Monday, April 10, 2017

Two Films about Spiritual Journeys

As I watched the movie Fences recently, two previous experiences came to mind. The first was seeing grace and nature play out in the film The Tree of Life. The second was a seminar titled “Gender & the Spiritual Journey” presented by Adele Calhoun during my spiritual direction training. So I’ve decided to write about those experiences to absorb the lessons they offer for myself and others.

In the first scene of The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien describes grace and nature this way.

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who walks the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you whatever comes.

The film shows Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien, small-town-dwellers during the 1950s, taking separate paths especially with their three school-age children. Mr. O’Brien, a power-plant manager who regrets leaving behind his music career, takes the path of nature: He demands that his sons call him sir, he expects immediate obedience, and he exacts penance for small offences. As an example, he orders his oldest son, Jack, to close the screen door quietly fifty times for having allowed it to slam once. In contrast, Mrs. O’Brien, a firm yet loving mom, takes the path of grace. Once, when Mr. O’Brien is away on a business trip, she blissfully plays along with her sons’ boyish behavior as they celebrate their father’s absence.

The movie Fences, a remake of the Broadway play, presents those two paths taken by Troy and Rose Maxson, an urban couple in the 1950s. Troy, a former baseball star in the Negro leagues, is an illiterate garbageman. His path is evident as he relates to his sons, Lyons and Cory. Lyons, born of a previous marriage, is a struggling self-employed musician in his thirties. Cory, a high school football player, is being recruited by a college team and needs his father’s approval.

One Friday afternoon, Lyons stops by to ask his father to loan him ten dollars. Troy rebuffs him: “I’ll be damned! I’ll die and go to hell and play blackjack with the devil before I give you ten dollars.” When Troy stalls with a silly story fueled by the gin he has been drinking, Rose brings him back to reality: “Let the boy have ten dollars, Troy.” At that, he reaches into his pocket and gives Rose the envelope with his weekly wages: seventy-six dollars and forty-two cents. Rose hands Lyons a ten dollar bill, so he thanks her. But Troy complains, “Wait a minute. You gonna say, ‘thanks, Rose’ and ain’t gonna look to see where she got that ten dollars from?”  

Troy’s relationship with Cory is even more heart-rending. A third of the way through the story, Cory asks his father, “How come you ain’t never liked me?” Troy counters,

Liked you? Who the hell say I got to like you? What law is there say I got to like you? Wanna stand up in my face and ask a damn fool-ass question like that. Talking about liking somebody. Come here, boy, when I talk to you.

Troy contends that he feeds, clothes, and allows Cory to live in his house because it’s his responsibility.

A man got to take care of his family. You live in my house . . . sleep you behind on my bedclothes . . . fill you belly up with my food . . . cause you my son. You my flesh and blood. Not ‘cause I like you! Cause it’s my duty to take care of you. I owe a responsibility to you!

Even that speech reveals that Troy has commendable qualities; he’s fully a three-dimensional character. As an example, he’s been watching over his brother, Gabe, whose head injury during the war rendered him childlike. Late in the story, Rose tries to help Cory see Troy’s better side.

Your daddy wanted you to be everything he wasn’t . . . and at the same time he tried to make you into everything he was. I don’t know if he was right or wrong . . . but I do know he meant to do more good than he meant to do harm.

I still refer to her handout, a diagram adapted from lectures given by Richard Rohr titled Men and Women: Journey of Spiritual Transformation.

Rohr and Calhoun point out that in traditional cultures men and women began life on different trajectories. Boys engaged in an upward heroic journey; they were initiated to become wise warriors. Thus, they entered manhood with a solid self identity. Typically a crisis of limitation challenged their aspirations. Their response to the crisis determined whether they would pursue wisdom or become bitter old men.
In traditional cultures, girls descended and developed a permeable self identity that typically led to marriage and motherhood. When a woman’s midlife crisis came, she could ascend to a position of power and become either a wise matriarch or an embittered old woman.

The Gospels reflect those paths. Thus Jesus routinely calls men to descend, but he invites women to ascend. Recall that Jesus urged the rich ruler to sell everything he had and give to the poor (Luke 18:17-29). Yet he summoned the woman at Jacob’s well to drink from the spring of living water that wells up to eternal life (John 4:10, 14).

Richard Rohr points out that men typically struggle with crucifixion (movement downward). The obvious example is Peter’s response to Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Thus, Peter, along with all but one of the Twelve, scattered when Jesus was arrested, condemned, tortured and crucified. Peter was so frightened that he denied even knowing Jesus. But our Lord restored him, indicating that he too would glorify God through suffering and death (cf. John 21:15-19).

