Sunday, December 23, 2012

What’s up? (Part 2)

Last week in Part 1, I presented a synthesis of views from priests of my acquaintance (with some of my own idiom to be sure) offering a certain somber view of Church and world. At one of the side altars in the cathedral of my mind a monument is inscribed: "Even wisdom and understanding are useless unless guided and perfected by God's grace." I try to remember that as I hear opinions expressed, or as I express my own; just as I am aware that many may consider my mind a prie-dieu in a closet rather than a cathedral.

As was expressed in this space previously, its seems to me also that something is up in the Church that's difficult to define. I don't pretend to have a prophetic view, but I am something of an aficionado of current events. Considering those, I'm not prepared to say whether matters have been stirred by the evil one or his henchmen. However, confusion and disorder are not fruits of the Holy Spirit. While the Church always has considered herself human, meaning imperfect, it looks to me that conditions are more grave than could have been fostered by mere human fumbling.

I do know that many people of goodwill are working very hard and very prayerfully within the Church to unite the children of Adam and Eve with the heart and mind of God. They listen intently to what people are saying. They work indefatigably to respond. However much damage has been done to our collective sensibilities, our faith confirms that God's still in charge.

Perhaps the very struggles about us are God's winnowing fan, a call to choose sides. Far be it from me to take credit for all the evil in the world, or to accuse you of it. But I am responsible for my part in it, whether by complicity or complacency. Parents have a responsibility to teach their children; but children also are bound, at some point, to take the lessons to heart and to be obedient. I can’t stand on the fence with God. He said be holy.

It's hard to listen to prophetic voices recounting the dire circumstances of our times. Particularly nowadays, we want no part of anything “negative." Sometimes I think we believe more in the power of positive thinking than in the power of God. What's up is being "up." But if being “up" is just a smokescreen for my own secret sin, or a dead conscience, or an indifference to the needs of others; then being “up" is false and Godless and empty.

This point makes sense to me: If someone says something that offends me – shaking his finger, say, calling on sinners to repent while looking me in the eye – then one of two things is true. Either he's right or he's wrong. If my relationship with God is good, then what could unsettle me – even the perorations of some modern day John the Baptist. If, however, I'm too proud for words, and my terms with God are not good. Then perhaps I'd better heed what Jesus said: Watch out!

The Church is still the place to be, for all the faults of her own making and for the confusions abounding because of the enemy. It's better than the darkness outside or the fair-weather friendship of mammon. Inside there's still faith, there's still hope. There's still love. Yes, besides all the issues that vex our modern consciousness, the Church still teaches that the most important thing we can do is to love God.

My priest-friends from last week are right. No program is going to solve the problems that beset the Church. No program is an end in itself. But community activities just might help us to do the very thing the priests insist must happen: They may help us to pray, to repent, to get right with God.

If we were to look about one day soon and notice that, hey, people are praying, people are repenting and receiving the sacraments; they’re loving God and one another – if that were what were up, that would be okay, wouldn‘t it? Who knows, there may be some of that up right now. – T. R.  

written by Thomas A. Russell
first published in the
Lafayette Sunday Visitor on February 7th, 1988

Sunday, December 16, 2012

What’s up? (Part 1)

Something’s up, they say. It's difficult to pinpoint: a current, a wave, an atmosphere. It's not business as usual anymore says one. No program is going to fix it, says another. There's an air of urgency and concern.

Concerns spring from deep within. They grasp for words to say what they mean, to describe their discomfiture. Perhaps Yeats’ words fit the times: "The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity."

The story gets told in these terms:

Catholics are confused and torn - the ones hanging on. Half have quit. The faithful don't know who or what to believe anymore. They hear a prominent archbishop say the Holy Father is out of touch. They hear mixed messages about sin and morality, if they hear about sin at all. Respected theologians speak about moral conduct in situational and relativistic terms. Catholics have bought into worldly standards for marriage, sexuality, lifestyle. Never mind that rock music holds traditional values up to ridicule. the kids need “their" music. Love has become puppy love, more concerned with selfish pleasure than with sacrifice, patience and dying to self.

Homes for runaway young people are finding a new caliber of clientele. Sacred absolutes are falling on rebellious, indifferent ears, despite the utter hopelessness of circumstances. Failures to reach some of these young people are increasing. Some are going back to the streets from probably their last-chance safe havens. People in places of help use words like “diabolical" to describe what they see happening.

Even priests are sniping at priests. A holy brotherhood is becoming infiltrated with an undercurrent of defensiveness or suspicion or polarity. Condescension replaces dialogue. Smugness replaces tolerance. Hauteur replaces humility.

