Finally got around to reading a very small book by Abhishiktananda called The Mountain of the Lord: Pilgrimage to Gangotri. He gives an account of a pilgrimage into the Himalayas to the source of the sacred river Ganges about 1965. Thousands of devout Hindus, especially devotees of Siva, make this pilgrimage every year, so the trail up there is not deserted to say the least.
This book does not fire me up as much as some of his other works (especially The Further Shore, the letters, the journal, etc.), but it has some very interesting aspects about it. First of all he hides his identity in the account. His pilgrimage companion is Panikkar, who I believe at that time was still officially a priest in the Catholic Church; and so both Panikkar and Abhishiktananda are given pseudonyms to hide their real identity. Why, you might ask? Well, the Indian Catholic community was not quite ready to accept two Catholic priests doing that kind of thing with that throng of Siva devotees–not sure if they are more ready even today! Secondly, as one who loves to roam the Sierra high country (in the spirit of John Muir), I found very attractive his descriptions and enchantments with the Himalaya peaks and valleys. Truly awesome and inspiring wilderness.
But what is most interesting and most important here is the theological dynamic at work and the inner struggle within Abhishiktananda himself. This pilgrimage takes place during that period of his life when the tension he experiences between the pull of traditional Catholic spirituality and advaita is at its peak. He is trying somehow to reconcile the two within one language and within a similar conceptual domain but that obviously will not work. He resolves that tension (apparently) in the last years of his life by transcending that kind of language in a new realization but without discarding the traditional language. This culminates in that period after his heart attack when he is all serenity. In any case, it is also clear from the fact that even before his heart attack he criticizes his own attempt at a theological synthesis in Saccidananda–later he goes well beyond that in a total commitment both to Christ and advaita. But here in this book he is still struggling with that language of two worlds. Yes, there is a unifying theme/symbol, “the Source,” the pilgrimage to the Source of your being; but his use of biblical language in order to “baptize” this pilgrimage is a bit forced, artificial and annoying. Something like various patristic authors using various tricks to make biblical language say something they want it to say.
I did find fascinating the details of Abhishiktananda’s pilgrimage, how he mixed with the other pilgrims. Also very much of note is a kind of “debate” between him and Panikkar about the role and the place of the monk in the modern world. Well worth reading if for no other reason than to see how bad off we are at this point in history.
- Elder Paisios
Speaking of monks, Paisios was the real deal and also someone who lived in our time on Mt. Athos (for a long period of time). A true Orthodox spiritual father who was recently proclaimed a saint by both the Greek and Russian Churches. I have heard many beautiful things about this holy man, a person of compassion and prayer, like Dostoyevsky’s Staretz Zosima. So it was with great sadness that I read what purports to be Paisios’s words about Hinduism and the Asian religions. This can be found on an Orthodox website, and you can’t be sure that these are actually his own words or thoughts imputed to him. If they are his, it is a really sad and a superficial and a seriously distorted view—and also very instructive for us. You can read this awful account at this link:
What is instructive about all this is that no matter how “holy” a person can be in a personal kind of way, they still abide within certain conceptual and social structures that shape and limit their thinking and vision. That’s why I could never be Orthodox no matter the beauty and power of that religious tradition. Once you get “inside that box” you seem to be unable to see the good in any other religious tradition. It is all “diabolical,” they seem to say. No thanks! You can see this kind of thing afflicting all kinds of “good people” through the centuries and in various cultures. That’s what makes Abhishiktananda so extraordinary, so revolutionary, that he is somehow able to venture outside his given box and truly experience the religious depths of another tradition and know it from the inside.
- Catholic Problems
Wow, where to begin!? Recently I read that Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the Church suffers from a “crisis of sexual morality.” Really? Wonder what made him say that…..actually it is a LOT more than that. In fact calling it a moral crisis may be a form of obfuscation, a distraction from discussing some of the real problems. The problems extend to church theology and church structures and, yes, to morality and sex. Let’s step back a bit to get a glimpse of how bad the situation really is.
Richard Sipe died a few weeks ago. A truly remarkable person. He was a Benedictine monk at St. John’s in Minnesota for many years. There’s a good obituary for him in the New York Times here:
And the National Catholic Reporter had a nice piece on him also. He was trained in psychology and therapy and was put in position to try and help “problem priests and monks.” During his early years he became aware of a culture of secrecy and hypocrisy. A significant number of priests and monks were engaged in sexual activity, both heterosexual and homosexual, even as the value of celibacy was put on this enormous pedestal of unquestioning acceptance. But what was especially galling were the cases where the religious person was preying on people much younger than himself, even children. And then this was covered up by the hierarchy and the institution. The bishops and abbots hired lawyers; accusers were threatened; payoffs were made to keep people silent; and the perpetrators moved around to other places.
