It's a cheeky headline for this cheeky commentary from Dick Westley It's the second from a series of workshops he conducted in Chicago in October which looks both at the decline of Christianity but with a view to re-invigorating our spirituality. His workshop series was entitled: "Live Life as it Comes!"
The Catholic Tradition's "Real" Treasures
"Alienated Christians need not necessarily chuck their Christianity to find peace of soul. In their own religious tradition they can find stepping-stones that lead to spiritual fulfillment, wherever it may eventually lie." …Daniel A. Helminiak, The Transcended Christian: Spiritual Lessons for the Twenty-First Century, Alyson Books, New York, 2007, p. 15.
Catholicism has a deep and rich spiritual heritage, but of late it seems to have ignored that heritage. Instead, it has chosen to push a cold and calculating agenda, i.e. an exclusively papal interpretation of Scripture; rote acceptance of Vatican approved doctrines; a suspicion of science and its advances; relentless moralizing about every aspect of life; unbending allegiance to orthodoxy; and an inflated view of Catholicism's superiority. The papacy has become imperial, and bishops world-wide are reduced to the role of Vatican surrogates. As a result, Catholicism seems to many to have become simple-minded and out of touch. In such an atmosphere the "treasures" of Catholicism generally go unattended and unmined.
The "good news" is that despite all that, those "treasures" remain readily available even to alienated Catholics who leave the institution, as well as to those who choose to remain, be they alienated or not. The "bad news", for the institution at least, is that all those "Catholic" treasures are transportable, i.e. they are not so "Catholic" that they cannot readily become elements of a spiritual life outside the institution.
St. Paul: "Sisters and brothers, I would not have you ignorant regarding spiritual things." …I Cor. 12:1
We don't often think of it, but our lives and our thoughts take place against a backdrop which profoundly affects how we think and how we live. Deep within all of us is an image or picture of reality as indifferent, as threatening and destructive, or as nurturing and life-giving. How we characterize reality profoundly affects our response to life. Western culture would have us image reality as ultimately indifferent. Reality is made up of atoms and subatomic particles, a cosmic soup, which is indifferent to human purposes and hopes. Reality simply is what it is. That is why today more and more find the existence of God questionable and irrelevant. But even believers are affected by this cultural view. Unless we have had some sort of transforming experience, our belief in God is simply added to the basic scientific picture of reality as inanimate and impersonal.
In such a world, the Catholic/Christian position on God is a real treasure. It is a treasure not because it affirms God's "existence", even some philosophers and scientists do that, but because it proclaims something much more significant to us. And what in today's world could possibly be more significant than affirming God's "existence"? Why affirming God's "presence" of course. This Christianity has done from the start. What earthly good is a God who exists, who created the cosmos, but who remains aloof and not lovingly "present" to humankind? None whatsoever.
Who among us hasn't had a feeling of insignificance after reading National Geographic or viewing the Discovery Channel on the vastness of the cosmos? A universe, we are told, which is characterized by chaos and ruled by chance. In such circumstances human projects count for naught, and human aspirations no more than empty dreams. Hurtling through space on spaceship Earth, we are horribly vulnerable and terribly alone, unable to decide whether the flow of the universe in which we are caught up is malevolent toward humankind or just completely indifferent. In either case, our personal fate is sealed, we are destined for ultimate annihilation.
Be sure to take Treasure #1, God's loving Presence within you, with you as you move out the door. StockXchng image from Paulo Correa, Philippines
Against so dismal a story, Catholicism/Christianity has always presented its alternative account. Not only are we not alone, God's loving "presence" to every human being, thanks to the Spirit, confirms that human life is not insignificant, it is of great value. In fact, if we but cooperate with the flow of that Spirit, we, ourselves, become divinized. The cosmos no longer seems unfriendly, chaotic and indifferent, Divine Love permeates everything, making life ultimately good. In the end, each of us must decide which sort of universe our experience tells us we're living in. Our choice in this matter greatly affects the kind of lives we lead. Turn your back on the Church if you must, but be sure to take Treasure #1, God's loving Presence within you, with you as you move out the door.
What's It All About Alfie? If there is one thing we learned in the second half of the 20th century, thanks to people like Viktor Frankl, it is that "man's search for meaning" is vitally important and central to human life. One reason most Catholics weren't concerned with that was because just "being Catholic" meant you didn't have to search for meaning — you already had it. It had been revealed to you. As Parker Palmer says:
We are born with a seed of selfhood that contains the spiritual DNA of our uniqueness — an encoded birthright knowledge of who we are, why we are here, and how we are related to others. We may abandon that knowledge as the years go by, but it never abandons us." (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2004.)
That is no small thing in a world like ours where so many find their lives meaningless and are, therefore, condemned to an endless and fruitless search. One of the great "treasures" of Catholicism/Christianity is that it reveals to its adherents the "meaning" of life. What is that meaning?
The fact that "God so loved the world..." affirms the nobility and grandeur of human life. It also reveals the meaning of "the good life". No, it is not consumerism and a life of pleasure and relative affluence. The meaning of "the good life" is that people matter, and our life together is really what life is all about. As Fr. Don Headley put it:
We are relational beings both inside and out. We are all touched by each other forever; there is no escape and no respite to the echo and reverberations which we are and which surround us. We are parts of a great web of relationships where all salvation of the human spirit takes place.
We always experience joy when we possess something truly good for us. Of course, "things" can be very good, but faith and experience reveal that only "persons" are the very dwelling place of Goodness Itself. Nothing is so like God, nothing is so God-filled as a human person. Small wonder then that loving "things" is not as pleasant and joyfilled for us as loving and being loved by persons. To love persons is to love God, to love God is to love persons (1 John 4:20). Turn your back on the institution if you will, but for heaven's sake be sure to take Treasure #2, that people matter and are really what life's all about, with you as you walk away.
