Monthly Archives: February 2012

OUR Father, Merton’s epiphany, and a gnome

In October thanks to a friend, I had the chance to spend three days in silence at a Jesuit retreat house outside Detroit – just what I needed.

One morning at Mass, as we began to pray the Lord’s prayer, I found myself unable to go beyond the first word – “our”.  The sense of belonging overwhelmed me. Pure grace.

I shared this with a priest I saw for a short talk and confession and he noted that it sounded like Thomas Merton’s epiphany experience, recounted in Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pp. 140-141.

In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation…

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of the race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrow and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize that we are all one. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun….There are no strangers!

… the gate of heaven is everywhere.

The whole quotation is worth meditating over since it reveals Merton’s incarnational theology and calls us to recognize our connectedness with OUR Father. We are not isolated individuals.

But for Merton his epiphany was also an experience of joy. As he wrote, “This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud.”

A few months before leaving for Honduras in 2007, I was at a meeting of the Just Faith board in Louisville. We had a chance to walk around town and reached the corner of Merton’s epiphany. I almost laughed out loud, because there, just by the historical marker noting Merton’s experience on March 18, 1958, there was a small statue of a gnome. How appropriate! What a way to make this epiphany experience something real – and not just a pious act.

I don’t know it is still there – and I had no camera to take a photo – but that ugly gnome reminds me of our connectedness with all creation – including the gnomes.

“Our” Father embraces all of creation.


Judgment of the nations

The first week of Lent begins with the call to justice. The Gospel, Matthew 25, 31-46, is the judgment of the nations on the basis of their attention to the poor and marginalized.

The “nations” may refer to the pagan nations, but we might also note that this is not necessarily a judgment of individuals, but of social groups. How are we as a nation, as a church, as a social group, responding to the poor?

In the first reading from Leviticus 19, Moses is also calling on the nation to do justice and care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. The People of God is called to be a nation that is just.

As individuals we are called to care for the poor and to do justice. But also, what is our nation, our church doing, as an institution to promote the poor and render them justice?

We need this Lent to make a personal examination of conscience, using today’s readings as a starting point. But we also ought to examine our nation, our church, our institutions.

Why? As Leviticus says, we are called to be holy as God is holy. Notably, at the end of every command, we are reminded , “I am the Lord.”

The call to do justice and to attend to the marginalized is not merely social action; it is the way we live as the People of God.

Today’s readings are a call to the nations as well as to each one of us, because the Lord is holy and we are called to be holy – which means being people of justice.

Would that all those who serve in government positions would take these readings to heart. We’d have a very different world.

SO let us – as persons and nations – be holy and just as the Lord is holy and just.


Martyrs in the Americas

The last three decades of the twentieth century witnessed the martyrdom of thousands of Christians in Latin America, witnesses for justice in the face of oppression and dictatorial regimes. They included bishops – most notably Monseñor Oscar Romero of El Salvador and Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala – as well as priests, sisters, and lay pastoral workers, as well as numerous Protestants who also allied themselves with the poor.

But the history of martyrdom and persecution in the Americas did not begin in the twentieth century.

On February 26, 1550, Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso, a Dominican friar who was bishop of Nicaragua, was martyred in León, Nicaragua.

Fray Antonio, born in Spain, arrived in the Americas in 1544 and began to write the Spanish crown denouncing the suffering of the indigenous populations. The governor of Nicaragua, his brother, his wife and sons were treating the indigenous with extreme cruelty and enslaving them. Fearing that his letters to the King were being intercepted and destroyed, he wrote in one letter, “I write these letters hurriedly in order that Your Majesty might be aware … of the great need that exists in these parts for justice.”

He was named bishop of Nicaragua and ordained in Gracias a Dios, Honduras (now Gracias, Lempira) by the bishop of Guatemala and the bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas, another advocate for the indigenous.

While in Gracias, Bishops Antonio de Valdivieso and Bartolomé de Las Casas, brought their case against the Spanish oppressors to the Spanish court there, the Audiencia de los Confines. They were virtually ignored and were mocked as cocinerillos de los monasterios – monkish cooks. (I am not sure of this translation of cocinerillos: cocinero means cook, but cochino means pigs.)

Bishop Valdivieso managed to get to his diocese, despite efforts to physically prevent him. Once there, he continued his prophetic preaching.

On February 26, 1550, the governor and his brother sent hired thugs to the bishop’s house where he was stabbed to death.

Antonio de Valdivieso is a witness to the role that the church should continue to play in the world – being good news for the poor and denouncing injustice and all that prevents people from living as children of God. Would that we had more religious leaders like Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso.


Fasting amid the poor

How do you explain fasting to the poor? How do you explain abstinence to them?

In the Catholic Church Lent is a time of fasting. The “legal” fast of only one large meal and no eating between meals is now only required for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It used to be the requirement for all the days of Lent (except Sundays and special feast – one of which, of course, would be St. Patrick’s Day, the high holyday of Irish Catholics). Abstinence means not eating meat and is still required for Fridays during Lent.

As I remember it, fasting in the pre-Vatican II days meant only one serving a meat a day.

