Chosen to Suffer

As I have noted before, I have a special love for the work of Professor Albert Raboteau. Today I would like to share with you a quote from one of his writings that deeply struck me when I first read it, and it came back into mind after I went with my wife to see that exceptional, awful and Oscar winning movie, Twelve Years a Slave. I thought I would share it with you today for your reflection during this season when we especially reflect on our call to co-suffer with Christ.

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“James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell It On The Mountain, in a passage redolent with allusions to scripture, the spirituals and gospel music, eloquently captures the paradoxical history of suffering and triumph of slaves and their descendants. The novel focuses on one day in the life of John Grimes, a black adolescent in Harlem, who seeks to escape the squalid tenements, the racial oppression and desperate poverty of his people. On his 14th birthday John is cast down upon the dusty floor of a storefront sanctified church, “astonished under the power of God.” There he experiences the rebirth of a conversion experience. In his trance he confronts an army of people and is engulfed by a company of the suffering. Struggling to flee, he realizes there is no escape. And suddenly their suffering becomes a sound, a sound John not only recognizes but internalizes:

And now in his moaning … he heard it in himself — it rose from his … cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave … rage that had no language, weeping with no voice — which yet spoke now to John’s startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash … and most bloody, unspeakable sudden death. Yes the body in the fire, the body on the tree.

He struggles to flee, but there is no escape. He must go through this suffering of his people’s past to viscerally experience the paradox that it is precisely these wretched who are the chosen ones of God.

No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward, and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where the blood ran down … No, the fire could not hurt them, and yes, the lion’s jaws were stopped; the serpent was not their master, the grave was not their resting-place, the earth was not their home. Job bore them witness and Abraham was their father. Moses had elected to suffer with them … Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had gone before them into the fire, their grief had been sung by David, and Jeremiah had wept for them. Ezekiel had prophesied upon them, these scattered bones, these slain, and, in the fullness of time, the prophet, John, had come out of the wilderness, crying that the promise was for them. They were encompassed with a very cloud of witnesses … And they looked unto Jesus, the author and the finisher of their faith, running with patience the race He had set before them; they endured the cross, and they despised the shame, and waited to join Him one day, in glory, at the right hand of the Father.”

I promise to love you and honor you all the days of my life…

An acquaintance of mine once shared with me his conversion story to Christianity (he’s now a devout Catholic), and, though the whole story was fascinating, he had a particularly compelling story buried in the middle of his longer tale of encountering Christ. As he has given permission for me to tell the story, I will share it.

Only weeks after his faith-awakening, he was at work at break-time with his male co-workers. “That day had come,” he said, “when, even though I was changed inside, I had to find the courage to ‘go public’ and face the discomfort of being a changed man.” His co-workers were engaging in what had become a weekly Monday morning “guy” tradition, a tradition of which he was always very much willingly a part: the graphic sharing of their weekend “sexcapades and score stories” — sexual conquests with hook-ups, girlfriends or even wives. It was a combo of “whoa!” and “haha!” stories.

When it was his time to tell-all in the circle, he panicked, but then said a simple prayer: “Help.” He decided in that moment, instead of condemning their present behavior (and his past) outright, he would tell a weekend story about his wife to honor her, something complimentary about her that had nothing to do with sex. After he finished, they all laughed awkwardly and one guy said, “Damn, man, that’s a downer. What’s that all about?”

He went on to share in a simple way his recent change of heart and immediately faced some mild ridicule sprinkled with “Jesus-freak” comments. But one man, he said, came up afterward and asked him more in private. “What’s up, man? What’s your new deal?”

That “one man” eventually became Catholic and as a result joined his co-worker in choosing to honor his wife among his co-workers. They both helped bring about a long-term change in their business’ micro-culture. Its effects still endure to this day.

It’s how all genuine revolutions begin: one courageous heart at a time.

Another Tale of Honor

Here’s another awesome like-story that I happened last year. It’s worth the read.

“My wife is just such a pain in the ass!” he said, as we were changing in the gym locker room.

“You know how it is…” he finished.

Blankly, I stared at him, cocking my head sideways like a befuddled mastiff.

“No. I really don’t,” I replied. Read  more…

Red State, Blue State?