Sipe left monastic life but continued his research and became quite an advocate for all those harmed by these sexual predators. He also became quite an advocate for greater Church transparency and an end to the culture of secrecy. He wrote several letters to Pope John Paul II about the Archbishop of Washington, DC, Cardinal McCarrick, one of the big names on the American Catholic scene. Sipe laid out all the evidence he had accumulated about this man, how he had preyed on young seminarians and sexually exploited them even when he was a bishop. Sipe never heard from the Vatican at all. I am sure that being an ex-priest made him a persona non grata in JP II’s house. For this pope, leaving the priesthood was THE ultimate sin! In any case, the stuff about McCarrick has finally come out and the Church is forced to deal with it.
Sipe provides us with a key analysis to understand some critical connections and not to make some awful mistakes. First of all, in his research Sipe discovered that a significant percentage of Catholic priests and religious are gay. Now it is very, very important not to conflate this fact with the phenomenon of men (mostly it is men) who are sexual predators because you do have that phenomenon within both orientations. Sexual dysfunctionality is sexual dysfunctionality no matter where it appears. But here is the critical point: due to various factors people with a gay orientation have had to hide that fact. This begins to create an atmosphere of secrecy within which a large number of people socialize. The predators take advantage of this atmosphere of secrecy and so we have the beginnings of a nightmarish situation.
This is only a partial explanation of how this thing unfolds. As Sipe points out there is a structural and theological component to all this that is absolutely critical. First of all, as he emphasizes, the theological valuation of celibacy is totally skewed and distorted. It is placed on this enormous pedestal as if married human love is somehow a lesser kind of sign of divine presence. JP II and his followers certainly preached this exorbitant valuation of celibacy and certainly this has been with the Western Church for centuries. ( In this regard the Orthodox are better off since they have a married priesthood. ) Yes, celibacy is an important and integral value for the monastic charism, but it is an imposed reality on the priesthood. And then sexually dysfunctional people who really need psychological help come into the institution hiding their problem under the guise of “celibacy.” As Sipe found out, the actual living out of celibacy is not as prevalent as what church authorities say. In any case, what starts out as hypocrisy then develops into a culture of secrecy and then the whole institution loses any transparency.
But there is also another very important theological component to this problem: the “divine nature” of the Church itself. The Church is the “Body of Christ,” guided by the Holy Spirit, led by a divinely created hierarchy where the bishop of each diocese represents the reality of Christ to his people, and the “holiness” of the Church is unquestionable—so it is taught, and in a certain sense all this is true. HOWEVER, the human dimension of the Church seems to get lost when this gets overemphasized or proclaimed in too literal a sense. It is analogous to the situation with the Bible. Fortunately we in the Catholic community (and for a lot of Protestants and Anglicans also) are no longer biblical fundamentalists. Yes, the Bible is the “Word of God,” and God is the ultimate “author,” etc.; but we also now know how human the Bible really is, how human limitation and fallibility and blindness entered into the composition of every book. We are meant to read the Bible not only prayerfully and with our heart but also intelligently and with common sense. So many leaders of the Church have emphasized the “holiness” of the Church and its transcendent identity that its human nature has almost been lost. Thus a theological sense of hierarchy becomes institutionalized into a socially authoritarian, pragmatic leadership clique. The Holy Thursday “washing of feet” ritual which symbolizes the servant nature of church leadership is often just a joke because the bishop-pastor is nothing more than a money-manager trying to protect the assets of the Church and keep its imageuntarnished. In this context you begin to understand the cover-ups.
But you can’t keep this stuff hidden forever, can you? Lately there have been quite a few news items about all this, and you can see the problem is international and not just in the U.S. Let me provide just a few links:
An article in the Washington Post summarizing and asking the question “Why?”:
The report from Pennsylvania where a state commission has investigated priestly sex abuse for decades and the subsequent cover-ups by the hierarchy:
We have all seen the reports coming from Australia where an archbishop is going to jail for his role in a cover-up.
Now there is this new story from England where two Benedictine abbeys have been implicated in a massive sex abuse scandal: Downside and Ampleforth. These are two of the largest and best known Benedictine abbeys in England and around the world. Here is that story:
And so we see that the problem the Church has is a lot more than just a “crisis in morality.”
- Some Quotes that Merton Noted
And now for a breath of fresh air!! In 1968, the year of his death, Merton visited the monasteries of Christ in the Desert and Redwoods before he left for Asia. There’s a small book of his photographs and some excerpts from his notebook. I found that he was quoting from some of his reading on this trip, and as usual Merton was acutely on target with his Asian sources even before he got to Asia.
Here are some quotes, first from Merton himself:
“The desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit.”
Merton quotes from the Astavakra Gita:
“The wiseman who has known the truth of the self plays the game of life and there is no similarity between his way of living and the deluded who live in the world as mere beasts of burden.”
“Where there is I, there is bondage. Where there is no I, there is release. Neither reject nor accept anything.”
“Whether he lives a life of action or withdraws from the world, the ignorant man does not find spiritual peace.”
Merton again: “When man and his money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promise of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere. Everywhere is desert. Everywhere is solitude in which man must do penance and fight the adversary and purify his own heart in the grace of God.”