Everybody agrees that values have lapsed or gone dormant, but nobody thinks it's anybody's fault. It's not the teachers’ fault; it's not the young people's fault; it's not the parents’ fault; it‘s not the priests’ fault; it's not the bishops’ fault.

So the story gets told…

A priest has a faraway look of reflection. His tone is quiet. People don’t come to the sacraments, he said. They don’t come to Mass. They're bitter, angry. They don’t want to hear anything I have in say. They could care less about God or religion or the Catholic Church. They’ve turned it off any they’re not about to turn it back on. Many are full of hate. Many more are simply indifferent toward the Church

Catholics are having abortions, living together before marriage and they are very vocal about their rights in this regard. Their rights… they’re not interested in what the Church has to say about women in priesthood. They don’t care. They want what they want, so that’s their value. They say the Church is repugnant, but they want to be a priest in it.

Something is terribly wrong and putting a Band-Aid on it won’t fix it. One more program putting people on one more spiritual high, feeling good about themselves one more time – it's all useless. Do it. I don’t care. It won't matter, he said. What matters is what's underneath all this: the malaise, the emptiness. Only one thing is going to work and that's for people to change their lives and get right with God. The communion lines are long, but the confessionals are vacant.

Another priest shook his head. It's not business as usual anymore, he said. We‘ve been asleep too long. Satan is in the world and in the Church, too. You can laugh if you want to, he said, shrug, it off if you want to. The intellectually arrogant will go on with their mush, but the word of God still stands, yesterday, today, tomorrow – if there is a tomorrow. God’s not going to stand for 20 million abortions, rampant idolatry, moral decadence so depraved it’s unspeakable. God’s not going to stand for teaching elementary school children that choosing to act out homosexually is like choosing a new hat, and then teaching them so-called safe ways to indulge in repulsive practices.

The solution is simple really. We have to repent. We have to get on our knees. – T.R.


written by Thomas A. Russell
first published in the
Lafayette Sunday Visitor on January 31st, 1988

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Proposed beatitudes

I want to propose a couple of new beatitudes. Here’s the first:

Blessed are they who were born without will power, for they shall have to depend on God.

Spiritual power and will power are two different things. Some of us, myself included, have none of the latter, but all of us have the former in abundance – if only we choose to appropriate it.

The two really have nothing whatever to do with each other. I can certainly not bend God to my will any more than God needs me to accomplish His purposes. If, however, I abandon my will in favor of His, then I have the opportunity of being an instrument in His hands – if He chooses to use me. My faith confirms the certainty within me that He desires my instrumentality, albeit that we both know He has a poor workman on the staff. Puny as I am, I’m reminded of what Pope John Paul II once told the priests in Florida while visiting the U.S. We have a tendency to forget, the Pope said, that God can use not only our strength but also our weakness – that our weakness can be most effective in His service.

Along these same lines, I know that there is much about me that I am powerless to change. Even though I want to, I can’t, no matter how many resolutions I make. Left to my own devices, I’m beat, whipped, doomed – a hopeless case.

Go ahead, scoff. Say I could change if I wanted to. Browbeat me. Say I’m the master of my own ship. All the old chidings. They will do no good. I know that my only hope is not in will power, but in spiritual power. Not that I live, but that Christ lives in me. Not that I accomplish, but that God accomplishes in my behalf. I know that my victory will come in and through the beneficence and grace of Jesus Christ the Lord. He’s the real power.

My second beatitude says: Blessed are they who don’t make people their project, for they shall make some authentic friends.

It seems to me that there are so many religious programs around these days that some of them have begun to run their course for want of adherents. In the wake of this shortage of applicants, people have abandoned certain bounds of authenticity in an effort to lure others onto the roles of commencing experiences. I don’t think there’s malice in this: there’s just something cold about it. Recruitment activities seem to me to objectify “pigeons,” rather than spring from sincerity of wanting to offer a genuine friend a genuine opportunity to grow closer to God. Even as we are moved to share our faith with others, should we not begin by accepting them just as they are? In my own zeal to recruit, I have had ulterior motives in establishing relationships. I have found myself being less that honest. Better, I think, to have a sincere, unrecruited friend than a disillusioned acquaintance.

Maybe what it takes is more spiritual power and less will power. – T.R.

written by Thomas A. Russell
first published in the
Lafayette Sunday Visitor on January 10th, 1988

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lent is a season, and not a deadline to be met

So how is your Lent going?

You say you forgot to get ashes on Ash Wednesday?

