In meditation, one seeks to suspend one’s beliefs, feelings, judgments, attachments—everything that the meditator holds dear. The man or woman who truly meditates in openness to the Unknown God enters into a dark abyss of unknowing. In this condition, what one has known, thought, loved, may indeed become a hindrance to the descent into the divine spring.
Over the years, I have had to deal with a few Muslims, with their unquestioning attachment to “holy Koran.” And I have had to deal with many Evangelical Christians with this unquestioning attachment to “the holy Bible.” During the past thirty years of functioning as a priest-monk in the Catholic church, I have had to deal often with “devout Catholics” who hold an unthinking, unquestioned, unexamined attachment to the Catholic Church—to “holy Mother Church.”
As Plato tells us in the Apology, Socrates was accused by Athenian officials and brought to trial on three false charges: “denying the gods of the city,” “introducing a foreign divinity,” and “corrupting the youth of Athens.” He is found guilty of all charges, and his prosecutors ask for the death sentence. By a close vote, Socrates was sentenced to death by drinking hemlock. And so he died. Before he walked out of the court room of some 500 jurors, Socrates exhorted them in many moving words, often summed up in one of his memorable phrases: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And then his final words before leaving the court: “Now it is time to go—I to die, and you to live. Which of us has the better fate is unknown to anyone, except to God.” In condemning Socrates to death, democratic Athens has condemned itself to an unjust existence.
The problem of not examining ourselves, our beliefs, our lives, is endemic to all of us, and to some more than others. Among church-attending Catholics, one can find a phenomenon that is difficult to understand, in part because it is unseen and largely unknown even to those with the problem. On close examination, one finds in many Catholics now and over the centuries an unquestioned, nearly unbreakable attachment to “the holy Catholic Church.” It shows up recently as some of the hierarchy’s evil deeds and cover-ups have come to light, and yet “the faithful” remain blindly loyal to the institutional church. Why?
Theologically, it is as if the Church stands in the place of God or of Christ. Hence, despite seeing real problems, they pretend that the Church is really holy anyway—even while clergy and lay persons commit heinous crimes and sins. Psychologically, the attachment of many Catholics to the Church is foundational in their lives. The Church is for them an extension of their own egos, just as the Mother was first experienced as an extension of the infant himself or herself—as part of oneself. As these children grew older, most of them learned to differentiate themselves from their birth mother, and became relatively independent and functioning adults. But many Catholics psychologically have failed to undergo a due and healthy separation from the institutional Church. In some ways, the Church became a new mother, a Big Mother, often equated with Mary, then interpreted as “next to God” or even as “divine.” No few Catholics in recent centuries have treated the Church as though it were “the Kingdom of God on earth”—the true and perfect embodiment of God Himself. Of course it did not help that many clergy furthered this idolatrous belief, priests even declaring themselves to be an “alter Christus,” another Christ. Who is the real Christ?
What we have in these many Catholics is not only an undue psychological attachment, but in effect, a form of idolatry—just as so many Evangelicals in effect worship the Bible as unquestionably true and holy and good. In shortest scope, neither the Church nor the Bible is perfect nor a completely true or good embodiment of God. To tell Evangelicals and Catholics this simple truth would incite many of these folks to declare one a “heretic,” or “an unbeliever,” or in terms used by Muslims today, “an infidel.” In truth, “humankind cannot bear very much reality” (Eliot, “The Four Quartets”). In reality, all of the churches are highly imperfect human societies. The Catholic Church is not fully holy—indeed, far from it—and the church is surely not “divine.” Scholars even provide persuasive reasons to assert that the Church was not founded by Christ, but developed by his disciples soon after his death-Resurrection. Indeed, we should all do well to consider words of St. Thomas Aquinas: that the body of Christ is not a particular institution, but all of humanity in history. Christ is far too big for an institution. We human beings are the body of Christ—imperfectly so, often unjustly so, but together we, and not a given denomination or political society, is the “body of Christ” in time.
Now for a practical question—a “pastoral question”: How is one to relate to Catholics who cling devoutly to the institutional Church, regardless of what its leaders and representatives do? As a pastor, teacher, or parent, how should one deal with Catholics who refuse to grow up spiritually and “let go of the sides of the pool”—let go of their ego-attachment to Mother Church? How can one help remove blindfolds from the willfully self-blinded? This attachment to “the Church” is in reality a very strong attachment to one’s own ego. How difficult it is to let go of self in all of its forms.
This problem still faces me, even in retirement. I still deal with Catholics in pastoral roles from time to time, and more often then not, while trying to guide them towards the Unknown God, there remains a huge obstacle in their hearts and minds: it is their ego-attachment to “the Church,” and to the “God” and “Christ” of the Church’s creeds, and sometimes to “Church teaching,” “the priest,” “the bishop,” “the Pope,” “the Bible.” In all of these cases, I have to challenge these undue attachments. And the inevitable result, not unexpectedly, is intense psychological resistance. Adult Catholics do not like to be told that they need to grow up spiritually and think for themselves; they would rather bury their minds in “the Church,” or in their particular priest, and so on. We are dealing with extreme ego-attachment, or what now is often called “an addiction.” Many Catholics are addicted to the illusion of the perfect, divine Church, that psychotically stands to them as their mother did in infancy. Spiritually, these Catholics resist growing up.
What is one to do? Keep silent? Not challenge these “true believers” whose attachment may well be hindering their way to God? If one challenges them, as I have experienced on no few occasions, some become agitated, belligerent, highly critical, declare me “unCatholic” or worse, begin to carp and mock me. They grow impatient, restless, irritable, and often nasty as I move them to see that the Church is not God, not perfect, not nearly so holy as they dream. Many of these Catholics would rather silence the challenging voice than take up the hard task of examining themselves, and letting go of illusions and undue attachments. They must come to see that the Catholic Church is a highly imperfect human institution that has often masqueraded as “the perfect society,” as “the Kingdom of God on earth,” as “holy and divine.” These Catholics must give up their illusory beliefs and their iron-clad attachment to “the Church” in order to begin afresh the journey of their soul into God.
Presently, I am not sure that most Catholics are willing to die to themselves, to renounce their illusions, to let go of “the Church,” and to seek the living God in humility, with a strong awareness of their own ignorance and lack of genuine faith as childlike trust in God alone. An essential step forward can be made when these Catholics cease muttering busy prayers, and sit silent and still in meditation.
—Wm. P. McKane
07 June 2020
I just completed a short blog on “Getting out of prison,” in which I analyzed rigid ideologies affecting the minds and actions of many persons in our uncivil-civil society. I urged self-examination and humility as means to “get out of jail free,” to escape from the prisons of our own making, or of our own choosing. Now I seek to turn reasoned analysis on myself, and wonder if what I am teaching, writing, and living may be for good or for ill.
We begin with questions. What if I am genuinely mistaken about “the Bible,” and it really is or at least contains “God’s Word,” which one may read and discover? Well, in reality I do believe that there is much wisdom in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and that anyone could gain much from reading them intelligently and thoughtfully, and apply what they learn to how they live their lives. The problem as I see it is in effect absolutizing the Bible (or the Qur’an) as unquestionable truth which must be accepted uncritically. It is the lack of thought about what is read, the lack of actively questioning its truth and place in one’s life, that most concerns me.
