Walks with My Granddaughter Eva

Our granddaughter, Eva, has just been elected Ms. President of our town, Westport, CT). We couldn’t be prouder.

In my declining years, I’m leading a charmed life. Here Peggy and I are living in Westport, CT, just down the street from our daughter, Maggie, her husband, Kerry, and five of our grandchildren.

Here’s a picture of our house where we moved just three years ago:

Our grandsons, Oscar (10), Orlando (8), Markandeya (6), and Sebastian (2) usually stay overnight on Fridays and we have breakfast together Saturday mornings. All of them (except little Sebastian) love baseball, so Peggy and I spend a lot of time cheering them on in their Little League games.

About three nights a week, Peggy and I also have dinner at our daughter’s beautiful home. And with the advent of warmer spring nights, we’ve been eating outdoors, where we share not only Maggie’s gourmet meals, but the day’s “roses and thorns,” i.e. all of us taking turns telling about the highpoint and low point of our days.

When my turn comes, my “rose” is often an account of my morning walk with my granddaughter, Eva (12), who is the reigning “Ms. President” of Westport. [That’s right, Eva recently ran (albeit unopposed) for our town’s Ms. President and was elected based on her compelling presentation of a platform promoting planet-saving vegetarianism.]

In any case and for years, Eva has often joined me for my daily four-mile fast walks (which are getting slower all the time). This often happens on weekends, but sometimes we end up walking together to her school about two and a half miles distant. About half-way through our routine, we invariably stop for coffee at Starbucks and spend about 30 minutes just talking there on the shore of the Saugatuck River that runs through Westport’s heart. Our conversations are uniformly wonderful.

We often discuss what we’ve seen and heard lately on “Democracy Now,” Amy Goodman‘s Monday through Friday news program which Eva watches faithfully every day. (I’ve told Eva that if she continues her practice, she’ll end up knowing more about the world than most of her teachers at her Pierrepont School which she absolutely loves.)

Pierrepont School, Westport, CT

Both Eva and I are admirers of Malcolm X. So, we’ve watched and discussed Spike Lee’s film together (along with “Fahrenheit 451,” “Soul,” and “My Octopus Teacher”). We’ve also read Malcolm’s autobiography, and we’ve talked about Les Payne‘s latest biography about our hero, The Dead Are Arising (which I’m sure Eva will read on her own when she gets a bit older). I can imagine her producing some kind of research paper on Malcolm in high school or college. Anyhow, we often talk about X; Eva is intensely interested — as she is about almost everything.

And our conversations are so much fun.

For instance, just this morning, we had maybe our best exchange yet. In her history class at Pierrepont, Eva’s studying the Illiad and Odyssey. While Eva loves the tale, she was mildly complaining that her teacher takes the classic too seriously — i.e. she leads discussions as though Homer’s work were something more than what Eva recognizes as historical fiction.

“You know, Baba,” she confided to me, “I think they’ve misplaced Homer in the history section of our library; it really belongs in the fiction aisle. I mean, all this stuff about Helen of Troy as the cause of the Trojan War doesn’t make sense. How does anyone know that her abduction started the whole thing?”

“That’s a brilliant question,” I said. “You should ask your teacher.

“But you know,” I said, ” that’s probably true of all of the books in your school’s library. I mean they all should probably be classified as fiction. That’s what historians and other authors do; they write accounts that reflect their own biases. And that goes for the Bible too.” (I voiced that last part, because Eva considers herself an atheist, so I wanted to be even-handed about fields of study — she knows I’m especially interested in questions of faith and biblical interpretation.)

“But don’t be too quick to dismiss fiction,” I added. “Fiction is often more revealing of truth than history or scientific theory. It’s like my friend, Guy Patrick, used to observe about the Bible. . . ‘All of it is true,’ he’d say, ‘and some of it even happened.’ Hemingway’s and Faulkner’s novels are true, even though they didn’t happen. You might say the same about the poems of Emily Dickinson.”

And Eva could see all of that. Despite her atheism, she even agreed that the biblical stories of creation might be truer (i.e. more revealing of human meaning) than Darwin’s revolutionary theory. Stifling a theatrical yawn, she said “Darwin might be factually true, but it’s more boring, I agree.”

Can you see what I mean about a charmed life — and about my charming granddaughter?

Jesus Is Not God!

Forensic archeologists say that the historical Jesus looked like this. He was not white and stood about 5 feet tall and weighed about 110 pounds.

Last night we had another meeting of our church’s Lenten series discussing controverted questions of faith. So far, we’ve discussed (1) miracles, (2) healing, (3) Jesus and the poor, (4) the tension between American and Christian identities, and (5) what happens after death. Next week, we’ll address the question of resurrection. It’s all been interesting and at times quite inspiring to interact with more than a dozen gifted and earnest fellow seekers in a very admirable faith community.

However (if you recall), a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to lead the session on Jesus and the Poor, I got “hooked” into defending (at inappropriate length) the centrality of the biblical “preferential option for the poor” as the heart of Christianity. The one who hooked me is a very friendly, intelligent, articulate, and sincere church member whose faith convictions are undeniably robust. I admire him greatly.  

Nevertheless, during last evening’s meeting, it almost happened again. I mean, I was tempted to respond that same interlocutor rather than biting my tongue regarding a revisitation of our topic of two weeks ago about Jesus’ identity. (Remember, last night’s topic was to be what happens after death.)

Instead, my friend in the evening’s opening remark said something like the following: “We’re supposed to be Christians here discussing our faith. But the readings we’ve shared not only this week but two weeks ago, depart quite radically from central Christian beliefs. For instance, this evening’s reading is by Marcus Borg who sees Jesus is nothing more than a prophet. In this, he agrees with Judaism and Islam both of which of course honor Jesus – but as a mere religious genius, not as the Christ or as God. Christian faith on the other hand holds emphatically that Jesus is God, that he is indeed the expected Christ (Messiah). Without those beliefs, you’re simply not a Christian.”

As I said, I had other ideas, but bit my tongue.

However, here’s what I wanted to say in response (but thankfully did not):

Jesus is not God

Following the great Jesuit theologian, Roger Haight, I’ve come to believe that Jesus is not God. Instead, I believe that God is Jesus.

The distinction is not merely semantic. Saying that “Jesus is God” presumes that we know what the term “God” means. But that term, of course, has always been entirely problematic. What exactly is content? Answers to that query are legendarily diverse.

The problem is not only perennial, but in the case of Jesus is compounded by the ironic fact that the identification of Jesus as “God” took place under the aegis of the Roman Empire at the Council of Nicaea in 325. The irony stemmed from the fact that the Council was summoned by the Constantine, the emperor of Rome which had executed the prophet Jesus as an insurgent.

So, Constantine’s own problem was how to transform a rebel against Rome into a God (Deus was the Latin term) not only acceptable to, but supportive of his empire. His conundrum was how to transform Jesus into the son of a God whom worshippers of Zeus could understand.

[By the way, I hope you can see the significance of the similarity in terms Deus and Zeus. Its single consonant variation suggests that the Romans (who knew nothing of the Jewish God, Yahweh) couldn’t help but transform God into a thunder-bold throwing Zeus and Jesus into Zeus’ favorite son Apollo. In practice, no other understandings were possible for them!]

With all of this in mind, remember that Nicaea’s mandate was to answer questions like the following about the identity of Jesus:

  • Was he simply a man, a prophet?
  • Was he simply a god?
  • Was he a man who became a god?
  • Was he a god pretending to be a man?