You say you obeyed the rules for fasting, but you had two big small meals and one gigantic main meal?

You say you abstained from meat, and for your penance you had the smoked salmon filet, or was it the king crab?

Is that what’s troubling you, friend?

I have a tendency to focus on the wrong things. I feel disheartened because I have not made a good start for Lent. I feel discouraged, and I want to give up before I have even begun. I focus on the letter and not the spirit. I have had some faint glimmer that this Lent would be different, but even so soon it is a weakening ember of hope.

I need the Lord’s help to abandon my scrupulosity. I need His help to understand that Lent is not a rigid schedule of fixed dates, a make-it-or-break-it deadline to get going or bust. I need His help to see that Lent is a season, like springtime. The calendar says that spring has not yet come, but already I have felt the warmth of sun amid the cool days. I have been invigorated by air that makes life worth living.

Would that the Lord would let me see that it’s always now, and never any other time. Let this day be that springtime day that comes unannounced, off schedule like a child’s hilarity, like a crocus in the snow.

I would be free of the shackles of my own rigidity, the smokescreen of excuses for my unwillingness to change. I need the Lord to show me in my heart that Lent didn’t begin without me, that Lent awaits me like a kind friend rejoices as his tardy companion arrives.

It’s funny how desperately I cling to the old way, as if I refuse abundant life. I can’t understand how I let myself be strapped by the lamest reasons like: It’s too late! I didn’t start on time! Bosh. Have I forgotten that the Christians sang in the Colosseum? Did not all the saints speak always and everywhere of joy? St. Augustine cried out, “How late have I loved thee, Lord!” St. Augustine, intercede for this foot-dragger.

The Lord made this day just as He made all the others. I need Him to open my eyes to the great power that comes from Him to turn my heart away from habit and self-seeking.

I have bought into the ways of the world, and my justification system is elaborate. Rather than renounce it, I have found ways to incorporate its values into mine. Surely my ideals have become gilded and spread about with cushions and lots of articulate and wise rationale.

I have accepted the cravings of the flesh, preferred the darkness, the solitary prison of half-measures. Innuendo is okay. Off color is funny. I don’t want the jeering labels of radical, prude, straight-laced.

I have listened to the devil’s lies, though I know that God’s kingdom is not a democracy.

If you didn’t get ashes and your fast was more like a feast; if your abstinence has been a delicious change of pace, Lent was made for folks like you and me. This isn’t late. This is now. –T.R.

written by Thomas A. Russell
first published in the
Lafayette Sunday Visitor on March 8th, 1987

Saturday, March 13, 2010

We know what Lent is all about, if we admit it

Back in my wild days of the barroom, we used to celebrate everything: anybody’s birthday, Tuesday, the full moon. You name it, we celebrated it.

Children were easy to love in those days in the warm glow of a couple or three whiskies after work. The feelings were all gushy and sentimental and fond, uncluttered by the realities of dirty diapers and having to feed them at ungodly times.

Come to find out, though, that celebration without accomplishment is so very empty, and fuzzy feelings don’t have anything to do with love. Love is something you do.

Lent starts this week, and like most Catholics, I find myself face to face with the great challenge of conversion, again. Somehow I think we Catholics have always known the real challenge of Lent; we can feel it in our bones, something very familiar and personal. Before the Great Council, there was a lot of hype about the rules and regulations and pious practices. Since the Council, there’s a lot of hype about there not being so many rules and regulations anymore and talk about pious practices is more loosely construed. Always, though, Lent was really something else: something inside and inexplicable and important, and we knew it. It has to do with little old me and God.

Here soon, Jesus will be going into the desert and beckoning me to follow Him. The desert, the vast, quiet, uneventful place devoid of the incessant messaging of the ear which has become our society. The desert, where there’s nobody to talk to but God, and I don’t want to go there.

It’s spooky out there, and hard and lonely and no good shows on. I stand at the edge and everything in me cries out forget it! No big deal! Who needs it! Bunch of nonsense! Why bother! Keep on keepin’ on, man!

Am I alone in this? We know the challenge of Lent, I’m sure. Fasting doesn’t have anything to do with some rule that says not to eat. That’s dumb. Fasting has to do with focusing our attention away from everything familiar and therefore distracting to us, even something as basic and ordinary as eating, so that we can satisfy our real craving, our hunger for God. Lenten practices, if you will, whether doing something or not doing something, whether required or self-imposed, are surely empty if they are so much stagecraft. We’ve always known that. The buzzing about the rules or lack of them is just one more delaying mechanism for coming to terms with what we know Lent is all about: seeing the truth about ourselves in relationship to God.