Second, regarding Catholic institutionalism, am I wrong to claim that the Church is not in reality as “holy” as it claims to be? Am I wrong in criticizing the notion that “Jesus founded the Church,” and set the hierarchy in place, as God the Creator set the stars in the heavens? And what underlies my impassioned criticism of Catholic clergy anyway? The short answer is this: I and no few others have experienced evil committed by Catholic clergy, and even more evil committed by bishops or by Rome making excuses for evil-doing clergy, and covering up their crimes. At the same time, many Catholic “lay persons” simply refuse to see and to deal effectively with clergy who have neglected their spiritual well-being, preached blather to them, deceived them, stolen from them, abused their children, and so on. Anger in me is aroused by the evils and deceits in the churches, all covered up beneath a plastic halo of holiness. The wrongs done to unsuspecting persons and the attempts to continue the evils under cover of “confidentiality” and naked denials should, I believe, awaken the wrath of pacified, often non-thinking Catholics. I personally believe and have said that the Christian community ought to slough off the hierarchy as a snake sloughs off its skin. On this point I may be wrong. (My goodness, could I be wrong? You bet!) And I admit that trying to reform or remake the hierarchy of the Catholic Church seems to lead nowhere, and perhaps achieves nothing good. The attempt may be a waste of time and even damaging, especially when there are at least some bishops and priests who do much good, and genuinely seek to build up Christ in the faithful. Not all clergy members are deceivers and thieves—but many are. Not every Catholic continues to sit passively in pews and unthinkingly accept evils done by clergy—but most seem to turn a blind eye to evil done in their midst.
Having made these points, is it now best to shut up? Is it futile and a waste of energy to criticize the hierarchy of the churches for the evil they do? Would it be better for me, and for others, to keep quiet and to mind our own business? Given how resistant to change Roman authorities have long been, are we just wasting time? Would it be more prudent just to seek God in the silence and peace of one’s heart, and either walk away from the institutional church or at least ignore it? Should Catholics abandon the institutional church for their own spiritual well-being? Or should they stay and seek to grow up, begin to assume responsibility for their own spiritual nourishment and growth, and speak out against evils in clergy as they arise?
Why am I angry because of human wickedness and foolishness, even done under the cover of clerical collars and pious assertions to be “other Christs”? What good comes from such anger? What good comes from the anger of “progressives,” Democrats, or Republicans, who spend so much time hating and attacking President Trump? The man has evident flaws; but who does not? Which President in our “modern history” has not had very serious flaws, and often been self-seeking, and loved power too much? As a political scientist and observer of politics, I cannot name one. If these men did not love power, why would they ever seek to be President (or seek any higher office)? The office of political leadership attracts men and women of a certain caliber: not only those who truly want to “get things done for the common good,” as they all claim, but who at the same time want power, fame, attention, financial gain, benefits for their friends and family members. Should we be surprised that as Vice President, Joe Biden practiced the vice of feathering the nest for his wayward and apparently screwed-up son with huge financial benefits? Should we be surprised that men in the oval office have sought sexual gratification even from young women within their grasp? Should we be surprised that Nixon sought to cover up the crime of the break-in at the Watergate? Or that FDR lied to the American people about the “unprovoked” attack of Japan on Pearl Harbor? Our leaders have been flawed, and often deeply flawed human beings. Do such characters deserve hatred? Is it worthwhile filling our own souls with venom at those we deem dangerous snakes? Are we Americans really so virtuous and good that we expect to elect truly virtuous men and women to the highest offices of the land? Would we even recognize or respond to genuine virtue? Perhaps we are too foolish and too self-absorbed as a people in history even to know who might lead our people in beneficial ways, without being scoundrels or “low-lifers” themselves. “We the People” seem to have become far less virtuous and deserving of good leadership than we believe. We are easily duped, because we are quite foolish.
“What about you, little man?” I know that I am not a virtuous human being—nor do I claim to be. I have never called myself a “just man,” or “a holy priest,” or a “good monk.” I am too aware of the wrongs I have done, and the good I have failed to do, to exonerate myself. Looking back on my life, there is not much of which I am genuinely proud. If I have done anyone any good in my life, it has been despite my flaws and failures, and because the all-good God can and does work in and through our human weaknesses. “Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to your name be the glory.” Why? Because we are not so good ourselves.
Although I know that I am neither learned nor wise, yet I write these little blogs. Why? Because I seek to share thoughts while being open to correction. Knowing that I do not have a poetic imagination, or handle symbols effectively, I still write little, mediocre or poor poems. Even though I am an impassioned man with considerable anger at injustice and untruth—as I see them—I still try to teach in some ways. Do I do harm to human beings? I am sure that I have harmed no few persons, beginning with my own family members since childhood. I can only hope that I do more good than harm; but in truth, I do not know. Nor do I hold myself blameless in any way. I certainly have never dealt with a Catholic bishop who seemed to find me anything but a pest, or worse; no bishop under whom I ever served said that I do a good job serving Christ in his people—the very thing which I sought to do. One bishop loudly and very angrily accused me of “dividing the parish” (in Kalispell, Montana), and quickly threw me out of his diocese. Together or individually, bishops and their priest personnel boards have awarded me no pension or health care in retirement. They have found me unworthy of any benefits. Nor do I ask for any money from any authority in the church—bishop or abbot—or from lay persons. I am well aware that by temperament, character, and beliefs, I do not fit well into the Catholic church, into a monastery, or into any institution. Authorities may well be right in describing me as a “trouble-maker.” And I have made trouble for some in authority, whether they deserved it or not (but I think that they did deserve questioning for their wrong deeds). As for what I believe, I was told by a priest in one diocese that the bishop there under whom I served considered me to be “non-Orthodox,” which I take to be a polite phrase for a “heretic.” I thought he was a kindly man, but entrapped in rigid dogma. No doubt he found my reservations about the dogma of “the Trinity” to be heretical. (At least he did not have me burned at the stake, as some bishops have done for those who question fixed beliefs.)
So what am I to do? I remain a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey, and I remain a Catholic priest. Am I proud of either position? Frankly, no. On the other hand, I firmly believe that I benefited much from being a brother monk of St. Anselm’s, and I genuinely respect and love my Abbot as a man of God. As for me, I am not worthy or suitable to live in the monastery, for my character is highly flawed, and I really am, as noted, a “trouble-maker.” I question what others do not want questioned. I am unable to live at peace with what I perceive as serious wrong-doing, deception, pretense, or unquestioned beliefs. Even as I consider myself a very poor example of being a Benedictine monk, at least I respect the life the monks attempt to live. As for being a priest in the Catholic church, here I feel much shame and disgust. We priests—myself included—have badly failed the people we were ordained to serve. Many of us are scoundrels, who steal, deceive, seek power, swallow all sorts of ideological nonsense and spew it out to others. Having seen what I have seen from some clergy, there is no way I could be proud to be serve among such men. On the other hand, I have known some wonderful and good priests—one of whom is now in prison for doing evil. And a real scoundrel and deceiver runs free to continue his deceptions, thanks to cover up from the chancery. How could anyone be proud to be counted among such human beings?
