Faith formed by politics, or politics informed by faith?

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I’ve developed a new morning ritual the last few months. I get up, warm my hot pack, and listen to two podcasts while doing the stretches and exercises required by a couple of chronic conditions. The two podcasts are the Bible in a Year and Evolving Faith. They’re quite different… one quite self-aware in its orthodoxy and the other quite aware of its not-orthodoxy. I think this is probably a good balance.

Sometime in my tween/teen years, I read the Bible straight through. But having it read to me as an adult is enlightening. I’m making connections I never did before. I’m understanding the relationship between different books in a new way. I appreciate Scripture on a whole new level. When you are steeped in the Lectionary, as most of us Catholics are, and liturgy people more than most, it’s really good to get a sense of the way the very familiar excerpts fit into the larger context.

The Evolving Faith podcast hits in a whole different way. More visceral, more immediate. These are people—almost entirely non-Catholics—who are wrestling with faith and the world in the same way that I am. Unlike me, many have abandoned institutional churches (though not Jesus). The podcast consists of talks from the Evolving Faith conference, which was founded by a group including Rachel Held Evans—whose work, in my mind, all Catholics should read, even though her perspective on the world came from a very different faith tradition. She has so much to offer us.

And so do the other speakers I’m hearing.

It’s a truism that faith formation is generally pretty bad… everywhere. Some blame it on Vatican 2, but I would submit that the older crowd might have known plenty ABOUT the faith, but they weren’t any better equipped to apply it to the real world. Plus, far too many quit faith formation at a certain point—graduation from Catholic school? Confirmation? etc.—so faith doesn’t always mature the way understanding does.

So then, as we interact with the world, we have head-on collisions with realities that don’t fit what our faith taught us about How Things Are Supposed To Work. At that point, a few different things can happen.

One is to deny the validity of the thing that is challenging our faith, so as to protect the faith as it stands. (I believe the focus on “Marxism” at the expense of honest examination of the ripple effects of racism is one example of this.)

Another is to admit that the faith in its current, comfortable form is woefully insufficient for said realities, and to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Which is why so many people leave organized religion, or even God.)

The third is to get down in the weeds and ask the really hard, uncomfortable questions, and deal with the doubt and turmoil and lack of clarity that come with them. To accept as your faith gets bruised and bumped. To accept the muddiness of faith in the real world, and the reality that sometimes there AREN’T pat answers. To quest, to seek, to wrestle with the hard stuff.

It’s not an easy thing to do, because basically it means you’re uncomfortable all the time. (All those fingers pointing at myself.)

But isn’t that exactly what it means to be “in the world, yet not of it?” There’s a now and not yet, a tension that human nature doesn’t like. According to one narrative I’ve been bludgeoned with a lot in recent memory, the Kingdom is Jesus, it’s not something we build. It was never meant to be on earth–only in Heaven.

But then why did Jesus tell us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”?

This weekend, two of my kids were confirmed, and the bishop said, in essence, your words about faith are not enough. People need to SEE the kingdom of God embodied in YOU.

Which means we HAVE to get our hands dirty, working the earth around those messy subjects like abortion and immigration and racism and health care and the balance of personal and social responsibility and the common good. We have to accept that neither of our political extremes has it entirely right and be willing to take a deep breath and enter into dialogue. The world is always going to try to box us into an either/or, and we’re all susceptible to picking a side and planting our flag and failing to recognize when we’ve made that flag—or money (so much of our political discourse is about our own financial self-interest!)—the center of our world view, rather than God.

All of this to introduce a quote from speaker Nish Weiseth, because when she said these words, they rang a deafening bell in my soul:

“What we see from those previously mentioned leaders is a faith that is formed by politics, and not a politics that is informed by faith.”

If I have the energy, I’ll do more specific writing on this in a day or two. We shall see.

Signposts from Augustine and Dorothy Day

It’s been a minute since I posted here, but not for lack of spiritual journeying… just struggling with how to write it publicly. God continues to place signposts in my journey to balance Godly anger and detachment. Sometimes I don’t quite know how to balance the two.

I spent Lent reading the letters of Dorothy Day, because I thought, “If anyone has figured out this balance, she’s that one.” “All The Way To Heaven” was the recommendation of a priest friend of a friend.

In the first 40% of the book she was not at all what I expected from Dorothy Day. It’s really interesting to watch her own spiritual journey unfold. Then there comes a sharp turn. I’m still only at the 46% mark (she wrote a lot of letters!) but I am thoroughly engrossed by it all. But I wasn’t finding the nugget I was looking for–the thing that showed me how to be an activist and advocate for social justice without being angry all the time.

