Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

My New Book, Cloister Talks, Now Out

In Catholic and Protestant, Monastic spirituality, Trappists on April 29, 2009 at 11:43 pm

Here’s a short excerpt from the first chapter…

Young men make big mistakes sometimes. They fall in love for the wrong reasons. They drive too fast, usually not because they are late for an important appointment, but because they are playing with the feelings of power inside themselves. They go to war because the sign-up bonus will pay off their credit card debt. They choose careers that will make them look good to their friends, or their parents’ friends. We make big mistakes—that’s unavoidable. Sometimes I wonder if our lives are marked not by how many right decisions we’ve made, but by how well, quickly, or thoroughly we learn that we have mis-stepped.


I will always wonder if I made a mistake by not becoming a monk when I was twenty years old. I took three trips back and forth to Kentucky that year, in and out of Thomas Merton’s old monastery. I talked with the brothers and I sat in church. I prayed and I listened for God’s voice. I wasn’t Catholic and so never took part in the Eucharistic portions of the services, but the life felt like it could be authentically mine.


“It’s just part of my figuring out who I am and what I’m supposed to do,” I explained one evening to a friend of mine, downplaying how important it felt to me. The Mexican restaurant where David and I worked was located in a shopping mall and was packed on a December evening. If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me, “Could I get some more chips and salsa?” I’d be rich today.


We should have been paying more attention to our tables, but it was hard to care too deeply about chimichangas and flautas, with or without guacamole, weighed against making such a serious decision.


“But don’t you feel out of place when you’re there? You aren’t even Catholic,” he said. “And what about your parents, your fiancé, your friends? No one you know is even Catholic, right? It’s as if this little dream of yours is not a part of your real life,” David said.


He’s right, I thought to myself later. I should be responsible and get married and begin the sort of life that I know best. That’s what God wants for me. All of this other stuff is probably me trying to avoid what I’m really supposed to do.

Cloister Talks: Learning from My Friends the Monks

Catholic Archbishop Recommends Gandhi as a Christ-Follower

In Christ-following, Spiritual practice on April 17, 2009 at 1:01 am

The Tablet, a Catholic weekly published out of London, England, has reported that Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil of Guwahati, in eastern India, recommended Gandhi’s Christ-following to his flock this past Lent. The Tablet’s article (11 April 2009), however, interprets the Archbishop’s comments only in the context of recommending Gandhi’s teaching on non-violence. In fact, we might take it one big step further…

Gandhi never renounced his Hinduism, but he often declared himself a follower of Jesus Christ. There were times during the 1920s and 1930s when Gandhi would arrive to give a lecture and would simply quote from the New Testament, usually from the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes. On one occasion he did this and said: “That is my address to you. Act upon that.”


A Hindu intellectual of the 1920s said about Gandhi: “What the missionaries have not been able to do in fifty years Gandhi by his life and trial and incarceration has done, namely, he has turned the eyes of India toward the cross.”


It is ironic but true that Gandhi may have been a more faithful follower of Christ than many Christians have been.

The Virgin Mary on Easter Sunday

In Catholic imagination, The Middle Ages, Virgin Mary on April 12, 2009 at 3:50 pm

There are thousands of legends of Mary, Christ’s mother, but one of my favorites relates to Easter Sunday—the first Easter Sunday. The Golden Legend, an important collection of medieval stories of the saints, says this about Mary, adding to the biblical role that she played after Christ’s Passion:


The third apparition [of the resurrected Christ on Easter Day] was to the Virgin Mary and is believed to have taken place before all the others, although the evangelists say nothing about it.. . . . [I]f this is not to be believed, on the ground that no evangelist testifies to it . . . perish the thought that such a son would fail to honor such a mother by being so negligent! . . . Christ must first of all have made his mother happy over his resurrection, since she certainly grieved over his death more than the others. He would not have neglected his mother while he hastened to console others.


Indeed! I’m a believer.

