On the God of My Understanding

The men who created the AA program and the 12 Step Step program realized two things: 1. If people were to truly recover from alcohol abuse, the solution would only work if it was spiritual in some manner; 2. Many alcoholics had had very negative encounters with religious professionals, many of whom passed judgment on alcoholics.

To create a program that was spiritual in nature but flexible, the creators of AA developed the idea of “the God of my understanding”. This definition did not limit recovering alcoholics to a Christian God or a Jewish God or a Muslim God or any other specific definition of God. Rather, recovering alcoholics are invited to develop the God of their understanding, i.e., a spiritual presence in their lives that could be a source of strength and guidance.

This concept was for me quite liberating. I no longer felt confined to a Catholic definition of God but felt free to incorporate a wide range of influences into developing the God of my understanding. That definition of God is still influenced by my Catholicism but also by many other influences from Judaism to Zen Buddhism to art to nature. Thus I can connect with the God of my understanding at Mass but even moreso have felt that connection in Yosemite National Park or while contemplating Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

The God of my understanding is also a God with Whom I can argue. I realized that my relationship with God could not be passive. I realized that I had witnessed too many situations which raised the “why?” question and in some cases made me angry. Thus I argue with God about many things ranging from the deaths of my two sisters to a 12 year-old boy dying of AIDS to senseless deaths in war zones. I need a God with Whom I can rage.

The God of my understanding has grown in other ways. Thanks to a workshop on faith and the stages of life, I found the feminine side of god. Thanks to the writings of Harold Kushner, I have been open to the idea that not all bad things are caused by God. I have come to see that we have a standing invitation to participate in God’s ongoing creation.

Over the years, I have met others who embraced the idea of the God of one’s understanding in creative ways. I was encouraging one man to try the AA program and he initially told me it wouldn’t work because he was an atheist. I encouraged him to read the chapter “We the Agnostics” in the AA book. He came back and said he had figured out a God of his understanding that would work for him. He then explained that he had resolved the God issue while reading A Brief History of Time by Stephan Hawking. To this day, I don’t think I understood what he was talking about but it worked for him which is what mattered.

I think that perhaps our understanding of God is supposed to be dynamic and ever-changing. I think that perhaps if our understanding of God becomes static and we believe we have figured out the mystery of God, then we are in spiritual danger.

I am not a man of simple faith. In many ways, I wish I was. I probably get too analytic about the God of my understanding. I struggle with doubts. Yet my relationship with the God of my understanding is not stagnant and for that I am grateful.

Reflection: How has your understanding of God changed?

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On Being a Catholic Dissident

In reviewing those whom I have viewed as spiritual mentors, I realized that a majority of them would fit the definition of dissident:  “disagreeing especially with an established religious or political system, organization, or belief”. In general there have been two types of Catholic dissidents. The first are those whose faith is a stepping stone to protest against an existing government or issue. Examples of this type of dissident would be Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. Dorothy Day, a convert to Catholicism, believed her faith called her to speak out on behalf of the poor. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, followed his faith in protesting the Viet Nam war and the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

The second type of dissident is one who speaks out against some dysfunctional aspect of the Church itself. St. John XXIII in his effort through Vatican II was such a dissident. The other such dissident was Jesus Christ Himself whose efforts to reform the Judaism of His day led to His death. Other dissidents such as Thomas Merton and Pope Francis straddle both areas.

What does it mean to be a Catholic dissident? Rather than being influenced by the politicians of the day, the Catholic dissident uses the teachings of Jesus as his/her reference point for determining a stand on the issues of the day. This, I believe is what Pope Francis is trying to do in addressing the moral and political issues of the day. He has endured brutal criticism as a result.

The Catholic dissident will speak up to anyone from a parish priest to a Bishop regarding the issues of the day. Essentially the Catholic dissident finds his/her voice. The Catholic dissident does not sit passively in the pew but is willing to take risks to address issues, whether political or specifically Catholic.

Some Catholics ranging from Thomas Merton to Garry Wills are able to voice their dissident opinions in writing, thereby gaining a larger audience. Such writers are at times censured by the Catholic establishment. Teilhard de Chardin and Matthew Fox are examples.

Catholic dissidents who favor a more compassionate approach to issues such as sexual identity and abortion need to be aware that within the Church is an increasingly vocal Right Wing intent on returning the Church to a more traditional, male-dominated structure. This Right Wing is becoming increasingly vocal bot in print and in protest. Thus, those dissidents who speak up on behalf of the poor and the marginalized can expect a hostile reaction from the Catholic Right.

