Thursday, February 23, 2017
Belated Happy Valentine!
Ten days ago many of our countries celebrated Valentine’s Day. In my childhood this was an innocent event, when women were given flowers: my dad would buy some for my mom, and so would we kids; couples, especially those shortly before or after their marriage, would also possibly exchange gifts. But it was mainly a day of chivalry, when men would honor their loved ones. Not too different from Mother’s day. How has it changed since! Business, perceiving commercial opportunities, has jumped on it by producing dinners, gifts, cards and other products which can be sold for a mark-up on 14th Feb; no man in his right mind would travel for business on that day lest he incur the wrath of his wife; and everybody from kindergarten to young professional age is seeking, asking and inviting their “special Valentine”. So the pressure is intense, and if you don’t have a special someone that day, you are like the person left standing during musical chairs.
Why all this fuss? Apart from the financial incentive which causes all seasons to get economized, be they Halloween, Hanukkah or Homecoming, this day plays into a particular vulnerability in each of us: is there somebody who considers me special? Do I have a unique place in somebody’s heart?
In healthy families children receive just that kind of affirmation from their parents; whether you have eight siblings or none, mom and dad have the ability to make you each feel special. Not only on your birthday, but every day they assure you that whatever mess you made, they love you, consider you unique and are mad about you. Of course they also tell you that there will be hell to pay if you lie, that there will be no dessert if you won’t eat your spinach and that this would be a good time to shut up and go to your room. But healthy parenting leads to healthy kids with robust self-images who neither think that they are the greatest nor that nobody loves them. In fact many of us have relied on that parental affirmation all our lives, until the day our parents passed away.
But ultimately our parents are just our parents, and however proud they were of us when we baked our first cake, graduated or bought a house, that positive feedback is not enough, especially when it is so often countered by destructive evaluations from colleagues, bosses, friends and partners. We are often left wondering: am I really special?
Psalm 45 has this striking line: “Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house; and the king will desire your beauty.” It is a royal wedding song, where the bride is invited to leave behind her home and people in order to be betrothed to the king. This sounds like a fairy tale, yet it is profound (like so many tales are). All of us, without exception, are invited to a marriage and the groom is God himself. The relationship between the soul and its creator is described as a marriage: exclusive, chaste, special. What our parents could only do to a limited degree, God does perfectly and for all eternity: he assures us that we are special, unique, created perfectly and pleasing to him.
To some, such words might sound ephemeral: what good is it to me that God “desires my beauty” if I am left hurting for affection here and now? Can God satisfy my affective, emotional and sexual needs? Surely not! Generations and generations of celibate men and women have affirmed that this is possible. In fact the whole point of people “living single for the Lord” lies in the conviction that God can be enough and so giving up careers, possessions and even marriage is not a hardship, but a happy offering. And celibates have always held that their choice of vocation is meant not only for themselves, those hardy enough to forego a spouse, but is rather a prophetic sign for everybody. What they live out permanently all human beings should somehow experience, namely that we are special in God’s eyes, his “Valentine”, if you will; that this can and should color the way we look at life whether we are madly in love, brokenhearted, widowed or unhappily single. The king always desires your beauty!
Thursday, February 02, 2017
G-d: Fire, Light or Santa Claus?
Anybody who studies ethnology or anthropology, or even just strolls through the British Museum for example, is amazed at the religious practices of ‘primitive people’, be they African tribes or early Mesopotamian peoples. In their own way they all build holy places to their gods with the underlying notion that those gods are fierce, terrifying and awesome. As spirituality of all sorts finds new followers these days from yoga and New Age to interest in kabbalah or Eastern monasticism, the accompanying sentiments seem quite different: God is out there, but no need to be afraid.