Santa Maria di Collemaggio

In Catholic imagination, Making saints on April 7, 2009 at 1:07 pm

One of the sacred buildings in Western Christendom, Santa Maria di Collemaggio in L’Aquila, was severely damaged in yesterday’s devastating earthquake. The quake’s epicenter was within several miles of the Cathedral, and the nave of the great church–the burial place of the enigmatic Pope Celestine V–was collapsed.

A Messy God

In Catholic imagination, crucifix instead of cross, Spiritual practice on April 5, 2009 at 12:29 am

As I said the other day, I prefer a crucifix to a cross.

            Catholic journalist David Warren recently advised fellow Catholic converts, candidly but seriously, to “Get a crucifix, the kind ‘with the little man on it.’ The kind that shows Him suffering; the kind that strikes you as rather tasteless at first, as if it might drip on your shoe. There is something peculiarly Catholic about getting a crucifix even before you go out to buy a Catholic edition of the Bible. Kneel. Cross yourself.”

I love the last part most of all: “There is something peculiarly Catholic about getting a crucifix even before you go out to buy a Catholic edition of the Bible.” Heart before head. Practice before theory. The first is always the second’s best tutor.

An incarnate God is by definition, messy. Mine is no Gnostic Christ, either, standing aloof and making quixotic statements. Jesus occasionally did those things, I guess, but that’s not the meaning of Jesus. Jesus was mixed up with his friends as well as his enemies, their sorrow and pain, and he bled, sweat and cried. He drew in the dirt with his finger; prostitutes wiped his filthy feet with their hair; and he embraced the ugly and undesirable. Such a messy, stirred up God has lots of connections to our material world. Is it any wonder that a God who takes on our flesh—pimples, fluids and all—should be remembered in body?

Give me the crucifix over the cross

In Catholic and Protestant, crucifix instead of cross, G. K. Chesterton on April 2, 2009 at 3:28 pm

At this time of year, as Holy Week approaches, I’m reminded of the embarrassment of the crucifix. The Protestant churches of my youth and today usually have crosses, not crucifixes. It’s not the same. In fact, I think it’s a problem.

As G. K. Chesterton once explained, the Protestant who dismisses the dying Christ may, in the end, become satisfied with a dead cross. “To salute the Cross in that sense is literally to bow down to wood and stone.” Such an idea is surprising to Protestants, because we thought it was Catholics who worshiped idols. But the salvation by faith alone preached by Luther sometimes looks like a faith in faith, a way of living in the head that replaces the Catholic understanding of the church as the vehicle of salvation.

St. Paul said that the cross of Christ would be a stumbling block to some, and salvation to others. “Is the flesh which was crucified become as poison to the crowds in the street, or is it as a strong gladness and hope to them, as the first flower blossoming out of the earth’s humus?” wrote D. H. Lawrence in The Rainbow.

Protestant crosses replaced Catholic crucifixes long ago in an effort to emphasize the Resurrection. I remember in my own very protestant churches as a child, we never heard sermons or lessons on the cross during Holy Week that did not, in some way, reveal the resurrection. Whereas a Catholic would literally darken the sanctuary from Maundy Thursday evening until the Easter vigil service, we would preach Good Friday as if it was Easter Sunday. The lessons of the sacrifice, the bloody lynching that was the crucifixion, the pain and sorrow and despair of the human Christ, were lost to us. In some profound ways, the cross by itself was for us an embarrassment, foolishness, a stumbling block.

The cross is without the corpus, or body, of Jesus. Spare crosses lack the mess and misery. I’m drawn to the corpus—even the bloodiness—of the old-fashioned crucifix. Not even those sanitized Jesuses hanging blithely with peace-loving eyes will do. The ancient church tried to distance themselves from the suffering of Christ; it wasn’t until about the sixth century that Christians felt able to take ownership of the Crucifixion. Only at that time, do we see religious art and image portraying the suffering Christ.

I prefer a crucifix to a cross. Whether it is made of plaster, plastic, wood or iron, a crucifix is not merely a metaphor. I want to learn to be comfortable in its embarrassment. May I someday more fully know the Christ who knew what it was like to be unwanted and despised.


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