Archive for the America Magazine Category

Paradise Lost?

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

THE GIVERThis is my latest column for America magazine, which appears in the October 6, 2014, issue.

Dystopian films based on dystopian books have been all the rage recently. Hits like “The Hunger Games” and the “Divergent” series have sparked interest in the darker side of futuristic imagination. Perhaps for this reason Lois Lowry’s 1993 book, The Giver, has finally been adapted for the big screen after 20 years.

But The Giver is not actually about a dystopian world. It is, ironically, about a utopian paradise.

The film adaptation may be one of the rare instances in which the visualization of a powerful story enhances the narrative rather than disappointing the audience. It opens with a world of sameness, reason, order, “precision of language” and black and white. All difference, creativity, passion and emotion have been removed from human existence. There is no violence, no dispute, no variation—and it seems to be the perfect society in action. And as far as any citizen knows, this is the way it always has been and ought to be.

This is true for everybody except a community elder known as “The Receiver,” whose responsibility it is to keep safe the memory of what the world was once like, the world of diversity, passion, creativity, emotion, confusion, grays and colors. The Receiver is occasionally consulted for advice by the other elders, who watch constantly over the community, make pronouncements from speakers above, establish laws and decide which persons (especially the newborn and elderly) are “released,” a euphemism for homicide. The Receiver, who is getting up in age, knows how things once were and therefore is aware of how things could be.

The story’s protagonist is a young man named Jonas, who is selected to be the next Receiver. His responsibility is to receive the collective memory from the old Receiver, who by virtue of his instructive role now becomes “The Giver.” Over time the Giver passes this memory to Jonas, and Jonas begins to see color and nuance, to know suffering and happiness, to appreciate that things have been and could be another way.

Lowry’s story is very creative, but the allegory isn’t very original.

It goes back at least to St. Augustine, from whose commentaries on Genesis we get a depiction of paradise, a prelapsarian world in which human beings do not act according to emotion, do not experience passion and do not disobey the Creator. So they live in perfect freedom (libertas), by which Augustine means obedience to God’s will as opposed to being governed by disordered desires, what Augustine calls concupiscence. In paradise human beings acted with complete rationality, which meant the absence of sexual desire and pleasure, as well as much of what we associate with everyday human emotions, including pain and happiness.

Augustine’s vision of human life before the Fall looks a lot like the world in which “The Giver” opens. The focus on rationality and absence of emotions suggests that harmony and concord once ruled, but that a single act of human disobedience—think apples and snakes—set everything on a dangerous trajectory.

This is the trajectory the elders in “The Giver” wished to reverse in creating their own version of rational paradise. However, as Jonas sees both the potential for good and ill that arises from a complex and colorful world in which humanity exercises free will (liberum arbitrium), he realizes that the risk of suffering and the messiness of life are necessary if one wishes to experience love and happiness, even if they are at times fleeting.

“The Giver” puts into stark relief an uncomfortable truth that human freedom comes at a cost, and the cost is the risk of abuse and misuse of that very same freedom. Some people, like Augustine and the elders, believe that the solution to suffering and pain is the elimination of choice and complexity. Perhaps some people, like Augustine and the elders, while well meaning, are wrong. If we all thought, spoke and acted alike, things might be better—maybe even perfect. Things might be simpler, more black and white. Yet they would not be authentically human. The truth is we are all givers and receivers of memory, inheritors of the history of salvation that beckons us to exercise our freedom for the common good. Paradise is not found in restricting freedom and suppressing emotion; it is found in following in the footprints of the most human (and divine) of all, Jesus Christ.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Franciscan Heart of Thomas Merton: A New Look at the Spiritual Inspiration of His Life, Thought, and Writing (2014).’

Photo: “The Giver” film 2014

The Community of Creation

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

water_mountains_blueskyThis column originally appeared in the July 21-28 issue of America magazine.

