From Belief Systems To Relief Systems

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.

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.


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?

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.

“Liberal bias has become the single biggest distortion in modern Bible translations,” so states the first sentence on the Conservapedia, a website begun by Andrew Schlafly, son of Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum.

Launched in 2006 and proclaiming itself as the one true defender of the Truth, Conservapedia is making news with its claim that modern translations of the Bible are tainted by liberal bias.

With an allusion to the 10 Commandments, Conservapedia asserts that modern translations of the Bible fail to adhere to its ten guidelines, beginning with a “Framework against Liberal Bias” and concluding with “Preferring Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness.”

Liberals are “downplaying the very real existence of hell and the devil” and responsible for inserting later stories into the biblical text such as Jesus forgiving the woman caught in adultery. As found in John’s Gospel, Conservapedia says noted scholars discount this story as being a later addition.

This is not news.

Even conservative Biblical scholars admit that Mark’s Gospel, the earliest, wasn’t written down until 65-70 CE. There are no pure or unfiltered accounts of the life of Jesus.

When it comes to the Bible, interpretation always depends on assumptions and perspective. Liberals read it liberally, conservatives read it conservatively.

Some time back I had a lunch meeting with a Messianic Jew.  We met at (where else?) the Blind Faith Café.

Messianic Jews are people who were raised as religious or cultural Jews who have converted to Christianity. Messianic Jews believe that Jesus really was the Jewish messiah, the one and only Son of God. For all intents and purposes, messianic Jews are evangelical Christians.

To my partner in dialogue I said, “I believe that Jesus is not the one and only door to God but at once a  window to our humanity and divinity.” He immediately flew off the handle. “And you call yourself a Christian? That’s the problem with all you liberals, you believe that truth is relative. And that’s what’s wrong with this society. The moral breakdown of our society is due to the fact that we don’t believe in the authority of the Bible anymore. Take sex for example. Homosexuality and sexual promiscuity are a result of a society that no longer believes in Biblical morality.”

His retort provided a perfect opening so I said, “I imagine you believe that the Bible teaches monogamy, right?” “Absolutely,” he said. “Then how do you account for the fact that Abraham did not practice monogamy. Abraham not only had a mistress, but the mistress was Hagar, his wife’s maid, and Abraham got her pregnant. This is biblical sexual morality?”

“All right”, he countered,” if you want to talk about the Hebrew Bible, what about the 10 Commandments? Do you believe in the 10 commandments, or not?”

“Sure , I believe it’s wrong to steal unless you are stealing bread to feed your starving family. I believe it’s wrong to lie. But there have been many times that people have told a lie in order to save the life of somebody else. Sometimes morality calls us to confront the complexity of life and seek the highest good”. Life cannot be reduced to dogmatic formulas,” I said.

Round and round we went.   When it comes to the Bible this is the ongoing liberal/conservative debate.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the definition of an idol is : “a representation or symbol of an object of worship; broadly : a false god.”

Every attempt by liberals or conservatives to reduce the Bible to fit a preconceived ideology is an attempt to turn the Bible into God. Bibliolotry is another word for this.

A bibliolater is “one having excessive reverence for the letter of the Bible.”

The Bible is not God.

Get it?

I don’t fault conservatives for wanting to change the words to make them more palatable to conservative tastes. We liberals do the same thing.

So let’s start here: in whatever form the diverse biblical cannon appeared or appears, it is not God.  It  is a collection of books that contains the narrative quest of people who seek God–this is why the literature is sacred.

Get it?

In whatever form the flawed biblical narrative appears, I am moved most by the words of Paul in I Cornithians 13: “If I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.”

As Dante Alighieri reminds us,

The love of God, unutterable and perfect, flows into a pure soul the way that light rushes into a transparent object. The more love that it finds, the more it gives itself, so that, as we grow clear and open, the more complete the joy of loving is. And the more souls who resonate together, the greater the intensity of their love, for, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.

Whatever your preferred translation, the Bible is not God—never has been and never will be.

I openly confess however that I am a loveolotrist.

Last week, I completed a writing project on Japan’s experience with imperialism, just two hours before the deadline. Finished, I felt exhilarated. Free!

