Sunday, August 13, 2006

Wearing Our Faith Well in the Light of the Spirit


A thunderstorm approaching the city of Assisi

Walking the spiritual path in a balanced way can be a challenge. A healthy path seems narrow and hard to navigate. I posted here some notes from a book by Fr. Ron Rolheiser not too long ago. The book deals with stories of balance and imbalance in the spiritual life. I try to keep two of his quotes in the front of my mind (the second one may actually be from Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez):
”The wrong God of the left and right is the God who is wired, bitter, anxious, workaholic, and unhappy.”

“Only one kind of person transforms the world spiritually – Someone with a grateful heart.”

In the second reading today we heard:
And do not grieve the holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice. (And) be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.
Ephesians 4:30-32

I’m quick tempered and passionate. There are a lot of things going on in the world that seem unjust to me; that anger me. I’m tempted at times to vent here, and to pour some frustrations out, but I try to hold myself in check. Anger is an easy sell. There’s a ready market out there for it, but there is too much of it out there already. Selling anger is not what I want to do. I’m asking you guys to keep me honest on it. If you see me doing it, I’m asking you to call me on it and to bring me up short.

Still, on the other hand, we must speak up about injustice. We are called to be prophetic in our witness. Sometimes that calls for hard words, wit, and even some sarcasm. You see this in all of the prophets. How do we do this in a balanced fashion? How do we thread the needle?

Back in the 1980’s in the midst of my bachelor days, I started to get more serious about my faith. I became much more active in parish life. Over time I became great friends with the priests, and at their urging, volunteered my time to help out with the High School Youth Ministry Program. These were some great days. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and I got some great feedback from the priests, the students, and the parents. I was feeling pretty good about what we were accomplishing and feeling pretty good about myself.

At about the same time, there was an attractive young woman I was friends with at work. I suppose I probably had kind of a crush on her, although I felt like she was a little bit out of my league. You know the way people sort of flirt when they feel safe to flirt, because they both know it isn’t going to go anywhere? We got along well, and had lunch together almost every Friday.

One day, in front of a bunch of our co-workers, she hit me hard with a very cutting remark, and I was taken aback. I had absolutely no idea what I had done to provoke it. Had I said something inappropriate? Had I stepped over some sort of line? I couldn’t figure it out. In a pique, my response was to stop speaking to her altogether. This became very awkward, because the tension between us was obvious and unusual. Everyone else was starting to notice. We both realized we need to sit down and talk this matter through.

It turned out to be something that took me totally by surprise. It was over an incident I barely remembered or took any notice of. Once, during a group luncheon at the office, I had put out one of those money collection boxes for Oxfam, or Catholic Charities, or some such group. A lot of the food at the luncheon was left uneaten, and I made one of those classic snotty remarks about the waste and the starvation in other parts of the world, and how appreciated that food would have been elsewhere, etc.. etc.. Almost a throwaway of a line. A cliché. Apparently, this is what set my friend off. My sanctimoniousness. My self-righteousness. Who the hell did I think I was, anyway? I was treating them like a bunch of Middle School kids.

Most Catholics are familiar with the convert and singer/songwriter John Michael Talbot. I’m actually not much of a fan of his music. I prefer him as a spiritual writer. In his wonderful little book The Lessons of St. Francis, he writes this about his personal journey

In 1968, a period of social turmoil and heightened spiritual searching was under way. I was a fifteen-year old country rock star, traveling across America with my brother Terry in our band, Mason Proffit, which performed at packed concerts with artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. In six popular albums, our band preached a message of idealism and social concern centered around a few key issues, such as pacifism, racial tolerance, and environmentalism.

I was thrilled to be a part of a burgeoning youth movement that demanded answers to hard questions and sought to reinvent society from the bottom up. But certain inconsistencies in the movement startled and troubled me. Protesters arguing for peace were not opposed to using violence if it suited their needs. People searching for mystical revelation experimented with mind-transforming drugs, but then became so clouded and myopic that they lost all passion for spiritual pursuits, or any concerns beyond their own chemically souped-up egos.

