Thanksgiving day many of us will have the blessing of family, friends, food, and freedom. I am grateful on a granular level for my family, my fellowship with others, and my work colleagues. On an existential level I am thankful for those that disagree with me, for my enemies known and unknown, and the adversities that have simultaneously challenged and formed my fluid identity. On a spiritual level, the overarching umbrella of everything, I am grateful for my every breath, thought, and action on this thanksgiving day.
Gratitude for me involves reflection, introspection, and expression. Thanksgiving also gives us the opportunity to pause with our families and community. People will say avoid religion and politics. I say that is rubbish nonsense! These two human institutional structures no matter how divinely inspired have fallen short of divine revelation regardless of religious and political affiliation. Our granular networks and our religious and political aspirations are a uniform validation (or condemnation) of our collective spirituality, of our reaching for the umbrella of everything (mystical revelation, spiritual transformation).
Are you Catholic or belong to any other faith? Are you sure your faith represents you or you represent your faith? The article below focused on Catholicism’s dynamic tension between liberal and conservative Catholics and confounding Papal authority. Ross Douthat identifies himself as conservative Catholic. However we spend thanksgiving today let us be humble in spirit and with political ideology, fluid in identity when we are wrong, and loving in thought and action.
On my little travels, I invariably find time to visit at least one local church. Anecdotally the church had six American Flags adorning the interior prominently. This struck me as perhaps over the top nationalism within a holy place, though our nation supports religious freedoms better than any country on earth. No canon law or church doctrine encourages or prohibits such practices. Just a novelty I note without judgment or concern that is particular to the prominence of the American flags in this church. The artwork, stations of the cross, stained glass windows, and architecture are beautiful.
The Sacred Heart of Jesus Basilica offered me refuge yesterday morning and services (confession and Eucharist celebration). The confessor, the Franciscan priest, was from Connecticut, and we spent a few moments discussing catholic schools and churches in New York City.
Visiting a service on a weekday that is not a holy day is something I should do more often. The “experience” is quite different than Sundays or holy days. Let me say I do not visit churches or go to service seeking an “experience” though secretly I do sometimes yearn for the grace of spiritual consolations[i] more so than what is deserved or for what I am ready to receive. Mass for me is living prayer and an opportunity for further discernment and conversation with God directly or through the mystery of the Eucharist, Scripture readings, the Holy Spirit, and the congregation of the faithful. More importantly, perhaps is Mass provided me with an opportunity to encounter myself by giving a time and place outside secular time and pressures.
Yesterday a.m. mass celebrated with about twenty people. I cannot say these people were or are better Catholics or holier Catholics than those attending on required days of observance. For all I know, they could of all just rolled out of a local shelter or rehab facility and were merely seeking refuge on this cold morning! I can say that they collectively possessed an aura of spirituality and intensity that was tangible and present. That presence and sharing the mass with them feeds my spirit. About a quarter of them were at the confession service earlier that a.m. My judging mind could not imagine they needed confession at all based on their outward projections of warmth and serenity!
A significant portion of the sermon focused on seeking wisdom rather than foolishness. We can find foolishness even in our pursuit of spirituality. We could, for example, go looking for God in all the wrong places, delving into numerous theological treatises, and all the while miss who the artisan is who provided us all that is to begin our journey of questing for God. We can get so busy on our “I” finding God that we can miss the evident truth and his presence wherever we are right now:
1 Yes, naturally stupid are all who are unaware of God, and who, from good things seen, have not been able to discover Him-who-is, or, by studying the works, have not recognised the Artificer. (Wisdom, Chapter 13)
I did not have to leave my hotel room to find God. I did not have to stand outside the church in the rain because I arrived early yesterday morning. I did not have to be greeted by a warm, Hispanic man who opened the church doors that a.m. or witness an elderly lady who carrying a chair, rags, and polish cleaner was quietly attending to the details of this majestic church. Wherever I am, God is, and all I have to do is seek his presence.
And yet, I personally, not having the spiritual discipline of hermetic monks nor the spiritual calling to be in constant contemplative prayer, require high maintenance spiritually due to my characterological flaws and the profoundly flawed secular society in which I live. I am envious of those who seemingly do not need spiritual booster shots! Add envy to the characterological flaw list!
A quiet hour or so visiting a minor Basilica provided me a place to have gratitude for the many blessings in my life, a place to pause life and appreciate this moment and turning point of yet another bend in the road of my spiritual journey, and the gift of two Catholic Sacraments (Confession and the Holy Eucharistic Mass).
Returning that evening to my hotel room, I was reminded that God is never far away. The lights are always on. As it turns out, my room has a view of the Basilica. God is not contained within those walls. It is I who must-visit houses of worship to contain my mind and my actions to seek wisdom and minimize foolishness.
The wisdom imparted by the Franciscan priest was to get plenty of rest, eat well, have patience with self and others, and pray. We are and can expect to be imperfect, but we must strive with good intentions and take care of ourselves, for when we are weak we are more prone to error.
The House of Worship is where you are – and if you cannot find it where you are – there is a literal house of worship built with bricks and mortar nearby where you can find yourself and your God.
Thanks for visiting and reading!
On an unwieldy pedestrian day in Egremont, Massachusetts, I picked up a book by H. Richard Niebuhr entitled “The Responsible Self, An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy. Everyone recognizes Niebuhr as the reported author of the “Serenity Prayer” that is now infamously associated with Alcoholics Anonymous. The book was old, dirt cheap, and inscribed “Clinton Lee Barlow, Harford Seminary Foundation, Spring, 1968.” Cannot seem to find out if the book ever led Clinton into public life or inspired him into Christian service beyond quire diligently reading this book – not a page without a phrase underlined as being critically important.
