My Recent Interview on the Rob Kall “Bottom Up” Radio Show

Here’s an interview posted last week by Rob Kall on OpEdNews, where Rob is the editor in chief and where I’m now serving as a senior editor. The exchange took place at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. As you’ll see, I’m speaking from my basement office in our home in Westport, Connecticut. (I’m thinking that I should do something to make the venue seem less like a basement. . .) Anyway, it’s the third time Rob has had me on his show.

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Lent begins tomorrow. March 6th is Ash Wednesday.

But what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?

The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus’ overwhelming identification as “Son of God.” Son of God swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called “The Imitation of Christ.”

But for the moment, suppose we set aside “Jesus the Christ,” and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found those conditions unbearable and devoted his public life to replacing the “Pax Romana” with what he called the “Kingdom of God.” There the world would be governed not by those wearing Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift – even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.

The latter was “Good News” for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends – laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them (MT11:19). He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion’s equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. “Woe to you rich!” he said. “White-washed tombs!” he called the religious “leaders” (LK 6:24, MT 23:27).

What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday March 6th, 2019?

I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.

Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and “church” as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S. imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and “unclean?”

Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that Pope Francis save the church from itself by healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of “Humanae Vitae’s” prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, and eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination?

Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world’s evils “out there” in “those people.” In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi, of Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God’s Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.

Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints just mentioned. It’s plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So, it’s time to get to work.

As for myself . . . besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram (“Yeshua, Yeshua”), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first – the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. Over the past two years, I’ve been keeping a spiritual journal to make sure I stay focused.

For the past two years, I’ve also been taking A Course in Miracles (ACIM) as explained by now-presidential candidate, Marianne Williamson. I’m going through the manual’s 365 lessons for a second time and find it absolutely challenging. It’s helping me distance myself further from the world’s shadows projected in our Plato’s-Cave-world. It’s giving me, what I described in another context, a set of “magic glasses” that confer a world-vision 180 degrees opposite the one that reigns here in the United States.

During Lent, I’ll continue my ACIM work – including redoubled efforts on behalf of Marianne Williamson’s candidacy. Regardless of what one might think of her chances of success, her message needs to be taken seriously. In the end, it’s about replacing politics driven by fear with policy shaped by the compassion of Jesus and the most admirable people in history. (Marianne’s candidacy forces the question on believers: Do we really believe Jesus’ words? Do we?)

I hope anyone reading this will feel free to offer other suggestions. I’m sure you agree that these are extraordinary times. They call for extraordinary political and spiritual commitment. In the spirit of Yeshua and all those saints I mentioned, we need to pool our resources.  

My Meeting with Marianne Williamson

Marianne

[This is my second blog entry in a series on the relation between liberation theology and A Course in Miracles (ACIM).]

More than a year ago, I met Marianne Williamson directly for the first time. I say “directly” because at the time I felt I already knew her. I had read her book, A Return to Love, which Marianne herself describes as ACIM Cliff Notes. And every Tuesday evening from 7:30-9:30, my wife, Peggy, and I watched Marianne’s livestream lectures from the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. On top of that, I had been a student of A Course in Miracles for more than a year. (I’ll say more about that presently.)

In any case, at Peggy’s invitation, the great spiritual teacher and eloquent interpreter of A Course in Miracles came to Berea College as a convocation speaker. As expected, she charmed and inspired us all with her insightful connections between ACIM and the crisis of leadership and truth discernment in the age of Donald Trump whose presidency had begun just two months earlier. Her message emphasized that spirituality and higher consciousness have political consequences.

The evening of Marianne’s presentation, Peggy had arranged a lovely dinner at Berea’s Boone Tavern Hotel. In a group of fifteen or so Berea faculty, the president of Berea college and I were the only males present. Conversation was light and filled with small-talk until Marianne asked us all to introduce ourselves with some brief words about our personal spiritual journeys.

When it came my turn, I shared my background as a former Catholic priest. I spoke of my training in meditation as part of my seminary experience. I confessed that I had eventually abandoned meditation’s practice, but how a Christmas gift from Peggy in 1997 had renewed my commitment to its twice-daily practice.

The gift, I said, was a book by Eknath Easwaran called Passage Meditation. It explained how to meditate and recommended Easwaran’s “Eight Point Program” that changed my life. His eight points included meditation, spiritual reading, selection and use of a personal mantram, slowing down, one-pointed attention, training of the senses, putting the needs of others first, and practicing community with similarly committed friends.

I also mentioned that professionally I considered myself a liberation theologian. Marianne asked what I meant by that. I answered as I always do in a single sentence. I said: Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed who are socially aware in the sense of knowing who their oppressors are and of being willing to work for oppression’s end. Its emergence since the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65) represents, I claimed, the most important theological development of the past 1500 years. It is the most significant social movement of poor people since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

That evening Peggy and I drove Marianne and her secretary, Wendy, from Berea to the Cincinnati airport two hours distant from Berea. The whole time, the four of us discussed A Course in Miracles and liberation theology. Marianne expressed interest in the latter and as we parted for the evening mentioned that perhaps the two of us might collaborate in writing a downloadable web series she was planning specifically about Jesus and connections between his person and the gospels on one hand and A Course in Miracles on the other. I was thrilled by the prospect.

