A dear friend in Massachusetts recently reminded me of the wisdom of the great theologian Karl Rahner. When all the other books are long gone, Rahner’s will the only theologian I’ll still have at my bedside. It is for good reason that he’s been called “Doctor Mysticus,” for the God-Mystery imbues even his most difficult works.
My friend, John Carmody, introduced me to Rahner’s work when I was an undergraduate, and then I went on to study him further in graduate school with Jesuits whose own lives had been deeply shaped by him: William Dych, SJ, and Michael J. Buckley, SJ, to whom I am immeasurably grateful. Rahner has been an inspiration to me and countless others through many years.
Here is an excerpt my friend sent me from Rahner’s treasure of a book, Encounters with Silence. It comes from the chapter entitled, “God of My Life.”
Only in love can I find you, my God.
In love, the gates of my soul spring open,
allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom
and forget about my own petty self.
In love, my whole being streams forth
out of the rigid confines of narrowness
and anxious self-assertion,
which makes me a prisoner of my own
poverty and emptiness.
In love, all the powers of my soul flow
out toward you,
wanting never more to return,
but to lose themselves completely in you,
since by your love you are the
innermost center of my heart,
closer to me than I am to myself.
But when I love you,
when I manage to break out of the narrow circle of self and
leave behind the restless agony of unanswered questions,
when my blinded eyes no longer look merely from afar and from the outside
upon your unapproachable brightness, and much more
when you yourself, O Incomprehensible One, have become
through love the inmost center of my life,
then I can bury myself entirely in you,
O mysterious God, and with myself,
all my questions.
A beautiful, quiet, rainy Sunday morning in San Francisco, as seen through my slightly blurry window. You can make out one of the towers and some of the lines of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Next week promises to be gorgeous and sunny. I’ll be hopping into the garden to do some pruning for the explosion of Spring flowers, just around the corner.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are given an exalted view of what it means to be a human being. The author quotes the sublime Psalm 8:
Who are we that you should be mindful of us. . .? Who is any one of us, that you should care for us, each uniquely? Yet you have made us little less than the angels, and crowned us with glory and honor.
How does God care for us? In a highly focused way. What makes God “God” is an unimaginable intentionality of love for each and every creature, and for each of us. We could say that God’s love is given, not generically, like the rain, but uniquely, like a mother’s love, to each creature. It is Love that sustains us in being. It is as though each creature, each person, each one of us were the only recipient of God’s loving care. And we human beings have been given the gift of aspiring toward that kind of love, to love each person, each part of creation, intentionally and with a sense of wonder.
We can speak, then, of a unique place for the human within God’s creation. For we are not only the intersection of matter and spirit with the capacity to love with intentionality, but we have the reflective capacity to see that, to stand in awe and wonder over this gift. We further have the power to question, as does the Psalmist: Who are we, that you have made us this way? Why do we exist at all, having been drawn out of nothingness by your love? In wonderment, gratitude, and questioning, we discover that from this capacity to love springs forth the capacity to pray: to praise, to adore, to sing and give thanks—intentionally, and with all our being. This is a gift given to no other creature under heaven.
But . . .
In the face of this, so much tragedy, death, sin. Darkness seems to prevail. The gift has been occluded. Day after day after day takes up the story. To be human is also to feel unmoored from God, and God from us. On the one hand, we know God’s love and stand in awe before it; on the other, we are ever waiting for it, as though it had not yet come. It is at times ungraspable, unbelievable. In our daily lives we come to feel like Estragon waiting for Godot—a Godot who never arrives.
Little less than gods? With God’s mercy, this is perhaps one way of trying to express the conundrum of being human. Yet, as the Psalmist elsewhere says (139:6), “All of this is too much for me.” We are left with a gaping openness toward the unanswerable, waiting for God—the God who nevertheless has already offered his love. How do we hold all this together in our mortal state? unfinished…
What can I say? Even their name elicits joy. When I was a kid, my Mom had them planted in the long brick planter on the front of the house. Same glorious color, too. And they’re always a surprise in the middle of January (as are Narcissus). Spring is just around the corner, and I’m ready for it! December was unbearably dark and thankfully the days are gradually lengthening. The squirrels are showing up again, too. Good signs.