I tend to agree with Clinton, except we underlined different passages as critically important. Either one of us lacks the eye for important details, or Niebuhr is quite brilliant. Well at least damn smarter than me. As it turns out, Helmut Richard Niebuhr did not write the Serenity Prayer. His brother, Rhinehold Niebuhr was the culprit. I say culprit as neither one of them are Catholics. These damn Protestants are an industrious bunch:
Helmut Richard Niebuhr (1894–1962) (Photo Left) is considered one of the most important Christian theological ethicists in 20th-century America, best known for his 1951 book Christ and Culture and his posthumously published book The Responsible Self. The younger brother of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Niebuhr (Photo right below) taught for several decades at the Yale Divinity School. Both brothers were, in their day, important figures in the neo-orthodox theological school within American Protestantism. His theology (together with that of his colleague at Yale, Hans Wilhelm Frei) has been one of the main sources of postliberal theology, sometimes called the “Yale school.” (Wikipedia)
So where did Richard take me and perhaps Clinton posthumously with this book? Aside from requiring me to break out the dictionary for some of his word choices, Richard drove right through the debris of theological and philosophical hubris into the heart of living Christian morality by stripping away layer by layer our autonomic selves and revealing our ultimate decision to accept responsibility for self through radical contemplation about your being (to know oneself, one’s situation, one’s social, religious and political environment), radical pray (truly open to God, open to readings, open to silence, open to self-examination and revelation), and radical action.
The True Self:
He has reminded me that we can argue or agree with another while we both are blinded to our true selves as we are enmeshed in both our historical past, the present moment, and fear of the future. “In the world, we must take into account that beyond all loyalty to law and beyond all idealism there is operative in the minds of the defensive group a deep fear of coming destruction. The future holds for it no promise, if not into the grave then ad inferos.” That defensive group is our ego, our social groups, our religious organization, our political parties, and our nationalism. We live in a false reality that all of these identities and sources of the rational (sometimes irrational) ordering of our lives are permanent.
They are all temporal and mutable from moment to moment. While we must live and contend with these constructs we must respond and be ruled by a higher authority, an “Impartial Spectator” or “Generalized Other” that is above our subjective temporal values. In Christianity, this is the Holy Trinity (God, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit). Even in our prayer, though, or in our religious organizations, we can go adrift and create an ego-centric religiosity that serves the self or the groups to which we belong. We must radically be aware of who we are:
“I have too many selves to know the one.
In too complex a schooling was I bred,
Child of too many cities have gone
Down all bright cross-roads of the world’s desire,
And at too many alters bowed my head
To light too many fires.”[i]
With too many fires going, too many desires, and human endeavors, how could I possibly be sure I am acting with holy intention rather than self-willed and shrewdly packaged actions dressed up as God’s will? When we know ourselves well we will truly be able to see how far off we are from God’s intentions and path.
The Political and Religious Constructs:
Richard has reminded me I live in a secular society where achieving the right thing by God’s measure is impossible yet demanded. I can easily slip into desiring the respect and approval of authority, of social groups, of my own defined standard of what is good, rather than a true and genuine accounting against the standard of Jesus Christ.
Do we rebel today against an unjust government or religious institution? “To what law shall I consent, against what law rebel?” Do we stand up to unjust workplace practices? Do we do so because it is morally right or for our sense of self-righteousness?
“To feel fear, confidence, appetite, anger, and pity at the right times, with reference to the right object, towards the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way, is what in intermediate and best.” Aristotle (Stoic ethics) Aristotle was aware of our challenges, and even without Christianity as our pallbearer, some strive to do the right thing the right way.
Tangentially, Richard notes some succeed apparently without conscious contact and reverence for a divine entity. There is a deeper dive here that exceeds this post. Richard makes a note, though that as Christians, we should take mindful note that people without first-hand knowledge of God’s presence or Jesus Christ can and do live morally upright lives and suffer just as well as we Christians do as well.
What theological writing would not “grace” suffering: “Suffering is the exhibition of the presence in our existence of that which is not under our control.” Suffering is a grace that most of us do not have a high tolerance for or acceptance of its presence in our lives.
Daily life and Moments:
Into this abyss comes the train wreck of human egos colliding daily individually and in aggregate. From the moment we wake up we are bombarded with countless decisions, small and large, some of which require us to act or perhaps even not act when we want too. Our conscious and unconscious mind works out each minuscule choice with complexity and speed far surpassing the mechanics of our greatest timepieces. Our environments and personal histories are bombarding us with stimuli and contradicting competing every second. In the back of this, our basic instinctual drives are demanding our survival be maintained while our spiritual drive is advocating selflessness beyond our human imagination.
Still, we must strive to handle the competing demands and wrestle with ourselves and others when necessary. Christianity provides us the symbol of Jesus Christ to answer all questions and guide all actions. Richard’s writings connect the schema of Christ-life to the Shema of our everyday thoughts and actions. Ultimately Richard demonstrates how Jesus Christ opens up the door of faith in God for each of us rather than suspicion of loss of self or mistrust of a higher power. The interconnectedness of the responsible self, social morality, and trust in God above all else.
Bringing it full circle, we still need to define the questions and not be on auto-pilot.
“What is my goal, my ideal, or telos[ii] in any situation.”
The good, the right and the fitting?
- Teleological view: Seeks always the “highest good” which subordinates the right
- Deontological approach: Focused on the right no matter what happens
- Ethics of Responsibility: The fitting action – that one fits into a total interaction as response and anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.
Determiner of our Destiny:
When we are discussing philosophy or theology it is perhaps fine to use polemic and varying models of ethical evaluation. However, when it comes to everyday activities that will have an impact and consequences for ourselves as well as others, should we not have a coherent ethical framework and conscious awareness of all the variables that influence our decisions? Should these decisions not be weighed against our highest values and morality?
Richard depicts this as being Jesus Christ, present in and us, and available to us through scripture and prayer. Jesus Christ is symbolically speaking “a form which they employ as an a priori, an image, a scheme or pattern in the mind which gives form and meaning to their experience.” Finding the “fitting action” in all circumstances as guided by the symbolism and meaning of Jesus Christ on the cross is an impossible task.
In our frame of reference, the use of “symbolically speaking” connotates an unreality. Richard explains his use of this phrase here as we communicate through vast systems of symbolization, and our attempts at defining and capturing God’s essence and definition are at best poor symbolic representations. The work truly cautions us to be humble and contemplative. The responsible self could not be otherwise if we were conscious of the mitigating moral-ethical challenges we face every day and our divine calling for universal morality that negates the term “the other.”
Richard’s book reaffirms for me a certain comfort when I am uncomfortable or suffering. His book realigns and balances my ego-driven drive against the measure of the Impartial Spectator’s guidance.
