Tuesday, July 21, 2015

St. Thèrése, Creation, and You

You know well enough that Our Lord does not look so much at the greatness of our actions, nor even at their difficulty, but at the love with which we do them. ― St. Thérèse of Lisieux
The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, His boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God”. ― Pope Francis

Many today love and try to emulate St. Thèrése of Lisieux. She died an obscure young nun in France in 1897, but less than 30 years later was declared a saint. We have a special devotion here to St. Thèrése and her Little Way of Love, as the Diocese of Fresno was the first in the world to adopt Thèrése as our patroness. Pope Francis in his new encyclical, Laudato Si' points to St. Therese as a model for us in how we treat Creation, a model that is important for us here central California.

In this letter, Francis reflects on our relationship and responsibility to God’s Creation, what science can and does tell us about the condition and future of the natural world, and the moral and social roots of the current crisis. Key insights and teachings include:

  • the same selfishness and obsession with consumption that result in violence, poverty and injustice, are also at the root of abuse of nature;
  • we need a new understanding of man and nature together, an integral ecology, which addresses the current environmental crisis while respecting human needs and dignity;
  • this is a genuinely dire crisis and our response must include action by governments and all other social institutions including economic, legal, and political changes.

All these great changes are necessary, but they cannot be enough unless we choose to simplify and moderate our lives. Pope Francis points us to Thèrése for guidance:

230. Saint Thèrése of Lisieux invites us to practice the little way of love, not to miss out on a kind word, a smile or any small gesture which sows peace and friendship. An integral ecology is also made up of simple daily gestures which break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness. In the end, a world of exacerbated consumption is at the same time a world which mistreats life in all its forms.

We live in a large diocese, with a great range of climates and ecosystems, as well as urban areas and the many cultures brought here by generations of new arrivals. There are few American dioceses that encompass more of the natural and social issues that the Pope writes about. Our challenges are from both our natural and human environments, problems that share the same source in the darker places in our own hearts and institutions. We are going to need more than sustainable agriculture or renewable energy, we must have a community of many cultures that can sustain this effort in things big and small, which requires continual renewal of our own lives, especially our spiritual lives.

We already see and hear a lot of concern and conflict over these issues, from major policy decisions to how much a neighbor waters their lawn. Turning around our relationship with nature and each other will be hard and require daily effort. But following the little way of love of St. Thérèse can be our way forward. We can find God in all the small and everyday things, trusting in His mercy, doing each task and encountering each person with love and humility. The result can be a renewal of nature, our culture, and ourselves.

It is up to us.

“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.” ― St. Thérèse of Lisieux

This first appeared in the Office of Ministries Newsletter

Friday, September 10, 2010

Above all, trust in the slow work of God


Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way
to something unknown,
something new.
Yet it is the law of all progress that is made
by passing through some stages of instability
and that may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you.
Your ideas mature gradually. Let them grow.
Let them shape themselves without undue haste.
Do not try to force them on
as though you could be today what time
-- that is to say, grace --
and circumstances
acting on your own good will
will make you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new Spirit
gradually forming in you will be.

Give our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
Above all, trust in the slow work of God,
our loving vine-dresser.


Fr. Peter Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

Quote: James Baldwin

The price one pays for pursuing any profession or calling is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Quote: C.S. Lewis

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

From out of the past

Noodling around Google I recently found an old post of my from Slashdot that I had posted on a wiki (that I had almost forgotten), part of a discussion about a Jon Katz /. article. I found it as good as statement as I have made as to why I bother with religious belief, even after all this time.

This was a response to a message that included the statement: atheism is NOT a religion; it is based on logic and reason; religion is based on faith and presumption.

Well, I don't know about atheism being a religion, although it has seemed to be one for some atheists I have known personally. If atheism is not a religion it is most definitely a belief --

a mental attitude of acceptance or assent toward a proposition without the full intellectual knowledge required to guarantee its truth. ...Belief in someone or something is basically different from belief that a proposition is true.

Belief, britannica.com

When those of us who are theists (those who believe in a personal supernatural being that intervenes in history -- that covers a lot of territory, religiously -- Jews, Christians, and Muslims, Hindus perhaps, I'm not sure) discuss God, we are not talking about Santa Claus, some magical figure that "defies the laws of physics" as you put it. I think you may misunderstand the word "supernatural" as it applies in this kind of a discussion, as opposed to the Blair Witch Project. "Supernatural" is not magical, weird, or necessarily occult: it comes from the latinate terms meaning above or greater than nature. Or in another way, outside of nature, and therefore, the "laws of physics".