In contrast, Rohr observes that women at that time didn’t believe they could rise above their circumstances (movement upward). So in God’s providence, women were the first to hear the good news that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Mark’s Gospel shows Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome overwhelmed: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). But their hope was restored by repeated revelations. Certainly Jesus’ conversation with Mary Magdalene outside his empty tomb is one of our cherished memories (John 20:14-18).

Rohr’s observations about men and women play out in the movie Fences: Troy’s identity is solidly centered on baseball. In fact, he often uses baseball metaphors to deal with life’s conundrums. He ascended to power through the sport; but racism curtailed his career. It makes sense that he would shield his younger son from a similar fate. But Rose challenges his assumptions: “Times have changed since you was playing baseball, Troy. That was before the war. Times have changed a lot since then.” When Troy disagrees, she says, “They got lots of colored boys playing ball now. Baseball and football.”

Troy’s friend, Bono, tells him that he came along too early. But Troy rejects that as an excuse: “There ought not never have been no time called too early!” He points to a player for the Yankees (Selkirk) who batted .269. “What kind of sense that make? I was hitting .432 with thirty-seven home runs! Man batting .269 and playing right field for the Yankees!” But Rose reminds him, “They got a lot of colored baseball players now. Jackie Robinson was the first. Folks had to wait for Jackie Robinson.” But Troy is unbowed:

Jackie Robinson wasn’t nobody. I’m talking about if you could play ball then they ought to have let you play. Don’t care what color you were. Come telling me I came along too early. If you could play . . . then they ought to have let you play.

And Troy is adamant about Cory’s aspirations:

The white man ain’t gonna let you get nowhere with that football noway. You go on and get your book-learning so you can work yourself up in that A&P or learn how to fix cars or build houses or something, get you a trade.

Rose’s identity, on the other hand, has been what Rohr calls permeable: As a young woman, she invested totally in Troy. “I took on his life as mine and mixed up the pieces so that you couldn't hardly tell which was which anymore.” As a consequence, when a crisis threatens to blow apart their eighteen-year marriage, she tells her husband:

I took all my feelings, my wants and needs, my dreams . . . and I buried them inside you. I planted myself inside you and waited to bloom. And it didn’t take no eighteen years to find out the soil was hard and rocky and it wasn’t never gonna bloom.

Yet in time, as a result of Rose’s decision to act graciously toward Troy, she rises to a position of power. A latent aspiration becomes a reality for Rose, so she lives out her days as a wise and resourceful woman who freely gives to others.

Apparently Troy never rose above his bitterness. That’s in contrast to Mr. O’Brien in The Tree of Life, who was able to admit his failure and seek forgiveness. Early on, Mr. and Mrs. O’Brien receive word that their middle (adult) son, R.L., suddenly and tragically died. They both grieve profoundly; but Mr. O’Brien, weighed down by sorrow and guilt, humbly bows. And he laments,

I never got a chance to tell him how sorry I was. One night he punched him . . . himself in the face for no reason. He was sitting next to me at the piano and I criticized the way he turned the pages. I made him feel shame. My shame. That poor boy. That poor boy.

Thus, I want my decisions to be grace-filled. I want to be on a journey toward wisdom such that, by God’s grace, I become what Rohr and Calhoun call a “holy fool.” I also want to help others pursue the way of grace and to seek wisdom’s path. May it ever be.

© Stan Bohall, April 17, 2017

Monday, March 20, 2017

So Be Perfect

I’m a recovering perfectionist. I acquired that propensity naturally—through my family. As a child and adolescent, during the ‘50s and ‘60s, I went with family members to camp meetings and revival services in the American Holiness Movement. There, Christian perfection, A.K.A. entire sanctification, was the theme. As their fiery messages concluded, evangelists would invite us to the altar to receive that “second work of grace.” One more stanza of “Just As I Am” or “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling” might draw a few more sensitive souls to receive sinless perfection.

At one Free Methodist camp meeting when I was a teenager, I was bewildered by testimonies from people who claimed to be sin-free for years. The prooftext of the belief was “Without holiness, no one shall see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). Even in her ‘90s, my mother was haunted by how she might achieve that standard for Judgment Day.

My maternal grandmother, with whom my brother and I lived for months at a time during our formative years, did her part to help us live holy lives. A practicing member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, she regularly warned us against lying, sexual sins, and overeating. Abstinence from alcohol was also a theme. She was obviously overweight, so now I wonder if she projected her own struggles onto us.

Thus, it’s not surprising that I stumbled over one of Jesus’ most difficult sayings: “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48, KJV). That’s because, though I tried, I never acquired that second work of grace. I “went forward;” I asked God to give me that experience. I was earnest; yet, try as I might I continued to sin.