At that point, I had been working with A Course in Miracles for almost a year. And it was profoundly changing my understanding of everything – of God, the world, truth, Jesus, the spiritual life in general – and myself and my life’s purpose. In that sense, the book was an answer to my prayers, for I had long experienced a burning desire to deepen my spiritual life and practice. I was surprised by ACIM’s impact.

(Next week: ACIM: Its Content)

Cosmic-Centrism: South Africa’s a Good Place to Start (15th in a series on critical thinking)

 

Easwaran

In this series, I’ve been tracing my own growth in terms of Ken Wilber’s stages of egocentrism, ethnocentrism, world-centrism, and cosmic-centrism. I’ve been arguing that each stage has its own “alternative facts.” What I believed to be factual as a child, I no longer accept — in any field, faith included. The highest stages of critical thinking are achieved, I believe, by those who accept the alternative facts of mystics and sages across the globe. Their facts receive virtually no recognition from the world at large. Yet, they are truest of all.

The studies and travel I’ve recalled so far in this series had taken me from Chicago and various places in the United States to Europe where I spent five years traveling widely. Then I moved to Appalachia, and from there journeyed to Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Cuba, and Zimbabwe.  Each step of the way, my awareness expanded. By my 50s, I had pretty much gone beyond ethnocentrism.

Then by 1997 (at the age of 57), I gingerly entered the next phase of Wilber’s growth hierarchy, cosmic-centrism. The door opened that Christmas, when my wife, Peggy, gave me the gift of three books by an Indian teacher of meditation, Eknath Easwaran.

The most important of the three was simply entitled Meditation. The book explained how to meditate and outlined Easwaran’s “Eight Point Program” for spiritual transformation. The points included (1) meditation, (2) spiritual reading, (3) repetition of a mantram, (4) slowing down, (5) one-pointed attention, (6) training of the senses, (7) putting the needs of others first, and (8) association with others on the same path.

As a former priest, I was familiar with such spirituality. After being introduced to meditation during my “spiritual year” in 1960, I meditated every day for the next dozen years or so. Then I stopped. I thought I would never go back.

But after reading Meditation, I decided to perform the experiment Easwaran recommends there. He challenged his readers to try the eight-point program for a month. He said, if no important changes occur in your life as a result, drop the practice. But if significant personal transformation happens, that’s another story.

Suffice it to say that I tried for a month, and now nearly 20 years later, I’m able to report that I’ve never missed a day of meditation. Soon I was meditating twice a day. In short, I had been re-introduced into spiritual practice, but this time under the guidance of a Hindu. However, Easwaran insisted that his recommended practices had nothing to do with switching one’s religion or even with adopting any religion at all.

In other words, meditation had introduced me into the realm of mysticism common to Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Muslim Sufis, and subscribers to other faiths.

Easwaran described mysticism, wherever it appears, as founded on the following convictions: (1) there is a divine spark resident in the heart of every human being, (2) that spark can be realized, i.e. made real in one’s life, (3) in fact it is the purpose of life to do so, (4) those who recognize the divine spark within them inevitably see it in every other human being and in all of creation, and (5) they act accordingly.

Those are the principles of cosmic-centrism.

South Africa

In 2012, during my wife’s sabbatical in Cape Town, South Africa, my eyes started opening to the divine in nature – especially in the ancient rock formations in the southern Cape. As Dean Perini points out in his Pathways of the Sun, many of them have been “enhanced” by the Koi-Koi and San people indigenous to this area. The enhancements (for instance, sharpening features in rocks which resemble human faces) serve the same purpose as the completely human fabrications in places like Tikal, Stonehenge, and (perhaps) Easter Island.  They position the movement of the sun, moon, stars, and planets to keep track of equinoxes and solstices. All of those heavenly bodies and seasons influence our own bodies (70% water) as surely as they do the ocean tides and the seasons. So it was important to the Koi-Koi and San to mark the precise moments of the annual celestial events for purposes of celebrations, rituals, and feasts.

Near Cape Town, we lived in Llandudno near the location’s great “Mother Rock.” Like so many other mountains, rocks, sacred wells and springs in that area, it exuded extraordinary cleansing energy. My wife and I often made our evening meditation before that Rock, and on occasion in a nearby sacred cave.

They say that the human story began in South Africa 300,000 to 500,000 years ago. So in the presence of ocean, sacred caves, and holy rocks, we attempted to reconnect with the roots of it all and with the animals and ancient peoples who in their harmony with nature’s processes seem much wiser than we post-moderns are proving to be.