Then, without warning: this.

Whoa.

But, because God doesn’t deal in the obvious and the clear-cut and the black-and-white–he just doesn’t–within 24 hours, I stumbled across this quote in the front of a novel I pulled from the library to read:

Okay, then.

So… I suppose the divine message here is to hold things in tension? That this struggle is real, and inevitable, and a part of the journey?

High Conflict and Spiritual Attack

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A while back, I heard a discussion on the radio about a book called “High Conflict.” As I listened, I thought, “That’s me. That’s what I’m feeling.” I put it on hold at the library, but I was way down the list. And when my turn came a few weeks ago, my heart quailed. I thought, “This is not going to be an enjoyable read.”

Then I pulled up my big girl panties and read it, praying throughout for openness. Because this, clearly, was God’s next signpost in my spiritual journey this year, toward balancing Godly anger at injustice with detachment. Because—also clearly—high conflict is NOT what God is calling me to.

Or any of us.

It was an incredible book… eye opening for myself, and extremely balanced in calling people across spectrums on the carpet. (You can tell a well balanced book by the fact that reviewers from both sides of the High Conflict that is American politics gripe about how their side was treated more harshly than the other.)

Reading that book did change me. Among the many valuable things she urged was to “muddy the waters.” The fact is that we like to put people in “us” and “them” categories, and we need to remember that we are all products of multiple influences, and just because two people share an identity in one of those influences doesn’t mean they will in others.

For myself, Catholic is my identity above all others. It is the filter through which I view everything. It is the measuring stick by which I gauge my secular work and my advocacy (“Disability Mom” and “writer” are tied for a close second in my identity)– and advocacy is, in fact, one of the red flags she warns of as an indicator of high conflict.

Anyway, the point wasn’t to detail the book, because everyone just needs to read it.

The point is that it helped me. It cooled down the temperature of my passion. Let me tell you, in the past two to three weeks, that cooling trend was critical… and not for any of the reasons I thought it would be. It’s just been a rough few weeks, personally.

And yet, yesterday I found myself triggered again. Multiple times. By multiple triggers, in multiple places. I found myself starting arguments with no one again.

The most bizarre thing was that I had a flashback to an incredibly contentious… and thankfully, defunct… relationship that caused me tremendous mental anguish over the course of COVID. I have zero contact with these people anymore. I have almost, if not completely, removed myself from these people’s orbit.

And yet, suddenly I was there in the middle of the emotions again, reliving the offenses, reliving the, well, anguish of trying to behave in a Christlike manner, cringing at the one mistake I made, raging at the certainty that they didn’t learn a thing from that conflict, that because of my mistake, they never admitted their own.

It was as if it happened yesterday instead of more than a year ago.

And sometime during Mass, as I sat behind the piano, wrenching my mind back to the liturgy again and again, it occurred to me: “I wonder if this is a spiritual attack.”

Because I WAS making progress toward what I know God is calling me to do.

I don’t have a neat and tidy bow to wrap around this post. I am just sharing the journey. Maybe high conflict, itself, is indication of a spiritual attack almost all of us are suffering…

Anyway… here’s that book you should all read, regardless of where you stand on any of the multitudes of points of contention we have all elevated to High Conflicts.

Anger, Detachment, and Love

This past Sunday, my pastor’s homily focused on the second reading, I Cor. 13, the famous explanation of love: patient, kind; bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring in all circumstances.

Along with that is the explanation of what love is NOT: quick tempered, brooding over injury. Those are the two that spoke to me personally.

Sitting there in the front row of church, it occurred to me that this was my next signpost from God about detachment vs. Godly anger. Anger tempered by love—the kind of love described in this passage–is a very different thing from plain old garden variety anger. You express it differently. In a healthier way.

So that is my food for reflection as I go through these days where the news cycle continues to provide daily reason for anger. How do I express that anger through a lens of patience and kindness, believing that there is hope?

Extra note: my youngest sister sent me a book a while back called “A Woman’s Guide to Claiming Space.” Not a religious book AT ALL, and the language sometimes reflects it. But one of the many things she wrote that struck me was the distinction between “nice” and “kind.” We often confuse the two, but nice, she argues, is what we’re conditioned to be—don’t make waves, never make anyone uncomfortable, stuff our own resentments, etc. Whereas “kind” is more authentic. You don’t have to be a jerk to tell the truth, is what it amounts to. I believe reading this book and having this reading come up in short order afterward is a God moment.