A story is reported of a Hasidic Jew who was asked by a friend whether they could meet the next day and this rabbi answered: “How can you ask me to make such a promise? This evening I must pray and recite the Shema (the main daily Jewish prayer). When I say these words, my soul goes out to the utmost rim of life…Perhaps I shall not die this time either, but how can I now promise to do something at a time after the prayer?” In other words, for this rabbi there was nothing quaint, cute or controlled about his act of prayer, since prayer, by definition, is an encounter with the living G-d and as such, unpredictable. And if G-d is god, then he/she is completely different from me, outside of my grasp and good for any surprises. So I better show just a little respect…
C.S.Lewis, the famous British writer of the last century (and author of the Narnia Chronicles, amongst others) once observed that every age has its particular virtues and vices: the Middle Ages were known for their chivalry, but not for their practice of mercy. If I had pick a corresponding pair of traits for our own age, I would pick informality and presumption. While former times were stuck in lots of conventions about how one had to dress, speak, behave in a way that seriously complicated life, our times are much more egalitarian, free-flowing and spontaneous. I like that. The flip side is an uncanny tendency to take others for granted and to presume on the benevolence of others, to the point of putting them out. I find it unnerving how many people ask me for a favor or receive a gift from me and never bother to say thank you.
These characteristics spill over into our contemporary view of spirituality. Assuming our spirituality has any transcendent categories at all (a lot of it has none these days, so our practice is purely this-sided), we tend to assume that the divine is kind, approachable and, to use the phrase from the Little Prince, domesticated, a bit like Santa Claus. So we show up in smart casual attire and half-expect our deity to clap her hand in excitement that we can spare the time. Traditional religions have used very different metaphors to depict the divine: fire is a common image, both because of how vital and primordial it seems and because of its ability to consume anything in its path. Or, to go back to the Chronicles of Narnia, where the divine appears in the form of a lion: Aslan seems a wholly good and kind being, but fearsome, not somebody you would pull by the mane.
This is not to scare us off any form of religious practice. But maybe we should consider for a moment what we mean by the sacred or divine: if it is god, then by its very nature it is different from us. And the goodness of any god cannot be presumed upon, but just hoped for, since gods are not under our control, by definition. So when you plan to pray, however you do that, expect the unexpected, expect light, fire and glory- all the things that occur at the “rim of life”- and see what happens. And before you promise to see your friend tomorrow, insert the lovely Arabic phrase “insh’Allah”- God willing.
Tuesday, January 31, 2017
Ephraim and Manasseh- Does God Have Favorites?
There are stories in our Sacred Books (in my case the Bible) which seem strange, unintelligible, or which make us at least wonder why they found their way into the narrative. One such stories can be found in Genesis 48: Jacob, the patriarch, is at the end of his life, so Joseph, his son, takes time off his busy schedule as prime minister of Egypt and goes to Goshen to visit him. He brings along his two boys Manasseh the elder and Ephraim the younger. After some chit-chatting it is time to leave and Joseph asks granddad to bless the boys: so far a very typical family scene, which could happen in my own home country. So Jacob, with the two lads on his lap, proceeds to lay hands on them, but not before crossing his arms. Joseph assumes his father is simply losing his eye sight, so he seeks to readjust him, since by crossing his hands, his right is now resting on Ephraim, the younger, and surely that could not be his intention (which is why Joseph had carefully placed Manasseh on Jacob’s right side, and Ephraim on the left).
This is where the story kicks in, when Jacob replies, referring to Manasseh: “I know, my son, I know; he also shall become a people, and he also shall be great; nevertheless his younger brother shall be greater than he.” In other words Jacob had intentionally disregarded venerable Middle Eastern tradition of firstborn sons and seniority and set the younger before the older. Not much is reported about either the boys’ or Joseph’s reaction, just that it happened.
I hope you are just as intrigued as I am why this story appears in the Bible. Is it simply to tell us that in his old age, like so many men before and after him, Jacob had become stubborn and somewhat unpredictable? Or that small actions, intentional or not, have large consequences? In order to shed some light on the story it is worth remembering Joseph’s own life, which is the subject of the previous ten chapters or so. Joseph was the second youngest in his family and the first son born to Jacob by Rachel, his first-love. As such he is his father’s favorite, a fact that Jacob does not hide: he dotes on the boy and makes him a special coat. And Joseph seems to have an unusual prophetic gift in that God speaks to him through dreams.