Having grown up in central New York State, not far from the Adirondack Park, I have always had a special place in my heart for the beauty of deciduous forests. The green trees and shrubs, the rolling hills and glacial valleys, the clear blue lakes and streams illustrate for me the truth of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetic vision, inspired as it was by the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

That a Franciscan friar is writing a column about creation may seem like a bad joke or a tired cliché. What’s next? My headshot replaced with a portrait in a birdbath?

But despite the apparent predictability of a Franciscan’s sentimental attachment to creation, there is something that touches me more deeply than the immediately recognizable beauty of the earth. When I am awestruck at the sunset over an Adirondack lake or turn the corner on a road that reveals a landscape that takes my breath away, I reflect on the place that we humans have in this world. This is in part because the landscape of upstate New York has shaped my theological imagination as much as it has informed my aesthetic preferences.

For a long time now theologians, pastoral ministers and environmental activists alike have decried the ways we have treated and continue to treat the earth. We are well aware of the effects of our hubris, like global climate change and pollution. We know that we have a responsibility to the earth and the rest of the created order, and this has developed beyond older interpretations of Scripture that justified a “dominion” approach to creation that advocated human sovereignty over land and animal. We have come to recognize that we are not “lords of the earth” but “stewards of creation.” But I have long wondered if this “stewardship” response is sufficient or even if it is correct.

I am not alone in my doubt about the popular “stewardship” tropes used, admittedly with good intentions, to talk about our relationship to the earth and the rest of its inhabitants. One well-known critic of this paradigm is the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. In Professor Johnson’s new book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, she calls for a renewed look at the biblical, theological and scientific traditions that inform our understanding of ourselves and the rest of creation. She, like the theologians Ilia Delio, O.S.F., and John Haught, reads the work of Charles Darwin not as a threat to Christianity but as a resource for theology and for our effort to engage in faith seeking understanding. The result is a call for humanity to remember what has too often been forgotten: we are part of creation, not over and against it, not above or radically distant from it, as earlier conceptions of an anthropocentric universe suggested.

It is this insight that unsettles the standard stewardship approaches to creation. Rather than think about the whole of nonhuman creation as being entrusted to us, which makes us cosmic landlords or property managers for God, we should consider our inherent kinship with the rest of creation. In addition to the account of creation in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, which reminds human beings that we are ha-adamah(“from the earth”), we also have extensive physiological evidence that supports Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we are made of starstuff.” We share the same building blocks as the rest of creation.

Yes, we are called to care for creation, but that care does not arise from some extrinsic obligation. Rather, this care should be grounded in our piety. The Latin pietas means duty or care for one’s family, which stems from a deep relational connection. The care we have for our children, parents and siblings should model how we think about and “care for creation.” In this sense, St. Francis of Assisi had it correct from the start. Each aspect of creation is our brother and sister; we are part of the same family, the same community of creation. In this sense, those who don’t live up to their creational family obligation are not very pious at all.

When I hike through the Adirondacks and find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s creation, I am grateful to be a part of this community. The rest of creation cares for you and me; it is our duty to care for it as well. And that’s not just some romantic birdbath talk; it is what it means to be part of this extended family.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). Follow him @DanHoranOFM.

Photo: File

Science, the ‘Economist,’ and the Medieval Theologian

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , on May 1, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

robert-grosseteste-1-sizedThe first academic article I ever published was in 2007 about two medieval British theologians, Robert Grosseteste and John Duns Scotus, titled: “Light and Love: Robert Grosseteste and John Duns Scotus on the How and Why of Creation” (although the first popular article I ever published happened to be in America a few months earlier!). Scotus is certainly the better known of the two, but Grosseteste was an “intellectual giant,” to borrow the accolade used in a recent Economist blog post.

Grosseteste (d. 1253) was indeed a unique figure: a “scientist” (if we can anachronistically use that term), a theologian, a philosopher, a pastoral minister, a former chancellor of the nascent Oxford University, the first instructor of the Franciscan friars in England, and eventually the Bishop of Lincoln. In old age, he taught himself Greek (something few of his peers could do) so that he could read, and write a commentary, on Aristotle’s work. He was a polymath and a capacious thinker and one whose work is hard to pin-down or easily categorize.

