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Posted by on Apr 25, 2008

A Theologian’s Reflections on Mark’s Gospel

A Theologian’s Reflections on Mark’s Gospel

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Theologian and storyteller Megan McKenna’s book, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross, is a powerful example of the contribution of theology and biblical research to our understanding of the Good News. When the gospels were written, nearly 2000 years ago, they were written for a specific audience, with certain shared beliefs and experiences. Each was written for a different audience, but each audience had much in common. They were written as teaching materials, to help new believers come to know about Jesus, become His faithful followers, and live according to His Way.

We live in a dramatically different world. Many things the ancients took for granted or understood to be significant, we don’t even notice in passing when reading Scripture.

In the past century, thanks to the work of theologians, biblical scholars, anthropologists, archeologists, linguists and many other professional researchers, we have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge about the world in which Christianity began and of the beliefs and life of the early Christian community. The Holy Spirit has worked through these people to bring the Word to us as excitingly fresh teaching. 

Megan McKenna’s presentation of Mark’s Gospel lays out the requirements of Christian discipleship through exploration of the meaning of the texts. She shows what their meaning might have been for the disciples and the early community – how they served as a roadmap for discipleship. Because she is also master storyteller, Megan presents other stories  as well that serve to reinforce the Gospel. And always, for Megan, the bottom line is, what this means for us today.

Take a look at her work. You won’t regret it!

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Posted by on Apr 6, 2008

The Encounter at Emmaus

The Encounter at Emmaus

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I have been struck by the stories this Resurrection Season because for the first time, they strike me not as eye witness accounts of the Risen Christ, but as the challenge of faith for the disciples and us. The disciples on the way to Emmaus are leaving Jerusalem – returning home, perhaps, – grief stricken, but more importantly, disillusioned. The teacher has failed. The forces of evil have destroyed a very good and wonderful young man.

One way to see this story is to take it as another proof of the Risen Christ as encountered by his disciples. The story does convey this message. However, the story also tells us that we find the Risen Christ when He opens our minds to see the scriptures and when our hearts are opened at the Breaking of the Bread. Look for Him in the scriptures and invite Him in to dinner and your hospitality will be more than repaid.

There is just a glimpse – a flash of recognition and he disappears from our midst. The presence of the Risen Christ is a momentary and ongoing discovery. It is the result of searching, wandering, questing in grief and disillusionment and being open to the challenge of the Stranger.

All of us have moments, years, decades, in which everything we knew and had hoped for is swept away. The disciples had no clue of what was to become of their beloved teacher, but his torture and death threw them into utter grief and confusion. Yet their confusion only increased when they heard that other disciples had found the empty tomb and seen the angels. They were re-grouping, leaving town, trying to get some distance. A Stranger notices their grief and inquires. They listen and reflect on the scriptures and Break Bread.

This is the Christian life – the quest and the encounter in the village of Emmaus – continuing through all generations.

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Posted by on Mar 25, 2008

Easter Monday: Whale Watching With Angels

Easter Monday: Whale Watching With Angels

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I had read in a book way back in grammar school at Holy Cross School in Ventura, CA, in a time that is now referred to as “Mid-Century,” about boys hiking in the Alps on Easter Monday for a traditional lunch at high altitude with the angels. That custom may or may not have been true, but the thought of having lunch with the angels has always intrigued me. Perhaps, because my patron is St. Raphael the Archangel, the thought has always been somewhat appealing. After all, if you were an angel, wouldn’t you want a little break after all the hullabaloo of Holy Week?

Circumstances prevented me from wandering into the Santa Cruz mountains looking for angels to share ham and Easter eggs. The day was perfect, with a mild breeze, as I headed out across Lighthouse Field to Point Santa Cruz. The sky and the water were dazzling as I headed west up the coast along the ocean before it rounds the Point into Monterey Bay. There was excitement in the air. Whales migrating south to the Sea of Cortez around the tip of Baja California were passing by 100 to 300 feet offshore. They showed some interest in a kayak heading in the opposite direction, but continued on in graceful arcs, undulating effortlessly in the current as they coursed through the water.

