The Fatal Tree

Programmed to send me papal news alerts, my smartphone recently notified me that Pope Francis had approved a new translation for a significant part of the Our Father. Our English translation prays: “. . . and lead us not into temptation.” This is not consistent, says the Pope,  with what Jesus taught us about his Father. Pope Francis has changed that phrase to “. . . and do not let us fall into temptation.”

Thanks be to God for having sent us Jesus so that we could soar above the God of Genesis, the God of tests, threats, and even second guessing as in the following passage:

Yahweh God caused to spring up from the soil every kind of tree, enticing to look at and good to eat, with the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. . . Yahweh God gave the man this admonition, “You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on the day you eat of it you shall most surely die.

This narration unfortunately presents us with a Divinity who is deliberately setting up his first humans for a fall. One more example of how scripture, though divinely inspired, cannot be literally true in the light of what Jesus taught us about the nature of God.

First, the forbidden tree is designed to be like all the others: enticing and nutritious. Second, the Divinity places it right in the middle of the garden where Adam (and later, Eve) can’t help but run into it at every turn. Third, why would the Divinity allow the serpent into what was supposed to be an ideal garden?

Last and most puzzling is that having created humans in his image, Divinity endowed them with intelligence, along with its handmaidens, imagination and curiosity. Wouldn’t it be a good thing to know the difference between good and evil so we could choose appropriately?

Good and evil, right and wrong. This dualistic thinking, according to Richard Rohr, OFM, has produced untold miseries among humans. In a recent meditation from his blog, Father Rohr writes:

The dualistic mind, upon which most of us were taught to rely, is simply incapable of the task of creating unity. It automatically divides reality into binary opposites . . .
“Really good” thinking then becomes devising a strong argument for our side’s superiority versus another country, race, group, political party, or religion. It seems we must have our other!  (Center for Action and Contemplation, June 2, 2019)

Back to the creation story, what does the Lord say to himself at the end of each day’s creation?
               God saw that it was good.

Everything that God made he saw as good. If God made it, there was no way it could be bad. Could evil be in the eye of the beholder?

After centuries of spiritual evolution, we still ponder the issue of evil in our world. Here are strong statements from three holy Christians, giving us an insightful perspective about the coexistence of good and evil.

Julian of Norwich, Revelations
We are securely protected through love, in joy and sorrow, by the goodness of God. . . . All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

St. Paul, Romans 8:28
We know that all things work together unto good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.

Thérèse of Lisieux
Everything is a grace!

To hear them, it sounds as if they are unaware of the real presence of evil. Rather, what they’re saying is, “Yes, evil exists. But that doesn’t mean that it must triumph! These three saints know how to confront evil, certain as they are of God’s faithful and loving providence.

True, we have shut ourselves out of Eden, this good place, where ignorance had truly been bliss. In our pride, we claim to possess the secret of the good. In the arrogance of our presumed knowledge, we set ourselves up as the Supreme Judge of what is right and what is wrong. Mostly, we find ourselves in the right and others in the wrong. No longer is everything good.

Thus was division, dis-unity, born. From division came wars, oppression, and even a divinity who takes sides as we pray for enemies to be slaughtered and for ourselves to be given the means to slaughter them. We have made for ourselves a god who has our same  biases.

In the Beatitudes, however, Jesus teaches us how we can transcend a variety of negatives and use them as keys to the kingdom of God. The poor will be given the kingdom . . . the meek will inherit the earth . . . the merciful (forgiving) will receive mercy.

Can evil be transformed into good? Hardly. Can we escape evil? Not while on this planet.

Instead, by allowing God to nurture his presence in us, we are enabled to find greater intimacy with God, even in the presence of evil. Accepting God’s grace which is his life in us, all things – even evils – can truly work together unto good.

What might have been a fatal error, in Christ has become a happy fault.

And God Rested

The ancients who wrote what we call Scripture perhaps didn’t fully realize the profound truths they were inspired to pass on to us — nor do we! God’s “resting” was not to say that he was “finished,” that his work was done. A human artist may recognize when his opus is finally completed. He  breathes a sigh of relief, walks away from his easel to clean his brushes, and frames his painting. Hopefully, he’ll be able to sell it.

God’s work in his universe, and in each of us, is never finished. Scientists are never finished with their exploration of the universe, and the more they learn the more they discover what is yet to be learned. Scientists are continually searching to understand the present by examining the past. Revolutionary concepts, such as those offered by Copernicus and Galileo, are constantly being overturned and humbly accepted.

