ST. DOMINIC'S CHURCH, EAGLE ROCK, CA
Here's Part II.
5. In “Shirt of Flame” I think I remember you mentioning how you stay away from politics. As a political science major I am all about reading up on the conflicts in the Middle East, etc. So, in matters of politics, it seems to me one of the paradoxes of the Catholic Church is its universality. Not in an abstract sense, but in the very real way of sitting a few pews away from Allan Colmes or belonging to the same parish as Nancy Pelosi’s daughter …. and as much as their “politics” annoy me to no end …. because we attend the same church community … it somehow doesn’t feel like a cop out…. It seems like in some very weird way we really are the body of Christ. Why does God work this way? He has a track record: Redemption through an instrument of brutal torture, Evangelization through one of his most adamant enemies (Saul/Paul) and yes a Church community built on people whose “politics” are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Is this God’s humor?
Oh, God totally has a sense of humor! A huge sense of paradox. A kind of “Good luck in trying to categorize, classify, manage, control and even up the jagged edges of THIS vale of tears”…
Of course we are called to participate in the world, and of course I’m interested in what’s going on in the world. But I see everything that goes on in the world through the lens of the Gospels. History to me simply bears out the prophecy of Christ. So what interests me is to see a super-power like the U.S. crumbling from within from spiritual corruption. The inevitability of violence turning in upon itself. The wages of our almost unimaginable hubris, arrogance, and lust for power. The way we tack the word God onto all manner of profoundly un-Godlike practices. As Catholics, we, too, have been so thoroughly imbued with the culture that we’re no longer able, if we ever were, to distinguish evangelization from rampant self-promotion. People whose houses are built on solid rock don’t have to go around foaming at the mouth, arguing, shouting, ridiculing their adversaries.
The problem is spiritual and the solution is spiritual, and that solution starts and ends in the individual human heart. Christ was both infinitely left and infinitely right, so bipartisan politics are never going to be the deepest measure and emblem of my faith. I can't abdicate my obligation to live out my life in Christ to the U.S. government. I don't confuse our political system, any political system, with the Father of the Triune God.
The people who grab me are those who, under totalitarian dictatorships, repression, genocide, retained their faith, their humanity. Those are the people who were "last" here and in heaven will be front-and-center, meltingly first. I'm constantly reading memoirs of folks who survived death camps, labor camps, solitary confinement. In He Leadeth Me, Fr. Walter Ciszek describes the extraodinary lengths he and his fellow inmates would go to in order to celebrate the Eucharist in the Siberian labor camps. Already on starvation rations, they'd observe the Eucharistic fast from the night before till noon (or sometimes till six p.m.), find some dingy, freezing corner, lay out a purloined napkin and, under penalty of severe punishment if caught, celebrate Mass on a stump. It meant everything to them. They were literally sustained by the Body and Blood of Christ.
In bipartisan politics our identity can get tied up which party we belong to. Our “platform” becomes who we can bind together with and who, together, we can hate. The whole tenor of political discourse in our country is of bitterness, vitriol and hate, characteristics that in and of themselves are egregiously un-Christ-like. I mean I would be at Confession if I used the tone employed by some of even our most “notable” religious leaders/"media experts" when it comes to politics! (This may be the place to say I attribute about 80% of whatever small amount of sanity I may have to the fact that I don’t own a TV and seldom watch or listen to news).
A few years ago I quietly resigned from the California Bar (I'd already resigned from the Massachusetts and New Hampshire bars, of which I was also a member at one point). I no longer wanted to be bound by an oath that required me to uphold a Constitution that allows both abortion and torture, that spends more on the military than all the other nations of the world combined. Such a system is inherently, egregiously un-Christ-like. I did that not because I don’t love my country, but because I love my country so much.
So I guess you could call that political. In one way it was a gesture--I haven't turned in my passport, you'll notice--but it was also a gesture that closed the door on many years of study, the thousands of dollars I spent on law school, a whole segment of my life. "But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God's throne" (Matthew 5:34). “Let your message be 'Yes' for 'Yes' and 'No' for 'No.' Anything more than that comes from the evil one” Christ said (Matthew 5:37). In politics and the law, it is impossible to do so. Both systems are set up to, are based upon, “shading” the truth.
At the same time, I'm quite compliant and obedient, especially when it comes to Church, and have zero urge to defy authority for the sake of defying authority. I lived "off the grid" for so long, in all the wrong ways, as a drunk, I not only got that out of my system, ever after I've wanted nothing more than to participate in contribute to the world in as much integrity as I can.
We will be judged on how we treated the least of these. We will be judged on love. So yes, absolutely , we meet in the pews and this is the whole tragicomic beauty of it! We all have big ideals but can we be tolerant and generous and loving and kind to the darn person beside us at church? To our next-door neighbor, our friend, our kid, our employer or employee, our spouse? All the theology in the world stops short at the conflicted human heart. Put a suffering person in the midst of a bunch of theologians and they are stumped. We are all stumped. Fall in love and all the politics and theology in the world go out the window. Our hearts are pierced. What to do then? How to hold the tension of the mystery that there are no answers, no roadmap—only Christ…. I am way more concerned to see that my relationship with Him is right than I am to see the ‘right’ candidate elected.