The writing itself, by contrast, had depressed me. I love my country; trying to explain the way Americans in the mid-1800s forced a weak nation to sign treaties that we knew to be “unfair,” left me sad when I wasn’t angry. I also love Japan; trying to understand why it turned imperialist, then warlike, in response to those Western pressures also left me sad. And angry.

Why? I asked again and again. What leads a nation, a good people, to abuse another? What caused the Japanese to keep seeking more territory in the early twentieth century, then to make those cursed decisions that led to Pearl Harbor . . . then to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

I offered all of the standard answers in my manuscript. Pushed into empire-building by the Western threat, the Japanese couldn’t change their imperialist habit. The Great Depression caused Japan to turn from internationalism to a self-obsessed go-it-alone policy in the early 1930s. Militarists and nationalists took the initiative away from democrats and internationalists in the troubled Depression milieu.

All of those answers contain a great deal of truth. At the same time, I have become convinced that there was another, very theological, very human explanation. Simple as it sounds, Japan’s descent into aggression was fueled in fundamental ways by an inability to understand that all peoples are one.

When we see ourselves as separate, isolated, superior–anything less than connected to every other being–it is a short step to hurtful and dehumanizing behaviors. When we see other people (or peoples) as Other, when we cannot see that they are connnected to us, it is easy to treat them differently from the way we treat ourselves, or want to be treated.

When Westerners sent their gunboats to Japan in the 1850s, they regarded the East Asians as different: pagan, uncivilized, backward. They knew almost nothing about them; what knowledge they did have was often inaccurate. But in their hearts they knew the Japanese to be of another kind–which made it easy, even rational, to treat them unjustly.

When the Japanese moved into Korea and China in the 1900s, they did the same thing. They saw the Koreans and Chinese as different: uncivilized, primitive. They knew more about them than the Americans had known about Japan, but their conviction that continental Asians were Other made it easy to talk about bringing “civilization to the benighted” even while treating them as objects rather than as sisters and brothers.

The mystics and spiritual giants have had no more radical insight than their understanding that all beings are one. The Dao De Jing says of a sage: “The more he does for others, the more he has himself.” Of course: the sage is connected to others; something done for another is done for (and to) one’s self.

Thomas Merton said the same thing when he argued that we all are one; we only have a misapprehension that we are not.

If an Israeli does not understand that she is one with her Palestinian neighbor, how easy it is to treat that neighbor as if she did not exist, or to take away her right to live a fully human existence. If a Palestinian is blind to his oneness with the Jewish settler nearby, lobbing a bomb makes sense.

An American who regards a Taliban activist as Other (the label matters little: extremist, terrorist, fanatic) has little trouble justifying a heartless curse or a nasty attack on an Afghani village. Nor will the Al Qaeda suicide bomber think twice before killing the American Others who dominate her nightmares and day-visions.

Take away Merton’s understanding that we are one, and the decisions become easier. Ask myself, on the other hand, how my actions will affect me (because the Israeli, the Palestinian, and the Taliban activists are me) and the decisions become much more difficult. They also become more humane.

Japan’s prime minister Tojo Hideki reportedly told a reporter in 1948, as he awaited execution for war crimes, that nations think of themselves as fighting for “justice and self-preservation,” but actually war “stems from human greed”–from gaining an advantage for myself over the Other. When the reporter asked if he had thought that way while he was prime minister, he said no, he had realized it only after the war, while sitting in jail.

There is nothing more insufferable than a new convert to—just about anything. When you are a new convert you are convinced that you have found it and anyone who doesn’t see it your way is at best, ignorant—at worst, living a life of futility.

My last conversion occurred fifteen years ago when I became a vegetarian. When I stopped eating meat, I knew that every carnivore had no idea about the consequences of their behavior. Didn’t they know they were ingesting flesh? Didn’t they know that animals like humans, are sentient beings who feel pleasure and pain? How can anybody justify consuming a higher form of life?

Of course there are the benefits not only to human health but the general well-being of the planet and the human race (100 acres of land will produce enough beef to feed twenty people but enough wheat to feed 240 people).

As a new convert to vegetarianism, I was appalled by carnivore consciousness. My original and obnoxious vegetarian zeal diminished long ago. Yet, I remain faithful.

My wife Judy, was a vegetarian for a while. But her vegetable vows eventually vanished and now she sometimes eats meat and vegetables.  We are proof that a mixed marriage can work.