On Ash Wednesday, I brought ashes and Communion to a rural village.

As part of my reflection we talked about the three major practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and sharing with the poor.

The poor are almost always fasting, especially when the food they’ve stored from the last harvest runs out which is usually between May and August here in western Honduras. I also know that during these times mothers will often fast so that their children may have something to eat. Their lives are a continual fast.

I explained that abstinence was not eating meat for the day.

“How often each week do you eat meat?” I asked.

It was the wrong question since most of the people may eat meat once a month.

I felt humbled by this response. These people are often so generous and sharing. (I left with a whole bunch of bananas – more than 60!)

Meat is a luxury for most of the world. And, in a sense, that’s why I’m a vegetarian – to live in solidarity with the poor and to use less of the world’s resources.

When people in the countryside ask me why I don’t eat meat, I tell them that I have enough reserves of protein and thus am leaving the protein for them.  They get it and I don’t have to give a longer explanation.

And so let this Lent be a time of fasting and abstinence in solidarity. Many of us North Americans have enough reserves of protein and other foods. Can we let go of some of them and share with our sisters and brothers?

This is the fast the Lord seeks:
“to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the things of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.
…to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house…
Isaiah 58: 6-7

The Cross and Life

Moses sets before the people a  decision – life or death, blessing or curse, and urges them: “Choose life that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30: 19)

But Jesus tells us to take up our cross, to deny ourselves, to lose our lives. (Luke 9: 23-24) And he showed this by his life.

But there is no contradiction here.

When we try to hold on to life, to things, we may be like dead persons – rigid, grasping, unable to let go. But when we risk ourselves, when we give our lives away for others, we are truly alive.

Life does not just consist in living and breathing. Life is an adventure in loving. And when we love we find life – not necessarily an easy life, but a life with a profound joy.

Yesterday when I took Communion to an elderly sick man in Quebraditas, whose left foot had been partially amputated, I asked him if he wanted Communion? I could hardly hear his mumbled “yes,” but I saw a smile on his face.

Our Lord Jesus was coming to him, sharing in his suffering.

Will we able to smile when we face our crosses and the adversities of life?

I believe that when we take up the cross, when we are in solidarity with all who suffer, then we can find real joy. At least that has been my experience.


Ash Wednesday, fraternal correction, and the White Rose

In his Lenten message this year Pope Benedict called Catholics to renew the practice of “fraternal correction,” recovering the spiritual work of mercy of “admonishing the sinner” as a dimension of Christian charity.

I believe that admonishing the sinner is not only something that concerns individuals. I believe that we are called to denounce injustices in our society as failures of love. That’s why I share stories of witnesses who have given their lives.

On this day, February 22, in 1943, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Christopher Probst, three young Germans, members of the White Rose, were put to death by the Nazis. The White Rose was a clandestine group of mostly young Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox Germans in the Munich area who opposed Hitler and disseminated written material by mail, by night distribution, and by throwing pamphlets in public places.

Sophie and Hans were caught after distributing the leaflets at a Munich University.

Another member, Alexander Schmorell, was canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia on February 4 of this year. Jim Forest has some beautiful and moving pictures of the canonization, of places connected with the White Rose, and of some of the members in his Flickr set.

A few years ago a moving film on Sophie Scholl was produced, called “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.”

As Lent begins it is helpful to remember these witnesses against evil for their courage and ingenuity in resisting. For many of them their faith and the search for God sustained them in the struggle and the difficult times of Nazi Germany.

This is clear from these words of Sophie Scholl:

The only remedy for a barren heart is prayer, however poor and inadequate…

I’m still so remote from God that I don’t even sense his presence when I pray. Sometimes when I utter God’s name, in fact, I feel like sinking into a void. It isn’t a frightening or dizzying sensation, it’s nothing at all — and that’s far more terrible. But prayer is the only remedy for it, and however many devils scurry around inside me, I shall cling to the rope God has thrown me, even if my numb hands can no longer feel it.

This Lent let us cling to the rope God has thrown us, pray often, and speak out against injustice – admonishing our society and our nation to stop practices of injustice and oppression.


You despise the poor

Today’s first reading, James 2: 1-9, is an indictment of discrimination against the poor in the Christian assembly.

I live in a country, Honduras, with a strong class structure. The poor are looked down upon, despised.

I have heard a professional here in Santa Rosa complain that the priests don’t understand professional people like him because most of them come from the countryside and are  campesinos.

I also recall that several years ago the president of the Honduran Congress, who later became  the de facto president after the 2009 coup, called people of the countryside who opposed him on mining issues “gente del monte,” – best translated as hillbillies or hicks.

Such shameful treatment of the poor, such verbal degradation, is not uncommon in a class society such as in Honduras.

Is it a wonder then the campesinos seem to have a self-esteem problem. But their low self-esteem is in part socially induced. It is a social construct of the dominant powers.

And so when I work with them in training of catechists or other pastoral workers I consider it important to remind them of their dignity as children of God, all of us made in God’s image and likeness. I also seek to help them see their wisdom and worth – that they have something to offer in our discussions. I often call them my teachers, asking them to correct my errors in Spanish.