On the other hand, thank the Lord there are people in the world, extroverts, who are drawn to public discourse, the marketplace, organizing large groups of people, governing. I am simply not one of them. I am always going to be off in the corner staring at the sky or minutely examining a flower.
6. You gave the example of how Saint Therese lived through a significant economic depression and yet she never mentioned any big political events. However, there is the conversion of Pranzini which seems capable of huge political significance. Any suggestions on how we as Catholics can authentically engage in the political life of our country? Pope Francis just warned us not to become an “ideological church.” That seems like a real challenge …
A conversion is not a political event; it’s a metaphyisical event; it’s a supernatural event. That something is “news” doesn’t mean its deepest significance is political. Politics is based on power, rights, domination, security, managing and controlling so we can get our way. The follower of Christ is not interested in power; the follower of Christ is interested, compelled, utterly absorbed by the desire to surrender.
As Simone Weil observed, “Can anyone imagine St. Francis of Assisi speaking of rights?” We have every right known to man in our culture and what do we do with our freedom? We watch television for four hours a day. We watch reality shows and listen to politicians without a glimmer of the light of Christ in them argue with each other.
Again, I don’t want to be anti-political or apolitical. But we engage in everything, politics included, through and by prayer, silence, solitude, discipline, and the Sacraments.
At the same time, I am constantly troubled by my hypocrisy, cowardice, and Phariseeism. There is a very deep fear of being cast out of the herd and the herd, as usual, is not on the side of Christ.
I don’t live among a huge Catholic community in L.A. and that perhaps intensifies the fear. So I am encouraged and humbled by all who so bravely speak out, participate in politics, man the abortion lines, protest at nuclear testing sites, are prisoners of conscience.
7. I have this conviction that you are the Flannery O’Connor of our time. This is coming from a poly sci major so I don’t have a whole lot of literary authority, but I feel like your writing “gets” the culture we live in. I would like to hear who you think are authors/filmmakers/etc. in contemporary American culture who should be on the Catholic radar.
I am not fit to untie Flannery O’Connor’s sandal, plus she was a genius writer of fiction and I can’t write fiction at all. I like to think that if I work really, really hard for the rest of my days, I may be fit to stand way, way at the back, and to hold up the last thread of her train as she processes to her place beside Christ’s throne on Resurrection Day.
To me, Catholic means to wrestle with the human condition. Just off the top of my head, and I know there are dozens more, Contemporary film-makers: Werner Herzog, Krzysztof Kieślowski, that Polish guy who did The Decalogue, Robert Bresson. Bresson died but he's way contemporary, to me. Contemporary writers: Flannery O'Connor, Kenzaburo Oe, Andre Dubus (not his son, Andre Dubus III), who wrote Meditations from a Movable Chair, etc.). George Saunders, Sherman Alexie. Magie Dominic’s The Queen of Peace Room is the best memoir I’ve ever read about childhood sexual abuse. I have a thing for ballet documentaries. I love people who are obsessed with art to the point of shedding blood.
I’ll tell you what does not strike me as great religious art, or great art, period, and that is The Passion of the Christ. Which I had absolutely no desire to see, and have not seen. I did watch some clips and the whole idea seemed tantamount to sitting a six-year-old boy down and saying, “Okay, sonny, you know what you’re going to watch now whether you want to or not? You’re going to watch a video of the agony your mother endured when you were born. You’re going to watch blood, and gore, and how you ripped your mother apart. That’s what your mother endured for you. Look at it. Look at it! And you talked back to her yesterday? Look at that blood. And you dare to think you deserve to be loved? Listen to her scream. You dare to think God could love someone as weak and bad and sinful as you?
That, to me, is a complete misreading of the Passion, and of Christ. That’s “faith” based on fear, and guilt, and shame, not love; on following the rules, not on vulnerability; on striving rather than surrendering. Any mother worth her salt, and obviously Christ himself, would say of their labor, “Oh, well, yes, that was a bit of pain, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat because I got YOU out of the deal!” For all the unimaginable physical agony of the Crucifixion, it seems to me that far worse must have been Christ’s emotional and spiritual agony. The operative point isn’t so much that we sin as that, in sinning, we fail to love him; we reject and abandon him.
The scandal of the Cross that we literally cannot bear is that we are loved in all our weakness and all our feebleness and all our fragility and all our humanity and all our sin. And the other part of the scandal is that in all our weakness and fragility and sin, we are called to follow Him: however stumblingly, however imperfectly however what often feels and looks ridiculously.
We can’t escape the Good Shepherd. No matter how far we stray, he calls us home.