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A Time of Contrasts: Our Future Hangs in the Balance

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I sit here in my apartment in Berkeley, California. It is a rain-soaked day, and a day of sharp contrasts.

President Barack Obama has just given his farewell address. With his orator’s gifts in great display, he urges us not to let fear crush the democratic process, but rather to increase our involvement as citizens so we can make this world a better place. I hear again the cry I heard more than eight ago, when I gathered with thousands on the campus of UC Berkeley to hear his prophetic words. Tonight he repeated his encouraging mantra, “Yes we can! Yes we can!” Only now it’s a different day, and the start of a very different era.

Earlier today, the incoming president held what was called a press conference. It was almost an hour of adversarial back and forth, filled with denials, contradictions, and half-truths. It was a virulent attack on the free press, whose democratic responsibility is to speak truth to power. The most important questions were left either avoided or unanswered.

Yes, we live in anxious and uncertain times. America’s 240-year-old record of democracy has reached a dangerously precarious moment.

Today I also watched the hearings for the candidates the president elect has put forth for his cabinet. If approved, these individuals will be called upon to deal with far-ranging questions regarding social justice, civil rights, immigration, and racial equality. My heart sank at the introduction of each new candidate because, in almost every case, his record stands in staunch opposition to the Constitution he must promise to uphold. For example, the candidate who would be tasked with protecting the environment is a man who publicly denies scientifically proven climate change. The candidate for attorney general has a long history of racism and bigotry. I feel moral outrage as I see how their words and deeds stand in opposition to the gospel view that is revealed in scripture.

Sitting here now, I pick up my copy of the latest issue of the National Catholic Reporter, the most progressive periodical of the American Catholic church. Throughout its pages are articles about gun laws, the death penalty, ecology, and the future of the church. One article that catches my eye is about the grassroots leaders who will be gathering in Modesto, California in February.

This will be a regional meeting to support popular movements from around the world, and it is being cosponsored by the PICO National Network of faith-based organizers and the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, which is an anti-poverty initiative. John Baumann, SJ, first told me about this gathering when we spoke in late August, and he invited me to participate with the PICO group. I would have welcomed this opportunity if my schedule had allowed. I know this meeting will inspire the creativity of participants, and guide them to respond to the issues of senseless war, violence, hunger, and homelessness, both here in California and around the world.

Tonight I am stunned by the contrast between Obama’s farewell address and Trump’s press conference and confirmation hearings. There was a time in our country when the combined work of faith and justice was viewed as the call for only a small minority. Now, however, this call must be heard by every Christian if faith and justice are to survive. To fulfill this call requires a deep, mature spirituality that refuses to let the gospel be reconciled with the unjust tendencies in the dominant culture. We must heed the voice of Pope Francis, who summons us to a life of faith and justice: “The future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

 

 

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Imagine

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Imagine a world where,

as Thomas Merton says,

every non-two-legged creature

is a saint.

 

Imagine a world where,

as Meister Eckhart says,

the soul is not in the body,

but the body is in the soul.

 

Imagine a world where,

as Teilhard says,

the flesh is made word,

not the word made flesh,

and all matter is soaked in God.

 

Imagine a world where,

as Thomas Berry says,

the universe is a communion of subjects,

not a collection of objects.

 

Imagine a world where,

as St. Francis says,

brother sun,

sister moon.

 

Imagine a world where,

as Pope Francis says,

caring for the Earth and all creatures,

we have only one heart.

 

Imagine a world where,

as Jesus says,

rejoice and be glad;

blessed be the poor, meek, and merciful,

for theirs is the kingdom of God.

 

Welcome to a world of wisdom and thanks,

a world where we are all blessed.

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Ripples of Hope

Throughout my life, I have been confronted with issues and disappointments that crushed my spirit and dashed my hopes.

As I reflect now on the last year in the life of Thomas Merton, I recall the events that occurred then. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was felled by an assassin’s bullet in April 1968 as he stood on the porch of a Memphis hotel. That evening, Robert Kennedy gave the most moving eulogy I’ve ever heard as he announced to the people the news of Martin’s death.

As Kennedy spoke, an unforeseen tragic irony was about to take place. He himself was killed two months later, in a hotel in Los Angeles, as he campaigned for the nomination of the Democratic Party.

Now we reflect on the challenges of our day, as we move forward from election day November 8, 2016. At this defining moment for the world, we ponder the results of the vote. We watch as the echoes reverberate around the country, and indeed around the world. It seems that the mood of the people has changed—in one way or the other.