How To Detach

I set myself the task of cultivating detachment this year, but the problem is I don’t know how to start.

Last year, I had some path markers to follow through contemplation—people who had a tried & true method I could tap into. Incidentally, centering prayer will be with me the rest of my life. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s a foundational skill for detachment.

But I don’t have that well-trodden path to follow in cultivating detachment. So the other day I just said a prayer, asking God to put sign posts in my pathway.

God does not disappoint.

Here are several things that have spontaneously crossed my online feeds in recent days. Things I have done nothing to seek out. Maybe they will give you food for thought as they have given me:

#1. a blog post

If you can’t take in anymore, there’s a reason: it’s all too much. What I took from this blog post: Social media, news, everything that’s wrong in the world is important, but we were only built to withstand so much of it. (Language alert.)

#2. … same message.

#3: not a religious article, just a summary of some research that supports the effort.

How To Be Ambivalent. The attitude they are calling ambivalence sounds a lot like what I am seeking: a degree of emotional distance from difficult realities. If it doesn’t matter so much to you, you’re more likely to be able to approach it objectively. That isn’t what they claim to be advocating for, but that’s how it reads to me.

#4: Pope Francis never disappoints, either. I get these “Journey with the Pope” emails every day, I suspect because I donated to Missio.


Complexity and Confidence

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Our brains prefer a simple lie to a complex truth.
Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.

These are two of the biases explored in the “Learning How To See” podcast. Everything I heard on the first season was like an earthquake in my heart, but these two line up so thoroughly with my own experience, it reaches a whole other plane.

There are so many times when my kids ask a faith question, and I can think of a glib answer that will take three seconds and wholly misrepresent the complexity and the gravity of the issue at hand. But to do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, it would ignore the dignity of the soul that’s seeking authentic truth. Truth that stands up to their lived reality, which is, let’s face it, complex. Because it’s a complex world.

So I reply with complexity and hesitancy. I pause–to choose my words, to pray and think.

Believe it or not, this is me on Intentional Catholic, too. I know I come across loud and opinionated, and I am. But a lot of thought and inner wrestling goes into these posts. A lot of care for how the things I say will feel when read by different people.

Complexity bias, confidence bias. These two have played out so many times in the years I’ve been involved in discussions (and arguments) online. Through blogging, too. One memorable time, I waded into current events with unshakable certainty and ended up with egg on my face. It taught me to value caution and deliberation. Research before reacting. Well. Reacting in words, at least. Reacting in my heart is a whole different matter. I spend a lot of time talking myself down from initial reactions. But the point is, I do it.

The absolute confidence with which some people of faith respond to complex situations, erasing all complexities and nuance, waters down the Gospel. If people feel that the Gospel can’t address complexity, of course they’re going to dismiss it. It doesn’t help them process their own experiences. That’s not a weakness in the Gospel. It’s a weakness in those of us trying to spread it.

It is in our nature to prefer the simple lie, told confidently (stolen elections, anyone?), but I pray that we can all learn to recognize how much damage it does to be satisfied to wallow in the blindness of those biases.

(And if it’s at all unclear, that prayer is for myself, too.)

When your mind gets blown open, it can be hard to put into words

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I have had my mind blown in the past few months by a podcast from the Center for Action and Contemplation. I’m not normally a podcast person, but the premise was so compelling, I had to make time for it. It’s called “Learning How To See.”

Ever since I listened to episode 1— “Why can’t we see?”—I have been wanting to blog about it. But I haven’t known what to say. Why summarize it when I’d rather you listen for yourselves? In fact, everyone in the world needs to listen to it, because it’s about all of us.
It boils down to this: a Protestant minister who is involved in the interfaith contemplative prayer movement did a deep dive into research on psychology (and maybe sociology?), because he couldn’t understand what has happened in the U. S. in the last few years.

What he found is that there are thirteen universal biases that constitute the “planks” in our own eyes that prevent us from seeing the world as it really is. Biases that cause us to cling blindly to our own view of the world, and to find another’s experience and perspective threatening.

He called in Fr. Richard Rohr as one of his companions on the first season. That’s how I encountered it—because one of my choir members loaned me Rohr’s book Just This, and I was so overwhelmed by it, I signed up for his newsletter, which led me to the podcast.

As longtime readers know, I underwent a really profound shift in world view between 2007 and, say, 2014. Most of what baffles and enrages me now is particularly “angrifying” because it’s where I came from. It’s where I used to be, not so long ago.

Listening to this podcast–with people sharing their own spiritual face plants frankly–with its prayers for openness and eyes to see as God sees, rather than as my biases would have me see—it’s like hearing my own story told through brand new stories.

