Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Potpourri

  1. Abortion


This week has been another anniversary of the infamous Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion in the U.S. about 1972.  It is also a time when many anti-abortion forces get together to march, to demonstrate and to proclaim the wrongness of that decision.  These people are mostly very conservative, both church-wise and politically.  If you look for any liberals/progressives on that side of the issue, you will not find many, if any at all, and that is really sad.  The issue has polarized the body politic and the faith community in such a strange way that it is difficult to talk about.


Since 1972 something like 50 million abortions have been performed in the U.S.  This includes everything–from the disposal of zygotes, the fertilized ovum-sperm cell, to an almost fully formed baby who is killed by having its head crushed or its spinal cord cut.  Not many could actually stomach seeing the actual medical procedures if they had to, and you wonder if their advocacy of abortion would be so strong.  However, even abortion-rights defenders often say that they are not so much “pro abortion” as they are defenders of a woman’s freedom of choice, to decide for herself if she wants an abortion.  Thus their banner reads: “Pro Choice.”  These are very often very well-meaning and well-intentioned people—they are not really “killers” as some anti-abortion people would have it.  However, once the situation is analyzed in terms of “rights” it becomes a lost cause—meaning we can never resolve it in those terms.  Once we put it in these terms: the rights of the mother to choose what to do with her own body vs the rights of the unborn one to life—well, that is an impossible dilemma to resolve.  But “rights language” is practically all that our ethical and political ethos knows.


Just to scratch the surface of the multi-faceted complexity in this issue, consider this.  The so-called “right” to an abortion is built on a so-called right to privacy for the mother–legally and constitutionally speaking. Choice is the fundamental value. What is here avoided is the status of the fetus.  Do we have personhood or human-beingness here, or do we not?  And who decides that and on what basis?  And what gives the right to anyone to choose to take the life of another person?  At one point in our history the Supreme Court had ruled against the personhood of Black People, thus justifying slavery and later segregation.  In 16th Century Spain there was a vigorous debate whether Native Americans were really human beings.  This seems outrageous today, yet we as a society seem to have no trouble in denying personhood and human-beingness to the fetus.  On what basis?  Even if we take an “agnostic position”–we are not sure when the fetus “becomes” a human person–we should be much more circumspect about supporting abortion or choice.  Naomi Wolf, a vocal feminist, has said that abortion is an evil, but at times a necessary evil.  Perhaps a problematic way of putting it, but at least an honest way.


Now on the other side of this issue are all the conservative church people and political people who have championed the “pro-life” cause.  What is tragically sad is that to the extent they are on the good side of this issue, they are terribly wrong when they latch this issue to a whole mindset that allows for an authoritarian church life and a political and economic order that leads to the destruction of  truly human well-beingness.  Very often these people seem not to be bothered by the death penalty, by our proclivity for wars, by a selfish, self-centered, greed-driven economy.  Very often these people ally themselves with the Republican Party, but as one commentator put it, each election cycle the Republicans speak out against abortion; what they deliver is tax cuts for the wealthy.  But these people keep coming back to that.  One begins to suspect that a lot of conservative Catholics and evangelicals have their anti-abortion views mixed up with a whole bunch of reactionary, anti-liberal views.  It is part of a culture war that is taking place in our country.  What is truly ironic is that statistically the number of abortions went down in this country during the Clinton years, while it went up during the Reagan and Bush years.




  1. Holiness and Sanctity

What a complex subject—just a few thoughts and questions.  Recently there was the announcement that Pope John Paul II will be beatified—a step on the way to being declared a saint in the Catholic Church.  I am sympathetic to anyone who has problems with all this.


First of all a clarification: holiness and sanctity are not exactly the same thing.  Holiness is a state of heart and mind which are more and more attuned to the reality of God; it is not a static thing, but a dynamic growth in the life of God.  In another tradition one might want to call it “an enlightened life,” etc.  Sanctity is the public display of that life, a public acknowledgment that one gives witness to that life.  The community begins to see someone as being a “bearer of the Spirit” and so begins to call that person a “saint.”   Now none of this means that the person is perfect in any sense, even a spiritual or religious sense.  They may in fact have a lot of real flaws in their personality.  However, there are flaws and then there are FLAWS!   Mother Teresa took money from and associated with some very nasty people–kind of giving them a “cover” for their nasty deeds.  And her spiritual director for many years turns out to have been a major child molester.  Strange stuff indeed!  But then go back in time and what about someone like St. Bernard calling for the killing of Moslems and being recognized as a saint.  And there are so many others that you have to wonder about this church mechanism of “proclaiming  saints,” and claiming to be “infallible” in doing so.