Perhaps his brothers Serenity Prayer captures it well enough after all, but the deep dive into defining the responsible self was needed for this Christian, as evidenced by the book simply being in my possession.
[i] Eunice Tietjens, A Plant of Complexity
[ii] Telos: an ultimate object or aim. In the hedonistic life, people lose some moral purpose, a telos which provides the moral justification for society.
Scientists study if the ancient wisdom of Forgiveness can improve sleep. Not the “F” word you were expecting? Forget about that word – this F word is more important for your health.
Modern-day fellowship programs recognize Forgiveness for it’s restorative power and pathway to peace. Therapy models wrestle with its place in the overall schema of past harms done and the client’s empowerment journey. Perhaps some harms done exceded the luxury of Forgiveness? Christianity certainly embraces this practice: “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” The ultimate redeemer forgave his persecutors while on the cross.
I challenge you to consider forgiving yourself for any misgivings and regrets in some symbolic and meaningful way. Of course, do what you can to mend any broken fences, but then bring the rest to a close with a commitment to avoid the same errors in the future.
As for the forgiveness of others – when is it okay to let go of the toxicity? Can you do it safely without harm or without undue malice? Perhaps it is done only in your prayers, sincerely and compassionately?
At the very least you can get a better night’s sleep. Remember I mentioned scientists? The Washington Post Wellness section reports scientists demonstrated forgiving others as well as yourself can be beneficial for your sleep:
There is even an “International Forgiveness Institute” with a purported 20 step forgiveness model! (https://internationalforgiveness.com/about-us.htm).
I don’t think you need 20 steps! Many will tell you they can show you a way to practice forgiveness and maintain peaceful living in only 12 steps with plenty of good sleep. There are so many resources and references to the art of forgiveness. It is not something to do lightly nor to fear – if handled with the care that you deserve.
If not an enlarged future – perhaps just a good night’s sleep!
Take the Challenge!
What do we owe our maker? And even if we were in the position to pay – how would we pay God who needs nothing and is everything? We simply cannot begin to make any repatriation that has any impactful influence on an infinite being.
Still, must of us strive to live a principled life informed by spiritual, religious, and social mores that intrinsically have, in my opinion, an urgency to reflect the imprint of God that exists within our souls. The more distorted the projection we receive – the more difficulties we encounter living a holy life – the more susceptible we are to the most significant human suffering of the existential phenomenon – the alienation of the true self from one’s creator.
How do we keep the projection of our purpose clear? Where do we find the balance between personal prayer, religiosity (the standard-bearer of scripture and the sacramental life), and action in daily life?
There is no balance that we can dictate by our own desire or self-directed vision of how best our time is to be spent on doing God’s work. Monastic life, reading scripture, dissecting the lives of the Saints, and other holiness seekers provide us some reference points.
My absence from posting is not indicative of the lack of meaningful spiritual substance being a reality in my life or (hopefully) sloth on my part. Admittedly it takes time to let ideas into form, test form against spiritual discernment, and then unleash a post capturing the theological and the spiritual experience that has consumed my heart and mind.
This entry was started some time ago and was swallowed up into the abyss of personal business with my assigned vocations in life – family, fellowship, work, and the sometimes arduous task of just managing my own routines. Are our actions not the vehicle of our spiritual intentions? Spirituality and the presence of God are not absent in these activities, and is I pray the core driver of my decisions.
Yet, the absence of significant time with contemplative reading and thought drains me and eventually distorts my actions and activities into stressful chores and burdens rather than gifts of my calling and existence. Failures, anxieties, regrets, and even successes become my Albatros around my neck – stalking me from a distance in the foggy clouds of uncertainty.
As I become immersed in temporal human priorities, I become engulfed in “deep sadness and despair.” There is too much misery and despair for my feeble hands to help, for my limited words to reach, for my voice to soothe or reassure. Alas, that is not even addressing my own selfish desires for comfort, prestige, power, security, pride, laughter, peace, and spiritual consolation – to keep these graces I now believe I have or secretly think I am owed them shortly.
I could read, pray, and write the rest of my days in solitude and total devotion, and I would still be seriously inadequate with the mission of seeking to live a sanctified and holy life. I could throw away my books, my papers, my pens, and my prayer life and turn purely to helping others without regard for myself day in and day out, and again, I would be found wanting against the highest measure to truly live a sanctified life.
The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner attempts to express a harrowing voyage and provides us with the symbol of the Albatross around our necks. Some define it as original sin -others as our shortcomings today. Are they any different or just a continuity of the culmination of human evolution being present and codified in where we are now – with all the good and evil saddled on our shared collective consciousness?
I can go awhile doing man’s work, but without prayer and contemplation, I can feel the ship veering into uncharted waters and the fog rolling in no matter how hard I try to manage the seas and the winds, the sailors and the ship.
Where is the balance of my cooperation with God’s intentions and my human endeavors that require my attention? Yes, they are one and the same in real unity of the whole – but how many of us can live that unity in every thought, every action, every moment of our lives? No one can achieve this ideal.
With this type of discipline and courage, we would have no fears or regrets. We also might find our lives short-lived or at the very least, very lonely in this secular world. Martyrs of this world, both past and present, where did you find your wisdom and courage? Was it by accident, coincidence, foolishness, or divine inspiration? Are we the masters of our own fate, captain of our souls?
Finding the time to still our lives and be present with God may show us our shortcomings and our courageousness. It may also require sitting with pain and sorrow greater than we can imagine. Without this time, I will find the pain and sorrow through other means on my own through influences provided by other less worthy guides.
I am tired. Pray for me. I have no “ask” or specific prayer to request – only that God’s will find us and provide us the strength, wisdom, and will to play our part.
Sitting on the beach reading a work of fiction a protagonist ponders with resentment, “Did his work have meaning or was it merely a means to survive? There was nothing shameful about trying to survive–it was the occupation of the majority. However, was it enough to live….and not even be sustained by a sense of purpose?”
Nesterov is with the military police in Communist Russia and is being promoted by his wife, an annoying visitor who is on the outs with establishment, and an underlying sense that he must do the right thing, even if it means death. There is no mention of God here, but you can feel the pull of Nesterov struggling to act in a transcendent manner.
We do not often if ever get faced with literal life and death choices to stand up for our principles. However, we are faced daily with the human striving for economic prosperity or safety, good social standing, and access to resources we deem valuable. Are we willing to compromise our principles or faith for the promotion of our self-centered desires?