In Constantine’s 4th century, there were “heresies” that represented each of these viewpoints.

But Nicaea’s answer to such questions was different. It stated that: Jesus was a divine being who was fully Deus/Zeus and fully man as well. The Council however left it for future theologians to explain exactly how that combination was possible.

[In my opinion, no one ever successfully did that. Marcus Borg, I think, came closest by holding that Jesus was fully human before his “resurrection” (however we might interpret that term) and fully God afterwards.]

In any case, throughout history Christians themselves have in practice resolved the fully God/fully human dilemma by emphasizing Jesus’ God dimension while neglecting almost entirely his humanity. Practically speaking, Christians have never truly endorsed Jesus’ humanity.

God Is Jesus

And that’s where the importance of holding that “God is Jesus” surfaces. On the one hand, the formulation recognizes the problematic nature of the term “God.” On the other, it resolves the dilemma by pointing to the Jesus of history to reveal the meaning of the term Deus. Look at the human Jesus, it says, and you’ll better understand the meaning of the word God.

And what do we find when we look at Jesus while bracketing official understandings of God as Zeus and Jesus as Apollo? The answer is entirely surprising and turns official theologies on their heads.

As revealed in Jesus, God shows up as the champion not of imperial majesties, but of slaves escaped from those same imperial majesties. More specifically, God’s embodiment (incarnation) is found in a man actually oppressed, not championed by empire. He is a peasant, the son of an unwed teenage mother, a refugee in Egypt, an enemy of the religious establishment, the leader of a poor people’s movement, a victim of torture and of capital punishment.

According to Christian faith, that’s who Jesus is; that’s who God is – found in the poor, the oppressed, in the torture chamber, on death row. . .

The fact that God chose to reveal God’s self as such is what is meant by the Bible’s “preferential option for the poor.”

Jesus is the Christ

All of this is intimately linked with my church friend’s insistence that Jesus is the Christ, the messiah.  Here too we must remember that “Christ” is not a Roman term; it is entirely Jewish and has specific Jewish meaning impossible to understand apart from its cultural context.

As Jesus-scholar, Reza Aslan, reminds us, the term “Christ” had one meaning and one meaning only for Jews: the Christ was (1) a descendent of Judah’s King David who would (2) reestablish David’s kingdom (3) in a once again sovereign state. And reestablishing sovereignty necessarily meant disestablishing Rome’s kingdom which occupied 1st century Palestine where Jesus lived.

Of course, the Romans understood that. Consequently, they executed Jesus precisely as an insurgent – along with the untold others in the same historical period who made the same messianic claim. Such was the point of the titulus, “King of the Jews” that the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate insisted be displayed over Jesus’ head as he hung dying on his cross – the instrument of torture and death reserved for insurgents against the Roman empire (John 19:22). The titulus proclaimed the charges against the executed. Jesus’ crime was proclaiming himself “King of the Jews.”

So, historically speaking, claiming that Jesus is the Christ or messiah is a highly political statement. It signifies belief in Jesus as the quintessential opponent of empire and its inevitable oppression of God’s chosen – the poor and oppressed.

Conclusion

I’m glad I didn’t try to say all of that at last night’s meeting. Still, I’m happy for the evocation of such thoughts by my brother in faith at our Talmadge Hill Community Church.

It all reminded me of what I first learned at a memorable lecture by Passionist scripture scholar, Barnabas Ahern back in 1965 (when I was just 25 years old). Ahern’s topic was the historical Jesus. He inspired me to confront the fact that christians (myself included) tend to believe with all our hearts that Jesus is God, while at the same time paying only lip service to Jesus’ humanity. Ever since then, I resolved to avoid that mistake myself.

In fact, I was so impressed by what Fr. Ahern said that the very next day I wrote out from memory the scholar’s entire talk which has since then played a central role in driving me to internalize modern scripture scholarship about the humanity of the historical Jesus.

It has led me to Roger Haight’s formulation that Jesus is not God, but God is Jesus.

With Reza Aslan’s help, I’ve also come to grasp the revolutionary meaning the terms “Christ” and “Messiah” must have had for 1st century Jews. Then writers such as Marcus Borg have helped me understand the post-resurrection process by which the human Jesus himself appropriated his divine nature – human before his resurrection, divine afterwards.

And that entire sequence of lessons has immeasurably enriched my own faith and enabled me to share their insights.

Thank you, my brothers and teachers Barnabas, Roger, Reza and Marcus.

I Go Overboard in Explaining How the Judeo-Christian Tradition = God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

[This is a second reflection on a pair of Zoom experiences I had last Monday. I reported the first here – some comments I made at a meeting of the Y’s Men of Westport. What I said and my insistence on saying it had me wondering about my role in the world during this third stage of my life. How much should I say? To what extent should I just shut up?

Today, I’m reporting on a Zoom meeting later that same day. It had me co-leading a Lenten discussion at our new church in Westport, CT. It was our third pre-Easter session devoted to examining controversial topics connected with our faith. Two weeks earlier, we had discussed miracles, their nature and possibility. A week later, the topic was healing. The topic last Monday was the question of “Jesus for the poor.”

Because of my interest in liberation theology and its signature “preferential option for the poor,” one of our two pastors had invited me to co-lead the discussion with him.

With the pastor’s consent, here’s the way I approached it.]

Introduction

The question of Jesus and poverty is fundamentally a religious question. And religion, of course, is a language. It marries words and concepts to a fundamentally ineffable (beyond words) experience that is open to all people. When that experience occurs in China, it comes out as Buddhism or Confucianism; when it happens in India, it’s expressed as Hinduism; when it happens in Arabia, it takes the form of Islam.

When the religious impulse finds words among the world’s poor and oppressed committed to improving their collective lives, it is expressed as the Judeo-Christian tradition. Yes, I mean that: the biblical tradition (virtually alone among the world’s great literature) thematically reflects the religious consciousness of awakened and impoverished victims of imperialism.  

More specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition found its origin among slaves in pharaonic Egypt. Those slaves formed a people (called Hebrews or “rebels”) who retained their worship of a God favoring ex-slaves, widows, orphans, and resident foreigners throughout their history of domination by empires of various sorts – under Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians, Greeks and Romans.

The Tradition’s Foundational Story

That fact becomes clear when we consider the basic biblical story. According to virtually all mainstream scripture scholars, that narrative begins not with Adam and Eve in the garden, but with the liberation of a motley group of slaves of various ethnic identities. The story told to give them a sense of national unity runs as follows:

Jesus the Christ

Here it is important to note that Jesus appeared precisely in the prophetic tradition. His message represented a defense of the poor. This is abundantly clear from the program he articulated in Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel:

Jesus’ program represented a reversal of the world’s values. Everything in God’s kingdom would be turned upside-down. According to Luke’s “Beatitudes,” the poor would be blessed, so would the hungry and thirsty along with those suffering persecutions. Meanwhile the rich would be condemned. “Woe to you rich,” Jesus is remembered as saying, “you’ve had your reward.” “Woe to you who laugh now, for you will soon be weeping.” In other words, Jesus’ understanding of God’s future entailed a complete reversal of the world’s social arrangement. As he put it, “The first would be last and the last would be first” (MT 20:16).

What’s more, the early Christian community’s interpretation of Jesus’ message underlined the entire tradition’s “preferential option for the poor.” In the first Christians’ efforts to follow the Master, they actually sold what they had and gave it to the poor. That way of life is reflected in three important passages from the Acts of the Apostles:

Jesus Romanized

With all of that in mind, you can see why the Christian message was so popular with slaves, the poor, with social outcasts. You can see how it inspired revolts as it spread throughout the Roman Empire. You can also understand why Rome became alarmed and famously ended up sponsoring all those persecutions which iconically fed so many Christians to lions and other beasts in the Colosseum. However, it was all to no avail – as Christianity continued to spread like wildfire.