In caring for our spiritual life, a most useful exercise is to pause now and then to review this life of ours to see how it has changed (hopefully for the better) since its beginning.

Already I’m at a loss with this question: what is or was my beginning? The writer of Psalm 139 is astonished at his own being, recognizing that God knew how his little self would turn out long before anyone else knew of his existence  — or even cared.

You formed my inmost being;
you knit me in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, because I am wonderfully made;
wonderful are your works!
My very self you know.
My bones are not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
fashioned in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw me unformed.

My beginning was in my mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning was in her mother’s womb, as her beginning  . . . etc., etc., etc.

This discovery suggests that my being, my essence, began much earlier than I thought.

Where would I be if it were not for the chain of that first creative copulation thousands of years ago? That chain has brought me to this very moment where I’ve been enabled to be aware of it. The traits I have  — physical, intellectual, emotional (and moral?) — didn’t come merely from the two humans through whom I’ve been generated into this short hour of life.

Because life has come from a living chain of other lives, it’s important to look into our own being, looking back at least as far as the few years of our short life, to examine where we’ve been and how we got to what we are now. And if this is beneficial at the materially human level, how much more enlightening would it be to trace the evolution of our spirituality. When we dare to examine our origin and history, our relationship to God and the people in our life, so much of our past is clarified, understood, appreciated, and even forgiven — as long as we approach this special study with the desire and courage to clarify, understand, appreciate and forgive all that has preceded this moment.

God may have rested, but he did not stop altogether. Out of a superabundance of LOVE, God continues to create. Nor can we stop or let go of that creative hand that is leading us carefully toward the end he wishes for us. Our destiny is to co-operate with God, work with him on this project of creating ourselves. Having been made in his image, we have been given all we need. All we need to do now is to accept His invitation to the Feast prepared for us from the beginning.

Van Gogh Rediscovered

Having seen the film, “Lust for Life,” several years ago, I had some familiarity with the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It’s a compelling story and I confess to knowing only the broad strokes (so to speak), the main events of his life. Otherwise, I’ve had only the most elementary appreciation of his style of painting.

As a young adult and son of a minister, Van Gogh made a few tries at different vocations. For a while, his middle-class family financially supported him in these trials. A significant one was his working as a lay preacher, ministering to the very poor miners and peasants of Belgium. Following literally the Gospel, he chose to live in the same squalid conditions of the people he served, illustrated in this somber painting, “The Potato Eaters.”

Ecclesiastical leaders, however, were not pleased, feeling that this life style demeaned his clerical status.

Vincent was rejected from the program. Even at this early part of his life, his father thought he was a lunatic and wanted to put him in an asylum.

Fast-forward to find online a four-part series on his life. Vincent is telling his brother Théo that he now intends to devote his life to painting. Théo angrily asks why Vincent is living once again in the poorest of conditions. “I can understand why you did this as a minister of the Gospel, but now it’s just absurd!” Vincent tries to explain that painting is truly his vocation.

“God is here,” he shouts. “God is everywhere, except in the church and in my bloody family!”

Théo walks away quite defeated, but nevertheless goes on to support his older brother for many years, both financially and emotionally.

What has drawn me to write about Van Gogh this week is his very Ignatian statement about finding God in all things. For me, this explains the vivid character of his art, especially as created in the famous painting, “Starry Night.”Stars are believed to be so steady, so unchanging, that mariners could set their position and destination by them.  But in Van Gogh’s painting they are full of life, energy, movement. This was how Vincent could paint the unpaintable truth that God is the source of all life — not just on our puny planet, but throughout the whole universe.

Once again we discover the creative intuition of an artist. I’m convinced that such artists are given to us to provide an unending stream of  visions of the divine Creator. We cannot yet see the Creator face-to-face, but as in a glass, darkly, as St. Paul reminds us.  “Just show us the Father,” St. Philip asks Jesus, “that will be enough for us.”

Jesus replies, “Who sees me sees the Father.”

All of us, either through art or prayer, have been given the invitation and ability to show others the Father in ourselves; to see him in the created universe and in one another.

