Thursday, May 28, 2015

The preferential option for the poor is not an option

My friend Fran recently posted a link to an op-ed in Forbes by Steven Hayward, How Is 'Liberation Theology' Still A Thing?  The author takes exception to Pope Francis' invitation of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, OP, to visit the Vatican.  Gutierrez, a professor of theology at Notre Dame, wrote A Theology of Liberation in 1971.  Hayward's style is generally mocking ("Liberation theology grew out of the misbegotten 'Christian-Marxist dialogue' of the 1960s and 1970s, which must seem as quaint and laughable as promoting Esperanto."), but the line that shocked me was this one:
“Liberation theology likes to describe itself with the slogan that it represents the 'preferential option for the poor,' whatever that means.”
It's clear that Hayward thinks that Pope Francis has strayed from the path, and certainly the path laid out by the previous two Popes, he notes that both Benedict XVI and John Paul II were "harsh critics" of liberation theology and that the latter "directly rebuked" clergy in Nicaragua, but I wonder where he got the idea that the preferential option for the poor, was, well, an option for Catholics? Or that it was in any way unclear what it meant.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (published in 2004, under John II's watch) devotes three full paragraphs [182-184] to the concept of the preferential option for the poor, using precisely that term.  The document clearly states "The principle of the universal destination of goods requires that the poor, the marginalized and in all cases those whose living conditions interfere with their proper growth should be the focus of particular concern. To this end, the preferential option for the poor should be reaffirmed in all its force. [385]"  (emphasis is mine, reference 385 is to John Paul II, again).

Whatever you think about liberation theology and how politics and the Church ought to intersect, it ought to be perfectly clear that the preferential option for the poor isn't an option.  It is, to quote the Compendium, something to"which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness" and that it affects the life of each of us.  It is "still a thing"...

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Matthew 25:37-40

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Sabbath time

Valle Mirada in San Miguel, CA
I am sitting outside on the patio, on a nearly perfect summer afternoon. The sounds scape is nearly devoid of people.  No kids outside, no lawn mowers, leaf blowers or whining electric kid vehicles circling the driveway across the street.  Just the rush of the wind in the trees, the piping of birds, the burr of a bee whizzing past.  The view is not quite as expansive as the view from The Artistes' weekend retreat in the photo, but the trees rise like buttresses, enclosing my anchorage, the light shimmers through the leaves, ghosts of saints and angels hover in the walls.

It is the Sabbath, but also the start of sabbath time again, six months set aside after six semesters of teaching to plunge into writing and research.  Two books are in progress, one on writing for chemists, one on hermits for me — and others who long for a way to find meaningful pauses in a noisy and chaotic world.

I am inspired by a friend who came blazing out of Lent's shadows and finished the first, rough draft of a book over Easter's 50 days; excited by the expanse of time in front of me; rooted in the stillness and silence that the summer draws across the neighborhood.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Column: Bites of Scripture

This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com on 18 May 2015.

I reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a stick of butter to make mashed potatoes for dinner on Sunday. With a sinking heart, I realized it was soft, too soft. Our refrigerator, which has helped us keep the kids fed from toddlers to teens, decided it had had enough and wheezed to a stop, ironically enough on Mother’s Day. Thankfully amid the end of semester chaos we hadn’t had time to grocery shop, so little was lost beyond a couple of quarts of milk.

Chatting with my youngest, still away at school, I mentioned he would come home to find a new refrigerator in the kitchen. He was worried about losing more than the milk, “SAVE THE CLIPPINGS!” he pleaded.

I assured him I would, and on Thursday carefully took down the list of household rules, the cartoons clipped from the paper about math and music and growing up, the AP scores, the photos and the postcard with the Benedictus on it, brought back from Jerusalem by one of Mike’s friends for me.

I dutifully put aside the magnets with their helpful — and occasionally snarky — advice. What was stuck to our refrigerator, though seemingly a random collection of yellowed clippings, old photos and the odd form, in truth revealed much of who we are as a family, reminding me of joys and sorrows.

It made me think about sacred Scripture, itself an eclectic collection of family stories, poems, proverbs. Reminders of joys and sorrows, all part of the story of who we are as the People of God, all pointing to the food within, God’s word made flesh.

Guigo, a 12th century Carthusian monk and the prior of the Grande Chartreuse monastery, wrote a letter to a friend describing the practice of lectio divina, a way to let Scripture feed us. He conceived the practice as four steps — reading, meditating, praying and contemplating — framing them as a meal.

