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A VOLUPTUOUS GOD

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As of now, this blog is formally closed and will not be updated.  Before explaining further, let me express my profound gratitude to those who have shared their thoughts here, to Mirabai Starr, Pat Moore, Bill Glenn, and Jim Huffman, and to all of you who have commented on our posts or posted your own thoughts.  This has been a fruitful and delightful conversation, and I thank everyone who has contributed or simply visited and enjoyed the exchange of views.

But all things change, and I have come to realize that it is time to close this circle.  What has been written here will, however, remain on the web for a while, since there is much here that is worthy of rediscovery and there are many who will find thoughtful discourse here as they search the web for answers.  But there will no longer be new material.

I continue to write and post on the Examiner website and look forward to hearing from you there.

Blessed be,

Bob Thompson.

Why don’t people behave as they are supposed to?

I grew up well trained: not just about right and wrong, or about history, math, and literature, but about abstract things. I learned how the world is organized, what the “natural” order of things should be, and where people fit in that order.

My next-door neighbor, for example, drank heavily and cursed loudly. He had a lush garden and several lively children, but the vile behaviors made his a family to avoid. Doc Thompson, by contrast, deserved to be cultivated, for he lived by the community’s highest standards. He made house calls on the sick; he never missed church; he smiled at everyone.

I knew the order; I knew where people fit. And that made life easy.

Except . . .

Except that the longer I live, the more people I meet who refuse to follow the rules.

I ran into several of that next-door neighbor’s children awhile back, and they left me breathless. They were sharp in every way: intelligent, witty, compassionate, full of grace. And they treated me as if they’d never noticed the way I used to avoid them. I came away feeling ashamed and deprived, embarrassed at my aloofness and sad that I’d deprived myself of rich friendships.

It happened again a few weeks ago, when I got into a conversation with the security guard at a Chicago school. I knew instinctively what kind of person he would be, because I knew where security guards fit in the social order. I was ready to speak simply, on “his level.”

But he too refused to fit. His conversation moved quickly to the world of music, a world he inhabits when he is not at the school. He also wanted to talk about the mountains of Bosnia, where he used to live. And then he asked me what I thought about two of my favorite Japanese novelists, Murakami Haruki and Mishima Yukio. He has read more of them than I have; his insights floored me. Once more, I came away ashamed of my pigeon holes.

What’s wrong with me? With the ordered world that I inherited?

Bob Thompson suggested an answer in his March 27 Voluptuous God blog when he talked about Jesus surrounding himself with “outcasts,” defying establishment conventions that silence the marginalized., and making himself into “a social justice subversive.”

The conventions always catch me up; they make me miss the common spirit that I share with every single one of God’s creatures. They stuff me–and everyone else–into a box. They isolate me and make me lose out on so much of the richness, the ideas, the variety, the surprise, and the energy that is mine for the taking.

Decades ago, I visited the Soviet pavilion at the World Fair in Osaka, Japan. I knew what to expect, because I had been taught what kinds of people the Russians were. They were macho militarists; they were authoritarian; they wanted the world to know about their space exploits and their military prowess.

I entered the pavilion ready to shake my head in disgust at exhibits that would demonstrate precisely these values. But when I looked around, there were no weapons to be found. Instead, I saw scores–it may have been hundreds–of sentimental children’s pictures: crayon drawings, on white paper, of families and nature and fantasy worlds. They were as sweet as they were skillful.

I was befuddled. How could these people–these coarse, belligerent people–produce something so gentle and human? What had my teachers–and the whole American establishment–missed when they described the Russians? Why had we been so wrong? And what else might be wrong in the worldview I had been given?

The questions raised by that Soviet pavilion were numerous and complex, and they still haunt me, all these years later. The most important one, however, has a simple answer. The neat order just doesn’t exist. It may give comfort and security to those of us in the middle class. But it is a fiction, nothing more. And it is a dangerous fiction, for every time I embrace it, I miss the joy and growth made possible in a world where all of God’s creatures are one.

Where shoulders once shrugged, fists now shake.  Evangelical, moderate and liberal Christians are mad as hell at Fox TV host, Glenn Beck. His recent comparison of social justice Christians with Nazis and Communists crossed a line. Among other things, it is a reminder that deep down, Glenn Beck is not only shallow but also the king of demagoguery.

His reactionary comments were clearly intended to raise the hackles of moderates and liberals—and he succeeded.

Writing with the outrage of a biblical prophet, Sojourner’s Jim Wallis refused to attack Glenn Beck but challenged him to an open conversation about social justice, what it is and why it’s important. Beck demurred.

That Glenn Beck is a practicing Mormon only makes the story more interesting. Across the religious spectrum, Beck’s comments served as a source of puzzlement to commentators. Especially illuminating is a quote by Kent P. Jackson, associate dean of religion at Brigham Young University in a recent New York Times article: “My own experience as a believing Latter-day Saint over the course of 60 years is that I have seen social justice in practice in every L.D.S. congregation I’ve been in. People endeavor with all of our frailties and shortcomings to love one another and to lift up other people. So if that’s Beck’s definition of social justice, he and I are definitely not on the same team.”

