But, Does it Give Life?

12th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

Poor Paul. I mean St. Paul, the former Saul of Tarsus, the once rabid persecutor of Christians whose profound encounter with the risen Christ, subsequent conversion and career about-face, and marathon-like journeys to spread the truth of Jesus to the ends of the earth, led to the rapid growth of the early Christian church.

Artistic portrayals of Paul often present him in tidy settings, calmly preaching to a rapt audience, his right arm raised for emphasis, or sitting at a well-appointed desk, plume in hand, with reference materials within reach. But I envision Paul with his head in his hands, his face a portrait of incredulity, his frustration nearly boiling over. I also see Paul channeling his urgent responses into the expanded writings on the life-giving truths of Jesus, letters which were both a gift to those communities, and to us.

Paul intrigues me. During my time as a student at CTU (Catholic Theological Union), I was fortunate to have studied many of Paul’s letters under the guidance of some top-notch biblical scholars, an experience which fostered in me the desire to know more about the life of Paul, his theology, and the Christian communities he established.

When I sit with one of Paul’s letters, such as Galatians,[1] I try to insert myself into the text, either as a member of the receiving community, (in this case the Galatians, who were receiving misinformation) or as one of his opponents, (the other teachers who were sidelining Paul’s teaching) or even as Paul himself.

And in doing so, I experience a deep sense of empathy for the man and his mission.

Galatians is a short letter of 6 chapters that can be read in one sitting. Note that I left out the word “easily” because Paul employs a rhetorical style of writing that may have made complete sense to his contemporaries but is foreign to most modern-day readers. Paul’s sentences are lengthy, complex, and challenging to read aloud, even for experienced lectors.

Early on in my biblical studies there’d be times when I’d think “Man, this guy needs an editor” or “Get to the point already!” But I’ve come to admire Paul’s complex, often nuanced apologetics. And what I have learned about Paul’s vulnerability, persistence, courage, and his life-giving patience and love for the members of the early church continues to inspire me.

Paul’s conviction that he was specifically called by Christ to spread the gospel compelled him to risk his life and personal comfort. He willingly gave up the respect of his peers and took on the identity of the despised. He was beaten, left for dead, and imprisoned. Paul was continually challenged to defend his authority and was falsely accused of having pilfered or created the gospel he preached. He was seen as a braggart, and at times he was difficult to be with, but he loved and was loved by the faith communities he established.[2]

Paul’s extraordinary life and his zeal for his apostolic mission represent the sum of discipleship which Jesus so succinctly spelled out to his apostles: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” [Luke 9:23]

But imagine how tiresome it must have been for Paul to have to defend his calling again and again, and how frustrating it was to receive news from church communities that the gospel he shared and which had been so well received was being misinterpreted or dismantled. What stamina he must have had to continue to correct and console, to convince and exhort the early Christians to keep the faith and believe the truth about Jesus Christ.

Scripture scholar, educator and author, Robert J Karris, OFM, likens the conversion experience of Paul and the subsequent skepticism of his authenticity by others to that of St. Francis of Assisi, whose radical rejection of worldly comforts for a life of asceticism led many to question not only his authenticity but his sanity. Karris suggests that one major criterion used to judge the veracity of a person’s actions, a storyline, or a teaching is to ask, Does it give life?

So, by putting Paul’s teachings to the test of whether or not they give life, Karris judged them to be truthful because they had “given life to the Galatians, who had received the Spirit through Paul’s preaching of this story as gospel.” [3]  And the life which the Galatians received did not end with them; its truth continued to be given for the fullness of life each time the Word was shared verbally and by their example of Christian love.

I find the premise of Karris’ question, Does it give life? refreshing. It resonated deeply with my troubled soul on a day of great mourning that emerged in the midst of yet another week of growing outrage and hostility between humans, in a month of escalating global tension, in a year of white hot division that continues to compound like interest in hatred bearing account.

It was as if at the moment my emotions were dragging me to a dark placeKarris himself asked me, Does it give life?