Over the years, I’ve gotten over my dietary fervor.  I don’t have to save the world. I don’t even have to save myself.  I just don’t want to put meat in my body and that’s enough truth for me.

How we see the truth depends on the lens through which look.

The problem is that a new convert to anything, believes the Truth (capital T) can be seen without filters. Nowhere is this more evident than in someone who is a new convert to a particular religious or spiritual tradition.

I once had a conversation with a messianic Jew.  I’ve always thought this term to be an oxymoron.

Messianic Jews argue that Jesus (Yeshua) was/is the Jewish messiah and anyone who thinks otherwise just doesn’t get it. I told my partner in dialogue that he was really not a Jew–that in believing Jesus as the messiah meant he was actually a Christian. He freaked out and immediately launched into a polemic as to why I was wrong and he was right. It was a slippery slope from the mountain of dialogue to the monotony of monologue–a thoroughly unsatisfying conversation.

Sometime later I remembered Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Maslow said that human beings seek safety first, and next, security.

When we are converted to another way of life—especially to another religion—we are seeking, above all else, security.

But you don’t have to be a new convert–it’s not uncommon for devotees of any religious or spiritual tradition to believe that their way is the best way if not the only one true way.

Roman Catholics do it, Protestants do it, Jews and Muslims do it—this hint of a superiority complex exists in all our religious traditions. And it applies no less to many atheists. Who hasn’t believed for a moment that through my lens I can see the true unfiltered light?

Is your religious tradition the one true way?

This question begs a deeper one. What is religion and where does it come from?

I once heard the Benedictine monk, David Steindl Rast sum up the history of the world’s religions in two minutes. He said that most religions can trace their beginning to the mystical experiences of one charismatic person, such as Buddha, Moses, Jesus or Muhammad. In all cases, these inimitable teachers exuded such love and compassion that to be in their presence was to be standing on holy ground.

After their deaths, their followers memorialized them by building sacred shrines. They developed rituals that they followed in the hope that the original experience would be rekindled. They took the teachings and turned them into doctrines and moral codes.

The shrines, rituals, teachings and doctrines have been passed down from generation to generation for hundreds and even thousands of years, and present day followers have to rely on tradition rather than first hand experience.

Religion philosopher Huston Smith agrees that the world’s main religions have an essential commonality. He says that they are like a pair of trousers: One at the top and plural at the bottom.

On the mountaintop of mystical experience, Truth is one. Down in the valley of time and space, each religion develops its own unique teachings, rituals and ways of being in the world. In the valley of everyday life, Truth becomes the trouser legs and appears as truths. Life is plural, full of dichotomies, dualities, and pairs of opposites. In this valley, religion gets institutionalized.

When light is broken apart, or refracted, through a prism or water, white light appears as a rainbow spectrum of color. If we think of Truth as light, each religion could represent a particular hue, but none is the full white Divine light itself. The light available in first-hand mystical experience is simply too grand and luminous to be mediated by one or more religious traditions. All religious perceptions imply, infer and point, but none captures all of the light.

Brother David’s history lesson in religious and spiritual truth is a reminder.

No matter how much light we have received, we can never see the light in its unfiltered glory.

Even when I think I see the light the one thing I’ve learned is–there is always more to be seen.

Your real god is that to which you give your ultimate allegiance. To whatever truth you devote your life—that is your god. Everybody has at least one god. I have an atheist friend, well actually I have a lot of atheist friends—but this one is particularly curious how it is that otherwise intelligent people can possibly believe in God. At one of his parties he had just kicked back a martini—swaying back and forth he said , “so from what you say Bob, encountering God is like some sort of cosmic orgasm” (that’s not verbatim but close enough).

He caught me a little off guard—I stood there and thought—huh—I had never thought of it like that—I said “Phil, that’s not a bad analogy—In orgasmic pleasure, for a moment, you lose sense of the separate self–self  importance and self consciousness—you are utterly blissful. It works for me,” I said.

The word ‘God’ carries a lot of baggage and such conversations typically requires  the deconstruction of terms.  If by ‘God’ you are only referring to a separate supreme being who lives up there or out there–if that’s the only definition, then I’m an atheist too.