Were he available for comment, Jesus would say much the same thing.

Mainstream biblical scholars have reached a consensus that a definitive portrait of the historical Jesus cannot be painted and that Jesus revealed, looks more like an unfinished sketch. So how did we come to dress up Jesus in these theological silks and satins?

The Mediterranean Jewish Rabbi named Jesus taught with stories, parables and crisp sayings. He evidently spoke with incredible clarity and amazing simplicity. When he preached, performed a miracle, or gave a teaching, he talked about the kingdom of God.

But it wasn’t what he said that got him into trouble. It’s what he did, and how he lived that eventually got him crucified.

What did he do? How did he live?

The Gospels say that Jesus came eating and drinking with people who had leprosy, with sinners, with prostitutes, with the religiously unclean.

Two millennia removed from the folkways and mores of first century Palestine, it is impossible for us to grasp the significance of this. To eat with the leper was to declare ones self to be a leper. To eat with prostitutes, was to prostitute one’s self. To each with the religiously unclean was to become an outcast. In the first century there was no public act more intimate than to share food, share a meal with another person.

The table fellowship practiced by Jesus was a truly revolutionary and subversive act. The authorities took it as a slap in the face to everything that was sacred.

Then as now, those in power sought to protect their authority by crating social and religious conventions that silenced dissenters and the marginalized and favor those in power.

There’s no other way to put it, Jesus was a social justice subversive. 

He was forever surrounded by the outcasts, the unclean—he even spoke to women unveiled, in public—and he was really outrageous in showing affection for hookers and tax collectors.

He was Glenn Beck’s worst nightmare.

Whoever you want to exclude from your table fellowship, Jesus says, “include them”.

The Jesus of history challenged people not with doctrinal questions but about whether they were willing to set a place for everyone at the table of their lives. Jesus asked tough questions, the toughest of which is, “who are you leaving out?  Bring them in”.

Ideologues like Glenn Beck are eager to deny a place at the table for those who prefer a different diet.

But Jesus was no ideologue.  Jesus is the question, not the answer. Jesus asks us how big our circle of compassion is. Who are we leaving out? Whoever it is, bring them in.

To his credit, Jim Wallis wants to sit down at the table with Glenn Beck.

What are you afraid of Mr. Beck? If you’re not a nut, surely you will sit down with Jim Wallis and other social justice Christians and have a reasonable conversation.

I’m only guessing here, but it may well be that at every level, Jesus could actually be Glenn Beck’s greatest nightmare.

Almost makes me hope for a second coming of Christ.

For many years, I compiled an annual list of books of matters soulful or spiritual for those who might want to explore new writers or re-visit old ones in the ongoing work of tending a spiritual life. Some of you have asked me to do that again, after a several year hiatus. I found the task challenging and in some ways forbidding, therefore liberating. I have come to understand, if that is even the right word, that one’s individual spiritual life, call, development and resonance is as unique as one’s DNA, and in some ways perhaps formed in part by the same. I cannot escape my Irishicity (new word!), the replete foundation in all things spiritual and religious that is my heritage as a born-Roma Catholic, nor can I alter, nor do I want to, the profoundly formative work of Jesuits on and with me, eight years as their student and nine years as their brother. The facticity of my sexuality in its interface with the world, too, is beyond dispute a most significant factor in my development, as is nearly thirty years of settled domestic life (and eighteen months of marriage…). I listen keenly to individuals every day, twenty women and men a week, and have for the past quarter century. They have shaped me deeply. Thirty years of sobriety has given me a wide angle lens to view life and matters external to me and interior to me. So I am the sum of those, and really countless other, parts. Education, family birth order, parent’s histories, born in America, a male, raised in the exact circumstances that I have been, given a superior education and having taken even more. All contribute to the ongoing development of this spiritual and soulful person. As do your exigencies shape and influence, create really, you.

I am continually influenced by Christians of every stripe and none, by Roman Catholics and Protestants, by cosmologists and naturalists, by Buddhists and the Hebrew prophets, by my daily companions, the Muslim Sufi poet Rumi and the luminous face of Jesus, present through every transmutation of my spiritual path, both in its vibrancy and its nadir states.

I have recently come through a Gobi of a two years. During this time, I continued to read in these vast fields, though sometimes with distaste, sometimes with a faint awareness of that which is beyond any state we inhabit. The following are reflections on what I encountered between the bindings of books that made their way to my lap.