Among the most interesting topics Grosseteste worked on was the question of the reason for the Incarnation. Unlike the majority perspective most associated with the work of someone like Anselm of Canterbury, which posited that “Adam’s Fall” or human sinfulness was the reason for the Incarnation, Grosseteste – like a handful of others before him – insightfully argued that the Incarnation would have been fitting and therefore would have happened even if there was no Fall.

However, the work that caught the attention of the Economist this week was not Christological. Rather, it was Grosseteste’s treatise De Luce (“On Light”) written around 1225, which is a cosmological text positing the development of creation from a singular point of light, the same treatise that first drew me to this thirteenth-century scholar. It appears that the “Ordered Universe Project” team in the UK believes that Grosseteste was “the first to try to develop unified physical laws to explain the origin and form of the geocentric medieval universe of heavens and Earth.”

The Economist explains:

* In the 13th century, atoms were thought to be infinitesimal points, so for matter to have volume, something else was needed. For Grosseteste, that something was light. His geocentric cosmos began with an explosion of a type of light he called lux, which expanded into a vast, ever-thinning sphere of matter and light. But matter could only thin so far, thought Grosseteste, after which it crystallised into a “perfected” layer—the spherical boundary of his medieval universe. Another type of light, lumen, then radiated back, sweeping up, compressing and purifying any “imperfect” matter in its wake. This created the second heavenly sphere (the “fixed” stars), then each of five planets, the sun and moon. By now the lumen was so weak it could no longer purify matter, which left the imperfect Earth, its four elements and atmosphere. For all of this, Grosseteste defined universal physical laws.*

This contemporary engagement with Grosseteste’s work is exciting for a theologian who, for the better part of a decade, has been fascinated with the medieval British thinker’s prescience and perennial relevance (despite his relative anonymity today). What’s more, the Economist highlights how this engagement with Grosseteste illustrates how the increasing popularity of STEM programs and curricula in the United States and elsewhere is highly problematic. Modern scientists would not know anything about Grosseteste, nor be able to understand his thought, without the collaboration of philosophers, theologians, linguistic experts, others from the humanities.

Theology had and still has a lot to say today and perhaps, as this Economist piece notes, something to teach science.

[To read the whole Economist piece, go to: “Unearthing a 13th-Century Metaverse.”]

This was originally published on the America magazine’s “In All things” blog.

Friends of Merton

Posted in America Magazine, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , , on April 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Merton_Berrigan-Daniel-001This column originally appeared in the April 28 issue of America magazine.

On Nov. 10, 1958, Thomas Merton wrote a letter to Pope John XXIII in which the famous American monk shared with the new pope some reflections about the world and the church. In one passage Merton describes how he had begun to understand that being a cloistered monk did not necessarily mean withdrawing from the world in some absolute way. Instead, he discerned the Spirit calling him to another form of ministry from within the walls of the monastery by writing letters, connecting with women and men he might never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.

It is not enough for me to think of the apostolic value of prayer and penance; I also have to think in terms of a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic and social movements of this world—by which I mean a sympathy for the honest aspirations of so many intellectuals everywhere in the world and the terrible problems they have to face. I have had the experience of seeing that this kind of understanding and friendly sympathy, on the part of a monk who really understands them, has produced striking effects among artists, writers, publishers, poets, etc., who have become my friends without my having to leave the cloister…. In short, with the approval of my superiors, I have exercised an apostolate—small and limited though it be—within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world; and it has been quite simply an apostolate of friendship.

Merton came to realize that part of his religious vocation involved connecting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and worldviews.

He corresponded with the writers Boris Pasternak, Czesław Miłosz, Ernesto Cardenal and Evelyn Waugh; with the activists Joan Baez, Daniel and Philip Berrigan; with the theologians Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Abraham Heschel and Rosemary Radford Reuther; with bishops, nuns and religious leaders of other traditions, like Thich Nhat Hanh; and with so many others, including ordinary, unknown people.

