiemann and William C. Placher, ed., Why Are We Here? (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998), 19.
3 Ronald Rohlheiser, O.M.I., The Shattered Lantern, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad, 2001), 31.
4 Frederick Bauerschmidt, Mystics Matter Now (Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2003), 116-117.
5 I am following here some of the considerations of Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, in a lecture entitled “The Spiritual and the Religious: Is the Territory Changing?” Delivered in Westminster Cathedral, London, on April 17, 2008.
6 Michael Novak and Jana Novak, Tell Me Why (New York and London: Pocket Books, 1998), 16.
7 Raymond Moloney, SJ, “The Eucharist Builds the Church,” in James McEvoy and Maurice Hogan, ed., The Mystery of Faith (Dublin: Columba Press, 2005), 134-135.
Oblate Study Days 2020 | Conferences by Dr. Elaine Park