Laurence Freeman’s Jesus: The Teacher Within is the best book of its kind I have read. But what is its kind? It is part testament, part Christology, part manual on obtaining maturity, part exegesis, part autobiography, in great part a book on meditation and its necessity and efficaciousness in the world today. It is beautifully written, engaging, intellectually rich, immensely rewarding. Freeman, an English Benedictine, is the director of the World Community of Christian Meditation, yoked to the East and the riches of Buddhism, in the tradition of the great Benedictine meditator John Main, with a forward by the Dalai Lama (no slouch to achieve that endorsement, one need not be reminded). I read this book at the enlightened cusp of my recent descent, though I had no idea that was ahead, so danger may lurk within its lofty pages. If you have a shard of faith in Jesus, whatever that might mean to you, this book will be a gift you might give yourself. Actually, no shards required. Richard Dawkins might just find this moving and erudite enough to read. And ponder. Maybe.

 

The Spirituality of Imperfection by Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham is the book I have recommended to others the most in the past three years and the book that has had a singular impact on me, a perfectionist in the grand tradition of being so very proud of my perfectionism even as it took me down and reduced me to tears. Alas. Kurtz and Ketcham utilize the accreted wisdom of the Twelve Step programs (which many Jesuits have recognized over the years as having a foundational structure in Ignatian wisdom) to walk the reader through the ravages of a life lived perfectly, or rather, in the embrace of a perfectionism which is both a psychological trap and the great sin of hubris, both of which lead to despair. This is a peculiarly American and Christian encumbrance, one which literalizes and fetishizes the Word and disavows the deep humanity of the listener. From the pits of perfectionism, the authors invite the reader, if one is still reading at this point, to consider these lovely graces, outcomes of leaving perfection in its dust: release, gratitude, humility, tolerance, forgiveness, being-at-home. Wow. Just the way these words fall on the eye is pleasing, and a relief. If you are an Enneagram One (or a Two, or a Six…), a Virgo (or whatever), have impeccably ordered closets and cabinets, hold quite a little bit of judgment inside, find it remarkably easy to spot the faults of others, can’t quite figure out why nature, human and otherwise, doesn’t quite align itself with your vision, find a little narcotic of some harmless kind a good antidote to the highly imperfect world in which you and I are required to live, read this book.

Many years ago, I discovered Terry Tempest Williams. Or perhaps more correctly, she discovered me. I have no idea who introduced me to her, but ever since, she has been my companion. And what an unusual companion for me: a Mormon! Keep reading. Williams lives in southern Utah, though she writes from many places. She is the latest in a long line of strong independent Utah Mormon women, no oxymoron there, and she writes evocatively about her grandmother, her mother, Utah’s spiritual landscape and topography, deserts, faith, the oceanic bottoms of the Great Salt Lake, Jesus, her husband, life, light, the intrinsic value of humor, need I go on? Her first book, Refuge, is a refreshment, and her latest book Finding Beauty in a Broken World is a meditation of the juncture of art, ecology, human violence and redemption set in Ravenna, Italy (the home of the worlds’ most magnificent mosaics), a forsaken Rwandan town, and the vast prairie dog villages of the southwest Utah desert. She weaves together these seemingly disparate places into a beautifully poignant testament of hope and possibility. If you are an Annie Dillard fan, you will find her becoming. If you are not, read them both.

During the past eighteen months, I searched broadly for a way to understand the phenomena I was experiencing. I found Tim Farrington’s slight volume, A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul. In a scant one hundred pages, Farrington speaks of his own complex spiritual journey within the constructs of contemporary American psychiatry, which views, if I can cut to the chase, psychopharmacology as the solution to every form of human suffering. Much to our ultimate detriment, I believe, and Farrington’s eloquent book gives such testimony. While the appropriate response to organic depression is rightly medical, I observe that much of what we call depression in this culture is an appropriate feeling response to the conditions of life, the feelings about which being the great gift that lets us find our way through often dark thicket to re-create and re-imagine and re-enliven worn out patterns, boundary-less relationships, and inhuman expectations (see Imperfection above). Farrington says near the end of the book that the dark night is God’s solution to our solutions, not a bad summary of a spiritual journey which if medicated away bears no fruit.

While in the sands, I returned to Thomas Moore’s immensely popular book of nearly twenty years ago, Care of the Soul. I had found it engaging back in the early ‘90’s, and found the title again alluring. I did not expect it to affect me, but affect me it did, more than my first reading when I was a young whippersnapper in my early forties, knowing quite a lot as I did then. Moore is trained in classical Christian spiritual tradition and has become very familiar with the work of Carl Jung, whose contribution to spirituality is not yet fully realized. Moore is a most accessible writer, and invites one to deeply, and this is the word, live one’s life, all of it, with particular attention to the dark side, the shadow, the winters in which much of our most vital work is undertaken and brought to fruition. If you read Care of the Soul way back then, it is worth a re-reading. If you have come of age since, this book is a fine introduction to the complexities of the soulful spiritual, read: human, path, with its necessary vicissitudes, wanderings, stumbles, detours, failings, grandeurs, soarings, and mostly dailinesses, and how fidelity to the work and the disciplines inherent in it are both the work itself and its reward.

