In Praise of Grandmothers

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, many will pause also to remember their grandmothers. I’m aware there is now a Grandparents’ Day in September, I believe. But Mother’s Day is a day to celebrate mothers everywhere and many of those mothers also happen to be Grandmas.

In the past, when I would present workshops, in a guided imagery I would ask participants to picture someone who loved them unconditionally. Many would share that the person they saw was their grandmother. The image of their grandmothers would often bring tears.

Sadly, I have also known some grandmothers who were put in a position of raising their grandchildren. Not babysitting them but raising them. They would have to take on all the parental duties to include discipline. Many of those women grieved that they would not have the chance to be a doting Grandma.

I never knew either of my grandmothers. My maternal grandmother Ellen McDonald died in the flu epidemic of 1919. My paternal grandmother Catherine Patterson died in the early 1940s before I was born. But I did have an aunt. Whether she did so consciously or not, she served as my surrogate grandmother.

My aunt Margaret Walsh was in her teens when my grandmother died. Her older sister Mary was mentally ill and so Aunt Peg stepped in, helping to raise her siblings. My grandfather referred to her as “My Sparkplug” because she was full of energy and would get things done. As time passed and her siblings married, she became for many of us our surrogate grandmother. She would do grandmotherly things like sending me a birthday card with a dollar in it. She did this well into her 90s. She would bake the greatest peanut butter cookies I ever had or would have. When I would visit her back in Pennsylvania, she would have a bag of cookies for me. One poignant memory was when she apologized to me for not making the cookies, saying simply that she now had arthritis in her hands.

I never heard her speak a critical word to me but instead she seemed to take a grandmother’s pride. The last time I saw her she was in a nursing home. She had some memory issues by then. She asked me several times how old I was. Each time I would say “47, Aunt Peg” and she would clasp her hands together, saying with a slight Irish brogue “Oh saints preserve us!” We were in a large social room with other residents. As I was leaving, I heard that rich voice saying “That’s my nephew. He’s from Texas. He’s a psychologist.” Praise indeed!

I was also able to witness the joy my children brought to my mother. Her love was unconditional. My mother hated beards. On one visit my son Matt showed up with a beard. I asked my Mom “What do you think of your grandson’s beard?” “Whatever he wants” she said. Incredulous, I said “You’re kidding!” but, stubborn woman that she was, she simply nodded and said again “Whatever he wants.” Such was her attitude with all four of her grandchildren.

As with mothers, not all of us have had a good experience with grandmothers. For those of you in that category, I can only hope that, like me, you were able to find or will find a surrogate Grandma to meet that need.

So, hoping that you had a positive experience with a grandmother, I encourage you to celebrate them as well this Mother’s Day.

REFLECTION: Did you have or are you having a positive experience of a grandmother’s love?

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On Walls

Walls is still a big issue here in El Paso, mainly because elements of it can be seen along our border with Mexico. A wall serves two purposes — protecting those within the walls and keeping others out. What is interesting to me is that many who profess to be Christian support the building of such a wall, thereby ignoring much of the Bible’s guidance to be kind and welcoming to strangers.

In our individualistic culture, good walls appear to make good neighbors just as Robert Frost said. We treasure our privacy. A wall serves an age-old desire to own land and to have autonomy. A wall serves to define property and in some sense identity.

Not all walls are bad, as seen with this picture

In 1972, the Susquehanna River flooded many Pennsylvania towns. In the town of Sunbury many homes were actually below water level with a wall keeping the river from flooding those homes. Residents there nervously watched the river rise, trusting in their wall. The wall held!

Similarly, we all develop inner walls intending to protect ourselves and to keep others out. Is this good or bad? Depends on whom or what you are trying to keep out. What is important to note is that these inner walls are at times fear-based, mainly trying to protect me from being hurt.