I thought of Merton and his “apostolate of friendship” earlier this month while sitting at a pub one evening in England. I was in the company of a diverse collection of people: a middle-age father from Ireland, an Episcopal priest from Scotland and a woman and man from England, both teachers. We were there enjoying some beer after a long but inspiring day of academic paper presentations and workshops on the life, thought and legacy of this American monk. We were in Oakham, in central Britain, for a conference of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, an event held every other year. (In the alternating years, the International Thomas Merton Society holds a large conference somewhere in North America; the next will be in Louisville in June 2015.) I was there to deliver a keynote address, but the conference draws a diverse group composed of top Merton scholars, as well as people with a more casual interest in Merton and all sorts of others in between.

Strangers before this evening, those with whom I found myself at the pub all began to exchange stories about how each had come to discover the writings of Merton and what had led them to attend this three-day event. Most shared a version of “the typical Merton story,” which begins with reading The Seven Storey Mountain.

The Irishman, however, recalled a dramatic event that took place in a hospital room. Visiting his father, who was recovering from surgery, he was told that the man in the next bed was dying. The dying man happened to be reading a book, which led my new Irish friend to reflect: “If he’s dying and is reading, it must be an amazing book! I need to know what it is.” The book was Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

This man told us, decades later, that Merton remained a major influence in his life, ever since he read the book after that hospital encounter.

Few writers and thinkers can bring people together this way. Even fewer can do it long after their death. Thomas Merton continues to exercise an “apostolate of friendship,” bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). Follow him @DanHoranOFM.

Photo: Merton Legacy Trust

The ‘Unspeakable’ One Year Later

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Boston_Marathon_Explosions1_t607It’s difficult to believe that it has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombing. I’m not sure how the rest of the country relates to the event, but living in Boston both during those days last year and now it seems like this is something that remains a constant specter haunting the city. During these last few weeks we have been accompanied by hundreds of stories in the media about the event, about the loss of life, about those whose lives have been directly and painfully affected by the attacks, about what the future holds for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, about what it all means.

Yet, meaning and sense do not always come easily in difficult and tragic circumstances such as these. Is there meaning and sense in the thoughtless slaughter of children in Connecticut? Is there meaning and sense in the terrorist attack in an African mall? Is there meaning and sense in the big and little ways that women and men are daily afflicted by suffering and fear?

Sometimes there are no words to articulate the experience and no meaning that can explain such tragedy. Rather than  offer any attempt to articulate or explain, I thought I might just share an essay I wrote last year in response to the events in Boston we remember this week. We continue to pray for those whose lives were taken, for those who struggle daily to move forward, and for those who afflicted such senseless and needless pain and suffering on others.

The Unspeakable: The Boston Marathon and the Beginning of Christian Hope

There some events we encounter in life for which there is simply no language to describe adequately our experience or words capable of consoling the afflicted. The events last month at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the siege of the city four days later might rightly fall into this category. Images of the explosions, biographies of the victims and interviews with the witnesses circulated through cyberspace, on television and in print with hypnotizing rapidity and emotion-dulling saturation, only increasing the overwhelming experience of those days. As a resident of Boston, my memory of that week in April will forever be marked by the surreal nature of a scene that seemed closer to an action movie than to the reality playing out in my backyard.

In the initial silence of that Monday afternoon, as confusion ensued and victims were treated, I thought of the renowned
spiritual writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He had a term that seemed to capture this event: the
Unspeakable. There are times when we encounter something so terrible and terrifying, the experience pushes us to the edges of the effable. Such experiences of sin and violence in our world are concrete encounters with the Unspeakable. Merton explains, in part, what he means in his 1966 book Raids on the Unspeakable:

It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said…. It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God…for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.

