It is in my religious ethos to reject the singular pronoun They. The tentacles of ingrained passionate belief infused with only a peripheral understanding of the field of linguistics, a limited experience with challenges of accurate translations, and a high degree of contextual historical uncertainties is a recipe for potentially grave error with far reaching consequences.
We have a modern day Tower of Babel edifice before us. Stack original language of Adam and Eve, oral traditions, multiple transliterations, cultural and historical contexts, gender and identity science and human realities, and politics one upon the other for at least 2000 years and now tell me we are experts on our religious ethos with even the simplest challenge – use of one pronoun.
Genesis 11 (NIV) dependent on your view gives a mythological or historical account as follows:
In the very foundation of Jewish and Christian scripture we have acknowledgement that we, for whatever divine purpose, are incapable of understanding each other with something as simple as language, never mind content.
Language is mutable since the original Adamic language used by Adam and Eve. There is ambiguity there as well. Dante’s literary works have broad Jewish, Islamic, and Christian influences as an example of one Christian exploring the meaning of life and death through the longest poem I have ever read. His view was language is by its nature very mutable.
There is archeology supporting a historical site in Modern day Iraq. After that I leave the rest up to your inquiry and imagination.
However, I mentioned language and real consequences. The use of the singular “he” to represent both he and she has only recently become accepted as “they” due to acknowledgement that our language fundamentally is flawed and patriarchal – representative of a primitive time that does not account for spiritual, scientific, and overall human development.
As a white, Christian male it is easy for me to avoid this reality and self-serving as well. Now, let’s take the unfathomable leap to LGBTQ issues. The Washington post link at the end below discusses an actual legal case where the court refused to use a pronoun that most accurately represents the individuals identity. There are cases pending at every level of state and federal courts impacting the rights of LGBTQ in individuals today. This case has a central character that is hard to support as the primary charge is child sexual abuse – we are apt viscerally to use an all together new pronoun not listed below. However, there are countless cases of LGBTQ issues being fought in what amounts to a cultural war on people I do not understand, on people that can confuse me. I have a hard enough time understanding my wife and daughters perspective and the use of “they,” never mind the plethora of terms that can capture gender available today:
I like to believe I am open-minded and attuned to my ignorance and lack of definitive knowledge of complex human issues as well as divine certainties. The grammarian in me knows I can barely use pronouns appropriately and can often interpose the Nominative, Objective, or Reflexive terms accidentally, never mind use of Ze or Ey.
How can I objectively define another persons Gender Identity and do I have that judgement right to begin with anyhow? Even the term for “God” lacks uniformity amongst the worlds major religions and even within singular faiths.
I am dismayed at the rigidity of our use of language and its applications when used to dehumanize others, define others, and assign them a hierarchical order in our world based on our imperfect knowledge of each other and ultimately of divine will.
Philosophically and practically oriented we prefer as human beings prefer to define with certitude our understanding of the natural and spiritual laws of our universe. Historically we have ample evidence that we have been dead wrong in matters spiritual, philosophical, sociological, and scientifically time and again.
What is it about human nature that allows our religiosity to exceed its domain of seeking divine truths with humility to assuming we are God’s will with absolute certainty?
There are absolute truths known to mankind. They are fewer than we presume. Language and LGBTQ issues are not one of these absolute truths other than “they” are human and share equally with “us” all things within our human experience. In essence “they” and “us” are “we” – one and the same, no separation or individuation other than the artificial ones we impose on each other.
This is alarming to some. You could apply the same logic to immigration issues, nationalistic and globalization conflicts, and the way we govern the world – where does it end? What, are we to have no laws or social mores?
To the contrary, in our lack of certitude we would have greater wisdom and more cautious mutable laws ever evolving as more is revealed. Our minds and hearts would be eager and ready to embrace with weighty spiritual discernment and collective conscientious matters small and large without preconceived assumptions that go untested. The knee jerk political whims of current political leaders would not be used destructively against others by manipulating the passion of specific groups.
