Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The spiritual life - hard and boring

Growing in the spiritual life is hard work. It is so much easier to find something else to do in place of the things that this undertaking requires. In a time when instant gratification or quick results are highly valued, the long, slow process of growth fails to impress those of us who have grown increasingly impatient.

Who among us finds that our year old computer or smart phone is suddenly inadequate to the task because it doesn't respond to our command instantaneously (as it once did). When we think about it, the things with which we have grown impatient used to take a very long time, even in our own experience -- we have just gotten used to more and more immediate results.

Regrettably, the growth process cannot be rushed. Just try tugging on a sapling to make it grow faster -- it just does't work. The reality is that growth is dull . . . and the work involved can sometimes be boring. There is always some overwhelming fatigue to be dealt with, always some excuse for not stretching our souls with new ideas and insights.

On the other hand, spiritual growth simply does not happen. The ground needs to be tilled, the seed planted, the seedling fertilized. But it all takes time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

QUIET! - The Swan Library

Every now and again, I treat myself to a bit of nostalgia, that sentimental yearning for a happier state of affairs in the past. Today's treat focuses on The Swan Library -- the public library located in my hometown of Albion. It used to be housed in an old house - a mansion by my humble standards -- with creaky wood floors, filled cheek-by-jowl with cases loaded with books categorized according to the Dewey Decimal System. The "reading room" was adjacent to the librarians desk and comprised what used to be the house's parlor and dining rooms, the separating wall having been removed.

I don't recall if there was a sign with the word QUIET! emblazoned above the librarian's desk, although there could be since that was the overwhelming memory of that place -- it's quietness even though the silence was often interrupted by the squeaking floors and people moved through. There was a distinction between silence (the absence of sound) and quiet (the state of being calm).

Silence and calm are clearly related. Without a modicum of silence it becomes difficult if not impossible to experience quiet or calm. That's where the nostalgia comes in.

In today's libraries, there is programming, not just reading, leading to activity and chatter. Readers, especially younger students, glean their texts while attached to headphones in turn attached to iPods (you can always hear what they are listening to). And computer stations for public use -- necessary and valuable -- but a constant source of distraction.

The experience of silence that leads to the experience of calm and then to quiet is missing in so much of our lives. It seems an insatiable need to be connected, with the latest news, information, and sports, to be entertained, or simply to chat/text leaves us with little real space for silence. And without that space, the quiet we need to hear and to heed the voice of the divine deep within us slowly disappears.

We live with what a kind of "noise pollution" that makes finding real silence a great burden. Many say that we do not have the time we need to think or to pray but actually what we lack is the quiet we need to go about our thinking. Until we can carve out a little bit of silence for ourselves, both outwardly and inwardly, we will find it increasingly difficult either to know God or ourselves very well.

Short of returning to the days of The Swan Library, each of us needs to disconnect, tune out, and turn off just a bit each day, so that the voice of the divine within us can manifest itself in the "still small voice," which is the voice of God.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What seed will you sow, today?

It looks simply like a bunch of fresh garden lettuce . . . but it is so much more.

This bunch of lettuce was delivered to Mother Hubbard's Cupboard (the food outreach ministry of the Jubilee Center at St. Mark's) by a kind woman who wanted to share some of the bounty of her garden with those who benefit from The Cupboard's work.

The back story is what is important though. This lettuce grew from seed planted by this generous woman in her backyard garden. The seed grew and grew and yielded a bountiful harvest, which now she wants to share with others. All because when she was down and out and didn't know where else to turn, St. Mark's was able to help her with food.

She was fed then, she said, not so much by the actual food packets she received but by the humaneness and generosity of spirit of the volunteers who care for her. Additionally, the volunteers who listened to her story were able to put her in touch with other service providers to help her with her many other needs at the time. Her visit with Mother Hubbard's Cupboard empowered her not only to get by but to move forward.

"He set another parable before them, saying, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lidge in its branches.'" (Matthew 13: 31-32)

A seed was planted and now we have the harvest. Not simply the seed of a lettuce plant but the seed of God's generous love has born its fruit in the generous self-giving of someone who once was without.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Supreme Law . . .

When I studied canon law both in seminary and in graduate school, I was always intrigued by the section of the Code of Canon Law entitled “Sanctions” or more commonly, “Penalties.” What place did a list of penalties for “offenses” have within a community that professed the forgiving love of Christ?

Didn’t Christ die to forgive our sins? If God forgive so readily, shouldn’t we do as much? Why do we have to have a list of penalties?

Perhaps the answer lies in the underlying value of that section of the law. The principle is best summarized at the end of the 1917 Code of Canon Law in a phrase that ends the entire code: “salus animarum, suprema lex” – the supreme law is the salvation of souls. St. Paul understood this in his letter to the Romans: “So what are we going to say? That the Law is sin? Absolutely not! But I wouldn’t have known sin except through the Law.  (Rom 7:7, CEB)

Perhaps we have become a bit too permissive with the gracious forgiveness of God. Plenty for all – no sin too great etc. etc. etc. Perhaps it has led not so much to actual permissiveness but a willingness to accept an abdication of responsibility for our actions. After all, no rational being commits a truly evil act – or so we seem now to believe. There is a true distinction between right and wrong, between good and evil. This is the plain teaching of Scripture and, indeed , is the focus of Paul’s discourse in Romans. It is the law that teaches us this distinction. It draws the line over which we transgress, and when we transgress, it dictates the consequences for all to know. The trick is to learn about “the line” and to begin to understand when we have, in fact, crossed over.

The law, however, in any forum, is not to be applied indiscriminately. If the salvation of souls is indeed the supreme law, it is incumbent upon those who exercise authority to do everything in their power to bring individuals and communities into that spiritual maturity wherein the law no longer has great purpose. Penalties can never be seen as ends in and of themselves. They are serious tools that are meant to move us toward health (salus). They are never meant in the divine plan as a means to destroy. We need the law – not as a raison d’etre but as a means to learn the ways of God.  

This, in turn, should lead us to ask some fairly weighty questions about things like mandatory sentencing guidelines, treatment of minors as adults, capital punishment and the like. Mind you, I am simply saying we need to ask some questions -- and hash out some answers in light of the Gospel.