The words had a frustrated edge, a certain conviction born of observation and experience.  “Religion,” he said, “makes good people do bad things.”  That rejection allowed him a freedom to navigate his culture, this world that humans have made, with a  sense of purpose and a confidence in the availability of ethical choice and the responsibility of doing the right thing.  He is a person who eschews the use of the words “sacred” and “spirituality” for the diversity of interpretations and the possibilities of offending others.  The conversation was brief, and his articulation crisp and clear.

Hours later, I stumbled upon an OnBeing podcast by Krista Tipett featuring two Jesuit astronomers.  Juxtaposing science and religion, they suggest that science and religion are each somehow incomplete.  And the gift of faith, like the gift of science, is to know incompleteness, to know the ambigiuity of speculation.  And all that brings me to this moment, the Sunday before Lent begins, with 1 Corinthians an echoing thought, “the Spirit of God dwells in you” (1 Cor 3).  And too, Mt. 5, “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors”.

To be a believer, to have faith, does not mean to possess all the answers or to think that life’s answers are somehow to be found in the folds of the Bible or of ritual.  Instead, like the science that broadens and deepens our understandings, there is a sense that faith deepens understanding of life and dares to open new questions.  In either case, there is incompleteness.  And it is an incompleteness that does not diminish either faith or science.  Instead, incompleteness enhances the value of both in the way that each step opens to the next; both science and faith open the posssibility of understanding life in new dimensions.  The disciplines are neither mutually exclusive nor symbiotic.  And yet, one can animate the other if allowed.

That sense of incompleteness in faith is about discovering the sense that God is Other, simulataneously known and being discovered.  And so it is with science: that we know and we are discovering all at the same time, continually altering and evolving our understandings.  Neither science nor faith are fully known or understood.  To postulate  one without the other is to diminish both the Jesuits argue.

Religion, on the other hand, is often understood as institutional structures flawed and broken, havens for hypocrisy, fraud, corruption.  Somewhere buried in all that are seeds of faith that did not reach fruition.  And sometimes, there are moments within that that actually celebrate the ideals of the Spirit of God dwelling in us and the love of God generating the strength to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors.

To resist the science behind climate change or brain development is perceived as ignorance beyong measure.  To reject religion, its journeys and its insights, may be equally ignorant.  In spite of the repeated failures of science over centuries, it has earned a place in the lexicon of human understanding.  Religion, too, has known dismal failure.  Perhaps it is time to trust the incompleteness of both.

Such as we are

It is Sunday, evening settling slowly on a gray day, the echoes of hours well spent now drifting into memory.  In this mysteriously quiet moment, words from this morning’s Mass return.   “The world needs us!  The world needs us to show love, to be the virtue of love, to reveal God through that love….Young people are walking away from faith and religion…”  The power of the homily struck over and over throughout this day.

First, there was the homilist’s certainty that faith is a gift to the world.  This contrasted sharply with the stigma that the word carries in our continually evolving culture, with the disdain of youth and the indifference of the disillusioned.  Here was a person who was neither apologetic nor disingenuous.  Here was a person who was reminding an early morning congregation about the very thing that brought us together in the first place.

Second, there was a conviction that the identity of Catholicism is worth sharing. Not because it is Catholicism, but because it is a pathway to love.  Catholicism is anchored in the teachings of Jesus, in the demands of the Gospel.  Here was a person clearly articulating that love is a virtue, a connection, emotion and action.  Love is sourced in Christ, and we come to know Christ through one another.  Catholicism invites us to welcome each other, to be Christ to one another.  To love one another.

Catholicism is at the very core of being;  it has shaped thinking and professional choices, practices and lifestyle.  But saying that, for me, points to faith and to love.  It is about being the Hands and Heart of Christ for others, and gratefully accepting others being the Hands and Heart of Christ for me.  It is about recognizing the infinite pathways of others and the simple pathway of self.  It is about doing the right thing and trusting that the right thing can be found through prayer and those Hands and Hearts.  It is about knowing that our worlds are self-defined and moving beyond the comfortable is necessary, being challenged in dialogue and conversation is simply part of the journey.

But returning to sacred space, to kneel in humility, that is essential.  Because you are not there alone; there are generations who knelt there before you, who grappled with what it meant to be human in their time.  Faith in God is nurtured in both the quiet contemplative moments and the traditons and the rituals of a community.  Faith in a goodness that is the actual common denominator in human life means recognizing the Christ who is there in all of us.  Nurturing that relationship comes through being part of a broader community, a church.

In a world that denigrates religious institutions and portrays faith as a vehicle of ignorance, it takes courage  to even explore what it means to be a person of faith.  There are stereotypes and discrimination, and the seemingly endless sream of scandals which emerge from the hierarchy.  And yet, there is the insistent call.  There is the reality that “The world needs us…”  Such as we are, the world needs us.

