Monthly Archives: May 2015


Time to touch base with a number of brief items. So here goes:

*Not too long ago I wrote about the wilderness, hiking, the Pacific Crest Trail and the John Muir Trail, and the new movie Wild. The other day there was a nice reflective piece in the New York Times, of all places, on this topic. A father and his daughter, inspired by that movie, doing the PCT in segments. Here is the link to that:


I had to smile when the author said that the PCT seems a bit more crowded now, what with quite a few hikers inspired by the movie wanting to do the Trail. It seems that more people are in need of the “therapy” that the wilderness provides. The inner pain that Cheryl carried, more burdensome than her oversized backpack, is shared by more people than you might think. She had tried to anesthetize the pain with sex and drugs, but it was only the “wilderness therapy” that helped her with self-healing. As the author of the article mentions, however, it is not wise to take up the “Big One” like Cheryl did if you have not hiked before! Fortunately it worked out well for her. In any case, I think the Trail can handle this slight uptick in hikers–again as the author points out, more people have climbed Everest than have done the PCT! Climbing Everest became a bit of a sham because you had all those wealthy people paying Sherpas to haul their gear up the mountain and paying big money for mountain guides to take them to the top. With the recent devastation in Nepal that may change for a while. On the PCT you have to carry your own gear!

**Speaking of wilderness, a scientific study appeared recently confirming a long-held view that primitive hunter-gatherer groupings were more, how shall we say it, “mellow.” Here is the link to a story about that study:

They were more egalitarian, with men and women sharing more of life’s burdens and rewards and in general they were less prone to the problems we see in later developments. When human beings start developing agriculture, about 10,000 years ago–but that varied in different places, urbanization followed and then came hierarchy, women start getting pushed into subservient roles, warfare for conquest unfolds, the notion of property and wealth as personal enhancement explodes, as a result you have the division of society into the “poor” and the “wealthy,” the “powerful” or rulers, and the rest, etc., etc. It is interesting how the Bible as a whole, and even in its earliest strata, frowns upon this development and kind of yearns for the days before there were cities and kings. That’s why shepherds play an important role in the various accounts. Of course the shepherds are not the pure hunter-gatherer types, but neither are they the structured agriculturalists who develop into urban human beings. They are nomads, free to roam the land, a kind of half-way point between these two poles. I remember Merton pointing this out somewhere years ago. In any case, there is no point in overly romanticizing these hunter-gatherers–I am sure their humanity had its foibles too–but they do point out to us that our way of life is not written in stone or “must be” like this. Certainly there is no “going back”–the Paleo Diet people notwithstanding!!–but we might want to ponder what these people have to teach us. The folks who painted those marvelous cave-paintings had a connection to nature that we no longer have. Perhaps it is a longing for this that drives some of us into the wilderness, hiking and camping and climbing, etc. Perhaps…..


***The political season is upon us….as if it ever goes away. So the Presidential candidates are all lining up for a run and they will be spending tons of money in trying to fool the American people, who are quite easy to fool but it still takes money. I have made a vow this time round not to comment anymore on this upcoming election cycle. It is all so depressing and discouraging that I won’t waste a minute’s notice. I think the system is beyond repair. I have my favorites, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but one is not running and the other has about as much chance as Ralph Nader did; but these two, though not perfect, are the only ones saying things that need to be said. The rest of them run the gamut from crazy to frauds and “magicians”–magicians make it look like they are doing one thing while they are actually doing something else which you then see only in a way that the magician wants you to see. Enough said!

****Recently I commented on another piece in the New York Times, a powerful account of the awful suicide rate among young people on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was a heart-rending account and further documentation of what we have done to the Native Americans. This particular piece was commented on in two lengthy letters of note that are also worth reading:


*****Chris Hedges, my favorite social commentator, surprised me–he has become a radical vegetarian. And here is a link to his “Apologia,” an explanation not only of why he changed but the most passionate and intense presentation of vegetarianism that I have ever read.