Are we silent when we see injustice? Do we benefit from the misfortune of others? Are we willing to face our fears and perhaps even be courageous? Can we accept loss and sacrifice?
I imagine must of us see ourselves as well-meaning people, perhaps even worthy of being a protagonist archetype of good with just a little embellishment and grandiosity from an author with creative imagination. Digging a little deeper we could also round out our lives with our deep inner struggles with good, evil, and situational adversities that shaped our characters.
But is the mold done and the dye cast? Or are we still a work in progress, seeking perfection while fulfilling a transcendent purpose that is mostly beyond our intellectual and spiritual grasp?
It is easy for me to say survival is not enough – harder to practice it with perfect fidelity. Truth is I cannot achieve perfection here as I am chained to my human desires, instincts, and mortal flesh.
Only in prayer and faith do I stand a chance of spiritual alignment with a greater metaphysical truth.
It does not matter what our occupation is or activity at the moment, every action and thought is meaningful and connected to the whole.
Where do you find your meaning in life?
Angry with God today?
Is anger understating your feelings towards God? Or if not today have you ever been enraged, hateful, irate, indignant, or resentful? Perhaps you have been accusatorial of God’s benign presence in the midst of suffering or even assign him direct responsibility for evil or pain that has afflicted you?
Denying God today?
Or you are by now beyond God, you have no anger or hatred with God, for you have come to deny the existence of any deity at all. If you have reached this point, then yes, God is Dead to you. You are not alone in your position:
“”According to the latest international survey data, as reported by Ariela Keysar and Juhem Navarro-Rivera in the recently published Oxford Handbook of Atheism, there are approximately 450-500 million non-believers in God worldwide, which amounts to about 7% of the global adult population. And according to the Pew Research Center, if we broaden the category to include all non-religious people in general — those unaffiliated adults who do not identify with any religion — we’re talking 1.1 billion people, which equals about 16.5% of the global adult population. As such, “non-religious” is actually the third largest “religion” in the world, coming only behind Christianity (in first place) and Islam (in second). Thus, there are more secular men and women on planet earth — many of whom are atheists and agnostics — than there are Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, Sikhs, Jains, or Jews.”
The Decision to abandon Faith
If you are among the people who have never had a dark night of questioning God’s existence, count yourself as truly blessed. Your experience is not the norm. Understanding this will prepare you for helping those unfortunates who do not hold your gift of grace and cross your path in a state of disbelief.
For the rest of us mortals who have had experiences with great anger or outright disbelief, I believe the root of our malevolent state of being to be the conundrum of pervasive suffering and evil. And it sometimes leads to people quietly leaving the faith or leaving with thunder and wrath. What to we really offer people who suffer the unjust misery and suffering? Do we condemn their lack of faith? Their lack of trust in God? What decisions they have made or actions they failed to take to avoid such suffering and misery?
What have we done?
When you have experienced suffering, visible for all to see or hidden from public view, who did you turn to for help? Did you turn to God and find silence? Perhaps you turned to friends in times of great strife? Did your friends offer you platitudes or condolences? How many times have you heard or even offered yourself these traditional phrases:
- “I will pray for you and your family”
- “I am so sorry for your loss”
- “He was so young. God must have called him home”
- “You will get over this in time, God is at your side, have faith”
- “God heals all, you have to have faith”
- “No one truly knows God’s plans”
Hit with deep personal pain or witnessing unexplainable tragedy – these responses from people of faith are simply insufficient unless accompanied by other more tangible actions. Often they are not accompanied by more than a passing smile and perhaps a sympathy card. These responses, despite being well-meaning and genuine, come off as shallow and incongruous with the situation. This is not enough.
The mass shootings in the United States highlight the issue. People don’t want prayers – they want action. Family members with a loved one in the throws of addiction don’t want prayers, they want help and recovery for their loved one. People who have lost a child to evil don’t want condolences, they want their child back.
If not you personally, the global suffering we witness every day is so overwhelming that we become numb to human tragedy. We are so often powerless to effect change in the constant stream of misery that we witness everyday – if not suffered personally.
Are we not secretly at times separated from the suffering person and cognitively distancing ourselves mentally for our own sanity – hoping we cannot or will not suffer the same fate? If not would we not be in a perpetual state of immense grieving and uncontrollable sobbing?
Our approach to coping with suffering, evil, and even death itself is the greatest “cleaver” of faith that our society faces today. We have attempted to white wash life in an illusion of control of our destinies. We have come to expect a life where we are entitled to certain possessions, status, health, and other temporal acquisitions if only we work for it and others are not irrationally cooperating!
We are unprepared for the crushing blows of major disappointments, grave injustices, personal failure, violence, and other soul shattering experiences. And when they strike us our spiritual foundation is often found wanting and unable to sustain us through the storm – we blame God or deny him. Or we blame others and deny them.
We mistakenly believe if we do everything right, if our government does its job, if our doctors are practicing good medicine, if all the “others” would only do their part – we would be safe from tragedy. And yet we see everyday innocent people swept up in tragedy. How do we maintain the illusion of suffering that it only comes to “others” until it comes for us?
We should be yelling from the roof tops and in the streets about the injustices we see daily. We should be consoling the poor and the suffering not with platitudes and prayers but with blood, sweat, and tears. We can pray too – but let that be quietly and in private for our strength and perseverance in the midst of immense suffering. We cannot be blind to suffering. We cannot be numb to evil actions. We cannot ignore our neighbors near or far. We should be listening and hearing voices of disbelief and anger towards God and embracing these voices with understanding and love. We can only do that genuinely if we do so prepared and with spiritual grounding – spiritual love that transcends the human experience.
This denial of suffering (and our mortality) coupled with a weak a spiritual foundation leaves us vulnerable alienation from fellow man and God. We are unprepared for genuine response to the suffering of others or for when it visits us uninvited.
God is not dead when suffering strikes us – our spiritual immaturity has left us unable to reach out to God or hear his whispers. We are dependent on temporal things and human affections before God. When these human possession are threatened we become unmoored. We are unable to cope with the slightest inconveniences, never mind great misery and suffering.
Analyze your own Suffering?