The individual would at once hold any issue both from there own self-vested position and from the position of others, for they know, they are one and the same.
The walls between Democrat and Republican collapse through dispassionate and honest dialogue. The same between interfaith and other artificial divisions.
For the Christian reader you are called to especially embrace the other more so than those you get along with – that is no effort at all. Perhaps the true expression of Divine will is how we engage with those we do not understand, with the strangers, the refuges, the faithless, the sinners, and the reviled, untouchable ones. Yes, we still have a society where we cast out people.
Sometimes we cast them out with a simple choice of pronouns.
The devil is in the details. The devil resides in each of these camps inciting, tempting, plotting, and relishing with great enthusiasm the ineptitude of mankind to confront the consequences of life and death decisions. Mankind has both the science and the legal authority to end life. Abortion, death penalty, and end of life care decisions tear families and communities apart as the life of one hangs in the balance.
The common lay person has had only brief casual conversations about these issues, mostly focused on current events and politics and supported by a superficial understanding of their religious affiliation and the dynamic forces and history forging the most current controversy. At best, perhaps they have been exposed to completing an advanced directive, researched at least one of these areas, delved into their religious orientation in depth, and possess a degree of cross cultural competencies.
The truth of the issue is most of us are simply incompetent to adequately make the case for a universally acceptable norm in a manner that is intellectually honest, compelling, and comprehends in scope when it comes to defining and defending basic human dignity.
This does not stop us from voting on single ticket issues, writing op ed opinions, counseling friends or even strangers, performing jury activities, or being confronted with making the decision for the life of one person. How woefully unprepared most of us are to handle this moral, social, legal, and spiritual responsibility.
In my incompetence, I am politically speaking somewhere between Pro Life and Choose Life. Catholic theology, Ethics, and Social Justice issues formulate my beliefs and positions. The reality of our human state of affairs is we are at times faced with decisions that have been created by a history of events beyond our purview leaving us with options that are poor, bad, or terrible.
This Jesuit article lays out the Catholic position on abortion: https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2020/01/10/we-need-protect-least-among-us-unborn. The article and other articles in that edition speak to the dignity of life as our spiritual ideal and mandate from God. The article also speaks to winning peoples hearts and discusses social policies that are advantageous to supporting families and human dignity. Changing Roe versus Wade, if that were to happen, is a woefully insufficient answer to abortion. There is much work to be done in areas of human dignity pre-pregnancy, during, and post delivery.
We now have a conservative court. Appointing Supreme Court justices is no longer a single ticket item vote. Issues of human dignity across the life spectrum before facing life and death decisions are culturally and spiritually paramount.
I am confident that in a majority of situations regarding life and death decisions public sentiment is woefully misinformed or ignorant of the details. The devil will makes this his playground and pits brother against sister, Democrat against Republican, and religious institutions against nations and many faithful believers. My calling this morning is to fight the culture of hate and division driven by passionate mostly sincere and well meaning people. Take a step back and recognize that when it comes to life and death issues we are dealing with suffering and tragedy regardless of your position. There is a history, a now, and a future – our discussion and even decisions is not the end.
I have a strong nuanced opinion on how we collectively should face human suffering and life and death decisions across the spectrum. It is somewhat spiritually informed and connected to current social realities. It is not at all practical as there is a lack of political will to dedicate resources to the dignity of life throughout life, not just at its inception or termination. Not being able to deliver a whole package, I recognize it is hard for me to mandate by law specific demands.
Yes, certain spiritual laws are absolute. As we learn in the literature classic “Les Miserables” by Victor Hugo, what we do with absolutes is another question. Despair and dreams, commonalities we all share:
They are as sure of the absence of God as you are in God’s existence. In rare cases, the passionate atheist and fervent believer can meet the eye to eye and wrestle, often to a stalemate, thru the evidence for and against the existence of God — and part after thorough and exhausting discussion, being better human beings.