You absolutely have to look at this “cartography of the 7 deadly sins.” It’s based on the mapping of various types of demographic data (i.e. # of violent crimes, thefts, etc) and offers a color coded look at the distribution of sin-related behaviors.

My pix above contrast Iowa and New Orleans. You see, it appears that our moving from Iowa to SE Louisiana, according to the demographic data, should put an extra “oomph” into our praying, “lead us not into temptation”! I wonder if during the 58 days of Mardi Gras this year the red got even darker.

On the flip side, it appears from these maps that we should be getting a big batch of canonized saints from Iowa soon. The man in the photo appears to have already been canonized.

MAPS OF SEVEN DEADLY SINS IN AMERICA

Geographers from Kansas State University have created a map of the spatial distribution of the Seven Deadly Sins across the United States. How? By mapping demographic data related to each of the Sins.

Below are screenshots of the maps in standard deviation units; red naturally is more sinful, blue less sinful.

Click here to see!

1/22/73

The Pregnant Virgin, c. 1410 A.D.

In all the dioceses of the United States of America, January 22 (or January 23, when January 22 falls on a Sunday) shall be observed as a particular day of penance for violations to the dignity of the human person committed through acts of abortion, and of prayer for the full restoration of the legal guarantee of the right to life. The Mass “For Peace and Justice” (no. 22 of the “Masses for Various Needs”) should be celebrated with violet vestments as an appropriate liturgical observance for this day. –General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 373

In an annual recognition of the Roe v. Wade anniversary, our U.S. Bishops have made January 22 to be a penitential “Ash Wednesday” of sorts in which we are required as Catholics to wrap our prayer in penance as we beg for God’s mercy to pardon the slayers of the pre-born, to awaken the consciences of all to the inviolable dignity given by God to each human being at the moment of conception and, as the quote above says, to restore legal protection that guarantees the right to life.

We pray for the hastening of the day when a prominent civil rights activist will write in an article marking the anniversary of this court decision,

As we recall that there once was a time when we, under the pretext of civil liberties and human rights, defended the chemical burning, dismembering, evacuating and poisoning of pre-born human beings, let us reaffirm this day our unrelenting commitment to be a voice for the voiceless and a defender of the defenseless. Let us reassert our resolve to labor and give birth to a world wherein every child conceived is welcomed by their mother, their father and — even if such is not the case — by the human family united by the bonds of love, compassion and justice. May we never again fail to see in each pre-born human life a living witness to the fragile web of our interdependence and the primordial sign that we are our brother’s and our sister’s keeper…

Two vantages, one reality

I will leave you with two quotes — one that reflects on the need for truth and the second on the need for compassion. The first quote is by a pro-choice feminist Naomi Wolfe, written in the October 16,1995 edition of The New Republic, in an article called “Our Bodies, Our Souls: Rethinking Pro-choice Rhetoric.” The second quote is by Bl. John Paul II, and is taken from his March 25, 1995 Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae #99.

“So what will it be: Wanted fetuses are charming, complex, REM-dreaming little beings whose profile on the sonogram looks just like Daddy, but unwanted ones are mere “uterine material”? How can we charge that it is vile and repulsive for pro-lifers to brandish vile and repulsive images if the images are real? To insist that the truth is in poor taste is the very height of hypocrisy. Besides, if these images are often the facts of the matter, and if we then claim that it is offensive for pro-choice women to be confronted by them, then we are making the judgment that women are too inherently weak to face a truth about which they have to make a grave decision. This view of women is unworthy of feminism. Free women must be strong women, too; and strong women, presumably, do not seek to cloak their most important decisions in euphemism.”
– Naomi Wolfe

“I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed. Certainly what happened was and remains terribly wrong. But do not give in to discouragement and do not lose hope. Try rather to understand what happened and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. To the same Father and his mercy you can with sure hope entrust your child. With the friendly and expert help and advice of other people, and as a result of your own painful experience, you can be among the most eloquent defenders of everyone’s right to life. Through your commitment to life, whether by accepting the birth of other children or by welcoming and caring for those most in need of someone to be close to them, you will become promoters of a new way of looking at human life.” — Bl. John Paul II

MLK & St. Basil the Great

Archbishop Iakovos of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I am a huge fan of the scholar of religion in the U.S., Albert Raboteau, whose work on African slave religion in America had a deep impact on me in my grad school years. When I taught a course in the history of Christian thought/culture at Florida State University, I would use his collection of essays  on the history of the African-American religious experience, A Fire in the Bones, to think about the intersection of faith and culture. He is a convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and you can read the enlightening story of his journey to Orthodoxy here.

