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)