SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) (Sunday Forum)
I've entitled today's Sunday Forum "What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057)" because it seems to me what all of us are ultimately about is trying to answer that question. In a way virtually all of the posts we write on Catholica are, in some way or other, endeavouring to answer that question for ourselves. Today is the one thousandth and fifty-seventh day we've been publishing so I've just dubbed this as Mark 1057 of the question.
What triggered the more explicit exploration of the question today though is a short passage I read in the small book Francis Brown gave me at Carcoar in which he explores the meaning of his life and a letter I received on Thursday from a Marist Brother, Des Hornsby. Those two things intersect also with a commentary Christian Brother Shane Wood published both on Catholica and the OnLine Opinion website. In slightly different ways all three sources are reflections â€” from widely differing perspectives (geographical as much as social and spiritual) on this big question of "what's IT all about?" The 'IT' meaning 'my life' or 'our lives'.
To their perspectives I would like to add my own lay perspective that feeds off the ideas they present and seek to open up discussion and reflection on the different perspectives other readers of Catholica might care to share with us as to where your life has led you in contemplation of this big question: "What's it all about, Alfie?"
Let's start with the disarmingly honest perspective of Francis. Next weekend I intend to start serialising selections from his book. In some ways it's a hard read, being a collection of both poetry and prose but I'm finding it deeply insightful. If I could be bold enough to try and summarise it in a couple of phrases I'd suggest it is "a search for the lost innocence of childhood" or, better than that, "a life search to re-discover the innocence and awe from which the child in us all observes Life, and the Divine". Francis argues he has these vivid memories of a sense of wholeness and at-one-ness (with God) that he had as a small child. He argues that was all 'knocked out of him' and it has only been in the last decade or so â€” he's now 80 â€” that he's re-discovering it.
So, as a teaser to the full serialisation of his book, and an introduction to today's reflection, here are his thoughts reflecting back on his call to priesthood...
Learning and Pastoral Theology
What do I know? After my studies were completed, I was admitted to ordination as a priest and commissioned to teach the faith, to confirm the faithful in their faith, to bring back those who had seemingly lost their faith, to minister to the faithful nourishing and refreshing them through the sacraments and the Scriptures. The supposition was that I was well equipped to be knowledgeable about all that was necessary to fulfill what was required of me. I felt that my brain had been stuffed full of all required learning and the required ability to dispense it.
Here was I, a know all, on a mission, sent out to bring salvation to the world. After 55 years I realize how ill equipped I really was, that what I knew was mainly book learning, lots of it for sure, but not what is necessary to enter into people's lives to help people mould their lives to the form. that I had been taught. I was supposed to tell people how they were to behave in every aspect of their lives in order to be saved. What authority did I have? Was it the moral theological books of seminary days? Was it an authority that sat in bishops, undoubtedly schooled by theologians of their choice over a long period of time? I could not go around saying, "By the authority of the bishops, I teach you this". I was supposed to have become an authority so I taught doctrine and morals as I was directed to teach. I, in effect told people how to believe and how to behave to gain access to heaven. I was a "know-it-all" and everyone was supposed to trust me and fit their lives into the mould of belief and morals I outlined.
What a brutally honest reflection, eh? It ought be compulsory reading for all seminarians today. The words of a "true elder" who has "been there, done that". But Francis is not alone. I thought the candid observations of Br Shane Wood which we read earlier in the week on the forum concerning his induction into the Christian Brothers no less honest and thought-provoking. Here's just a small selection and a link to his full reflection:
An Australian Christian Brother's reflection
on the Ryan Report
My own training, albeit some years later, might provide some insights. While I would claim that I was reasonably well prepared professionally for the classroom, I would say that I was not well prepared for the life of a celibate male religious. While I agree that we may be products of our past, although we do not have to be prisoners to it, there were some basic things lacking in our training that could, if not worked on later in life, have led to a very warped way of looking at oneself and the world.
There was no psychological testing for candidates, most of whom were like me and left home at the age of 15 or 16. There was no attempt to help us to engage with our sexuality in any healthy way, apart from some rudimentary explanations related to biology. There was no effort to encourage healthy sharing of feelings; no forum for asking questions; no mixing with the opposite sex in a way that could have provided a forum for understanding common human emotions and attachments.