It was a strange moment. The moment the houses along West Cliff, the roiling waves and sunlight all got stretched onto an impressionist canvas. I could see the brush strokes, the layering of the oil, the weave of the canvas. My neighborhood of almost 20 years became completely magical, serene, and spirit filled. I had pounded this walk many, many times before and it was always striking, even when cares and illness were heaviest on my heart, but today it was literally unreal.

Well, I guess my patron Archangel and his buddies were not waiting for me in the redwoods after all. It wasn’t the picnic with the angels that I had imagined as a boy. Whale watching with the angels on Easter Monday is something else.

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2008

Dance: The Easter Sacrament

Dance: The Easter Sacrament

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Yesterday on Easter Sunday, we sang a second communion hymn in Spanish and English “Resucitó” (He Is Risen). The latin beat, punctuated by conga drums and a driving bass line, turned most of us cradle Catholics into momentary Baptists, as our middle class “cool” gave way to clapping, toe tapping and widespread joyous singing. We were too well brought up to be too demonstrative, but this did not stop the smaller children from launching into a marvelously free dance of joy, aided by their older siblings. It was all in keeping with our name – Resurrection. Granted, we are not the most conventional group, which is saying something in Santa Cruz County. The concluding bars were punctuated by “gritos,” those characteristically Mexican musical shouts of joy, from the smaller children, whether Mexican or not. Things got more animated when we ended Mass with the spiritual, “O They Rolled The Stone Away”.

Terry Hershey, in the March 24, 2008 issue of his newsletter, Sabbath Moments, is also carried away by dance. Yes, Easter Week is a time to stop pursuing happiness and to just be happy.

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2008

Easter: Not Recognizing the Risen Christ

Easter: Not Recognizing the Risen Christ

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The very core of Christianity is the amazing tenacity of the believers to assert the impossible – a man publicly tortured to death rose from the dead. What is even more surprising is that they did not recognize Him.

Seeing loved ones after they are dead is not that uncommon among those stricken with grief. According to psychologists, this delusion always produces an immediately recognizable image of the dead person.

One of the most affecting scenes in the Gospel is the encounter between that most faithful of disciples, Mary of Magdala, and the Gardener in the Gospel According to St. John, Chapter 20: 10-18.

Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”

“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

“Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”

Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher).

Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “

Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.

In the the other encounters of the disciples with the Risen Christ, there is a similar pattern. The very people who lived with Him on a daily basis, shared His travels, and even argued with Him, didn’t recognize Him. The reality was so much beyond a delusion of grieving friends and followers, so much beyond irrational expectation, that we only get a glimpse of how preposterous it was in the expressed doubts of Thomas. (John, chapter 20)

More than any other event in the Gospels, the stories of the empty tomb, the encounters, the general chaos that occurred is hard for us to fathom, let alone appreciate, since we have heard the story so many times. The story of the suffering and death of Christ is always muted for us because we know how the story ends. The men and women who followed Jesus were more bewildered and confused on that first Easter because what they heard was so outlandish.

The term for Easter in Romance languages drives from Passover – “Pascua” in Spanish and Italian, and “Paques” in French. Since the English term doesn’t bear this heavy direct reference to Passover – the Passover of the Lord – we can miss a key fact of experiencing the Resurrection – being led out of bondage is a tumultuous, confusing, and fearful process. We can cope with grief, disillusionment, and grinding oppression, finding comfort in cynicism, skepticism, or addiction. Resurrection for us is only a painful beginning, an inconvenient surprise, getting stretched on a rack of hope.

Having seen the worst, Mary of Madgala, like us, could conceive of only the worst when she saw the empty tomb. These glorious “men” in white must have taken the only memento left of the Teacher whom she so desperately loved. Where was his body? She had come to do the courageous and loving act allowed to women of her time. But there was no body.

Everything shattered when she heard her name, in a voice that no other could have uttered. Her love would only cause more problems. Are we ready for that?

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Posted by on Mar 22, 2008

Good Friday: Identifying with Christ or Christ Identifying With Us?