We were entering cosmic space, where the principle of the unity of all creation shapes critical thinking.

(Next week: Learning from spiritual masters in India)

A Baptismal Homily: Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly, May You Be Like Markendeya, the Mystic; May We All Be

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Last Friday (July 3rd), our family had the joy of baptizing our daughter’s and son-in-law’s fourth child, Markandeya Jackson Lehnerd Reilly. I had the privilege of performing the baptism – as I have for each of Maggie and Kerry’s children:  Eva (6 years old), Oscar (4), and Orlando (3). I performed the baptism (with its readings, songs, litany, profession of faith, and rich symbols of water, oil, fire, and new clothes) just off the dock in front of our house in Canadian Lakes, Michigan.

Twenty-five people (all relatives from Peggy’s side of the family) were present. The event was part of a mini-family reunion for Peggy’s siblings and their families. We were all together for about a week celebrating the Fourth of July.

It was great fun.

Here is a brief reflection I gave after reading about Jesus’ own baptism at the hands of his cousin, John,  as described in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark:

Today we celebrate the baptism of Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. He has that name because he comes to us from India, where he spent his earliest moments of in utero life.

I first came across the name, Markandeya in the writings of my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran a native of the Kerala State in India – which many of us here visited not long ago.

Easwaran says that each morning, his grandmother – his spiritual teacher – would go to the temple for Morning Prayer and return with a flower. She’d put it behind her grandson’s ear and pray, “May you be like Markandeya.”

Markendeya is the legendary mystic from ancient India who achieved enlightenment at the age of 16.

Mystics, of course, are spiritual masters. They have realized that: (1) we all have within us a spark of the divine, (2) that spark can be realized (i.e. we can live from that place of divinity); (3) it’s the purpose of life to do so, and (4) once we’ve realized the divine within ourselves, we’ll see it in every other human being and in all of creation.

In any case, Markandeya was one of those mystics. His story goes like this: His parents longed for a child and prayed to God (under the name Shiva) for a son.

Their prayer was granted.

But they had a choice, they could either have a son who would be a great devotee of Shiva and live a short life, or have a less-devoted son who would live a long life. Markandeya’s parents chose the former. As a result, they were told their son would achieve enlightenment, but would die on his 16th birthday.

Markandeya, of course, became a great devotee of Shiva whose name he lisped from his very first days in his cradle. Early on he became enlightened – capable of reaching uncommon depths of meditative unity with the divine.

But then his 16th birthday came.  His parents tearfully told him of the conditions of his birth. Yama, the king of death would soon come for him. On hearing this, Markandeya sat down and entered into deep meditation.

Soon Yama came seeking his victim. But when he entered the room, Shiva rose up from within Markandeya. With one hand on the youth’s head and the other pointing his trident at Yama, he commanded, “Don’ you know that I am Mrityunjaya, the conqueror of death? You have no power over me or over those devoted to me. Markandeya will never die!  Be gone!”

Trembling like a leaf, Yama returned to the underworld.

Today we baptize Markandeya Lehnerd-Reilly. With baptism he enters the community of those who would follow another great mystic, Jesus the Christ. According to our faith, Jesus is our Mrityunjaya, the Great Conqueror of death. Death, we believe, has no dominion over Jesus or over us, his followers.

Jesus’ teaching included the mystical truths that, like him, we are all daughters and sons of God and that the Kingdom of God is within us. His disciple, Paul of Tarsus taught that we are all temples of the Holy Spirit – that Jesus’ Spirit lives within each of us. It is our purpose in life to be channels of the Holy Spirit and bring about the kingdom of God in this world.

Today we’re here to embrace that vocation on Markandeya’s behalf and to re-embrace it for ourselves.

So our prayer for this child today is that he might be like Jesus with whom he is identified in this baptismal ceremony.

May he be like Markandeya.

May we all be like Jesus and Markandeya.

(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.

Sunday Homily: Academy Awards, “Gravity,” Lent, and Rebirth

gravity

Readings for First Sunday in Lent: GN 2:7-9, 3:1-7; PS 51: 3-6, 12-13, 17; ROM 5: 12-19; MT 4: 1-11. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/030914.cfm

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. A week ago, Hollywood presented its 2014 Academy Awards. Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” won seven Oscars. I think his story and today’s reading about Jesus’ desert retreat are connected.

Lent actually started last Wednesday when many of us put ashes on our forehead to remind us of our approaching death. All of us, the ashes told us, come from the dirt and are rushing headlong towards the grave, whether we consider ourselves “believers” or not. Our world (at least for us as individuals) is ending. That’s simply a law of nature – as inescapable as gravity. It can’t be avoided. With time running out, Lent reminds us, the moment to change – to appropriate our basically divine nature – is now. Jesus’ vision quest in the desert shows the way.

So does “Gravity.” In fact, it’s possible to see the film as mirroring the experience of Jesus during his own “Lent” in the desert depicted in this morning’s gospel selection.