Those of us who are meat eaters–but even those who take milk, cheese, eggs, fish, etc–need to read what he says and face that reality. We may respectfully disagree with this or that point, but on the whole your next burger and even your next glass of milk will not quite taste the same after you read his account. So I am going to write this as a kind of dialogue with the challenge he throws out.

First of all, Catholic monasticism, the tradition I come from, has been mostly vegetarian in the past–not the radical kind of vegetarianism that Chris advocates but a more moderate one, allowing milk, eggs, cheese, even at times fish. However, at a certain point, a lot of monasteries dropped the vegetarian requirement–especially the Benedictine ones. Meat became a regular thing. (This was another lamentable thing that was called “renewal” after Vatican II, a modernization of religious life to attract young people!) Some of the strictly contemplative groups still practice moderate vegetarianism, but the rationale for it is often lost in a kind of murky spirituality and asceticism. Its positive values are not enough appreciated. So what Chris is saying is needed by monks also and can be a very serious challenge to them, though again I am not saying that he has an unassailable position. But he will make you look at what you eat in a new way and perhaps see some connections there that you had not seen and perhaps disturb your complacency about your participation in the brutalization of life on our planet.

Way back when, in one of the earliest blog postings, I wrote about an economics professor who brought out a cup of coffee to his class and asked them “What do you see?” He was trying to get his students to see all the effort it took to make that coffee grow, all the labor to bring it to market and sell it–the economic connections in every product. I thought it was a marvelous moment to bring up the larger and deeper connections. Indeed, what do you see? Do you see the hardship of the poor bean picker, do you see the sun making the bean grow, do you see all the connections? And so here Chris is asking us to really, really see what we are eating and what it connects us to.

Modern industrial agriculture brutalizes animals, no doubt about that. The farm is simply another factory where the animals are simply raw materials to make profits with. This is not your Plains Indian hunting down his buffalo and making use of the whole animal to support his family and tribe and giving thanks to the Great Spirit for providing this boon of food and clothing. In modern industrial farming it is all for profit, and even if you are a moderate vegetarian I don’t think you want to see how your eggs and milk got to you(there are some real exceptions where some people run “free range” chickens and just pick up the eggs, but these are a very small minority of producers).

I have no problem with what Chris says about modern industrial farming–I think it is as bad as he saw it and as he portrays it. I wonder, however, if this brutalization of animals is a cause or a symptom, does it lead to the brutalization of other human beings or is it simply another instantiation of a deep inner disorder? I think Chris raises a valid and important issue.

Where I do have a problem with what he is saying is his implication that the taking of life for food is wrong and evil in itself. Thus the proposal of radical vegetarianism. I think this is a denial of how nature is constituted, how we are made.   Living things depend on taking in other living things as food–we cannot take in inert, lifeless matter, like rocks and sand, and live. Radical vegetarians propose that we restrict ourselves to plants, vegetables, fruits, nuts. But these are living things also, and what is the rationale that allows you to take their lives? Merely because they are the lowest forms of life? So we are allowed to kill some forms of life but not another? Seems a bit arbitrary–where and why do you draw the line? Nature itself does not seem to draw any such line. When you are eating your vegetables it doesn’t feel like you have killed any life, but you have. What matters really is how and in what spirit you take in this life as food. Jesus seems to have been involved in the catching of fish and the feeding of people with fish, a fairly advanced form of life at that.

The so-called “grace before meals,” so little practiced anymore in our secular society, is a tiny remnant of an ancient attitude that realized that the life it was ingesting was a gift and a connection to all other life. We should not “pray grace” before meals perfunctorily and in an absurd hurry because it does connect us to our ancient ancestors who did those marvelous cave paintings of the ancient animals and who ate animals with a certain spiritual consciousness that seems strange to us.

Now let me be clear, there is no “nice” way of eating another animal. When a mountain lion takes down a deer, or a coyote gets a hold of a marmot, it is not a “nice” picture, but that is the natural world. Once when I was out in the wilderness I saw an eagle swoop down and grab a bunny rabbit in its talons. What an incredible sight, but that bunny was going to be food for a whole nest for a few days. So it is. But we are spiritual beings also, with a certain spiritual consciousness and so we need to bring our religious awareness to this mysterious order of reality and not just feed our belly or worse, just make these animals as instruments of profit. By the way, the hunting of animals for trophies and “fun” is, I believe, an outrage. I have heard hunters claim that they are merely “reliving” the ancient ways of our ancestors, but that is a lie.