Having a "holy" book can be dangerous, as is proved by Jewish, Christian and Muslim fundamentalisms. However, leaving literal interpretation aside, Scripture is a real "treasure". It is a repository of so much spiritual wisdom that it is unthinkable that we should try to cope with life's unfolding without it. It is one of the real "gifts" to the world by Catholicism/Christianity. Of course, it becomes less of a "gift" when taken literally or treated as a theological treatise or a doctrinal summary by which to judge orthodoxy.
Treasure #3a: Parables
Jesus didn't teach in a textbook sort of way — in the Jewish tradition he conveyed his message primarily by telling stories. Stories which revealed that the Power behind the unfolding of the universe is beneficent and can be trusted. People latched onto his "parables", repeating them to others, because in some mysterious way his stories illumined their experience, bespoke hope and made living a bit easier and more hopeful.
One didn't have to be educated to grasp their meaning, one only had to be open enough to let the story resonate with one's own life experience. Having struggled with life — people knew what Jesus was talking about — they didn't need religious teachers to tell them. For many who heard him it was the first time they could trust the primordial message they had already discovered in their own hearts by themselves. No one is totally blind when it comes to the things of the heart. After all, we are not novices at coping with life as it unfolds. Like those who heard Jesus, we already have enough experience to know how life really works. The parables of Jesus reveal that truth to those who have ears to hear.
While it is understandable why you might want to free yourself from the Catholicism of your youth, surely you don't want to continue your spiritual journey without illuminating stories like that of The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son, The Good Shepherd, The Mustard Seed, The Wise & Foolish Virgins, Lazarus & The Rich Man etc. Besides, you can't really get rid of those parables simply by leaving. They are etched in our memory since childhood and continue to show us the way of Jesus even when we don't follow it.
Treasure #3b: A Glimpse of God
In Jesus' world the issue was never whether God existed or not, that was never questioned. The basic issue was — what was God really like? Despite all the "God-talk" going on out there, then and now, God still remains the great Unknown. Human thought and language are too limited to grasp the transcendent infinity of God. Still, the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures, especially the parables and teachings of Jesus, give us a glimpse of what God is like and what God desires for us and our world. The Old Testament says of God: "You are a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love." (Nehemiah 9:17) Jesus invites us to see God as life-giving, generous, even lavish. "See how God feeds the birds and clothes the lilies..." (Matthew 6:25-33; Luke 12:22-31) In addition, he calls us to be compassionate, just as Our Father in heaven is. (Luke 6:36) If we are to move god-ward, within or outside the institution, we must be a compassionate and caring people.
As for what God desires of us, the Old Testament says it clearly: "You have been told what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8) And this from Amos: "I take no delight in your sacrifices … let justice flow like a river and righteousness like an unfailing stream." Jesus confirms the Old Testament view that God's "passion" is for "justice" by his consistent teaching on the Kindom, which is often called the "Kindom of Justice". If we are to move god-ward, within or outside the institution, we must be a people that thirsts for peace and justice. Having this "glimpse of God" is a real treasure and the basis of any authentic spirituality.
Throughout history human beings have had transcendent experiences. Experiences which transport people to another dimension of reality, and give them a sense of union with God. We may ourselves never have had such experiences, but we all know of people who have. One of the treasures of Catholic/Christianity is that it supplies us with a means to talk about such experiences in terms of God, the Holy Spirit and union with Christ. Imagine being unable to put mystical-like experiences into even halting words, imagine how barren that would make our lives. It is a real treasure to be able to articulate something of them.
There they are on the mantel, all the pictures of loved ones who have gone before us into the mystery of death. Having them there is a mixed blessing. Sometimes we find joy in remembering this thing or that about this one or that. The joy of remembering their presence and their love warms our hearts. That's why we keep those pictures there in full view. We like to remember them. But at other times we find those pictures to be a source of anxiety causing us to question whether we'll ever see those folks again, or whether they have gone into nothingness. Fear follows as we think of our own going into nothingness after them. That thought is beyond bearing. We cannot accept it as the final word. That is why of all the treasures of Catholicism/Christianity we find Treasure #5, the bold assertion in the face of science and the nay-sayers that death is not the end for us, the most precious treasure of all. To give it up is to court depression, disaster and despair.
The Final Treasure
The Final Treasure is the truly "catholic" treasure. That is to say it is the most universal and the least parochial of Catholicism's treasures. If, as we believe, the Spirit of God is flowing through creation, and that it is the same Spirit of the same God, then there ought to be a common core of truth in all authentic religions and spiritualities. One of the true treasures of Catholicism is that it offers just such a unifying core, and when it does so, it is truly "catholic".
What is that Spiritual Core? It is Treasure #6, of Catholicism and it is:
You are not alone, you are loved by God and are precious in God's sight. Egotism, indifference, hatred and injustice diminish you, because all human beings are kinfolk to one another. Be not afraid to turn from evil and repent, because God's forgiveness is readily at hand. Extending that forgiveness to others and treating them with care and compassion nourishes your spirit and will eventually transform the world. Finally, be not afraid — death is not the end — don't you know you are "spirit" and are destined to live forever with that God Who loves you?
For Christ's sake, be sure to take that message with you — whichever direction you choose to go on your spiritual journey from here on out.
Dick Westley is a now retired teacher of philosophy from Loyola University, Chicago. This commentary is the second from a provocative series of workshops he conducted in Chicago in October
The headline image has been sourced from a series on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which can be found at: www.techhouse.org/~dj/cohs.html.
Dick Westley is a now retired teacher of philosophy from Loyola University, Chicago.
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[Index of Commentaries by Dick Westley]