To begin with, both stories are completely symbolic. Both have their protagonists reliving the history of their people. Both show us the path to liberation. It leads from self-centeredness to God-consciousness. As such, both the account of Jesus in the desert and of Sandra Bullock’s character in “Gravity” represent summonses to either grow up here and now or suffer the consequences.

Think about “Gravity” in those terms. Here’s how the film’s publicity describes the plot:

“Director Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity stars Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone, a scientist on a space shuttle mission headed by astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), a talkative, charismatic leader full of colorful stories that he shares with his crewmates as well as mission control. As the two are on a space walk, debris hits the area where they are working, and soon the pair finds themselves detached from their ship and stranded in space. While figuring out what steps they can take to save themselves, Stone grapples with a painful past that makes her consider giving up altogether.”

Without giving too much away, the film can be understood as mirroring the current plight of Mother Earth, the United States and the human species. It’s about our highly technological and artificial way of life and its inevitable destruction by the very laws of nature. It reminds unaware, “spaced out” people to “return home” and live in accordance with our true identity as earth creatures respectful of nature’s laws.

In “Gravity,” Sandra Bullock plays that spaced out American I mentioned. She’s an astronaut. As a medical engineer, she’s a trained healer whose job in NASA is to maintain a basically unsustainable way of life in outer space. To begin with, however she’s totally saddened and distracted by her personal problems. Specifically, she’s still in mourning for her lost daughter who died from an unexplained fall at the age of four. Interestingly, her daughter died conforming to the law of gravity which Dr. Stone’s “mission” requires her to defy.

The point is that Dr. Stone’s mission (like her daughter’s brief life) is doomed by inescapable natural laws. Entropy causes the systems she maintains to run down and demand periodic, extremely costly “missions” like the one she is on. At the same time inertia insures that the inevitable waste produced by the space enterprises will double back to seal the projects’ doom according to the law governing colliding bodies.

In that situation, Dr. Stone becomes the image of an alienated woman called by circumstances to wake up and accept her true divine nature as a healing goddess – as the embodiment of Mother Earth. As such she must return to the larger Divine Mother; she must return to earth and appropriate her own vocation to embody that Mother’s presence.

Think about it: the Bullock character is a “Stone” – the earthiest identification possible. She’s a doctor. She’s an astronaut. In all three identities, she’s out of her element. She’s floating in a weightless atmosphere that has caused her to deny her gravity-governed essence. In addition, like the earth itself, her oxygen supply is threatened. And that, of course, is painful and repulsive. Or as she herself puts it, “I hate space.”

“Gravity’s” story unfolds to display Dr. Stone’s healing efforts to reconnect with earth despite the obstacles working against her. In the process, like Jesus in today’s Gospel, she shows us all the way home from our own alienation and destructive way of life.

Dr. Stone’s way home involves not only using the personal tragedy of her daughter’s death to work in her favor. It also means crossing the Ganges and being blessed by the Buddha. She must also overcome her own ethnocentrism and xenophobia relative to her country’s designated “enemies” (the Russians and Chinese). Her return would have been impossible without an international space platform, a Russian Soyez module and a Chinese Shenzhou space capsule.

Finally, Dr. Stone needs to be “born again,” reliving the entire evolutionary process taking her through human astral origins to earth where she’s plunged into deep baptismal waters. With great effort, she throws off her old identity in the form of her astronaut’s survival gear. In the process, she encounters fish, amphibians and other pre-human life forms in the evolutionary chain. Finally freed of her past, on all fours, Dr. Stone emerges onto Eden’s shore. As a reborn Eve – as Mother Earth – she straightens up and walks forward into a new life. Her final words in the film are “Thank you.”

There’s a similar plot in today’s Gospel – lived out by Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. Like Dr. Stone in relation to “America,” Jesus reflects the experience of his Jewish compatriots. They passed forty years in the desert enduring temptation the whole time. Jesus in Matthew’s account passes forty days there. His response to temptation rescues and redeems the collective history of his similarly tempted people more than a thousand years earlier.

Jesus’ first temptation is ego-centric – to feed himself by turning stones into bread. His second temptation is ethnocentric – connected with the temple and the quasi-magical attributes accorded the structure by his Jewish contemporaries. Jesus’ final temptation is world-centric – to exercise dominion of “all the nations of the world.” By rejecting all three, Jesus symbolically achieves cosmic-consciousness. The story ends with his being ministered to by angels.

As in “Gravity,” Jesus’ vision quest in the desert maps out our Lenten path. It leads from self-centeredness to cosmic consciousness of unity with the One in whom we live and move and have our being. The path cannot be traveled without struggle. Its goal cannot be achieved without breaking free from selfishness, xenophobia, and the arrogance of life in an imperial center whose ways are unsustainable and far removed from its evolutionary roots. That’s the point of Lent’s prayerfulness, penance, fasting, and abstinence.