Like physical walls, our inner walls are not all bad. Some people are not to be trusted. Others simply have their own aims in mind with little concern for our feelings or even safety. This is where having the inner equivalent of the Sunbury Wall can be helpful. We cannot afford to be flooded by others’ desires to use or manipulate.

But if we desire true intimacy, we have to at some point be able to lower that wall and let someone in. That can be scary. If I allow someone to see me at my worst or to share with them my areas of pain, can I trust them to honor that decision to lower my wall and not to misuse or betray that vulnerability? Sadly, many persons conduct relationships with walls. There is minimal openness, minimal sharing of wounds. People who have lived together for year end up as strangers.

Inner walls do protect us and that is as it should be. But if I am unwilling or unable to lower those walls with someone with whom I want to be close, I run the risk of ending up like the singer of “I Am A Rock, I An An Island”: “A rock feels no pain/And an island never cries”

Ironically, I may try to build a wall against the God of my understanding. I make my prayer life automatic. I do not present my hurts and my angers. Much like Adam and Eve, I believe I can hide from God. I may at least think that I can fool God. But if I truly believe that the Kingdom of God is within, then there is no place to hide.

Finally I may actually build a wall against myself, trying to keep out painful memories, personal failures, unfulfilled dreams. All this hurts too much and so I build a wall, trying to convince myself that such issues do not bother me. I deny my feelings of hurt or anger. I avoid the room marked Resentments trying to convince myself that I have forgiven when in fact I haven’t. I’m afraid to let down that inner wall, fearing that those walled-off thoughts and memories will overwhelm and destroy me. Thus, I expend much time and energy shoring up that wall.

Walls do serve a purpose. How much you need them in your life is up to you.

REFLECTION: How have walls showed up in your life and spiritual world?

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The Road Not Taken

Today is Robert Frost’s birthday. As such, this morning I find myself meditating on his great poem “The Road Not Taken”.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

Many of us, myself included, focus on the last 4 lines, reflecting perhaps on unconventional paths we followed at various points in our lives. But consider the title — the road NOT taken. For me, this poem is also a reminder and a warning that sometimes we dwell too much on a path we didn’t take. For some of us, those ponderings of what if include regrets and shouldas. Frost poem too suggests that, as we ponder the road not taken, we shall miss the beauty of the path we are on.

We all have a history of key decisions we have made in life. We may find ourselves wondering what if I had taking the other path. In my own case, what if I went ahead after high school and attended the seminary where I was already accepted? What if I had stayed in the Army? What if I had taken that job in Rochester? This to me is wasted energy yet we all do it.

Then too there are seemingly minor decisions that ended up having huge impact. When I was a sophomore in high school, I chose not to pursue basketball anymore. One year later, I auditioned for a play and that path led eventually to me meeting my wife of 51 years. If I ponder about the road not taken regarding basketball, I don’t feel regret. I feel gratitude.

For some, reflections on key decisions relate to their beliefs about God’s will. “When I took the left path instead of the right one, was I choosing in accord with God’s will for me?” God’s will is a slippery concept for we are also told we have free will. It makes me think of parenting. We may want our child to make a certain decision, even try to push them in that direction yet knowing all the while that it is our child’s decision.

Then too there is the issue of how specific is God’s will for us. Personally I do not believe that God somehow intended for me to be a clinical psychologist in El Paso TX. I think perhaps that God’s will involved certain gifts I was given and the expectation that I would live out those gifts to benefit others. Sadly, I have sat with persons who lived in fear that somehow God was angry with them because they have not followed God’s will.

Perhaps all that God’s will involves for each of us is “Make your decisions out of love for yourself and for others.”

Sometimes too we dwell on the serious mistakes, sins if you will, that we have made. We run a Dr. Phil on ourselves: “Good Lord, what was I thinking when I did that?’ That type of regret can include a lack of forgiveness of ourselves. I have made some serious mistakes in my life. Do I dwell on them, saying “How would my life be if I hadn’t done such a stupid thing?” Or do I try to do what I believe we are called to do — forgive myself and change.