So, at the beginning of the 4th century of our era, the emperor Constantine decided to co-op Christianity. But to do so, the new religion’s basic narrative had to be changed. It became Romanized and was effectively transformed into a Roman mystery cult.

Mystery cults worshipped gods like Mithra (whose feast day btw was Dec. 25th), Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother God. Their stories had the god descend from heaven, die, rise from the dead and ascend to heaven from which s/he offered life everlasting to believers who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

In Christian form, the narrative supporting such belief was best expressed by St. Augustine in the 5th century. Drawing on stories in the book of Genesis and on statements found in Pauline writings, this is the story with which Augustine shaped and captivated Christian belief for the next 1500 years: 

 

Notice here how the story abstracts not only from the histories of Judea and Israel, but from Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of God and its Great Reversal in the here and now. Instead, everything is mythologized.

And that brings us to our discussion questions:

For Discussion

  1. What are your questions about the information in these slides?
  2. What surprised you about that information?
  3. What (if anything) do you find questionable or unacceptable about it?
  4. What are the implications of this approach to the bible and Jesus for your own faith?
  5. What are the implications of this approach for the Talmadge Hill Community Church?

My 1st & 2nd Mistakes

Of course, anyone reading what I’ve just presented can see that my first mistake was speaking too long and presenting too many new ideas for a 90-minute discussion. (My face is still bright red.)

My second mistake was even worse.

The slides I just presented had been shared beforehand with our group of about 20. And one member had done his homework. After expressing appreciation for my work, he went on to list in detail his points of disagreement. He began with his belief that the foundational story of the Judeo-Christian tradition was indeed found in Genesis, not Exodus. He went on to say that my presentation overlooked the crucial fact that Jesus is divine, the very Son of God, and that his words about poverty were meant to be taken in a spiritual rather than in a material sense.

In response, I should have kept silent. And if I chose to respond, I should have said, “I really appreciate your taking the time to express so well and clearly the most important points of the Augustinian story. What you’ve done sets us up perfectly for comparing the two basic biblical stories we’ve just reviewed. Does anyone else in the group have similar or different thoughts from the ones just expressed?”

That’s what I should have said.

However, instead (and forgetting all I’ve learned from 40 years of teaching this stuff) I attempted to respond point-by-point to the issues my friend had so well summarized.

Mine was such a bad decision that at one point, the pastor had to cut me off to give other people a chance. (As I said, my face is still a vivid crimson.)

Conclusion

I didn’t sleep well Monday night. I couldn’t help thinking, “When will I ever learn?” I even thought, “I’m getting too old to do this sort of thing. I think my days of teaching, public speaking, and playing leadership roles in church might be over. I’ve got to learn to say less and to stop trying to convince others about what I’ve learned over all my years of studying and dialoguing with Global South scholars. It’s all counterproductive.”

The next morning, however, things appeared a bit less dire. I received telephone calls of encouragement from the co-leading pastor and some others. Emails tried to console me. (But all of that almost made matters worse. It made me think, “They’re just trying to make me feel good. It must have been more awful than I thought.”)

The problem is that I still feel so passionate about rescuing the Jesus tradition from the irrelevance of its domestication by Augustine and subsequent theologians.

In a world of globalized poverty and exploitation, the life, words and teachings of the historical Jesus are too powerful to keep silent about. I’m just going to learn from this sobering, uncomfortable lesson and move on.

This is about something much bigger than my mistakes as a teacher.

At 80, Still Wondering Who I Am

Just yesterday, I had two experiences that made me wonder about myself. Even at the age of 80, I’m still questioning how I should present myself in this world that by all appearances is rushing headlong into terminal disaster? Am I being too outspoken? Should I temper what I say about politics and religion?

For me, those are constant questions. They arise not only in family conversations, but more publicly – e.g., in the context of a men’s group I’m part of in our new hometown, Westport Connecticut. My self-interrogations surface as well in the church that Peggy and are aspiring to enter. It’s the Talmadge Hill Community Church located in nearby Darien. In all three instances – family, the men’s group, and in church – I find myself wondering about transgressing the boundaries of polite discourse.

Today, let me first of all tell you about what happened yesterday with the men’s group. In a subsequent posting, I’ll share my questionable behavior in church – and then in my family.

The Y’s Men

In Westport, I’m a member of The Y’s Men. It’s a group of about 200 retired men, mostly Jewish and with backgrounds in international business, law, local government, and other administrative posts. The organization gets its cleverly ambiguous name from some distant association with the YMCA, which I can’t recall.

In any case, the Y’s Men meet every week and sponsor a myriad of activities that include (among other items) hiking, golf, sailing, a book club, and (before Covid) theater in New York City. I’m enjoying all of that. The Y’s Men are typically very bright and firm I their opinions.

That firmness takes center stage every other week, when a gathering of about 50 of us meet to discuss world issues. There, as we talk about matters such as China, 5G, the Middle East, and the Great Global Reset. In those contexts, the Y’s Men reveal themselves as basically patriotic, respectful of the military, and as “Americans” who understand their country as a splendid model honoring human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

I, of course, share none of those characteristics. Informed by social analysis reflected in liberation theology, my own tendencies have me looking at international affairs from the viewpoint of the world’s majority who are poor and under the jackboot of western imperialism led by the United States of America. As a result, I often find myself at odds with my fellow discussants.

U.S. Policy in the Middle East

This week was no exception. The announced topic is “Recalibrating US Policy with respect to Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.” As usual, the conversation reflected the official position of the United States, viz. that “our” interests in recalibration are democracy and the protection of Israel from unreasonably hostile undemocratic forces represented principally by Iran, Islam, the Taliban, and Islamic terrorists.

For me, that position overlooked the provocative hostility of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia towards Iran which is a major power in the area and whose interpretation of Islam has good reason for being defensively hostile towards foreign control of the Middle East. Consider the following:

  • Between 2010 and 2012, the intelligence agency (Mossad) of U.S. client Israel, assassinated four of Iran’s top nuclear scientists.
  • On January 3rd of 2020, the Trump administration itself assassinated Iran’s revered general, Qassim Soleimani, a national hero.
  • On November 11th, 2020, the Mossad also assassinated Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, yet another of the country’s leading nuclear scientists.
  • On May 8th, 2018, President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the United States from the internationally supported Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) by which Iran had renounced alleged efforts to develop nuclear weapons. By all accounts, Iran had not violated the agreement.
  • Instead, the United States intensified economic sanctions on the country which increased Iran’s poverty rate by 11%.
  • The strengthening of sanctions persisted even during the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Despite such provocations, Iran has taken virtually no retaliatory measures either against Israel or the United States.

In the light of these facts, here’s what said at this week’s meeting:

What we’re calling a “reset” in the Middle East is really a recommitment to traditional U.S. anti-democratic policy there. It has us supporting not democracy, but client kings and potentates throughout the region particularly in Saudi Arabia as well as an apartheid regime in Israel. U.S. enemies here are Islamic nations who understand their religion as an affirmation of independence from outside control – independence from western imperialism and neo-colonialism. (For their part, the United States and its puppets call Islamic striving for independence “terrorism.”)  Of course, the point of that imperial control is what it’s always been, viz. transfer of resources. And in the middle east, the resource in question is oil. Nothing has changed. Nothing will change as long as our economy remains petroleum dependent.