I look in the mirror, and I see a fairly old man, become rapidly older. I am thankful for my life, despite my flaws and faulty character, and despite my impassioned and unbalanced temperament. I have received much good from the all-merciful God—“far more than I deserve,” as Dave Ramsey would say. It is best that I live alone, so as not to infect others with my anger and refusal quietly to accept what I think are lies or deceptions. There is no way I could live peaceably with any human being, for I am not at peace with what and who I am; hence, I willingly and gladly accept living alone in relative isolation. And in no way do I want to function publicly in any church, or in civil society. Although no prophet or saint, I would probably be as divisive of human community as was John the Baptist—just on a smaller scale, as I am a much smaller human being than was John.
Finally, should I write and make public such statements? If not, why not? What is gained by hiding who we are? Can any good come from what I do or say? In truth, I do not know. But this I believe: “It is time for judgment to begin in the household of God.”
—Wm. Paul McKane
7 December 2019
Are you in prison, or perhaps just temporarily in the local jail? Or have you been living your life imprisoned, and do not even know it? So many have been imprisoned by their own bad habits and addictions for so long that they do not see the walls that close them in. And millions upon millions live imprisoned by ideologies of one stripe or another. They are trapped in their fixed beliefs. And they most likely do not know it, or willingly embrace their imprisoning beliefs, having no idea how to live as free men sprung from prison.
1. Institutional Prison: Often one must deal with at least three kinds of ideological prisons that may intrude on our everyday life. Possibly the least obvious of the three prisons, and probably the least insidious, is the prison of institutional life. It may affect and infect one’s thinking, loving, living. The type of prison I encounter often is what has been called “churchianity.” Among Catholics it is especially marked, because the “faithful” have been propagandized for centuries with the belief that in some non-rational, usually unexplained way, the Catholic Church is “the body of Christ,” or even “the Kingdom of God on earth.” Many everyday Catholics unthinkingly accept that the institutional church is “divinely instituted,” and hence shares to a high degree in divinity and in God’s prerogatives: holiness, unity, wisdom, truth, goodness. Many Catholics have unthinkingly swallowed the belief that their Church is itself a “holy” institution. Consequently, the “faithful” have often been unwilling and perhaps even mentally unable to criticize the wrongdoings of their institutional leaders—bishops, priests, deacons. The clergy have perpetuated the belief in the “holiness” of the church precisely because it produces more docile, uncritical, and willingly paying members. “One holy catholic and apostolic church” easily becomes a cover and a mask for an often highly unholy, non-catholic, parochial clergy. In short, many are the Catholic “faithful” who have been duped into unthinking acceptance of false teachings, foolish claims, and some wicked and destructive practices. If one doubts the truth of this claim, follow the news in our country, or elsewhere in the world, with exposés on one bishop or priest after another who has stolen from, deceived, molested, or badly treated the unsuspecting and all-too-accepting Catholics whom they supposedly “serve.”
2. “True faith” prison. There is a second kind of prison entrapping many in our midst, and this one also strongly affects the “body of Christ,” or self-declared “believers in Christ.” Among Catholics, it often takes the form of an unthinking acceptance of “Church teachings,” including whatever they happen to be told by pontiff, bishop, priest, or deacon. At times it shows up as “Father says,” or “this saint taught that,” or “the official church teaching is….” In each case, what is offered is an appeal to some supposed authority as “true,” without reasoned thinking and testing of the truthfulness of the particular assertions. It is usually more fundamentalistic Catholics who fall into this trap or prison, although the “progressive” wing, too, has been duped by some “leading theologian” who has “seen the light” and proclaims his “certain truth” to unsuspecting and gullible men and women; these “theologians” promise a “transformation of the world” and “revolution” through “social action.” And they fool many.
As bad as the Catholic ideological prisons are, one finds perhaps even thicker iron bars and heavier concrete walls among Protestant, evangelical prisons. Frequently one encounters “Bible-believing Christians” who seemingly have closed their minds and live imprisoned in “the Bible,” assuming and loudly proclaiming that “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” is in “the Bible,” and every word in the Book is “true,” and to be unthoughtfully accepted as “God’s word,” “God’s truth.” These “Bible-believers,” however well-intentioned they may be, however endearing their “personal commitment” and “personal relationship to Jesus” may be, are both deceived and unwitting deceivers of others. They are as imprisoned in their “Bible” as many Catholics are imprisoned in “the holy Mother Church.” It is sad and disturbing to see, but all-too-common.
If one questions some particular assertion of these “bible-believers,” such as assertions about “the Trinity of three persons,” or about “salvation for the elect,” or even about the unchallengeable truth of “the Bible” itself as the “Word of God,” one immediately encounters a mind that is imprisoned in rigid, unyielding beliefs: one assertion follows another, with no attempt by these biblical fundamentalists to stand back from the “Bible,” and question its legitimate claim to be “the very word of God,” and beyond critical examination. “The Bible says” takes the place of well-reasoned arguments open to the light of further scrutiny, examination, refinement, and possible negation. “It is true because the Bible says it is true” in fact amounts to the assertion that “the claim is true because I say it is true,” because each of these “Bible-believers” has her or own interpretation of what particular texts say or mean. Without reading the texts in their original languages—Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek—they claim with certainty to know and usually to understand what a particular writer intended to communicate. The worst of these tendencies becomes apparent when they flip open the Book of Daniel, or the New Testament Book of Revelation, and begin to pronounce on “things that will soon take place.” That the author had no conception of how history would develop, and what the future in truth would look like, seems not to have crossed their imprisoned minds. Nor would this point even register in the finds of these book-imprisoned people, because they actually believe that “God wrote the Bible” (or Qur’an) or at least “inspired” it so that it is all “true.”
A Caveat. Before progressing to examine political ideologies and their “true believers,” a few words of caution seem fitting. First, some of the prisoners of Catholic institutionalism and Protestant biblicism are well-intentioned, kind, good human beings and citizens. I do not wish to impugn their motives or their characters. But they are imprisoned in their beliefs, and I feel some human duty to warn them of their entrapments. Furthermore, as Aristotle wrote while sharply criticizing a particular teaching of his long-time mentor and friend, Plato, “We must prefer truth to friendship.” Yes, we must. Unfortunately, one often finds a relatively weak interest in truth among adherents of various “religions,” Christian or non-Christian. “Believers” often seem to have surrendered their human duty to seek truth to contentment with the various belief they have been taught—Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, and so on. My own interest in truth requires me to examine their mental imprisonment in Churchianity, or Bibliolatry, or “Holy Qur’an,” even though I have genuine friends dwelling in these and similar prisons. On the other hand, I am aware of the danger of being too critical of mental prisons such as have developed in Christianity (and Islam) over the centuries. A human being who lives within an ideological prison rarely turns to reason, to philosophy, to mystical experience after the walls of the prison have been exploded, and he has “escaped like a bird from the fowler.” In this regard, the self-proclaimed philosophers of the Enlightenment did a great deal of damage to many persons. They dragged them into their self-proclaimed “enlightened state,” and left them with little or nothing on which to feed. They tore away the living God in the name of the “God of reason,” or “Enlightenment.” In fact, however, the western European “Enlightenment” was a period of intense intellectual foolishness, with some genuine light thrown on real problems. The various “philosophies” (in truth, non-philosophical ideologies) of the late 18th into the 20th centuries were largely destructive of traditional human life. Men hell-bent to “change he world” (young Marx’s coinage) brought much violence, bloodshed, and loss of meaning to real human lives. “Proclaiming themselves wise, they became fools,” and their foolishness often led to mass murder, or at least to the death of the spirit. Far better for a young man or woman to flip through their Bibles in search of “God’s word” than to live godlessly in a world presumed devoid of meaning. “By their fruits you will know them,” and many fundamentalistic Catholics and Protestants at least show their “beliefs,” mistaken though they be, in deeds of charity and human assistance. So a word to the would-be wise: “Let those with ears to hear, hear.” Others may sleep in their prison cells.
