26 June 2009

Peacemaking Begins Within

In Admonition 15, we read the following:
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. The true peacemakers are those who preserve peace of mind and body for love of our Lord Jesus Christ, despite what they suffer in the world.
What would it be like if we responded to suffering by preserving "peace of mind and body"? Our response seems to be to let it overwhelm us or to make our suffering the excuse to let everything revolve around our personal drama. Hence the cult of victimhood.

As a priest, it is often my role to invite others to take responsibility for their suffering, rather than confirming them in it. We ought to be compassionate, but some forms of kindness can kill. How do we challenge in a spirit of humble love?

There are forms of suffering that are truly overwhelming. Here we can only suffer with the other. This is the wisdom of Nouwen's Wounded Healer, which too often has been abused to support clerical narcissism and poor personal boundaries around self disclosure. To much empathy and identification robs the other of his or her grief. Here too we need to preserve peace of mind and body. The other needs to lean upon our strength. Strength may be made perfect in weakness and vulnerability, but it is still strength, not being overcome by the suffering of the other, which is truly a form of self-centeredness. We need a strong sense of self to give ourself to the other, without blurring the distinctions between us. Appropriate tears, shed for the other, can still come from a place of strength. Appropriate self disclosure, with discretion, can be empowering. We must ever be on guard, lest we reduce the other to an extension of our self.

The nonanxious presence comes from a place of deep peace before God and rootedness in Christ. The self-differentiation of which Friedman speaks demands spiritual growth through a life of prayer and discipline (ascesis). True pastoral care depends on an active spiritual life, one that involves both profound self-acceptance and docility to the sanctifying work and leadings of the Spirit. No one is equal to this task. By grace, we see it in fragmentary ways. Even a slight improvements in our interior state can have a ripple effect throughout the communities we are called to serve.

I also think that this quote from the Admonitions points us to a truth that activists often forget, one that both Martin Luther King and Gandhi new quite well. Self-purification is the precondition for nonviolent struggle. There's a Pelagian way of reading that principle. I want no part of it. It might be better to say that inner peace through the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit is the precondition for nonviolent struggle. True peacemaking begins within, and the Holy Spirit is the bond of peace.

12 June 2009

Radio Meditation for Monday

I've agreed to do some morning devotions on a local AM radio station. Here is one for next Monday.

Hear, O Shepherd of Israel, leading Joseph like a flock;
shine forth, you that are enthroned upon the cherubim.
In the presence of Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh,
stir up your strength and come to help us.
Restore us, O God of hosts,
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

O LORD God of hosts,
how long will you be angered
despite the prayers of your people?
You have fed them with the bread of tears;
you have given them bowls of tears to drink.
You have made us the derision of our neighbors,
and our enemies laugh us to scorn.
Restore us, O God of hosts;
show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Psalm 80 reminds us of God’s love in troubled times. In it, the People of Israel cry out to God in their distress. Can you hear their passion? Can you hear it when they ask God how long God will be angered, despite their prayers? Boldly, they complain to God: “You have fed us with the bread of tears; you have given us bowls of tears to drink.”

And yet, the whole of this cry for help is framed by a deep faith. It takes faith to give voice to the cry of our heart in prayer. Three times in the psalm—twice in the part I just read—we hear the following prayer: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.”

The Psalms come out of a particular time and place. In this one, ancient Israel finds itself under assault from nearby enemies. It is a prayer for deliverance from violence at the hands of predatory armies.

But the psalms are also the prayer of God’s People today—both Israel and the Church. They are God’s gift of prayer, which we can offer back to God. They are especially powerful when prayed out loud, slowly and with trust. Christians can hear every word in the Psalms as the prayer of Jesus. They are also Israel’s prayer to the God who set them free.

There are times in life, when God seems so far from us. Some of us are facing that right now. Perhaps we have lost our job or are worried about making ends meet. Maybe a loved one is oversees and in harm’s way. The future is always uncertain. Today, it seems more uncertain than ever. We are filled with worry. In such times, it can be hard to see the light of God’s face. Hope seems so far from us. Tears become our food and drink.

Even in such times, however, we know God is our strong shepherd—our redeemer—leading us like a flock. We know our prayers will be heard and answered. Even now, God is stirring up God’s power to help us. Even now, the living God is about to arise from the throne—the mercy seat—to answer our cry for help.

Restore us, O God of hosts, show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

06 June 2009

Thoughts on Trinity After Francis and Bonaventure

This is not the place to write a paper on Bonaventure's distinctly Franciscan Trinitarian theology. Let me offer a few observations. I'll post my Trinity Sunday sermon, which owes a great deal to this tradition, after it's been preached.