At this time Catholic dissidents remain active in holding the Church accountable for its failures in addressing the sex abuse scandal. Dissidents are actively moving their organizations in a more environmentally sensitive direction to honor Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si. In a few Churches we are even hearing women preach.

Becoming a dissident Catholic can bring an element of vitality to one’s faith. It can also bring attack. Thus, in my own effort to encourage a diocesan response to the sex abuse scandal, I was labelled an enemy of the Church. So it goes.

Finally the Catholic dissident must find within his/her heart a capacity to listen to those of another belief. The political and religious exchanges of the day are greatly missing any efforts to listen. The Catholic dissident must also speak from a humble heart that gives rise to a desire to help and heal but not to be “right”.

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Spiritual Mentors: St. John XXIII

As part of this blog, I have written about spiritual mentors — persons whom I never met yet whose lives and writings impacted my life. Recently I have also become interested in the topic of protest within the Catholic Church and noticed that most of my mentors were at times dissidents, protesting political issues or even matters within their own churches. I also have become aware of a movement with the Catholic Right Wing to do away with many of the changes initiated 60 years ago with Vatican II. The architect of that revolutionary event was another dissident but a quiet gentle one — Pope and St. John XXIII.

Pope John was Pope for only five year, succeeding Pius XII. Many assumed that, because of his age, he would be an “caretaker” Pope, i.e., one who would fill the space until a more acceptable candidate would emerge. However, early in his papacy he noted that the Catholic Church was in need of renewal and so chose to “throw open the windows” of the Church to let in fresh air. The result was Vatical II which in turn resulted in sweeping changes in multiple aspects of the Catholic faith. The most visible change for me as a young Catholic was changing the Latin Mass to the local languages. With that came new liturgies and new music. It was during this time of renewal that I first heard the African Missa Luba. Here is an excerpt in Latin but with a decidedly invigorating twist

Pope John was born Giovanni Roncali in a large family in Bergamo Lombardi. In reading his Journey of a Soul, one can see that he felt called to service and to the priesthood at an early age. His long journey to the papacy included a time during World War II when he worked tirelessly to save Jews from the Holocaust. He maintained a consciousness of the damage done to Jews and eliminated negative references to Jews made in Good Friday litany. He noted the impact of Catholic judgment and persecution of Jews: “We are conscious today that many, many centuries of blindness have cloaked our eyes so that we can no longer see the beauty of Thy chosen people nor recognise in their faces the features of our privileged brethren. We realize that the mark of Cain stands upon our foreheads. Across the centuries our brother Abel has lain in blood which we drew, or shed tears we caused by forgetting Thy love. Forgive us for the curse we falsely attached to their name as Jews. Forgive us for crucifying Thee a second time in their flesh. For we know not what we did.”

Similarly, in his efforts at ecumenism, he welcomed Jewish visitors in this way: “In 1960, receiving a delegation of American Jewish leaders, he was presented with a Torah scroll to express gratitude for the Jewish lives he had saved during the Holocaust and replied: “We are all sons of the same heavenly Father. Among us there must ever be the brightness of love and its practice.” He concluded: “I am Joseph, your brother” (Genesis 45:4). In using his baptismal name, the pope was not only quoting the biblical self-revelation of Joseph to his brothers in Egypt, he was also making an unprecedented gesture of filial warmth toward all Jews, who he considered deserved their full dignity as descendants of the Patriarchs of the Bible. It was a statement pregnant with theological implications.”

He at times functioned with a twinkle in his eye. Once a reporter asked him how many people worked at the Vatican. His response was “About half.”

Yet these days he and his efforts have come under attack by a Right Wing movement in the Catholic Church that is growing and includes more than a few Catholic Bishops. Pope John would, I believe, welcome such criticism in a spirit of dialogue, something sorely lacking these days.

It is no accident that he is known as “The Good Pope”. To me he is also The Good Dissident.

Further Reading: In addition to his own Journal of a Soul, there is a very good collection of his writings in the Modern Spiritual Masters series. I can also recommend The Good Pope by Greg Tobin.