A companion to Moore is Breakfast at the Victory: The Mysticism of Ordinary Experience by James P. Carse. Carse is a professor at NYU, and brings to the conversation about mysticism the experiences of a very lay man, one steeped in both the classics and religious tradition and committed to the ordinary path we are all called to, one that requires observation, attention, physicality, silence, intuition, self-awareness and a great slowing down. Anecdotal, humorous, self-effacing, filled with the wisdom of sages (the Sufis, Nicholas of Cusa, Meister Eckhart, Socrates, the Buddha, the Hindu Vedas, Pascal, et al.), Carse writes an unpretentious book about what it means to be human, in the presence of the divine. Towards the end of the book, Carse says that the revelation I sought for was of God; the revelation I got was of a self I did not want to be…but seeing how far we are from God, the mystics thought, is the way God begins to seek us. The book is filled with such nuggets as these.

Dave Eggers, the celebrated San Francisco author who manages a school in the City’s Mission district teaching immigrant kids how to write creatively, has written another gem himself. But this one is no novel, though it read like one, or rather, an extended and engrossing journalistic account of reality, tragedy, hope, humor, humanity. Zeitoun is maybe the most truly soulfully spiritual book I read this year. It is an account of the travails of the Syrian-American Muslim Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his formerly Southern Baptist Louisiana wife, Kathy, in pre-, during- and post-Katrina New Orleans. If this man were a character in fiction, he would be read as is Huckleberry Finn today, for ages to come. Hopefully the fact he is a real human will not deter future readers. Part intensely recorded history of the advance and fall of the storm on the city of New Orleans, part account of the fantastically peaceful days immediately after the storm, part account of the beyond inept and cruel and unconstitutional story of the government’s response to this one of her citizens, part family log, and mostly a portrait of a magnificent and highly admirable human being, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, and how he faced circumstances that would have broken many of us. His humanity, his humor, his faith in his God, his love for his wife and daughters and family in Spain and in Syria, his devotion to the city of New Orleans, his care for abandoned pets and abandoned people while forging for food for himself and his companions, his ultimate trust in God and in humanity, all shine through on every page. If you begin this book, plan on not going to work tomorrow, so committed to Zeitoun and his story you will become.

Many years ago I read and was charmed by Chet Raymo’s Honey from Stone. Raymo teaches the sciences at Stonehill College and writes beautifully about the natural world. When young, Raymo was a ferverino, a term we used decades ago for one obviously committed to the spiritual life, if excessively. He outgrew the excesses and eventually, the dogmas and many of the disciplines, too. His most recent book When God Is Gone Everything Is Holy is a brief, extended meditation on reverencing the natural world, the cosmos, creation, as a source of wisdom, experience, and ultimately spirit. He observes that much of God language has kept human beings from having a profound experience of nature, and thinks that if we would recover some of our innate regard for our place in the natural world, that we might see and experience the world as holy, and in doing so, our perspective would shift from an other-worldy focus to knowing and committing to a focus on this world, the only one we can currently inhabit. Such immense challenges as climate change and global warming would be more succinctly addressed by our absolute participation in the world as it is, not as it might be dogmatically constructed.

In my work in clinical psychology, I remain a pupil of Carl Jung. Though I am not a graduate of a Jung Institute, of which there are several in the United States, I am always reading some of his adherents to deepen my understanding of his insights. A book I reviewed many years ago The Scapegoat Complex by Sylvia Brinton Perrera has been most instrumental in my professional and person life, and I recently reread it for the fifth time, as best I could ascertain by the various marginal notes I have taken over the years. This year a friend sent to me Living in the Borderlands: the Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma by Santa Fe Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein. Bernstein combines an understanding of Native American mythology and ritual, an appreciation of the separation we in the West have experienced from nature, the hidden paradoxes of human intuition, and the openness of some humans to ways of knowing that are both contra-indicated in our rational world and are often regarded as akin to some kind of pathology. Living in this borderland is a fraught and ultimately graced experience, and is not dissimilar to the path of Christian mysticism that some other books in this list are engaged with. The complexity of modern life calls from us new ways of seeing, knowing and acting to recover what is most deeply human and natural, as opposed to mechanical, the reign of which seems daily to be ascendant. This is a difficult and spotty book but speaks to an experience some readers of this blog will both identify with and appreciate.

Trickster Makes This World is the most engaging book I have read in many years. Its author, Lewis Hyde, is a genius, and had such status confirmed when he won the MacArthur Award. He taught creative writing at Harvard, perhaps by passing out his own wonderful texts, and writes with vast knowledge of the mythological traditions and their intricacies of African, Asian, Australian, and North American native tribes and peoples, contemporary art (Duchamp, Ginsburg Cage), with expositions on Frederick Douglass, Greek mythology, the Christ, and with enough Shakespeare, Jung, Freud, and contemporary writers of fiction to delight and amaze and provoke you. He is wise, witty, counterintuitive, disruptive, smart, connecting, demanding,. This is a delicious book. It took me many months of a few paragraphs at a time to digest, and well worth the effort. It utterly humanizes us, and respects that which is steeped in Mystery with uncanny regard, and often surprising accuracy. Like Perrera, I will re-read this, hopefully many times. It cannot be gotten the first time, though the first time is joyous.