Good Friday: Identifying with Christ or Christ Identifying With Us?

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For those who love Christ, remembering His passion and death is always an occasion for sorrow. However, such human acts as compassion are never simple. The pain of the impending loss of a loved one – anticipatory grief – can be worse than the actual loss. In fact, when death finally comes, we often feel guilty about experiencing relief. My friend Jim lost his father when Jim was in eighth grade, after a protracted two year battle with cancer. When we talked about it a couple of years later, Jim confessed that he still felt more relief than grief.

Of course, we couldn’t experience compassion without a close identification with the other. This becomes very complex in the person of the Christ. He did not fight his enemies. He did not curse. He did not condemn. He forgave. He blessed. This human-divine reaction to an injustice that is almost as inconceivable as it is enraging provides no adequate psychological outlet for the post-Freudian soul. How can we proclaim and fight for justice if God Himself did not? Tragically, the consolation in the Gospels and the wider testimony of the New Testament – that no evil, no matter how overwhelming, how senseless, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – escapes us. (Romans 8:38-39) Instead of experiencing this Passover of the Lord – the Blood of the Lamb on the door posts and lintel of our home that spares us from the Angel of Death – we run out into that night of despair by focusing on the ways we have been complicit with that evil.

When we hear that we are saved from a life defined by suffering and pain without meaning and no exit, we can think that we were saved from something we deserved. “Evil as you are … who among you would give his son a scorpion when he asked for bread?” (Loosely taken from Luke 11: 11-13) is a stark reminder to the disciples that Jesus could not conceive of His Father wanting anything less than we ourselves would want for our own children. Just as our children are all too much in our own image and likeness, we are in God’s. The teaching and life of Jesus in this regard is at odds with the vengeful patriarch of the Old Testament who punishes and chastises. (Lest we be tempted to think that Jews hold or held onto to this concept, we should remember that Jesus was not the only Jew who presented a view that had grown beyond it. The are interesting similarities between Jesus and his contemporary, Hillel the Elder.)

Enter God’s protectors:

“Ah hah! Now he has said it on his very own blog! Your own words condemn you. God doesn’t care about sin, you say. There are no consequences, no punishment, no reckoning. You present a God who is merciful, but not just. If Christ did not die for our sins how was the Father appeased? How is he the sacrificial victim?”

The Blogger Offers a Parable:

Once upon a time, there was a wonderful teacher who healed by word and touch and saved people from all kinds of physical, psychological, and social maladies. He made the mistake of speaking truth to power and telling religious and civil leaders that outward observance only made them into whitened sepulchers. They waited for the right time and got a close friend to betray him, and they took him off to Guantanamo, and then transferred him to a third world country, where he was tortured to death by specialists trained at the School of the Americas. Like so many thousands of his time, he was supposed to have become one of the disappeared. Fortunately for us, He didn’t stay dead and he didn’t stay hidden. Strangely though, he left again, said he would return, and in the meantime the were supposed to wait for a Holy Wind to make everything clear.

Yet His disciples wanted an explanation. If He was truly God’s Son, how could this have happened to Him? If he really was the Messiah, how could he have failed? He was just as maddening as those parables he used to tell them. Where are the answers? It was like one of those Eastern religions. “The question is the answer.” And that other junk the Beatles found in India, under the influence of something other than the great American mystic, Jack Daniels.

God finally sent them someone they could understand – sort of. “Like, well, yuh see, dude- God don’t need sacafices, ” The voice of the aging surfer was hoarse with too many years of funny cigarettes, his faced etched with too much salt and sun, his eyes opaque while he waited for the waves to rise. “It’s like, all ’bout love. All God wants is love. The torture and sufferin’ part, that’s what we do to us and each other. Man, like the Teacher Dude, the Guru Guy, like he couldn’t hang out forever. ‘Cause like, you guys were all brain dead on a kind a gnarly bad trip. Like he let it happen. The tube was closin’. Like there was just the wipeout; like really bad at Mavericks. He did it to show y’all that if yah stay in the water and go for it, sooner or later it’s gonna happen if ya stay true to the search for the Big One.  Dude, got some extra change? My old lady’s on me for the rent, like ya know.”