Professor Raboteau

In honor of MLK Day, I will share with you a portion of one of his essays and maybe whet your appetite for seeking out more of his work.

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Martin Luther King Day memorials tend to celebrate King the Civil Rights leader, stressing his activism on behalf of interracial equality and reconciliation. We slight his emphasis on the link between racism and poverty and so neglect King the advocate of the poor. At the time of his assassination King was participating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ struggle to achieve a decent wage while simultaneously planning the Poor People’s Campaign. King’s sermons, speeches and writings echo ancient Christian teachings on poverty and wealth, which may still serve as a resource for the contemporary struggle to overcome economic inequality. He was a 20th century exemplar of a very old tradition.

Princeton Historian Peter Brown argues convincingly that “a revolution in the social imagination occurred between 300 and 600 C.E. closely associated with the rise to power of the Christian bishop. For the Christian bishop was held by contemporaries to owe his position in no small part to his role as the guardian of the poor. He was the ‘lover of the poor’ par excellence.” The 4th century bishops, St. Basil of Caesarea, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory of Nazianzus elucidated this novel virtue and its centrality to the community life of Christians. In 369 a severe drought followed by famine prompted Basil to preach a sermon on the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-18), the man who decides to tear down his barns and build new ones to hold his surplus grain. “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” Basil elaborates:

“Who, then, is greedy? — The one who does not remain content with self sufficiency. Who is the one who deprives others? The one who hoards what belongs to everyone. Are you not greedy? Are you not one who deprives others? You have received these things for stewardship, and have turned them into your own property! Is not the one who tears off what another is wearing called a clothes-robber? But the one who does not clothe the naked, when he was able to do so — what other name does he deserve? The bread that you hold on to belongs to the hungry; the cloak you keep locked in your storeroom belongs to the naked; the shoe that is moldering in your possession belongs to the person with no shoes; the silver that you have buried belongs to the person in need. You do an injury to as many people as you might have helped with all these things!”

Basil enacted the Christian social vision he preached by establishing a hospice and soup kitchen for the famine victims and later developed a large complex to house the poor, tend the sick, and where the poor who could work were employed or trained in various trades. Around 369, St. Gregory of Nyssa preached on almsgiving: “Do not look down on those who lie at your feet, as if you judged them worthless. Consider who they are, and you will discover their dignity: they have put on the countenance of our Savior; for the one who loves humanity has lent them his own face, so that through it they might shame those who lack compassion and hate the poor.” In a sermon on the Last Judgment scene in Matthew 25:31-46, in which care for the poor is the standard of judgment “for in as much as you did it [or did it not] to the least of these you did it to me.” St. Gregory of Nazianzus warns that we should fear condemnation if we “have not ministered to Christ through those in need … Let us take care of Christ, then, while there is still time: let us visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ in his needy ones, in those who lie on the ground here before us this day.” .

In 1956, King preached a sermon that echoed Basil’s condemnation of greed: “God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.” In 1962, King preached, “I see hungry boys and girls in this nation and other nations and think about the fact that we spend more than a million dollars a day storing surplus food. And I say to myself ‘I know where we can store that food free of charge – in the wrinkled stomachs of the millions of people in our nation and in this world who go to bed hungry at night.'”

In 1961, preaching on the same text from Luke as Basil, King linked racism and poverty, “You see this man was foolish because the richer he became materially the poorer he became spiritually…. This man was a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on others… Now this text has a great deal of bearing on our struggle in race relations… For what is white supremacy but the foolish notion that God made a mistake and stamped an eternal stigma of inferiority on a certain race of people; what is white supremacy but the foolishness of believing that one race is good enough to dominate another race?…And there was a final reason why this man was foolish. He failed to realize his dependence on God…because he felt that he was the creator instead of the creature.”

Read other essays at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/albert-raboteau

Alessandro, Requiescat In Pace

John Allen, in a January 13 article, shared this story:

In late December, a 63-year-old homeless man named Alessandro died during a particularly cold night in Rome, on a street near the Vatican. In itself there was nothing unusual about it in that the streets around the Vatican attract a high population of homeless, and every year, a few pass away during the winter cold.