Practically speaking returning home during Lent – realizing our True Self being transformed like Jesus and Dr. Stone – might mean:

• Renewing our prayer life. Even unbelievers can do this. How? I recommend reading Eknath Easwaran’s Passage Meditation to find out. Yes, meditate each day during Lent. It will bring you into contact with your True Self. (And, I predict, you won’t stop at the end of 40 days – it’s that life-transforming.)
• Abstaining from fast food and reclaiming the kitchen. Leave behind for forty days the typically chemicalized, fatty, sugar-hyped American diet, and perhaps experiment with vegetarianism. That seems far more beneficial than traditional “fast and abstinence.”
• Shopping locally and refusing to set foot in any of the Big Boxes during Lent’s 40 days. Think of it as homage to Jesus’ counter-cultural resort to the desert or as Dr. Stone’s leaving behind that artificial life in outer space.
• To escape ethnocentrism and imperial sway,adopting as your news source OpEdNews and/or Al Jazzera rather than the New York Times.
• Resolving each day to actually respond to one of those many appeals we all receive to make phone calls and write letters to our “representatives” in Congress.
• In the “Comment” space below, share other suggestions.

Yes, it’s Lent once again. Like Dr. Ryan Stone, we faced up to our origins in dust last Ash Wednesday. A good Lent which leaves behind selfishness, ethnocentrism and allegiance to empire will also allow us to utter her sincere “Thank You” on Easter as we rise from our knees transformed.

Why Am I Here in India? (Sunday Homily)

Religion in India

Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2 KGS 5: 14-17; PS 98: 1-4; 2TM 2”8-13; LK 17: 11-19. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101313.cfm

My wife and I have been in India now for six weeks. Peggy’s working as a Fulbright researcher at the University of Mysore here in the country’s south. I’m here . . . I’m only now realizing why.

To tell the truth, I had come to India more or less reluctantly. I mean since retirement I had traveled a great deal including six months in Costa Rica, five months in South Africa, and now the prospect of 4 ½ months here in India. So perhaps understandably, I was feeling tired of living out of a suitcase.

I wondered then, why Life, why life’s circumstances had brought me here to what many consider the “Soul of the World” – an ancient culture with deep, deep spiritual roots?

I thought about that for a long time. Then I concluded that the opportunity here is absolutely golden for spiritual growth.

That’s why I’m here then, I concluded. Life is telling me I need to grow and break away from patterns of living and thought that have unconsciously become too comfortable and stifling.

And what resources there are in India for assisting in that project! There are spiritual masters here, teachers of meditation and yoga. (For example, Sunday I have an appointment with a Past Life Review teacher.)

In addition, Indian food (not my favorite) challenges me to adjust my palate. Cows walk the streets. Dress is different as well. Music too seems completely foreign (but delightful), as Peggy and I have discovered in attending a kind of “Indian Woodstock” festival of traditional Indian chanting, drumming, flute and violin playing during the two-week festival of the god Ganesh. And the traffic. . . . I’ve never seen anything as wild. No rules at all that I can see. I doubt if I could learn to drive here.

All of this is forcing me to expand my horizons and break away from what spiritual masters here call “samskaras” – habitual patterns of perceiving, thinking and living.

That’s what spiritual masters do for a living – they challenge old ways of thinking. It’s what the prophet Elisha did in this morning’s first reading, and what Jesus does in today’s gospel selection. Both readings reveal God’s love for those our cultural norms classify as strange and even evil.

Our first reading centralizes the prophet, Elisha, who worked in Samaria for 60 years in the 9th century BCE. That, of course, was a full 100 years or more before Samaritans emerged as Israel’s bête noir.

Nonetheless, it is true that Naaman may have been even more detestable to Elisha’s contemporaries than Samaritans eventually became to the Jews. That’s because Naaman was a captain in the army of the King of Aram who at the very time of the officer’s cure was attacking Elisha’s homeland. Elisha’s cure of Naaman would be like extending free healthcare to a known al-Qaeda “terrorist” today.

In other words, Naaman is a foreigner and an enemy of Elisha’s people. On top of that he’s a leper, which supposedly further marks him as an object of God’s disfavor. Despite all these disqualifications, the greatest prophet in Israel cures him.

The narrative’s point: there is indeed only one God, and that God loves everyone, even our designated enemies. That was a stretch for the people of Elisha’s time. It’s a stretch for us.

Still, the point is picked up in today’s responsorial psalm. Remember the refrain we sang together this morning: “The Lord has revealed to all the nations his saving power.” According to the psalmist, then, God is not tied to one land. God’s saving power is evident in every place on earth. As the psalmist put it, “All the ends of the earth have seen God’s salvation.”

God belongs to everyone. Everyone belongs to God.

By Jesus’ time, nearly 800 years after Naaman’s cure, Israel still wasn’t buying that message. In fact, they had narrowed God’s presence to particular locations within the land of Israel. Orthodox Jews believed God was present on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and could only be really worshipped in the Temple there. Samaritans, on the other hand, believed that the place to worship Yahweh was on Mt. Gerizim, where they said Abraham had nearly sacrificed his son, Isaac.