The following is the slightly edited text of a homily given at Mission Santa Clara on Sunday, January 6, 2019, the feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany, or manifestation of God to all peoples, is symbolized by the well-known story of the visit of the Magi to the stable. The Magi are represented as coming from a far-off land, the ultimate exotic outsiders.
Before we close out the Christmas season, we return to the manger. Charming as the story of the Magi may be, it is in fact an odd, even comical, scene. We are back at that same stable, a rustic and dirt poor refuge where the Savior has been born. The shepherds are there, but they were not styled then as the gentle pastoral types we see in manger scenes; they were considered in their own time to be socially marginal yahoos. One commentator compared them to members of a motorcycle gang—threatening and to be avoided. And they were presumably not regular synagogue attendees. Onto this scene, in the boondocks of Bethlehem, arrive the three astrologers, sumptuously clothed, laden with precious gifts. Together with the oxen, donkeys, and the rest, we have a menagerie to entertain the newborn king.
It was “outsiders” not of the Jewish people who first recognized that a “king”—more specific to the Jewish imagination, a Messiah—had been born. These outsiders were in possession of an insight that it would take some time for even Jesus’ own disciples to see and accept. And the people of Jerusalem would persist in perceiving Jesus simply as a country rustic, an irritating rabbi imposter. Yet it was non-Jews who would recognize that in this helpless baby, born in a stable, God had come to save not some, or even many, but all, without distinction. As Paul reminds us: “the Gentiles”—outsiders—“are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5–6).
It is the outsider, and the outsider in us, the Gentile in us, that God summons to the stable, to come inside, to enter into the ambit of God’s love. There is no judgment here, but only inclusion of and co-partnership with the outsider. This serves as a model of what the church must become. As Pope Francis recently wrote to the US bishops:
The Church. . .bears in her heart and soul the sacred mission of being a place of encounter and welcome not only for her members but for all humanity. It is part of her identity and mission to work tirelessly for all [and to] contribute to unity between individuals and peoples. . .without distinction. For “there does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are on in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
What a radical view of reality, for any time, but especially for a time like ours, when rather than imagining ourselves as one in our humanity, we have divided ourselves into tribes, parties, and generations: Boomers vs. Millennials, progressives vs. reactionaries, liberal vs. conservative Catholics, straight and gay, citizens or aliens—marking ourselves off from others and building walls between us. This is the age of identity, a preoccupation that arises when the world seems difficult to map and people feel fearful, fragile, or flung at sea. We turn then, perhaps naturally enough, to what we think we know most intimately—ourselves, our group, and fortify ourselves in an identity essentialism that easily functions as an ideology.
Yet we can delude ourselves by delimiting ourselves within one or even multiple identities. We can paper over the multi-layered complexity of human experience, of our own hidden and interior selves—a complexity that resists sharp demarcation or boundary. And, worse, when we claim identities in a group or tribal way, we can be drawn into impasse, demonization of the other, and dismissal of certain people (the way shepherds were dismissed as ruffians) or writing off whole generations as either too old or too young. The worst outcomes of identity absolutism are truly dreadful, as we have seen on the worldwide political stage and in the tragedies of war and genocide.
There is of course validity to acknowledging our distinctiveness. We may come from a home infused with a culture—be it Italian, Irish, Mexican, Filipino or Vietnamese—where language, food, religion, customs, and family systems are distinctive. This is a good thing. Yet there are some identities, or locales of human experience, such as those of women, of LGBTQ people, and of African-American people, that need to be vigorously asserted within the life of a church that is still exclusionary and inscribes some forms of exclusion in doctrine (namely, the exclusion of women from ordination, and the deficient language about gay sexuality in the Catechism that has led to exclusionary practices). But in seeking an ideal church, we need to keep in mind that in Jesus’ view of the world, there are to be no identities at war with one another, and this must be pressed. Those whom I or we or some might consider to be outsiders are not only to be included, but they are to become co-heirs, co-partners. We are to learn from them and from one another.