But If you don’t believe in God because there is no evidence or proof–if you can’t think your way into believing in God, then that’s another matter. Not being defined by material reality or limited to the logical functions of the brain, the God I experience can only be believed in  when we ‘get out of our heads.’  God becomes real when I let go of the separate me.  I can’t let go of the awareness of the separate me so long as I am living in my head–or as a neuroscientist might put it, when it comes to God, by itself, the left hemisphere of the brain has tunnel vision.

As Jill Bolte Taylor so powerfully put it in her book My Stroke of Insight,  the left hemisphere of the brain, has a place, but it’s not the whole story. The left hemisphere is sometimes called logical brain. The right hemisphere of the brain performs creative and intuitive functions. The left hemisphere sees details; the right sees the big picture.

Jill Bolte Taylor argues that we cannot live whole and complete lives unless both hemispheres of the brain are in balance.

I don’t know anything about neuroscience.

But I do know that there are some experiences in life that cannot be figured out or reduced to the available evidence. Sometimes, out in nature, we get so caught up with the incredible mystery and wonder of the natural world that we loose self consciousness and experience our unity with everything. Sometimes this happens with other people. When looking into each other’s eyes we see that we are not two, but one.

Everyone has an ideology. Everyone has a body of principles that govern their lives. The power of positive thinking is an ideology; the protestant work ethic that says you will be rewarded if you live right—is an ideology. Your ideology is how you think about life. Your ideology is the principles by which you live. Your ideology is how you dismantle the puzzle of life so as to put it back together so it makes sense to you.  Ideologies are rooted in the left hemisphere.

But some experiences in life don’t make sense. No matter how hard we think about life—we all have experiences that shatter our logical thinking and our ideologies.

Eckhart Tolle asks, “Have you ever gazed upon the infinity of space on a clear night, awestruck by the absolute stillness and inconceivable vastness of it? Have you listened, truly listened to the sound of a mountain stream in the forest—if so you have put down for a moment your personal baggage of problems or past, and future, as well as your knowledge—to experience these things your total presence is required. But beyond the beauty of external forms, there is more here: something that cannot be named, something ineffable, some deep, inner, holy essence…”

There is no ideology that is true. There is no belief system to contain it all. Because the truth is: life is mystery. In every moment we dwell on the edge of mystery—to see it, to touch it, to enter it, requires presence. Always, always, here and now.

This inexplicable Presence is always in us, always living through us and every living being.

This Presence is the power of connection, not only of the brain’s hemispheres–it is the Power that connects all of life. This Presence is always within us and we in it. We are forever held by It, and when we awaken to It, we touch the ineffable Mystery.

Life is an inexplicable and wondrous Mystery.  I’d even go so far as to say that life is itself God.  Wherever there is life, there is God. It’s a matter of waking up.

To believe this mystery can be reduced to the comprehension of the left hemisphere of the brain is the real joke.

I was riding my bicycle on Lake Drive into the beautiful northern suburbs of Milwaukee on a perfect late summer day, Labor Day afternoon.   My body was racked.  Alcohol was responsible, er…, I was responsible for the racking, but this was nothing new.  I had really been having a nine-year hangover, one day at a time, until late in the day each day, at which time I would nurse the egregious condition by taking a drink.

This particular hangover resulted from the previous night’s celebration of the departure of one of my friends who would soon leave to begin his studies in theology , to eventually  be ordained a Jesuit priest.  My own theological studies were already underway, having just completed the first year of theology in preparation for my own ordination.  I was in my ninth year in the Society of Jesus, seven days away from my thirtieth birthday.

My bicycle wobbled up yet another hill when I heard the words:  You don’t have to drink anymore.

Not you can’t, nor you shouldn’t nor you won’t .  Strategically, You don’t have to.

I knew with an intense clarity that it was over.  The dozen years in its grip, really, the thirty, the embarrassments and the shames and the fears and the haunting feeling that I was dying.  Gone.  Lifted.  Removed.  Over.

In an instant.

My first thought:  I’ll never be able to go to a party again.  I did like parties.  And people.  And singing.  And the camaraderie that came, or seemed to come, from the sauce.  But I did not doubt that it was over and I sensed that whatever it meant would be revealed in time.