In this usage, the word life probably needs defining. The life that Truth gives is not bestowed upon one person or a group of like-minded people, but on all people. If the truth is not true for all, it is not truth.

Truth is egalitarian, it is color blind, it exists outside of history, and it does not bend for gender or symbols of worldly power.

Truth is the soil of all human flourishing. Anything less can never claim to be true.[4]

I began to test the question Does it give life? against some of the controversial ideologies, political stances, religious judgments, human rights issues, and environmental policies that deserve our serious attention.

And what did I discover? That very little of what contemporary society sets forth—the ideologies, stances, and policies that we hold up as true—passes Karris’ test, and in fact too much of it intentionally restricts the flourishing of all but a particular group of like-minded individuals. It was startling.

Why do we not see this? Why? Because Truth is difficult.

Karris’ question made me think about how in recognizing Truth as life-giving I am able to think more clearly, and respond more accurately to what I read, what I hear being said, what I say to others, and what I align myself with.

As Christians, we have to think about what we profess to believe as Truth and how we live out that truth. For example, if we believe we have the right to remind others of Jesus’ command to love one another how then can we justify the various exceptions we have added to our observance of the Golden Rule?

Truth is hard, and it is challenging. It requires great sacrifice and persistence, and it demands both from us every single day. That’s what Jesus did, and it is what he told his disciples they’d have to do. It’s what Paul did. It is what the Martyrs of the early Church did. It’s what the Saints and modern-day spiritual heroes do. And it’s what we are called to do too.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Galatians is the earliest example of Paul’s writing. It is read from the 10th through 14th Sundays of Ordinary Time, year C.

[2] For a quick but wonderful summary of Pauline history including a virtual tour of his missionary journeys, click here.

[3] Robert J. Karris, OFM. “The Letter to the Galatians”, in The New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament. edited by Daniel Durken. Collegeville, MN: Liturigical Press. 2009.  581-601, here 592.

[4] Are you interested in exploring philosophical arguments on the nature of truth? Visit the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Reclaiming the primal sense of belonging

John O’Donohue, in his beautiful book, Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on our Yearning to Belong, speaks of the “longing of the Earth.” He says, “The stillness of the stone is pure, but it also means that it can never move one inch (…) it enjoys absolute belonging.” Further, he writes “Think of your self and feel how you belong so deeply to the earth and how you are a tower of longing in which nature rises up and comes to voice.”

Yesterday, standing beneath the giant boulders of Joshua Tree National ForestI could not help but feel I was a part of this ancient labor sculpted by wind and time. I am a grain of sand, yet feel completely at home here.  O’Dononue says “Stone is the tabernacle of memory. Until we allow some of Nature’s stillness to reclaim us, we will remain victims of the instant and never enter the heritage of our ancient belonging.”

Time spent in untouched nature is wholly restorative. Tranquility returns. We become one with it, even if only for an instant. But in that moment clarity arrives, sweeping away all the clutter of the mind, shushing the mental chatter, slowing the breath perhaps even to the point where God’s whisper might be heard. Where ever it is in nature that your primal sense of belonging emerges, be it a forest, a mountaintop, the ocean, or a pristine lake, in the desert, or a canyon, go there and be reclaimed.

Why choose the dark, when we know the light?

4th Sunday of Lent (B)

One of the tasks on my husband’s to-do list prior to moving into our new home was to install dimmer switches throughout the house. This was a relatively large project for a lovely old place like ours which was originally built with multiple gaslights in every room. At some point in the home’s history the gaslights and chandeliers were replaced with electric fixtures and wall switches. Dimmers are awesome. Being able to control the light saves electricity and allows us to create a warm ambiance depending on the chosen level of brightness. (Also, I am told that people of a certain age believe they look a lot better when the lights are low.) But that’s not all, a dimmer does double duty by obscuring flaws such as chipped paint and cracked plaster—at least in the nighttime. Sadly, the gig is up by morning when the sun shines through the windows offering congratulations on our good taste in furnishings, and nagging reminding us of our neglect by announcing the location of every needed repair.