My intervention was largely ignored. So, using other words, I reiterated the sentiment about three times more.

Too Insistent?

And that’s my point of self-questioning here.  Am I saying too much? Are my positions too radical? If so, are my efforts counterproductive in that they turn people against the very viewpoint I’m trying to share (that of the world’s poor, imperialized and silenced). Should I just shut up and listen?

Family members often caution me in the direction of such judicious silence.

Truthfully however, I find such restraint a species of self-betrayal. My role models – the people I find most admirable in the world – never bit their tongues in similar circumstances and even on the world stage. Their list is long and includes Gandhi, King, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, William Barber II, Liz Theoharis, Naomi Klein, Cornel West, Jeremiah Wright, Chris Hedges, the Berrigan brothers, and the liberation theologians I’ve spent more than 50 years studying.    

Most of all, the list of such truth-tellers is headed by the great prophets of the Bible and by the one who has grasped and held my attention my entire life. I’m talking about Jesus the Christ.

I’ll explore that dimension of my outspokenness and self-doubt in my next posting.   

In Memoriam: Guy Patrick (1935-2021)

Guy (far left) posing with new homeowners in his capacity as director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison County, KY

I lost my best friend today. Guy Patrick died around 11:00 this morning, a couple of weeks after we celebrated his 85th birthday. For years, he had predicted his death “this Easter.” And then when it didn’t happen, he’d laugh and say, “I guess I’ve been given another year.”

I had known Guy for more than 40 years. Also former priest, he had a kindred monk’s spirit and was wonderful example of the deepest unshakable (though critical) faith. It let him settle for a date near Christmas rather than Easter.

I first met Guy (I forget exactly when) in the late 1970s. He was “in transition” as they say – exploring his exit from the priesthood and an anticipated move to Berea Kentucky. There, his future wife, Peggy Anibaldi (a former religious sister) had just secured employment as a head resident at Berea College where I ended up teaching all those years.

Earlier, Peggy had looked me up having got my name from the bulletin of CORPUS, a Catholic organization of ex-clergy and religious whose mission was to help members find employment and community.

I remember Guy’s Peggy visiting my Peggy and me in our home in Buffalo Holler 5 miles outside the Berea city limits. No sooner was Ms. Anibaldi inside our doors, it seemed, than my Peggy was on the phone to Ruth Butwell (the director of Berea’s residence halls) telling her of this wonderful woman who would make the perfect head resident. Ruth hired Peggy, it seemed, almost on the spot. (My Peggy is very persuasive!)  

In any case, when Guy finally joined his Peggy in Berea, we hit it off immediately. And there in my office on the 4th floor of the Draper Building, began a conversation that lasted through Guy’s final days. It was always the same: some about politics, yes, but mostly about God, philosophy, theology, church, life and death. Always the same. Always delightful. Usually over double Manhattans and popcorn. Sometimes quite animated. Never dull. I loved Guy.

And what was there not to love? He was a wise accomplished man. As he described it, his career path could be roughly divided into 10-year segments. It took him, he said:

  • From Catholic school and setting bowling pins as a kid in PA
  • To the seminary and ordination
  • To securing a degree in theology at DC’s Catholic University
  • To teaching in his diocesan seminary and later in an associated high school
  • To working as a youth minister (with Sister Anibaldi) at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA
  • To serving as a Berea College head resident and later as a factotum at Emmaus House, an intergenerational home for the elderly which Guy’s Peggy directed as part of Fr. Ralph Beiting’s Christian Appalachian Project
  • To assuming his role as the truly legendary director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison County, Kentucky
  • To retiree status in which he continued to work for Habitat and (always with Peggy) to animate our local St. Clare’s Catholic Church until he (along with other progressive Catholics) surrendered in the face of restorationist pastors rejecting the spirit of the Second Vatican Council

Through it all, Guy retained a wonderful self-deprecatory sense of humor. A laugh or a joking remark was never far from his lips. Some of his more memorable sayings included:

  • “As my dad used to say in similar circumstances, ‘Meh. . .’”
  • “Well, we all have to be somewhere.”
  • “Organize? Hell, I couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.”
  • “They say I’m a pessimist, but I’m really an optimist. A pessimist says things couldn’t get worse. I always say, ‘Oh yes they could!’”
  • “In marrying Peggy, I was just following the advice of Martin Luther. He said ‘Every man should marry a nun.’ And that’s what I did. Never regretted it. Luther was right.”
  • “In fact, (again quoting my dad) here’s the way I’d summarize my life, ‘I loved every minute of it!'”
  • “For that reason, I like what Woody Allen had to say about death: ‘It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’”

Woody Allen notwithstanding, Guy was indeed fully there when it happened. That became evident in meetings of “The Manhattan Club,” a men’s group in which 7 of us Berea types participated for years. At our meetings we each usually drank 2 Manhattans – as well as “cheating on our wives” (as guy put it) by eating non-vegetarian snacks. The conversations were always quite lively.

[And speaking of cheating on our wives. . . Guy and I loved to have our own men’s night out at Richmond’s “Golden Corral Steakhouse.” There we’d select steak, ribs, chops and roast beef from the buffet — not to mention mashed potatoes, gravy and rich dessert samples. Then we’d waddle across the street and bowl a few lines at the alley that always evoked stories about his boyhood days setting pins. (Guy was a good bowler and quite the competitor.) We’d finish at the bowling alley bar for a nightcap.]

But towards the end, our evening Manhattan Club gatherings switched to mornings with coffee. And week by week, we witnessed Guy’s health decline. Nevertheless, he always had reflections to share as well as gallows humor about his approaching end. To the very last he was reading Plato, Thomas Merton, and the postmodernist, Jacques Derrida. Guy went out puzzling over Derrida’s reflections on “the gift of death.”

And at our final Manhattan Club meeting with him, guess what Guy talked about? He was full of recollections of his 6 months spent in Americus GA with the great Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. He expressed his intention to make one more appeal to his friends to contribute generously to the organization in his memory.

His final sentiments were characteristically prayerful. “After all of this,” he said, “my only prayer is ‘Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Along with that, it’s just ‘Thank you.'”

That’s the kind of Guy he was.

A Blessing for Guy Patrick

Just before he left us, our men’s Manhattan Club met via Zoom to say a formal farewell to Guy. I was asked to give a final blessing. As we all extended our hands, this is what I prayed:

 I give this blessing
 In the spirit of the conversations
 All of us have shared
 Over the years
 When we debated questions of life, meaning
 God, and destiny.
 Those were intellectual,
 Head-centered conversations
 Full of laughter and joy.
 We absolutely loved them!
  
 At this important moment however,
 Let’s set all of that aside
 And enter the depths of our hearts.
 Let’s embrace the wisdom of sages
 Who throughout the millennia
 (Along with Guy)
 Have insisted
 That what awaits us all
 Beyond the threshold humans call “death”
 Is the fulfillment of everything
 That any of us can hope for or desire.
  
 Please enter that realm with me now.
 (Pause)
  
 Guy, we bless you
 At this transcendent moment.
 We send you with all our hopes
 On your way –
 Onto the path that all of us must trod.
 We send you into the realm
 Of all the wise people who have ever lived –
 Of angelic beings and light beings
 The realm of our Father-Mother God.
  
 Please know that
 You take with you
 Everything positive, holy,
 Constructive and good -- 
 Every holy thought, word and act
 That has ever crossed your mind,
 Your lips and your heart.
 (There are so many of them
 That you yourself
 Have blessed us with.)
  