That night I went to a party.  Having a drink did not enter my mind, nor has it on any day since.  Thirty years ago this past September.

A compulsion , yes.  A disease, well, yes.  Self-medication, yes, and very effective, I might add.  Repression, certainly and, within the cultures I lived, appropriately so.  But a grace, too, a gift with which I would not willingly part, the beginning for me of the journey I find myself yet on.

Four weeks after the lifting, I put on my Roman collar and left my Jesuit community in the abject ghetto of West Oakland and took BART into the City.  I was going to attend a political rally, this one a very important one indeed, though its importance not yet revealed as I crossed under the Bay.  A proposition was on the ballot in the State of California (it might appear that this is the only form of government we exercise here, and there is some truth in that) that would cause all schoolteachers who were gay or lesbian to be fired from their positions.  The offense?  Being.  Gay.

There was to be a rally of religious leaders who were against the proposition in San Francisco’s elegant Civic Center where the nation’s only out-gay elected official, city supervisor Harvey Milk, would speak, along with several others.  The highest ranking Roman Catholic who was willing to be on the podium with Milk was a Good Shepherd Sister, Eileen de Long.  Milk, as you know if you have seen the eponymous and fine Gus Van Sant movie, gave a standard speech rallying the community with the focus on those young people who were still caught in their horrific systems and who lived in fear that they were the only ones, the only ones who suffered this untenable affliction, this draw to love someone of the same gender.  So simple, isn’t it?  Or seemingly so.  Love.  Love denied, thwarted, judged, condemned, perjured, slandered, beaten, attacked, vilified, marginalized.  I need not go on.  For them Milk held such compassion.

I went to the rally poised to be another concerned liberal friend of this nascent gay community.  I wore my Roman collar for what protection I thought I needed to ward off…what?  My self, my desires, my knowledge of my own sexuality that had been irrevocable since puberty, and in its fullness, constituent in me in a correspondence with my date of birth.

Milk was giving his moving exhortation and in front of me were two young men holding each other.  I had never before seen such a sight.  Their tender regard was breathtaking and deeply disconcerting.  How could this be, all of this, this whole thing, this life so parsed out and compartmentalized and moralized and effected into life scripts that caused such pain and wreaked such havoc now upended  in the sight of these two beautiful young men.  I pulled the white plastic tab from the Roman collar, and I wept.  I wept tears of joy and of shame and of relief and of exhaustion and of hope and of enough.  Tears of enough.

At the rally’s conclusion, fired up by Milk and all of that beauty and tenderness, I took BART back to my small Jesuit community in West Oakland, put a piece of paper into my Selectric (a machine yet to be rivaled for efficiency and style) and typed out the words:  I am a gay man. 

It was an astounding act.  A declaration.  A submission.  A response.  A moment of truth telling I had waited unconsciously for since my first inclinations at Creighton Preparatory School, when I wanted so badly to be so close to a boy in my homeroom who appeared to be for me everything one would want to be close to.  And for me this shame and disgrace.

I pulled that piece of paper with its newly minted declaration out of that typewriter and pinned it onto my bulletin board where I would see it every day.  As if I would ever again need to be reminded.

A second gift, a manifestation, a  great grace, this finally acknowledging being gay.

Sober thirty days and lots had been happening!

That next day, I returned to my classes, notwithstanding this recent potent declaration with all of its meanings.   This coming out did not alter my sense of vocation, my call.  I had felt called since a boy, and was shaped, too,  to be feeling these things that I was feeling.  I grew up in such a cultural moment that the priesthood was an active possibility for every Catholic boy, and for some of us, the path that we somehow had always been on.  At thirteen, I considered going to a minor seminary, but waited.  After four years at Prep, I considered again entering the Jesuits, but waited.  After four years at Creighton University, I made the decision to join the Jesuits and give over my life to them and to the One who in my heart had always been the primary object of my desire.

How is it one feels these things?  How is it one discerns that course of life, especially when so young?  What else is it or might it be about?  What grace is being manifest? What compensation does it mollify, what repression does it hold, what shadow does it cover?  I suspect for me the movement was complex, consisting of motives over a wide range of my understandings, needs and desires.  And I sensed the presence of Someone whose name I could really not know but whose finger, if you will, was pointing to something just over the horizon, almost imperceptibly touching my right shoulder, nudging me on.  But who knows?  I trusted what I knew.

