Have you ever had someone tell you how easy your job was? Didn’t you just feel so weary after that?
Is seems common to think that something we’ve never done, something we’ve only seen from the outside, is much easier than it looks.
Those who look at the shortcomings of our American system and want to tear it down, perhaps believing that they can build something better from scratch. What if they are underestimating how hard it is to build things? What if they were geniuses who built something truly amazing? What if people tear down the system, but what they put in place is a thousand times worse because they didn’t realize how hard it to accomplish what they hoped? I will agree when this country was founded, there were shortcomings of how the ideals were put into practice, but the ideals themselves were a continual tug to grow to live up to them better. That was part of the genius.
Some people say that you are a hypocrite if you espouse ideals and don’t live up to them. I say that if we can regularly live up to our ideals, our ideals are not high enough, and we are holding ourselves back. If we are to become what we were meant to be, we need a constant tug from our ideals to pull us forward. I would think a better understanding of hypocrisy is holding ourselves to a lower standard than we hold others, being more attentive to others’ shortcomings than our own, and pretending to be better than we are. That prevents us from improving as we could.
Some things are easy, and one of them is to say we would have done better in their place, when we are not in danger of being in their place. It is easy to say that if we had been in the founding fathers’ positions, we could have done a better job. But if we had had the same experiences, the same education, lived under the same circumstances, might we see things differently? A lot of ideas that we think are obvious and common sense took many centuries to develop.
I had a philosophy teacher who said, “There are many people walking around today feeling so superior to Ptolemy because they know that the earth revolves around the sun and he didn’t, but if you sat them down with a pencil and paper to write out sufficient grounds based on observation why to believe the earth revolves around the sun, they would be lost.” As Isaac Newton famous observed, he saw so far because he stood “on the shoulders of giants.” We have received so much. We may be frustrated by the shortcomings of people in the past, we might remember that some of them moved society forward so that more steps could be taken, and we can see from our current perspective.
I suggest that we are always being called to grow and become better. Feeling morally superior is easy; becoming better is hard. It is my observation that if you really want to do good, you will find that you have to work harder than you thought for longer than you expected to accomplish less than you hoped. The prize belongs to those who do not then give up.
There’s something Teddy Roosevelt said that keeps coming to my mind:
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
St. Benedict was born about 1500 years ago, just after the fall of the Roman Empire. Bishop Robert Barron recently streamed the story of St. Benedict in his “Pivotal Players” series and calls him “the most pivotal of all the pivotal players.” We remember St. Anthony of the Desert as the one who pioneered desert spirituality. St. Benedict made monasticism a workable system so that it would be strong enough to hold together civilization when civilization was literally collapsed around them. He wrote a rule that is still in use today, and that enabled monasteries to be great centers of learning, evangelization and service for centuries to come.
There were some characteristics of the rule that I think made it so successful:
Prayer: most important thing they did and nothing interfered
Work: not just a practical necessity, but a way of glorifying God Colossians 1:23 “Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others…”
Hospitality: kept them from becoming self-absorbed
Learning: preserved books, non-Christian and Christian
Stability: temptation always to be looking for something preferable, and whenever things get uncomfortable, run away.
Practical: though dedicated to eternal realities, must not neglect day to day issues. Though they dedicated themselves to eternal realities, they had to deal with practical problems.
While civilization fell down around them, they kept it going, and enabled human knowledge that would be preserved in the midst of the upheaval. They copied books that would otherwise be lost. They became innovators in agriculture, health care, and other areas. I would recommend “How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization” for a fuller description of their contributions. This would not happen without the work of St. Benedict.
He is often portrayed with a cup that has a demon in it, and a raven with bread in his beak. This is from two stories about him. Once, monks who didn’t like his discipline put poison in his wine, but when he said the blessing, the cup shattered, and the Holy Spirit made him know what happened. Another time a wicked priest gave him some poisoned bread. He realized it, so he commanded his pet raven to take the bread and put it where no one would find it (sort of an inverse of 1 Kings 17:6). Whether these stories are true or not, they convey that he had to deal, not only with barbarians outside, but dysfunction in the Church inside.
As we look at the challenges we face today, outside and within the Church, I think we can draw some inspiration from St. Benedict.
We celebrate his feast day July 11.
As we celebrate the forming of our nation, I’ve been reflecting over the principles upon which we were founded. One of the underlying ideas is the limited wisdom and trustworthiness of any one person. This is why we were set up with checks and balances, and freedom to express ourselves, even if our ideas are unpopular. This allows there to be a free exchange of ideas, and if we are wrong, there are countervoices to help bring us, or perhaps the community, closer to the truth. It is hard work. It requires patience and persistence. It require enough humility to accept that we do not see all truth ourselves, and some people we can’t stand might even have something to teach us. These virtues are key to the American way of life. This tug of war of ideas can lead to deeper truth and understanding than we can achieve on our own.