I know a little about suffering – though not enough to claim martyrdom. My family was engulfed by alcoholism. My parents, whose hearts and souls were contradictorily of pure intention and love, were compromised by their disease progression, domestic violence, the onset of poverty, and eventually premature death for my father. Myself, and my six older siblings took in more than our share of hidden and not so hidden emotional and spiritual bruises. Two of us would go to our deaths in a state of great suffering. Our suffering was both visible and invisible. We were Catholic and all attended Catholic School. The church, nor our community, had answers for the particular flavor of suffering that afflicted my family. My accounts of shame, pride, fear, failure, success, and struggle to cope with the meaning of life and the presence of God exceeds this post. I however knew God from an early age and my relationship with God and the Catholic Church was complicated from the beginning.
Suffice it to say I had good reason to doubt in a merciful and loving God. And yet after several rounds of a contentious relationship with God – I am in the camp of God is alive and well and it is our souls that are asleep and dead to God. My suffering bought me to places that I would rather not go. At the same time, it liberated me from certain preconceived notions about myself and about humanity. My suffering, and witnessing suffering in others, has bought me closer to God and closer to mankind. That is where I am today. How did I get here back with the God that I once declared he was dead?
First, let me give you the cliché answer that Catholics will tell you – by God’s grace. I say this as I by myself have created nothing. Any revelation or spiritual consolation that sustains me is not of my own making. There have been countless books, several priest consults, spiritual books, spiritual retreats, and many hours of contemplation that have restored my faith. Beyond that there were everyday people that beamed with God’s grace that had something I once thought was naivety but later I came to understand was hard earned wisdom. And there were periods of turning my back on God, of self-destruction and self-absorption that in my case, were necessary to help me expand my horizons.
Rediscovering God has not eliminated suffering for me. Rediscovering God has transformed suffering into something meaningful beyond comprehension. I almost feel like my cross to carry is insignificant relative to others (and it is) and yet feel like it is too much for me. The truth is I am not able to manage pain and suffering with any dignity unless I do so through God. Some greater than me in spirit pray for God to give them more suffering if it is his will. I can barely manage “God’s will, not mine, be done” before my mind’s eye is fixed on my next human affection (or affliction!).
I have been discussing suffering that is undeserved (in my view) and unjust. Unexplainable suffering. There is another kind of suffering. Some people are angry as they have come to recognize their lives are built on fraudulent temporal things like power, greed, selfishness, lust, and other human desires that at the end of the day leave them empty and miserable. There is simply not enough human pleasure to satiate the human spirit or feed our narcissistic self-importance when we are living contrary to the laws of God.
Rediscovering God transforms love as well as suffering. I mentioned people who are suffering require “tangible actions.” Expression of selfless love to a person who is suffering can take many forms. It is given without expectation, carefully, and thoughtfully. It is devoid of any expectation of returns. It just is living to do the next right thing. It knows no boundaries. Receiving love as well is an art of willful gratitude and openness without ownership. We cannot possess it and freeze it in time. It is also limitless and infinite if we respect its true God given essence.
Integrating Love and Suffering:
God is present no matter the temporal reality that we are experiencing at any moment. Our cooperation in the moment with acceptance of what is, intentional spiritual consciousness of how we are called to act in any given moment, persistence and patience while in the throws of darkness, and immense gratitude when experiencing love and joy, are all fluid and one with God’s will. If only I was always on this spiritual high. If we all lived this way no suffering would shake our faith.
Wait a minute – you don’t know what I have been through?
I have known death of loved ones. I have known personal failure. I have known sickness and poor health. I have witnessed many people suffering. And yes I have no idea what you the reader have been through.
I know of your suffering as I know intimately of global suffering all over the world. In my prayers I can be bought to tears by our inhumanity to each other. In contemplation I can become overwhelmed with emptiness and lack of understanding. In moments of confusion and helplessness, I like Job, want answers now.
I believe that a thoughtful and open minded journey exploring one’s faith, one’s suffering, and one’s life long loves or joys can restore and strengthen lost faith. I also believe finding genuine faith that is well discerned will improve us and the people around us.
This three part series on “Is God Dead” was ignited by a new reading of the Book of Job. I have learned that you and I should challenge our faith, ourselves, and those around us when faith is in question or when we or a neighbor is suffering. It is a call to universal arms that we fight suffering, love one another, and embrace spirituality. Mine just happens to be Christianity in form.
God by another name?
The name on the shingle of the church is secondary to the actions of people inside the temple. What we do with love and suffering outside the temple is also testament to the fidelity of the shingle holder’s ability to carry the word of God. Those without a shingle (without a church) are not off the hook either. The 1.1 billion people have a shared social contract with us based on moral evolution as a species that shares many of the values shared by our religious institutions. That being said, I would be remiss and lacking an authentic voice if I did not say find a catholic spiritual advisor, preferably a Jesuit, to explore the faith and your objections to Christianity today, gently and with love.
There is evidence out there that faith is good for your general well-being and happiness. Review the science if you are skeptical. Many “well-being” models of therapy employ techniques that are borrowed from religions with rich spiritual practices and traditions. Mindfulness, Yoga, Tai Chi and many forms of meditation can trace portions of their practices to religion. They can be helpful in and of themselves – but let me say they are also temporal and missing the main ingredient, genuine spirituality and connection to a higher universal meaning. Some orthodox religious believers see these practices as dangerous and even heretical in nature. I do not prescribe to this assertion but can see their point that practices aimed solely at self-soothing, avoiding pain and discomfort, and seeking personal peace can be misapplication of effort and ultimately spiritually limiting.
How can I return to God?
I firmly believe you cannot “crowd source” faith. It is helpful to have company of faithful people – but ultimately faith is an individual responsibility. Without individual responsibility religious institutions and your faith run the risk of becoming human created cults operating on superficial clichés of dead letters quoted in ancient text. The institutions and their believers can become enveloped in the very evils that faith preaches against. My church as well as every religious institution has to reconcile this threat everyday. No one individual or set of individuals owns the faith of any great religion. Study history and you will find grave errors by every religious institution known to mankind executed in God’s name.
This by the way is what I take Nietzsche meant when he said “God is Dead.” Individuals ceded personal responsibility for their faith to rigid religious institutions and became docile in their beliefs. Ironically his philosophy was used by Nazi Germany to let a charismatic leader lead a docile people into being partners in one of the greatest evils of all time.