What followed, however, amounts to another index of the “Francis effect.”

Students at the Urban College, a residence for seminarians from the developing world located on the Janiculum Hill across from the Vatican (and next door to the North American College, where seminarians from the United States reside), heard of Alessandro’s death and decided they wanted to do something.

They asked authorities at the university for permission to celebrate a funeral, and the idea landed on the desk of Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Vatican’s missionary department, which oversees the Urban College. Filoni signed on, and the Vatican official responsible for the pope’s personal charitable projects, Polish Archbishop Konrad Krajewski, agreed to celebrate the funeral Mass.

On Friday, Filoni, Krajewski, 200 students, and a score of Alessandro’s homeless friends in and around the Vatican filed into the chapel at the Urban College to mourn his loss.

Krajewski downplayed his presence: “I’m a bishop of the streets,” he said. “It’s normal that I would do this.”

Still, the press by the students at the Urban College to organize a last gesture of tenderness for a man basically forgotten during life is one indication that the “Francis effect” is reaching down into the next generation of priests and future church leaders.

What a witness and challenge this recent Vatican story is to the universal Church, to the local Church, to the parish Church, to me.

I think here of Galatians 2:10, where Paul, seeking hand-clasping confirmation of his Gentile mission from the Apostolic Pillars, Peter, James and John, receives from them only one very specific injunction: “Be mindful of the poor.” “Which,” Paul adds, “is the very thing I was eager to do.” It’s worth noting that shortly after his election as Supreme Pontiff, Francis remarked,

During the election, I was seated next to the Archbishop Emeritus of São Paulo and Prefect Emeritus of the Clergy, Card Cláudio Hummes, a really close friend. When things got a bit dangerous, he comforted me. When the votes reached two thirds, the Cardinals began to applaud because a pope had been elected. Card Hummes hugged me and said, ‘Don’t forget the poor!’ That struck me.

The poor, the poor! As I thought about them, I immediately thought about Saint Francis of Assisi, about war, whilst the vote counting went on, until all ballots were counted. Francis was a man of peace, a man who loved and protected creation. In our times, our relationship to Creation is not that good, right?  He was the man who gave us a spirit of peace, a poor man … How much I would like to see a poor Church for the poor.

The Fifth Mark of the Church

This is the trademark of any authentic apostolic mission, of the core mission of the Church, whenever she is being herself. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s the argument that Francis Cardinal George made in his book, The Difference God Makes,

Being “simply Catholic” means starting with the poor. That’s the evangelical touchstone. You take a group that starts with the poor, and then you know that there’s evangelical motivation. There’s no power or anything else, because these people don’t have power. They identify with the poor, and then they say, things have to change for the poor. We have to see that the poor are better served in the name of Christ. The church will follow along, if they know that you’re changing the way that the world looks at the poor.

Every local Church must always, and even daily, undergo a re-formation in its communal and institutional priorities so that “the poor,” especially those close by (the primary definition of neighbor!), feel the warmth, nourishment and encouragement of her maternal and Christ-bearing love. But the poor are not merely detached recipients of a well-off and healthy Church’s ecclesial solicitude. Rather, they are the most treasured members of her Body, as the story of St. Lawrence the Deacon evidences when he declares the poor, the lame, the blind to be not the select beneficiaries of a wealthy Church’s treasures, but to be themselves the “treasure of the Church.”

When I worked at the Mother Teresa’s home for the homeless and dying in D.C., Gift of Peace, one of the residents referred to the house Chapel where we had a daily Mass for the residents, volunteers and sisters as “the Church of the Nobodies.” One of the sisters commented once that St. Matthew might add to that nomenclature, “…and theirs is the kingdom of the heavens…”

Ragged

I’ll give St. James  the final word,

My brothers, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in ragged clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Sit here, please,” while you say to the poor one, “Stand there,” or “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs? Listen, my beloved brothers. Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him? But you dishonored the poor person. Are not the rich oppressing you? And do they themselves not haul you off to court? Is it not they who blaspheme the noble name that was invoked over you? However, if you fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it. For he who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not kill.” Even if you do not commit adultery but kill, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as people who will be judged by the law of freedom. For the judgment is merciless to one who has not shown mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. — James 2:1-10

Daring Seekers

I finally finished David Hart’s high-density theological/philosophical tour de force and refutation of naturalism, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss. It’s absolutely extraordinary and left me re-filled with rekindled my sense of bewilderment over the mystery of human consciousness, amazement at the complex depths of the human quest for bliss, and wonder before the sheer, unexplained existence of the universe.