(To read Br Shane's full reflection see OnLine Opinion at: www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=9097
And the discussion this has generated on Catholica in these strings: Post id#30632 or Post id#30435)
The Christian Brothers are not the only one's who have been doing a lot of soul-searching because of the problem of abuse. On Thursday I received a lengthy letter from Marist Brother, Des Hornsby, encouraging us in our work at Catholica (and with some reflections on the abuse issue which I'll publish in a separate string later today). Attached to his letter were a set of thoughts he'd put together for the coming General Chapter of the Marist Brothers which will open in September. These thoughts, it seems to me, also cut to the heart of this question "What's it all about, Alfie?" â€” what are our lives about ultimately as human beings, as believers, as Christians. What sort of church are we trying to build, or do we need, in the Third Millennium?
The Marist Brothers' General Chapter 2008-2009
The Marist Brothers have a General Chapter every eight years. The Marist Brothers is a worldwide religious order of about 4000 Brothers, vowed religious, and numerous lay associates, family people mostly, generally in apostolates for school age children and marginalised children. The Brothers were founded by a Marist Father, Marcellin Champagnat, beginning in 1817 in rural France. Spread throughout Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania the Marist charism adapts to many different cultures.
While numbers are not important, the lives and daily living, the fidelity and witness of Marists, lay and vowed, perhaps offer a testimony to what the church might be in this day and age, flawed though it is.
In preparation for the General Chapter in September 2009 much documentation is sent out to help those representing the various areas where Brothers and lay partners are a presence in the world. The following document sums up where the Brothers and associates are urged to look for relevance as church in our world ... where God is respected and at work among people.
The Church of the Third Millennium
Church is a word of many lights and shadows. For so many people their experience is like that of all the 'loves' of our lives â€” joy wonder, grief, frustration, enlightenment, inspiration, embarrassment.., on and on the list could go. Just like the Old Testament, the story of Church is also the story of our salvation â€” very much a work in progress.
One of the best reflections I have ever heard on Marcellin Champagnat, the Founder of the Marist Brothers in 1817 France, spoke of him as a man who was gifted for living, working and imagining in the in-between times' â€” a man of profound hope. The Church of this early part of the third millennium is certainly a Church of the in-between times and like Champagnat we are invited to be men of profound hope, men who can live, work and imagine in the in-between times.'
In previous millennia the Catholic Church has understood itself best by seeing itself apart from the world, expressing the holy by separation and distance from the ways of the world. Missionary activity was understood as bringing truth to the infidel and there was a great gap between this life and the after-life.
In our millennia we are invited to return once more to the wisdom of incarnation, not only as a miracle of love of an amazing God, but also as the process that best describes how we are to become the universal Church the Reign of God. Living in the in-between times there is always the danger of splitting up into our own little groups, of giving in to fear or impatience and building our own little kingdoms with their own boundaries and divisions.
And yet this God who invites us to live and be Church is a God of inclusion, a God of all pervading love, a God of fraternal presence. So the Church of the third millennium is to be a Church of inclusion, of fraternal presence in the world. Not a Church of boundaries, borders, breaking apart. 'either-or' living. Rather a Church of reconciliation, Eucharist, 'both-and' living.
In the third millennium with the growth of a global sense of life presence and a greater appreciation of our part in the web of created life, it has become an urgent task for humanity to discover the possibility of unity in diversity. This is not limited to humans but includes a union of all that is created. We are invited to understand, celebrate and live the 'communio' that is at the heart of all creation.
In the new evangelization the Church knows that we too will be evangelized and changed by the encounter. No longer unchanging truth meeting blind ignorance; rather 'Church-in-progress' meets 'world-in-progress'; fraternal pilgrims on a journey into a more authentic living of the love and will of the Creator. In this evangelization, sometimes the table informs the altar, the 'secular teaches the 'proclaimed sacred', another 'Magnificat time'.
Because we are the Church of the early third millennium, the Church of the in-between time, it is going to be messy, a time of learning, some mistakes, some brilliant insights and actions. As Marists, like Champagnat, we are gifted for this time. As a very wise Marist once urged us 'let us be sowers of hope'.
Bro. Graham Neist
From A Marist Pilgrim's Guide on the way to the 21st General Chapter 2008-2009
This book of reflections for the coming Chapter is in the open domain available to Brothers and lay associates.
Could I wrap all this up with my own layman's perception of what I think it is all about...