Love your neighbor as yourself and help alleviate suffering whenever you see it. Simple. As for God’s role and responsibility, pre and post Christ, I believe it is still up to us to live up to his expectations, not the other way around.
The Longer Path:
I was struggling to bring this three part series to a close. I was keenly aware that the pain and suffering that people are experiencing cannot be relieved by my writing alone. I am deeply saddened by our collective isolation and alienation from God. I am aware that as long as I am mortal my search for proximity to God and spiritual transcendence will never be fulfilled.
Suffering remains a part of our experience – both in human misery and in spiritual distance from our creator.
I went to retire last night and was provided closure to this post by para phrasing Pope Francis:
“….we must love God and our neighbor – and this is not comfortable. It is demanding, and requires us to strive, which means having a decisive and persevering will to live according to the Gospel.”
“the Lord will not recognize us on account of our titles, but only on account of a humble life, a good life, a life of faith that results in works.”
“Spending our lives for the good of our brothers and sisters for Christians means that we are called to restore a true communion with Jesus, praying, going to Church, approaching the Sacraments and nourishing ourselves on His Word. This maintains us in faith, nourishes our hope, revives charity.”
“In this way with the grace of God, we can and must spend our life for the good of our brothers and sisters, struggling against every form of evil and of injustice.”
I mentioned earlier comforting those who suffer with tangible actions. The sufferer may also be ourselves. Faith is not a passive activity. It is not waiting at a bus stop for the God bus to arrive. It is inside us and all around us to be lived and participated in every moment.
Strive to understand suffering and faith today
Make a e decisive and persevering will to live a holy life today
Restore a true communion with God (through exploration of your faith)
Join the struggle against every form of evil and of injustice
Find time for spiritual contemplation daily to make sure you take full ownership of your faith and your works and that they are truly aligned with your greater purpose here on earth, consciously and actively
May this post find you in a good spiritual place ready to embrace love and suffering with resolve and appropriate intentional living. Thank you for visiting my site today.
As long as man has known God and God has no man both have been disappointed and aggrieved. Before examining if “God is Dead” it maybe helpful to understand that we are not the first individuals or generation to question how a personal and all powerful God could seemingly sit idle as tragedy and evil rains on earth.
Turn to the Book of Job in the Old Testament and read of his plight. An innocent and upstanding man of God crushed by a test of loyalty posed to God by Satan himself. My Christian roots of course lay on a foundation of Jewish tradition. In essence we share the same God – but are torn apart by our lack of knowledge on how to truly live a holy life despite quite strong belief that we hold the most authentic words of God and tradition in our respective religions.
A new translation was published and released last week by Jewish scholar Edward Greenstein. What could be new about a book centuries old and studied and translated by thousands of biblical scholars? You have to buy his book to really grasp the tenuousness of truly understanding the complexity of translated religious text passed down through the centuries, told in different languages, and stored on fragments of paper. Even if were able to ensure the accuracy of every word, comma, and cultural reference – we would still be left with applying the meaning to today’s world.
If anything, Greenstein’s publication of an ancient text and review of old assumptions and definitive meanings celebrates that the living word is truly never beyond exploration and interpretation. The revelation of the text meaning and its application to our moral actions is ever changing despite core elements being beyond malleability. The challenge is knowing the difference. In today’s world we have greatly lost the art of religious and philosophical discourse, that contrary to popular belief, can actually strengthen faith rather than destroy it.
As mentioned in Part I, Nietzsche is famous for his quote God is Dead. I have used him academically to both defend that God is Dead as well as to defend years later that God is alive (and it is religion that needs saving by man). One can see this today as churches seek more lay person involvement, more transparency, and accountability.
The Book of Job presenting an honest and innocent man persecuted by Satan to settle a wager with God. Job enters a conversation with friends and eventually his deity (Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar, Elihu, and God (referred to in the book as the diety, Eloah, or El as described in Jewish Tradition). Jb’s friends are clinging to salvation theology as Job rallies to hear from God directly. Below is a very thin capture of some ideas exchanged – but a full reading of Job is required to capture Greenstein’s narrative that Job was not a passive recipient of suffering – he was vocal and very much aggrieved at being subject to such suffering. Ho would your friends support you today if you rallied against God? Here is some excerpts to give you a flavor – but far from the dialogue and interchange of reading the material in it’s entirety:
E: “Pray, Listen and Know Yourself”
J: “That Eloah grant what I hope for? That Eloah would comply and crush me! Release his hand and cleave me!”
B: Espouses traditional retribution wisdom – explains J’s suffering has a cause, even if he is not aware of the offenses.
J: “It is all the same. And so I declare: The innocent and the guilty he brings to the same end. While (his) scourge brings death to fools, He laughs at the trials of the spotless.”
“Very few are the days of my lifespan – Look away from me, so I may have a respite. Before I go and do not return, To a land of darkness and deep-shade; A land whose brightness is like pitch-black, Deep-shade and disorder; That shines like pitch-black.”
Z: Can you fathom the depths of Eloah?
J: I am not inferior to you. Do you think I know not that Eloah is greater than I. Do you not know I have learned the same wisdom as you? “He removes language from orators.” He abuses his majestic power. How can we present our grievances? “It is an argument with El I desire.”
E: “Does a sage such windy speech. It will be proven false.”
J: “My spirit has been bruised, my days are on the wane, my grave is ready.” Why does El care?
E: You speak from “The place of one who knows not El.”
J: “I make an outcry – is there no justice.”
Z: There is divine justice. You lack patience and understanding. Where is your humility?
J: Your responses are futile to my situation. I am innocent and blameless and have no recourse.
E: “Your own mouth denounces your crime, As you adopt a devious tongue. Your own mouth condemns you, Not I; Your own lips testify against you.”
J: I seek El always. I tell the truth. I am an honest man. “But east I go, and he is not (there); And west, but I do not discern him. North, in his concealment I do not grasp (him), He cloaks (himself) south, so I do not see (him).
J: “I know you will return me to death, the meeting house of all who lived.”
Reading the book of Job did not necessarily bring me relief that our God is a merciful and just God. It certainly did not “solve” the problem of suffering or “prove” the existence of God. Job’s retorts are cutting with cunning and desperation – yet defiance.