In 1924 the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross on the lawn of St. Charles’ church. They couldn’t be bothered going through the process of sharing their concerns and debating ideas, seeking to shift thought in their direction. They sought to terrorize and intimidate. I think of that when I think of mobs destroying statues of the saints and of Jesus. I think of people getting fired, doxed, harassed, and attacked for having opinions that others disapprove of. This is fundamentally un-American, and fundamentally contrary to what it means to be human.
I watched a documentary on the American Revolution and it mentioned the Boston Massacre. The British soldiers who shot the American protestors were put on trial. John Adams was their defense attorney. He, of course, was one of the strongest voices for rebellion, but he believed it was critical that they uphold the principle of due process for the accused. He didn’t do a half-hearted job, either.
I think of the old quote (attributed to Voltaire, but some say was written by Beatrice Evelyn Hall): “I disapprove of what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”
How we debate, deliberate, share ideas and handle disagreements will say a lot about how we honor what is best about America.
There is a teaching of Jesus that does not get talked about much, but I think it’s important (full disclosure: I think everything Jesus taught is important). I’m going to break one of the rules they taught me in theology and mention a Greek word: phronimos (wise, shrew, prudent, clever, cunning, crafty).
I first encountered the word in the parable of the dishonest steward in Luke 16:1-8. The parable is about a steward who is going to be fired, so he crafts for himself a retirement plan by calling in those in debt to his master and reducing the amount of their debts. This way they owed him a favor, and when he got canned, they would take him into their homes as a guest. “And the master commended that steward for being phronimos (v. 8).” Then Jesus says, “For the children of this world are more phronimos in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’ public teaching begins with the Sermon on the Mount and ends with three parables about the last judgment. The Sermon on the Mount ends with the admonition that a man who is phronimos will build a house on rock rather than sand (Matt 7:24-27). The first of the parables about the judgement tell us that a bridesmaid who is phronimos will bring extra oil for her oil lamp (although nowadays she would bring extra batteries for her smart phone) (Matt 25:4).
Jesus also has some sayings that don’t use the word, but seem to be teaching something similar: “Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? (See Luke 14:25-33).”
What really got my attention was “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd (phronimos) as serpents and simple as doves (Matt 10:16).” What makes that even more interesting (at least to me) is that if you look at the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was popular at Jesus’ time (the Septuagint), in Genesis chapter we meet the serpent in the garden and learn that “the serpent was the most cunning (phronimos) of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made (Genesis 3:1).” I think Matthew’s readers would have immediately made the connection.
Why am I going through all this? I’m glad you asked. There is a lot of energy being expended in public discourse today that I don’t think is moving us forward. I want to move forward. Consider, for an internal combustion engine to move us forward, there have to be explosions (rapid burn of fuel). But that isn’t enough. The explosions have to be contained, first so that they are not destructive, and second so that energy can be channeled in a useful direction. There will always be some energy dissipated because of friction between the parts, but engineers who design the engines try to keep that to a minimum so that as much of the energy as possible may be channeled toward getting the work done.
It’s one thing to want something to happen (that is motivation). It’s another to be willing to do something about it. It is yet another thing for that something to be effective in moving us toward where we want to go. I suggest that being phronimos is about giving our efforts the best chance of moving forward.
Imagine, if you will, buying a car, but what they delivered was several crates with the
individual components and no instructions about how they fit together. I’m guessing you
would be less than thrilled. In the Great Adventure Bible Series, Jeff Cavins talks about
some people coming out of their religious education having a “heap of Catholicism.” They
know tidbits but have no idea why they matter.
One of the biggest occasions of this is the doctrine of the Trinity. Many people fought to
defend this doctrine for centuries. Basic Catholic religious education teaches this truth, and
we recite it in the creed on Sundays. But how many Catholics can explain why it matters?
How does this affect living the Christian life?
When we say “God is love” we are not just saying that God is loving, but that love is His
essence. The Father is eternally giving Himself in love to the Son, who is eternally
receiving and returning that love to the Father, and that love is so great it is Himself a
person, the Holy Spirit. Without creating anything, God is already the perfect community of
love, and has no need for anything, but love is fruitful, love is creative, so God created us
out of love. This defines for us the fullness of life: to receive love and give ourselves in
love. It also defines love: to give oneself. Jesus said there is no greater love than to give
one’s life for one’s friends (John 15:13). In everyday practical terms it is to will the good of
another. The pursuit of holiness is both a personal and communal effort, and following
Jesus involves connecting to the community. To lose oneself in love is to become more
Christianity is not only the greatest love story that has ever been told, but the only love
story that could ever be told. The Lord Himself, with nothing to gain, paid the ultimate
price for us, and we didn’t deserve it. If Jesus is not God, that that means God sent
someone else to do His dirty work, and then Christianity is just another religion. If Jesus
didn’t really become human, that means He didn’t really pay the ultimate price, but just
Different starting points make everything different. The materialists believe that we are just
a collection of chemical reactions in a temporarily self-sustaining system. Personhood,
consciousness, and love are just byproducts of chemical reactions. Love will then often be
defined as a feeling that can come and go, rather than a decision. That is going to affect
how we view the value of individual lives and how we respond when we are disappointed
by other people. That will affect how we view the concept of life fully lived. If love served
pleasure, it might be seen as a good thing but if one were disappointed too often, it could be
discarded as a value. I read one Hindu thinker that said the Absolute reality was not
personal, and that personhood is a result of a lapse from the Absolute. To achieve perfect
oneness, one needs to lose one’s individuality. Those who believed in many gods
envisioned them fighting amongst each other. In such religions, being good is not necessary
so long as you keep your god happy and your god happens to be winning.