Now about this JPII stuff.  I am sure he was a decent person and a sincere follower of Christ.  However, there are many indications that he was preminently concerned with the institution of the Church–to an unhealthy degree.  There has been evidence, some of it just came out recently, that during his pontificate there was a definite policy of keeping child-molesting priests hidden from civil authorities.  This was done to protect the image of the Church.  It’s not that he didn’t know–that is not possible given the evidence that has come out–he just chose the reputation of the Church over the well-being of the victims of all these priests—and all over the world.  Proclaiming such a person a “saint” is a bit of a problem.


I think we should just ignore all this “saint” stuff and leave holiness in the Mystery of God.  There definitely are many holy people around, some hidden, some not so hidden, but what’s most important is our own seeking and thirsting for holiness.  Be wary of adulation and a kind of religious “fandom.”  Recall the Gospel, Luke 18: 18:  “And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’  And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.”




  1. State of the Union


This country is in deep, deep trouble–politically, economically, socially, and, yes, even religiously.  Just a few comments.  Listening  to the President’s State of the Union message and the commentators afterwards made me think how bad off we really are.  This President sounds good, especially in contrast with the absolute craziness, the absolute irresponsibility, the absolute awfulness of the “other side”–the present-day Republicans.  He seems like the “most reasonable” man in Washington wanting to work with everyone.  He has positioned himself in a kind of political center in order to win the 2012 election.  However, “left,” “center,” and “right” are not static, fixed positions.  The fact is that this country is moving toward the right whether it realizes it or not.  What is considered the “center” now would have been considered “right” some years ago.  The center itself is now fairly far right in terms of the political map of some years ago. This started with the “Reagan Revolution” –the beginnings of the dismantling of the New Deal and a tremendous redistribution of wealth toward the top 5% or so of the population.  President Obama is more like Eisenhower or Nixon(except for Nixon’s paranoia and lack of ethics) than he is a traditional Democrat–yet in the national media and in the popular image he seems like a “liberal” or a little to the left of center.  What you have to do is look beyond his rhetoric and at what he actually does and look closely at his language.  Let us take some examples:


1. Language:

  1. President Obama had adopted the Republican narrative about the Iraq and Afghanistan.  There is no questioning of the war.  The Bush justification of the war has been accepted.  The fact that we were “lied” into Iraq seems to have no consequences, opening up the possibility of this happening again and again.  The two wars have cost us trillions of dollars—there would be no budget deficit otherwise and we could provide health care for all the American people.
  2. The Republican narrative about the economy has also been very quietly imbibed.    Please note this comment from George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at UC Berkeley:



“Conservatives are trained not to use the language of liberals. Liberals are not so trained. Liberals have to learn  to stick to their own language, and not move rightward in language use. Never use the word “entitlement” – social security and medicare are earned. Taking money from them is stealing. Pensions are delayed payments for work already done. They are part of contracted pay for work. Not paying pensions is taking wages from those who have earned them. Nature isn’t free for the taking. Nature is what nurtures us, and is of ultimate value – human value as well as economic value. Pollution and deforestation are destroying nature. Privatization is not eliminating government – it is introducing government of our lives by corporations, for their profit, not ours. The mission of government is to protect and empower all citizens, because no one makes it on their own. And the more you get from government, the more you owe morally. Government is about “necessities” – health, education, housing, protection, jobs with living wages, and so on – not about “programs.” Economic success lies in human well-being, not in stock prices, or corporate and bank profits.”