It did however shine on light on the importance of honesty, soul searching, and dialogue with friends, family, and God on the true meaning of life including love and suffering.
How could we look at suffering today without referencing the book of Job?
End of Part II – Is God Dead?
How can I put this succinctly? God, in my time of need you abandoned me. I suffered when I was unable to defend myself in my youth. My voice was taken from me. My youth was stolen. To this day I carry scars of your indifference. As a child of God, I like Job, was blameless for the tragedies and suffering that surrounded me. I need not detail them here for you. You know them in detail. My readers need not know my details as well. They know when you have abandoned them. I am not alone, if people are honest. They had to face your absence when they were most in need of you.
Our priest despite detailed accounts by St. Theresa of Avilla (the Dialogue) laying out their perverse ways – are centuries later no better if not worse than the common thief. The child sexual predator is indeed at the bottom of the hierarchy in any jail – disdained and spit on by convicts and jailors alike. And yet our church has provided a safe harbor for them, equipped with a home, disguises of various bright colors, retreat houses, legal supports, transfers, and access to innocent children. If you are a personal God who uses all that is available to you, how have you not used spiritual warriors and institutions of justice to expose and end this evil harbored within your own church? Surely this was a place for execution of Divine Providence. Were these priest truly acting safely under the stewardship of the devil, reveling in their free will knowing that you would not act?
You prosecute or abandon the holy as well. Our church makes saints of martyrs who died in your name. Where were you when they were they murdered for preaching your message? You left Mother Teresa for decades, dry of spiritual consolation while she fed and served your impoverished and sickly children. And what about those children? Worldwide Genocide, Rape, War, Abortion, Starvation, Diseases, Disasters, Legalized murder, Illness, Disabilities, and crippling Pain crush good people. Is this Diving Providence?
I am not counted among the Holy caste or included in the group of those who perpetuate great evils. I am just an everyday man seeking your presence and striving to do the next right thing moment by moment. Your benign indifference left me scarred and battered. My trust in mankind and you fractured. My trust in myself a shambles. My heart and soul riddled with shame, fear, anger, self-debasement, and sadness. Eventually numbness and survival took precedent. My ways became far from perfect and I made many grave errors along the way. I was no longer blameless like Job, and I was left weak and fragile in the ways of holiness despite yearning for your saving grace. My weakness and fragility only further debilitated my ability to serve you and grow in living a virtuous life. I have gave up on you several times in early life – even having claimed you to be dead to others in the height of my pain. Nietzsche was my God, philosophy my safe haven, and alcohol my friend. While I have ownership today of my personal responsibility in my failures, the landscape of good and evil inheritances is dispersed arbitrarily in this living hell. Is this divine providence?
I do not know how to be a good apologetic for the faith in the face of this world’s unjust and oppressive nature. Sure I could give my subjective experiences and suffering. I could tell numerous stories of my perceptions of when you have answered my prayers or simply knocked me in the head when I was too stubborn to pray. The grace that I perceive you have given me can be seen though as either a) blatant delusion and spiritual narcissism or b) insignificant relative to the immense suffering of others. Where is their help?
Surely a God of your power could provide a way for us to develop spiritual formation without spiritual deprivation and for some, a misery so profound here on earth, that hell is seemingly recreated. Like Job, I demand you reveal yourself. You no longer have credible witnesses on earth. The church has fallen even though its edifices stand tall and its pews collect the wounded still each Sunday. More have left quietly in sadness and disbelief or with great anger and rage. Is this your divine providence?
Priest today are incapable of defending the faith. Their sermons on suffering and salvation are reaching few. Even spiritual direction one on one is lacking substance to explain the state of things – relying on strained salvation theology that is over two thousand years old.
Show us how we are supposed to live a sanctified life amidst the evil and suffering in this world. Where is the evidence of Jesus’s atonement for us, where is the holy spirit guiding mankind?
End of Is God Dead Part I
The Teachings of Meister Eckhart: An Invitation to Experience God in Every Moment
I listened to this book via audible (amazon) authored by James Finley. Now I have to go to the source – 13th-century mystic Meister Eckhart. James’s handling of the mystic’s sermons served a ten-thousand-foot view of contemplative thought that polished some of my jagged edges in my spiritual practices. His writings and thoughts were not free of controversy, making him even more attractive to some seeking controversy rather than spiritual harmony with God.
You need not go to the 13th century to find controversy – I advise against it as most will pay you no mind quoting a 13th-century mystic, which although quite relevant today, is still not considered a doctor of the church. Pope John Paul II did quote this mystic though, and he has many Catholic/Christian believers that are inspired by his writings.
In 1985 the Pope, John Paul II, said:
“Did not Eckhart teach his disciples: ‘All that God asks you most pressingly is to go out of yourself – and let God be God in you’? One could think that, in separating himself from creatures, the mystic leaves his brothers, humanity, behind. The same Eckhart affirms that, on the contrary, the mystic is marvelously present to them on the only level where he can truly reach them, that is in God.”
His works are free on the web, and he has a society following him today. As with all mystics I imagine, there is an issue of transcendence without having ever done the work of knowing any form or grounding of our spiritual direction. There is always a danger of misinterpretation and spiritual unmooring when reading a complicated mystic, from a different century, who has lived a life immersed in prayer, that many of us may never come close to in our practices. I could teach the basic mechanics of chess in about a day and perhaps, if you have natural talent, even provide some complex strategy and tactics that may give you enough confidence to play solo in amateur events. It is doubtful though that you would be able to elevate your game beyond the literal and into intuitive knowledge and mastery at the level of the great masters of the game. Try flying a plane after having flown a kite.
Today, there is a tendency to want to leap right into the deep end of the mystical thought without any firmament to support the great weights one may encounter – or even the ability to be open to spiritual revelation. Worse yet some run off with a misinterpretation and act in truly evil ways under the premise of knowing the true word of God, but in essence, are suffering from ego-driven narcissism of the spiritual variety. James Finley discusses a lectio-divino process of reading his sermons: pray, read one sermon, pray again, read the same sermon again and highlight, pray some more, read commentary, pray more. He did not say exactly this – but it is clear it is not light reading or light prayer that one comes to know Eckhart.