 Go in joy, confidence, assurance
 And peace
 Knowing that we are with you in spirit.
 Ours is one of gratitude
 For the blessed life you have lived
 For the lives you have changed
 For the students you have inspired
 For the homes you have constructed
 For the love you have shared
 With Peggy, Gina, Anna, their babies
 With the rest of us
 And so many, many more.
  
 You have especially blessed this group of men
 Who now return the favor.
 You are our brother, our friend, our companion,
 And our inspiring conversation partner.
 You have been our priest, dear Guy
 You have always been that
 And will remain so
 Forever.
  
 (Dare I say it?)
 Yes, I will:
 Behold the Great Priest
 Who in his days pleased God!
 “Ecce sacerdos magnus 
 Qui in diebus suis placuit deo”.
  
 Thank you so much
 For all of that,
 For your wonderful life
 And for showing us
 So marvelously
 How to die.
  
 Go in peace, dear beloved brother.

Reimagining Religion — with the Help of Dietrich Bonhoeffer & Dan McGinn

Here in Connecticut, where we’ve been living these last three years, the non-denominational church that Peggy and I are aspiring to join is sponsoring a six-month “mindfulness dialog” on “Reimagining Religion.” About a dozen people are participating under the leadership of Danny Martin, a former Catholic priest and Thomas Berry scholar.

So far, I’ve found the whole experience both inspiring and a bit troubling.  As I’ll explain below, the inspiration comes from a very thoughtful mindfulness dialog process itself. The trouble comes from the tendency of the process to overlook the proverbial elephant in the room in terms of contemporary political realities. Those realities have an imperial United States of America assuming exactly the international dominance to which Adolph Hitler aspired almost a century ago. In the prophetic spirit of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such development cannot be ignored or given second place by those wrestling with religion’s significance.

The Mindfulness Approach

To begin with, our approach to reimagining religion has three phases, connecting, exploring, and discovering:

  • Connecting involves our trying to pinpoint the human experiences that give rise to the religious impulse.
  • Exploring has us discussing that experience in the light of relevant texts such as poetry, essays or sacred scripture drawn from various traditions.
  • Discovering means answering the question, “What then must we do?”

In the connecting phase, we’re combing through our lives in terms of experiences of mystery, beauty, love, and oneness with nature. These, we’re finding, put many in the presence of the “mysterium tremendum” that evokes awe, reverence, adoration – and religious responses involving story and ritual.

The exploring stage has most turning to poetry and non-Christian texts in search of meaningful story. Participants seem to share the conviction that we need a “new story” to replace the one most of us have rejected. The latter was based on belief in an old white man in the sky. He evicted our first parents from their original paradise. He then sent his divine son to redeem sinful humankind so we might gain heaven and avoid hell. We need a better story; we all seem to agree.

As for discovery. . . Our whole experience has us thinking more deeply about changes in our lives based on loving family members and neighbors precisely as ourselves (because in some real sense they truly are us) and on reverence for nature.

That Troubling Elephant

My reservations about our approach so far concern our apparent reluctance to address what strikes me as the main God-related experience facing humankind today (at least in terms of the Judeo-Christian tradition).

That experience involves the worldwide oppression of the former colonies and their resulting experience of poverty, hunger, environmental destruction and war. That entire syndrome directly involves people like us, since our country, the United States of America, is principally responsible for the oppression just referenced. In the words of Martin Luther King, we are the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

To ignore such realities is analogous to German Christians in the 1930s overlooking the rise of fascism with its imperial ambitions and immediate persecution of communists, socialists, Jews, people of color, Roma, homosexuals, the disabled and immigrants. I can imagine the irrelevance of German Christians in 1933 gathering in a church basement to discuss reimagining religion. How would we judge them in that context if they focused primarily on their interior and interpersonal lives while Germany was ablaze and about to set the world itself on fire?  

Of course, not all German Christians did that. In fact, in the face of fascism’s rise and Hitler’s establishment of his Third Reich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church took on a project very like our own. As a result, just before his execution by the Nazis (for participating in a plot to assassinate der Fuhrer) Bonhoeffer in his Letters and Papers from Prison, advocated imagining “Christianity without religion.” That is, he wanted to reappropriate the faith of Moses and Jesus without the traditional trappings, rituals and language that narcoticized and blinded believers to the socio-political reality staring them square in the face.

The New Old Story

To my mind and in our analogous context, “connecting” should mean coming to grips with America’s role in creating the world that our system of political economy, neo-colonial ambitions, environmental devastation and militarism has set on fire. That in itself requires deep and serious study and discussion. It’s time to revisit official and competing stories of American history.

Then, “exploring” means linking the resulting new understandings with the authentic biblical narrative as revealed by modern scripture scholarship. Its relevance to the global circumstances I’m describing here is exceedingly clear. That’s because modern scholarship shows that the essence of the Judeo-Christian tradition does not centralize increasingly inapt Genesis mythologies. Instead, it tells a story of oppression and liberation that runs as follows:

  • Israel’s God first revealed himself by liberating slaves from Egypt.
  • He gave them a covenant to form a just community where widows, orphans, slaves and foreigners would be especially welcome.
  • Israel’s leaders often broke the covenant.
  • They were confronted by prophets who called them to task.
  • Repeatedly, Israel itself was victimized by surrounding empires – Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome.
  • In such circumstances, they were promised a new future by prophets who denounced mistreatment of the poor and announced a new future of deliverance from imperialism.
  • Jesus appeared in the tradition of the prophets.
  • He proclaimed a future kingdom where a new covenant would be in force.
  • His teachings on God’s Kingdom described a world where God would be king instead of Caesar.
  • He thus raised the hopes of the poor and the ire of the Jewish and Roman authorities.
  • So, they executed him.
  • His followers became convinced that he was somehow raised from the dead.
  • They formed a Kingdom community of faith, sharing all things in common.
  • Questions of the afterlife were left in God’s hands.

In the light of this narrative, answering the question “What then must we do?” takes on highly political and threateningly controversial features that few outside the former colonies are willing to address. That’s because most even there who drew the obvious political conclusions about opposing empire have been assassinated by the current imperial power that is absolutely intolerant of anti-imperial faith.

A Reimagined Creed

In the light of truths like the foregoing, in Jesus against Christianity, Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer calls for reimagining fundamental Christian professions of faith such as the Apostles Creed. In concentrating on Jesus’ birth and resurrection, he says, they fail to honor the thrust of Jesus’ life towards resistance to domination systems, and identification with the poor and outcast. 

But what forms would a reimagined creed take?  Below are printed two responses to that question – the familiar Apostles Creed on the one hand and a reimagined form on the other. Personally, I find that the latter contributes mightily to our task of reimagining religion.

 The Apostles'Creed

 I believe in God, the Father almighty,
 Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus
 Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, who was
 conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the
 Virgin Mary, suffer under Pontius Pilate,
 was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended
 into hell; the third day he arose again from
 the dead.  He ascended into heaven, sits at the
 right hand of God, the Father almighty; from
 thence he will come to judge the living and the
 dead. I believe in the Holy Ghost, the holy
 Catholic church, the communion of saints, the
 forgiveness of sin, the resurrection of the
 body, and in life everlasting.  Amen.