Here's an example from physics. For more than a thousand years, the accepted "laws of physics" were understood to be the body of Greek and Hellenistic theories about observations of the natural world that is often referred to as Aristotelean physics. Based on the experience of phenomena that was available, these theories worked just fine. Much later on, observations from astronomy, coupled with much better mathematical tools, allowed Newton to rework physics completely once again, based on a wider base of experience. Incidentally, the Newtonian theories still work just fine for the phenomena they were intended. Starting in the 19th century, new phenomena such as radioactivity led theorists such as Planck, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, et. al. to construct brand new "laws of physics", some of which seemed then (and often seem now) nonsense, unless you understand the domain of phenomena they were intended to make sense of. But they are very practical -- the computers that you and I are using depend on a knowledge of quantum mechanics.

To us, God is a person outside the natural world, and is the person who created it. This set of theories or beliefs are what we use to make certain phenomena -- our experence of our own human experience, of values such a truth or beauty or justice, make sense. Can we "prove" the existence of God? Well, to some extent, it is a meaningless question, if you mean can I prove the existence of God the same way I prove the existence of Peoria or Phobos. If God is outside the frame of natural experience in the manner I state above, I can no more "prove" his existence than Einstein could have meaningfully discussed the truth of Special Relativity before such experiments as the Michaelson-Morley demonstration.

In the very same way, you cannot disprove the existence of God either, you can just choose whether or not it makes sense for you to believe that there is a God. The issue is not whether or not religious persons use reason or logic (I would say about the same percentage do as non-religious persons - too few) but the body of experience that religious persons apply logic and reason to in evaluating their beliefs.

Why do I believe? Because when I consider all of my life's experiences, I can make more sense of what I know by believing in God. In making the important decisions of my life, I believe that those decisons made in light of that belief have been good decisions. But comfort has little to do with it. As you move from simple theistic belief to true religion, you move from simple intellectual assent, to a relationship that involves trust, accountability, and cost. I am a Christian, and a Roman Catholic, both by choice. I would be much more comfortable (in some ways) as the agnostic I once was, than having to face up to the responsibilities that result from confronting what I see as the truth.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Quote: Walter Bruggeman

People notice peacemakers because they dress funny. We know how the people who make war dress - in uniforms and medals, or in computers and clipboards, or in absoluteness, severity, greed, and cynicism. But the peacemaker is dressed in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness - dressed for the work that is to be done.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Conservation Law

One of the big temptations when digging through this kind of a document is to put in big block quotes to react to instead of sending people back to the text. I will give into that temptation from time to time, like today.

Chapter 1 is titled The Message of Populorum Progressio presenting the case for continuity between that letter and Vatican II as well as other teachings from Pope Paul VI. There has been a great deal of comment concerning the direct links Benedict describes between Populorum Progresso and Humanae Vitae. Linking these two letters is not as novel as some commenters seem to think.

Some years ago I studied public administration and policy, and often encountered programs that were very effective in their original or pilot form, but much less effective when scaled up. In particular, a small project in one city would be much less sucessful when either scaled up to a large project, or scaled out to many cities. Sometimes this is just regression to the mean -- the pilots or experiments that seem to work out tend to be picked to scale up, and somtimes the early good results are dumb luck, results that aren't likely to be repeated. Another problem is that poor results in later efforts is likely to be seen as bad compliance with program guidelines or bad management. Translation: "If you only did this exactly the way we told you, it would have worked!"

We Americans like to trust in process -- if you just do the right things in the right order, things will work out. If we properly set up the office or program or agency or volunteer group, results are guaranteed. Sometimes we would really like a good franchise approach to social action. We like a kind of automatic development or justice. Benedict agrees with Paul -- this is a fallacy.

from § 11

In the course of history, it was often maintained that the creation of institutions was sufficient to guarantee the fulfilment of humanity's right to development. Unfortunately, too much confidence was placed in those institutions, as if they were able to deliver the desired objective automatically. In reality, institutions by themselves are not enough, because integral human development is primarily a vocation, and therefore it involves a free assumption of responsibility in solidarity on the part of everyone. Moreover, such development requires a transcendent vision of the person, it needs God: without him, development is either denied, or entrusted exclusively to man, who falls into the trap of thinking he can bring about his own salvation, and ends up promoting a dehumanized form of development. Only through an encounter with God are we able to see in the other something more than just another creature, to recognize the divine image in the other, thus truly coming to discover him or her and to mature in a love that “becomes concern and care for the other.”