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The Catholic Church and the Right Wing

Within our Catholic Church and largely unknown to Catholics is the emerging of an ultra-conservative right wing movement intent on returning us to pre-Vatican days. When Catholics hear of such things, we tend to dismiss such themes as a return to the Latin Mass. While that is indeed one of the desires of the Catholic Right Wing, that movement is far more active a part of the Catholic Church than many of us realize. The Right Wing movement includes US bishops and includes a number of Bishops who have spoken out against Pope Francis, even so far as to demand his removal. The Right Wing objects to the Pope’s position of compassion and justice for the poor and instead advocates a theology of prosperity that advocates for the growth of capitalism.

Given that the hierarchy of the American Catholic Church is made up primarily of white male conservatives, some resistance to Pope Francis’ progressive attitudes about issues ranging from same-sex marriage to the environment is to be expected. But some conservative Bishops have aligned themsleves with Big Money people such as the Koch brothers and conservative Catholics of power to include Clarence Thomas and his wife.

In her important book Playing God: American Bishops and the Far Right, Mary Jo McConahay, herself a Catholic and journalist, provides a well-researched very unsettling study of the development of the Far Right movement within the Church. She argues that ultra-conservative Catholics of wealth are pushing an agenda that includes banning not only abortion but same sex marriage and any policy that supports LGBT rights. Further, they are intent on reversing the gains of Vatican II.

It would appear that over the past 30 years the US Council of Catholic Bishops has moved away from advocacy for the poor and for the environment to a greater emphasis of and support for a capitalist agenda. As such, a significant number of Bishops did not offer clear support for Pope Francis’ important encyclical Laudato si which introduced the notion that actions that harmed the environment such as fossil fuels were against God’s wishes. McConahay notes that some of the right wing big money people embraced by several bishops have significantly investment in the fossil fuel industry.

The pattern and intensity of attacks on the Pope have been so vitriolic that the Pope recently addressed the use of social media noting “…when groups that present themselves as ‘Catholic” use their social media presence to foster division, they are not behaving as a Christian community should.” Several American Bishops, the network EWTN and numerous conservative newspapers such as National Catholic Reporter have repeatedly attacked the Pope, at times asking him to step down.

How does all this impact an ordinary Catholic? First of all, it challenges the assumption many Catholics have that the Church hierarchy has our best interests in mind. That assumption was already brought into question by the USCCB’s hesitation in forcefully addressing the sexual abuse scandal. Now it would appear that some Bishops are not aligned with the needs of their flock but are rather intent in pushing an agenda that prioritizes abortion while minimizing issues such as poverty and the environment. Thus, there is the issue of how if at all do we laity hold the hierarchy accountable?

Not all American bishops are aligned with the Right Wing and its country cousin Big Money. Some are open in their embrace of immigrants. Others are willing through their diocesan newspapers to articulate support for documents such as Laudato si. Since USBCC closed Catholic News Service, the only option for intelligent analysis of the Bishops’ decision-making, diocesan newspapers remain as a tool for intelligent balanced reflection on the issues of today. Bishops need to make use of these tools to stimulate intelligent dialogue, to educate laity on the problems the American Catholic Church faces and to encourage support of the Pope especially among conservative Catholics who make up the majority of those who regularly attend Mass.

Young people are leaving the Catholic Church in great numbers, a fact hierarchy is either helpless to address or simply don’t care. As long as conservative Catholics who accept the Catholic Right Wing’s agenda fill the pews, right wing clergy may be content, looking forward to the return to Latin Mass.

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On Retirement

I recently closed my 40+ years practice of psychological counseling. As I approached that landmark, I found that I had to apply to myself advice I’d offered to many others over the years: “Don’t just think about what you are moving away from. Think about what you are moving towards.” Easier said than done.

Like many people in my age group, work was a major part of my identity. I grew up in a culture in which work was a part of life. Thus, I had my first job when I was 14. I worked for several summers as a mailman. I worked summers in factories. In my family there was never pressure to work. It was just part of the progression of life.

That work mentality gave rise to a tendency to judge myself if I felt I wasn’t being productive. The Buddhists say that, when one meditates, one eventually confronts one’s compulsion. Thus, when I would attempt traditional meditation, I would invariably be faced by thoughts such as “You should be doing something more productive. Get back to work!”

I did not have to retire. I am blessed with good health and have most of my mental marbles. That in many ways was a factor in my decision. I wanted to walk away from my work on my terms. I recalled an episode from MASH in which Colonel Potter fears that he has lost his ability as a surgeon and should retire. Sidney the psychiatrist advises him to not base such a decision on fear. I didn’t want to wait until I felt I could no longer do the work.