The words of reproach, as the seeker turned away, were familiar. “That sucks man. What a waste. I came to hear some guy explain some @$#%?! blogger’s crappy parable. I could’a been watchin’ the game on my big screen.” So he zipped up his jacket and marched straight home, out of the saving mystery, ignoring the glory of the sky, the dazzle of the water, and the carpet of color and bird song all about him.

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Posted by on Mar 20, 2008

Each Little Light …

Each Little Light …

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Dr. Megan McKenna uses many stories in her teaching, claiming that all stories are true and some actually happened. She tells this story, one that actually happened, about a community she visited in India. It was a very small village, with an even smaller Catholic community. The community generally gathered in the evening. As dusk fell, her hosts invited her to go outside and look around. In the gathering darkness, she saw the hills around the village come to life with little twinkling lights. The lights began to move across the hills and gradually to converge on the small building which served as their church.

In the middle of the church, there was a large iron contraption, with many arms jutting out from the center. As the people arrived, they hung their family’s lantern on one of the arms. When it became clear that no more people were coming, the contraption, now a chandelier, was hoisted up over the gathered people. It shone over the altar, giving light to the entire community as they celebrated Mass together. Then, when the time came to leave, the chandelier was again lowered and each family took its own lantern. But rather than go home, they went out from their celebration to visit the homes of the members of the community who had not been able to join them that night. They knew exactly who was missing because those lanterns had not been on the chandelier giving light to the community!

A lesson Megan drew from this experience and shared with my parish community is that we aren’t really a community until we know who is missing when we gather to worship.

I thought of this story when, along with many thousands of others, I attended Sunday afternoon liturgy in the Anaheim Arena as part of the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress 2008. The arena was beautifully decorated. The music was outstanding. Cardinal Mahoney was presiding, along with many bishops and priests of the archdiocese. The deacons were there with their wives, entering and leaving in the processions together. It was altogether a wonderful time and place to be.

It happened to be the Sunday when the Gospel is the story of the healing of the man born blind. This is one of the three Sundays when we celebrate “The Scrutinies” as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). The focus of the second Scrutiny is the ways in which we are blind. The prayer of those preparing for Baptism, Confirmation and/or Eucharist at Easter, as well as of the larger community, is for deliverance from those forms of blindness.

After the homily, when the time came for the Scrutiny, those preparing for the “Easter sacraments” (Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist), were invited to kneel around the altar in the center of the Arena. Their sponsors stood before them as they knelt there. And we were all invited to pray with them, then raise our hands in prayer over them, asking the Lord’s blessing on them as they left with their catechists to continue reflecting on the Scriptures and preparing for Easter. Then they all rose and left the Arena.

I was sitting in the third tier of seats, so I had a great view of the floor and all the proceedings. It was an impressive sight, because approximately 5 rows of people on both sides of the aisle on the main floor left the room together. There was a huge hole in the middle of the community gathered there for worship. Although I didn’t know any of those people personally, I knew who was missing from that community! Those who will bring their own light of insights and God’s unique presence to our/their communities when they are welcomed into full participation in the Church at the Easter Vigil.

I remembered Megan’s story and also her statement that the gospels were written by the Christian community for those who were becoming new members of the community. They are for the instruction of new Christians, and the gift of the RCIA, and of those preparing to join the community, is the opportunity to see these stories anew and to experience their power to change lives – the lives of new followers of The Way and of those who maybe have begun to take it for granted.

As we celebrate the many liturgies of the next few days, I invite you to look around and see who is missing. Who needs us to reach out in love and ease a burden, or offer a word of hope and consolation? Who is homebound? Who is discouraged? Who has been hurt by our institution or our community? Who have we ourselves hurt? As we reach out in love to those missing, we will experience the Resurrection of Jesus in a deeper way and we will become a sign of love to the world, just as those little lights coming down the hillside were a sign of a loving community in one small Indian village.