This is very difficult for us to grasp and accept, because it threatens the boundaries set by any claim to self-certain identity. It is a little bit scary. Yet it lies at the core of God’s revelation in Jesus. To be a Christian is to live in a fundamental openness to the other, even the radically different, for God may be at work there, and that other may indeed see God in a way that we do not, as did the Magi. This possibility that God is present in the “alien” other is the foundation of Pope Francis’s urging that Catholics not build walls, but welcome refugees, for they are among the outsiders, the “Gentiles” of our time. It is also the foundation for an openness to and embrace of those, like the shepherds, whose very presence might unsettle the comfortable.
Jesus’ deepest identity lay not in his Jewishness, gender or politics. It lay in his intimacy with the mystery of God, whom he called Father. This intimacy anchored him and captured his imagination like a star in the vast heavens. It freed him to transcend boundaries and to welcome the outsider. This began at his birth. The great star that hovered over the stable in Bethlehem was awaiting his gaze. That star remains a reminder today that God’s love is offered to all people, inviting all, without exception, into God’s family, and that our deepest “identity” lies in intimacy with God—an intimacy that frees us and finally dissolves the need for any identity. This is the intimacy that the Magi sought, and which they found, alongside the shepherds, in the poverty of the manger. May it be so for us.
For further reading, the pope’s letter can be found at http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com. It is well worth a read. For a reconsideration of the notion of identity in our time, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (New York: Liveright, 2018).
Yes, the light is shining in the darkness. There is hope. May we see that light this season, and in the year to come—a light that shines in and through the love of friends, the care we give and receive, the ways we try to better the world.
And, yes, there is darkness. We might pray this Christmas that the light of which John speaks may shine on this world, and work a softening of hardened and fearful hearts. May that softening lead the way to stability and safe harbor for migrants and refugees, dignified housing and care for the homeless, an end to the madness of gun violence, true peace where there is war, and an end to regimes of cruelty and discrimination, especially against children, women, and the vulnerable, as well as people of every origin, race and state of life. May that same light illumine the inner recesses of the Catholic Church so that every form of evil can be uprooted. And may it help lead us back to some semblance of calm after a bleak period in our national political life. In all these things, may we one day be able to say, with joy, that “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1).
In the midst of so much darkness, we sometimes miss seeing the good. For life really is so grand and wonderful, far beyond telling, and there are so many ways to plunge into it, to relish it. At times we can only express its plenitude in the language of art, music and poetry, and occasionally, in the metaphors of theology. What an inconceivable gift is given us in the gift of human life itself: to know the ecstasy of being a creature endowed with the capacity for reflection and contemplation, a magnificent combination of mind and body, the possibility of giving and receiving love, openness to the infinite Mystery, the capacity to question—and all of this given in freedom. How is it that we could we ever squander any of that? May the light shine in our hearts and heal us where we need healing, and restore to us the hope and joy that we need in order to engage life to the full.
In my own life, the light is shining in and through the love and prayers I have received from you during this time of challenge, and in the care so generously given by the medical team at Stanford. I could not be more blessed, nor more grateful to you all. That shining light helps me live most days in active hope—not hope for a cure, but hope as living anticipation of God. And that leads to a joy that has helped in coping with any discouragement or temptation toward fear. What greater gifts than these?
May you find moments of peace these days, and in the days to come, when we recall the birth of the One who is light come into the world.
“Let it be done to me according to your Word.” (Luke 1:38)
These days we tend to weigh our worth by how much we are accomplishing. We needn’t be a high-level executive, over-achieving college student, or Silicon Valley techie to know this. It is also true of parents busy juggling work and kids, and even older people looking back over their lives sometimes wondering what they have to show for themselves. Even if we do not have overweening ambitions, most of us are prone toward looking at what we have not done, creating bucket lists of things to do before we die. All those things to do, places to see, projects to finish—and only so much time! The race is on.
Today’s Gospel is a summons to hit the pause button. For what we find in this precious moment in the life of Mary is not a rush of activity, certainly not an accomplishment in any ordinary sense. Rather, there is a quiet moment, a passive moment. Mary, strong and active and courageous a woman though she was, and destined to know both the joys and the tragic struggles of life, knew also what it meant not to act solely on her own, but to let herself be acted upon, graced, by God.