I’ve spent a lot of Lents letting things slide, and sure enough Easter was a zero. I did not rise with the Risen Christ because I had not died with Him. It was like those empty celebrations of yore. The new fire burned brightly and I was witness to it in my community, but the new fire did not burn in me. Oh, I wanted to celebrate and rejoice, all right; but I had eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear. I could not celebrate because I had not accomplished.

My friend Pete enjoys motocross, but he as little patience with people who want to talk about motocross who have not experienced motocross. They haven’t done it, he says, so they don’t know about it.

It’s one thing to feel all gooey and nice about my kids in the neighborhood tavern. It’s quite another to come home and have my kids give me a wide berth because of my ill humor and impatience and lack of interest in their affairs.

We’ve always known what Lent is about, and if you’re like me, you fight it tooth and nail. If you’re like me, you make small talk about the rigors and do whatever else you can to avoid confronting what your heart is screaming at you. It’s true I don’t know just what it’s screaming, what it’s saying, what the truth is. I don’t want to know. I don’t want to go into the desert where I can hear and see clearly.

I took one step into the desert one time, from the grass at the edge to the sand. Some journey, huh? Ah, you know what a journey it was. We Catholics, we’ve always known the challenge of Lent, known in our hearts. You don’t get to be an Easter people, with joy unsurpassed, with no sand in your shoes. –T.R.

written by Thomas A. Russell
first published in the
Lafayette Sunday Visitor on March 1st, 1987

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Changes on the job

Bob was a big guy and nobody liked him. He worked for a trucking company and all the workers in the place couldn’t stand him. He was a loudmouth. He intimidated everybody he came into contact with, and he especially intimidated Frank.

The think Frank had inside of himself about Bob was horrendous. Anger, outrage. Frank didn’t even want to be around Bob. Bob would come in from taking a load and Frank would go to the other side of the terminal to avoid making contact. Or Frank would hurry to get his work done and be out the door just to keep out of Bob’s way.

It wasn’t really just Frank, though. Bob was such a blowhard, there wasn’t a man driving a truck that wouldn’t just as soon Bob went out and never came back. With Frank, the case was more severe, because Frank knew in his heart that the reason he had so much anger toward Bob was because he was afraid of him. Frank was absolutely scared of the man, big, dumb bruiser that he was.

One day, Bob got sick and went to the hospital. The atmosphere at the terminal was decidedly different those days. Suffice it to say, unkind comments were made about Bob being in the hospital, things like good riddance, dressed up with other unsavory vocabulary words.

Frank was glad Bob was out, too; but he still had anger about the man, and he didn’t know what to do about it. The thing about Frank, he had come to a new place in his life, trying to make a few changes, trying to stop living the way he had been living, trying to make some kind of attempt to do what he knew was right in the eyes of God.

Driving home that night, Frank came to a T in the road, and sitting directly across was a card store. Something inside Frank said stop and go in, which he did, and there he found a card to send to Bob. Frank called back to work and got the room number and address of the hospital. He addressed the card right there in the store and bought a stamp from the guy behind the counter because he knew if he didn’t do it now, he wouldn’t do it. Frank signed the get-well card, “Your friend, Frank.”

Immediately outside the card store was a mailbox. The instant he let the card drop in the mailbox, Frank’s anger left him. Just like that.

Seven, eight weeks later, Bob came back to work. The first thing he did was walk up to Frank and stick out his hand. “Thanks,” Bob said. Frank’s was the only card Bob had received from work the whole time he was in the hospital.

Frank did a little investigating after that. He found out Bob had five kids and every one of them was accident-prone. It seemed like one always had something wrong: a broken arm, a broken leg. To top it off, Bob’s wife was a sickly person, along with having emotional problems. The point was that Bob was coming to work every day out of an atmosphere of pressure. He had no easy life.

It was several years later and Frank had a different job by that time, 60 miles away in a different state. He was a used car salesman now. It was a warm day and business at the car lot, which was on a busy highway, was slow. Frank was walking around the lot outside hoping for a customer to come in.

All of a sudden, Frank heard the gasping of air brakes behind him on the highway and the hollow bump, bump, bumping sound of the trailer end of an empty big rig skidding to a short stop. Frank turned and looked up and who should it be but Bob dodging between lanes of moving cars with a smile on his face, waving and hollering, “How ya doing, Frank! Good to see ya, Buddy!”

Bob had stopped his rig in traffic to say hello to his old pal. – T.R.

written by Thomas A. Russell
first published in the
Lafayette Sunday Visitor on December 6th, 1987

Popular Posts