And for what I didn’t or what I couldn’t, I drank.  Not so unusual, really, considering the time and place, and I managed to keep it from being so apparent or a sloppy or chaos-making (at least externally) as so many of us were able to do so that it was yet another part of the complexity that was me.  And I was far from alone.  But when my drinking was lifted Labor Day afternoon, uncovered ground was now exposed, and some large accounting within necessarily had to occur.

As I returned to classes, I shared the news of my gaying awareness broadly.  I had no intention of leaving the Society of Jesus and believed I could find a place to provide ministering as a self-identified gay Jesuit priest.  My fellow theology students were only encouraging, and my spiritual director, the late Peter Fleming, SJ, blessed me, but warned me, too.   But when I shared this good news with the superior from my Midwestern province, he told me to never speak of this again.  He clearly did not get the coming-out part, of which I already was and could only continue to be.  But he departed for the Midwest from his annual visitation to Berkeley, and I continued my journey.  I flew to Omaha and came out to my extended family Christmas 1978 (I’m sober, too!).  My mother’s first words when I came out to her:  I’ve known this since you were about four years old.  I didn’t know how to talk about this with you lest I’d  been wrong.  A more endearing response is not imaginable.  My father, conversely, channeled the Jesuit provincial, and said only:  Now you never have to speak of this again.  He missed some essential piece of the story, not that was not new information for me, either.

That spring, young Jesuits in the second year of theological studies, as was I,  were invited to ask permission to make formal application to be ordained.  One could not make such application without the prior approval of one’s superiors, a winnowing out step that would prevent some greater mishap from occurring a bit later.  The letter was to be a compendium of one’s understanding of one’s years in the Society and of one’s ongoing call to orders, that is, priesthood.   I asked for such permission and was, without comment, invited to so apply to be ordained a priest in and of the Society of Jesus.

I had been a Jesuit for going on ten years, the first decade of my adult life.  I had been their pupil for the eight years prior, and hence, I truly had belonged to them for eighteen years.  Their ways, their language, theology, intellectual erudition,  cultural savvy, manners, elevated status, illustrious saints, deep spirituality, vision, clarity of purpose, preferential option for the poor, situation ethics, worldliness,  equal aptitude for the arts and for science, illustrious history,  and life-giving brotherhood were in my very marrow .  This way was the way I knew much that I knew of the world.  This way was in many ways the way I knew myself.  This way acknowledged the vagaries of my personality, blessed my gifts and worked with my deficiencies, and embraced my person.

With my formal letter of request due on Easter Monday, I preached my first public homily at the Maundy Thursday Eucharist, feeling deeply alive and grateful for my being and for Being itself.  I went home that evening to my little community to write my formal request, now that I had been permissioned, to be ordained a Jesuit priest.

I prayed for clarity that night, to be myself.  Afterwards, I once again put a piece of paper into my Selectric, and typed, on this occasion, nothing. No words came out onto the page.   No words were capable of being shaped by my mind to seek these orders.  That which I had spent much of my conscious life preparing for could not find expression as a request.  The response to my desire to be a priest was silence.  And I felt peace, just peace, and knowing, and an acceptance of it all, of the previous ten years, and of the eighteen, and of the thirty, and I knew it all and what was to come were but of a piece, a piece of a story we are privileged to live, of which we are its authors and are not at all, a story writ large of which part we give it its distinctions and uniqueness and flavor and extension but not its breath or blood or body or even the dailiness of its events.

I knew that for me what and how I was to do and be was to be a true man for others, a priest, if you will, laid elsewhere.  I loved the Jesuits so much, they had been for me a gift of profound proportions, an extended grace, and  I found my departure (thirty years ago this week) bittersweet.  I wrote my Jesuit brothers a letter of love and gratitude for all that they had been and given to me and allowed me to become in their midst.   As hard a letter I have not since written.  But I was to be one no longer.