The Unspeakable is neither a word of comfort nor a greeting of consolation. It is a moniker that is challenging and indicting. It names a reality that most people would rather forget. James Douglass, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, describes Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable as “a kind of systemic evil that defies speech.” However, it is not simply the object of our fear or an enemy from outside. Douglass continues: “The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves.”
To confront the Unspeakable requires that we face the ways we too are always already complicit in a culture of violence present in our world. This does not mean that individuals are exonerated from the particular and egregious acts of violence they commit, but it does mean that to look into the void of the Unspeakable involves looking into the mirror of our own participation in systems of violence.

Our Culture of Violence

One temptation we encounter in the face of violence like the events at the Boston Marathon or in Newtown, Conn., is to objectify the source of the violence and place it as an evil in opposition to the rest of us. This happens frequently, for example, in the use of the phrase “culture of death” (which originally comes from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”). There is a sense in which a Christian might claim to be “for life” and therefore make the “culture of death” an exterior enemy to be fought.

Merton’s approach to evil, sin and violence in the world is more nuanced. To begin, we might realize that “death” is not the most opportune word and recall that death is a natural part of life. Talk about a “culture of death,” while the intention is good and the meaning important, could be taken to suggest that death in itself is a bad thing. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, has a different take on this. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis praises God for the gift of “sister bodily death,” whom all living creatures will inevitably encounter. As a people of the Resurrection, we also believe that Jesus Christ has “put an end to death” (2 Tm 1:10) and that death does not have the last word. Death should not be feared in itself.

But violence, unlike death, is not a natural part of life. Violence is made manifest in little and big ways, in words and actions, in things seen and unseen. Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable captures the significance of this reality in two key ways. First, violence is not something that is ascribable only to individuals who commit evil acts, like murder and terror. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes how we are often quick to blame others and acquit ourselves.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.

In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice.

It is difficult to accept that all of us are somehow implicated in the finitude and sinfulness of humanity. Merton writes that “we tend unconsciously to ease ourselves still more of the burden of guilt that is in us, by passing it on to somebody else.”

Here we have the second insight about the Unspeakable, which arises from the realization that we are also sinners and participants in an unnecessary culture of violence. What makes the Unspeakable unspeakable is the masking over and avoidance of this reality in which we too are always already a part. Unlike common conceptions of the “culture of death,” which is an outside enemy to be fought, a “culture of violence” exists in the language, presuppositions, behaviors and attitudes of a population. This is what is hidden, what is reflected back to us when we are forced to look into the void or face of the Unspeakable.

Michael Cohen, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote a sobering piece the day after the bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been apprehended and his brother, Tamerlan, killed. He asked pointed questions that shine an uncomfortable light on a society that, in the same week, can shut down a major metropolitan city because of one suspect on the loose, yet fail to pass federal legislation to mandate criminal background checks for gun sales, a reform supported by nearly 90 percent of the population. He asked, with all due respect and sympathy to the dead and maimed in the Boston attack, how a society in which more than 30,000 deaths are caused by gun violence annually could react so drastically to the specter of terrorism when, in the past year, 17 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks.

Cohen’s concluding comments echo Merton’s concern:

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others”—jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers, etc. But the lurking dangers all around us—the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day—these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will.

Part of what makes the culture of violence Unspeakable is our strong desire not to face the reality of our complicity in perpetuating injustice through our economic choices, attitudes, language, behaviors, lifestyles, biases, support (or lack thereof ) of legislation and so on.

It is a lot more comforting to blame the “other”— whether a “terrorist” or an amorphous “culture of death”— than it is to accept our individual and collective roles in perpetuating our unspeakable culture of violence.

The Beginning of Christian Hope

On the day of the attack in Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, wrote: “In the midst of the darkness of this tragedy we turn to the light of Jesus Christ, the light that was evident in the lives of people who immediately turned to help those in need today.” There are times—for example, when those who might otherwise run away from danger out of fear run toward others to provide care and assistance—when signs of Christian hope displace the behaviors and attitudes of the culture of violence. Christian hope is not a belief in a far-off utopia that will come from outside. It is a description of God’s presence in the world now, when, like Jesus, we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, embrace the marginalized and forgotten and heal the broken and broken-hearted.