As I and many others feel betrayed by the very systems we counted on to protect and uphold our values, I ponder the words of Saul David Alinsky, who stated in his book Rules for Radicals, “Irrationality clings to man like his shadow so that the right things are done for the wrong reasons.” He called on us to “begin to shed fallacy after fallacy” so that we could abandon “the conventional view in which things are seen separate from their inevitable counterparts” and instead see everything “as the indivisible partner of its converse, light and darkness, good and evil, life and death.”

I ponder, too, the words of medieval mystic Meister Eckhart, who proclaims, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you,’ that will suffice.” And I remember the work of Br. David Steindl-Rast, OSB, whose book is entitled Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer. Steindl-Rast challenges us to live with a grateful heart, whether we are confronted by good news or the opposite.

Drawing on the wisdom of Eckhart, Steindl-Rast, Merton, Kennedy, Alinsky, and other men, I renew my sense of hope for the days ahead. I believe our future can avoid the kind of disappointment of 1968, which set the tone for a generation at that time. Through gestures of gratitude we can lift ourselves out of the turbulence of this moment and create instead a new, transformational time not yet anticipated or understood.

We pray that our country rise to a better day, infused with the hope and trust of those who join us on the way. Each time a person stands up for an ideal or seeks to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he or she sends forth a tiny ripple of hope. And that ripple, combined with a myriad others, can sweep down even the mightiest walls of oppression and injustice. 

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Ballot Box Surprise

Shelley the dog greets me this morning,

unaware of what just happened.

What happened?

Was that a ballot box surprise?

Did democracy fail us?

Anger and rebellion rule the day.

 

We gather now, disappointed pilgrims,

plunged into this unexpected hour,

our nation’s gethsemane moment.

 

In the face of this loss,

this time of disappointment,

this moment of darkness,

we hear a mysterious call for hope,

we search for the light,

we remember friends.

 

In the midst of goodness and apparent evil,

we find our loving God,

here with us on this Wednesday morning.

 

I learned a lesson from Alinsky long ago:

there is a positive in every negative.

Out of inevitable darkness, a future dawn is born.

 

We search for wisdom on this day

as we ponder Sr. Barbara’s words:

“The source of everything,

which becomes fully visible

in the human presence of Jesus,

is visible to us through the empowering spirit.”

 

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Greetings from Springbank!

Several years ago, when I was program director of the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (ICCS) at Holy Names University, we were privileged to welcome a number of women religious as students in the program.

Among our students was Sr. Karla Barker OSF, a Franciscan sister from Oldenburg Indiana. Following her graduation, she joined the staff of Springbank Retreat, Center of EcoSpirituality and the Arts in Kingstree, South Carolina. From her new home, our conversations continued.

Over the years, I was occasionally invited to Springbank to conduct a weekend workshop on my most recent book. And I often came to participate in Holy Week ceremonies (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter vigil). Last year, I was present when the Springbank director, Trina McCormick OP, celebrated thirty years of leadership in this sacred place.

Today I write to you from Springbank. Since my retirement from Holy Names, I have been in search of a context for a meaningful ministry. By that, I mean a place where it is possible for me to write, teach, celebrate the Eucharist, and join a living community of faith with wonderful people who share my Catholic tradition. In other words, a place where I can exercise the ministry for which I was ordained more than half a century ago.

Here in this monastery of live oaks, I remember the energy that flowed through my activities in the years following Vatican II. I am also here to accomplish things that remain unfinished in my life.

As I reread the works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ and Thomas Berry CP, I realize that we have great work yet to accomplish. It is the work needed at a great cosmological Exodus moment. In this historic moment, we move from the static world of Newton, Descartes, and Bacon into the sacred time Thomas termed the Ecozoic era. In this grand new era, we—and more importantly, our children—will be participants in a community that will be understood through its mutually enhancing relationship with the Earth.

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From Ambivalence to Focus

At many points over the years, I have felt unsettled or ambivalent about aspects of my life.

During my childhood, my mother was not well. As a result, I was cared for by her sisters. They were very good to me. They said, “You have a second home here with us.” Yet this early experience of multiple homes left me with ambivalence about the choices I would make. No matter what life presented, if I chose one option, I always reserved the right to entertain another option.