In other words, Samaritans embodied a sectarian battle among the descendants of Abraham over where to worship God – was it on the Temple Mount or on Mount Gerizim?

Jesus completely ignores the debate. He cures a Samaritan along with nine other lepers – presumably all Jews.

The story is simple: the lepers approach Jesus. He tells them to “show yourselves to the priests.” It’s not clear what Jesus had in mind. Some say there was a law requiring cured lepers to be certified by the priests. Others say Jesus’ intention was to confront the priests, to assert his identity (as his mentor, John the Baptist had done) as the people’s high priest.

In any case, the lepers leave in search of the priests, and on the way are cured. As we well know, only the Samaritan leper returns to thank Jesus. Why? Was it that the priests had persuaded the others not to return, since they were convinced that Jesus was possessed?

On the other hand, the priests would probably have refused to see the Samaritan, because of their deep prejudice.

So the Samaritan turns out to be the hero of the story, not the priests or those who listen to them. Just like Naaman, the one in the story most open to God was the character most alienated from reigning cultural norms.

And that brings me back to my opening point – to my hopes about India. Recently I was reading an article by an Indian scholar of religion who identified Jesus as an Indian yogi. The author suggested that the reason the priests and the people of Jesus’ time and culture could not understand him was that his approach to life and God was completely alien to them.

It was a mystical philosophy more akin to the Far East – to India – than to Middle Eastern Palestine. Put briefly Jesus’ mystical philosophy can be summarized in the words “Aham Sarvum! Sarvum Aham!” –“I AM ALL. ALL is ME.” In fact, Jesus’ basic approach can be summarized as follows:

1. There is a spark of the divine within every human being.
2. That spark can be realized, i.e. energize every aspect of our lives in the here and now.
3. It is the purpose of life to live from that place of divine presence.
4. Once we do so, we will recognize God’s presence in every human being and in all of creation.

Or as John the Evangelist has Jesus say:

1. “I am in the father, and the father in me.” [John 14.10]
2. “I am in my father, and ye in me, and I in you.” [John 14.20]
3. “I and my Father are One.” [John 10.30]

In other words, the guru (Jesus), the disciple, and God are all One. Separation of God and Her creation is nothing but illusion (MAYA). ALL IS ONE.

All of this confirms for me what I’ve learned from Eknath Easwaran, my Indian teacher of meditation over the last 15 years: at their summit all the world’s Great Religions come together in the mystical vision just articulated.

If all of this is true, what does all of this mean for us today? I think this at least:

• There are many ways to understand God.
• Sectarianism is foreign to the Divine Reality.
• God loves our mortal enemies and performs miracles on their behalf just as God did in the example of Naaman.
• More specifically, God loves al-Qaeda fighters and the ones we call “terrorists” just as much as (S)he does us. Our enemies represent God’s presence and so do we. We should treat them as though this were true.
• God loves those we classify as unclean, unworthy, ungodly, and untouchable.
• More specifically, God loves people with AIDS; God loves the foreigner, the outcast. They represent the presence of God and so do we. And because of our tendency to reject them, they are somehow closer to God than we are.
• It’s good to step outside the reach of our culture’s categories, at least once in a while.

Combat Greed (and illness): Boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway . . . (Sunday Homily)

McDonalds

Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ecc. 1:2, 2: 21-23; Ps. 90; 3-6, 12-14, 17; Col. 3: 1-5, 9-11; Lk. 12: 13-21. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080413.cfm

This week’s liturgy of the word focuses on greed, its idolatrous nature, and how death (the Great Leveler) puts greed in stark perspective.

According to the prophet, Qoheleth, the shortness of life renders “empty” (vain) any life devoted to amassing wealth. Life is not about money, Paul agrees in this morning passage from Colossians. It’s about following Jesus by bringing forth our true Self which is identical with the God who dwells within each of us. But our time for doing so is short. As the Psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, our days are numbered; that realization alone, he says, should give us wisdom. Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus contrasts such wisdom with the foolishness of human surrender to the economics of growth. Paul even terms such greed “idolatry,” the ultimate biblical sin.

Those readings have driven me to think about greed in my own life. It makes me think about my own approaching death and what I do each day to hasten its arrival. At the public level, I’m driven to consider today’s headlines about fast-food workers and the difference in pay between them and their ultimate bosses. It makes me think about resisting greed at both levels (personal and corporate) in very practical, effective ways. Let me explain.

Last week I traveled from our summer home in Michigan back to our permanent residence in Berea, Kentucky. When I arrived home, the cupboard was bare – no food. So I set out to get something to eat for supper. Problem was, our local health food store, “Happy Meadows,” was closed.

