Life and faith?

As a Catholic, I am conscious of insitutional weaknesses and failures.  I grasp the horror of it: priests ensconced in scandal, others trapped in addictions and adulterous affairs, and still daring to preach from theoretical and intellectual perspectives.  Childhoods threatened, and no real sense in pursuing patterns or being part of a community that so willingly attempted to protect the organization rather than the persons.  I see it.

I see, too, the historical context of all that, the time periods that birthed it and the dominance of traditional organizational structures  politically and economically.  The individual was expendable: the organization and its preservation appeared to be the key to social stability.  And then came the shift:  individualism  erupted in the 12th century and burst forward in the eclecticism of the twentieth century.  Scienific inquiry partnered with emerging technology and  opened another chapter.

There was the promise of freedom for all voices and the advent of an unprecedented era of personal expression.  It was impossible to chart the consequences: the creation of new and virtual communities and the steady erosion of earlier mainstays.  Change and its accompanying anxieties, adaptation and adjustments were inevitable.  And that is where we live now, in a world re-evaluating meaning, personal choice and decisions, community living and values.  Individuality and individualism have become dominant influences; social and economic structures are adapting and re-defining purpose and meaning.

There is a certain fear factor in the midst of all that, one that echoes the patterns of history.  And there is a reality as well:  the insitution does fail, over and over, but faith somehow remains.  Traditional understandings of faith, expressions of it, can be altered, challenged and rejected.  History shows that the essence of faith itself somehow survives  for  reinterpretation in a new age.   And in this age?

Can there be  such a thing as God?  Can the teachings of religion find a place in a world driven by gigabytes and memes?  Can simplicity find a place in a culture veering towards self-gratification and geared towards consumerism?  When the churches are emptied and the  crosses are known only as symbols of abusive power and destruction, will the shades of gray that mark the delineation of right and wrong, moral and immoral, be any more clear?  But maybe there is another question.

What place is there for faith in God in this world?  Is there, somehow, some other-than-human power? Rejecting the past and the concepts of faith, attached such as they are to the trauma of contenporary memories and the flaws of earlier generations, have allowed the shaping of an emerging social landscape that allows for gender fluidity and equality, the unmasking of bias and a consciousness of the dangers of exploitation and denigration of others.   These goods are not necessarily divorced from a foundation of faith.  Can secrets buried in history that  confide a strength and strategy for  navigation of this new world?

Faith allows for a depth of wonder, a sense of the spectacular that is beyond the scope of human limitation.  Faith allows for a trust that no one person is travelling alone on this journey.  Faith allows that  tragedies are not visited upon us by the punitive force of the universe, but we are not forgotten in the complexity of human suffering.  Faith allows, too, for the sense that something Divine completes the imperfections of humanity.  Faith allows that there is more to self and to this world than what is seen, named and known.  Faith confides the idea that each is  loved in every incarnation of self at every ligfe stage…and so is everyone else.  Essentially, God is completely Other.  The courage to embrace that means daring to see self as part of a flowing mosaic that traverses centuries.






Fog hovered furtively over every roadway obscuring the brilliance of Autumn and masking the gifts of morning light. But there were cars in the lot when I got there; the service had started by the time I slipped into a back pew and breathed a sigh of relief.

I was surrounded by what is so familiar:  neighbors in front of and behind me, the comfort of music, the altar central and waiting.  A community gathered once again.  A place where each and every one is welcomed in the generosity of quiet.  There is space for presence to one another,  space for each one’s acknowledgment of relationship with each other and relationship with God.  It is not, after all, about just being there.  It is about how those minutes are actually spent.

The leader of prayer focused on the Old Testament reading.   From the graphic description of Joshua’s battle with the Amalkimites, he extracted simple and powerful images that spoke of something entirely different and totally relevant.  He focused on Moses, on the account’s description of  his hands raised in prayer during the battle.  When Moses grew weary, he had assistance; others held up his arms up in prayer.  Further support was literally built by the community.  The emphasis was not on winning or losing, but on the idea of supporting one another, of choosing to reach towards God in prayer such as we are.  The message was clear:  living in realtionship with God is both personal and communal commitment.  Lending support matters; we need each other, even such as we are.

Moments later, as Mass continued, that ring of support became so much more visible and so much more viable.  The person in front, next to, behind: each one matters.  Each has the other’s wellness, goodness, purpose and being in mind.  The very act of kneeling there together is actually a living support, a statment of one for the other.  The reality of the moments are synthesized in lived expression: there are the moments of adoration at the Consecration, of communion in the Sign of Peace, of solidarity in reciting together the Our Father.  These are the foundational points of our Catholic identity, the cornerstones of what it means to be who we are.  It is about living, sharing prayer together.

There is a beauty in it that transcends the razor-sharp points of issues that so easily divide communities and Catholics.  Judgement, fear, threats, malice, the use and abuse of power, have no place here at this table.  Prayer is deeper than all that, traces its paths like a stream that flows below and between  the layers of the earth steadily shaping layered stone.  Inevitably, the surface responds to the shifitng depths.   The consistent, confident strength of that trickling water makes it happen.  So it is with prayer.

After the service, in waves of conversation and laughter, the congregation moved toward the parking lot.  Courageous colors adorned the paths to cars and the world was awash in a gray-skied Autumn morning. The fog had lifted.