3. Secular and political ideologies.
The largest, thickest-walled, most destructive prisons in our midst are not found among churchy or Bible-believing Christians. Christian prisons at least have the benefit of being attacked from all sides in our secular culture, forcing their adherents to engage in some examination of what they believe, and why. The worst prisons by far are found among political ideologues, who range over a wide spectrum: from jihadist, gnostic Islam to “Enlightened intellectuals” to “Progressives” to absolutists and totalitarians of various stripes. Everyday we are bombarded by the intellectual terrorism of these “knowers” who have all the answers. They have “holy Quran” or “Science” or “Progress” at their backs, and they are as hell-bent as Karl Marx ever was to “transform the world” (Marx’s phrase from his Theses on Feuerbach, repeated by candidate Obama in 2008, for one example of recent usage). These political ideologues spew out their poisonous deceit on everyone, usually aided by complacent or even complicit cooperation from the loud mouthpieces of the mass media: television, Hollywood, propaganda-music, politicians, academicians, entrenched bureaucrats, and the like. In present day America (the USA), leftist, self-described “progressive” intellectuals and politicians utterly dominate the public scene with their obscene addiction to “liberating” political ideologies. Again, in this regard, a Muslim jihadist and an American university professor have far more in common than either of them suspects, or could admit: they have “knowledge” (or perhaps ideologically fixed “science”) that gives them “certainty,” and with this weapon in their minds and mouths and sometimes hands, they set out to force their “vision” of “truth” and the “good life” on everyone else. Woe to those who do not share their ideology, because they can be killed in one of at least two ways: murdered outright, as by ISIS jihadists; or have their minds and spirits murdered or at least vivisected by godless, secular, self-inflated “intellectuals,” whom we encounter throughout American society today. One cannot turn on the television without hearing some of these ideologues popping off about whatever supposed evil they are seeking to destroy or overcome, from “climate change” to “the cult of Trump” to “right-wing conspiracies,” when all the time these highly vocal “intellectuals” and “political leaders” are in fact the cultists of the occult, believers in their self-enclosed gnostic truth. The reason they hate their opponents, as is evident everyday in our country, is in part because they are convinced of their own “expertise,” “scientific knowledge,” superior intelligence, or their “enlightened state,” and of course their own “good intentions” and “compassionate hearts” to “make the world a better place.” They are, in effect, terrorists of the spirit.
The prison in which these ideological knowers live gives them the power and the right, they believe, to spew out their “learning,” and to force their views on others. Their most evident victims are the young, propagandized from earliest years in mass education all the way through “higher education” at our colleges and universities, in which genuine freedom of thought and of speech are persecuted and destroyed by these would-be totalitarians who dominate campus and social life. Whereas Catholic and Protestant prisons, briefly described above, are relatively minor in their effects on society as a whole, the political ideologues dominate American society and culture in nearly every aspect of our lives. They most infect the governing and learned “elites.” And rather than remain quietly in their prisons, and in their prison-worlds centered in Washington, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle—to name some of their most intense enclaves—these ideologues are rapidly creating an entire prison network in our country. They are busy building what amounts to an American Gulag Archipelago not restricted to prison camps, as in the former Soviet Union, but penetrating every home through mass media, internet, and our ever-new technological devices. Intellectual and cultural ideologues are building a “New Society,” and it increasingly looks more and more like the concentration camps of totalitarian regimes, only now with a higher degree of mind control.
4. What is to be done? First and foremost, each person must examine himself / herself, and honestly ask how unthinkingly, uncritically they hold to their most cherished beliefs. I do not hold out great hope that most will do this, because the prisons about which I am writing are largely self-chosen, and serve to give the inmate some sense of security and “certainty” in an uncertain and often threatening world.
Second, it is better by far for a “Bible-believing Christian” to study closely and to love the Gospel of John or the Letters of the Apostle Paul, then to abandon any concern for “the word of God.” It is better by far for an institutionalized Catholic to listen attentively to the gentle wit and wisdom of Fr. Benedict Groeschel, for example, then to reject the entire Catholic hierarchy because some bishops and priests have done evil and worked hard to cover their tracks. And it is better for genuinely scientific minds who value the scientific method to caution the enthusiasm of half-learned know-it-alls, and admit that many questions about which “progressives” rant are and ought to be open to study and debate. A strong internal awareness in each of us that we ourselves may be wrong in our most intensely held beliefs would go a long way to restoring some balance and sanity in our ideologically-diseased and damaged body politic. The wisdom of humility is the key to escaping from our prisons. “God alone is truly wise.”
—Wm. Paul McKane
7 December 2019
A brief note on “conversion” to Christ.
One often hears Christians and others talking about “conversion,” and explicitly about “being called by Jesus,” or “becoming a Christian,” or “becoming a disciple of Christ,” and so on. Or one hears in doctrinal church circles the claim that when an infant is baptized, the child “begins a life in Christ,” or “is filled with grace,” or “becomes a Christian,” and so on.
I prefer to use the term “conversion to Christ” in a more definite, less doctrinal, more experiential sense. Whether an infant is “joined to Christ” in baptism, I have no idea, because of such an experience I have no awareness; it is merely a doctrinal assertion one hears among those given to talking in religious language abstracted from concrete experience. Let them talk, and pass on by.
The following brief meditation could be fleshed out later, perhaps should be developed for the sake of greater clarity and to avoid misunderstandings. For the sake of sparking an interest in those for whom these words may have meaning, I submit the following.
Properly understood, and grounded in reality and in language derived from experiences of reality, to be “converted to Christ,” or expressing the same experience(s) in equivalent phrases, has a definite meaning that has unfortunately been all-too-neglected among both “Christians” and non-Christians. Let’s be as concise and as clear as possible:
To be “converted to Christ” refers to an experience of faith-grace, in which a human being chooses to open up his or her heart to the presence of God in Christ, and Christ floods into consciousness. This breaking-in of Christ is the essence of “conversion.” How one can say that he or she is “a Christian,” or a “disciple of Christ,” without such a grounding experience, I do not know. What could it mean to be “a Christian” except one in whom Christ lives with a humble and grateful response from the human partner? God is in all, but not all respond with trust and love; and many seem utterly unaware of indwelling divine Presence. When awareness of Presence dawns, one has been converted to God. If this experience of Presence is related to God-in-Christ, then one’s conversion is “Christian,” or in-Christ.
Consider the foundational experience again: A particular human being hears about Christ, about the presence of the Unknown God in the man Jesus, and lovingly opens up one’s being to Christ; now that human being is alive in the Resurrected Christ, as proclaimed by the Apostle Paul and other men and women in Christ who have had similar experiences. “God raised Jesus from the dead” may be the operative phrase that moved the heart to open up, although such words can easily be understood in an objectifying manner, divorced from concrete experience—as in the Nicene Creed, for example: “He suffered, died, was buried; he was raised on the third day.” This language has indeed divorced experience from verbiage, and many then get caught in the words, and miss the underlying reality or truth. (It is unfortunate that the more experiential language of the Apostle was omitted from the Creed: “Christ suffered, died, was raised, and appeared.” The apostles’ visions of the Resurrected give context and meaning to the verbal formulations of “raised on the third day,” and so on.