The spiritual outlook and understanding of Catholicism I was brought up in seems light years removed from how I see it all today. It is not too simplistic to suggest that life was presented as some kind of hoop-jumping exercise â€” do this and this and this; and don't do that and that and that; and, if you are a good boy, and you die on the day God has gotten out of bed on the right side, you might be blessed with admission to Paradise. In a way, and not knowing any better at the time, that's the sort of spirituality I endeavoured to pass onto my children. Today, in the light of my lived experience, I see it as little more than a crock of shit â€” and actually distracting away from what the real spiritual (and Catholic) quest ought be about. I am not totally scathing of that perception of spirituality though. James Fowler â€” the guy who gave us the understanding of the spiritual journey being a "staged process" â€” suggests that in order to progress to each stage we need to progress through the earlier stages. We can't skip any of them. The process is likened to a child learning to walk or talk. We need to learn to crawl before we can walk, or babble before we can talk. I find myself still debating in my mind how we manage that transition from childhood spirituality to adult spirituality.
It seems to me â€” and this strongly accords with the personal discovery Francis Brown seems to have come to â€” life can be broken down into three main phases: In the first phase we come into this world as innocents and 'at one with God'. We know no different. Then, in the second phase, we start to fall over and begin experiencing pain. We also learn from the pains our parents have experienced and their outlook heavily conditions our lives â€” and expectations of what we can aspire to be. Along with this our own ego starts to develop â€” and our human yearning to be loved and respected by the 'significant others' around us so we start acting, often entirely unconsciously, to attract the pats on the back, or head, that we crave from our audiences. It is this stuff â€” the ego stuff and the pains of life â€” which actually starts to limit us in our potentials as human beings. It is in this phase of life though where we principally learn all "the rules" of life â€” the moral rules, the social rules, the legal rules, and the rules we need to know in our chosen career. Many never seem to get to the third phase â€” the media, commercial business interests, even the Church and governments, seem to want to keep everyone perpetually locked in that adolescent phase where large populations can be manipulated and controlled. If, like Francis Brown though, we are lucky enough we get to this point of dissatisfaction with all of that and we yearn again for the innocence and equilibrium we experienced way back in the very first phase of our lives. It's a sense of 'at-one-ment' with the world â€” and with the essence or God that ultimately 'drives the world'. The real quest of life has begun. Itâ€™s the place where we can at last begin to learn to reach beyond ego, and no longer be constrained by the pains that limit our potential whether they are our own learned pains, the pains learned from our parents, ancestors and family, or the pains learned that our race or culture has inherited.
Learning the Ten Commandments, or the Catechism, is easy compared to the real spiritual quest of learning to see beyond the limits that our own egos and pains place on our potential as human beings â€” whether it be potential for 'success' in this world; or our sense of personal wholeness and goodness as a spiritual being.
To take the final line from the paper Des Hornsby has shared with us. We need hope. We need people who can sow hope in our lives. This is also central to the message that Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP, was sharing with us in Sydney and Brisbane in recent days. But this is something beyond the 'hope' of winning the Lotto draw next Saturday; or the hope of promotion in our chosen career; or even the 'hope' of success in our marriages, our religious vocations, or the rearing of our children. The 'hope' we all really yearn for, the 'hope' we need to learn to sow as spiritual people, is 'spiritual hope' â€” the 'hope' that we can realise our full potential as human beings beyond the prison bars that our own egos and pains erect around us, and ultimately even beyond the prison bars that even space, time and death constrain all of us in. In short, our hope is one of wanting to see life â€” to think and act our way through life â€” in the way our Creator sees life, or in the way our Creator would think and act their way through life were our Creator to be standing in our shoes, our mind or our emotions.
[Editor & Publisher]
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Brian Coyne, 2009-06-28, 06:46
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Tom Lee, 2009-06-28, 07:26
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Brian Coyne, 2009-06-28, 14:27
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - jan, 2009-06-28, 16:28
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Francis, 2009-06-28, 18:38
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Oh Yet We Trust, 2009-06-29, 07:29
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - jan, 2009-06-29, 12:06
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Francis, 2009-06-28, 18:38
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - RLWalters, 2009-07-01, 16:33
- Accrued wisdom - Ynot, 2009-07-02, 13:05
- SUNDAY FORUM: What's it all about, Alfie? (Mk 1057) - Tom Lee, 2009-06-28, 07:26