Often I have felt like an animal torn between two bales of hay—not able to choose one bale out of concern that losing the other would result in being deprived of the nourishment necessary for a vigorous and decisive life.

Over the years, I came to believe that life was less about making choices and more about remaining open and observing how circumstances can make a decision for me.

Nevertheless, when I told myself that life was about allowing options to unfold, I was actually depriving myself of a fully engaged life.

For example, not long after ordination, I told myself, “I’m still young enough to get married.” This attitude diminished my investment in the vocation I had chosen. The ambiguity that had indelibly penetrated my soul deprived me of clear choices and commitment.

The real challenge is to be able to decide. As Harvey Cox wisely wrote, “Not to decide is to decide.”

Recently I have been taken with the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, and his ability to reconcile evolutionary science with the Christian faith. An important element of this evolutionary faith is healing any separation between the world of God and the world where humans dwell. Without this healing vision, we are inclined to experience our life of faith and our life in the world of everyday existence as somehow unrelated.

Previously, my faith experience seemed destined to remain divided. I was stuck in a life of ambiguity and uncertainty because whatever path I choose to take, I was simultaneously open to an alternative option. As I review my journey now, I am grateful for the factors that brought me to this point and I pray that any future ambiguity will cease and that I will have the strength to embrace the future with enhanced enthusiasm and resolve.

I remain grateful to Teilhard, whose reconciling of science and faith contributed to healing the ambivalence that grew out of my two homes in early childhood, and that now allows me to more fully appreciate that God is present all things.

 Thus, with fresh energy, we know the consolation of a life infused with divine presence and the joyful exaltation of a life no longer immersed in the ambiguity of a previously unlived life. May our future be clearer and more decisive than all our pasts. 

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I Saw Christ Today

I saw Christ today.

Eighteen women and men

filling out applications

to discover a place to call home.

A place of privacy,

of protection from the weather

and of violence in the street.

As I gazed at these seekers,

I thought of Thomas Merton,

who one day in Louisville,

at the corner of Fourth and Walnut,

looked around at those on the street

and was moved to say,

“I loved all those people.”

In a similar way

today at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland,

I looked around the room

at the urban refugees

working on their applications

and felt like Merton many year ago.

I loved everybody.

 

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Resacralizing the Earth

I have often been troubled by the way some Christians seem compelled to live in two different worlds. One is a world in which God resides; the other is a world in which humanity dwells and God is absent. Theologians call this latter view of the world theism.

A friend expressed this kind of split awareness by saying, “We pray to God on Sunday, and we prey on our neighbor on Monday.”

Such an approach removes the sensitivity we would need to care for our common home, the Earth. Pope Francis wrote in his encyclical that such an attitude can lead to “a throw-away culture.” And he wrote on Twitter that “The Earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

With the Pope—as well as Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Berry, and others—as our guides, we see that another way is possible.

When we embrace evolution, something amazing happens. We are infused with God’s creative energy as we become aware that the divine has been present since the beginning of the universe. Suddenly, every person, plant, and tree is seen to be infused with God’s energy. Every child, elder, puppy, and kitten is understood to be sacred and soaked in God.

The lyrics of “Holy Now” take on new meaning. The birds’ songs become a verse from scripture, while rivers and streams become holy. All of creation is now the locus of divine presence.

When we awaken to the realization that God is present in all things, we are energized to take up our privileged task of resacralizing the Earth. 

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My Sister Mary Tells Our Family Story

Stories are familiar. They tell us who we are and where we’ve been. My sister Mary loved stories, especially our family’s story. Often she would fly to Salt Lake City and pour through the historical records to connect the dots between us and our origins in County Armagh in Ireland.

A few years ago, when her interest was at its peak, she and I visited the farms and graveyards of our ancestors in Central and Southwestern Ontario in Canada. As we toured the home place of our ancestors, she recorded the data from their gravestones and baptismal records, and other information, and composed our family story.

The story of our Irish family began during the potato famine. Half of the family stayed in Ireland, while the other half sailed to Canada to escape the possibility of starvation.

When Mary and I traveled to Ireland, we saw the homes where our ancestors lived. And when we explored where the Conlons settled in Ontario, we saw that the landscape there was remarkably similar to the land they had left.

We noticed that some of the gravestones of first cousins were next to each other in Ontario, yet their names were spelled differently. This suggested to me that those who immigrated were not highly literate.