I conclude with the most recent book by a man who was among the first writers to whom I was drawn as I began my adult life forty years ago. It was 1970, and we were both so young. Then a Catholic priest at Boston University, and an anti-war activist, James Carroll wrote elegantly about a life of faith, and offered prayers in an idiom I hungered for. Elegantly he still writes. Now primarily known as a novelist (Mortal Friends, Prince of Peace, et al), he recently penned Constantine’s Sword, an indictment of historical Christianity’s treatment of and active participation in the persecution of the Jews, up to and including the Holocaust. It is a troubling and very beneficial text. He most recent book is Practicing Catholic, which I was shy to pick up but my fealty to Carroll invited me to the same. I was amply rewarded. While Carroll writes in a vein not dissimilar to Chet Raymo, he is a man who has stayed within the walls of the institution, though on his terms. Having gone beyond the ancient and inadequate dogmatic and political constructions of a conciliar church, and here we are talking about Nicaea and Chalcedon in the fourth and fifth centuries, not Vatican II, in the late and not missed twentieth, Carroll dissects the political, sexual, inter-religious, hierarchical, theological accretions of Catholicism, and yet makes a case for maintaining ties to a group of pilgrims on this journey, and for him how the act of reformation, as radical as he deems it to be, one worthy of an educated and fully invested in the twenty-first century human being, knowing that paths to the divine are sacred even when they have been mutilated by injustice, abuse, arrogance, denial, intellectual rigidity, and obtuseness. For readers who are practicing Catholics, for those reading these who grew up in the Roman Church (I recently read that there are upwards of ten million former Catholics in the United States…), for those interested in how massive religious institutions operate and perhaps change, Carroll is a good and faithful guide. And a very decent human being.

Happy reading and a happy New Year to you.

The headlines scream about extremists who seek to cause suffering in the lives of ordinary people in order to create a climate of fear and instability. We read and watch daily reports of extremist groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban. The Southern Poverty Law Center monitors extremist activity in the USA, especially threats from the Ku Klux Klan.

Extremist is a dirty word.

Those of us old enough to remember may recall that Martin Luther King Jr. was also called an extremist by those who opposed segregation and racial equality.  Back in the day, many white people were threatened by King’s activism and charisma. They argued that he was trying to bring about change too quickly. Some openly claimed that he was a communist or at least an extremist.

Dr. King said he wasn’t a communist, but, after considerable reflection, he admitted he was in fact an extremist.

The definition of an extremist is “one who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, especially in politics.”

To label another as an extremist is an intensely derogatory tag. Extremists are demagogues who employ faulty logic. Extremists show disdain for the rights and liberties of others and resent the limitations of their own activities. Extremists are not nice people.  Extremists are people to be avoided.

Right?

Extremists hate the status quo.

But Martin Luther King Jr. argued that there is more than one way to be an extremist—there is more than one kind of extremism and there is more than way to change the status quo. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King wrote:

Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream”…was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand I can do no other, so help me God.”….And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.”….So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?…Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.

Perhaps the deeper and more important question these days is not whether someone is an extremist but what kind of extremist.

Generically speaking, extremists divide the world into Us verses Them.

What the world needs now is a deeper extremism. This deeper extremism is not rooted in ideological thinking but in compassionate living. A deeper extremism is not one that divides, incites fear or causes suffering, but one that unites to bring healing and promote possibility.

Extremist thinking divides the world into Us and Them. Extremist compassion knows there is no such thing as Us verses Them.

Especially in this world and at this time, Dr. King’s version of extremism is the one and only brand of extremism that has the power to heal the world.

The question is not whether you are an extremist but rather, what kind of extremist will you be?

The latest story of the failed “underwear suicide bomber” is one more example that homeland security requires something deeper than a revealing image  from some full body scanner. Full body scanners can’t penetrate body cavities or see under flabby folds of skin. The latest technology has its limits.  This recent kerfuffle reminds us that when it comes to the monster of terrorism–we typically react to the symptoms rather than dealling with the root cause–the  breakdown of human community.

By definition, terrorism is all about the power of coercion that wreaks fear and suffering. Yes, in the short run security must be ramped up. But over the long haul, the power of coercion can finally and ultimately only be overcome by the power of persuasion.

Life is all about relationships. Cultivating and supporting healthy relationships is the only thing that can create a strong social immune system capable of repelling the virus of terrorism. The only real solution is to build up our social immune system.

Ever since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and more recent actions of terrorists, the relationship between Muslim and non-Muslim Americans in the US has deteriorated. As events and stories unfold, many American Muslims are feeling defensive, depressed and marginalized.

Although many American Muslim leaders have spoken out against terrorism, the conventional wisdom and perspective of the mainstream media is that American Muslims are too timid.