Retirement also opened the door on a number of activities that had been limited by work. These included my writing as well as my regular participation in a 12-Step support group. However, the compulsion to be productive has not simply vanished.

Spiritually, too, there has been a challenge. My work has a therapist may at times have been stressful but it also offered a steady stream of activity that had great meaning for me. That need to find meaning in my life is still strong.

Similarly, my work facilitated whatever social contact I needed. Retirement presented me with a challenge to meet social needs in other ways. Given that my reputation in the El Paso professional community was, in part, that I am reclusive, the easy path, not a healthy one, would be total withdrawal.

The other major spiritual challenge presented by retirement is fear. I certainly struggle with a fear of losing financial security. I fear the possibility of deteriorating health or failing mental abilities. I fear becoming dependent on loved ones. I fear becoming depressed as my father did after his retirement. The best that I can do in facing those fears is to focus on that over which I have control.

I have also come to see that my retirement has been an adjustment for my wife and children. Thankfully I am blessed with a solid marital relationship but, for over 40 years, my wife would go about her business each day with she and I reconnecting when I cam home usually after 7 PM. My children, too, have understood the importance of work in my life and so, from a distance, are watching as we adjust.

I have had to take a hard look at myself. I knew I would need some structure to my days, in large part because that was what I was used to. As a recovering addict, I had to remind myself how dangerous boredom can be. I have had to face the likelihood that I did not manage the stress of my work as well as I thought I had been. That has been humbling.

I have known too many people who found themselves bored and lonely in retirement. As one retired executive told me, “I feel like I’m just sitting around waiting to die.”

The challenge for me and for all who retire willingly or unwillingly is summed up by Gandalf:

Reflection: If you are retired, what learnings can you share from that journey.

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Heroes: Henry Aaron

Baseball season is in full force and my Red Sox are struggling. But I continue to embrace baseball with the enthusiasm that I learned to nurture early in recovery. From my love of baseball, I have also acquired a number of heroes — men whom for various reasons I deeply admire. They have ranged from Red Schoendienst to Cool Papa Bell. The example of each of these men taught me valuable life lessons. Perhaps the best known of the men of baseball who have impacted my life is Henry Aaron.

Henry Aaron rose up from poverty in Mobile Alabama to become one of the greatest ballplayers of all time. He also endured incredible racism. The racism he experienced early in his career was unfortunately common. As one writer noted after he received an MVP award for his season with the Jacksonville Braves: “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”. Aaron had many painful memories form his early career. He recalled, for example, eating in a restaurant in Washington DC then hearing kitchen staff smash the plates after he and his fellow ballplayers had eaten.

But the worst experience of racism came later in his career. It became apparent in 1973 that Henry Aaron had a shot at breaking one of the most sacred of baseball records — Babe Ruth’s career home run record of 714. As Aaron closed in on the record, he received much support but also received ugly racist taunts. Many included threats to his life and that of his family. The 1973 season ended with Aaron one homerun short of tying Ruth’s record.

Babe Ruth was perhaps the most popular baseball payer ever. And he was white. Aaron was not the first ballplayer to have the potential to surpass a beloved Ruth record. In 1961, Yankee Roger Maris approached breaking Ruth’s record of 60 homeruns in a season. Maris too received threats but not with the racist undertones faced by Aaron.

Yet Aaron conducted himself with quiet dignity and did not complain or expect special treatment. In the early 1974 season, he tied Ruth’s record. Then on April 8, he faced Al Downing of the Dodgers and broke Ruth’s record. The great sportscaster Vin Scully spoke to the significance of the moment:

“What a marvelous moment for baseball; what a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia; what a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us, and particularly for Henry Aaron … And for the first time in a long time, that poker face in Aaron shows the tremendous strain and relief of what it must have been like to live with for the past several months.”

I saw that moment on television and treasure the image of Henry Aaron circling the bases, shaking off two fans whom he feared might be attacking him. I also saw Henry Aaron in person years later when attending a ballgame of the Milwaukee Brewers, the team where Aaron finished his career. Robin Yount was being honored but in attendance was Henry Aaron!

Aaron reflected further class and dignity when Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s own career record. Aaron graciously congratulated Bonds without mention of the steroid issue that has clouded Bonds’ career and homerun record.