My own hunger for spiritual answers became ravenous. Convinced that Christianity was part of the problem rather than part of the solution, I dug deeply into other spiritual paths, studying Buddhism, Hinduism, and especially Native American religions. Then the tables were turned on me as the truth I was so desperately searching for sought me out.

I was alone in a room in a Holiday Inn during the band's 1971 tour. I'm not sure what city I was in, but I vividly remember what happened there. My room filled with a brilliant light, and in the midst of the light was Jesus, dressed in white robes and with his arms stretched out toward me in a gesture of both gentleness and at strength.

At the time, America was experiencing a religious revival called the Jesus movement, as millions of longhaired ex-hippies came to Christ. I began studying with some of these exuberant new converts and, before I knew it, I became a fuming fundamentalist, a walking, talking Jesus freak who would quote the Bible or dispense judgment at the drop of a hat. If you had a problem, I had a Bible verse for you. I was angry, I was arrogant, and I was horrible to be around, all in the name of Jesus.

I knew something was wrong and wrestled with soul-searching questions. Hadn't I done everything my Christian friends had asked me to do? Hadn't I become everything they had told me to become? But I knew the Christianity I was living out and the Christianity I saw around me were nothing like what I read about in the Gospels.

Then an evangelical friend gave me a copy of a book about Francis by Franciscan priest Murray Bodo. I read the book and I wept. I realized how far from genuine Christianity I had fallen, even though the desire of my heart was to follow Christ. As I read, I realized that Francis had done it: He had lived a balanced and beautiful Christian life.

As I continued reading about this amazing saint, I realized he was the genuine article. He had lived a life of poverty when all I was seeing were typical, upper middle-class American Christians trying to balance their love for God with their love for money. He lived a life of mystical connection to God when all I saw was a cold and rationalistic form of Christianity that was all head and no heart. He lived a life of gentleness when all I saw was an arrogant, aggressive, my-way-or-the-highway Christianity. He lived a life of joy and radical commitment, when all I saw was an antiseptic, pedantic, down-the-middle-of-the-road meat-and-potatoes kind of Christianity that killed the spirit and squashed the joy.


In 1978, after a painful divorce, I began a sincere effort to follow in the footsteps of Francis, retreating to a hand-built hermitage in the Indiana woods where I focused all of my being on knowing and following the will of God. In 1983, I helped found an exciting, new Franciscan community in the Ozark Mountains. Today, I and millions of others remain committed to the ideal that Francis's life is a pattern for our lives.

When someone asks me what it is about Francis that attracts me, I want to respond by painting a picture. There's a distinct look and feel to Francis. His life conjures up images of the tattered hem of Jesus' garment on a dusty Galilean road. His rugged and radical life feels like the rough wood of a cross. His life smells like the earth of a medieval Italian roadway, or the fragrance of a forest full of beautiful pines, tall poplars, rugged olive trees, and fruit-laden grapevines.

At a time when millions of people are hungering for spirituality but are turned off by many traditional Churches, the life of Francis demonstrates that there is something to fill the God-shaped vacuum in our lives. That there is an answer to our soul's every longing. That the dream of inner and outer peace isn't an illusion. And that the potential person that God created us to be needn't remain lost and unrealized.

I also believe this: Even though some religious institutions may often look more like secular corporations than godly communities, Francis shows us that there's always room in churches for people guided by a radical spiritual commitment.

In this article, he also speaks well of another issue that is important to me and near to my heart:

Factions Within the Church

12 comments:

Paula said...

Jeff,
the incident with your colleague made me laugh. In the traditional culture (I speak from my experience) one was expected to be more tolerant and let the little incidents like your remark, to pass. Getting so upset over such a remark is a sign of a super-sized postdmodern ego.:-). I noticed that people "suffering" from it are very much prone to offence.

crystal said...