Fast food options like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway called to me. Despite nearly forty years of sharing board with a dedicated vegetarian, the urge to eat meat is still strong. However, I was too haunted by what I’ve learned from “Food Inc.” and similar films, books and articles. Their images of factory farms and the cruel mistreatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens can never be erased from my consciousness. In their light, eating dead animals raised on feed lots and super-cramped pens, and then killed for my platter almost turned my stomach. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat meat.

I remembered that Walgreens and Rite Aid sold packaged fast food. So I went to the drugstore to look around. As I probably should have foreseen, the food offerings there were . . . well, highly drugged. I mean I easily found non-meat offerings on the Walgreens shelves – items like Kraft Mac & Cheese; I found vegetarian frozen pizza, and other similar items. But they were mostly full of fats. And as I looked at some lists of ingredients, I found many I couldn’t even pronounce. Chemicals were often high up on the lists, meaning their presence was rather intense. “Why would I put that stuff in my body?” I thought. “Do I want to get fat and sick?” So I walked out still hungry, still searching for something to eat.

I drove to Subway remembering their veggie sub. The young man behind the counter asked, “May I help you?”

“Just looking,” I said.

I scanned the brightly lit menu over his head. There it was, the Veggie Sub. Should I get the six-inch or the twelve-inch? I looked at the young man again. There he was with his plastic gloves in place smiling and eager to serve me.

Then I remembered. This kid is making $7.35 an hour. Whether he’s aware of it or not, his comrades all across the country are striking to double that wage to $15.00 an hour. They’re walking off the job in places like New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Michigan. They’re demanding not just a living wage but the right to unionize. Unionization would mean the end of the Fast Food Industry’s routine practice of “short-working” employees, i.e. preventing them from putting in enough weekly hours to qualify for the benefits that come with full-time employment.

Those striking workers don’t want me here, I thought. So I turned on my heel and left.

Soon I found myself cruising the aisles of Save a Lot. I bought some pasta, and some sauce. I picked up a head of broccoli (Dole! Ugh!). I returned home to throw my supper together.

The little episode helped me come face-to-face with greed – again the topic of today’s liturgy of the word. I had to confront my own greed and that of the corporations that dominate our culture.
My particular greed manifests itself at least three times a day at the table. There my actions say a whole lot: I want meat. I want its flavored grease. I want salt. I want sugar. I want convenience. I want instant gratification.

My spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran, would say all of that means, “I want a heart attack. I want diabetes. I want cancer. I want to die as soon as I can.”

My well-ingrained tendencies also imply that “I don’t care about justice or workers who put in forty hours or more (often on two or more jobs) and who still cannot put together a dignified life without Food Stamps. I don’t care that they want to unionize and they’re asking me to boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and other corporate giants who underpay their workers while amassing obscene fortunes for themselves.

To those workers (and their bosses), the words of Qoheleth apply:

“Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.”

Usually, these words are taken to apply to the rich who are thought to labor long hours without really enjoying life. In the end, they leave their property to their heirs who benefit from their now-deceased relative’s work.

However, with the Bible’s overwhelming “preferential option for the poor,” I think the words apply even more fittingly to workers like the one in Subway and those in McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, etc. Those “associates” labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill and then get underpaid. The wealth they produce (their property) goes to their fat-cat bosses. Meanwhile the rest of us are forced to subsidize those fat-cats by making up the difference (in food stamps, Medicaid, WIC Programs, etc.) between the wages the bosses pay their workers and the true living wage those workers deserve.

Yes, so-called “welfare programs” are more directed towards the rich than the poor. For working people such “welfare” should be replaced by a living wage.

Qoheleth says such selfishness and greed creates empty lives, anxiety, sorrow, grief and sleepless nights for all concerned both rich and poor.

A friend of mine constantly reminds me that little can be done to change the world. We just have to go along with the way things are, he often says. Sometimes I think he’s right.

However, today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that he might not be completely correct. At least we can do something about underpaid fast food and big box workers. That’s not trivial. We can relieve the “vanity,” the emptiness of their lives by joining them in their efforts to unionize and achieve a living wage.

We can abstain from the products of McDonald’s, Subway, Wal-Mart and similar corporations – and perhaps even become more healthy in the process.

Our presence here at the Lord’s Supper says we’re willing to do that, so that all may share in the gift of God’s bread with dignity and joy.

Am I right in saying that? What do you think?
(Discussion follows.)

Would Jesus Celebrate July 4th?

american-jesus-195x300

Readings for 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 10-14c; Ps. 66: 1-7, 16, 20; Gal. 6: 14-15; Lk. 10: 1-12, 17-20. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/070713.cfm

Sometimes I wonder if I’m on the right path. Do you ever think that about yourself? I’m talking about wondering if your whole “take” on the world is somehow off base.

My own self-questioning has been intensified by my blogging over the last 15 months. For instance I recently wrote a piece on why I refused to celebrate the 4th of July. My thesis was that the U.S. has lost its way, turned the Constitution into a dead letter, and made its claims to democracy meaningless. We are rapidly moving, I said, in the direction of Nazi Germany. All of that is contrary to the Spirit of 1776. So there’s no point in celebrating Independence Day as if Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning didn’t exist.