Hence, less ambiguous are formulations of those who had the “apostolic experiences” themselves, and not second-hand warm-ups, as in creedal formulations. As a good example, one finds the words of the Apostle Paul compressed in his true but not expounded words: “Now I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2). Such are the words of a converted human being, who is now “a man in Christ Jesus,” that is, living in a state of faith-union with the Resurrected Christ. The Apostle is marvelously conscious that Jesus Christ is alive in Paul’s own heart, mind, consciousness. So when Paul writes that “Christ was raised,” he is grounding his words not hearsay or on mere formulations, but on his real experience of Christ appearing to him, and now alive in him. Such is the life-giving awareness that the church Fathers forgot or unthinkingly stripped away when they composed the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325). They substituted formulations for genuine experiences in Christ, and unwittingly paved the way for the spiritual wasteland that one all-too-often finds in churches yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow. Here are the churches; but where is Christ?
Doctrinal formulations, however useful, have plagued the gospel movement and Christianity at least since the third century. In the churches of our time, so much damage has been done by doctrinalization and recourse to ritual and sacraments as substitutes for genuine spiritual experience that the best that a seeker of truth can do may be to immerse himself or herself in Christ and other divine experiences apart from external forms of “religious practice.” Rituals and church services are not bad in themselves, but they can and do often become substitutes for, and blockages against, genuine spiritual experiences of Christ. I write this as a warning for those of us who have had contact with organized Christianity. Rather than nourish men and women in Christ, the churches have often inflated minds with “the Bible,” or with “Sacraments,” or with “official Church teachings,” and so on. The Bible, teachings, and sacraments are of little if any true benefit unless a particular man, woman, or child is open to the direct and overshadowing experience of divine Presence, whether as the Resurrected Christ, or as the “Holy Spirit,” or simply as “God.”
Contrast the Christianity of our present churches with the genuine spiritual experiences of the Apostle Paul and the writers of the canonical Gospels. The evangelist John, for example, finds numerous ways to communicate his own personal faith-union with the Resurrected in words he puts on the lips of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who lives and believes in me, even if he dies, shall live….” To experience the Resurrected is to allow the divine Life to flood into one’s consciousness, so that dying to self becomes a joyful way of allowing the eternal I AM to live in, with, and through the human partner. The one in union with Christ experiences in his or her heart the same I AM that appeared to Moses out of the burning bush. The Unknown God, symbolized as “Father,” enflames or enlivens one’s consciousness, so that one may express the experience as “being raised with Christ,” or “awakening,” or “now I live, yet not I, but Christ,” or “did not our hearts burn within us” (Luke 24), and so on. The verbal expressions are many and varied, ever imperfect or imprecise, but all drawn out of the fundamental experience of being converted to “God, the living God,” through the message about Jesus crucified and risen, with the attending experience of the in-breaking of Christ into one’s own consciousness as “my LORD and my God” (John 20).
Such is conversion. “By their fruits you will know them.” Out of faith-union with Christ will flow love that gives life, and truth that raises from the dead. All too often one experiences in the churches love as mere inner-worldly action (the “social gospel”), and rather than minds raised from the dead, minds and hearts dully put to sleep by stale and tired religious formulations. To those who have undergone genuine conversion, the experience of Christ is real, alive, and convincing. But without the experience of being in union with Christ, preaching or teaching is a mere movement of verbal formulations, dead leaves blowing around spinning or nodding minds—in a word, churchianity.
I conclude this brief meditation on conversion with an attempt to verbalize the foundational experience of conversion, of being alive-in-Christ Jesus:
I in you, and you in me. All that I am and have I give to you. All that you are, you share with me. Apart from you I can do nothing truly good; in you and with you, even this passing self becomes a divine vessel of life, a human vessel of divine life. You are the Mind of my mind, the Light shining in the darkness of doubt and unbelief, the living flame of love that burns out the dross of selfish love and enflames the heart with love that enlivens. In You and with You, even this imperfect being becomes a channel of your flowing stream to thirsty ground. Be in me, LORD God, a purgatorial fire, burning out all that does not proceed from You, and lead back to You. For You who are Life is overcoming death in me, so that the union becomes ever more real, ever more delightful, from now into eternity, the fullness of You in all.
—Wm. P. McKane
14 October 2019
“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things. There is one need: Mary has chosen the better portion, and it will not be taken from her.” In the evangelist Luke’s story, Mary was “sitting at the LORD’s feet and listening to his word” (Luke 10:38-42).
What is the one thing needful? Or is there one In the context of Luke’s story, what is necessary is not serving food, but placing oneself close to Christ and “listening to his word.” To be “in Christ Jesus” means, among other things, that one draws near to God and “listens to his word.” To be a disciple of Christ, first and foremost, one must be attentive to his word; for “Christ is the Teacher; the rest are learners (disciples).”
The one thing necessary is not “being a Christian” in the exterior sense of belonging to a church, or calling oneself “a Christian.” It is not necessary that one be an active member of a religious community, of the priesthood, of an institutional church. According to the passage in St. Luke’s gospel, one must draw near and listen to Christ. Period All the rest can be a distraction, acts of avoidance, trying to “game God,” if you will.
But is the evangelist Luke right to say this? If there is truly “one thing needful” for a human being to do, what is it? “What must I do to be saved?” “How does one enter into life?” “LORD, what would you have me do?” Are these good questions, or misleading ones?
The word that resounds in my mind, as I ask such questions, returns again and again to the simple, straight-forward words of Jesus, for one: “Seek and you will find…” Seek, and do not pretend to find, do not assume you have found, but keep seeking. Seek what? “Seek first the reign of God, and his righteousness,” as Matthew has Jesus speak in the famous “Sermon on the Mount” (MT chapters 5-7). In the background one hears the prophets: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon Him while He is near.” In a phrase: seek the presence of God.
To seek to enter into the divine presence is, I submit, one way of expressing the one thing needful for every human being to become truly happy and fulfilled. Because we are bodily creatures, we must also seek shelter, food, clothing, companionship. As Matthew also lets his version of Christ tell us, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Seek first his reign, his way of righteousness, and all of these other things will be added to you.” Or not, perhaps. What does it mean to “seek God’s kingdom, God’s reign”? Not what the chattering voices in churches often tell us: to be members of the church; to put donations in the plate; to “build the city of God;” to work to establish some organization, community, way of life on earth. These are all secondary—as secondary as the churches are themselves. Secondary at best. What does it mean to “seek the Kingdom?” It means to seek to enter into the Presence—“not tomorrow, not today, but now,” borrowing a phrase from Dr. M. L. King, who was speaking then of social action. I am speaking of pre-social action, non-social action: spiritual action.