Jeff,

that situation must be common to many. In my case, a co-worker was very friendly, asked me to go with him to some luncheon away from the hospital where we worked, and then later I found out from others he was married. I never talked to him again and I was too embarrassed to tell him why ... that I had thought he liked me more than he did.

Francis was my favorite siant for many years.

Jeff said...

Hi Paul and Crystal,

Crystal, your story is a familiar one I’ve heard many times. It’s quite possible that he was as attracted to you as much as you supsected, even though he was married. I don’t know, but I suspect that you did the right thing.


Paula,

Normally it would be the same here. One comment probably wouldn’t have solicited such a strong reaction. I think this was probably something cumulative. I think she thought enough of me as a friend to let me know somehow that she had a problem with the way I was acting, whereas the others wouldn’t have said anything to me about it, but would have essentially thought the same thing. The point is, I came to the realization that I had been self-righteous. It was true. Taking an honest look at myself, I could see that it was true. I’ll judge and condemn others for being hateful, cruel, and deliberately selfish, but I try to be more careful about the sinful. After all, I’m quite well aware of my own sins, which are many, and I should know better.

Sandalstraps said...

Jeff,

I may be Protestant through and through, but I love that book by John Michael Talbot. I use his music to help with contemplative prayer, and have even flirted with the idea of checking out his hermitage in Arkansas.

Speaking of Francis, I read a great biography of Francis maybe a month or so ago:

Reluctant Saint by Donald Spoto.

I highly recommend it.

Oh, and nice piece. I can hear the sincerity of your faith in it.

crystal said...

Hey Jeff, I hope I didn't offend you with the gay marriage stuff at my blog. I don't really know what's the right thing to do about it - just expressing my thoughts.

Jeff said...

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the recommendation. Reluctant Saint... I'll have to check it out. There have been a few recent biographies of Francis that I've been meaning to get to. One is Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life by Adrian House and Karen Armstrong. Have you read it?

Jeff said...

Hi Crystal,

Not at all. That is the life of the Church. We should be willing to talk about all of these things. How can we expect to carry on serious dialogue with Protestants and the Eastern Orthodox if there are things we won't even discuss with each other?

It's a great thing that we all support and uphold each other in our faith, but it might get kind of dull if we agreed with each other 100% of the time.

Steve Bogner said...

A friend of mine - Jim, who blogs @ Brainwaves - is an evangelical/pentacostal guy who savors the writings of Thomas Merton and other Catholic writers/saints. People like Merton, Teresa of Avila, Thomas a Kempis, Talbot and dozens of 'old' Catholic saints do have it figured out and their insights speak to all kinds of people. Their writings are surely one of the Church's greatest treasures.

Liam said...

Good post, Jeff. I agree with you that it's hard to be faithful without becoming self-righteous -- not caring (on one hand) and being arrogant (on the other) are the Scylla and Charibdis of treading the right path.

Why does no one talk about the sin of pride anymore?

Jeff said...

Hi Steve,

Yes, I think most people who are attracted to Catholicism in some way are attracted because of the witness and example of saints like Francis rather than any encyclical or another

Jeff said...

Hi Liam,

Scylla and Charibdis, I like that... There certainly is enough pride to go around isn't there? It seems to be especially prevalent among our political class. :-)

Sandalstraps said...

Thanks for the recommendation. Reluctant Saint... I'll have to check it out. There have been a few recent biographies of Francis that I've been meaning to get to. One is Francis of Assisi: A Revolutionary Life by Adrian House and Karen Armstrong. Have you read it?

Jeff,

No, I've only read two biographies on Francis: the Spoto one, and G.K. Chesterton's Saint Francis of Assisi. I might have to read it. Sounds interesting. Spoto alluded to a wealth of new information coming to light on Francis - I wonder if House and Armstrong will present it in more depth than Spoto's very readable biography for lay-people did.