We do not have eternity here in our mortal shells to come to know and act in concert with divine direction. We will, in all likelihood, pass away like those before us in a state of spiritual imperfection. We strive to be one with our creator nonetheless and count on God’s grace and mercy.
The Sad Joyous Truth:
Finally, you have found my blog page; you itinerant idiot. For those of you who have been here before do not pat yourself on the back. In all likelihood, you are much worse off now than when you last visited. Tell me it isn’t so, honestly, can you do that today? I don’t think so.
Catherine has written to me about you. She says you live in such wretchedness, stinking of death, beclouded and darksome for want of light, going about singing and laughing, spending time on vanities, pleasures, and indecency. I did try and defend you and your honor. No sooner had I responded to her a new letter arrived detailing your actions. Oh, how I wish I could rescind my letter. You all are indeed lustful, drunkards, and gluttons, so much so that you make a God of your belly. You cannot pass the hour without being hateful, spiteful, or proud. And despite the unnatural protrusion of your belly, the incessant clutter in your homes, the unyielding thoughts, and desires swirling around in your head and perhaps even your soul, you walk around singing and dancing. I will not detail here what she has said about you, we both know it will only be used as gossip by the others or turn into unnecessary denials or minimizations by you to save a little face, lessen the shame. Don’t be ashamed by my knowledge. Catherine felt it necessary to send me my very own letter. The envelope had excessive stamps covering over to Catherine’s return address on the envelope. No, I don’t know why she still does not use e-mail.
I could not stand her viciousness against you all, and especially the contents of my letter. I visited her. It didn’t go as intended. I knocked on her door, perhaps a little too loudly, and it opened of its own. She calmly said the door was unlocked as she was expecting me. I tell you I was disarmed right there and stupefied.
On my honor, I tried to take up her attack on your honor. She would have none of it. Let them speak for themselves she said, we both know you came here as it is you I have offended. I tell you now that this is not so, I was there for you as well as me. We had it out. Well not really out, I would start in with any number of justifications and excuses and fall into silence by her one or two-word convictions that belaid the truth of this situation. It got so, I would start a sentence, and she would be smiling, and my sentence would crumble mid-way. Eventually, I crumbled in a heap onto her couch. And then she said, okay, now you are ready.
This was an unexpected turn. My self-righteous anger was indeed quelled. Catherine calmly went about her way, describing in detail how all of my body’s senses had become corrupted and utilized for my very own self-fulfillment. My eyes see the world with a possessive intention, my ears listen for opportunity or threat to my self-worth, my touch craves the love of another to fulfill my sense of being loved, and my sense of smell draws me to the kitchen to provide me momentary pleasure that is never satisfied. It was a long afternoon – but I tell you I did not notice the hour arm on the clock spinning towards evening.
It was not all bliss this time spent. My anger welled up at my God as well as at my self in torrents. Why does God provide me so many trials and temptations? Why does not everything come labeled with directions and intentions? Why is this devil that I cannot see at the door of my soul?
I cannot detail all she said, but I am sure she will be willing to meet with you. In a matter of hours, I came to see and feel my imperfections. Despite entering into her house hours before feeling overly confident in my morality and justified in my martyrdom at the injustices her letter incurred on my psyche, I was indeed slipping into an unconscious false sense of self-mastery. I was the master of my ship, so to speak as if I had built the damn boat myself and controlled the winds and the seas. Let the boat rock a little, or the skies turn dark, and I was apt to hurl invectives at the unfairness of it all and my hopeless situation being far worse off than any others on the sea.
Catherine explained to me that through a daily re-orientation, I would come to experience joy through my senses in a way that provided me glimpses of God’s providence for me. She said, “the imperfect soul comes to perfection by fighting these battles, because there he experiences my divine providence, whereas, before this, he only believed in it.” She then listed the perceived injustices and suffering I have experienced in life (death of loved ones, failures, humiliations, desires denied) as well as the good times (successes, family, catastrophic near misses, and other blessings). I came to understand that when I am truly living in a state of piety, humility, and holiness that Joy and Suffering are the same.
I cannot believe I have written these words together: Joy and Suffering are the same. Catherine helped me see there is nothing wrong with “singing and dancing” when it is properly ordered in celebrating God and our human relationships on a spiritual level. And on the suffering, no matter how terrible the tragedy up to and including the loss or imminent death, each instance of suffering is an opportunity to deepen our faith. Catherine took my hand and said if you truly understand the nature of human suffering and divine providence you would pray for more suffering to be put on your plate – and I believed her as I trembled at the idea of carrying more, despite how light my burden is today.
In life, for Christians at least, we are waiting for momentary consolations and ultimate revelation when the time comes to an end of our world as we know it. Catherine says God gives us this great weigh of labor (suffering) lest the virtue of patience grows rusty within us. Impatience, she says, will corrode our soul. How often do I pray “Gods will, not mine, be done” but am secretly hoping God’s will matches my timeline and my outcomes? If he sends me suffering and delay am I open to it in a joyous and spiritual matter as an opportunity to deepen my faith and fulfill providence as only God understands it?
I am in one of those transition points in life where success is not guaranteed (is it ever?) and my anxiety and attachments to what I have today is at odds with the journey that lay ahead. This worry is contrary to truly following God’s direction, praying for discernment, accepting joy and suffering as they may come, and completing the actions and responsibilities that are my charge, in God’s name and not my own, without any ownership of worldly or spiritual experiences being of my design.
Catherine whispered to me that God would purge me of my selfish and disordered love, whether temporal or spiritual and prune me, employing many trials so that I may produce more and better fruit. If I am open to God, I will come to care equally about trial and consolation. I will not be seeking my consolation or fulfillment – but rather to honor, glory, and praise of the God that I seek.
I know some of you have met Catherine, and some of you have not. I am saddened to inform you she will not be home if you visit her in Siena. She did, however, jot down some notes for you not only on Suffering and Providence (pg. 297 to 307) but on the contemplative spiritual life as she experienced it. She called these notes left for you, “The Dialogue.”
If you cannot lay your hands on her notes in Siena, I can refer you to a seller nearby who has taken the time to make many copies of her notes. She apparently has written to others besides me. Oh, and before I go, let me apologize for calling you an idiot, although that was Catherine’s word, I should not have used it against you seven centuries later.