 A Reimagined Creed

 We believe in humankind
 and in a world in which
 it is good to live for all people
 in love, justice, brotherhood and peace.
 We must continually act out these beliefs.
 We are inspired to do so, because we believe
 in Jesus of Nazareth
 and we wish to orient our lives to him.
 In so doing, we believe that we
 are drawn into the mysterious relationship
 with the One, whom he called his father.
 Because of our belief in Jesus
 we make no claims to exclusivity.
 We shall work together with others
 for a better world.
 We believe in the community of the faithful,
 and in our task to be the salt of the earth
 and the light of the world.
 But all of this in humility
 Carrying our cross every day.
 And we believe in the resurrection
 whatever it may mean. Amen. 

Conclusion

Whenever I think of it, I’m drawn to the conclusion that my entire adult life has been devoted to reimagining religion. I was encouraged in that endeavor by my study and teaching of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life and works. Whether we’re aware of it or not, Bonhoeffer’s represents the kind of prophetic faith our CT church group is trying to reimagine.

At the same time, I bear in mind the words and example of an outspoken mentor of mine during my graduate studies in Rome so many years ago. His name was Dan McGinn. Dan was about 15 years older than me. By his example, he taught me how to celebrate the Eucharist spontaneously and without written text.      

In any case, Dan always said that if he were ever made bishop (There was absolutely no chance of that!) his episcopal motto under his coat of arms would read “No more bullshit.”

I’m tempted to recommend adopting Dan’s motto for ourselves as our church group tries to reimagine religion. While not exactly B.S., our traditional forms of belief (even the Apostles’ Creed) have been rejected as such by much of our world. Hence the relevance of our task.

What I’m suggesting here is that reappropriating the biblical story cited above and reformulating our creed accordingly would go a long way towards the culturally imperative assignment of making our faith relevant to the undeniable resurgence of fascism in our contemporary context.

80th Birthday Reflections Part 7: Priestly Disorder (continued)

St. Columban’s Seminary, Dalgan, Ireland where in 1970 & ’71 I took part in a General Chapter of the Society of St. Columban

[Before I continue with my 80th birthday reflections about my political development, I must add a brief account of a very important event in the process that eventually led me to leave the priesthood I had prepared so long to enter. The event I describe below gave me an insight into the inner workings of the missionary organization I had joined (the Society of St. Columban) — at the highest level.]

As indicated in previous postings, the changes represented by Second Vatican Council reforms introduced into my life a certain alienation from the Society of St. Columban, from traditional ideas of the priesthood and from my vow of celibacy. My immediate superior’s unfounded accusations recounted in part 5 of these octogenarian reflections were central to the process.

The feelings I described were compounded, when the Columbans convoked their post-Vatican II “Chapter” (leadership assembly) in 1970. The idea was to gather together the group’s leaders to determine how the Society of St. Columban might change in the light of Vatican II documents such as “The Church in the Modern World.”

The leadership in question was comprised of ex officio members such as our current Superior General and his Council. At large members were also either appointed or elected by the group which at its height had about 1000 priest-members. The majority delegates to the Chapter turned out to more than 60 years of age.

With that in mind and because of the objections of younger members, a compromise was reached to allow invitation as well of one representative each from Irish, American, and Australian members of the Society 30 years of age and under. Because of their junior status, the “young” invitees, it was determined, would have voice at the Chapter, but no vote. Joined by two bright counterparts from Ireland and Australia, I was elected to represent U.S. juniors.

The voice without vote restriction had all of us feeling like outsiders from the get-go.

My own alienation was brought to the fore by the ex officio presence of my rector from Rome. Soon after my arrival at the Chapter’s venue (the Columban major seminary in Navan, Ireland about 30 miles from Dublin), I learned that he had wasted no time before conveying to others my status as suspect and “dangerous.”

And why was I considered dangerous? It was because of positions I had taken on issues hotly debated at the time. In retrospect, the positions seem quite tame. But when I wrote them up in an “Introductory Note on Youth Representation,” even my Irish and Australian youth delegate counterparts thought them “too polarizing” to share with the Chapter at large.

The paper contrasted pre-Vatican II positions with post-conciliar approaches to church, mission, sacraments, priesthood and authority. Here’ the gist of what I wrote. Now, it almost seems laughable that such tame positions were considered polarizing:

  • Church: Pre-Vatican II theology, I noted, thought of the Catholic Church as an organization to which everyone must belong in order to save their souls – i.e. to get into heaven. There was “no salvation outside the church.” By contrast, the Post-Vatican II position envisioned the church as an often-small prophetic community at the service of the world itself – helping it towards the fully human life of love exemplified in the example and teaching of Jesus the Christ. Even a very this-worldly life based on self-giving constitutes the meaning of “salvation.”
  • Mission: According to older understandings that had shaped the Society of Saint Columban, our work as missionaries meant saving pagans in China, Korea, the Philippines, and Fiji by baptizing as many as possible into the Catholic Church without which it was impossible for them to get to heaven. In the newer view, quantity of membership took a backseat to quality of witness. And witness meant replicating Jesus’ life of healing, forgiveness and self-sacrifice – for the benefit of the larger world.
  • Sacraments: In the theology imbibed by most members of the Chapter I attended, the sacraments were rituals that made human events like birth, marriage, sickness and death holy. The faithful needed sacraments to turn such secular events into acts of supernatural worth. However, the newer vision saw those human events as already holy simply in virtue of God’s creative order. On this understanding, sacraments became occasions to celebrate life itself and the transcendent dimension found in every human birth, marriage, visiting of the sick, in every act of forgiveness and sharing – whether they might be formally celebrated or not.
  • Priests: Pre-Vatican II theology understood priests as men set apart – almost of a caste different from lay people. Post Vatican II theology understood priesthood as one function or charism among many others within the Christian community – e.g. counsellor, teacher, administrator, musician or prophet. 
  • Authority: In the world of my inculturation, authority was given to administrators. Obedience was a supreme virtue for the rest of us. According to the old view, the ideal superior was a “sound man” who was safe, took no chances and “runs a tight ship.” After the Second Vatican Council, authority is earned, not conferred. Here community leaders are listeners who articulate a community’s consciousness of itself.  They enable rather than direct. They are forward-looking, innovate and take chances. When mistakes are made, they are freely admitted.

I conveyed my initial impression of the Chapter in my journal when I wrote soon after my arrival at the end of September: “Reading over the Chapter publications and talking with various people here make it awfully hard to identify with the Society and with the approaches of this Chapter. It makes me wonder what my own future in an outfit like this can possibly be. I’m estranged; I really am.”

Meanwhile, I also noticed that the Irish seminary itself seemed behind the times. True, I hit it off well with the seminarians taking part in field day competitions and playing basketball on the outside courts. They even wanted me to play on the seminary team.

However, a November (1970) letter to my constituents had me making the following observation regarding the stage of renewal in our seminary in Ireland: “As for the stage of seminary renewal here. . . It’s about up to where we in the States were in the ’64-’66 period. Or maybe even a little before that. . .The difficulty with renewal here (in the seminary and in the Irish church in general) seems to be this: here the church is more or less coextensive with the culture. . . The Irish church can go on speaking in archaic terms, it can go on doing rather meaningless things and still have the impression that it’s communicating the Good News in a meaningful way to the world. However, it’s not. And, after speaking with young people here (outside the seminary), it has become clear to me that this kind of illusion will not be long-lasting. The young are being alienated here too, sad to say.”

The break I predicted came in 1973 with Ireland’s integration into the European Union and with the pedophilia scandals of the late 1980s. Together, they changed everything. Entry into the EU brought the secularization and eventually the Thatcherism and Reaganism of the 1980s that centralized money, entrepreneurism, and consumption just as they did elsewhere in the western world. And, of course, the pedophilia crisis completely discredited the clergy and hierarchy.