And what does it mean to seek to enter into the Presence? This seeking is the one thing necessary, the one thing needful. Not church attendance, not giving money, not spending all of one’s time and resources “doing good for others,” however good and beautiful and needful such actions are. Most necessary because utterly foundational for a human life is that a man, woman, or child turn his or her inner heart in the direction of that which is called “God.” Or one can call it “nirvana,” or “inner peace.” All such experiences can be truly clarified only by one who engages in the activity. Do not begin with speculation, and surely not with arguing about that which one ought to seek with the inner heart. Just do it. Whether you begin by calling it “You,” or “God,” or “Peace,” or “holy Mother,” truly does not matter. “Spirit,” “YHWH,” “Krishna,” “Tao.” It does not matter, for it is not confined or limited in any way, and not by any name we little ones wish to give it. Be wary of anyone who tells you, “You must do it my way, using my words.” Baloney. It knows no barriers, no formulations, no doctrinal fixations.
The Christianity of the churches (especially the Protestant and Catholic churches, but probably Orthodox churches as well) have for too long been content to play church, to “get people involved,” to try to organize for action in some way, or just to get folks to “attend the services.” All of these promotions by the churches are secondary at best, and often another form of distraction, a derailment from a genuine life. “For what does it profit a human being to gain the whole world and lose his soul in the process?” What does it profit one to get involved in churchy activities (including liturgies, sacramental, committees, etc) if one neglects to “sit at the LORD’s feet and listen to His word”? What gain is there in any exterior activities called “religious” unless one first and foremost keeps seeking to redirect the heart within: in a phrase, to seek God?
What does it mean to seek God? What does it mean to “seek to enter into the divine Presence?” First of all, it means to let go of the exterior—all things and persons—and to move the mind in silence towards that which is not seen, felt, heard, known. “The Tao that can be expressed is not the Tao,” and the god that can be imagined or even imaged in one’s mind is not truly God, or that which simply is. The God one imagines is not God. To seek God is to become simply present to that which presents itself now: a voice out of a flaming fire, as to Moses “the man of God”; a still small voice, as to Elijah the prophet; “the drawing of this Love and the voice of this calling…”
Ever begin afresh. That which one seeks is like the sun of Herakleitos: it is “new every day.” And what is most necessary, what is seeking the divine Presence? To keep responding to the unknown which is moving you to seek it now. Live a life, here and now, attending and stretching into the unimagined. What can be named is only a name; let it go. What can be imagined is a mere image; let it go. What you have heard said, is a mere reporting, suspend. What you remember, is fading. You—attend now. You are being drawn. Will you respond? Or do you prefer to play doctrinal, liturgical, sacramental, churchy games? Let them all go. You, attend now. For you, as you truly are, are being moved into that which truly is.
And what does this mean? It means not describing in words, but being-doing in practice: No one can fully or adequately explain to another what to be, what to do, for each is being drawn as one is, not as another is. It has its own ways, apparently, with moving each into it—into the unnamed, unspoken, into the abyss of dark stillness. Just do it. No one else can do it for you. You are a unique being, and that means that you must respond as it moves you to respond: making no excuses, clinging to nothing, hiding behind no churches (like Adam hiding from the divine Presence in the garden).
Mary responded as It presented itself to her: she sat at the the feet of Jesus and listened to his words. She was stirred, and she dropped down at his feet, enthralled by his words. This woman became utterly absorbed in what Christ was saying to her. Nothing else mattered to her at that time. She became one with Christ speaking to her. Martha was not even fully engaged in serving food, for she was “anxious and troubled about many things.” Martha was a model of the hyper-active Christian or social do-gooder. Mary is a model of genuine divine service, of true worship. “God is Spirit, and those who worship must do so in spirit and in truth.” Mary, this character in St. Luke’s brief story, is worshiping in spirit and in truth: she is being who she most truly is, doing right now what matters for her genuine life: being in the presence of the LORD, and listening. Mary and the word become one. And ever again, “the word was made flesh,” here and now in Mary, listening.
“Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.” For many of us: it is so hard to listen in churches because of so much noise and commotion. “You have made this place a den of thieves,” as Christ says. Much of the training in Christianity received in the churches is precisely how not to be a true seeker of God. The training in churches is to be a busy-body among busy-bodies, embodied in the man who cannot sit still, but who looks around for someone else to watch. So much time wasted in the churches, by the churches. Better to turn the lights down low, and teach the faithful how to sit still and listen to the silent voice. Perhaps we need to suspend our ritualistic services, take out cushions, and just sit still.
And that is what I must do, and will do, right now. “The rest is silence.”
06 Feb 2019
The following letter is part of a dialogue with a young Catholic father who is strongly concerned with the lack of spiritual nourishment in the Church today.
20 June 2018
Dear friend in Christ,
As I wrote in my last memo to parishioners, one’s “spiritual life,” or mental-spiritual development, depends on the efforts a human being makes as trusting in the presence and creative power of God. It does not depend on attending Mass or on the Sacraments, in and of themselves. What the churches offer may invite those present to “participate worthily,” that is, to be attentive and eagerly desire God, and lovingly surrender to the ever-present One, putting His “will” into practice. Put concretely: what happens or does not happen in the mind / “heart” of the participant is what matters in religious services, and not what happens in space-time (externally). What matters is utterly simple: either one is turning towards God, or away from God. All life is either conversion or diversion, epistrophe or apostrophe, using the technical terms developed by the Stoics. As St. Augustine lamented in his Confessions: “Behold, You were within, but I was without….” External worship encourages one to linger “without,” rather than to be present within—present to and with the Presence that we by long tradition call “God.”
The serious problem with Christianity, far beyond clerical abuses of various kinds, is clerical neglect: the failure to help nourish parishioners with healthy, wholesome intellectual-spiritual formation and guidance. One way to put this is simple: Consider your own life, and imagine what your spiritual life would be without the efforts you made to study philosophy (and perhaps theology). I consider my own example, known from within: My family attended religious services weekly as I was growing up, but I am not aware of having received much spiritual or intellectual nourishment through them. The same is true today: other than some “consolation” people may get from attending religious services (and that consolation is of limited value), the benefits that I have seen have come to those men and women who took their own spiritual life seriously, who made a deliberate and conscious effort to study, pray, turn from evil, and do good; very little benefit accrues to those who passively attend any kind of service, whether evangelical, Catholic, Orthodox, and so on.
The real problem facing human beings is how to become truly awake and alive in one’s lifetime. Meditation and study, linked with personal discipline, as in the Christian and Buddhist traditions, does far more good than fairly mindless, passive sharing in any religious ceremonies. The example, goodness, love from men and women who happen to be Christian of one sort or another has been highly helpful to me, but such goodness is not directly linked to attending services, or “reading the bible,” as in evangelical traditions. Furthermore, much of the good that can be offered to persons in religious services is lost on social programs and the “social gospel,” which is indeed “no gospel at all.” Clergy have often neglected to assist in the spiritual formation of their people, probably in large part because “one cannot give what one does not have.” From what I hear from parishioners who attend Masses elsewhere when they travel or are away from home, they find little intellectual-spiritual meat in the preaching / teaching, but rather see emphases on outward forms of worship, entertaining music, social action programs, and the like. In the case of Catholic clergy, many do not even struggle to prepare homilies, but download canned “homilies” off the internet, or take them from “homily helps.” Unless the priest or minister is speaking “from faith to faith” (Romans 1), he or she is not “preaching Christ,” and helping to form the hearer, but just amusing, entertaining, perhaps chastising. The word that forms the hearer must grow out of a spirit alive in the now to the presence of God. Otherwise, it is not the “word of God,” but mere human words of more or less mindless chatter. If and only if the one preaching is immediately present to divine Presence is one in truth a “minister of the Word.” In the words of the Apostle, “the written text kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Had I not studied philosophy and sought to practice meditation as a Benedictine monk, and not been blessed to have some truly good examples of right living and practical wisdom in my life, I think that I would have received very little spiritual-intellectual nourishment as a Catholic Christian. What do the churches have to offer to human beings? One often must seek God, loving and doing the truth, despite what is being done in and by the churches. Neither the educational establishments in our society, nor the religious institutions, are now offering human beings much that is truly beneficial. Or to put the matter differently: unless one struggles to learn, and works hard to grow morally, intellectually, and spiritually, one will be unformed, deformed, malnourished. Our schools, universities, churches have largely been failing to do what they ought to do, and generally pretend to do, at considerable expense.