Offering up a plethora of commentaries, non-Muslim pundits often share opinions that imply if not insist that the American Muslim community is at worst supportive, at best ambivalent about the violent actions of extremists who carry the Muslim banner.

With disturbing regularity the American news media carries headlines about the latest action of a “Muslim terrorist” or “Islamic jihadist” who shouts “Allahu Akbar” while committing some violent act. The 24/7 news cycle contributes to this feeding frenzy. Generalizations and stereotypes about American Muslims and the “world of Islam” abound among the non-Muslim American majority, prompting some to coin the term “Islamophobia.”

While many American Muslims confess feeling marginalized and powerless, non-Muslim Americans are given precious few opportunities to look upon their neighbors as anything but the latest iteration of “the other”. This complex dynamic creates a sense of powerlessness for each.

Taken together, these combustible narratives create an accelerating dynamic of fear and suspicion among Muslim and non-Muslim Americans alike. Comparisons between the current public mindset toward American Muslims as “the other” and the climate that allowed the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, as the “other,” gives one pause.

This fearful and complicated reality reflects the breakdown of the American community

.Everyone is focusing on what has gone wrong.

But focusing on what’s gone wrong only takes us back to the past. It is only as we focus our attention upon what is already working (our assets) that we develop the capacity to create a future lived on higher ground. This proven methodology is known as Asset Based Community Development.

Only as we engage in a new conversation based on building capacities of new understanding, new relationships and community will we transform the old grievance stories (on both sides) of the past and create a new future. The creation of a new community begins with a new conversation.

Let us begin by writing together a new narrative by focusing on where and how Muslim and non-Muslim Americans are working together to live out the American dream. It is time to write a new American map—let’s call it the cartography of the heart.

Please share your awareness of local and national groups, eg. peace and justice organizations, secular groups committed to human rights, organizations committed to peaceful conflict resolutioncolleges and universities, religious and inter-religious initiatives like United Religions Initiative Cooperation CirclesInterfaith Youth Core, the Interfaith Alliance, local Baptist-MuslimJewish-Muslim and Catholic-Muslim dialogue projects, etc.

Do you know of a grassroots effort that could  help us to change this tired, old conversation?

It is time to move from fear to hope, from problems to possibility.  New conversations have the power to create new relationships and new relationships have the power to re-create the world.  I invite you to join me in this new conversation built not on problems and fears but strength and possibility.

When I was a very young man, maybe a very old boy, during my freshman year at Creighton Prep, I was assigned a very young Jesuit, Tom Shanahan, as my homeroom teacher. He engaged me unlike any teacher before, and over the next few years, we became friends, a friendship I still hold in high regard. Tom, now a professor of theology at Creighton University these many years, came into my consciousness this morning and I was reminded of an observation he shared with me about our kinsmen several decades ago: We Irish , Tom said, have a lot of faith, and we have enough charity, I suspect, but we don’t live with much hope. Having immersed myself in Irish history over the intervening years, I have some sense of the why of that insight. And, of late, I have been meditating on hope.

On my journey, an interior one like yours, I have been at a place Juan de la Cruz, the misfit mystic of medieval Spain, called, luminous darkness. It is a still place, spacious, anticipating some ineffable movement, devoid of embellishment and singular, solitary, alone. It is a good and intuitively right place for me to be, though not without its particular challenges.

It is also appropriate for this Advent season, since a boy, my most looked-forward-to time, moreso than Christmas, or summertime, or even the brief eclipse that is a birthday. One of the graced ironies is that Advent is if anything only a season of hope. Of some spectacular or more probably undetectable thing happening, something desired and somehow understood, but only in the recesses of the soul, not available to the over-processing intellect. That it is a time of darkness is essential, midnight blue its evocative color, and the night sky its only source of light, the constellations in all of their hauntingly beautiful and undecipherable array. Luminous darkness. In the northern hemisphere, we find it cold, this year very cold, a bleak mid-winter, which somehow adds to the mystery or obscuration our hearts contemplate.

Only a season of hope. Well maybe other elements are present, too. Surrender. Trust. Even dread, (but the holy not the abject kind…so don’t stop reading).

Teresa of Avila, Juan’s very close friend and confidant, says: You find God in yourself and yourself in God. I think that’s where the dread comes in.

I am terrified by the encounter with what Jung calls the Self, what mystics, Christian and otherwise, call by many evocative names, most precisely, the One, or, as the Galilean wanderer most intimately called Love. Why dread, and why during this season of hope? Because the closer we come to its realization, the sharper its contour, the more demanding its energy, the more enthralling its draw, a gravity of insuperable completion. Its scares the BeJesus out of us. Our egos run amok, sentimental drivel takes hold, we get caught in what Owen Barlow calls the desert of non-participation, mechanically going through motions that deaden, rather than vivify our hearts and lives, and those grace places in our path.