“Reading,” said Guigo, “puts as it were whole food into your mouth; meditation chews it and breaks it down; prayer finds its savor; contemplation is the sweetness that so delights and strengthens.”

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dei Verbum, Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on divine revelation, which ends by encouraging everyone to dig into the feast set forth for us in the Scriptures, not just reading the Word, but digging into it, savoring it and allowing it to build up the Body of Christ. We should be, says Dei Verbum, penetrated by the Scriptures.

It can be hard to decide where to start, which book, which Testament, even which translation. One place might be with the Scripture readings for Sunday Mass. My pastor has been urging us all to prayerfully reflect on the Gospel for the coming Sunday; one could as easily pick the psalm, or one of the two other readings.

As with any meal, be careful not to bite off more than one can chew. Learn, as a wise Jesuit once told me, to linger with delight on a single line of Scripture, to seek within for what God has set out for us, to feed our hungers, to strengthen our souls. To so penetrate our lives, that we are radiant with the joy of the Gospel.


A short lesson in lectio divina from the Carmelites.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Deep in the darkness

I love Rilke's Book of Hours, both the original German and Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows' spare and sharp translation. The end of this poem in German sounds like wind chimes stirred by a late night breeze to me, barely rippling the still coolness of the night:  Gott aber dunkelt tief... But deep in the darkness is God.

I, 50

I come home from the soaring
in which I lost myself.
I was song, and the refrain which is God
is still roaring in my ears.

Now I am still
and plain:
no more words.


A reflection I wrote on darkness and light — with a bit of technical advice from Crash and The Egg —is up at DotMagis this week. I talk about praying in the depths of the night during the thirty days I made the Exercises:
"At that hour the retreat house was incredibly silent, the chapel so still I could almost hear the flame in the presence lamp shimmering. “Empty yourself,” said St. Romuald in his Rule, “and sit waiting, content with the grace of God.” In those nights, empty of noise, empty of people, God taught me to sit and wait, to empty myself, that I might be filled with the graces he desired to give me..."

Read the rest at DotMagis.



For a warm and beautiful look at light and darkness, see writing as j(oe)'s post What Light.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Column: Rejecting a culture of indifference

I continue to contemplate what it means to be indifferent in the sense used by Pope Francis in this intention (rather than the Ignatian sense of indifference): who am I indifferent to, why and what needs to change in me?  How does what we do within the walls move out.

"I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God – it changes me." — C.S. Lewis (William Nicholson in Shadowlands)


This column appeared at CatholicPhilly.com 
on 9 May 2015.

“That, rejecting the culture of indifference, we may care for our neighbors who suffer, especially the sick and the poor.” — Pope Francis’ universal intention for May

We knelt before the Lord on the floor in a small room on the second floor, the monstrance lit by the last rays of the sun from behind. Five mysteries of the rosaries had spun round when the young man in front of me reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, scrolling through a few pages, clearly hunting for something. He paused, then read aloud, “That persecuted Christians may feel the consoling presence of the Risen Lord and the solidarity of all the church.”

Ah, the pope’s intercession for the month of April!

In a reflection on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, St. John Chrysostom described the custom of the early church: “The gift of prayer used to come into one person in the church, and he would be the person set aside to ask God for the things which would benefit them all.”

Today we have the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass, where we make our prayers for the needs that we see within and without our communities. And of course, there are the pope’s petitions, in which he, as John Chrysostom would say, “stands with great attention … asking the things which were profitable for all.”

In some sense these petitions are rightfully ephemeral prayers, for the needs of this particular moment, for the needs of these particular people. But I wonder if we hold these prayers too lightly.

How often do we respond, “Lord, hear our prayer,” without really hearing what we are praying for? Do we remember any of the intentions we prayed for at Mass when we walk out each Sunday, holding one of those needs prayerfully in our hearts — or even like the young man at prayer, knowing where to find them on our phones?

The pope’s intention for May asks us to open our hearts, to stand with great attention and listen to what our sisters and brothers need most, that we might be moved to help those among us who are living in poverty, the sick and the suffering.

As we move from Easter to Pentecost to Ordinary Time, I’m seeking an antidote to indifference in the intercessions. I am taking just of one these intentions each week, then standing in that precarious space between heaven and earth holding out that prayer, asking God for these needs of the world. And asking myself what I can do this week to be God’s hands and feet and meet those needs.