What is a person’s “spiritual life”? What does it mean to be “spiritually alive,” or “awake in one’s lifetime?” I ask the question believing that spiritual life is not only good, but ought to be one’s highest priority. And I ask it now because it is important for each of us to understand a basic truth: you are responsible for you. Another human being can guide you towards the right path, the way of life, but you yourself must make the effort, and you yourself must reject false paths and steadily seek and do the truth. No other human being can live your life for you, cleanse you, “save you.” Not even God Almighty can “save” you, cleanse your inner person, renew your spirit, unless you freely choose to share in what God freely offers from moment to moment.You did not create yourself, but you cannot be whole or happy or truly blessed, unless you develop habits of rejecting evil and doing good, unless you truly seek to know and to do the will of God. To better understand the dynamics of the spiritual life of a human being, let’s suspend for a few moments “God talk,” and examine the human reality in light of the truth of experience.
You say, “I am hungry,” so you feed yourself. You say, “I have toothache,” so you go to a dentist. Now, suppose one feels confused, depressed, anxious? All too often, one wants a quick cure, an immediate solution. Mental and spiritual problems—confusion, sorrow, worry, hatred, ignorance—did not just happen at one time. By various situations, and by many choices, many actions, one becomes what one is, and what one feels inside. A person who squanders much time in entertainment or mindless activities or in drug abuse, who does not discipline himself to rise early, to work hard, to do one’s proper tasks, to spend time in quiet and meditation will, over time, becomes confused, dull of spirit, listless, troubled, anxious, depressed. With the right concentration of one’s energies on such spiritual tasks as doing one’s daily duties, working for the good of others, eating and drinking healthy foods in moderation, getting proper exercise, sitting still in the presence of God or of “no-god,” then one becomes sane, balanced, and more alert. No one can keep eating junk food, abusing alcohol or drugs, not exercising, not nourishing the inner person through disciplined meditation and study and expect to be spiritually alive, awake, and mentally healthy. You become what you do.
Christians have often neglected to develop a proper spiritual-mental life, because they thought it would just happen, or the Church or Bible or God would do it for them. The Church is here to assist you on your path into God; you yourself must make the effort, trusting in the supportive presence of God (called “grace”). Not even the Eucharist works automatically; if you do not truly desire oneness with God even at the cost of dying to your own fleeting desires, how do you expect to “grow in grace,” to “receive the Holy Spirit,” to become truly blessed and happy? Good things in life nearly never happen without much effort. Unless you yourself strive to attune yourself to the all-good mind and will, to refresh yourself in Beauty, why should you expect to be happy and in peace?
May we have the good sense and discipline to listen to God and to obey regardless of the cost. “Through much suffering one enters the Kingdom of God,” that is, lives in the peace and freedom of God. And Christ Jesus assures us: “Know that I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Perhaps the most accessible truth of the Christian faith to discuss intelligently is the Holy Spirit. Let’s begin with the words themselves. The words “Holy Spirit” or “Spirit of God,” or “the Spirit,” are symbols in our English language for the Hebrew ruach (breath; spirit), and the Greek word pneuma (breath, spirit). The connection between breath and spirit is still found in English words. Consider, for examples, “inspire” and “expire.” To “inspire” literally means “to breathe [life] into” someone, or to help bring the Spirit of God into another’s mind or heart. The word “expire” means both “to breath out,” and “to breath one’s last,” that is, “to give up the ghost,” to give up the spirit, to die. Where there is life, where there is breath, there is the creative Spirit of God. “The Spirit gives life,” life eternally.
What do discerning Christians mean when they speak of “the Holy Spirit?” They are not talking dogmatically, although there is the dogma of the Holy Trinity in the background, which we respect. When Christians speak of “the Holy Spirit” or “the Spirit,” they typically mean an experience of the presence of God in their soul or mind. The Spirit is the direct presence of the world-transcendent God, the One who brings all things into being. In the New Testament documents, the “Spirit” is used especially by three authors: the Apostle Paul; the evangelist Luke; and the evangelist John. (“Holy Spirit” or equivalents occur throughout the New Testament to a lesser degree.) As I have often explained, in the usage of New Testament authors, when they wish to communicate the experience of God as personal, they symbolize the experiences as “Christ,” or “Christ Jesus,” or “the Risen One,” and so on. When they write about their experiences of God as impersonal—as that which enlivens, enlightens, or cleanses, heals, teaches, guides, forgives, comforts, gives peace, and so on—they usually use the term “holy Spirit,” or equivalent. But we know from the Gospel accounts that while the LORD was embodied as Jesus, He is often credited as the source of enlightenment, healing, peace, forgiveness and so on. After Christ’s death and Resurrection appearances, the impersonal experiences of God are credited to “the holy Spirit.” So the distinction is approximate, not complete: Christ is personal—“I love you,” “I have chosen you,” and the Spirit is impersonal: “I was lifted up in the Spirit,” “it is the Spirit who gives life,” and so on. As for “the Father,” the symbol reminds the believer that there is always far more reality to the depth of divinity than anyone could ever experience, no matter how life-changing the conversion or manifestation of “the Spirit,” or of “the Risen Christ.” God remains ever beyond human grasp and comprehension. Self-enclosed experiences are gnostic, not Christian.
What is the Holy Spirit? That is the question that slipped from my lips during a discussion with one of the greatest philosophers of the past century, whom I was questioning as I worked on my doctorate on “The Experiential Foundation of Christian Political Philosophy.” To my question “What is the Holy Spirit?,” the philosopher answered with a question that penetrated my heart: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” As a member of a doctrinal Christian church, I had been told that asking questions showed “doubt,” or “a lack of faith.” On the contrary: to ask spiritual questions, life questions, real questions, is precisely the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart and mind of a human being; not to question shows a lack of faith. What a relief to hear this insight, which served to release me from doctrinal imprisonment. The hallmarks of the Holy Spirit are love, joy, peace, self-control, and so on; and if one encounters an open mind, someone searching for truth about God and human being, then one is meeting a foremost activity of the Holy Spirit: asking the right questions.
When young people ask us questions that are genuine questions, and not mere quibbling or game-playing, do we realize that they are moved by the Holy Spirit? Or when you say to God, “Do you love me?,” do you wonder, “Am I asking this question of God, or is God asking it of me? Or both at once?” If you ask God in prayer, “LORD, what would you have me do?,” you are motivated by the holy Spirit. If you think you have God figured out, or that the Bible or the Church has “all the answers,” and you refuse to question and to search, then you are thwarting the liberating action of the Holy Spirit in your life. Are you living by the Spirit, or by the flesh—that is, by trusting in God’s presence, or by your own fleeting desires? The Spirit ever draws one beyond the bounds of a self-contained, self-centered existence into “the freedom of the children of God,” into ever expanding horizons. Life without self-imposed boundaries is the realm of the Holy Spirit. To enter into it is to enter into “heaven,” the Kingdom of God, eternal happiness. Amen!
