Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review: Signs

The back cover of this book summarizes this author, his thinking, and his short (89 pages) book --- and in it I see all that is so wonderful about the book, and so troubling.  I am not sure I have ever so marked up, underlined, and written comments, questions, and exclamation points in the margins of a single book.  I found myself saying aloud: “Yes, you’ve got it!” one minute, and “Oh come on now; you CAN”T DO THAT!!!” the next.  I argued often with the author, and then thinking on it more, felt as if I were arguing with Jesus.  Unlike another book I recently reviewed, Jean Vanier’s looks at the world and does see hope, and his hope lies in a transformation of the Church, and in you and me.  I pray we are up to the challenge.
On the back cover is written:
“Jean Vanier is a Canadian Catholic philosopher, humanitarian, and the founder of L’Arche, an international organization that creates communities where people with intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together.”  … “Jean Vanier’s Signs is essential reading for all seeking to bring that sense of hope and renewal into their own lives.  Vanier identifies seven words representing the seven paths of transformation of the heart of L’Arche philosophy:  from humiliation to humility, from normalization to the awakening of conscience, from exclusion to encounter, from power to authority, from isolation to community, from strength to vulnerability, and from secret to mystery.  The same paths should be heeded by the Church if we are to rediscover that vision of a society that grows outward from the poor and disadvantaged.”
The book’s Introduction summarizes how and why the Church and all people need to change.  “L’Arche and Faith and Light have led us to discover something wonderful:  when we enter into a real relationship with people with an intellectual disability, we are transformed.  … If we ‘lower’ ourselves to be with the weakest among us, then we meet the One who humbled Himself for us all.” 
In his chapter on Humiliations, Vanier gives examples of forced humiliations of institutions and people.  He talks of humiliation leading to victimization, or possibly “a true encounter with the other as an equal … and in mutual respect for difference,” whether that difference be mental or physical, or even difference of religion.  He greatly admires the movie Of God’s and Men and its true story of the brothers who were warned to leave Algeria in advance of the marching terrorists, but chose to stay “because they were living a deep and true encounter with their Muslim neighbors.”  And they were horribly slaughtered, but “this could be what we Christians are called to now:  to live true encounters.”  He notes: “We aren’t here either to change or to convert the other.  That is the work of Jesus, … we are here to encounter others in humility.” 
Heady words.
Vanier’s chapter on Awakening talks about various humiliations as awakening our need to change.  He says the Church fears humiliation, and thinks it knows a superior truth.  He talks about parents teaching children to encounter the weak, and form personal consciences about them.  “It is my personal conscience to tell me how to live … the concrete situations of my everyday life.  The Magisterium doesn’t have anything to say about the person in front of me now.”  Vanier focuses on the poor and disabled he sees at L’Arche to generalize: “It isn’t a matter of willingly doing good, but also of helping the other to discover his or her personal value, and in working with him or her to create a more just and loving world.”
And I found myself saying: “And if all the rich work with all the poor, soon all the world will be poor,” and remembering the words: “The poor will always be with you.”  Is the change he speaks of for everyone, I wonder?
There are so many more things I could write about this book, so many challenging examples, so many simplifications on how to live a humble life --- or are they a reality we fear to face?  I hope this book will be discussed by our Bible Study Group in the near future.  In the interim, all its words about humility and focusing on our neighbor deeply resonate within me.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

You're Never Too Old To Change

When the steward of the feast tasted the water now become wine,
and did not know where it came from (although the servants who
had drawn the water knew), the steward of the feast called to the
bridegroom and said to him, “every man serves the good wine first; and
when men have drunk freely, then the poor wine; but you have
kept the good wine until now.”  This was the first of his
Signs, Jesus
did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory.
-- John 2: 9-11
Surely at the beginning of the wedding meal at Cana Jesus must have prayed for a long life, sons, and the happiness of the newly-married couple, and for God’s blessing on this joyous feast to celebrate the occasion.  And later when He saw that events, the wine failing, might result in the feast NOT being joyous, how could Jesus NOT intervene, to bring about what He had prayed for?  He could do something about it, how could He not?
And when I pray in His name seeking His will for those whom He brings into my life --- if I could do something for those I pray for, how could I not?  He had to act; so must I, to do the Father’s will.  Jesus had never acted before when He made the great change at Cana; so too, regardless of our past, we can begin to make great changes with our life. 
This was the “first of His Signs” --- wondrous deeds with a purpose, giving us direction on the way we must go.  The sacraments include physical signs of the spiritual events happening in them.  This Gospel describes the changing of the wine as a sign.  In my contemplations on this event, I perceive Jesus is describing how we must spiritually change like the water to wine, and that people should physically see that change in our love of God and neighbor, our new humility, our willful giving up of self-love.  The sign at Cana showed us how we must change, like the water to fine wine, from something common to something special, which is then given to all we meet. 
Lord, change us into a fine wine for Your people, even as you changed the common waters present in the Old Testament into the fine wine of Jesus’ Presence in the New Testament.  Make us change not a little, but a lot, so that others should notice Your love.  Let those we meet taste Your Spirit within us.
It is said that it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but it was never said that it is impossible.  Behold, I make all things new.  Even if we are old, we can always change. 
Remember, at Cana He showed us that the fine wine was saved for the last.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Review: Night of the Confessor