Henry Aaron stands as a towering example not only of tremendous athletic gifts but of dignity and courage in the face of ugly racism.

And, yes, I consider Henry Aaron to be the TRUE all-time homerun king! Enjoy the moment.

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Conspiracy Theories: A Spiritual Problem

Conspiracy theories are nothing new. People have long embraced conspiracy theories, most often in an effort to make sense of catastrophic events. Earlier in my lifetime, there were two prominent conspiracy theories, both of which are still around today. Those theories had to do with UFOs and with the assassination of President Kennedy. A major component of each theory had to do with our government withholding information.

Conspiracy theories often gain ground when some aspect is affirmed. Thus we now know that the government did indeed withhold information regarding UFOs. While suspicions about Area 51, for example, have been around since the days of Roswell, the governments’ acknowledgement of this top-secret site did not come about until the early 1990s. “See!” say the conspiracy theorists. Similarly the Watergate scandal affirmed that the government does indeed keep secrets. When, for example, J. Edgar Hoover’s secret list of “enemies” was made public, the conspiracy theorists said “See! What did I tell you?”

In the late 80s/early 90s, a prominent conspiracy theory involved Satanists using children in sexual ways. Amazingly, that theory has resurfaced and been given new force via the QAnon conspiracy theory which suggests that there is a pedophile sex ring of Satanists, many of whom are well-placed Democrats. Even more amazing is the Public Policy Polling result that 12 million Americans believe that our political leaders are actually alien lizards. 12 million!

Most of us usually dismiss conspiracy theories, finding them at times amusing, at times disturbing. Nowadays, however, conspiracy theories have taken a dark turn such that some proponents of QAnon have been elected to Congress and a former President has given conspiracy theories considerable traction.

Conspiracy theories evolve from the human need to make sense of things, to be able to answer the age-old question of “Why?” This spiritual question is one with which religions also struggle. For many, the typical answer of “It’s a mystery” is unsatisfactory. Similarly, the common religious response of “It must be God’s will” is not a comfort. Thus, many people seek out other explanations.

Clearly many spiritual principles such as “Love your neighbor as yourself” are at odds with the tenets of modern conspiracy theories, which especially these days foster an “Us vs. them” attitude. Again there is nothing really new about that were it not for the fact that conspiracy theorists are taking roles in our government.

Our churches and religions have little to say about conspiracy theories even though my own Catholic Church has been guilty of a conspiracy of silence in the past. Our church leaders may believe there is nothing to say about theories such as QAnon. But there is something to say about treating our fellow men and women with suspicion and judgment. There is something to be said about the absence of intelligent dialogue around divisive issues such as abortion and immigration. And there definitely is something to be said about consistency between my religious and my political beliefs. The Bible may have nothing to say about Lizard People but it has plenty to say about not judging those who believe differently.

Guidance in terms of a Christian political response needs to come from our religious leaders and needs to be followed up in the pulpit. Our priests’ sermons need to speak more to the toxic political environment in which we live and how to negotiate it. Most especially, the link between conspiracy theories and the “Why?” question needs to be explored more openly. And, yes, so-called Christians espousing conspiracy theories such as QAnon need to be confronted.

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The Star Thrower

Some years ago, I was reading a book by the great naturalist Loren Eiseley and came upon a chapter titled “The Star Thrower”. In it Eiseley shared an encounter he’d had on the coast of Costabel. In the distance, framed by a rainbow, he saw a man squatting staring at the sand. As Eiseley drew closer, he saw that the man staring at a star fish in the sand. Eiseley noted that the star fish was still alive. “Yes” the man said. “Then with a quick yet gentle movement he picked up the star and spun it over my head and far out into the sea…’It may live’ he said ‘if the offshore pull is strong enough'”

The image haunted me. It still does.

Once I set out for a morning run along a beach above Dublin. As I ran, I noticed the beach was awash with starfish. And so I bent, picked one up and joyfully tossed it as far as I could throw. Then I threw another. And another. And another. Then I realized the beach was filled with star fish. I couldn’t throw them all back.

Later that day, I walked along the same beach and saw many dead starfish as well as people collecting them. I thought myself a failure as a Star Thrower. But as I watched the ocean, as always I was mesmerized by its rhythm. I realized that the flow of life and death was timeless. That starfish would wash up onto countless beaches to die. That one man could not undo the ocean’s divine rhtyhm of life and death.