Pass the Salt

Winter edges towards spring now, and Ordinary Time will yield to Lent in just weeks.  It is one of those unremarkable in-between-times that make up so much of life. But breathing deeply in ths space, knowing the sting of cold and the richness of comforting warmth, simplicity speaks.  Simply being. Simply alive.  And somehow, Matthew 5’s  “You are the salt of the earth” makes sense.

Hours ago, I might not have acceded to that.  But then I heard a homily that repositioned  who and what we are as Christians using the analogy of salt.  Christians: the salt that flavors the world and life.  Christians: the salt preserves and protects the narrative.  Christians as the salt that revitalizes the spent and revives the weak. Christians:  the people who are willing to support and serve, encourage and enable one another. 

In the ancient world, salt held a place of esteem and value.  It was a treasure in and of itself with practical purposes and trade routes to prove its worth.  But it belonged also to the importance of reviving a military exhausted from battle. In other words, salt was the essential that made sense of all the rest.  So it is with Christianity: it is about making sense of the rest of life.

The shakers that sit idly on tables can be reminders that what we take for granted can actually have meaning. Christians can bring the embrace of acceptance and add zest and flavor to the most mundane of moments.  In a world groaning with so many griefs, Christians can inspire and preserve a  narrative of hope and joy.   Christians can  encourage one another, strengthen and empower one another, be carried and carry each other.   And so Christians can flavor life in a way that speaks to others.  

Salt in its simplicity managed to anchor empires and carve out trade routes. It created connections just as Christians can do.  Salt in its unadulterated simplicity makes life better, both the ordinary days and the extraordinary ones.  And so Christians can do the same. The analogy has an unexpected substance.  

But the homily closed with other gifts.  There was the gentle note that this is, of course,  all counter cultural.    And then, a hope that within this faith community, we become salt for one another.  That we recognize those who have been the salt for us, who have added that taste and zest.  That we dare to be salt, to preserve and protect one another.  That we find gratitude for the all the salt in our lives, and savor its flavor.

It was a homily that gave new meaning to an old story.  It added flavor to the most ordinary of Sunday mornings.  It invited reflection and then action, and it linked the personal and the communal experiences.  Most of all, it was a homily that totally changed what it meant to “Pass the salt”! 


Safety Zone

Maybe it was the delivery of the homily.  Maybe it was the allure of the Gospel itself, or the expansion of Scripture with an eye to tradition.  Maybe it was the concept of holiness, or the truths about Life’s cruel and incomprehensible turns embedded in the story.  Maybe it was just time to think about what holiness really is.  No matter what, it happened.

There was Joseph and Mary, a newborn, at the Temple.  There was Anna and Simeon, the elders.  In accordance with the customs of the time, the child was presented at the Temple.  Turtledoves, an emblem of poverty,  were offered as a sacrifice recognizing the blessing of this first born child.  In a world where the marginalized dwelt within their labels, here was a couple with a questionable past arriving in the heart of the community.   There was embrace and acceptance; there was hope and promise.  It was all about the moment: it was a judgement-free zone.  It was all about reality colliding with holiness, wholeness and holiness meeting in flesh. 

In a secular world, “holiness” has multiple meanings and elusive connotations.  Some are loaded and evocative, drenched with images of hypocrisy.  Others are virtually inhuman with an emphasis on what is somehow perceived to be divine.  It is a term than can be dismissed and divisive, but it is also a window to the sacred and the secure.   Today, in the simplicity of the Presentation, it seemed that holiness is found in  interaction with one another, in conveying acceptance without judgement, in knowing that there is so much more that matters than the harshness of criticism and the exclusiveness of judgment.  Holiness embraces who and what and how we are. Holiness enables us to sense that in others, to discover it in the world around us.  Holiness is the path to the sacred and it is intensely, personally human.  Holiness is a gift given to one another in moments of simply being human.

As with Anna and Simeon, whose lives took unexpected and probably unwanted turns, holiness knows suffering but is rooted in hope.  Each of them had taken solace in days dedicated to prayer and the processes of service in the Temple.  Each of them had grown old with the world changing around them, in spite of, not because of, them.   Each of them demonstrates that holiness recognizes the reality of goodness in others.  Holiness has the courage to embrace and nurture and develop that.  Holiness houses the humility of the healthy that enables and empowers a modesty that appreciates the gifts of others.  Although the Gospel does not explore it, the traditions around Mary and Joseph point to similar stories.  All of it points to the reality that life is challenging under the best of circumstances.  That is a foundational understanding of Catholicism:  life is difficult.  And there is a second point:  We can make life easier for one another.

That is what the Feast of the Presentation offers:  the judgement-free zone of acceptance that belonged to Christianity (before it was a slogan attached to a gym).