All these truths fit together into the ultimate story, and no doctrine is expendable. Whenever
people teach something contrary, it will always result in something less. No one will ever
come up with a story as good as the one God weaves. The Catholic faith is the greatest gift
we can give. Knowing how it all fits together and why it is so good, so beautiful and so true
is part of being ready to share it with the rest of the world. And the rest of the world needs a
lot of God’s call to love.
I’m going to bring up one of my least favorite topics in the whole wide world: the priest abuse scandal. A small percentage of priests did terrible, terrible harm, made far worse because priests have a sacred position of trust, and it was abused. Many times people in leadership positions were not effective in stopping them. It seems many were more concerned about protecting their friends and protecting the system than in protecting and helping victims, and that was as bad or worse than the original crime.
The priest who are trying our best to do what is right have been deeply angry, profoundly hurt, and bitterly disappointed.
Then came the moment when we had reached a tipping point, and something was ready to happen. The work was not perfect, but it was substantial. Much work was done to develop a transparent and accountable process for dealing with complains, one that would not allow things to get swept under the rug.
New practices were developed and new training was given. We put a lot of time and energy into making the Church a safe place and helping the Church to re-earn credibility. We learned practices that clarify what actions are innocent, and where the line is crossed. We learned to watch for signs that someone might be preparing to do something bad, actions that seem harmless, but are part of grooming victims and grooming families to give cover for crimes. This would also provide some protection against innocent people being accused because of misunderstandings or malicious accusations. We organized our buildings and our programs so that we could squeeze out any opportunity for a predator to act. It is not enough that everyone be safe; but people must also feel safe. Statistics are important, but they are not enough. They had to see in us that we were really trying to do it right. Priests also needed some confidence that if they did things right, people would have their back.
It has taken everyone’s cooperation. I said repeatedly, “We did not make this mess, but we must be a part of cleaning it up.”
It has also been necessary to challenge a culture that made things worse. Many priests, teachers, and people in leadership positions had absorbed some of secular society’s belief that sexual sins are no big deal and that the Church had been making too much fuss over them. This meant that when someone was tempted to do something horrible, they were not prepared to resist the temptation and take the danger seriously, possibly seeing a sign they needed help. Those who taught what they taught did not intend this, but consequences don’t care about intentions.
Some made it harder by using the situation for their own agendas, agendas that did not serve the protection of children. Some would condemn all priests or the whole Church. Some would treat every accusation or even rumor as a conviction.
It was essential not to let them drain the energy from the real work of solving the essential problems.
Imagine if, instead of doing all that, there had been a lot of hand-wringing, virtue signaling, and mouthing platitudes like “This must stop” and “We will no longer allow this” and nothing of substance was done. The moment would have been wasted, and nothing would have changed.
The horrific killing of George Floyd has cast a spotlight on another issue. A small percentage of police officers can do terrible damage. I have read that the guy who killed poor George had had seventeen complaints against him, but no action was taken. If that is true, it calls the question whether those in power were more interested in protecting their friends and protecting the institution than protecting the victims. I’m speaking carefully here, because I don’t have inside knowledge, but I do have questions.
How can people be confident that if they have an interaction with the police that their dignity will be respected and their safety protected? And if there are bad actors who violate their rights how can they be confident that they will be held accountable? How can police be confident that if they do things right, the community will have their back?
Can there be transparent standards that when there is an interaction between the police and a civilian, this is what the civilian should expect from the police, and this is what the police should expect from the civilian? Can there be a transparent process for complaints so if something goes wrong people know what they should expect? Can there be gatherings of local police and the local community so there is buy-in from all sides?
How can we all be more aware of how we perceive and misperceive each other? Perceptions can be are skewed by our experiences and stories. How can we have experiences and hear stories that will draw us together and not divide us? This problem seems to go deep, and the solution needs to be deep also. Can people share stories, experiences and concerns? Statistics are important but they are not enough. I don’t know about these issues; I just have questions. I’m desperately hoping that people who know more than I can build a path from here to where we need to go.
I have not heard one voice defending the killing of George Floyd. Not. One. Voice. The act was condemned by all sides. What if we start with what unites us? Please, please, let us not waste this moment.
St. Charles Borromeo was one of the great reformers of the Church at a time when the system had gone terribly wrong. He worked patiently, persistently, and selflessly, calling priests and bishops to get their act together and leading by example. He could have taken a much easier path. He chose not to. He didn’t make the mess, but he did a lot to clean it up. What will really help clean things up now?