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. Instead, it must be used. 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.

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.

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.

Jesus Prayed


A Meditation

Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.
(Mark 1:35)

At a recent session with my spiritual director, I shared one more troubling issue. “Have you taken it to prayer?” she asked, certainly not for the first (or last!) time.

This question caused me to wonder once again about the different ways of praying and my reasons for praying. It also served as an invitation to learn what the Gospel could teach me about Jesus praying, especially as illustrated by the quotation from Mark at the head of this post. As usual, one question led to another.

When Jesus awoke “long before dawn” and went out to pray by himself, what was that like? What did he say? What did he feel, see, hear? Did he give himself over to the Holy Spirit? How? In his humanity, when did he realize that others who saw him saw the Father?

The fact that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus when he joined the crowd at the Jordan makes me wonder if he knew (humanly speaking) that his baptism would be the start of his mission.

He certainly had been living the life of a deeply devout Jew. Remember, he had been a spiritually precocious 12-year-old! Growing up in the religious atmosphere of his parents’ home, he must have pondered and prayed constantly.

Then, like countless others, Jesus heard of John attracting crowds of people who flocked to him to be baptized.  Jesus must have sensed that the time was ripe for him and his teachings; that something special, something different – even revolutionary – was stirring in the land. His soul had been to such deep places through his prayer that he had a growing awareness of the world’s readiness for the Messiah. He obviously also knew that he needed to model holiness for the crowd at the Jordan, and everywhere thereafter.

He knew he needed to give an example of humility, of true humanity (for as God he knew, better than the rest of us, how to be more human than we did!). John, for his part, living an ascetic and spiritual life in the wild, was given the grace to recognize and proclaim this man as none other than the Messiah.

Jesus had traveled all the way from Nazareth to follow his unique destiny at this moment in the world’s history. John could recognize the ardor of this Man, because he recognized and felt it in himself. These two men were indeed soul mates, brothers under the skin. This was their most important relationship, their spiritual kinship, deeper than blood cousins. 

So in spite of the protests from John, Jesus allowed himself to be counted among the sinful to be washed, though he was always without sin. It was Jesus’ mission to cleanse the masses, the rubble, from their sins — real or as imagined by fearful minds, or as thrust upon them by legalistic leaders.

What happiness for him to invite these timorous souls to the banquet of forgiveness! This was indeed the fruit of his prayer, that our sins were to weigh us down no longer.

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened
and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy,
and my burden light.

(Matthew 11:28-30)

The Heart of Christianity

About six years ago, I spent a week at the Chautauqua Institute in Western New York, soaking in music, books, and religious thought — a spiritually inebriating experience indeed. I laugh to myself at that choice of adjective, “inebriating,” since Chautauqua, at its founding, was a very dry community, established to offer spiritual and intellectual riches to Sunday-School teachers during their summer vacation.

This was not my first stay at this mind-enriching, auto-free community on Lake Chautauqua. In the decades between this and my first stay, the place had grown in popularity and had even been cloned elsewhere in the country. It still remains an educational gem, but happily has become more ecumenical in its offerings of spiritual thought and practices from all religions, branching out from the standard Protestant fare at its inception. For example, celebration of the weekend Catholic Mass is no longer relegated to the movie theater, but has been promoted to the Hall of Philosophy.

Checking over the schedule after my arrival there, I was interested to find a lecture/discussion on the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I picked it up on a Wednesday afternoon when Christianity was the subject.

Handouts from the presenter summarized the major tenets of these three religions. The page on Christianity featured the Nicene Creed, first composed in the 4th century to settle a variety of heresies.*

Being a Catholic for most of my life, I thought I knew what Christianity was. Perhaps naively, I didn’t realize that people of other religions considered that the Creed was what made us what we are. So I raised my hand and stood up, a pale version of St. Paul at the Areopagus in Athens.

“The Creed,” I said, “is not what Christianity is about. It’s about the teachings of Christ, which is why it’s called Christianity! At the heart of this religion is Christ’s Gospel of the Kingdom and his command to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves — finally, in fact, to love one another as he loved us. The Gospels detail how we are to do this. Important as the Creed may have been at the time it was written, it makes no mention of the Gospel. Therefore, I would suggest that the Creed is not what makes us truly Christians.”

My experience in that Chautauqua classroom was my first realization of the great disconnect between faith as a triumph over reason and the intellect, and Faith as a reliance on the teachings of Christ. Prior to that day of epiphany, much time had passed since my childhood Catechism classes, my empty status as a lapsed Catholic, and my return to Christ and the Gospel as the central truth of my religion. In short, my faith had simply matured.

I confess that before this epiphany, I had been troubled by certain articles of faith found in the Creed, certainly because they are difficult to understand. Because of the way most of us have been raised, failure to accept an article of faith is to risk our very salvation. But just as we can’t wrap our head around these doctrines, we can’t wrap our heart around them either.

This was a troubling state of affairs, to say the least. Now that I’m back (I thought), what was happening to my faith?

Eventually, I found the filter through which I passed any questions or doubts. I looked for Christ not in the icy Creed but in the heart-warming attraction of the Gospel. There I found all I truly needed.

It is the person of Jesus Christ that continues to draw me to the practice of my faith. It is the beauty of his teachings, the appeal of his goodness, the intoxicating addiction to a holiness that I can no longer live without. In the Gospel . . .

I see Jesus pardoning the woman caught in adultery.
I hear Jesus teaching the Beatitudes to the throngs on the hillside.
I shudder to see Jesus touching lepers to heal them.
I am among the sinners dining with Jesus.
I listen to Jesus’ parables about the kingdom: the forgiving father, the compassionate Samaritan.

Little by little, I find that my efforts to follow Christ bring about a different kind of understanding. In those difficult acts of forgiving, of making peace, of encouraging the sad, of uplifting the sorrowful, — these grace-filled efforts to live by the Gospel shed a kind of illumination upon the Creed which now falls way behind the Gospel in importance. Rational understanding and acceptance don’t seem so important. The brilliance of the Gospel and the attraction of Jesus Christ have somehow introduced a different kind of light into my life that has totally overcome the coldness of the Creed and my difficulty in understanding it.

The more I’ve tried to live the Gospel, the less important has been my need to understand the tenets of the Creed. It seems that a different kind of understanding is being given to me, a more perfect understanding from the heart, in a heart-to-heart relationship with Christ.

Of course I still stumble through difficulties common to us all: people who rub us the wrong way, disagreements within a family, financial problems, etc, etc. ad nauseam. It’s not the Creed that helps me through these situations. It’s Christ in the Gospel who is with me, steering me onto the right path by his side, and showing me how to endure and grow.

+  + +

For more on this topic, check Fr. Richard Rohr’s meditation at https://cac.org/the-creeds-2019-01-23/

*For the complete Creed, see the USCCB website, http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/ Catholic belief is succinctly expressed in the profession of faith or credo called the Nicene Creed.”