My fondest memory of my sister’s passion to tell our family story happened in 2003, on the occasion of our Conlon family reunion. It took place on a Saturday evening, at the Community Center in our hometown of Sombra. During that weekend, I was privileged to celebrate the liturgy at Sacred Heart Church in Port Lambton, Ontario, the town where I was born.

During the homily, I talked about my father, who in his later years would sit on the front step of our family home and invite people to join him and tell him a story.

I recalled how my mother, Elizabeth, would join other women in our town at the quilting bee. I suggested that each of us who gathered for the Conlon family reunion were like patches in the Conlon quilt. We were patches from Alberta, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Delaware, California, Ontario, and beyond.

I also said that our family were like Ezekiel in the Hebrew Bible. We had been driven into exile because of the potato famine, and had come to Canada. I explained that our story can be told by the names and dates of our ancestors inscribed on the tombstones in the nearby cemetery. It is, you could say, a story told by the St. Clair River and by the first fall of snow that carpeted our town each winter.

At this reunion, we had come to our hometown—which was home to each of us and to our story. It was there that we first learned our Christian story and became people of faith.

During that weekend, my sister Mary shared her genesis story of the Conlon family. She told us how our ancestors came to Canada in 1840, how they found an area that reminded them of Ireland, and how they became lumber merchants so they could make a living and raise families in their newfound land.

As she recited the family genealogy that evening—our ancestral Book of Genesis—Mary joyfully recalled how, after writing to many people in Ireland she thought might be descendants of our ancestors, she had finally received a response. The letter confirmed her research and indelibly forged the connection to our Irish family roots. Following this discovery, she and I visited Ireland, met our relatives, and celebrated our family story.

Our Conlon family reunion in Port Lambton was a great weekend, and it closed with a talent show, in which the children presented a play of the migration to Canada. When I left the hall that evening, I knew that something important and sacred had happened. I had learned again my family’s story.

Recently I listened again to my cassette recording of Mary’s presentation. I remembered how the room had been decorated with family photos that evoked images from her story. It is a story of the unstoppable spirit alive in the hearts of those adventurous souls who came to a new country with hope for a land of opportunity. It is a story recorded in my Celtic genetic coding and inscribed in the St. Bridget’s cross that hangs on the wall of my Berkeley home. It is a story of struggle and sacrifice, a story of adventures and new life.

It is a story that each of us can share in our own form—regardless of the particular origins that have shaped our lives and that have given us a sense of the sacred that feeds us hope.

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One More Afternoon

My father was a fierce and generous man.

He left school after grade six

to cultivate the family’s country farm.

He worked hard, retired late

to earn a modest pension for his labor.

 

Often in his later days,

he would sit on our front porch,

visit with neighbors and tell stories.

 

On this August day,

I wish for one more afternoon

with my father on the front porch

telling stories.

 

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To Rise and Fall, and Begin Again

The undulating dynamic of birth, death, and rebirth permeates the fabric of existence. It is true for me and for you, as well.

Born of a father of Irish heritage and a mother with French Canadian roots, my early years found me siding with the outsider and the oppressed.

As a young man, I felt a resurgence of energy and engagement with the advent of Vatican Council II, with its emphasis on aggiornamento and its proclamation of the relevance of the Church in the modern world. I saw a possibility that marvelous things could happen as a fresh aliveness flowed into the hearts and minds of many.

In my work with community organization, I saw that people could learn to act freely and achieve what is possible for them to do, as well as make this freedom available for others. Later, when I experienced creation spirituality, another significant dimension of the puzzle fell into place. Through evolutionary science, I began to understand that the events of my life—a reality that is true for all of us—have prepared me for what’s next.

A new vehicle for awareness and engagement discovered its place in my soul as I beheld the sequence of a relevant faith, self-deliverance, and the ability to act. I rejoiced to discover the journey of the soul in justice. My early inclinations were reaffirmed by the realization that my personal identity could find its fullest expression in work that brings balance, harmony, and peace to people and the planet.

I began to experience my life as a Christian in way that healed the division between how I understood my life to be and how I would want it to be. I embraced the realization that God is not an object to be prayed to but rather an enveloping, visible sacred presence that permeates every molecule of existence.

In awakening to the realization of the divine in all things, I was able to contemplate the origins of things and the fourteen billion history that has brought us to where we are now. I could give expression to each new moment of existence as it pulsates among us and draws us into life. It is a life of adventure, risk, and the promise of an ever-present now.

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