A week ago Scott and I went to the home of a friend, another former Jesuit and his husband, for a dinner party.  Present were several former Jesuits and their spouses, all working effectively in the fields of love, and several Jesuits, friends of all of ours, and several women and men, in pairs and singly, the widow of another former Jesuit among others, all ministering in several kinds, all sitting around an extended table, all sharing bread and wine, along with spaghetti and meatballs, and homemade apple pie.  It was  a most expansive evening, and glittering too, the lights and candles glancing off the stemware, illuminating beautiful faces of all present, women and men, Jesuits and not, all committed to the poor and to the work of justice and each aware of the paradox and contradiction in all of our lives, and moving with and against it all into some kind of new light, some new way, some new intuition, of what the divine is like, or might be, or is emerging into, with our minute parts being only our willingness to be but ourselves and remain open to all the voices that invite us to that place within, that seat of wisdom, that still small voice, the one the world cannot know but which, in the din of material desperation, in its loneliness and vacuity, it hopes against hope we each are listening to, and discerning, each in her wisdom and his intuition, and then willing to become, with all the clarity of purpose it requires, simply, for others, for the earth, for all of this graced creation.

Gifts are given when they will.  We are only to be present and available.  The triptych of events that visited me between Labor Day of 1978 and Easter Sunday of 1979 altered the outward direction of my life, while shedding more light on the ongoing interior work.  Sometimes the visitations we receive are sweet, sometimes not.  But afterwards, and always, the work to become a human being remains, really only each day, one day leading into the next.

His Holiness The Dalai Lama tells a story on himself. A number of years ago he was slated to give a talk in Tokyo. He sat on the platform awaiting his turn. The host gave a beautiful and extravagant speech about the gorgeous arrangement of flowers on the table that were to be given to the guest of honor. When the speech concluded, The Dalai Lama, assuming that he was the guest of honor, got out of his chair and walked across the platform in the direction of the flowers—when he heard the speaker say the flowers were intended for somebody else he returned to his chair, embarrassed and blushing.

Few would deny that His Holiness the Dalai Lama  is someone who’s pretty good at being a spiritual being on a human journey. Many people believe he is a fully enlightened being, a Buddha. But when asked who he really is, he always answers the same way, “I am just a simple monk.”   And he says this so authentically and with such sincerity that there’s little doubt he really means it.

We are spiritual beings on a human journey and to understand this means that we don’t know always know when to get up, when to sit down, how to get to where we want to go or what we will find along the way.

Many people believe an enlightened spiritual being can walk on water, has a bag supernatural tricks, doesn’t have difficulties or pain and especially doesn’t have worries. A truly enlightened spiritual being always knows how to do the right thing at the right time in the right way.

It’s true that the human journey takes us from place to place and person to person and sometimes we go with the flow, sometimes we resist.

Life causes us to change our location—we move from here to there but the deeper question is what happens in us when circumstances change.

There is the story of the Zen Master who stood before his students. As he was about to deliver his sermon he opened his mouth—but before a word came out, a bird just outside the window began to sing.

The Zen master stood silently until the bird stopped singing.  “Ah,” the Zen Master said, “the sermon has just been delivered.”

The song of transformation begins as the heart opens.

The spiritual frontier awaits us in the inner space of the heart.

Wherever my heart closes is my spiritual frontier. Wherever your heart closes is your spiritual frontier. We happen upon our spiritual frontier at the darndest times and with the most surprising people. We never know when the heart will close. But we all know what it feels like when the heart closes—walls itself off—armors itself against an experience or some other person. Keeping our distance, we push back inside—but when we do this we back away from the borders of our own spiritual frontier.

Nobody ever really changes unless there is a change of heart. Brother David Stendl-Rast writes, “When we reach our innermost heart, we reach a realm where we are not only intimately at home with ourselves, but intimately united with others, all others. The heart is never a lonely place. It is the realm where solitude and togetherness coincide. Our own experience proves this, does it not?  Can one ever say, “Now I am truly together with myself, yet I remain alienated from others?”  Or could one say, “I am truly together with others, or even just with one other person I love, yet I remain alienated from myself?”  Unthinkable!  The moment we are one with ourselves, we are one with all others.  We have overcome alienation.

The spiritual frontier is within us. When we choose to enter this spiritual frontier we become more than we are by waking up to who we are already.

“The pig is a very dangerous animal when it comes to the flu,” said Dr. Peter Katona, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It has the ability to recombine genetic material from different species, something that neither birds nor humans can do. And now we’ve got a new form of flu that nobody’s had contact with.”