It is a land apart, entirely separate, an enclosure of heart and spirit:  seven acres largely undeveloped;  quiet gardens scattered along a softly worn path that rings the building.   The house itself is simple, two stories, pristine brick.  A Tau cross dominates the center wall between long strips of glass windows.  At the driveway’s edge, an unassuming sign:  Monastery of St. Clare.  Inside, 12 women live by the thirteenth century  Rule of St. Clare. 

Here are lives devoted to the struggle of being human.   In the intensity of communal life within enclosure, specific physical space reserved for those vowed to God, they share a promise in a shared space with shared commitment and accountability for growth.  Their days are measured in increments of time:  the cadence of hours of  communal prayer, common meals, hours of silence and work within the walls for the sustenance rof all.   These are women choosing to live apart from the world for a specific purpose: pursuit of relationship with God and one another.

And yet, their lives are marked by a measured sameness: schedule,s practices and ritual.  There is an invitation to deep work in the hours of common quiet: individual practice baring the mystical relationship with a generous God.  There is a firm sense that this God becomes manifest in and through one another, deepening the sense of communion and cracking open the depth of emotional and psychological life in inescapable presence to one another.

There is a pervasive sense of gratitude, a consciousness of need and want alongside the sense of purpose, a kind of acknowledgement of dependence on something other than self.  It is present in their voices, in the greetings granted others, in the openness to what stories reach them from the outside world.

The “outside world” is somehow drawn here.  Perhaps it is the mystery of how this could be happening in the fullness of 21st century science and technology.  Perhaps it is merely curiosity at the quaintness of lives shaped by centuries.  Maybe it is search for what life as a human really means, for the dimensions of human life which are not as easily explored as the physical.  Maybe it is the realization that mindfulness has a history and a fullness that can be experienced in the context of a spiritual life.

Their lives represent one dimension of Catholicism, one possible path, of all that is human.  In a sense, their choices, fully discerned and freely made, are a gift to the whole.  They represent something for the rest of us who hold onto and live into active work and family life with unfettered enthusiasm.   Where ours is a path of busy being and active doing, squeezing moments of prayer in desperate pleas, theirs is a path charted carefully with the daily rhythm of Sacred Scripture and the wisdom of lived experience.

In some ways, their devotion shows what real commitment can look like.  And yet, our lives on the outside of those enclosure walls are what they learn from and wonder about, what provides fodder for their prayer and a foundation for their existence.  One form of Catholic life, then, informs and enriches the others.

In a time of diminishment, where two generations have walked away from the practice of the faith, that monastery sweetly nestled in the woods is a clear reminder that we are in this together.  The framework may be frayed and damaged, but the story is not quite over yet.   There are still those who are called, those who seek, those who serve and those who pray and those who visit, just for snatches of time to become more than they were before.






Seeds of Faith

It was just before the final blessing, the last of the Sunday announcements.  His words reverberated in the church; tears stung as he reassured wary parishioners that he wanted to keep things as normal as possible in spite of his upcoming radiation and chemo treatments.  There was a wave of collective support, and the congregation sung even the last verse before following him down the main aisle.

There was an edge to her voice.  “I consider myself a good Catholic.  I made sure my kids got the sacraments.  I have no use for the hypocrites and the liars behind the altar.  Why would I go to church when you don’t know where that priest’s hands have been?  I am not a sinner.  How could I be?  I have kept my sacred vows in marriage.  Why do you think I am still married?” It was an illuminating moment: her faith and obligations were tied deeply to the key moments in her life experience, yet her understanding of faith was entirely separate from the experience of the hierarchical Church itself.  Disturbed and angry, she spoke of the painful sense of being considered “less than” by the ordained and the practicing.  And yet, there is an abiding sense of faith tied to something greater than self.

She was an immigrant, elderly, a volunteer at church who bemoaned the fact that none of the large brood of grandchildren were practicing Catholics.  Not even the ones raised in Catholic homes or the ones who attended 16 years of Catholic education.  She summed it up smartly.  “They blame it on the scandal.  Who gives a crap about that?  Faith isn’t about the priests.  It is between you and God.  Who cares about the priests?  That’s just an excuse for laziness, not wanting to give the time.”

It is all about perspectives on faith, on what is normal and what really matters.  Each points to a depth of truth about Catholicism: it is alive and well in personal lives across the country.  And it is changing, as it always has, in response to the reality of each time.  There is nothing stagnant about faith or about the Church.  But the temptation to believe in monolithic generalizations is real.  Like other stereotypical thinking, those deprive us of the chance to understand that faith is alive and well, vital and real.  The presence of God is visible in each life, real and well known.  But hardly the same.  And that is what makes Catholicism so relevant even in the twenty-first century.

There are as many pathways and sacred spaces as there are Catholics.  And there is something of the glory and beauty of God in all that diversity and divergence.  Because, essentially, it comes back to one thing:  the very concept of a God who cares and guides and connects.

It is not about a God who promises an easy life, or comfort.  Instead, it is about a God who walks together with us, side by side, through the vicissitudes of every life.  That is the God of the mustard seed parable, the one who walked with the Apostles through the dusty streets of Nazareth, the one who celebrated the Passover Meal.  And there, among friends, that promise of Presence was sealed through the institution of the Eucharist meal.  And so it is that the seeds of faith find fruition in lives diverse and times scandalous and epochs controversial.  The institution endures because the seeds belong to every soul and generate a new garden in every age.