And yet the actions of the Star Thrower still mattered to me. Was I drawn to some type of naive idealism? If so, that had been challenged on the beach above Dublin. No matter how much time I spent throwing starfish back into the ocean, most would continue to wash up on beaches to die.

Was the Star Thrower exhibiting some form of protest that I was drawn to? Perhaps not, because he went about his task noticed only by Eiseley. Yet there might have been a slight pushing back against the laws of nature. Perhaps he thought “I know I cannot save all the star fish but perhaps it matters that I can save a few.”

As a therapist, I had long ago faced the frustration that there was far more pain and problems in the world than I could manage to address. As a finite being, I had and have limits as to how much I could and can do to help. It was tempting to give up and follow another path. Anyone involved in dealing with human suffering knows or should know that what they do matters only to those they try to help and sometimes not even then.

Yet I believe it does matter, just as the Star Thrower’s efforts mattered.

What Eiseley also noticed about the Star Thrower’s efforts was that it was an expression of love, not individual love but a love of life. The Star Thrower’s efforts affirmed life and took a stand for life. And in affirming life, he affirmed compassion for ALL of life. Picking up a star fish and throwing it back into the sea. Perhaps it matters after all.

So there it is. No, I could not save all the starfish on that Irish beach. But the ones I threw I did so with love and compassion. Perhaps that is what makes us human.

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Is My Church Still Dying?

Roughly 23 years ago I wrote a piece published in America that was titled “My Church is Dying?” At a later point, I was interviewed for a television piece on the pedophile crisis in the Church and again said “My Church is dying?” Neither was well-received in the Church’s halls of power, at least in El Paso.

Recently I came across the U.S. Religious Landscape survey by the Pew Research Center. This survey found, among other things, that one in three who stated they were raised Catholic no longer identified as Catholic. One in three! The survey also noted the overall attrition in Church attendance among young people. This certainly sounds like an organization that is in trouble.

Over the years, I have talked with many people who have left the Church. Most do not have issues with believing in God but rather have problems with rules of the Church or the structure of the Church. Others were so outraged by the Church’s handling of the pedophile crisis that they could no longer be a part of such an organization.

The research is clear, however, that in other parts of the world the Church is thriving. Areas such as Africa and South America show growth in membership, not attrition. It is also reported that, even in the presence of an oppressive political environment in China, the Catholic Church there is thriving. So is it mainly the Catholic Church in the United States and Europe that is in trouble?

Peter Steinfels wrote a thought-provoking book titled A People Adrift. His analysis was thorough as was his intelligent, non-reactive analysis of the sex abuse scandal. That book was written 20 years ago. Has the situation improved since then?

Within the Church, there are pockets of Christian activism. Here in El Paso, we experienced a crisis of great proportion last December with a heavy influx of immigrants. The streets of downtown El Paso were filled with migrants seeking shelter from the cold. In the midst of the political posturing of local and national officials, it was a Catholic priest, Fr. Raphael Garcia SJ, who became the face and voice of a truly Christian response.

Writers such as Fr. Richard Rohr have become popular in their efforts to forge a thoughtful approach to spirituality that incorporates knowledge gleaned from psychology. He has drawn many followers in his effort to encourage a more contemplative approach to spirituality. Clearly there is a need for thoughtful guidance in spiritual growth, a guidance that is not limited by rules.

Yet the number of priests and nuns continues to dwindle. The Church is also facing a crisis of manpower and womanpower.

As with the political scene in America, there appears to be an absence of intelligent dialogue. Many of the laity have gone their own way in terms of beliefs about issues ranging from birth control to gay marriage yet continue to attend Church and take Communion. Dialogue is needed there between laity and clergy. How is the individual American practicing Catholic evolving?

Efforts at outreach to so-called “fallen away” Catholics tends to focus on getting them back “into the fold”. Perhaps the effort needs to shift to one of listening. “What happened? What made you leave? What have you found instead?”

There is a similar need for dialogue with young people regarding their spiritual needs as they face an increasingly confusing world where social media is replacing face-to-face interaction.

Clearly, if any such pattern of dialogue can be formulated, the laity will need to be at the forefront. We know that Bishops are overwhelmed not only with increasing demands in the areas of social justice. We know too that they are stressed by the financial crises set off by lawsuits related to Clergy sexual abuse. We know that our priest are exhausted meeting the ongoing needs of confessions and Masses and funerals and baptisms to name a few.