I would, at times, express my consternation about Matthew 5:48 with my dad. He was the one person in our family who seemed to be immune to perfectionism; though, in retrospect, I recall some telltale signs of the malady. Dad thought Jesus intended that we would be “perfectly fit” for God’s purposes. His favorite analogy was a “perfect” baby, one who arrived with all her fingers and toes, and about whom Wordsworth wrote in Intimations of Immortality, “Heaven lies about us in our infancy!” I’m sure Dad wasn’t aware of Wordsworth’s line; yet, babies exuding the glory of God was the picture he had in mind. But with all that rhetoric about sinless perfection swirling about, I wasn’t convinced by my dad’s imagery.

It’s no wonder that, as a young adult, I grabbed the lifeline of the Reformed faith at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where Jesus’ hard sayings were tempered by the theology of Paul’s letters. First there was, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV). Then, as Paul wrote to the Philippian believers, “. . . continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (2:12-13). The emphasis was upon God’s work of gradual sanctification in our lives. Our work was simply to cooperate with God. So relax!

Now, after having worked forty-plus years among descendents of the Protestant Reformation, I find myself in the Catholic tradition. Once again, I hear a greater emphasis on Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels than on St. Paul’s theology in the Epistles. Thus, Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reverberate.

For example, the Gospel for Sunday February 19, 2017 was Matthew 5:38-48. The article, “While Only God is Good, Everyone Can Be Perfect” by Fr. George W. Rutler, arrived via email on Ash Wednesday. I had already read the meditation “Be ye therefore perfect” in the book Open Me the Gates by Barbara Dent, a convert to the Catholic Church.

I decided to deal with Jesus’ stunning message once and for all. So with some trepidation, I translated Matthew 5:48 from the Greek text, I reviewed those articles, and I looked at various English translations and paraphrases to see how they expressed Jesus’ message.

To my surprise, Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Matthew 5:48 in The Message brings to light the nuances of Jesus’ directive. It reads this way: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

First, that paraphrase reflects the grammar of Matthew 5:48. The verb “to be” (Ἔσεσθε) and the adjective “perfect” (τέλειοι) are keywords in the sentence. The “You,” inherent in the verb, is plural. Another, otherwise unnecessary, plural pronoun “you” (ὑμεῖς) conveys that Jesus intends us to be involved. The verb is in the future tense; so we’re to begin now and continue indefinitely. “You folks are to be. . . .” is the idea. The verb is also in the “middle voice,” which implies personal involvement. Some English verbs come across that way: “Josephine bought (herself) a car” is an example. The word “therefore” (οὖν) connects this verse with verses 38-47. Accordingly, the first part of verse 48 reads, “Therefore, you folks are to be fully engaged in” that which Jesus has in mind.

What does he have in mind? The adjective “perfect” conveys fulfillment of one’s intended purpose. That is, if we progress through all the stages of development, we become full-grown, mature. Jesus’ concluding phrase, “just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” reminds us that we were created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). As a result of Adam and Eve’s Fall, God’s image in us was marred. So in Matthew 5:48, Jesus calls each of us to cooperate with God to ever more perfectly bear His image.

Peterson’s paraphrase also reflects the context of verses 38-47. There, Jesus tells us to act graciously and generously toward everyone: When slapped on one cheek, offer the other one; if someone sues for your shirt, give up your coat as well; go the extra mile; give generously to all who seek help. Love your enemies! The supreme example is our heavenly Father, who generously doles out sunshine and rain—to good and bad folks alike.

How then, do we fulfill Jesus’ mandate? How do we grow up? St. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). We most fully bear God’s image as Christ dwells in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17). Christ’s life and ministry included suffering and death on the cross. Thus, Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and emulate him (Matthew 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23).

The articles by Fr. George W. Rutler and Barbara Dent explain how we acquire God’s perfection. Rutler writes that true goodness is divine; but perfection comes when we partake of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). A perfect man is not a perfectionist: “Perfectionism is a neurosis based on the confusion of goodness and perfection. The perfectionist tries to defy mortality without the help of God who alone is immortal.” Rutler says that we become God’s work of art when we allow the divine sculptor to remove that which does not belong in our lives. “It is said that Michelangelo explained to a child that he sculpted Moses simply by chipping away from the marble all that was not Moses—but Moses had been there all along.” That brings to mind the metaphor St. Paul uses in Ephesians 2:10: We are God’s work of art, His masterpiece (NLT).

In her article “Be ye therefore perfect,” Barbara Dent emphasizes God’s persistent artistry in our lives.
God sends us, each second, precisely what is most needed for our sanctification, so that by lovingly accepting the present moment as his will, and abandoning one’s own will second by second in favor of his, one achieves union with him, which is, of course holiness.