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Posted by on Mar 20, 2008

Holy Thursday on the California Coast

Holy Thursday on the California Coast

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Holy Week on the California coast, from Pt. Mendocino above San Francisco to the Mexican border, is a place of spring time sun, deep blue skies, and blossoming flowers. At the Equinox, the ocean loses its grayness and picks up more yellows, subtle greens and muted turquoise. The salt air becomes more pungent, as the kelp forests put on new growth to accommodate the explosion of trillions upon trillions of sea plants and animals. The succulents and coastal chaparral burst out in purples, roses, and pinks, peppered with the bright yellow of sour grass blossoms. The Santa Cruz redwoods seem to stretch, fresh washed from the winter storms, looking forward to the morning and evening fog that gives them sustenance and flourishes their layered ecosystems that change every 20 feet upward, dancing in the dappled ray filled sunlight of the forest canopy.

It is a time of happiness and rejoicing. Sunglasses come out, flip flops slap the pavement, and shorts replace the winter denim, even though the day time temperatures are barely in the mid-60s. It is the coming of First Summer, before the Fog Season that begins on Memorial Day in late May and ends on Labor Day in early September. On the Central Coast, we host our first guests during Spring Break and settle in to enjoy the peaceful days before our June to August onslaught of shivering, fog-bitten visitors and their much welcome tourist dollars.

Aren’t we supposed to be down or at least subdued during Holy Week? How can we rejoice Saturday evening and Easter if we have somehow not rationed that joy? We should at least lament our unfaithful adherence to our Lenten resolutions – right? Christ’s terrible torture and death stayed the arm of a rightfully vengeful Father, so shouldn’t we show at least some token of fear for not being swept out into hellfire? If God’s Spring and Passover are any indication, maybe Cotton Mather had it wrong. Maybe we are a lot more than “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.”

If we, and all creation, are the overflowing love of the Trinity, are we the products of a God who can somehow demand the death of the the Eternal Word Made Flesh, God’s very immediate recognition and instantaneous self-acceptance, who shares the eternal dance of the Three in the joy of the Holy Spirit? Yes, much of the language that shapes our souls is a reflection of the fallen world where the Word “pitched his tent” – the actual Greek expression we use in the Creed. Yes, Jesus died and saved us in his rising from the dead. Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God. Yes, we are the reason, we are his motivation for sharing our lives and submitting to the capital punishment of being tortured to death by an occupying superpower. Perhaps, the gravest sin of pride is to even think that we were the cause. Yes, God as Love couldn’t bear to leave us to the fate of hatred, despair, and alienation.

Why should people celebrating their rescue be glum, depressed, lost in narcissistic guilt? Why is this night different from any other night? It is the Passover of the Lord. If we are not washed in joyful Spring, can we share the Passover meal? Can we have any part in Him?

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Posted by on Mar 18, 2008

Holy Week – Salvation Through Suffering or Self Actualization?

Holy Week – Salvation Through Suffering or Self Actualization?

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The profound Christian mysteries of Holy Week – the Last Supper, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection – are part of a cycle that we often break up into pieces. We can focus on the suffering Christ or move more comfortably to the Resurrected Christ. We can focus on the suffering humanity of Christ or His triumphant divinity. The problem of course is holding the contradiction to arrive at the truth by affirming the opposites. Is Christ human or divine? Yes.

In our lives, are we supposed to unfold and blossom in all of our God given gifts or do we have to exercise discipline and self-scrutiny and trim away important parts of ourselves – our sensuality, our connectedness with the earth, our search for joy and happiness? It seems that from the 1700s to the mid-20th century there was an emphasis on asceticism – a word created in the enlightenment – for the rational and spiritual to dominate at the expense of the heart, the emotions, and all things physical. Even the great secular Freudian construct of the human person posits a dominant super ego, the besieged ego, and the troublesome impish id of desire and impulse that seeks to undo the ethical correctness of the super ego and the reasonableness of the ego.

The psychology of Maslow is known for its emphasis on the self-actualization of the human person. The focus of Christian existentialism in the 20th century was on authenticity. In the late 20th century, the immanence of God with us was emphasized, as opposed to the previous focus on God’s utter transcendence. The re-emergence of Catholic and Protestant teaching of the social gospel has focused on the rights and dignity of individuals and communities to develop their gifts, free of domination and exploitation.