Religious affiliation is of no consequence here except as evidence for the Atheist that no religious organization has established the primacy of owning the eternal truths that they purport to possess within their separate faiths.
The confrontation can be unnerving and unsettling for both parties. Both have world views that have far-reaching consequences. However, at the core of it all, what is missing is an underlying mutual understanding of the limits of our certainty regarding humanity in general and acceptance of the subjective experiences that allow for or disavow faith.
A Jesuit writer, today on the feast of the epiphany, wrote that a friend of his is an atheist, and his atheism he presumed was primarily grounded in a belief in the primacy of reason. His friend presented a different reason. He shared that he was aware that many believers in God experienced what we Christians would describe as the desire for God “written in the human heart.” “I’ve never experienced that,” he said. “If there is a God, that seems terribly unfair and perhaps even cruel.” Powerful question. From a Catholic perspective, we acknowledge faith is a grace given to us, not something we can create through our own merit and actions. We believe it is there for the taking for anyone who seeks a relationship with God. On an individual level, how can we explain to a morally upstanding human being, a friend perhaps, why they have not had that spiritual consolation of grace? Many atheists have, by human measures, pursued a relationship with God with persistent, genuine, and sincere efforts and come up empty. Answering them with Divine Providence or God’s mysterious ways, explanations feel insufficient. Judging our friend’s effort and character also seems wrong or Jobian.
My atheist friends, I cannot answer for the absence of a spiritual spark within your heart any more than I answer why a fervent believer can have years of spiritual aridity. I cannot answer the questions regarding human suffering and misery in any manner that will comfort the non-believer.
I can say believers struggle with some of the very same ideological and practical concerns that atheist has about our faith or our religious institution. I can further say I do not judge your disbelief or assign you any hierarchical position on the spiritual ladder of life. I have been in the Atheist camp as have many believers. I can say I am willing to be present with you in good times and bad facing life’s graces and suffering. Yes, even graces can be a challenge.
Our joint actions together, no matter how inconsequential our work may seem, can serve humanity in as much as we both ensure our efforts are not evilly intentioned.
Perhaps my faith in action for the “the greater glory of God” and your work for the greater good of humanity can ignite elevating a shared vision of human social responsibility. The litmus test will be frequent and furious. Let us face each divide with genuine compassion, action, and, when appropriate, laughter at our human folly and gross inadequacies.
On my end, I pray today for spiritual grace for anyone who requires this consolation. I also hope that no one closes the door entirely on the possibility of a higher power and remains open to possibilities. People often speak about God closing a door for us and opening up another. I am not talking about that door, I am talking about doors that we close to spirituality.
On what grounds or merit do I write to you on this request. I have had personal experience opening and closing that dam door. I have set up shop behind it and barricaded myself inside with science, literature, competition, human relationships, philosophy, sports, and other not so worldly vices. It took me a bit of time to realize that while most of these comforts hold great value, my life is better after I unbarricaded the door and was open to a relationship with God. Sometimes I still let the door briefly swing shut on the winds of carelessness and inattention. It isn’t long before life reminds me how important for me, at least, is an inner spiritual life guiding my mortal days.
For some among us, closing that door can be life-threatening and do unbearable harm. Ask people in recovery about the spiritual aspects of 12 step programs – they are free of religious affiliation but very dependent on an ambiguously defined higher power. Those open to genuinely following the spiritual elements of the 12 step programs tend to have more success in both recovery and happiness overall. You can visually see their peace and serenity as you might see and feel when visiting a Trappist monastery.
What might your higher power look like if you began to search again and were open to the possibility of God’s existence? Maybe nothingness, but the journey will be rewarding even if you don’t achieve a mystical experience.
- For the Atheist out there, perhaps in deeds and actions, we can find a little spark of spirituality.
- For those who are looking into religious organizations, my bias is the Jesuits and the Catholic Faith.
- For those in recovery – the journey is yours to define a higher power, define one quickly and be open to change.