Some of us laity are sarcastically labelled as “cafeteria Catholics” because we choose what we believe and don’t accept without questioning. Perhaps we are the Catholics who need to take up the challenge to help our Church heal and renew.

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Challenge of the Serenity Prayer

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change

The courage to change the things I can

And the wisdom to know the difference.

I have these words above my desk, mainly so that I am reminded on a regular basis. Captured in these few words is the essence of the spiritual journey and spiritual challenges for most of us.

Accept the things I cannot change. These few words bring into focus three spiritual challenges: powerlessness, fear, and the need to be in control.

I had an exercise in powerlessness over the weekend. I was flying from Oakland to El Paso through Las Vegas. Flight delays raised the possibility that I would be stranded in Las Vegas for the night. I felt powerless. I certainly tried to repeat over and over the 12 Step mantra “Let go and let God” but did not find any peaceful serenity. I kept worrying “What if…what if…” Granted this is not the worst experience of powerlessness I have ever faced. Addiction. Cancer in a loved one. Financial crisis These were certainly more serious and involved their own struggles with powerlessness.

The emotion that accompanies the sense of powerlessness is fear, usually in the form of “What ifs”. Second only to love, fear is the emotion most often addressed by Jesus who often told those around Him “Don’t be afraid. Trust in me.” It is fear that fuels our catastrophic thinking when we feel powerless.

Fear typically gives rise to a desire to control, often accompanied by anger. I could see that at the airport — stressed people angry that the situation couldn’t get fixed. I remember years ago counseling a young woman who, after some hard work, was discharged from the hospital, a huge transition for her. One day after her discharge she burst into my office yelling “Do something!” She was coping with a lot of fear and wanted it fixed. NOW!

Sitting in the Oakland airport, I knew I had no control. I knew that I was called to accept the situation as beyond my control. Did I find serenity? No but at least I knew what I had to do — keep repeating “Let go and let God.

Change the things that I can. I remember sitting in a support group meeting when a man announced that he was upset with his boss so he quit his job and was turning it over to God. I had the thought “Wow. I don’t think God runs an employment agency.” I also recalled the words of a good friend: “You can pray all day for potatoes but you still have to go out and hoe the garden.” The challenge to change the things I can applies to at least two situations: 1. changing myself and 2. speaking out in protest.

It is often said that the only thing I can really change in life is myself –my thoughts, my reactions, my expectations. This is the notion that is at the heart of psychotherapy or spiritual direction. There we can explore our fears, our irrational thoughts. We can decide how we want to face something such as illness over which we have no control. This was a key taught to me by several patients dying of cancer or AIDS-related illness. The disease would be fatal but they could explore how they wanted to face it. Some chose to be bitter. Others chose to find as much peace as they could or to otherwise enrich their lives in whatever ways possible. One man chose to reconcile with his daughter. Another shared the joy he felt in raising songbirds. Another woman focused on the time she had with her infant son.

But the spiritual path is not simply passive acceptance. Jesus protested and got killed as a result. If I am in a situation where I can speak out or take action, the Serenity Prayer would call me to take action. Perhaps I need to confront a loved one. Perhaps I need to say “no” when asked to take a course of action I know is wrong. If I am in a position to do so, perhaps I need to take a public stance that I know will be rejected by some, hoping only that this stance will result in some good.

Wisdom to know the difference. How can I tell when to act or when to act? There is no easy step-by-step guide. I wish there was. Wisdom may be found through a process of discernment, a going in quietly perhaps in prayer seeking for some guidance. It is important to understand that none of us get it right all the time. You may experience accepting something only to realize latter that action of your part would have made a difference. You may take some form of action only to see that the action was futile and it would have been better to accept. Being aware of what the Serenity Prayer calls us to doesn’t mean we will be on the mark every time. It is important not to judge oneself when we miss the mark.

I believe that we all tend to err in one direction or another when trying to live the Serenity Prayer. I undoubtedly err in the direction of trying to change that which I cannot. Others may err by being too passive. Still others may act impulsively without taking the time to discern.

This simple prayer then is rich with spiritual guidance and challenges all of which I need to attend to on a daily basis. Amen to that!

And, yes, I did make the connecting flight to El Paso!

Reflection: What have been your experiences with the themes of serenity, courage, and wisdom as seen in the Serenity Prayer?

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