A key phrase is lovingly accepting the present moment, whether joy-filled or sorrowful. Indeed, that’s the emphasis when I sit with folks as a spiritual director. The question, “Where is God in this?” is implicit in every conversation. As we explore what’s happening in the directee’s life, we seek to discover how the divine sculptor is shaping the person. Thus, spiritual direction promotes spiritual formation.

I’m still a recovering perfectionist; but now I’m more aware that my loving heavenly Father is shaping me into His perfect work of art, chipping away all that doesn’t belong.

© Stan Bohall

Monday, February 20, 2017

Lectio Divina: Praying the Scriptures

On Saturday March 4, 2017 members of Saint Theresa of Lisieux Parish in South Hadley, MA will embark on a four-week pilgrimage with the Scriptures called lectio divina. Guided by the Holy Spirit, we trust that our time together will stimulate a lifelong engagement with the Scriptures. Those who have practiced lectio divina can attest to its influence in their lives. We hope that those who haven’t practiced it will embrace it as a rewarding way to spend time with God.

I have included an outline below of how lectio divina usually works and an example of my insights.

1. Lectio: Read Aloud

Read or listen to a passage of Scripture and notice a word or phrase that stands out to you.

For example, the Old Testament reading at the Mass on Tuesday morning February 7, was Genesis 1:20-2:4a, the account of the fifth and sixth days of creation—and the seventh day when God rested. The sentence Evening came, and morning followed lit up. That’s because I was accustomed to the more literal, There was evening, and there was morning. Through this translation that was new to me, I saw the beauty of that line for the first time.

Please note: If  a word or phrase doesn’t come to light immediately, stay with the passage. Noticing the Holy Spirit’s prompting is a skill often developed over time.


2. Meditatio: Meditate

Sit in silence with the word or phrase. Absorb its meaning and significance in light of the whole passage.
A day or so after hearing Genesis 1:20 and following (ff), I sat in silence with Evening came, and morning followed. I kept repeating the sentence as a mantra or a prayer phrase to see how the Lord would instruct me through that short sentence. The recurring rhythm of the statement, day after day for six days of creation, conveys the cadence of time moving along and the significance of each day.

It is important to consider the chosen word or phrase in context. For example, Genesis 1:20ff expresses the days when God created creatures that live in the water and in the air (day five) and on land (day six). Ultimately during day six, “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him: male and female he created them.” And God said to all his creatures, “Be fertile and multiply.”

3. Oratio: Pray
Consider how this word or phrase prompts you to pray.

As the adage, Evening came, and morning followed, meandered in my memory, the verse Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart from Psalm 90 came to mind. In time, I recalled a paraphrase of that verse, Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom. That’s a prayer! Since then my prayer has become, “Lord, help me realize the brevity of life that I may live wisely.” That desire has become even more relevant with the recent death of my parents.

4. Contemplatio: Contemplate
Allow the word or phrase to shape your life.

Sitting with a word or phrase in the context of the whole reading makes the passage memorable. The process of contemplation has begun. I invite God to shape my life through His Word in the days ahead.

Evening came, and morning followed reminds me that in the Jewish daily cycle, the new day begins at sundown. Thus, the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening. I enjoy attending the Mass near sundown on Saturday when our Sabbath begins. Receiving the Word and Sacrament as the sun sets enables me to settle into God’s presence so that I am prepared to be enriched and renewed by worship and relaxation on the day we celebrate our Lord’s resurrection.

Frequently Asked Questions
1. What shall we do with distracting thoughts and emotions?

Mark E. Thibodeaux, S.J., devotes a whole chapter to this in his book, Armchair Mystic, Easing Into Contemplative Prayer. The relevant chapter is appropriately titled, “When Things Go Haywire: Dealing with Distractions.” His suggestion is that we see random thoughts and feelings as clutter in the river of life. As we canoe our way along during contemplative prayer, notice the distractions, offer them up to God, and let them pass.

2. What are some of the benefits of practicing lectio divina?

It will enhance our understanding of the Scriptures and our practice of prayer. It will slow our minds down from the rapid pace stimulated by our culture. Practicing lectio divina as a community here on Saturday mornings will help us practice it on a daily basis, personally and with our families. It may be helpful to have a discussion at the end of this series about how this practice has contributed to the devotional life of group members.

3. What additional resources can help us pray the Scriptures?

The outline I included above was prompted by Lectio Divina: From God’s Word to Our Lives by Enzo Bianchi, pp. 103-107. The whole book is a first-rate, thoroughly readable resource for understanding the Roman Catholic teaching on the Scriptures and the practice of lectio divina. Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina by Michael Casey also comes highly recommended.

© Stan Bohall
February 20, 2017