Christian hope is a hope that withstands the challenge as it appears to us when we look into the void of the Unspeakable and realize that we can do something about violence in our world and live a different way. It is a hope that proclaims through the incarnate Word of God that what was once ineffable in the Unspeakable can be named and overcome, but it also requires our honest admission of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” Only then do we confront the culture of violence that we would rather forget.

The Unspeakable culture of violence extends far beyond the city borders of Boston and Newtown. It is perhaps more acutely seen in the communities of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in places largely unknown to us. There the experience of the Unspeakable witnessed on a sunny Boston afternoon is an everyday reality: Marketplaces, buses, houses of worship, elementary schools and neighborhoods are all affected by the terror of violence and fear that we in the United States cannot begin to imagine.

In his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” Merton challenges us with a truth that undergirds the perpetuation of an Unspeakable culture of violence on the local, national and world stage: “A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.”

Merton’s challenge for us in Boston and around the world is to overcome the fear that leads us to claim innocence while scapegoating the “other,” to embrace the Gospel and become more human in compassion and to look into the void of the Unspeakable so as to accept our complicity in the continuation of a culture of violence in so many little and big ways. Then we might be able move on to speak and live the word of Christian hope that begins there in the face of the Unspeakable.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Photo: Wire

Thirsting for Lent

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Front image_drinking-waterThis column originally appeared in the March 17, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Thirsting for Lent.”

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—this Lenten trinity of practices has long been the foundation of our penitential season as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter. Many people will adopt new methods of prayer, engage in the spiritual practice of fasting and offer time and resources in the form of almsgiving. Each of these helps us to focus our attention on what we might otherwise overlook and challenges us to, as one option for the distribution of ashes puts it, “repent and believe in the Gospel” in increasingly attentive ways.

Even with Lent now underway, some people might still be looking for a way to connect better to their faith beyond the usual tradition of “giving something up.” I suggest that this year we might benefit from focusing our attention on something totally different, something often taken for granted: water.

With the short phrase “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) counted among the traditional seven last words of Jesus from the cross and proclaimed in the Passion account on Good Friday, it seems that we already have a reason to reconsider water as part of our Lenten practice of repenting and believing in the Gospel.

Too often this phrase has become “overly spiritualized.” It is perhaps too easy, too quick and neat to read this line symbolically as a reference to the waters of eternal life. There is a temptation here for us to ignore the real and powerful human suffering that comes with someone dying of dehydration and experiencing real, life-ending thirst. To over-spiritualize the Gospel and overlook the real suffering of human beings is a problem because the waters of eternal life may mean little for those who die waiting for the waters of basic earthly life.

In his book Seven Last Words, Timothy Radcliffe, O.P., the former master general of the Dominican Order, makes the keen observation that “because our bodies are 98 percent water,” we might better view “dehydration [as] the seeping away of our very being, our substance. We feel that we ourselves are evaporating.” To die from lack of water is perhaps one of the most dehumanizing ways for a life to end. And yet, millions of people face this threat every day.

Often people in the United States are shielded from the harsh truth that most of the world’s population does not have access to clean drinking water. This same insulated population, especially those in city and suburban locations, regularly uses clean water to flush toilets, wash cars, clean sidewalks and water lawns. That said, the recent droughts in California, as well as the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia that left more than 300,000 residents without drinkable water, have made more people in this country aware of how precarious life can be without the guarantee of clean water.

Beyond our borders the situation is much worse. While we regularly accept the commodification of water in the form of plastic bottles purchased at grocery stores or the use of filtration systems to enhance the taste of our already potable supply, the business of water has become a justice issue for those who cannot afford to satiate the whetted appetites businesspeople have for profit. It raises the question: Is clean water a basic human right or a product for sale?