So, no, I did not choose the path of becoming a Holy Cross priest. I did not choose the path of changing my major from psychology. I did not choose the path of staying in the Army. Just as Frost says, that has made all the difference. So I try not to waste my energy wondering what if but rather try to focus with gratitude on the path I’m on.

Here is the poet himself reading his great poem. Enjoy! (If the link doesn’t take you there directly, you can find it at Youtube)

REFLECTIONS: Have you struggled with roads not taken?

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Heroes: The Four Immortal Chaplains

The story of the four chaplains is not well known enough. True, they were honored on a postal stamp as well as at various religious sites. But, especially during a time when religion is rife with scandal, conflict, divisiveness and judgment of others, the story of the four chaplains stands as a beacon of hope and a reminder that, in the face of need, religious affiliation doesn’t matter.

George Fox was a World War I veteran yet when WWII broke out, he felt called to serve again, this time as a Methodist minister. On the USS Dorcester, he met collegues Alexander Goode, a Jewish rabbi, Clark Poling, a Dutch Reformed minister, and John Washington, a Catholic priest. The four men had become good friends and spent meals together, at times exploring each other’s religious traditions but often talking of home and family. All had enlisted as chaplains when World War II broke out.

The four men came together on the USS Dorchester, a transport carrying roughly 900 soldiers into battle. But beneath the waves lurked German U-boats intent on preventing soldiers from reaching the battle front. One such U-boat had the Dorchester in its sights.

While the four chaplains provided services specific to their religions, the daily needs of the soldiers were responded to by all chaplains, regardless of the religion of the soldier before him. Thus, one evening Fr. Washington aggressively confronted some soldiers giving one man a hard time because he was Jewish.

On a freezing North Atlantic night off the coast of Greenland the Dorchester was hit and began to sink. Chaos reigned. Of the 900 soldiers aboard, 2/3 would meet their death, the four chaplains among them.

Stories of the chaplains came to light among the survivors. One man recalled Chaplain Fox handing him a life saver, insisting he had another one. He didn’t. Another man recalled Rabbi Goode insisting that the man take his gloves before going overboard, the chaplain insisting that he had another pair. He didn’t. Still another soldier recalled Chaplain Washington insisting a young soldier climb down a rope to possible safety. After the young soldier left, Chaplain Washington did not climb down the rope himself but went to help others.

The enduring image of the four chaplains was shared by several soldiers who, froma safe distance, watched as the ship went under. Several saw the four chaplains together, arms linked, praying. Here is a painting of that image:

For me, the story of the four chaplains is an enduring testimony to the belief that all roads lead to God, that no one faith has it all right, and that in the face of tragedy religion becomes irrelevant. None of the chaplains asked a soldier “What’s your religion?’ before giving them a life jacket or gloves. Heroism can definitely be spiritual but, as with the four chaplains, heroism rises above the limitations of organized religion.

READING AND VIEWING: Two very good books on the four chaplains are No Greater Glory by Dan Kurzman and The Immortals by Stephen T. Collis. Collis’ book also includes the story of Charles Walter David Jr., an African American petty officer on one of the rescue ships who risked hypothermia rescuing soldiers from the freezing sea. A very good documentary can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8ewJp8HhYzA&t=7s

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The Book of Job

As I undertake yet another journey reading the Bible, I realize that, as I wade through some crushingly boring parts, what keeps me going is looking forward to other parts of the Bible. The Book of Ester. The story of David. The Book of Isaiah. And the Book of Job.

I was talking to a young woman this week who told me she had given a talk at her church about why there is suffering. I know when I was sixteen I struggled with the Why question but would never have had this young woman’s courage to do so openly. Further, she had the maturity to realize that there was no easy answer.

The Book of Job didn’t get talked about much during my youth. Since then it has generated many books as well as plays and movies. It represents the Bible’s attempt to face the Why question head on. On a bet with Satan, God allows him to besiege Job, a very good, very successful man. Satan argues that Job’s faith in God wouldn’t hold up to real suffering.