At the end of the day, a discussion with an Atheist, Agnostic, or person in recovery about God is not a confrontation. It is an opportunity for people of faith to exchange experiences and beliefs that we hold dearly and an opportunity to get to know one another more intimately regardless of challenging questions and probing accusations about our beliefs. We need not be grand apologetic orators or defensive about inquiry – for if we cannot answer a few questions, how strong is our faith anyway? And somethings we will never be able to answer – as a relationship and belief in anything mystical will defy our imagination and ability to achieve concurrence among mankind probably beyond my lifetime.
This article below was in a facebook book group called Human Reform politics. It is scary. And it is powerfully real. There are people out there that are foolish and cause their own misery when it comes to maintaining a job. There are more people out there, though by many that have lost employment by market forces beyond their control, medical crisis, or other serious misfortunes that but for the “grace of God” could happen to you or me. (Actually, if you believe in a compassionate God, what happens to your brother is happening to you, and you should give be concerned and alarmed as if it did happen to you – for it has harmed your neighbor).
There is a clear link between economic status and decline in Behavioral Health (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0063-2). For those of us that are gainfully employed, we prefer to not see those who have fallen “off the radar” as readily employable and are now in the throes of an acute and prolonged mental health or substance abuse crisis. They are no longer seen as vibrant people with valuable skills who, on another day, were just like you and me.
The health care field recognizes the importance and the influence of “social determinates” on the onset of behavioral health as well as its duration. Therapy and medications do not provide the self-worth that comes from gainful employment, a role in society, a roof over your head, and access to our cultural life.
Some studies show evidence that involuntary job loss increases the risk for mental health decline, alcohol abuse, substance abuse, shortened life, and suicide. It is a driver of our opioid epidemic here in the United States as well.
Let us not be too quick to judge the unemployed or marginalized in our society. Their suffering is our suffering. Their fall is our fall. Despite our economy in the United States being claimed as the “best economy ever,” access to living-wage jobs and job security is threatening the vibrancy of middle-class America every day. That fear is a wedge driving walls between us, the haves and have nots, the established and newcomers. While Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” has no applicability here, I hear and see this image and imagine a man in his 50’s facing an economic crisis at the hands of a mega-industry shift. The alienation and shame, the aloneness, the summation of childhood dreams, and adult realities come crashing into my mind.
Take a moment and recognize it is your brother on the other side of the wall. It is you – looking into a mirror at what could be your future in the blink of an eye.
Unemployment as a raw number is down. That does not help those that are in its grasp. Underemployed is up. Both can lead to financial devastation. Our economies do not support work-life balance and long-term security here in the United States due in large part to our economic system that is built to distribute wealth and resources massively disadvantages the majority in favor of the few. It simply can be better.
We take much comfort in our sense of time and our utilization of time; however, we define its importance. The journey from “birth to earth” for us is filled with time markers marking our days until our visible days are no more. Our mortality creates a great sense of urgency and pressure to use our time well. If you are reading this, we are entering into the year 2020 together.
We are not really strangers to each other. We share our common humanity in all its beauty and ugliness. We share a sense and desire for ultimate certainty regarding eternal truths or, at the very least, a sense of confidence regarding our ultimate purpose in life. We seek to live a meaningful life amid a world that is uncompromisingly unpredictable, contradictory, and temporal.
In this temporality, I reach out to you to wish you and your neighbors a year filled with enlightenment and unity with each other. Knowledge of what is truly important and connectedness to people close and far – warm, loving, and compassionate relationships wherever you go, may harmony and peach find you.
On a deeper level, I yearn for us to have unity with transcendent, eternal truths that bring us all closer to living a holy and sanctified life. I wish that we each can have a glimmer of that ecstasy to nourish us and provide is strength when our physical and spiritual selves are battered by our secular life and human frailty.
Wherever you are tonight or this a.m. preparing to face a new decade, know that you are unique in a way that far exceeds your own capacity to comprehend. You have potentiality within you to further enrich your life here and now, in the future, and dare I say for eternity?