But the discrimination continues. The killing of about 356 men in the Tuesday night fire in the Comayagua, Honduras, prison reveals again how this society treats the poor and despised of the earth.

But the wisdom of the Letter of James (2: 5-6) is so different:

Listen, my beloved brothers [ands sisters], did God not choose the poor of this world to receive the riches of faith and to inherit the kingdom which He promised to those who love him. Yet you dishonor the poor.

The word translated above as “dishonor” can also be translated as “despise” or “treat shamefully”. Woe are we, individuals and societies, who treat the poor so shamefully.

A Catholic witness of conscience – against war

As the Catholic Church in the US ponders questions of conscience, it might be helpful to recall the example of  Ben Salmon, US Catholic pacifist, World War I conscientious objector, husband and father, who died eighty years ago on February 15, 1932.

Ben Salmon grew up in a working class Catholic family in Denver, only studying until the eighth grade. He was active in the church, a member of the Knights of Columbus, as well as in union organizing. He had a strong commitment to social justice and lived it.

He was a “doer of the word and not a hearer only,” to recall today’s lectionary reading from the first chapter of the Letter of James.

When World War I started,  he refused to serve, claiming that cooperation with war was a violation of his conscience. But the US would not recognize a Catholic pacifist and so he was arrested in 1918, court-martialed, and imprisoned, sentenced for twenty-five years in prison.

The end of the war did not bring his release. After a hunger strike he was released in 1920.

He may have felt alone in his witness, as prison chaplains tried to convince him that he was opposing the pope; some priests actually refused him the sacraments, seeing his pacifism as heresy.

But he persisted, and even wrote a two hundred page manuscript critiquing the just war theory in justification of his nonviolence.

He took a stand for life and suffered for it. This was not easy, but with a deep faith he persevered. His quiet witness has only recently come to light, especially in a 1989 biography by Torin R. T. Finney, Unsung Hero of the Great War.

The root of his simple, straightforward pacifism are clear from this quotation:

“I believe it is clear that, if we are going to show our love for our neighbor, we must adopt some other means besides tattooing his body with a Lewis machine gun. If you love me, I really prefer that you show your love in some other way besides massaging me with a bayonet. . . .

“Love, of course, is like everything else, relative. Christ does not expect me to love a stranger as much as I love my mother. But even though love is relative, it never reaches a level so low as to warrant an injury. The opposite of love is hate, and the amount of hate that finds an expression in every war, of which we found an appalling example in the recent conflict, warrants the conclusion that war is hate [and] peace is love.”

Brother Santiago – one of many killed in Guatemala

Thirty years ago, Brother James Miller, FSC, a Christian Brother and U.S. missionary, was killed in Huehuetenango, Guatemala, on February 13, 1982. Brother James/Santiago, born in 1944,  was raised on a central Wisconsin farm but spent many years in Central America.

His death was one of about 200,000 killed in Guatemala in the second half of the twentieth century, largely by government forces. Scores of indigenous villages were destroyed and many innocent men, women, and children were killed by Guatemalan government troops. These included a good number of catechists as well as Catholic priests and religious and several Protestant leaders. The bishop who led a church based investigation of the killings, Monseñor Juan Gerardi, was killed two days after he publicly released the report.

Brother James worked and taught for many years in Nicaragua. Later he served in the Christian Brothers’ school in Huehuetenago, Guatemala, where the brothers had also opened a center for the education of the indigenous, La Casa Indigena.

Brother Santiago was killed while repairing a wall on the grounds of the Casa Indigena, almost certainly by right-wing death squads.

As I read his story, he was another victim of the indiscriminate violence by right-wing and government forces in Guatemala. He could not in any way be considered a leftist or an agitator. He seems to have been fairly conservative and “a-political,” but committed to the well-being of the poor.  He is another one of the victims of the violence perpetrated against the poor and the church in Guatemala in the last half of the twentieth century

A martyr for the poor and the rain forest

Sister Dorothy Stang, US missionary, member of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, defender of peasants and small farmers, was killed in a remote settlement in the state of Para, Brazil, on February 12, 2005. She was 73 years old and had served in Brazil since 1966.

Her death was described in GoodWorks (Spring-Summer 2005), in terms that seem to be taken directly from the early martyrologies:

While Sr. Dorothy walked on toward a local village, she heard taunts from men who had stopped alongside her. The rain poured as she stopped and opened her Bible. She read to the men. They listened to two verses, stepped back and aimed their guns. Dorothy raised her Bible toward them and six shots were fired at point blank range. She fell to the ground, martyred for her belief that all humans are due justice. As she died, she was reading, “Blessed are you who are poor.”

Sister Dorothy had a deep faith that was manifested in her commitment to the poor and marginalized of Brazil as well as to the care of the creation God has entrusted to us, particularly the Brazilian rain forest. She gave her life as a martyr, a witness, for the poor and the earth.

As she once said:

“I don’t want to flee, nor do I want to abandon the battle of these farmers who live without any protection in the forest.  They have the sacrosanct right to aspire to a better life on land where they can live and work with dignity while respecting the environment.”