Monday, October 8, 2012

From Holy Envy to Penal Envy

It was only several days after my last blog that an offensive and distasteful film sparked reactions around the Muslim world. Then Ambassador Stevens, whose keen mind and open heart had earned him a place of honor among Libyans, was killed along with three others, probably by a terrorist attack.

All this a far cry from Yusef and his Ramadan fast, and from Krister Stendahl's idea of holy envy. Things can change in an instant from interfaith dialogue and respect, to provocation, reaction, and reprisal.

Yet the latest round of violence and hatred cannot keep us from the daily work of building bridges of respect and understanding. The mindset that deliberately berates and provokes with what hardly passes for art; and the disposition to emote and react without regard for others: neither is the majority among its host culture or faith. An Indonesian friend of mine noted that in the largest Muslim country in the world, 205 million, only 400 or so protested the disgusting film: a fraction completely exaggerated by media coverage.

In our little corner of the world, on October 15, we are honoring a man whose life and work has been dedicated to dialogue, mutual respect and understanding among Jews and Muslims. Rabbi Burton Visotzky of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City will receive the 2012 Goldziher Prize at Merrimack College.

Many interfaith leaders from across the country will gather to honor Burt. Our students will have the opportunity to dine and converse with these "interfaith heroes". Hopefully, we will plant a few seeds of hope and openness and peace among the emerging leaders in this new generation.
                                                                                       Rabbi Visotzky

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Holy Envy

Last year, in the fall of 2011, our new students arrived in late August to begin the new semester. This occurred during the Muslim month of Ramadan. As you know, devout Muslims fast from all food and drink from sunrise to sunset during their holy month. It's a rigorous practice.

Later that semester in mid-September we had a dinner for our international students. One young man from Saudi Arabia was sitting at a table with other students from a variety of cultures and faiths. His name was Yusef or Joseph.

The other students were consuming their food with great relish. This young man, however, was not eating. He smiled and chatted, but did not eat. Ramadan had ended, I thought to myself. Maybe he is ill.

I approached and asked if he were okay, and if the food was to his liking. He said the food was fine. Then, with some embarrassment, he told me quietly that he was fasting. "I had to travel from home to school during Ramadan. It was a long journey, so my parents told me to postpone my fasting. So now I am observing the Ramadan fast."

Perhaps it was our common name. Perhaps it was the utter simplicity and humility with which he spoke. Perhaps it was divine grace. Whatever it was, I was filled with long ago memories of Lenten days of fast and abstinence, of twelve hour fasts before every reception of Holy Communion, of one Sunday morning at a late Mass when I almost passed out in church, faint from hunger--all these flooded my mind and stirred my senses.

The dedication and witness of young Yusef touched something inside me, something deep within my soul.

I knew what it was. I had learned that this type of thing could happen when you engage in interfaith encounter. Krister Stendahl (1921-2008) the great Lutheran Bishop of Stockholm, biblical scholar, and dean at Harvard Divinity School, had given it a name.

Active in interfaith dialogue, Stendahl applied his keen mind and opened his loving heart to engage people of different faiths. As a committed Christian, he strove to meet and embrace believers from different traditions and faiths, knowing that the Holy Spirit is active in all the world. 

While engaging with people of other traditions, sometimes a belief, or ritual, or ethical sensibility in another religion would catch Stendahl's attention and imagination. He would grow "envious" of that aspect of the other faith. Grateful for the insight or inspiration from another tradition, he would try to integrate what he found so compelling into his own Christian practice and spirituality. In this way, his interfaith study and conversation enriched his own Christian life.

Stendahl called this experience "holy envy". It is finding beauty, dignity, and grace in the other person's practice of their faith. It is "holy" because it is what Catholic theology calls an "occasion of grace", a divine prompting that opens our minds, stirs our hearts, and moves our will toward good.

The memory of Yusef sitting at that table, smiling, but not eating, chatting, but not drinking, became part of my Lenten observance this past spring. I suspect he will remain part of many Lents to come for me.

A Lutheran bishop; a Muslim student: each in his own way holy.

Krister, I'm envious!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Isaac in the Rain

Hurricane Isaac has dissipated, spreading its generous rain over wide swaths of the south and central states. Welcome rain in many drought-ridden places. Not so welcome along the lower plains of the Gulf Coast.

There are many smiles of relief that damage was nowhere near that inflicted by Katrina seven years ago. Isaac confounded the forecasters whose anxious predictions it seemed to enjoy foiling. Should we expect anything less from a storm whose name in Hebrew (Yishaq) means "s/he laughs"?

But back to all that rain. There is something in rain that brings a smile to my face, a laugh to my belly. It has to do with a Hindu-like parable about rain. It has to do with God's love, with the God who is love.

Christians and Bhakti Hindus, and Jews and Muslims, all in their own ways, believe that God is love, Infinite Love.

We all have an idea of what love means. We've loved someone, or been loved. But Infinite Love? What does that mean? How does it feel? How even to begin to comprehend it? How can we extrapolate to infinity from a limited personal experience of loving or being loved?

Perhaps this parable will help. Imagine each drop of water to be in and of itself a symbol, an expression of God's Infinite Love. Infinite Love compounded and compressed into the millions of molecules that make up one tiny drop of water. Imagined this way, interpreted as an efficacious symbol, each drop of water becomes a holy event for the one who contemplates its simple beauty~holy water.