Note what President Obama said about social security.  He said he does not want to “endanger” the benefits of current retirees.  But that leaves open the question– what about future retirees?  He said he will not allow the “slashing” of benefits.  But that leaves open the possibility of a compromise with the Republicans and “reducing” benefits.  “Reducing” is not “slashing.”  See how tricky that language is.  A true, old-fashioned Democrat would have said that social security is completely “off the table”, end of story.  It is NOT the problem with the budget or the deficit.  It does need some help because both sides have raided the social security fund to pay for other things.  And if people who make over $100,000 a year had to pay into social security–now they don’t!!!–there would not be ANY problem with social security.  But Obama did not say that.  And his “sliding” language is just one little indication of a problem.


2. Actions:  Note President Obama’s most recent appointments:  Immelt has become one of his chief economic advisors–he comes from GE and was one of the chief architects of their outsourcing of jobs from the US to China and elsewhere.  This man is not the friend of American workers or the middle class.  Then for his chief of staff  he chose a former lobbyist for financial companies like Goldman Sachs.  Very troubling.  The corporate oligarchy is slowly getting a stranglehold on the American economy, and we are in big trouble.  Another example: Obama proposes the availability of high-speed internet for all Americans.  Good, but his Justice Dept and his Administration allow the merger of Comcast and NBC, which many media experts say allow for an increased monopoly control over what we will have access to in all media.  So we will get it “fast” but that “it” will be under the control of a few “corporate interests.”




  1. Finally….

An amazing science story.   We have a tiny fuzzy image of a galaxy that may be something like 14 billion light years away.  Amazing.  Just think….light travels at 186,000 miles a SECOND, and the light from that galaxy that reaches us now, started out something like 14 BILLION years ago.  Mind boggling!  How awesome, how amazing, how large the universe is!  And who is this God who has made such an amazing reality!!   No need to sweat the small stuff!!!!





Be Still

There is something odd about commenting on silence, but it is also something that is needed at times.  Understandably not much has been written on this subject.  Yes, there is the traditional monastic literature which contains various commendations and urgings of the reality of silence, but there is very little there to illumine the deeper meaning and role of silence in our spiritual journey.  If you are in a formal monastic setting in a contemplative community, you will find silence is almost natural, a good that is taken for granted, but again its deeper significance not much understood.  Among modern writings there is the old classic by Max Picard, The World of Silence.  It opens the door to a much deeper reflection on silence, but in some aspects it is a bit dated in its references to modern life.  There are, of course, the beautiful writings of Thomas Merton in which he often points us in a direction of a more profound appreciation of silence, but all in all he does not give silence the intense scrutiny that he gives to solitude.  There are also various other modern authors who have written with some appreciation of silence in the spiritual life.  Let us throw out some scattered thoughts about silence in order to encourage a deeper reflection on this reality.

What is silence?  An absence of noise?  Yes, but even “noise” that is meaningful, like speech and words is often held as not being silence.  Sometimes, in contemplative literature, even thoughts in one’s own mind that are not articulated are considered as somehow not real silence.  But what if silence is not a negative thing, an absence of something…..    What if silence is rather a Presence of something…..

Consider the following Taoist poem from Lao Tzu:

Thirty spokes share the wheel’s hub;

It is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut doors and windows for a room;

It is the holes which make it useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

Usefulness from what is not there.

Communion comes from communication AND silence.  Communication is the Taoist’s “profit”—silence is what makes it all “useful.”  Needless to say these words are not being used in the usual way.

Silence is the foundation of all communication.  Without it communication is just gibberish and propaganda and noise.  We have an awful lot of that today.  Technology makes silence a lot harder to find and appreciate and understand.  Yet we are starving for the reality that silence brings.

Silence does not begin with the end of speech; silence does not end with the first word.  Silence is always THERE, wherever “there” is.  We only need to turn towards it and “tap” into it.  But that might not be so easy.  From the Desert Fathers:  “It was said of Abba Agatho that for 3 years he carried a stone in his mouth until he learned to be silent.”

There is a silence which we find when we turn off all our gadgets and stop talking.  Then there is a silence within that silence or rather beyond that silence.  It is this toward which we need to turn and in which we need to live if we want a deeper life.

In the Gospels, in the Passion account, Jesus is portrayed as mostly silent.  He speaks only a handful of words throughout the whole ordeal.  “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me, ” is one such utterance.  Nobody really wants to discover THAT silence—the Silence of No-God, or the silence of the place where God is NOT.  But Jesus is the Word of God, and so he enters into that silence in a way we cannot comprehend, and so there is no longer any such place that is without God, and it is this which we celebrate at the Easter Vigil.