Of course, as we all know, we pay a price for our self-actualization and for advocating this freedom for others. That price is suffering – due to our own imperfect attempts at being authentic or “real”, the fear and resistance of ourselves and others to freedom, and the forces of oppression which come upon us in violence, social disapproval, or our own lack of will.

When we come right down to it, it is often more comfortable to stay in our zone of known suffering than to accept the insecure joy of resurrection. If I experience love, joy, and some glimmer of self-actualization, it will always be imperfect, and the “blues” (the dark days) will return. It may be a spiral upward, but it’s also a lot of insecurity and hassle and change. We have to live ambiguously. We don’t have the answers. In fact, we have to affirm opposites. Who needs this tension?

The bad times and the good times – through both there is only one guarantee – challenge.

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Posted by on Mar 11, 2008

The Spiritual Brain – A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul

The Spiritual Brain – A Neuroscientist’s Case for the Existence of the Soul

the-spiritual-brain-2.jpgHarper Collins

Neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, Ph.D. and journalist Denyse O’Leary have written a very detailed and easy to understand account of the debate about whether the mind is merely the result of the chemical action of billions of neurons or whether it is something non-material, something spiritual.

Their conclusion, not surprisingly, is that there is rational scientific evidence indicating that the mind, a faculty of the soul, is spiritual. The approach is painstakingly rational. The book begins by examining the most recent affirmations of the materialist approach. Currently, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Daniel Dennett), The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins), God is Not Great (Christopher Hitchens), and Letters to a Christian Nation (Sam Harris) are very popular anti-theistic books. There are conferences such as the Science Network’s “Beyond Belief” and the popular You-Tube Blasphemy Challenge. This materialist trend argues that science proves that there is nothing beyond the chemistry and physics of matter and energy.

Beauregard and O’Leary take these arguments apart very carefully in a scientifically rigorous manner and disprove them. More importantly, the book presents the results of Beauregard’s neuro-imaging studies of Carmelite nuns to actually document the neuronal activity associated with religious experience. Basically, religious states / mystical experiences (RSMEs according to the authors) are complex phenomena that involve many parts of the brain. They are not the result of genes or the by-product of certain parts of the brain. None of this proves the existence of God or of the soul. However, it does re-affirm the rationality and the moral dimensions of the choice of material versus spiritual explanations of religious experience.

This is a very good book for college students and educated members of the general public. An important book not only for the apologetics of faith in the post-modern world, The Spiritual Brain establishes the objective reality of religious states / mystical experiences (RSMEs) that are related to complex interpersonal transcendent encounters.

Tolle Lege.

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Posted by on Mar 10, 2008

In Search of God: Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

In Search of God: Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

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What do you tell yourself or others when there is doubt about the existence of God? I would like to recommend an interview with Dr. Rowan William, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England. The interviewer, John Humphrys, is from Channel 4 of the BBC.

The interview starts off in a genteel enough manner but builds into some rather intense exchanges. It is not a debate. In fact Humphrys begins by asking for a sales pitch – to be converted. Wisely, the Archbishop leads Humphrys to question his own questions in a manner similar to Socratic dialog.

It is a very good example of pastoral teaching, even if the inquirer does not seem to be entirely sincere. Take a look at the text or listen to the podcast.

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Posted by on Feb 14, 2008

Valentine’s Day Reflections 2008

Valentine’s Day Reflections 2008

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February 14 is Valentine’s Day, a day focused on love. Marketers have been promoting their products for several weeks now – trying to convince us that their particular product is the best possible way to say “I love you” to that special someone in our lives. And lots of us will buy something to express our love for those special people with whom we share our lives.

I remember one year when I received a waffle iron for Valentine’s Day. The women at the shop where my husband was getting his hair cut were horrified that he would get a small kitchen appliance for me. But he was right – I was thrilled. I love waffles and the old waffle iron I’d gotten 10 years earlier at a garage sale had finally broken – metal fatigue. It was a wonderful gift. We had waffles for dinner that night!