The pig is a very dangerous animal.

My mother implied this when she screamed at me when I was a teenager, “Don’t be such a pig!”

I didn’t think of myself as dangerous, but it did occur to me that she worried that my messy adolescent behavior might be a contagion.

Join the word swine with flu and you have a scourge that hogs the news.  “Don’t call it swine flu,” scream the hog farmers. Their protests are not irrational.  “It is an unfortunate use of words,” said Dave Warner, a spokesman with the National Pork Producers Council. “It does trouble us from that standpoint because it’s very much a public health issue right now and there’s no indication that a pig gave it to a human. To call it a `swine flu’ I think is a little bit misleading.”

No doubt, this is the reason that President Obama recently referred to the swine flu virus using its scientific name, H1N1. Don’t worry about eating a pig. Don’t think for a moment that eating cooked pork will expose you to the virus. Swine flu is a misnomer.   Indeed, the World Health Organization , has issued a statement that says H1N1 does not pose a risk for well cooked pork or pork products.

Déjà vu all over again, Mad Cow flu, bird flu, swine flu.  Cast out the animal name; it’s bad for business.

As a vegetarian, I am amused by this global pork panic.  While eating pork is not a real or imagined risk for me, I can’t help but recall a story from the Gospels.

In this story, Jesus meets a man possessed by demons. Like a modern day schizophrenic, the man heard many voices within, all of them together, filled him with fear. As these disparate inner voices erupted from his mouth, the people in his village were understandably terrified whenever he spoke. They thought this guy was crazy. Indeed he was.

When Jesus approached the man, he asked, “What is your name?” From the man’s mouth came the words, “My name is legion for we are many.” Upon hearing this, Jesus performed an exorcism and sent the legion of demons in that man out, into a herd of swine. Filled with the throng of demons, the swine rushed over a cliff into the sea.

Talk about the swine flu (flew)!

The man’s inner voices, (his inner pigs?)—made him unacceptable to his village. Jesus cast his legion of identities out into a herd of pigs (pork being unclean in the eyes of his community) thereby freeing him from living a fragmented life and restoring him to his community. The miracle worker, Jesus, returned the man to his true identity as a healthy human being by helping him face and overcome what had separated him from his community.  No longer fragmented by his fears, he was freed to live, fearlessly, in his own life.

It’s only when we face the fear that separates us that we are able to transcend it or cast it out.

National Public Radio reporter Daniel Hernandez recently offered a profound essay on his experience in Mexico City during the swine flu panic. Reflecting on the epidemic he said, “On most Sundays, Mexico City is a moving carnival of food and fiestas, protests and parades. But this Sunday, it felt like some kind of unpleasant office party. People passed one another uncomfortably on the wide-open streets, nearly everyone wearing a blue or white face-mask to ward off this mysterious new ‘swine flu.’  Above those covered mouths, suspicious eyes scanned those of fellow strangers. Could he have it? Could she?”

In this way, the current swine flu pandemic is a reminder of how just beneath the surface lurks our fear of each other. It doesn’t take much for us to slip into seeing each other as a stranger rather than a friend.

This is the real inner pig.  We project onto others what we fear may appear in ourselves.  Before we can cast out this inner pig we’ve got to face it down.

In a time of crisis it’s easy to live by projection rather than self reflection. In a time of fear we go apocalyptic.

But what if the current plague is simply a reminder of what human beings have learned in the midst of all the other plagues in all the other times. What if in this time of our fear of swine flu, the fear of the darkness that threatens to overcome us is really a light? The poet,  May Sarton wrote,

without darkness,
Nothing comes to birth,
As without light,
nothing flowers.

Perhaps this swine flu pandemic is a reminder that the darkness that seems to separate us is really a light that reminds us of our innate and irrevocable connection–even to those who wear a mask.

Do you know someone with swine flu? Well then, take the appropriate precautions. Put on the mask to protect your nose and mouth, cover your hands with gloves–then overcome your fear with love.

Perhaps the swine flu metaphor is a reminder not of how we must fear each other, but of how much we need each other.  Perhaps this “pandemic” is one more reminder that its only when we face our inner pig do we know how to love and accept the pig (and pig flu) in each other.

Love your inner pig.

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