Is Jesus Christ present or absent? If present, in what way(s) is Christ present? If absent, where is he? Where has Christ gone? Does he live “up in the sky with the angels,” or somewhere in the abyss of space, on a strange planet? These questions are those of a child or of a fundamentalist, not of someone mature in Christ. But the question, “How is Christ present, while being absent in body?” is indeed a good and fruitful question. “Seek and you will find.”
The oldest Christian documents (the letters of the Apostle Paul, the Gospels, other NT epistles) do not ask these questions directly or as boldly. Rather, they begin with real experiences, and express their experiences of God in Christ in the symbolic language of the New Testament. There is no way to speak of non-physical, non-existent reality except in symbols; and one without experience of their truth may misunderstand the symbolic meaning or consider them to be “meaningless.” In fact, the symbolic language of spiritual experience is precise within its own kind, and is highly meaningful, as generations of the faithful will attest based on their own faith and love in Christ Jesus.
Here are some typical symbolic formulations about the murdered and living Christ: “This Jesus whom you crucified is not here [in the tomb]; He is risen.” “Jesus Christ is Lord of the dead and of the living.” Or in words attributed to the Resurrected, “Behold, I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.” The expressions of faith in Christ as risen from the dead, as God’s means of ruling over human beings (hence, called “Lord” or Ruler), and as present with his disciples are abundantly found in the earliest Christian writings, long before doctrines had been formulated and fixed, as in the Nicene Creed (321). “For me to live is Christ; to die is gain.”
The fundamental experience of the risen Christ is always paradoxical: for Christ is both absent and present at the same time. He is absent physically, so that one cannot see a body or hear his voice with one’s ears; but He is present in spirit in the depths of the believer, who has opened himself up to the presence of the living God. The presence of the Risen Christ is variously symbolized as the “I AM with you,” as “Christ is in you,” or in the more impersonal symbol of “the Spirit of Christ is in you.” In other words, although Jesus is not physically present, He is very much spiritually present and active in the hearts and minds of the faithful who open their hearts to the LORD’s presence. Indeed, this opening of the mind and heart to Christ is what is meant by “conversion,” by “coming to faith.” Faith is not a belief about Jesus, but fundamentally a loving surrender right now to His presence. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone opens the door [of the heart], I will come in and commune with him, and he with me.” The faithful also understand Christ to be sacramentally present in the proclaimed word and in the Eucharist. “Take and eat; this is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of Me.”
These are the issues at stake in the symbolization of Christ’s “Ascension:” not only is Christ risen and alive, but He is active as the presence of the living God who liberates, sanctifies, guides, heals, challenges, rules over those who obey Him. Do not look for a body floating around in space, or for the “Son of God” living on a planet somewhere. These childish beliefs serve to keep God away, to live an autonomous life without the indwelling God. Rather, listen for the “still small voice” of the One who communes, heart to heart, with a trusting and loving human being. It is really that simple. Visual arts portray Jesus as a body disappearing behind clouds, but visual arts must use the physical to disclose the spiritual. Music is less hindered by physical representation. In the music of Schütz or J. S. Bach, for example, one encounters the risen and glorified Christ directly in sound, without being masked by clouds. In their glorious compositions, they directly communicate Jesus Christ. “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you.” And Christ most surely does enter into the mind that is still seeking, who knows it does not know, and longs for a deeper communion. The Risen Christ does indeed come to “the poor in spirit,” to those who question, seek, stay awake, are attentive, listen. Or Christ can ask, “Have I been with you for so long, and yet you do now know me?”
REVISED from April 21, 2018
The ancient Hebrew Scriptures (our “Old Testament”) provide rich symbols for the Reign of God over His people: God is “the King,” in the sense of the rightful ruler by whom all human rulers are measured, and found wanting; God is “the Holy One of Israel,” the true standard, fulfillment, and joy of His people, who liberates from evil and sin; and God is the Good Shepherd, who guides and nourishes His people, even as He punishes and destroys those who betray and mislead His people. In chapter 10 of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus applies the symbol of “the Good Shepherd” to Himself, as He works for God, under God, with God, and is in truth the embodiment of God in humanity: “I AM the Good Shepherd, who lays down His life for His sheep.” Good shepherding is personally costly; otherwise, it is spurious.
Any one who goes by the name of “pastor” or “shepherd,” working in Christ’s body, and particularly in the churches, must seek to “shepherd My people rightly,” seeking their spiritual well-being, and not “fleecing” them for money or for benefits, as the prophet Ezekiel strongly warns. What is it that keeps a pastor or shepherd from fulfilling God’s will and the divine assignment to “shepherd My people”? A pastoral letters attributed to the Apostle Paul warns, “the love of money is the root of all evil.” And we should add to that: the love of power, the desire to dominate others, utterly betrays genuine pastoral ministry in the Church. Examples of such betrayals can readily be found in the history of the various churches, and are usually not hard to find—even as “evil loves to hide,” and is often shamelessly covered up by those in high places. To any priest or minister who has fleeced Christ’s people, rather than diligently sought to build them up in faith, hope, and love, the biblical warnings are strong. In St. Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus most sternly warns: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” False shepherds, fake pastors, parents or teachers who betray their sacred trust, all stand warned by Jesus Christ Himself. And this warning to those who work under Christ for the well-being of His people is an essential part of Christ as the Good Shepherd. For the Good Shepherd shows most of us to have been less than good shepherds, and often as derelict of duties, fleecers, abusers, even destroyers of human beings.
The Good Shepherd is the just Judge: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (II Cor 5:10). Because the Good Shepherd is the measure of humanity, each of us must ever examine himself or herself in light of Christ. We must not presume that we will be let off lightly because we were “ordained,” or called “priest” while on earth—or granted the gift to be a parent or teacher. On the contrary, Christ warns us: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). Woe to me if I have lead anyone in our parishes astray. It will not go well with me in eternity if I have chosen ill-begotten gain and the lust to dominate others, or to use others for my benefit, rather than continually and faithfully seek the spiritual well-being of those entrusted to my care.
Jesus as the Good Shepherd remains the model and the measure of the Church. When we spend ourselves in lovingkindness for others, when we seek the genuine well-being of ourselves and of each other, when we speak the truth regardless of the cost to us personally, when we restrain ourselves from evil and do good, then Christ’s rule as Good Shepherd is effective in and through us. But when we in the Church deceive people, and lie, and steal from parishioners, or cover up crimes, or neglect the spiritual welfare of those in our care because we are too much “in love with the world,” then we must know and understand with shocking clarity that the “day of the LORD will suddenly overtake us,” and we risk having Christ declare: “Get away from me, you evil-doer, into the everlasting fire” (cf. Matthew 7:23). Brothers and sisters, each of us stands warned. And this warning is part of the role of “shepherding my people rightly.” Despite churchianity, it is not all sweetness and flowers.
May the all-good God have mercy on us, and help us genuinely to repent, change our ways, and seek the spiritual and human well-being of one another. The Good Shepherd demands this action of us.
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