Valentine’s Day is a feast whose origins are found in legends about holy men who lived long ago. We don’t know much about St. Valentine, or even which man he actually was – there were several Valentines who were martyred in ancient days. The name means worthy and was popular in Roman times.

Many of the traditions related to Valentine’s day had their origins in the Middle Ages. It was believed then that birds began to choose their mates in mid-February, so the day seemed appropriate for celebrating romantic love. Fr. James McSweeney, on his website, www.todayismygifttoyou.com has a couple of lovely pieces about St. Valentine and love today.

Another essay I found this morning is by Timothy Chambers, a philosophy teacher at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He talks about love potions mentioned in old legends and about what is really necessary for love – the stuff that can’t come out of a bottle. Of course, physical attraction is important in human love (and it might conceivably be produced by a “love potion”), but even more important are memories of happy times together, trust and faith in the beloved and the free choice to love in bad times as well as in the good times.

My wish for you today is that you know love. A love deeper than the sea and higher than the sky. The love that fills your being with the unshakeable certainty that nothing can ever come between you and the Lover, between you and your Creator. You are loved and loveable because you were loved into existence and are held in existence by that same love. Just as you are. With all your gifts and faults. You are loved.

Peace be with you. Now and always. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Posted by on Feb 7, 2008

Christ in the Desert and the County Jail

Christ in the Desert and the County Jail

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On Shrove Tuesday, while much of the world was at Mardi Gras, I was praying and sharing scripture with a small group of inmates at the county jail. Our scripture was the Temptation of Christ (Luke 4:1-19). One thing that emerged in our prayer and reflection was Christ’s acceptance of the Father’s way of rejecting power and advantage in the announcement of the Kingdom.

Why take the hard way? God could have redeemed us in many different ways. Why such a horrible death? Why did the Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness after his baptism by John? Why was the Son of God fasting and praying for 40 days?

One of our group restated a common view that the offenses of humanity had become so severe that God demanded the most severe appeasement. I suggested that maybe the answer was in the persistence of evil in our lives. For so many of the men I was praying with, their lives had been damaged by forces beyond their control – poverty, addiction, and mental illness. (Hardened criminals generally don’t come to a prayer meeting in our jail. The faith of those who do come is something, I am sure that Jesus did not find in Israel and does not find in most respectable Christians.)

Christ, who was like us in all things but sin, chose to identify with the powerless and to put his faith in the Father through non-violence. Utter foolishness – according to St. Paul. In our suffering and defeat how could we be one with a God who was not defeated – a God who was not an utter failure? Did the Father exact this humiliation out of a some perverse pleasure unworthy of a human father?

That community of Divine love – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – Creator, Redeemer, Breath of Life come to the heart as love. Love can never be forced. True love can never come through power, glamour, or glitz. As we reflected and prayed it became more obvious to us that God can only come to us in compassion and that is how we come to him. Yet compassion is not compatible with power, wealth, and success – like a camel passing through the eye of the needle.

God with us. God like us. Powerless in love.

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Posted by on Feb 5, 2008

Feast of the Day – Ash Wednesday

Feast of the Day – Ash Wednesday

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“…As we live through this Ash Wednesday, may the crosses of ashes that mark our foreheads be a reminder to us and to those we meet that we belong to your Son. May our worship and prayer and penitence this day be sustained throughout these 40 days of Lent. Bring us refreshed and renewed to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter.” – A Prayer for Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the Lenten season of preparation and renewal for the Easter Triduum. The season of Lent has an ancient and interesting history. From the earliest centuries there were various periods of preparation for Easter. The tradition of prayer, fasting, and alms giving has evolved over time. Lent used to begin on Sunday like the other liturgical seasons. However, Pope St. Gregory the Great moved it to Wednesday to acurately mark 40 days – not counting Sundays – prior to Easter.

Ashes have a long history and deep significance in the Bible. Sack cloth and ashes are ancient symbol of mourning and repentance. Fasting and almsgiving are also prominent in the Old and New Testaments. Fasting focuses our attention on our need for God and alms giving reminds us that our service to the poor and the marginalized is service to God.