One person kind enough to comment said she lost all respect for me as a result of what I had written. Others have told me that my message is just a poor man’s left-wing version of the ideological nonsense spouted by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh. Even people close to me have referred to what I write as diatribes, screeds, and rants. I hope that’s not true.

What is true is that as a theologian, I’m attempting to write “About Things That Matter” (as my blog title puts it) from a self-consciously progressive (i.e. non-conservative) perspective – or rather from a theological perspective that recognizes that following Jesus is counter-cultural and requires a “preferential option for the poor” — not the option for the rich that “America” and its right wing versions of Christianity embrace.

I adopt this position in a national context that I recognize as anti-gospel – materialistic, individualistic, extremely violent, and pleasure-oriented. Or as my meditation teacher Eknath Easwaran says, our culture refuses to recognize that we are fundamentally spiritual beings united by the divine core we all share. At heart, we are 99% the same in a culture that tells us we’re 100% unique. Jesus’ values are not the American values of profit, pleasure, power, and prestige.

Instead what Yeshua held as important is centered around the Kingdom of God – a this-worldly reality that turns the values of this world on their head. The Kingdom embodies a utopian vision that prioritizes the welfare of the poor and understands that the extreme wealth Americans admire is a sure sign that those who possess it have somehow robbed others of their due.

As a possessor of extreme wealth myself (on a world-scale) each time I read the gospels – or the newspaper – I feel extreme discomfort. In other words, it’s Jesus’ Gospel that makes me think I’m on the wrong track. But it’s not the one critics have in mind when they suggest I temper my positions.

Instead, consideration of Jesus’ words and deeds convince me that I’m not radical enough. I do not yet occupy a position on the political spectrum respectful enough of the poor. I’ve forgotten that life outside God’s Kingdom (“Jerusalem”) is “Exile” in God’s eyes (as today’s first reading recalls). The liberation from slavery referenced in this morning’s responsorial psalm has lost its central place in my spirituality.

Our culture might say, that by all this I mean that I’m not far enough “left.” Be that as it may. The truth is that insofar as my daily life doesn’t reflect Jesus’ utopian values, I should feel uncomfortable.

Today’s second and third readings reinforce my discomfort. They highlight the conflict between the values of Jesus and those of “the world” – of American culture in our case. In fact, the world finds it hard to understand Jesus’ real followers at all. And why not? For all practical purposes, our culture denies the very existence and /or relevance of spirituality to everyday life – at least outside the realm of the personal.

In today’s excerpt from his Letter to Galatia, Paul says the world considers the Christian life not even worth living. That’s what Paul means when he says that in Christ he is crucified to the world (i.e. in the world’s opinion). He means that as far as the world is concerned, he as a follower of Jesus is already dead because of his rebellion against the values of Rome. Crucifixion, after all, was the form of torture and capital punishment reserved for insurgents against the Empire.

But then Paul turns that perception on its head. He writes that his accusers are wrong. In reality, it is life lived according to Roman values that is not worth living. Paul says, “As far as I’m concerned, the world has been crucified.” He means that what Rome considers life is really death – a dead end. It constitutes rebellion against God’s Kingdom, the antithesis of Rome.

In today’s Gospel selection Jesus describes the lifestyle of those committed to God’s Kingdom. He sends out 72 community organizers to work on behalf of the Kingdom giving specific instructions on how to conduct themselves. They are to travel in pairs, not as individuals. (Companionship is evidently important to Jesus.) Theirs is to be a message of peace. “Let your first words be ‘peace’ in any location you frequent,” he says. He tells his followers to travel without money, suitcase or even shoes. He urges them to live poorly moving in with hospitable families and developing deep relationships there (not moving from house to house). They are to earn their bread by curing illness and preaching the inevitability of God’s Kingdom which the world routinely rejects as unrealistic.

Jesus’ followers are to spread the word that the world can be different. God should be in charge, not Caesar. Empire is evil in God’s eyes. So peace should replace anger and violence; health should supplant sickness; shared food and drink should eliminate hunger. Those are Jesus’ Kingdom values.

And the world rejects them. Not only that, Jesus’ “lambs among wolves” imagery recognizes that the world embodies an aggressive hostility towards followers of Jesus. It would devour them – so different are its values from the Master’s.

So maybe it shouldn’t surprise any of us when we’re accused of being extreme – as communists or utopians or hippies – if we’re attempting to adopt the values of Jesus.

After all, they thought Jesus was crazy. They thought he had lost his faith. They considered him a terrorist and an insurgent.

Then in the fourth century, Rome co-opted Jesus’ message. Ever since then, we’ve tamed the Master.

As our culture would have it, Jesus would have no trouble celebrating July 4th.

Am I mistaken?