Job never abandons his faith but, in the midst of his suffering, has the courage to be angry with God, demanding an answer to the Why question. In fact, Job demands that God show up and explain Himself. God shows up!

I have read several very good books on the Why question as well as on the Book of Job. No one has a simple answer. Some argue that there is no answer. The Book of Job challenges the easy answers as provided by Job’s friends. You didn’t pray hard enough or you must have sinned or you’re being arrogant talking to God like that. And in fact God never really answers Job’s demand for an explanation but instead puts Job in his place by portraying the breadth and depth of God’s works. It is a deeply poetic response that impacts Job and silences him.

What is important to note is that God does not punish Job for being angry put instead restores him to his state in life although we have to assume that Job grieved the loss of his family and was otherwise a different person, perhaps having a deeper sense of the fact that things can change in an instant. Frankly, I would love for there to have been a “Five Years Later” afterword about Job. All that we know is that he lived “a long good life.”

I find great comfort in the Book of Job, being a man who struggles with anger toward God. In fact, as Harold Kushner suggests in his wonderful book “The Book of Job: When Bad Things Happened to a Good Person”, what comforted Job was that God showed up, that in his anger Job had a genuine deep encounter with God. And, in fact and ironically, when I have allowed my anger toward God, I somehow feel His/Her presence more strongly.

I am not a theologian. But I am a man who grew up in a family that lost children. I am a man who on a regular basis through my work encounters people struggling with the Why of terrible tragedy. As such, I am a man who needs a God with whom I can argue. The Book of Job encourages me that I can find such a God and that my anger, shared honestly, can deepen that relationship.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful scene from the film “Tender Mercies” in which Robert Duvall struggles with the death of his daughter. He too has no answers.

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Broken Vessels: Lent as a Doorway to Conversion (excerpt)

Here is an excerpt from my newest article of the same title. It appears in the March issue of St. Anthony Messenger.

When I hear the word conversion, I tend to immediately think of persons who became Catholic but were not born and raised Catholic. Those converts chose to be Catholic. Some may have done so for reasons having nothing to do with the Church. My grandfather, for example, apparently converted from the Presbyterian Church so that he could marry my Irish Catholic grandmother. There are others who become converts because they found something within Catholicism that drew them.

      In its basic meaning, conversion points to a process of transformation, a change in something essential. Other words relating to conversion include metanoia (a change of consciousness), spiritual awakening, and redemption. Literally, “conversion” means “to turn to”.

     Some indeed turn to a new spiritual path. But for many of us the possibility of a new path is thrust upon us, arising out of a place of spiritual and psychological brokenness. In the depths of despair, we may be offered a path of healing and, ultimately, transformation. But we must choose to be open to that conversion.

     For some such as St. Paul or Bill W., the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous, this transformation may occur dramatically and in an instant. But for many of us, the process of conversion is experienced quietly and gradually, perhaps over time. The invitation to conversion doesn’t come in a burst of light but slowly, as if through a whisper, just as Elijah experienced in his moment of fearful brokenness (1Kings 19: 11-12)

     There are many different experiences of brokenness that can be a doorway to conversion. Four potential doorways are addiction, trauma, depression, and facing one’s death.

     The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous had the wisdom to point out the strong spiritual component to addiction. Essentially when addicted we have made some thing –alcohol, drugs, sex, porn, etc. – our god. When troubled we turn to our god. When happy we turn to our god. We look for release. We look for comfort. And, for the short term, that god works for us! But that god comes with a price. Loss of family or employment. Financial crisis. Legal problems. Isolation. Shame. And especially the spiritual equivalent of cancer – self-hatred. In the midst of such turmoil, some addicts choose to confront their addictions and seek help.

      Addicts soon learn that the conversion from addiction is just the beginning. For addicts, the process of conversion is ongoing. It is a process of fearless self-awareness as well as gratitude. It continues for a lifetime.