This light (pun intended) example is not very different from the way many of us live our lives, is it? Don’t we use a dimmer of sorts in our day-to-day dealings, living in the light when we are in right relationship, living in the shadows when we are not? We are skilled in deflecting responsibility and rather than change our ways we convince ourselves that a choice we continue to make is harmless, when in fact our actions create damaging ripples we aren’t aware of. Or we tolerate ideologies that we know are wrong and immoral, but the personal sacrifice that accompanies taking a stand is what really makes us uncomfortable. Even in the face of global consequences many of us refuse to take action because we “didn’t do it.” Not my trash. Not my fault. Not my problem. We furnish our darkness with denial.

“And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” [John 3:19-21]

The question is, why do we choose the dark, when we know the light? Our lives can be transformed; it can happen in an instant if we are willing to allow the light in. Still the darkness beckons our return. Sad.

How about creating a to-do list that includes a new lighting plan for life? As an evangelizing people, we might ask ourselves, “If everything in my life (in my family, in our society, in this organization) was forever cast in the light of Jesus, what would it look like?” What kinds of changes would you need to make to remain in the light?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

“You can give up all the candy you want and still be trapped in the old mind.” Richard Rohr, OFM

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM © Center for Action and Contemplation

Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM © Center for Action and Contemplation

If you don’t know Richard Rohr, OFM, and have not read any of his books or articles, or have heard him speak, please stop what you are doing, click this link to learn about The Center for Action and Contemplation, which he founded, and at the very least, subscribe to his daily meditation so you too can be enriched on a daily basis by his fresh contemplative expressions of radical compassion. Each brief reflection is drawn from one of Rohr’s published works. I’m not exaggerating, people. Rohr simply nails it day after day. Today’s reflection on religious maturity is particularly poignant during Lent.  I am pasting it below as a way of introduction.

“People who are in early stage religion usually love the “two steps backward” quotes in the Bible. They seem to be drawn toward anything that’s punitive, shame-based, exclusionary of “wrong” people, or anything that justifies the status quo which just happens to be keeping them on top socially, economically, and religiously. They start by thinking that’s what religion is about–maintaining order and social control. God is sort of a glorified Miss Manners. They emphasize the Almighty, All-Powerful nature of God, who is made into the Great Policeman in the sky to keep us all under control (or at least everybody else under control!). Now you see how revolutionary God’s “new idea” is that was revealed in Jesus. Suddenly we have a God that is anything but a policeman, a God who finds grace in those who break the law, and finds life and freedom among the lepers and the sinners who do not have good manners. This is now an upside down universe, and I am sad to say most Christians have yet to participate in this Divine Revolution.

Mature religious people, that is, those who develop an actual inner life of prayer and outer life of service, tend to notice and imitate the “three steps forward” quotes in the Bible. First they change their life stance–and then they can be entrusted with the Bible. For all others who will not change their life position, the Bible is mere information and ammunition. It would be better if they did not read it! Only converted people, who are in union with both the pain of the world and the love of God, are prepared to read the Bible–with the right pair of eyes and the appropriate bias–which is from the side of powerlessness and suffering instead of the side of power and control. This is foundational and essential conversion, and it is the biblical characters themselves that first reveal this pattern, which then becomes obvious as you look around the world that we live in. The Greek word ineffectively translated as “repentance” in the Bible quite literally means “to change your mind” (metanoia), which is what this season of Lent is supposed to be about. It is not about giving up candy! You can give up all the candy you want and still be trapped in the old mind. You can give up no candy at all, but still allow yourself a total “revolution of the mind” (Ephesians 4:23). That is what Lent is about.

Adapted from Gospel Call for Compassionate Action (Bias from the Bottom)
in CAC Foundation Set (CD, MP3 download)

Truth seeking involves the willingness to change lanes with the powerless, not settle into the righteous rut of certitude. Let’s go for a ride.