My friend Grace Myerjack, a contemplative nun in upstate New York , who, like Tom’s, presence is in this room as I type, writes in her Christmas letter this year about all the places in our lives we have this encounter. Grace says we bump into this Presence even as we flee and seek to survive on our own. Survive on our own. Hmmm.

I am flee-er. Grace has my number. But I am working to sit and be still and wait. And, contrary to my heritage as a son of Eire, I am hoping.

Signs of hope are actually everywhere. I just forget to look sometimes.

For instance:

The Hubble continues to send to us beyond-beautiful images of universes untold, suggesting the vast magnificence and unknowable depths of the universe and of its Originator, inviting us to contemplate from a posture of humility and surrender and, yes, hope. While ultimate meaning may elude us, with our prehensile brains, other internal organs, the heart and the seat of intuition, soar. Hope.

In our cities, on this cold day, human beings are caring for human beings in every imaginable way: people who might otherwise be out in the freeze are being invited inside, being fed, clothed, gifted, educated, nurtured, restored to health or expiring with dignity and ease, recognized as human, perhaps even seen. Not just in our cities. Hope.

Each day, countless billions of humans are treating each other with dignity and respect, and delight. Friends everywhere are reaching out to friends, and making new ones, and learning how to listen a bit better, be a bit more honest and a bit more present. Parents are sacrificing for their children, and their children are amazing their parents with previously unimagined delights. That goes for aunts and uncles of all stripes with their nieces and nephews, too! Strangers are aiding strangers, and even some enemies are doing the most impossible of tasks, forgiving and repairing and healing the wounds that are evident everywhere, too. Music is being made, some of it soul stirring, and art is being created as if the world depended on it. Hope.

I received a letter yesterday from my friend William, a lifer recently transferred to a prison far away from the accessible San Quentin for the mass overcrowding there. He is a bodhisattva –in-training, though he may not know those terms. He had no rancor for being sent far from his loved ones in the East Bay, only hope that his reconstructed, reformed, grace-infused life would continue to flourish in an alien space. For me, hope.

In every country on the globe, a totally unreported cable news story, I might add, humans are caring for humans, and caring for animals, our dear close companions in this life, and caring for plants, and caring for the very life of the planet, caring for its survival, creating organizations to more efficiently care, so great is the caring, so disciplined are we desirous of becoming so our caring might be maxed, so that this great human adventure, this raising of consciousness, will not end in the collective ego’s great collapse, and along with it life on earth, but rather one enormous connected effort to learn again to reverence this one absolute gift we have been given, this majestic planet and our very lives. Hope.

We celebrated my father-in-law’s eighty fourth birthday last Sunday at a simple family lunch, prepared lovingly by Scott’s mother, Mary. Dick is a man of large humor and capacious intellect. He loves the earth and cares for it, as farmers do, with focused attention. He is a peerless citizen and a family man replete when his family is near, though with great friendships and associations in the world beyond his home. And he has taught me much about how to be a citizen, moreover, about how to be a human being, and, oddly perhaps, mostover, how to be a son. For me, hope

World leaders are meeting in Copenhagen as I write and as you read to address the aforementioned crisis being created by fossil fuel use. The Times said today that actual progress might be made. Hope.

Our president will soon join them. We have in Mr. Obama a national leader, commandingly elected by an electorate bereft of hope, who faces the insurmountable tasks we laid at his feet on 20 January of this year with grace, vast intelligence, patience, a collaborative, consultative style, a compelling joie de vivre, and a remarkable absence of rancor. For me, hope.

We have current moving images that inscribe humanity onto the soul: Gabby Sidibe as Precious, Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as his co-conspirator supplying hope in Invictus, Colin Firth, close to despair and yet, in A Single Man. Hope.

The green-banded young and not-so-young citizens of Iran continue to twitter and email and Iam each other and march together in their stunning effort to overthrow their own flawed national election and remedy the gaping wounds their culture has suffered for a generation. Inspiring and courageous. Hope.

Stories abound this time of year of a baby born to a with-child-in-the-eighth-month teen-ager (see Precious above) without benefit of acknowledged patrimony but an intuitive but nonetheless cockamamie story about a superior sense of an impending pregnancy trolling through the high desert countryside to fulfill some iron-fisted colonists’ demand that a census-for-tax-purposes occur (and right now!) with her perhaps shamed companion, a dreamer of a man a bit older but undoubtedly baffled by the incongruities of his girlfriend’s story, bizarre and sympathetic at once, and their not finding a place to shelter themselves in the freeze, and a barn, and big wide bovines nearly cramping them, and sheep herders (the smell is apparent, no!?) and some extraterrestrials (angels, in the vernacular, but really) and monarchs (perhaps minor dukes) from eastern kingdoms (see Iran , nee Persia above) with gold (currently the commodity of choice) and incense (masking the shepherds odor, hopefully) and myrrh (no allusions immediately available but it sounds generally taboo). We don’t really know from swaddling, we like the word Magi, for some reason, and this impossible story is the narrative upon which one can somehow build a life.