Birth of a Post

Since starting my blog almost three years ago, I now arrive at publishing my 105th post. Several more drafts languish in their dusty, segregated folder. Sometimes I hear the question, “How do you decide on a topic?”
First, “decide.” This implies a process something like going through a smorgasbord, looking and sniffing at the most appealing and fragrant food to put on my plate, then happily relaxing and munching away.
How do I decide what to write? Frankly, I don’t. The title of my blog, Spirit as Muse, really says it all. The Muse at work here is none other than the Holy Spirit who, sometimes gently, sometimes urgently, pricks me into action. That is, if the Spirit has found in me a quiet and secluded space in which to act.
There may be some compelling event in the Church, such as the troubling and persistent news about clerical abuse of the innocent, or situations where legalism wins out over Mercy. Or Pope Francis may have made a statement that strikes me, such as, “The Eucharist . . . is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.” [The Joy of the Gospel] Or some words of Scripture charm me, pushing me to understand and proclaim their reality. Frequently it’s the beauty of art, poetry, music, or the lure of nature that sparks my imagination. Another tease may be the desire to refresh platitudes or rote prayers that have, alas!, lost their true meaning through mindless repetition.
So I put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and let the thoughts come as they may. This is the easy part. The work part is trying to clarify the thoughts, to put them all in an order that will make them as understandable and alluring to others as possible.
It’s like seeing a shiny and precious shard, half buried in a littered landscape. Once a topic takes ahold of me, I allow it to go wherever it wants. Soon I rescue it, uncover it, make it my own, and share it with others.
So, pen glides over page, words jump out of the keyboard as my thoughts dance about, poking here, pinching there, scraping away the moldy stuff that’s been hiding some infinitesimally small but precious nugget.
As the digging continues, the treasure grows and grows,

becoming more luminous (I hope!) with every edit. Rearranging the words is like moving around the props on a stage set. They must be placed just so, so that they will give substance to the reality that had been hidden from the audience. More questions arise, playing the part of the lighting director who points the lamps at different angles until the mystery becomes clear at last.
I so often wish I could be visited by Emily Dickinson’s Muse (in addition to the Holy Spirit, of course), so that everyday words would simply fall together to paint something of beauty; where ordinary expressions would swirl about in all their simplicity until the inspiration that started it all shapes the fluttering words into a transcendent reality that will show, at least in part, the emerging face of God.
For God is in all things, even in words – especially in The Word through which God made all things, and finally us in his image and likeness.

Breakfast on the Shore

Third Sunday of Easter. John 21:1-19

Peter and the other Apostles are at the Sea of Tiberias (aka the Sea of Galilee). They are restless, at sixes and sevens without their beloved Master, those wonderful, exciting days with him, soaking up the glory of his presence, his teaching, his miracles.

The risen Christ has appeared to them and to many others, but on a temporary basis only. Time is lying heavy on their empty hands. The glory days are over. What can life have in store for them any more? What will become of them, who have known intimacy with this holy, brilliant, strong and loving man? Are they now to be reduced to virtually nothing?

For nothing of value can come from them without their Lord. He had sent them out on missions of teaching and miracles, having given them the authority to expel evil spirits and to perform acts of healing for those in need. No more, it seems.

Peter, full of pent-up, frustrated energy, announces: “I’m going fishing!” Recognizing his leadership, the other men fall in line: “We’re coming with you.” At last! Something productive to do!

That is, potentially productive, for in fact they never catch even a single smelt all throughout the night.

Dawn breaks. A man is seen standing on the shore. A friendly voice calls out to them: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” Of course not.

The stranger says, “Cast your net over the right side of the boat and you’ll find something.”

Really? The typical fishing boat of that era was only about two and a half yards wide. (And by the way, this is also the same kind of boat Peter and Andrew, James and John were in when Jesus first called them to become “fishers of people.”

What could be so different between one side of the boat and the other? There is nothing on one side, and seven feet in the other direction is going to be teeming with fish? But instead of laughing at such an absurd suggestion, the men do what is suggested. Voilà! The net is close to breaking from a catch of 153 (they counted them!) fish.

What symbolism! By themselves, the Apostles are restless and unproductive. Besides, all that energy uselessly expended has left them empty and hungry. John, who loved the Lord and whom Jesus loved, is the first one to recognize the voice of his Master.

Why does Peter jump into the sea? Surely the boat can cover those 100 yards to the shore more quickly than a man swimming. But that’s how Peter is: impetuous, competitive, charging ahead, needing to be first.

Arriving at the shore, they find that their Lord-servant has already prepared for them a freshly cooked breakfast of bread and fish. Another example of his tender care.

One would think that the risen Christ might have shown himself to his followers surrounded by brilliant lights, choirs of angels, heavenly hosts — in short, like the vision described by John in today’s reading from Revelation: Jesus, finally receiving all the honor due him.

Not yet. His way of revealing himself while still on earth, is quiet and unexpected: coming into the upper room; walking and chatting with two disappointed disciples; preparing breakfast for his tired and dejected friends.

For now, the ordinary. Splendor will come later.