In particular, I fell in love with a quote near the end of the last chapter (327-28) in which Hart lays out a path for the serious skeptic to travel if s/he is to explore the problem of God:

In my experience, those who make the most theatrical display of demanding “proof” of God are also those least willing to undertake the specific kinds of mental and spiritual discipline that all the great religious traditions say are required to find God. If one is left unsatisfied by the logical arguments for belief in God, and instead insists upon some “experimental” or “empirical” demonstration, then one ought to be willing to attempt the sort of investigations necessary to achieve any sort of real certainty regarding a reality that is nothing less than the infinite coincidence of infinite being, consciousness and bliss. In short, one must pray: not fitfully, not merely in the manner of a suppliant seeking aid or of a penitent seeking absolution but also according to the disciplines of infused contemplation, real constancy of will and a patient openness to grace…no one is obliged to make such an effort; but, unless one does, any demands one might make for evidence of the reality of God can safely be dismissed as disingenuous, and any arguments against belief in God that one might have the temerity to make to others can be safely ignored.

That quote then reminded me of a post I had written a year and a half ago, which, for what it’s worth, I include below.

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I heard a lecture yesterday by an eastern Orthodox theologian which contained a plethora of fascinating insights into the “spirituality over religion” (SOR) craze in the West.

Too many insights to capture in this brief post, but his main argument went something like this. The love of spirituality, when it is set in opposition to organized religion, usually revolves around two focal points: (1) extracting and abstracting the spiritual life from the messiness of particularity that attends the real-time human quest to love God in a dysfunctional human community; (2) seeking out primarily individual, autonomous, self-legislating fulfillment in a cosmos devoid of inconvenient, hard ethical truths, given by a divine Legislator, that give ascetically honed shape to the life of a religious practitioner. In regard to the second point, he argued that the spirituality without religion movement prescribes thin, vague and soft ethical principles that are easily adapted to individual preference and radically relativize truth, while spirituality within religion prescribes thick, specific and hard precepts, counseling clearly defined virtues and forbidding clearly defined vices that challenge the individual to be shaped and informed by the given-ness of truth.

It was far more sophisticated than that, but that’s the gist.

Do Faith, then we’ll talk

At the end of his lecture, he shared some advice he gives to the market-place agnostic spiritual-but-not-religious “seekers” who come to him to inspect Orthodox Christianity — who are attracted to Orthodoxy initially, he said, because it seems to them exotic and, they hope, is sufficiently “misty” to offer ample room for their quest for an autonomous faith. He said that he happily entertains their interest, but will not engage in substantive “heady” conversations about the faith until they first agree to do what he asks. Listen to his spiel:

For six months, try this. Pray to God every day, even if you don’t know who — or if — he is, and simply say in the space of 5 minutes of quiet silence, ‘O God, guide me.’ And then listen. Show up here at church every Sunday for the Divine Liturgy and just stand there, pay attention without analyzing or criticizing. Read from the New Testament for at least 15 minutes every day, beginning with the Gospels, and read very slowly; again, without analyzing or criticizing. If you are presently involved in sexual activities apart from marriage, stop for these six months. The same goes for alcohol abuse or drug use. Give some alms to the poor so it hurts some. Then after those six months we can talk about what you experienced, and I will try to answer all your questions.

Otherwise, you’re not really serious in your quest and it’s all a game of the mind.

He said in his experience over 50+ years of priesthood he has never once seen the successful completion of this experiment fail to effect a radical change in opening the skeptical seeker to Christ and his Church.

But, he added, the majority of those whom he confronts with this challenge “walk away sad” as they are unwilling to invest the effort. Like Herod, they want to be titillated by a quick fix, not converted.

“I dare you,” he once said to a young woman, “give Christ a try.” “She did, and,” he said, “she met Him.”

Orthodox priest hearing confession