     I often wondered about the story in the Gospels of the healing of the ten lepers. Jesus heals all ten yet only one returns to express gratitude. Jesus never seemed to me to be a person who reveled in the gratitude of those He healed. So why did he ask the Tenth Leper “Where are the others?” For me, there is an important lesson in that story. Jesus, I believe, was pointing out to the Tenth Leper (and to us) that the removal of the scars of leprosy was just a beginning and that, to continue to heal, the lepers would have to continue the work of conversion. This would include ongoing gratitude.

    Concerning addiction, then, conversion involves turning to sobriety – learning how to work at a sober spiritual life with honesty and gratitude.

If you would be interested in receiving a full copy of the article, leave something in the comment section or e-mail me at <richp45198@aol.com>

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The Challenge of Elitism

Once my son Andy came to me and asked “Dad, when Jesus calls those scribes and Pharisees “whitened sepulchers”, was that like calling them sons of bitches?’ Well, first of all, you might guess where Andy heard the SOB term. In any case, Jesus, normally loving and compassionate, was indeed very direct and harsh in his confrontations of officials. So direct, in fact, that some of them played a role in having him killed.

We live in a culture that has much elitism to it. Basically elitism refers to an attitude of superiority based on wealth, position, or status. The basic message of the elitist is “Because I have wealth and power, I am better than everyone.” It may further include an attitude that, because of my position, rules that apply to others don’t apply to me.

The prophets of the Old Testament also spoke out against elitism, challenging persons at every level to see the poor and the marginalized as brothers and sisters. The prophets, too, were persecuted and even killed for a message that challenged the power structure.

The world of politics has become elitist. These days one can only run for public office if one is wealthy. People like Harry Truman would never make it into the halls of power these days, mainly because he was not wealthy.

Similarly, the world of professional sports has become elitist. Several years ago outside of Fenway Park, I had an encounter with Dave Roberts who is now manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. He was very approachable, down-to-earth, and warm. Apparently such an attitude is not common among professional athletes.

Elitism, however, is not strictly a function of wealth and position. For within each of us is a potential elitist. Any time we judged someone as “less than” because of their physical appearance or state in life, we are elitists. If I have a gift that others lack, e.g., musical ability, and I judge others as “less than” I am an elitist. And if I begin to believe that, because of my stature in life, I deserve special treatment, I am an elitist.

The challenge of elitism is a much greater spiritual challenge than most of us realize. That’s why the prophets as well as Jesus spent so much time cautioning about it. Elitism is at the root of the dangers of wealth. Elitism gives rise to some of the great problems of our age to include racism, poverty, violence, and political fringe groups. Elitism is certainly at the heart of discrepancies in wealth distribution but it is also at the heart of the violence of the Capital riots a years ago.

As with so many other social problems, we can feel helpless. What can I do about racism? About violence? About poverty? I don’t have an answer for that. What I do know is that the place to start is within. Finding and facing the elitist within me. This does not mean that I become passive. I can still object to someone else’s offensive or unfair behavior. But I must always balance such righteous anger with self-awareness, keeping in mind Thomas Merton’s caution: “…when one is firmly convinced of his own rightness and goodness, he can without qualm perpetrate the most appalling evil.”

Reflection: What have bee your experiences of elitism?

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Healing Self-judgment

For some time now, in my writings and in my work, I have tried to help others learn to love themselves. I have noted that just about all the major world religions include some form of the words “Love your neighbor as yourself”. I have pointed out that Jesus said “as”, not “then”. We are called to love ourselves and our neighbors in equal measure.

Some of the behavioral aspects of love of self are straight-forward. Taking time for prayer and meditation. Allowing yourself to experience those things that give you joy. Taking good care of your body. But for me personally as well as others, the toughest part of learning to love myself has to do with quieting self-judgment.