Then take a walk in the rain. Remember, each drop in and of itself is an expression of the Infinite Love that is God. But this profligate, extravagant God sends how many billion drops of water on us in just a summer's afternoon shower? Each drop that wets our hand or face or head is a splash of infinite, mysterious passion from the center of Being. One's walk in the rain becomes an immersion in infinities of symbolic love.

And a hurricane? Such a storm is a fearsome, awesome expression of Divine Love in countless beating, driving drops, each an expression of Infinite Love, love so fierce it pulls us into its fury.

Infinite Love is not to be ignored or trifled with. It is not just a summer shower. We do well to heed the warnings and withdraw inland to safer ground where we stand a chance of surviving the divine fury that is Infinite Love.

One danger in Christian faith is to domesticate God: to think that we can name and contain the divine essence in a system of dogmatic cisterns and ecclesial pipelines that deliver grace on demand at the twist of a sacramental faucet. Divine Love in its furious infinity can never be contained. Like the engineers in New Orleans who struggled to channel and control Isaac's deluge with their sophisticated pumps, we are always on the verge of being submerged in the torrents of God's jealous love.

Hence the "fear and trembling" so often mentioned in scripture.

But it is a fear and trembling before Infinite Love. We just need to remember that God's Love is not our invention, not under our control, and far beyond our imagination, though imagine it we must.

From the mysterious center of the Divine Storm, within the eye of the hurricane, emerges God's smile, God's belly laugh at our attempts to control or comprehend Infinite Love. Yishaq.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Sour dough and bitter herbs

We live in the Boston area. This means as a Catholic family we lived through the clergy sex abuse scandal. I remember vividly the Sunday Mass at which the priest announced there would be a special pastoral letter from Cardinal Law about these troubles. He added that families with young children might want to leave after communion, before the letter was read. An X-rated letter from the archbishop! Something of a novelty.

I remember little about the letter itself, except that I was mortified to listen with my sixteen year old daughter and eleven year old son sitting next to me and my wife. Our daughter, who is known for her slightly off-beat wit, turned to me when the episcopal brief was over and said with a wry smile, "Hey, Dad, that was my first pastoral letter ever."

To laugh or cry? I remembered the many pastoral letters about justice and peace and liturgical renewal that shaped my conscience and my soul as a teenager and young adult. A different time. A different church. A different episcopacy.

To be a Catholic today is to have been seasoned by bitter herbs. The Jews include bitter herbs in the Passover Seder, to remind them of the hard years in the desert. To reflect on the hard years endured by so many around the world who live in some kind of exile even today.

Many Catholics have felt exiled within their own church. Some have sacramentalized that exile and left the institution. Others, like me, have remained. But the aftertaste from this scandal lingers.

Catholicism is a stew, a steaming nourishing mix of foods and herbs and spices from many different cultures around the world. It can feed the soul and strengthen you for the journey of faith. But when unhealthy herbs or poisonous weeds are slipped into the pot, it leaves a bitter taste. It can make you feverish and nauseous from food poisoning, sapping your strength, making you unable to continue the journey. You might feel like Elijah in the desert (I Kings 19). You just don't have the strength to go on. So you sit under a juniper tree and figure you might not wake up, and wouldn't that just be easier anyhow.

Then an angel wakes you up and serves you some home made bread. It takes a while, actually two more servings before the nourishment of this angelic bread gets into your system and begins to clean out the poison, and build up some strength. Then you get up and start walking. Elijah made it for forty days and nights on that bread.

I wonder what the angel used to season that bread?

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Seasons and seasoning

Seasoned is a good word. It implies time. I've lived through many seasons and changes of season. To be seasoned is to have lived for a while, to have been gifted with time. To be seasoned is to have gained the perspectives of years and turns of years.

Seasoned also implies additives. We season our food, our language, our love. To be seasoned is to have lived a life flavored by things sweet and sour, sharp and hot, salty and biting. To be seasoned is to have tasted love that sweetens our life, or or love that brings tears to our eyes, or hate that burns into our souls a taste so hot it hurts for a long time.

My life has brought me through two hundred and fifty-six seasons. I just used the calculator and multiplied by four: sixty-four years of four seasons each. I have tasted much of love throughout those seasons. My parents' love for me--which they still give in their nineties! My siblings' love. My wife's love. My children's love. My friends' love.

I lived many years a monk and friar and came to know the love of confreres and of God in ways one never forgets. More about that later.

All of those seasons and all of those loves came to me as a Catholic. I was born on a cold January day, on a Friday evening. Good way to start a life--on the first day of the weekend. As was the custom I was baptized within the month. So my first season as a Catholic was winter. Two hundred and fifty six seasons as a Catholic. So I'm a seasoned Catholic.

Also lots of tastes over the years. How many different herbs released latent flavors and feelings. How many different spices added zest to my life. How much mystery in the interaction of time and taste, changing times and changing tastes.

My hope is that these little messages from a seasoned Catholic might add some spice or gentler flavor to your daily fare, to help you enjoy the changing seasons of your life, to release latent thoughts, or add body to your feelings, or balance to your choices.