I say this with certainty that if you choose to embrace your potentiality, to accept that you are valuable to me and to many others, and to set out each day with the idea that everyone you meet has that same intrinsic value, it is going to be a great 2020 no matter the adversities and situational inconveniences that will face you.
It is 2:43 in the morning. Most have gone to bed or are not far from closing up celebrating the New Year. Some say 3 a.m. is a special time where pray life is especially revealing. Whether you be awake or asleep, sober, or in some other state of consciousness, connected to God or desperately alienated, happy or sad, successful or struggling, this late-night note is one of gratitude that you are you and have the opportunity to be an even better you in 2020.
May we together, by careful and measured discipline act quietly and humbly to improve ourselves. May we may collectively enhance the world and its beauty one relationship at a time. One pray at a time. One moment followed by another, patiently allowing eternal truths to guide us every day that is gifted till the earth rises up to reclaim us back into its folds.
Perhaps when our time runs out, and our body gives up its last breath – we will not find ourselves in a state of regret or unprepared for no more tomorrows. That is what I want for you – for everyone, that when we rest our heads at night-time to sleep, that peace and harmony are within our souls in case, morning never comes.
Goodnight neighbor in this Common Era time 2020.
Happy New Year!
For many, an avalanche of expectation is pending ringing in the New Year. On Wednesday evening, we will ring in a new decade together (like it or not) thanks to social media and a truly integrated global economy. What are you anticipating for New Year’s Eve? For 2020? Are your New Year’s Eve plans set? Have you jotted down a few goals (resolutions) for 2020? Take a moment and jot down the top goal for ringing in 2020 and the top three resolutions for the new year. What might get in the way of your goals?
New Year’s resolutions are made to be broken as Mark Twain’s quote alludes above. The great author was himself a social drinker whose alcohol usage was sometimes criticized and historically aggrandized. He did not have the resolution to quit alcohol and nor would I recommend he have the resolution to do so! Any resolution we make should be intimately connected to our identities of who we are and what we want to be today and all the tomorrows we have left. What about you?
Now, with your list in hand, I am going to ask you to examine two very personal relationships in your life:
- Take a moment to reconsider your relationship with alcohol (or other mood-altering habits).
- Take a moment to reconsider your relationship with your “best-self,” your ultimate potentiality, your sense of being in harmony with your nature, with your innermost sense of living a significant and meaningful life.
How does Alcohol fit into your New Year’s Eve plans? How significant is it for you personally on New Year’s Eve? How much thought have you put into what you will drink on Wednesday evening?
None of us fit the criteria for being diagnosed as an Alcoholic. I am sure of it. Why? I say this because there are no diagnostic criteria for being an alcoholic[i] in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM). There are many definitions in the manual for alcohol use disorders ranging from mild to severe that you can reference or, better yet, see a professional if you have enough evidence in your life to indicate alcohol use may be harming you.
This relationship with alcohol is, first and foremost, very personal to you. You are probably not one of the estimated 6.2% of the population that has evidence of an alcohol use disorder today. Hopefully, you are not on the road to joining that group either! It is really about what does alcohol truly means to you and how does it hurt or improve your mental, physical, emotional, social, and spiritual life? If you are like most people, alcohol does not play a big role in your life and is not necessarily needed to have a good time or enjoy friends and holidays. But what if you are not like most people – but you also don’t fit the stereotype fictional alcoholic diagnosis? You may have a job, friends, and all the trappings of being a successful adult and yet, have a little voice or nudging bothering you about alcohol?
The reality is alcohol use has an outsized role in our society to deliver what is already available to us without its use. People who do not have an alcohol use disorder or any history of negative events choose every day to not drink without any difficulty or pressure to do so. They naturally enjoy life and the people around them without alcohol. People with alcohol use disorders diagnosed or people self-defined as alcoholics who have achieved true recovery are also able to choose every day not to drink and enjoy life without alcohol, albeit it with a certain sense of added responsibility and weight that comes with a negative history from previous experiences.