We all have within us a negative dictatorial voice that constantly criticizes. Perhaps that dictator criticizes our actions with whispers such as ‘That was stupid” or “You don’t know what you’re doing”. Perhaps that voice judges our bodies with words such as “You’re so fat” or “You’re as skinny as a string bean” or “Who would ever love that body?” The capacity that most of us have to criticize ourselves is sobering and disturbing.

Self-judgment can sometimes take the form of its cousin self-pity. I can think of no better example than a man I talked to some years ago. He was very self-critical and one day it took this turn: “I am the opposite of King Midas. Everything I touch turns into shit!”

Cognitive behavioral therapy would encourage us to challenge such thoughts and to look at the evidence. This is useful. The dictator can be challenged by looking at the facts. But that dictator is persistent and often shifts to a different focus such as ‘Well, yes, your weight is normal but look at how big your nose is!” or “Well, yes, you stay busy at work but look at that person you didn’t help last week.”

It can help to give oneself credit for certain things. Perhaps you helped someone today. Perhaps you made someone laugh. Perhaps you baked a good loaf of bread. Perhaps you helped your child with his/her homework.

What I would suggest as an even more powerful antidote to self-judgment is gratitude. If I express gratitude for the good things in my life, at some level I affirm myself. If I am grateful for the people that love me, that suggests that I am lovable. Somehow that is easier to consider than if I just try to tell myself that outright. I remember one man struggling with self-judgment. I asked him for what he was grateful. He said “My wife. She seems to love me a lot.” I then asked “Well, is she insane?” He laughed and said “No she’s not!” He had to consider that perhaps she had found something lovable about him.

On bad days where the self-judgment is rampant, it can also help to reflect on what I am grateful for on this day and this moment. In my own case, for example, I can be grateful that my lungs are clear this morning with no sign of asthma. I can be grateful for a good cup of coffee. I can be grateful for a beautiful El Paso morning.

When I am grateful, I am not necessarily claiming that the good things are my doing. But I am accepting that they have come my way. I may not feel that I deserve the blessings but I can certainly acknowledge and celebrate them.

Lent is upon us and, as usual, I will give up sweets and cussing this year. (Guess which sacrifice causes me the most trouble?) But it occurs to me that perhaps this year I can work on self-criticism by pausing each day for a moment of gratitude. In that way, perhaps I will better honor the commandment to love myself.

Here then is a wonderful reflection on gratitude from the play Our Town Act III. The character Emily had been giving a chance to relive one day from her life but finds it too painful because she sees how much we take for granted. (And, yes, that’s Paul Newman as the Stage Manager!)

REFLECTION: Do you battle self-judgment? What do you find helpful in counteracting it?

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In Memory of Thich Nhat Hahn

This blog is reposted in honor of a great man whose writings greatly enhanced my spiritual journey.

My spiritual journey has brought me into the presence of many great men and women. Some I met only through their writings. Such a one is Thich Nhat Hanh.

My journey has also been greatly enriched by coming in contact with other traditions. My initial exposure to Buddhism came through Alan Watts’ The Book as well as Salvador Minuchin’s metaphor of family therapist as samurai warrior. I have read much of Buddhism since then, especially Zen. But none have touched my mind and heart in the way that Thich Nhat Hanh has.

Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who has devoted his life to living peace and to helping others live in peace. His own journey has caused him to be expelled from his homeland, to serve at the Paris peace talks and to be nominated for the Noble Peace prize by Martin Luther King. In the name of peace, he has encouraged and written about dialogue among different faith traditions. As such, two of his books have had a deep effect on me — Living Buddha, Living Christ and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. Both works explore the common ground of both traditions.

Nhat Hanh’s thoughts help me embrace other traditions when he writes: “I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.” Yet he also challenges me to embrace my own Catholicism when he says: “Learning to touch deeply the jewels of our own tradition will allow us to understand and appreciate the values of other traditions.” Thus he challenges me to be open to what I can learn from other walks while at the same time to embrace the jewels of my Catholicism.