The changes introduced were so profound that by 2018 – the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Society of St. Columban – the head of the Society characterized Ireland’s culture as “post-Christian.” Hearing those words from a Columban superior was shocking to me even at the age of 78.

During the two Chapter sessions I attended in Ireland (1970 and ’71 — each lasting several months) all of that was only vaguely foreshadowed. But it certainly was part of the disorder I’ve been trying to explain in these 80th birthday reflections. My highly ordered world was disintegrating at very deep levels that were intellectual, ecclesiastical, very personal, and eventually highly political.

My Recent Hospitalization: Do I Really Need to Live Beyond 80?

Norwalk Hospital: Scene of Last Week’s Five-Day “Retreat”

Is there something perversely magical about crossing the line between 79 and 80? All I know is that no sooner did I make that transition, than I found myself hospitalized for the second time in my life – the last time being more than 40 years ago.

In both cases, the cause was the same – complications introduced by atrial fibrillation (periodic rapid heartbeats). When that happened for the first time, I entered a medical labyrinth that I swore never to fathom again.

I’m sure many of us are familiar with the drill – endless tests, being sent from one doctor to the next, prescribed medicines with threatening side effects. (I didn’t like one doctor’s answer when I asked him how long I’d be on beta blockers. “For the rest of your life, of course,” he said.)

That experience along with the tale I’m about to share have me wondering about ensuring life beyond 80. After that, shouldn’t we just back off and let nature take its course?

Let me tell you how I came to that question – and to its surprisingly clear answer.

The Medical Nemesis

I recall that during my first serious run-in with the medical establishment (again, about 40 years ago), I was reading Ivan Illich’s The Medical Nemesis. There, the great philosopher, trenchant social critic, and (like me) an ex-priest advanced a thesis relevant to my then-emerging medical situation. He wrote that modern medicine was making westerners sicker rather than healthier.

All of that was in line with his wider analysis, viz. that after a certain point:

  • The more formal education we have, the stupider we become (knowing more and more about less and less, while understanding less and less about more and more).
  • The further we advance in the field of transportation, the more immobile we find ourselves (sitting in traffic jams and airports, separated from each other by increasingly greater distances, and dependent on machines that only the few can afford, and even fewer can repair).
  • The more “advances” in communication we experience, the less meaningful our interactions seem (as we use phones and computers to occasionally talk rather than enjoying the daily face-to-face conversations that are part and parcel of being human).
  • The more food modern agriculture produces, the less nourishing its content (due to monocultures, feedlot diseases, preservatives, and dependence on inputs such as artificial fertilizers, animal drugs, and poisonous pesticides).

It’s the same with modern medicine, Illich argued. Its takeover by hospital equipment and pharmaceutical companies has us all hooked on procedures and drugs whose side effects and interactions are only partially understood. Within the system, doctors claim authority due only to those who know everything about the human body, while in reality 90% of it remains a mystery.

Even more basically, hospitals serve patients typically terrible food, which should be the major source of health in any circumstance. But instead, already undernourished patients are further deprived in places that are actual germ farms – ranking high among the most dangerous environments human beings have ever produced. It’s all “iatrogenic,” Illich charged – a disease-inducing epidemic intensified by physicians and the medical establishment itself.

To reiterate, then: beyond a certain point, the more modern medicine we have, the sicker we become.

My Medical History

Well, my experience with the medical establishment 40 years ago confirmed Illich’s insight.

For instance, after I expressed my concerns about rapid and irregular heartbeats, doctors at the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville, had me doing things that seemed well, “iatrogenic.” At one point I recall, they gave me a “tilt table test.” That meant strapping me to an upright mobile board that was turned to various angles in attempts to induce (for purposes of analysis) the very symptoms I was complaining about. The resulting sight appeared quite self-consciously ridiculous and somehow comic to me. Something seemed wrong.

At another point, I found myself enduring a stress test on a treadmill while connected by electrodes to an electrocardiogram monitor. That was o.k.; I had already done several of those.

However, this particular time, the technicians were amazed by my endurance. They even called some colleagues over to witness the wonder of it all as they progressively increased the treadmill’s speed. Suddenly however, they realized I was approaching cardiac arrest. In panic, they shut down the machine, rushed me to a nearby couch and urgently sent for the emergency doctor to attend to me lest I expire.

Episodes like those led me to see the truth of Illich’s argument. I concluded, “These guys don’t know what they’re doing. Much of it just doesn’t make sense. I have to make my own decisions here.”

Eventually, I did. After obtaining a second opinion from an elderly Asian physician who explained my options, I decided to “self-medicate” in the sense of changing my diet, committing to a rigorous daily exercise program, and (most importantly) meditating twice each day for half an hour. And here I am, still alive, healthier than most of my physicians and telling the tale. The Asian doctor just mentioned had given his presumed medical authority straight back to me. His crucial question was, “What do you think?”

My Current Situation

Of course, I was carrying all of that in my mind when three weeks after my 80th birthday, and following the direction of my primary care doctor, I reported to the Norwalk (CT) Hospital’s emergency room complaining of extended heart palpitations, skin sensitivity, and shortness of breath. I thought I might have COVID-19.

Instead, following a COVID test, a couple of x-rays, a CT scan, two ultrasounds, an electrocardiogram, an echocardiogram, and innumerable blood tests, it was determined that I have blood clots probably caused by my recent 12-hour, single day drive from Canadian Lakes Michigan to our home in Westport Connecticut. The condition was aggravated by my chronic atrial fibrillation. Together, those inputs caused my shortness of breath and unusual fatigue. And, yes, I would have to submit to a regime of three medicines taken twice a day for “the rest of my life.”

Suddenly, this very healthy and strong person (me!) was rendered “sick” and reduced to invalid status.

So, I spent those five days hospitalized and ingesting intravenous drips containing various formulations of blood thinners and heart tranquilizers.

The doctors’ problem was determining the correct dosages of the three prescribed medicines. We experimented daily with blood thinners and heart calmers. The therapies worked while my body was at rest. But as soon as I started moving around, the heart irregularities and shortness of breath returned (though I hardly noticed). My heart continued to race at times even as the blood clots dissolved themselves. (This was natural, I was told, even without Heparin or its equivalent.)

With their alternatives apparently exhausted, an excellent pair of very bright and articulate staff physicians (and teachers in the medical school) with stellar bedside manners suggested a procedure reminding me of the term “iatrogenic.” They wanted to shock my cardiac system back into normalcy. According to the procedure, (1) I’d be sedated, (2) swallow a miniaturized scanning device in search of a possible clot in my heart, and if none were found, they’d (3) give my heart a normalizing electric shock and hope for the best.

Hmm. I wondered what Ivan Illich would say about all of that. I didn’t know. But I recalled his distinct suggestions that:

  • The less apparent the causes of one’s symptoms
  • The more exotic and complicated their diagnosis and anticipated cure
  • The more “sophisticated” the technology
  • And the more numerous the medications involved,

the less likely it is that a given therapy is on the right track.

Thinking like Illich, I wondered: given my age, does it make sense any longer to take such life-prolonging measures for someone who up to a few days before had been progressing quite nicely as far as his health was concerned? (I was taking only one med each day – for enlarged prostate. I walked four miles seven days a week at a rate of 14:30 minutes per, did 40 pushups midway through each of those walking sessions, and played golf regularly with great enjoyment – especially with my two sons. That along with the healthy diet provided me for the last 44 years by my gourmet vegetarian wife were keeping me quite healthy.) Why not continue trusting my body and Life itself to give me a few more relatively healthy years – or not? At 80, it’s been a good run. Who could ask for more?