Enough for now! I thank Chris Hedges for his profound reflections and his defense of radical vegetarianism. It is not a quack view or quirky; it demands a respectful hearing; and we have much to learn from it and much to ponder about all the connections.


******Governments (globally) give fossil fuel companies $5.3 TRILLION in subsidies EVERY YEAR–more than the world spends on health care. Big Oil gets $10 million dollars from taxpayers every minute. This is a new estimate by the International Monetary Fund (hardly a radical organization!) and reported by Truthdigg.


*******We live in a world and in an age when so many people want to send “messages.” I am primarily referring to the “messages” on tee shirts and sweat shirts, etc.–but of course we could refer to a lot of other stuff also! All kinds of sayings on our clothing! Mostly I ignore it all, but the other day I saw a young person with this quote and it caught my eye: To thine own self be true. This is, of course, from Shakespeare, so that in itself made me smile. Not often do you see that. But it made me ponder anew the power and significance of that little line. It means a lot more than just: Be Yourself. It means(among other things): Stop lying to yourself–that’s a lot more than just “Be Yourself.”  Yeah, lying to other people is no good, but what’s really, really important in the spiritual life is to begin to stop lying to yourself. Then, and only then, do you BEGIN to “be yourself.” You might say the beginning of the spiritual life is the realization that one is somehow lying to oneself and one wants to change. And believe me, to stop lying to oneself is a mighty, mighty work that will take a lifetime. So it takes a lifetime to “be yourself.” Hope that young person realizes that!



























Jesus Don’t Tweet

Recently there was an interesting article in the Washington Post by Rachel Held Evans with the title: “Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’”  Here is the link to it:


So she is addressing the church problem of her generation, the so-called “Millennials,” people who came of age around 2000 or born in the early 1980s–when I was in the seminary!!  They came after Gen X and of course my big generation, the Baby Boomers.  Am I missing a generation here somewhere?!  Anyway, I find myself in what she writes about–but it was from experiences in the early 1970s and in seminary in the 1980s!  So the problem is not just with what the millennials are discovering; and neither is it with just the Evangelical Protestant churches–I experienced something similar in the “Catholic pew.”

Rachel hits us with a lot of numbers–church attendance and affiliation by millennials is dropping as badly as the water table in California!  A lot of the Christian churches are responding by dressing up their religious services with “youth culture,” “pop culture,” “consumer culture.”  Make it a seamless experience, your everyday consumer culture life and your worship life, yes even your whole religious experience.  Guess what?  The young people by and large reject that approach.  Many of them are not going to join any slick and shallow expressions of religion.  The marketing of Jesus ain’t gonna work!  But as I was reading all this and nodding my head in agreement at everything she was pointing out, I realized that I had had similar experiences as a Catholic way back when!  I remember very well right after Vatican II how all of us youngsters were supposedly enticed into church with new, “relevant” liturgies.  The old formalisms were dropped, Latin was dropped, the old symbols eviscerated–recall that most emblematic icon of modern liberal Catholic sensibility in the late 1960s: the Eucharist celebrated with twinkies and coke!  

Speaking of Latin, I recall the jarring sounds of English at the first Liturgy in that language.  Having learned Latin at an early age, I of course had the advantage of being very familiar with the language; it was not a mysterious opaque curtain to what was being said.  So, yes, bringing the liturgy into the vernacular was important and needed for many people, but it was done in such a superficial way, as if a language were merely like a bookcover, take one off, put on another.  Thomas Merton wrote how much he missed the Latin also, and to his dying day he prayed his priestly breviary in Latin.  The language had a beauty and flow and peacefulness about it in spirituality that was not easy to replace.  Think of the comparison of Gregorian chant and a lot of modern hymnody.  Of course there was a certain element in the church which latched on to Latin and used it for purposes to conceal their true agenda which had to do with power in the church and with a kind of fossilization of doctrine, but that’s another story to tell. In any case, trying to make the church relevant is perhaps an older experience than Rachel realizes.