There is a difference between Mary’s passive moment, and mere passivity. Passivity is the surrender of our agency to a more powerful person or force; in passivity we yield our freedom. But a passive moment is different: it is an expression of our freedom. It is a motion. Just as every breathing forth is preceded by the passive inhalation, a breathing in, so every free, active motion is preceded by a free passive motion, Mary’s fiat—be it done to me according to your word—is her breathing in, a “yes” expressed as a passive motion, undertaken by a human being quite capable of moral agency in her own right. Out of her freedom, she allows God to speak, and she listens. In this passive moment of quietude, she takes in what is being said to her, and she ponders it so as to accept it. She lets God in.
This yin-yang motion between the passive and the active starts in the womb, where, through our mothers, we undergo a prolonged passive “moment” before birth, and concludes in our death, another passive moment. The saintly former Jesuit Superior General, Pedro Arrupe, offered the following words upon his own prolonged passive moment, following a debilitating stroke that would lead to his death:
More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.
—these words, from a man of extraordinary life activity, but who, in his wisdom, knew that the end was a moment of complete surrender—a passive motion.
As the festival of the Nativity draws near, and the quiet of winter envelops us, may we remind ourselves of the importance, the final real value, of the passive moments that can lead to profound inner peace, freedom, and, as in the case of Mary, even unimagined good.
The following is taken from a homily given earlier this week.It is based the Advent readings from Isaiah 35, Psalm 85, and the Lukan Gospel which describes a paralyzed man lowered from the roof by his friends so that he can meet Jesus. That mass was also the occasion to remember the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton, the remarkable Trappist monk who still inspires us.
The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people of Israel who are in exile from Jerusalem, having been uprooted from their homeland and sent to Babylon—not unlike the Rohingya people of today who have been forced out of Myanmar, or other immigrants and exiles.He gives them a vision of a world the captives can scarcely imagine, a world where they will be freed from their misery and return to Jerusalem, singing with joy as they move along what Isaiah calls the “holy road” being paved for them. Rather than impasse and frustration, setback and fear, there would now be the promise of home, where kindness, justice, and truthfulness would reign—just the opposite of what they were experiencing in the world they were inhabiting—a world of cruelty, injustice, and lies.But they had to overcome their fears, and trust that they would see an end to their nightmare, despite all apparent odds.
Trust also abounds in this Gospel reading. Those who trust in Jesuscontrive to lower the man through the roof so that he might encounter Jesus face to face.They believed deeply and acted eagerly to help the lame man.Jesus saw that and loved them, offering them the gift of shalom, freedom from their sins.And it is easy to imagine the man lowered through the roof, trusting the help and strength of his friends, and the stability of the roof itself—hopeful for a solution to his predicament.
Trust is one of the hardest things for any or us to muster, for it means giving up the urge to have control over events, over our lives, and even our bodies.It means having the humility to accept the help that comes our way, of letting ourselves be lowered from the roof. The ultimate trust is not the faith that God will heal us, but is that trust required to surrender our lives to God, ultimately in our dying and death: of letting go completely. That degree of trust is extremely difficult to accept, for we want to hold on; we want to be in control. But, in the end, we must let go and allow God to be with us.
On this commemoration of Thomas Merton, one of his well-known prayers seems particularly fitting:
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
The past couple of days have been beautiful here—good walking weather. Yesterday, I espied this dandelion in the grass: And today, suddenly there appeared two new lemons—the first to appear on Mom’s old bush (transplanted from Sacramento) since December 2016. These are the little things (miracles) that lift us from the Winter doldrums.
For those of you who might have been wondering, Mr. Cactus Head says hello. He is doing just fine. His table is newly surrounded by red and white cyclamen for Christmas (not shown here), as well as violas and the usual other stuff, such as the red bougainvillea on the fence in back, and the shamrocks and succulents on his table. Those bare branches in the background belong to an old bonsai ginkgo tree from Palo Alto. Note his purple crown– in a few months it will be sprouting brilliant magenta flowers. He’s happy.