The Gospel of John begins: In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God….   “Logos” is usually translated as “word”–quite correctly but inevitably drained of so much meaning.  For the  ancient Greeks “logos” had a very rich sense: word, discourse, story, account, meaning, language, explanation, logic, reason, rationality, etc.  In the modern West, this “logos” got bifurcated and lost its content of “reason” and “rationality” which got isolated within the sciences and mathematics and logic  So an explanation for something was either “scientific” or else for all practical purposes a “story.”  Well, never mind that problem, but for our purposes here we should note that Jesus is thus much more than the “word” of God in our narrow sense.  He is the discourse of God, the meaning of God, the language of God, etc.  And furthermore what is most astonishing from the perspective of world spiritualities, there is discourse within God—this is where we get the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, and it is here where many people get lost simply because they do not appreciate the Mystery they are dealing with and oversimplify it and drag it down to something they can understand and/or imagine.  Suffice it to say that from the standpoint of Christian faith the Ultimate Reality is not one of Absolute Silence but rather one that is an unimagineable communion of eternal, infinte and absolute love in which both word and silence participate in.

In the Hebrew Bible there are a couple of classic places where the reality of silence is pointed to in a significant way.  One place has to do with the prophet Elijah (1Kings 19 11-13).  Elijah is “invited” to an encounter with the Mystery of God and not just his own imagination of God.  Note the text

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in theearthquake; and after the earthquake, a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.”

The implication is that Elijah(and we) expect God’s Presence (Power) to be manifest in such and such a way–pick whatever you want, and the Bible itself suggests a whole host of them–but this text then undermines all of them with that most remarkable phrase, “a sound of sheer silence.”  (In some translations, this is called a “whisper,” but that is not a good translation for the meaning there.)  This is a silence much, much more than just a lack of noise or speech.

Another classic text can be found in Psalm 46.  Note the text:

“He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear,

he burns the chariots with fire!

‘Be still, and know that I am God.

I am exalted among the nations.

I am exalted in the earth’

The Lord of hosts is with us.

The God of Jacob is our refuge.”

That central line, “Be still……..” , is often quoted in spiritual, monastic literature–but out of context.  Note that this “stillness” is also not merely just another quiet period, an end of noise or speech.   It has to do with an end to war, an end to institutionalized violence—the bow, the spear, the chariot are signs of the military-industrial complex of that day.  But of course just as our Desert Fathers knew quite well, this violence needs to be tracked down to our innermost heart and our innermost thoughts and rooted out from there.  Why?  Because note that knowledge of God depends on that.  Again, that call to “stillness” is not in the abstract–it is somehow connected with the knowledge of God.  That little word “and” is very rich and very important.  It may mean that knowledge of God follows upon that “stillness.”  It may mean that knowledge of God is “caused” through that “stillness.”  Or it may mean that that “stillness” IS what the knowledge of God is.  Indeed there are probably even more implications in that one little line.  But whatever be the case, we are invited to a knowledge of God through a silence that begins (and ONLY begins) when we turn off the “noise” of our self-centered existence.


It is time to become a Refusenik–if you are not one already.

It is spiritually necessary for a healthy mysticism in our own time.

Let me be clear about what I am going to say.  In the grand scheme of things it is not something to get worked up over.  In the grand scheme of things it is a small matter, a very small matter.  I have wandered out in the desert, among canyons and boulders that are hundreds of millions of years in age.  I have gazed at the night sky toward the center of just our own galaxy, and there I have seen clouds of stars each star at least as large as our sun, millions of stars.  And then when I have gazed away from the Milky Way, I was staring into deep space where there are millions of such galaxies, some billions of light years away.  Imagine the size of all this.  Unimagineable.  So let us not get too overwrought either about our own aches and pains, successes or failures, good choices or bad choices, good luck or bad luck, etc.  Nor should we exaggerate the “badness” of our social, historical situation.  It is in a very real sense “trivial” in the grand scheme of things.  There is a much, much larger picture that we need to be aware of and place ourselves within in order to have a true and real perspective on things–both good and bad.  This is part of the message of God’s speech to Job in the Book of Job and also in some of the Wisdom literature in the Bible.