It prepared me for the rude awakening that has surrounded my daughter’s celiac diagnosis. The one that showed that despite all my spiritual growth, I have plenty of blinders left.

It caused me to ask what blinders I put on to replace the ones I left behind.

I’m not sure where I’m going to go with this. I might do my own reflections on each of these biases. Maybe. But for now, I just want everyone to go listen. It’s so, so worth it.

Detachment & Forgiveness

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The last year or so, the word “detachment’ has been popping up everywhere. In theory, I totally understand the concept. Detachment means not to be tied to the things of the world.

But what does that look like where the rubber meets the road? I can say with high confidence that I am not addicted to power. That I have zero use for fancy cars and the newest gadgets and the biggest house. (It is never far from my mind that the bigger the house, the bigger the cleaning job. Practicality is a great help in this kind of detachment!)

So I could rest on my laurels and say I’ve got it nailed. Except if that were the case, I have a feeling this word, “Detachment,” would not have been scrolling across my feed so routinely in the last few months.

I have come to realize that where I struggle with detachment is in the passion for justice and seeing God’s will done in tangible, concrete ways on the earth. I get angry a lot. Anger seems to me like a pretty good indicator that one is not “detached.” And the desire for earthly justice is, by definition, a thing of the world.

So here is the question I am pondering these days: how does one balance righteous anger—such as Jesus showed in the Temple, obviously, but also in the blistering critiques he leveled at the religious authorities of his day—with detachment? Righteous anger is what fuels the desire to work for justice. How does one maintain the drive to work for justice while at the same time remaining detached?

A few weeks ago, my good friend Lorraine Hess gave a mission at our parish, and one thing she said really stuck with me. Forgiveness, she said, is choosing not to be controlled by our wounds.

Those words sounded a gong that reverberated in my whole body, and I thought, “THAT’S what detachment is!”

Recognizing it doesn’t mean I have achieved it, though. And now I know that I have stepped onto a new path in my spiritual journey, one that I will be following for some time to come.

Thoughts on nonviolence and how it’s organized

A few years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri was all in the news, I remember various people saying to me, “Those people are bringing in outside agitators from other places.” It was a criticism, suggesting that if “outsiders” weren’t riling up the populace, we wouldn’t be having these racial protests at all.

I wasn’t prepared to answer that argument at that time, and I haven’t heard it again since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. But as time goes on, I realize that the entire Civil Rights movement was structured the same way: national organizers identifying places where their presence could make a difference, and going there to support the local population.

(What we learn about history really does get distorted—whether it’s a concerted effort, or whether it’s because there’s so much of it and it gets oversimplified in an attempt to boil it down to its most important message, is another question. I’d hazard a guess the answer is “both.”)

In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean quoted from another book, “Wild Justice,” by Susan Jacoby, which appears now to be out of print. This passage really struck me.

Nonviolence, as employed by Gandhi in India and by King in the American South, might reasonably viewed as a highly disciplined form of aggression. If one defines aggression in the primary dictionary sense of “attack,” nonviolent resistance proved to be the most powerful attack imaginable on the powers King and Gandhi were trying to overturn. … King was even more explicit on this point: the purpose of civil disobedience, he explained many times, was to force the defenders of segregation to commit brutal acts in public and thus arouse the conscience of the world on behalf of those wronged by racism. King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators (although they did, in fact, change some minds) but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents.”

Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice, pp. 336-337

Every once in a while, someone points out that Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was the polar opposite of passive acceptance of injustice. (Read this for that mind-blowing take on a very familiar passage.)

This passage from Wild Justice also turns on its head the idea of nonviolence as passive. It made me rethink the whole movement. This describes a whole new level of courage: to go in, intending to provoke violence against oneself, which you will consciously not react to, in order to show the violence inherent in the system? Wow. Just… wow.

It was what Jesus did, too. Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion was about salvation beyond the things of the world. But God could have accomplished that any way he liked. The fact that the chosen way to get there was through nonviolent resistance to earthly injustice has to mean something for us.

Conscience must first listen to authoirty

A week or two ago I mentioned a podcast I’d listened to. The guest was Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory, and he was speaking about the intersection of faith and science.

The quote in this graphic blew my mind. Conscience gets thrown around a lot, by people across the spectrum. The question of primacy of conscience is one of the many things I’m pondering at this time in my life. And this quote peeled back half a dozen layers.

“A well formed conscience is one that has listened to authority.”

Boy, if that doesn’t twinge your conscience, I don’t know what will.