For Francis, the fundamental name of God is "Good." Living sine proprio, without anything that is one's own, frees one to accept everything as God's good gift. The image of God from James, chapter 1, "the Father of lights, the giver of every good and perfect gift," is fundamental.

In the Praises to Be Said at All the Hours, Francis concludes as follows:
All powerful, most holy,
most high, and supreme God:
all good,
supreme good,
totally good,
You Who alone are good,
may we give You
all praise, all glory,
all thanks, all honor,
all blessing,
and all good things,
So be it.
So be it.

Likewise, in the Praises of God, Francis says:
You are Three and One, Lord God of gods,
You are good, all good, the highest good,
Lord God, living and true.

And in the exhortation near the end of the later version of the Rule, he says:

let us desire nothing else
let us wish for nothing else
let nothing else please us
and cause us delight
except our Creator and Redeemer and Savior
the one true God,
Who is the Fullness of Good
all good, every good, the true and supreme good
Who alone is Good
merciful and gentle
delectable and sweet
It's hard not to see an echo of the words of Our Lord: "Why do you call me good? One is good. God alone."

Bonaventure's theology of the Trinity has been explored by Zachary Hayes, OFM, and others at great length. Fundamental to this is a reflection on the logic of God's goodness and love, which owes much to Denys (Pseudo-Dionysius) and Richard of St. Victor, as well as to a Franciscan vision of God's all pervasive goodness.

From Denys, Bonaventure derives a notion of the self-diffusive nature of good. God wants to spread God's goodness around. As in Richard, Bonaventure argues that perfect love is necessarily Trinitarian. Perfect love wants to share itself with an equal. Therefore the Father has a Son. Love is more perfect when two jointly share love for a third. Therefore the Father and Son jointly are the principle of a third divine and co-equal person, the Spirit. Bonaventure speaks of love (amor) that is purely gratuitous (the Father), purely owed (the Holy Spirit), and mixed (the Son). Both Son and Spirit receive all that they are ultimately from the Father, who is the fontal fullness of divinity and the fons et origo of the Trinity. The Son, moreover, receives from the Father that he is jointly the principle of the Spirit. This is an interesting middle position between Greek and Latin theologies of the Trinity. The filioque is affirmed but in a way reminscent of Thomas Aquinas attempt to reconcile the two. (Not that the Orthodox would necessarily be wholly pleased, but I think they could see the influence of the Greek fathers in this, as well as Augustine.)

But what is interesting about Bonaventure on the Trinity is the way in which the Word functions as exemplar, precisely in his total dependence, for all that he is, on the Father. As Hayes has observed, Franciscan poverty seems to be written into a Trinitarian ontology. The Second Person is ontologically poor, yet is eternally and consubstantially, the recipient of divine being and every good gift. When this central person of the Trinity becomes incarnate in the midst of history, he historicizes the eternal relationships among the persons of the Trinity, and invites us to reenter, in and through Jesus, our original poverty (in the garden). Francis himself taught that the image of God was Christ centered. For Bonaventure, the eternal exemplar is also historical in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Returning to humility and poverty, reorients us to be the creatures God made us to be.

That brings me back to Richard and Denys. The Trinity may achieve the fullness of perfection when there are three. There is no necessary self-diffusion of good beyond that. But it is fitting that God should want to share God's life with another who is not equal. The purely gratuitous love of the Father, which necessarily expresses itself in Son and Spirit, also overflows to create the universe out of nothing, on the pattern eternally generated within the Son as image of the Father's fullness. Every creature reflects God's glory. And humankind in particular is the image and likeness of God.

There is a place for a consciousness of sin in all this. Faced with God's goodness, we can see how vile we often are. Hence the need to do penance. But the accent is on the joy of knowing God our Father in Christ our Lord and Brother by the grace of the Holy Spirit.

The notion of God the Father as fontal fullness, moreover, points us to a set of metaphors for the Trinitarian persons that helps complement the masculine images of Father, Son, and Spirit. Natural metaphors are one thing. Feminine metaphors are also required. But we ought not to think that we can do away with something so fundamental to Jesus as the notion of God as "Abba, Father."

03 June 2009

More on the Holy Spirit

My latest piece on Episcopal Cafe also concerns the Holy Spirit. I shared some of the ideas, in a slightly different way, with members of our Kairos prayer and share group at the local prison.