With the renewed focus on the baptism of adult catechumens at the Easter Vigil, Lent has become, once again, a time in which the community recalls, relives, and renews its life in the Paschal Mystery – the Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.

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Posted by on Jan 28, 2008

Saint of the Day: St. Thomas Aquinas – January 28

Saint of the Day: St. Thomas Aquinas – January 28

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St. Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor (c. 1225 – 1274), has been and continues to be one of the most influential forces shaping Catholic theology and philosophy. He was born at Roccasecca castle, the home of his father, Count Landulf, in the Kingdom of Naples. His mother was Theodora, Countess of Theate, and was related to the Hohenstafuen dyanasty of Holy Roman emperors. St. Thomas’s uncle, Sinbald, was the abbot of the first Benedictine monastery, Monte Cassino, and the family planned for him to succeed his uncle as abbot.

At the age of 5, St. Thomas was sent to Monte Cassino to begin his studies. At 16 he was sent to the University of Naples, where he came under the influence of the Order of Preachers – the Dominicans -who were innovators in a new style of religious life very different from that of traditional orders such as the Benedictines. St. Thomas upset his family by announcing his intention of joining the Dominicans. This action not only destroyed the family’s ambition to retain the power and prestige of Monte Cassino, but it was almost akin to running off with a band of hippies. Unable to convince him to renounce this foolishness, his family kidnapped him and held him for a year in the family castle of San Giovanni. Finally, Pope Innocent IV intervened and St. Thomas joined the Dominicans at 17.

St. Thomas and the Dominicans of his time introduced an entirely new way of approaching the faith. For 12 centuries, the Church teachers of the faith appealed to the authority of the scriptures and previous teachers such as St. Augustine or other Fathers of the Church. The scholastic movement, embodied by St. Thomas and his teacher St. Albert the Great, began with an open inquiry based on logic and reason. The traditional Faith was accepted as true, but thoughtful and logical reason were presented as to why it might not be true. Ultimately, various statements of belief were upheld, not only on the authority of the Church or tradition, but by reason and logic as well.

The format of the scholastic argument is the back bone of St. Thomas’s two major works, The Summa Theologica and the Summa Contra Gentiles. It is hard for us as post-modern people to imagine what a daring and threatening approach this was for the time. In fact the 1200s were a time of immense change in Europe. Trade and communications with the East had been reopened and with them came a flood of new and ancient knowledge. Trade and commerce increased the power and prestige of market towns at the expense of the countryside. Monastic schools gave way to early universities. The great Cathedrals began to dominate the landscape. The traditional clergy were overshadowed by the two great orders of mendicant friars (the begging brothers) – the Dominicans and the Franciscans.

St. Thomas, and his contemporary members of the scholastic movement, absorbed and transformed Islamic and Greek philosophy, science, technology, and mathematics. In particular, the Thomistic school of scholasticism is known for reviving the philosophy of Aristotle and its logic.

Over the centuries, scholastic philosophy would evolve and change in a variety of ways and St. Thomas – contrary to his own method – became the authority. Instead of being a fresh and bold inquiry, scholasticism degenerated into a catalog of arguments and answers to be memorized and repeated. In the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, scholasticism and Thomism were disregarded by secular philosophies reliant only on reason. Thomism was also marginalized in training programs for priests.

In the late 1800s, there was a movement to restore Thomism as a defense against the secular philosophies of the Enlightenment and to renew some intellectual vigor in Catholic circles. It was an attempt to come to grips with the modern world and met heavy resistance. In the early 1900s, Thomism began to assume some prominence and neo-Thomism emerged with a renewed interest in the relationship between faith and reason. It is a long and complicated story, but it reflects the enduring importance of the work of St. Thomas and the changing moods of society and philosophy.

The core question persists. What can we know of God through reason? The second question follows. How reasonable is our faith?

If we want to honor a man who was a mystic, a saint, and an intellectual, it seems that we have to take on the openness of his inquiry and the wonder he beheld in faith.

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