To my words give ear, O Lord, give heed to my groaning.
Attend to the sound of my cries, my King and my God.
It is you whom I invoke, O Lord.
In the morning you hear me;
in the morning I offer you my prayer,
watching and waiting. — Psalm 5:2-4

Of Penguins and Kairos

The building in which I have worked for the last 30 years is at the start of a much needed renovation.  Parts of the building are more than a century old, it's been added onto over the years until a map of its hallways resembles an octopus, and I sometimes worry that the student who hasn't been in class all week is not napping in one of the hammocks under the cherry trees on the green, but lost in the depths of the building.

Sometime in the next five years, my beloved office, set on one truncated arm overlooking a courtyard alive with groundhogs, birds and the occasional hawk looking for a warm spot out of the wind, convenient to the photocopier and the kitchen, where I can open my windows and hear the bell pealing as seniors finish their exams, will be subsumed into a new public space.  And I'll be...where?  I have no idea.

Moving is hard, particularly when you can't envision the new space.  Will my table fit?  Will I be banished to a space far from where students wander?  Will I have sunlight on a winter afternoon?

Enter Robin's wise, warm and witty sermon about gifts and change, about what ignites us and why, about time. Read on to find out "What do penguins have to do with it?"  Thanks for preaching beyond the walls of your church, Robin!

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

DotMagis: Living frugally on surprise (redux)

In March I wrote a piece for DotMagis about living frugally on surprise (a line taken from Alice Walker's poem Before you knew you owned it: “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.”) Today, driving to a meeting, I thought again about the practice of living open to surprise, an antidote to a hermeneutic of anxiety or suspicion.

I note that my email is still chirping "like a nest of starving baby birds, messages popping up and demanding answers faster than I [can] stuff answers in them." but I'm perhaps a shade less anxious about handling the worms.

I had to go downtown to observe a student teacher today, midday the traffic is generally light, but today construction had 76 crawling.  I put myself entirely in the hands of Google Maps and ended up on a route that wound through Fairmount Park — the largest expanse of urban park in the US — and then turned me out on Martin Luther King Boulevard along the Schuylkill River.  The magnolias are in bloom and the trees are leafing in earnest.  It was an unexpected moment of beauty in my day, a surprise dollop of grace that turned my day upside down.


Sunday, May 03, 2015

Oremus: Let us Pray

Let us pray. Before we bring the gifts forward to consecrate, the food that will go to the hungry in body and spirit, we lay on the table our desires, for ourselves, for others, for the world.  For the last year or so, I've been part of a small team writing these prayers for my parish.  It's a ministry of listening, to the world — I listen to the news very differently these days — to the concerns of the people around me in the parish, and most of all to the Spirit.

I found this reflection on the ministry of intercessory prayer by St. John Chrysostom in my files (from a homily on Romans, chapter 14):
"...the gift of prayer used to come into one person in the church, and he would be the person set aside to ask God for the things which would benefit them all. Here the word Spirit is the name which Paul gives to the kind of grace and to the soul who receives it and intercedes with God on our behalf. The one who was counted worthy of such a grace as this would stand with great attention, and with many mental groanings he would fall before God, asking the things which were profitable for all. Nowadays, the deacon is a symbol of this, when he offers up the prayers for the people."
The images of standing with great attention and the mental groanings John Chrysostom associates with putting these prayers forward certainly resonates with me. At times I feel as if the Spirit uses sandpaper on my skin, making me more sensitive to the needs of the People of God, to their pain and grief as well as to their joys.

In some sense the Prayers of the Faithful are rightfully ephemeral prayers, for the needs of this particular moment, for the needs of these particular people.  But I wonder if we treat them too lightly.  We subscribe to a set of intercessions for daily Mass, each page tidily tossed in the recycling when it's been prayed.  Do we remember any of the prayers from this Sunday's Mass? Or do we just respond, "Lord, hear our prayer." regardless of whether the lector just read the first line of a grocery list. (I confess, I went last night and had to think hard to recall two or three — and I wrote the first draft of this set!)
For the grace to see God at work in unexpected people and places…we pray 
For those whose lives have been uprooted by violence and diaster: for the people of Baltimore and of Nepal…we pray
As a community, where do we keep these prayers?  Are they recycled after Mass, or do we post them on the parish website or tack them to the bulletin board in the vestibule where people can look at them again, perhaps carry them around in their hearts for a bit?

As we move from Easter to Pentecost to Ordinary Time, I'm going to try to hold onto one of these intentions for a few days or a week, pulling from the Liturgy of the Hours or other sources, willing to stand a bit in that precarious space between heaven and earth holding out a prayer for the needs of all.  For this week (from the LOH):

Forgive us for failing to see Christ in the poor, the distressed and the troublesome — and for our failure to reverence your Son in their persons.