(Sunday Homily) A Wife-Husband Lenten Discipline: A Course in Miracles

ACIM 2

Readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent: 2 CHR 36: 14-16, 19-28; PS 137: 1-6; EPH 2: 4-10; JN 3: 14-21; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/031515-fourth-sunday-lent.cfm

This year for Valentine’s Day, my bride of nearly 40 years, Peggy, gave me a wonderful gift. Or I should say, she gave us a wonderful gift. She enrolled us in a live-streaming seminar led by Marianne Williamson, the great spiritual teacher, peace activist, and author of many books, including Return to Love, which both Peggy and I had read with great profit several years ago.

What Williamson presented turns out to be intimately connected with today’s liturgy of the word.  It presents us with a rich catechism of some of the most-powerful images and metaphors belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition. They include a whole list of choices humans (and married couples) must make between:  (1) exile and liberation, (2) Babylon and Jerusalem, (3) death and life, (4) worldly values and Christ’s values, and (5) works without faith or works with faith. In their esoteric senses, keeping those choices in mind proves helpful in pursuing our Lenten disciplines, especially as they affect our most intimate relationships.

You see, Marianne Williamson is a student and teacher of religious metaphor like the ones I just referenced. As a Jewish counselor and teacher, she honors all those biblical memes. And yet, her main spiritual reference point isn’t the Tanakh, but A Course in Miracles (ACIM). That’s an esoteric spiritual classic based on a series of “revelations” received by Helen Schucman, a research psychologist and one-time aggressive atheist.  Over a period of seven years she took dictation from the Spirit of Jesus about how to experience all of life as a Miracle – as an unending series of joyful wonders.

That whole idea might be off-putting to some. As a matter of fact, that’s what I experienced when I first picked up ACIM, maybe thirty years ago. Some have described it as New Age psychobabble. I’m afraid I jumped to that conclusion.  I also found its entire premise somehow disconcerting – I mean: actual dictation from Jesus?  It just wasn’t my cup of tea. And I still have some reservations.

Yet, the book’s basic claim resonated with me. That claim is that at their summits, all the world’s great spiritual traditions converge in the basic mystical realization that ALL LIFE IS ONE. In our depths, our real Self is divine. There is very little difference between us humans. In a real sense, both you and I are one.

More than that, we share unity with the trees, mountains, rivers, oceans, animals, and insects.  Only the misplaced importance we give to our individual egoic selves prevents us from recognizing that mystical insight. That’s a truth I’ve encountered not only in the Christian mystics like John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, but also in my study of Buddhism and Hinduism. It’s also something that accords with my own experience over the last 18 years of committed meditation twice a day. The meditation teacher I follow, Eknath Easwaran, would find very little strange in A Course in Miracles.

In any case, Williamson’s teachings from ACIM, as well as her interactions with her audience of about 50 couples were astounding. She was incredibly fluent, funny, self-disclosing, and honest in her presentations. She was also unbelievably wise and helpful in dealing with the problems audience-participants presented during question and answer periods that often turned into full-blown counseling sessions. These had couples generously divulging problems of achieving intimacy, of heartbreaking infidelity, inability to communicate, and basic misunderstandings between women and men – yin and yang.

And then there was Williamson’s unflinching insistence on prayer and meditation. To begin with, she held that there can be no spiritual growth for anyone without putting God first and without the daily practice of meditation.  From a leftist peace activist, I found that refreshing and challenging.

According to Williamson, anyone interested in personal or couple transformation needs to meditate every day. Ideally, couples should do it together every morning. But even more impressive to me was Williamson’s ability to pray herself. She concluded most interactions with couples by inviting them to pray with her. And it all seemed perfectly natural and invariably quite beautiful.

In fact, Peggy and I were so impressed, and our conversations following Williamson’s sessions were so helpful that we resolved to work through A Course on Miracles as our Lenten discipline. And that’s what we’ve been doing since the Ash Wednesday which followed so closely this year’s Valentine’s Day.

In connection with this morning’s liturgy of the word, here’s what we discovered:

  • Most of us married people are living in exile – in Babylon like the Jews in the 6th century BCE described in today’s first reading.
  • Perhaps without even realizing it, we long for “Jerusalem,” – for return to our true home, the “container” of love, safety, trust and intimacy we embraced on our wedding day.
  • But like the exiles in today’s responsorial psalm, many of us have stopped singing the love songs that came so naturally then. We’ve hung up our harps and refuse to sing to our intimate partner.
  • Too often we’ve become like the walking dead – rejecting the precious fullness of life together that’s available for the asking.
  • As Paul puts it in today’s second reading, our lives together have become “works without faith.” Work in our lives has replaced faith – in God and in each other.
  • With our loss of faith, the superficial values of the world (rejected by Jesus in today’s gospel selection) have replaced his Kingdom values of unconditional acceptance, service and forgiveness.

Forgive me if all of that sounds bromidic and hackneyed.  This Lent Peggy and I are finding that Marianne Williamson’s advice about praying and studying together brings them to life.  We’ve come to realize she’s right.

For us, there’s just no other way.

Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Enemies? (Sunday Homily)

Allah-the-only-true-god

Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/082513.cfm

Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
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Consider our first reading from Isaiah.

Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.

In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.

Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.

For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.

Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.

As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
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Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.

You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.

“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.

Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.

In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.

You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?

According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.

In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.

Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.

How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.
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Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.

Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.

This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.

But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.

Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.

However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.

With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.

Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?

Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.

Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!

Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?

The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.