Buddhism has helped me in numerous ways. The concept of attachment and detachment helps to face my anxieties and to see how my control issues bring on my own suffering. The central place of mindfulness challenges me daily to pay attention and to listen not just in the therapy room but on my ride to and from work, at the dinner I share with my wife, even as I watch my Boston Redsox. Buddhism in many ways gives me a whole other understanding of the central AA concept “Let go and let God.” Finally, Buddhism is one of the few traditions that shares commong ground with Jungian psychology.

Even today as I was thinking of his impact on me, I read a small book by Nhat Hanh titled Be Still and Know. First I read “In Buddhism, our source of energy is faith in daily practice. Faith in an idea (his emphasis) is risky.” Thus what matters if I claim to be Christian is how I practice that every day, not so much the underlying theology or what I say I believe.

Later he writes: “If you stick to an idea or image of God and do not touch the reality of God, one day you will be plunged into the abyss of doubt.” This helps me to see there is a part of me that still clings to the God of my childhood and that once again (as a therapist told me long ago) I must allow my faith to grow up, just as St. Paul wrote when he said; “When I was a child, I spoke as a child. Now that I have become a man, I must put away childish things.”

The irony is not lost. By embracing the writings of a Vietnamese Buddhist, I may actually become clearer on what it means to be a Christian.

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On Being a Cafeteria Catholic

“Cafeteria Catholic” is a disparaging term used by some to refer to Catholics who allegedly “pick and choose” from Catholic teaching and practice. The undercurrent is that we pick and choose based on comfort and convenience.

Well, I have a different view of “Cafeteria Catholic” and am proud to count myself among their number. I love much about my Catholic faith but do in fact take issue with some teachings and do in fact have issues with the Catholic Church.

William James pointed out that there are two levels of faith. Secondary faith is based primarily on what others have told us to believe. It is the type of faith that many of us experienced growing up Catholic. I learned about Catholicism primarily from the Baltimore Catechism, a document that we were required to memorize. Not analyze but memorize. God was real because Father (and to a degree Sister) told us so. It was not OK to question and certainly not OK to challenge.

Primary faith is based on direct experience. Thus, primary faith includes:

  1. the results of my own examination and reflection on Catholic teaching;
  2. the results of my own reading of and thoughts on the Bible;
  3. my own direct experiences of God and spiritual reality.

My transition to primary faith occurred in a high school religion class. One day our teacher Father FitzPatrick had us teenage boys open the Baltimore Catechism (Adolescent version!) to the section on the sixth commandment and specifically the section on “impure acts”, i.e., masturbation. The question focused on the effects of “impure acts” and the consequences were terrible, ranging from physical damage to insanity. Surprisingly, warts were not listed. In any case, Father then advised us to “take all that with a grain of salt.” He was encouraging us to question the Baltimore Catechism! Thus began my journey to Cafeteria Catholicism.

My views of many spiritual issues have changed as a result. I rejected a faith based on guilt and fear. I rejected Catholic doctrine on certain issues such as birth control and divorce. I studied other religions, all of which have enriched my journey. I found God outside the Church in places such as Yosemite and the Chicago Art Institute.

I have also taken issue with my Church, especially with their handling of the clergy abuse issue. This has gotten me judged so being a Cafeteria Catholic does not come without risks. I also take issue with my Church’s treatment of women and continue to see Church hierarchy as drawn to elitism and sexism.

And yet I still call myself Catholic. During the pandemic shutdown, I missed Mass or, more specifically, I missed Eucharist. Catholicism is one of the few Western religions that embraces mysticism. I have known some extraordinary Catholics to include priests and sisters. I treasure certain saints. I found that I missed much about my Catholicism during the pandemic.

So I will continue to search and to question. I will continue to be open to spiritual insights from sources beyond Catholic ones. I will continue to question and challenge my Church. I will pray for a genuine rebirth of my Church.

And I will continue to attend Mass but it won’t be out of fear or guilt.

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