When I studied these social programs, I wondered if there was some kind of basic principle to be discovered, something like the Law of Conservation of Mass/Energy, or perhaps the venerable geek expression, "Garbage in, Garbage out." If you want justice, peace, and human development to be the output, love and sacrifice must be the imput. Technical or managerial competence is not enough. The founders of programs or movements often act from personal conviction and love for who they serve, and are willing to sacrifice time, talent, and security to see it happen. Sometimes this disapears with time and expansion.

Now institutions, even bureaucratic institutions are needed. If you don't think so, consider the private and public organizations here in the U.S. that ensure that we have power, and clean water and sanitation. Very routine stuff, but try to keep a modern society together without them. These are difficult institutions to get going from scratch and that lack is often the main barrier to economic and social development. But again the point is that is not enough for the full development of human persons:
§19. Finally, the vision of development as a vocation brings with it the central place of charity within that development. Paul VI, in his Encyclical Letter Populorum Progressio, pointed out that the causes of underdevelopment are not primarily of the material order. He invited us to search for them in other dimensions of the human person: first of all, in the will, which often neglects the duties of solidarity; secondly in thinking, which does not always give proper direction to the will. Hence, in the pursuit of development, there is a need for “the deep thought and reflection of wise men in search of a new humanism which will enable modern man to find himself anew”. But that is not all. Underdevelopment has an even more important cause than lack of deep thought: it is “the lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples”. Will it ever be possible to obtain this brotherhood by human effort alone? As society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbours but does not make us brothers. Reason, by itself, is capable of grasping the equality between men and of giving stability to their civic coexistence, but it cannot establish fraternity. This originates in a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is. Paul VI, presenting the various levels in the process of human development, placed at the summit, after mentioning faith, “unity in the charity of Christ who calls us all to share as sons in the life of the living God, the Father of all”.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Who knew?

When I read the reactions to George Weigel's ill considered response to Caritas in Veritate I was reminded of Henry's message to the Dauphin in the first act of Henry V, delivered by Exeter:

Scorne and defiance, sleight regard, contempt,
And any thing that may not mis-become
The mightie Sender, doth he prize you at.
(Brian Blessed's Exeter preferred.)

I guess the hermaneutic of continuity and reform isn't supposed to apply to Pope Paul VI.

Respect where it is due, or overdue

There are several parts of the Introduction (§ 1-9) I found interesting, but particularly the last half of §8:

At a distance of over forty years from the Encyclical's publication, I intend to pay tribute and to honour the memory of the great Pope Paul VI, revisiting his teachings on integral human development and taking my place within the path that they marked out, so as to apply them to the present moment. This continual application to contemporary circumstances began with the Encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, with which the Servant of God Pope John Paul II chose to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Populorum Progressio. Until that time, only Rerum Novarum had been commemorated in this way. Now that a further twenty years have passed, I express my conviction that Populorum Progressio deserves to be considered “the Rerum Novarum of the present age”, shedding light upon humanity's journey towards unity.
Two observations:
  • A core concept of this encyclical is integral human development. More on this later.
  • The writings of Pope Paul VI deserve more respect than they have been getting.

As I grew up as an Episcopalian, the popes were John XXIII and Paul VI. When my family visited Rome in the summer of 1970, it was Pope Paul that we saw carried into St. Peter's one Sunday. When we entered the Catholic Church in the early 1980's, it was Pope John Paul II.

Many Catholics, as long as I have been in the church, have complained about Paul VI. Either he did not fully implement Vatican II, or he went too far. Some complain that he wrote Humanae Vitae, some complain that he did not enforce it as strongly as he should. Only a fringe element directly attack the documents of Vatican II, but almost everybody wants to criticize what has or has not been done to follow them.

Which generally results in either explicit or implicit criticism of Paul VI. On the fortieth anniversary of Populorum Progressio, Pope Benedict is presenting a different view of his predecessor from the one many Catholics hold, especially American Catholics.