It contains every necessary element: a journey, vulnerability, intuition, humility, suffering, yet trusting, surrender, attention, unexpected gifts from improbable sources, the willing exchange of the material for a generous enough dose of the improbably spiritual, the life giving and love bearing presence of nature. Of course we know its outcome because we have read ahead. But the outcome is necessary, no?

No dogmatic articulations necessary. No atonement, nor soteriology, no human sacrifice to a venging deity. Those accretions obscure the life-vivifying truth of the story.

We are invited to live a human life. Every day.

Getting up after yesterday’s failures and omissions, surrendering ourselves and giving it all away today. Rising each morning with the knowledge that perfection is an illusion and a dangerous one at that. Each day opening our eyes to the reality that the enemy I can’t forgive lives mostly within. And that the One whose love I yearn for, whose presence I intuit and in some mysterious unknowing know, resides therein, as well. They must be reconciled, they must be joined, they are ultimately one. Luminous darkness. Advent. A baby swaddled. A girl unashamed. A cow lowing. Stars beckoning. True gifts shared. Awe abundant. Love delivered. Just in time.Hope.

I nearly floated as I walked home from dinner on the small Pacific island of Miyake a few weeks ago.

The location was special: an island of stunning black beaches, gentle temperatures, and ragged cliffs, towered over by one of earth’s liveliest volcanoes. The food had been superb: thinly sliced meats grilled at the table and dipped in scrumptious sauces, supplemented by an array of pickled dishes, salads, and sparkling beverages.

But it was the conversation that had made the evening exceptional. For three hours, the four of us, all teachers, paused only to fill our mouths. We talked about Japanese politics, about the island economy, about Afghanistan, about sumo wrestling, about families and travel. We laughed; we sighed; we agreed; we disagreed; we heard each other–and felt heard–with both heart and head.

I experienced that night what we mean when we speak of the oneness of the human spirit. Our religions varied. We were single and married, old and young, Japanese and American. None of us was wholly comfortable with the others’ language. Yet the mutuality was magical. I understood what Bob Thompson means when he says that “the idea of a separate self is a construction of the mind.”

My euphoria, however, was punctured soon by a sobering note. If the dinnertime oneness was satisfying, the walk home got me to thinking about the price that mutuality exacts, about the fact that when I start empathizing, I start seeing things from my companions’ perspective. And when I do that, I have to take new, even uncomfortable, ideas seriously.

The topic that stirred the unease around the table was Okinawa. Obama was coming to Japan that week, and the hot issue was the presence of dozens of American bases–and 20,000 GIs–on Okinawa. Japan’s new government had begun discussing possible policy changes regarding the location of one of those bases, and U.S. diplomats had countered with a threatening line, warning that change might threaten the entire U.S.-Japan alliance.

The thing that became clear in the evening’s conversation was that policy specifics were less important than tone, in particular the impression American officials gave that they were not interested in Japanese nuances or sensibilities. The American bases, I was reminded, are on Japanese soil. Japan bears a significant share of their expense. American GIs are perceived to get special treatment when they commit crimes on Okinawan soil. And yet, Americans lecture the Japanese about what must be done–in the authoritarian tone of stern parents.

As I talked with my Japanese hosts, I saw–no, I felt–how humiliating it can be to deal with bullying partners. Even when those partners consider themselves friends.

And as I thought back over the conversation, I realized, quite painfully, that empathy is not always the easiest way. Feeling loved and accepted had prompted me to love back. When I loved back, I was drawn into my companions’ perspective. And when I entered their space, my easy certitudes began to fall away.

What was more (and what was hardest!), that moment of empathy sent my mind spinning off in broader directions. If empathy impelled me to take my companions’ views seriously on this matter, what if I did the same with even hotter, bigger issues? What if everyone took this idea of oneness seriously?

Is it possible that some Palestinians’ hatred of Jewish Israel stems from an inability to get beyond their own (justifiable) sense of victimhood to an understanding of the Israelis’ own sense of threat? Or that many Jews hate Palestinans primarily because their preoccupation with personal vulnerability prevents them from looking at the world as Palestinians experience it?

And is that the way it is everywhere? Americans, smug in our own wealth and power, have no interest in seeing through the eyes of those affected by our actions. Moslem extremists, feeling ignored and marginalized, ask how to bring the infidel down but not how the infidel feels as a fellow human being. Rich nations, focusing on profit lines, shut their ears to the worries of poor countries who will bear the brunt of global warming.

Listening to others will not make solutions easier. It may make them harder, because it will force us to take competing claims seriously. Feeling a sister’s hurt will not necessarily make me agree with her, but it will refuse to let me ignore her position. And that will make my own intellectual struggles more complex, and thus more difficult.

But empathizing will change our interactions. It will drive us to discover ways of living together, to choose love and respect over hatred and alienation. And that will make the complications worth the struggle. It is, after all, the only way to justice.

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