Tomas Halik’s book is subtitled: “Christian Faith in an Age of Uncertainty.”  I believe the word “My” should be inserted at the start of that phrase, for this book speaks largely about Mr. Halik’s faith --- or lack of it.
The sacrament of reconciliation “experience has shaped my perception of the world,” he begins, and his subsequent words bear that out.  He deeply focuses on sin and failure, and dismisses most efforts at faith as frauds.  He thinks that true faith is rare.  Charismatic or other faith movements are mere cults he says.  Faith movies (The Passion) or large faith gatherings? --- frauds to make money; “better to fill the stadiums with crying people for football games.”  He seems to have forgotten that people rarely state their good deeds in his confessional, the miracles and importance of God in their lives, or of the living of the Holy Spirit in their faith communities.  In confession he hears man’s failures, and he thinks there are no successes.  Nor does he ponder much on God’s successes.
Halik states that Jesus’ promise that faith can achieve the impossible excludes miracles or the presence of the Holy Spirit, but rather the “impossible” that Jesus defined is a simple trust --- forgiving and “even loving my neighbor,” or being generous: things that are “crazy in the eyes of the world.”   His idea of faith sounds like a ‘60’s movement, with all its negative views of the world at large --- and all the positive views that WE know the way.  Halik speaks strongly of HIS knowledge of the way things are, and of the ways of God.  He writes of a faith that can do HIS definition of the impossible, but he appears to deny the possibility of God doing the same.
Halik, a clinical psychologist, analyzes God and religion:  “God for me remains hidden in paradoxes.”  He is a pessimist on the future of the Church in Europe.  He speaks of no personal relationship with God, and rejects the possibility of others having one.  He concludes with the statement: “For the era on whose threshold we stand, my guess is that hope will be what is needed most of all.”  And he seems to have so little of it.  How sad for him.  Out of the depths, I cry to Thee O Lord …
Mr. Halik’s subtitle spoke of an age of uncertainty, but I perceive the book is only about Mr. Halik’s uncertainty.  Still, he discusses the paths of our culture which disturb us, but he offers no solutions for the culture, or for us.  For me, this started me thinking and praying on what I can do, and in particular the question: What was I made to do?  Like Mr. Halik, I often perceive that I know the answers and the way things should be done.  But I don’t.  And admitting that is the first step toward humility.  From a certain point of view, you could describe Mr. Halik’s definition of “the impossible” that Jesus promised us as merely living in deep humility, rejecting the priorities of the world and self, seeking to do the will of God while trusting in Him.  But he never used the word humility in his book.  But this book DID get me thinking about that word, and its meaning in my life.    

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Is That The Lord Calling?

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim, so that he could not see, was lying down in his own place; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down within the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.  Then the Lord called, “Samuel!  Samuel!” and he said: “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said: “I did not call; lie down again.”  So he went and lay down.  And the Lord called again, “Samuel!”  And Samuel arose and went to Eli, and said:  “Here I am, for you called me.”  But he said:  “I did not call, my son; lie down again.”  Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.  And the Lord called Samuel again the third time.  And he arose and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”  Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy.  Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak Lord, for thy servant hears.’”  So Samuel went and lay down in his place.                                -- 1Sam 3:2-9

A nurse is trained in emergency care, and for hours a day she works in the hospital emergency room.  People enter with life-threatening injuries, and people enter with headaches.  There is a prioritization process, but no one is turned away.  Some days there are no great emergencies.  Some days the same people are seen coming again, and yet again.  The nurse is trained in caring, and she cares for them.  Should she turn away the ones who continually come back with minor problems?
You walk out of the church on Sunday, and there stands a man dressed in raggedy clothes.  “Can I borrow $2 so I can eat today?  I’ll pay you back when I can.”  You give him $2, and head to your car.  The next Sunday, the man is there again, asking the same question, making the same promise.  And you again give him $2.  By the third Sunday you almost expect the man to be there, and he does not disappoint you.  You may even smile at him as you give him $2 yet again --- knowing his promise to re-pay is one he cannot keep.
And then the next day you go to the weekday mass, as you normally do, and walking out of the church, you see the man there again.  Again, he asks for only $2.  And your mind immediately thinks of your plans for Tuesday mass, and Wednesday, and …   and will he be there outside the church those days too?  Will he be there every day, looking for you?  It is only a minor thing, a minor problem to give, but do you reach a point at which you turn him away?
 How many people do you know in your life with a need that won’t go away?  How many are in your life with a need that they don’t know how to satisfy?  You would like to train them to fish, to solve their problem, but in your heart --- and perhaps from years of experience --- you just know they will NEVER learn to fish.  The alcoholic, the drug abuser, the financially incompetent, the never-can-hold-a-job, the physically abusive, the physically abused, the mentally challenged, the autistic, the physically challenged, and the one dying alone:  they have many similarities.  They often live alone, and they have few (if any) friends.  And they have a need which will not go away.
So do you?
From my experience these needy people often fall into two groups:  those (like the beggar outside the church) who ask and ask and ask – and then ask yet again.  (And some don’t even ask, they demand:  “You owe me (guilt, guilt) …. because I’m so needy”, “or you’re so rich”, or even, “you’re so blessed.”)  Their needs never end; you can never give enough; their problem never goes away.  You think to yourself that if you gave them a million dollars today they would be back tomorrow saying “I hate to ask again, but I just need ….”  It never ends.  And then there are those who never ask.  Perhaps they have tapped out (financially and emotionally) all those they know to beg from, or perhaps they are too embarrassed to ask, or perhaps they feel there life is not worth anyone caring about them.  They’ve learned no one wants them around.   
Do you stay away from them?  Do you say: “I can’t help them”? 
Are you really saying: “I can’t love them?”
I haven’t written many book reviews lately, but my reading has not lessened.  Lately, I’ve read some very good books, and some very challenging books.  They talk about the situations above.  They talk about the questions above.  They don’t give answers --- there are no simple answers to life’s problems --- but they give examples of what others have done.  And they make you think.  I’ll be reviewing some of those books in the coming days.
But there is one thing I can tell you now about those books:  when I heard last Sunday’s gospel (as written at the start of this post), I recalled some of those difficult people in my life and I thought:  “Is that you calling, Lord?”