Christiana Peppard, an assistant professor of theology, science and ethics at Fordham University, treats this question in her new book, Just Water: Theology, Ethics, and the Global Water Crisis. Treated as an overlooked subject for Christian ethics and social justice, water, Peppard notes, is really a right-to-life issue, because “fresh water is interwoven with the most pressing realities that populations and regions will face in the twenty-first century, from agriculture to climate change to political stability, and more.” When we take clean water for granted, both humanity and the rest of creation suffer.

Jesus’ cry “I thirst” continues to echo in the lives of those hanging on the crosses of poverty and oppression. This Lent perhaps we can commit ourselves to rethinking the role of water in our lives, paying special attention to how we use and abuse it. In turn, we might reconsider our practices and discover ways we can become better sisters and brothers to one another and the planet.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: Stock

Francis, Franciscans, and The New Yorker

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality, Pope Francis, Social Justice with tags , , , , on January 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

friars-in-habits-giving-out-bread-in-front-of-sfa-nyc1There was a certain amount of understandable pride that I experienced when I saw a well-known ministry of my Franciscan province featured in the eminent pages of the most-recent issue of The New Yorker (January 20, 2014). The brief profile of the ministry and its director appeared in the front “Talk of the Town” section, titled: “Dept. of Kindness: Breadline.” But what struck me more than the gratitude that a renowned publication, and one not always intuitively hospitable to religious subjects, might report on the good work the Franciscan friars have done and are doing in midtown Manhattan was an almost passing reference to the “Francis Effect” that appears buried within the descriptive narrative Ian Frazier offers of the morning breadline routine.

After noting such details as the longstanding presence of the St. Francis of Assisi Church’s breadline ministry – “The breadline has existed since September, 1930, and is the oldest continuously operated breadline in the United States” – and the colorful presentation of the breadline’s current director, Fr. Paul Lostritto, OFM (literally colorful: “Some friars prefer leather sandals, but Father Paul’s were orange Crocs”), Frazier points to a recent addition to the cadre of breadline volunteers:

“As the line continued past the coffee urns, it was met by Sikhs who were giving out bags of fresh fruit.  The Sikhs, from Long Island, had read about Pope Francis in the news, admired him, and looked up information about the saint whose name he had taken. ‘We like very much what we learn about St. Francis,’ Baldev Srichawla, one of the Sikhs, told a bystander. ‘He was not a lavish person. He lived humbly and cared for the poor, and we Sikhs believe in helping the needy. When we found out about this church named after him, we wished to participate in this food line, too.’”

This little paragraph is what has stayed with me the most about this short New Yorker report. Those who still doubt the so-called “Francis Effect” might have a difficult time explaining away the first-person narrative of a small community of Long Island Sikhs that have been so inspired by Pope Francis and his medieval namesake.

One thing that Frazier doesn’t mention, and understandably so given the limited focus and scope of a “Talk of the Town” piece, is that St. Francis of Assisi was also instrumental in reshaping Christian interreligious dialogue in his time, such that it has continued to impact the way women and men of all faith traditions (or of none at all) have come together, collaborated on projects of good will, and sought to genuinely understand one another.

Francis of Assisi, after returning from the now-famous peaceful encounter with Sultan Malek al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt, around 1219 during the Fifth Crusade, instructed his brother friars when going among Muslims or other non-Christians to live “spiritually among them” and “not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake” (Regula non bullata, Ch. XVI). It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II called a multitude of religious leaders from all around the world to Assisi in October 1986 for an interreligious prayer service for peace.

Pope Francis continues to live up to his name, inspiring the peaceful coming together of people of all traditions. Not only are the poor, the marginalized, the overlooked, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten now on the social radar and consciences of more people – Christians and non-Christians alike – but in the spirit of the Saint from Assisi, this Bishop of Rome seems to be truly inspiring interreligious community and cooperation.

Daniel P. Horan, OFM is a Franciscan friar of Holy Name Province, a columnist at America magazine, and the author of several books including the new The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

This post also appeared on America magazine’s website.

Photo: HNP
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