Enter Ezekiel Emanuel

In asking that question, I was reflecting what I had read six years earlier in an Atlantic Monthly article written by University of Pennsylvania oncologist and medical ethicist, Ezekiel J. Emanuel. The article was called “Why I Hope to Die at 75.”

There (writing at the age of 57) Emanuel wrote that statistical concerns about physical and mental decline among aging Americans had inspired him to conclude that “Once I have lived to 75, my approach to my health care will completely change. I won’t actively end my life. But I won’t try to prolong it, either.”

Practically speaking that would mean, he said, no regular doctor visits, no colonoscopies, cancer screenings, cardiac stress or PSA tests, no pacemaker or implantable defibrillator, no heart-valve replacement or bypass surgery, no hospitalizations – nothing curative; only palliative medical procedures.

In Emanuel’s opinion, death according the natural lifespan of a post 75-year-old body is far preferable to the indignities of artificially prolonged life with its probabilities of immobility and mental decline.

I was convinced that Emanuel’s diagnosis of my “condition” would be that there is really nothing wrong with me at all. Despite appearances, I’m simply old. My body parts including my fibrillating heart and sometimes gasping lungs are showing normal signs of wear and tear.

It’s all part of life’s wonderfully mysterious process.

I found myself agreeing with that position. After all, I’ve already led a full productive life. Everything from now on is gravy.

So, once I’ve consumed my present supply of meds (to appease my family members), and after my next appointment with my cardiologist (for the same reason), I plan to swear off the whole thing. I’m going to follow Emanuel’s advice.  

Conclusion

As it has turned out, my time in the Norwalk hospital was a great gift – almost a spiritual retreat. The experience provided me time to focus on the topics I’ve raised here – the nature of U.S. medical care, the advisability of adopting curative (vs. palliative) measures after the age of 75 or 80, and other end-of-life issues.

Like Emanuel I’ll forge ahead without any exotic interventions whatsoever. If the heart attack comes, I’m ready to go. As I said, it’s been a good run.

If a stroke comes, same story. And should I become disabled, I’ve clearly asked my family members to simply put me in a nursing home without any life-extending treatments and let me die. Absent those medicines and treated only with palliatives, my life’s end will probably come quickly and painlessly.

Meanwhile, I’ve resolved to continue enjoying life, writing for social justice, following my spiritual practices, and concentrating on lowering those frustrating golf scores rather than my unfathomable heart rate.

80th Birthday Reflections Part 6: Political Order

Just in case readers might have forgotten: my project in this series of reflections on the occasion of my 80th birthday is to illustrate Richard Rohr’s observation about human growth in terms of the “three boxes” into which, he says, everyone’s personal growth trajectory more or less fits. According to Rohr, if we’re lucky, the first part of life is characterized by order, the second by disorder, and the third by reorder. In those terms, I’ve been very lucky.

I’ve tried to illustrate that luck in previous entries in this series. There I briefly described how I mostly benefitted from a highly ordered life starting in a very Catholic household with loving parents. Those years included nine years of education in St. Viator’s Catholic school on Chicago’s northwest side. Then, I shipped off at the age of 14 for a monk-like, highly regulated existence in a seminary preparing teenagers for a life of celibacy and service to God. In St. Columban’s minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York, we were already being shaped to convert what we understood as pagans in foreign missions like Korea, the Philippines, Burma, and Japan. 

So far, my story has taken me from my family home in Chicago and subsequently in Warrenville, Illinois to that seminary in Silver Creek. From there I attended a corresponding college seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. I then completed a novitiate-like “spiritual year” in Bristol, Rhode Island. That was followed by four years of “graduate” scripture and theological studies back in Milton. Then finally, following my ordination in 1966, I completed my formal education with five years of doctoral studies in Rome, Italy. By then, I was 32 years old.

When I left my story off, I was in the middle of telling about those halcyon years in Rome.

My hope is that sharing such reflections might help me better understand my own journey as I enter my ninth decade. In the process, it would be wonderful if readers would also be stimulated to similarly examine their own transitions from order to disorder and hopefully to the ongoing process of reorder.

In any case, I want this particular blog entry to help me (and anyone mildly interested) better understand my own political development. Recounting its story will stretch me far beyond Rome to most of western Europe. It will then take me to more than 40 years of teaching (and learning!) at Berea College in rural Appalachia. Sabbaticals and other travel opportunities sponsored by Berea ended up peppering my journey with subsequent long stopovers in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, India and Cuba. At each of those stops, I learned political lessons that have informed and shaped my life. I’ve been lucky indeed.

But let me begin at the beginning.

My parents were basically apolitical. As a truck driver, my father was a Teamster Union member, but he never betrayed any corresponding political consciousness. (I just remember that he didn’t like paying union dues.) My mother sometimes spoke of her preference to “vote for the man, not the party.” Together, both mom and dad claimed to be Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. However, their leanings were clearly towards the GOP.

Apart from that, my first recollection of a significant political thought came when I was a freshman in the high school seminary (1954-’55). We were off at some sort of day of recollection at a nearby rival seminary. And older priest (I’ll bet he was about 50!) was onstage giving a keynote address. In its course, the old man remarked for some reason that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a decade earlier) amounted to the most heinous crime in human history.

I was completely shocked. At the time the McCarthy hearings were in full swing. Anti-communism was in the air. I wondered, “Why would a priest say something so unamerican? Was he perhaps a communist? Surely no priest could be a communist.”

My question was framed like that because at the time, anti-communism was in the very air all Americans breathed. After every Mass, we all offered specially mandated extra prayers “for the conversion of Russia.”

The sentiment invaded our minor seminary with a vengeance. The Columban Fathers had just been expelled from China by the 1949 Communist revolution. So “Old China Hands” returning from “fields afar” addressed us frequently about their experiences with such evil incarnate. They told us that the communists hated the Virgin Mary and her rosary. That was enough for any of us. Nothing could be eviler than that.

I remember that during one study hall on May 2, 1957, one of my most admired teachers who was monitoring the session came by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Politically speaking, that was the world I grew up in. I had no idea what communism was other than an anti-God, anti-Mary worldwide conspiracy by absolutely evil people.

Again, cut off as we were from the news and unexposed to any historical information other than that conveyed in standard (boring) history books, no wonder my political formation was so narrow. Everyone’s was.

It was also no wonder that when I cast my first ballot for U.S. president (1964), I voted for Barry Goldwater. I did so not only because of strict “American” indoctrination, but also because I greatly admired my mother’s brother, my uncle Ben. Of all my relatives, I thought he had the most respectable job. He worked in some capacity at Chicago’s First National Bank; he went to work in suit and tie each day. [Everyone on my father’s side of the family were laborers – brick layers, bartenders, plumbers and general construction workers. One of them was a bookie. (I remember him showing us one day his basement with a whole array of phones connected with his work.)]

So, in my desire to be more informed and sophisticated politically – more like Uncle Ben – I had long conversations with him about issues of the day. He steered me towards the Republicans and criticism of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War resistance.

For instance, in 1967, when Martin Luther King voiced his searing criticism of U.S. aggression in southeast Asia, I thought, “It might be well and good for him to speak about civil rights for blacks, but now he’s gone too far. What does he know about foreign policy and Vietnam?”

That was the state of my political consciousness when I went off to Rome at the age of 27.

And that’s precisely when political disorder set in to complement the theological disorder I’ve already described.  

(Next time: the particulars of political disorder)