Alcohol is a choice. Do I want you to not drink on New Year’s Eve? No, my wishes for you on New Year’s Eve is that your relationship with alcohol on New Year’s Eve and in 2020 is right-sized – that it does not take away from your overall well-being or those around you. If alcohol is not harming you or anyone else and you are fun to be with after partaking in drinking – I will buy the first round metaphorically speaking!
Too often, consumption of alcohol becomes the desired end rather than the consumption of alcohol being a means to add to the desired experience or social engagement. New Year’s Eve or any eve becomes an opportunity to drink rather than an opportunity to enjoy relationships with other people and life in general. Drinking becomes the means to get to a certain state of emotional sensation (euphoria, social ease, unguarded, numb, unconsciousness, uncontrolled, silly, dangerous, heightened adrenaline, humorous) that provides escapism from the self. Hopefully, this is not you.
I hope to spend New Year’s Eve with friends and family that enjoy each other for who they are with or without alcohol. I hope and wish for everyone, including you, to ring in the New Year, aligned with your relationship with your “best self.” Alcohol may not require your attention – insert in here any other goals that will help you be your best self today and tomorrow.
What is your “best-self” for New Year’s eve and 2020? You cannot become today what you are meant to be in ten years, but you must start today to be what you are meant to be today to achieve what is expected of you down the line. Wherever you are on your journey, in the valley or at a peak, beauty is present. Every day on the mountainside
climbing up is the opportunity to be your best self. The mountain tops will come and go with beautiful scenery to be cherished and remembered – but the journey is where the meaning of life is held, even the descents when we unexpectedly fall off the desired trail.
Defining your best-self involves an ideal to pursue balanced with an everyday actuality to practice today and every day. New Year’s Eve and any resolution is simply an artificial calendar day to provide us all the time to reflect on the mountainsides, unexpected falls, and mountain tops of yesteryear with gratitude and refining our relationships with life for the next ascent.
My best self is by definition unattainable as it is defined by desiring to be one with my God and be limited to striving to lead a holy life while fulfilling the everyday mundane human responsibilities. I am on one mountainside climbing with the tools that have been provided to me. I know not what the mountaintop brings, whether it will be my final mountain or many more to come. I can only climb the distance meant for me today.
Today, I have been charged with writing to you to ask that you reflect on your relationship with alcohol and your relationship with your best self. If you find it “wanting” in any way, make New Year’s eve a demarcation point and involve others in altering your climb up the ascent. Involving others is a great way to strengthen relationships that have significance and meaning. Mountain climbing should not be a solo sport. Choose wisely!
There is a movement afoot in society today that is exciting. It is people choosing a lifestyle change before a lifestyle change is forced upon them. Check out this article on Holly Whitaker: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/meet-the-woman-who-wants-to-make-sobriety-cool-in-an-alcohol-obsessed-culture/2019/12/18/38602da6-0fd4-11ea-b0fc-62cc38411ebb_story.html.
This post is aimed at people who are open to exploring their relationship with alcohol and have perhaps not had the issues associated with clinical alcohol use disorders or layman’s alcoholism definitions. I would be remiss to not include the Alcoholics Anonymous website where many have found a solution and where they also recommend people seek professional help as well if needed. If you are in that situation or have a friend who is in that situation you can always attend an open A.A. meeting. They will know the resources in your community inside and outside of A.A. You can also go to the SAMHSA website below as well.
[i] For advanced drinkers who have already delved into your personal relationship with alcohol and self-defined yourself as “Alcoholic” this post does not challenge your definition or your solution. This writer encourages people to explore Alcoholics Anonymous open meetings if you are unsure about where your relationship with alcohol fits on the continuum of normal drinking to desperate drinking and learn about a potential solution to myriad of life’s challenges for people who have committed themselves to abstinence.
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?