And if you think this was done only by poorly informed religious people, you would be mistaken.  When I went to the seminary to study for the priesthood, I was sent to the Catholic complex of seminaries in Berkeley, California.  The two dominant houses there were the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and they “put on the Liturgy” there every Sunday.  And I use the words advisedly because that seemed exactly what they were doing every Sunday.  These theologically well- trained people would put on a show, literally speaking, every Sunday, that was supposedly a Catholic Eucharist.  I am sure it was, but it was very painful to experience that after you have been in monastic life for a few years.  And the whole rationale for that was a kind of espousal of creativity and contemporary culture.  Repeating the same words and symbols of the Eucharist was a big no-no there!  The goal was to make liturgy relevant for the modern American.  I’ll never forget my very first Sunday there–it was a “Rocky Liturgy.”  Yup, you got it….recall that movie from 1980 or so, “Rocky,” well, the liturgy was built on the storyline of that movie.  

But enough grousing about the good old days!  Getting back to what Rachel was writing, it is quite evident that this kind of approach is doomed to failure–and it was even way back then.  Any real changes to religious expression has to come from deep religious experience, not just an espousal of the going culture, much less a culture that even if not rotten to the core is very, very problematic.  The political underpinnings of a lot of these cultural tie-ins with religion are also very alarming–the radical right has co-opted some of the religious language, religious sentiments and anxieties and are exploiting them to the full.  And not just young people are willing to question the whole thing.  Rachel sticks to her own experience, but there is plenty of evidence that all the Christian churches in the U.S. are experiencing a remarkable shrinkage in all demographic groups.  She ends on a positive, upbeat note; but the statistics that have been coming out in recent years show all the churches shrinking in the U.S.  As an example, consider this little piece:

Two remarkable things here: 1. It is women who are leaving–these used to be the stalwart upholders of religion and church even when men began to leave.  2. They are not only leaving church, but religion and in some cases even spirituality as well.  Now, that is amazing.  There have been all kinds of studies in recent years tracking the disengagement of people from the institutional churches but also their connection to various forms of spirituality.  This new study shows a more radical trend.  This is not just people escaping rigid, fundamentalist, sect-like groups, but thoughtful, educated women making do without any religious affiliation.  

Let’s get to the nitty-gritty of it all: nothing that exudes an infantile religion, a superficial religion, a hypocritical religion, an authoritarian religion is going to work in the long run.  It may fool some of the people some of the time, but it will crumble eventually.  And Karl Rahner said so a long time ago–in the ‘60s I believe–when he said that the only Christianity that will survive in the future will be a mystic Christianity.  The meaning and significance of this grows daily for me.  In her article Rachel points toward a more serious and deeper Christianity that she and her fellow believers yearn for, but it is not yet the “mystic Christianity” that is really needed.   Nor are the few gatherings of contemplative Christians gaining any traction; it is not only that the numbers are actually extremely small–just one of the Protestant mega-churches has more members in it than all the contemplative groups in the country put togetherbut also so many of these groups develop their own institutional images and problems and become “marketers” of spirituality or really of themselves.  For a long time now I have been pondering this “silence of God” in our culture, if you will, when all words about God become suspect.   I think it is a silence that is meant to cleanse us of our false images and idols, our delusions and illusions, our infatuations with our own creations–a Silence that is not easy to abide with because it can be scary, but a Silence that is like a cleansing fire.  We are living within this “Silence” surrounded by a lot of chatter about God, about religion, about spirituality even….but so much of it is empty, dust and ashes.  We live in Andy Warhol’s world, where everyone wants to be famous for 15 minutes, where religion and spirituality become commodities with the soup can and Marilyn Monroe and Lady Gaga.  But if you stay with this “Silence” and not panic and not introduce “false gods” to supplement that Nothingness, you may begin to hear in your heart something that is beyond all words and all this noise, religious or secular.  And then, and only then, will we be able to speak truly about God.