And yet….and yet, we do live in a given social, historical moment here in the U.S. where we are called to make choices and decisions and proclaim where we stand one way or another.  To say we stand “apart” or “outside” such things is to already have made a choice  of whose consequences and full meaning perhaps we are not fully cognizant.   We are living with the Beast, whether we realize it or not.  And if we aquiesce to the Beast, we will carry the Mark of the Beast and become It’s child, rather than a child of God.  So we are called to be Refuseniks, to refuse the Mark of the Beast, to claim our true identity as free, loving children of God.

Rest assured the Beast has not just recently arrived on the scene.  It was there among the ancients with their bloodlust sacrifices.  It was there with the Church at the Crusades and the Inquisition and with the bishops hiding the priest child-predators. The Beast has actually found the church quite useful in order to hide itself and its activities.  The Beast was there encouraging the Industrial Revolution as we became enamoured by technology and the machine and lost our sense of a common human destiny.  The Beast wants everyone to be for him/herself alone.  The Beast was also there on the scaffold with the guilloitine and with the KGB as they executed any supposed threats to the State as an incarnation of the Beast.  And there are so many other manifestations of the Beast, but in each one of these historical moments there were human beings who refused the Mark of the Beast and who said “No”–they became Refuseniks and paid for it dearly.

Today the Beast has become much more clever–speaks a very different language, comes in very different clothes.  (Don’t worry so much about the drugged, dazed, smelly street person; worry rather about the financial expert in a nice suit.)  Today the Beast speaks of prosperity and profits, of creating wealth, of networking, of entertainment and games, etc.  The Beast is “into” self-promotion, self-realization, self-expression, self-manipulation, etc.  The Beast wants you glutted with information, entertained into a daze, captive to a host of alien desires swimming in your brain.  The Beast will show us “all the kingdoms of the world” and invite us to “take possession” because they really belong to the Beast and now It offers them to us.  Jesus said No.  Jesus may have been the first real Refusenik.  Jesus knew who he was; that was the basis, the foundation of his No to the Beast.  That tells us almost all you need to know.  Because the ultimate thing the Beast wants is for you to forget who you are and take on It’s identity.  The Mark of the Beast will then be on us.  But we too must become Refuseniks.  And we do this, first of all, by acts of silence, acts of truth(recall Gandhi), acts of wisdom, acts of compassion, acts of selflessness.  Nothing will unmask better or counterattack more effectively the activity of the Beast than this.  This must be the mindset with which we begin and end our own choices and our own activity.

But there is also the larger stage of social, political, economic activity where we are also actors regardless of our other roles.  Here especially the notion of being a Refusenik may become very clear–because we will have to say No very visibly to the State, to corporate America, to our consumer culture,  to that mindset that rationalizes greed and power and lies in the name of some supposed higher good, like a higher standard of living, etc.  The writer and social critic Chris Hedges has written much and well on this subject.   Recently he did an essay on the people of Eastern Europe who resisted their totalitarian governments–this is where the term “refusenik” really comes from–and their resistance took the form of numerous little acts of courage in resisting the Beast.  The essay title: “No Act of Rebellion Is Wasted” and the online link is:

What Hedges does not get quite right is that all these societies, once they were free of their totalitarian regimes, merely succumbed to the Beast that now comes in new clothes.  This shows that the “rebellion” has to go deeper than any social or political or economic action.  It must go all the way to the heart level.  And a marvellous example of such a life can be found in Gandhi.

Since it is Christmastime, let us end by considering that first and greatest Refusenik, Jesus.  Recall Merton’s essay on the Christmas Gospel, “There Was No Room In the Inn.”  When Jesus is born in a cave because there was no room in the inn for him, this shows that God does not participate in the machinations of the Beast in marshalling and numbering all the people(it was a time of census taking by the Romans), giving them an identity that was from the State, from their society, and not their real identity.  Like everyone else, like all other human beings, the Holy Family is forced to move with all the other masses of people, but in taking refuge in that cave and among the lowly shepherds(also some other Refuseniks), they say a quiet No to the dynamism of the Beast and show what it means to belong to another Reality.

It is time to become a Refusenik.

Happy New Year to all.