Chapters 37-47 tell how this special attention by Jacob and God himself works out for Joseph: his brothers want to kill him, but in the end relent and sell him off into slavery. There he rises to power, gets wrongfully imprisoned and eventually makes a career in Pharaohs court. In other words, it seems true that he is special, but that being special gets him into lots of trouble. So what must go to Josephs mind when he sees Ephraim singled out before Manasseh? Is he delighted that God has made his choice clear once more, or is he concerned that brotherly feuds, just resolved with his own brothers, will continue to smolder in the next generation?
Joseph’s story is, in some ways, not particularly unusual, except for the dramatic details. Being the parents’ or the teachers favorite happens to people regularly, and with it often comes the envy and jealousy of those who are left out. Social sciences tell us that a key factor in human satisfaction is comparison: we are happy if we exceeded our expectations, if we did better than last time or if we beat somebody we measured ourselves against. It’s not the nice car that makes me happy, but the fact that it’s bigger than my neighbors or colleagues SUV. Thus we compare ourselves all the time, especially with our siblings. So how would we feel if we had Joseph as our brother, or if we had just witnessed granddad picking our brother over us? Or, even worse, how do we feel when we perceive somebody else being blessed by God, while we still wait for him to fulfill his promise to us?
The story of Joseph is instructive in this regard as well. Joseph starts off as a spoiled brat and for a moment we think he almost deserves the harsh treatment by his brothers. But as the story continues the brat turns into a man who seems to survive hardships without a chip on his shoulders. After Jacobs death Josephs brothers fear that he will now take vengeance upon them. Josephs reply to their concern is striking: “As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good…” In other words he is able to read his history with spiritual eyes, and with those eyes he sees that God managed to use the hardships he endured for his own good and that of many others.
The lesson of the incident of Manasseh and Ephraim being blessed by Jacob does not seem to be that we should encourage sibling rivalry; rather we need to accept the fact that gene pool, upbringing, seemingly well-meaning grandparents, circumstances and providence all conspire to give us a unique life, with its own blessings and its particular challenges. Most human beings are wired to compare their lives with that of relevant comparison groups: their siblings, peers, neighbors, colleagues, and if it seems that they do less well than them, they are frustrated, envious, despondent or angry. So chances are that we too find the grass greener on the other side and thus evaluate other people’s jobs, marriages, and lives as more desirable than our own. Will we give into sibling rivalry like Josephs brothers? Will we be eaten up by resentment or jealousy? Or are we able to look at our life with spiritual eyes, like Joseph, and embrace it as just the right one for us? In that case we might even discover that God has treated us as special…like Ephraim.
Tuesday, November 01, 2016
The wound is the place where the Light enters you
“Don’t pick your scab” is an exhortation most 10-year olds have heard their moms say…and ignored. For some reason there is some perverse pleasure in peeling it off and thus keeping the wound from healing quickly. What most boys do for fun some people do in real life with the hurts, injuries and injustices they have experienced: rather than letting time heal them, they pick the scab incessantly and thus re-open the wound. These people never find closure and thus remain miserable. Don’t pick your scab!
There is a corollary to this truth, which the Sufi philosopher Rumi puts as follows: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” When we first experience injury, be it emotional, physical or spiritual, we feel as if life is seeping out of us. We bleed, experience weakness, pain and loss. And therefore we avoid any circumstances which inflict such pain on us: that is simply our instinct of self-preservation speaking. But what Rumi says is that you have a choice. Will you primarily fight the pain and rebel against the fact that it has visited you? Or are you able to discover that your vulnerability offers the chance of the light entering you? Most of us do not like being on the ropes, feeling weak, especially when it is clear how long this condition will last; but if we let it, our weakness can become an opportunity. We suddenly realize the blessing of being whole; we come to appreciate those who reach out to us, physically or emotionally; and we discover the truth of our feeble condition.
A British Christian writer, John Henry Newman, pitied anybody who was never struck down by a serious physical illness because “that person had never experienced his true humanity”. The Bible puts it slightly differently when it says that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels”: when all is well we can assume that all is well because of ourselves, rather than because of the life God has poured into us. But when we feel sick we discover what is our feeble humanity and what is truly the divine spark.
We are not suggesting here that you go looking for scabs in your life to start picking them indiscriminately. We simply want to underline a truth which sages from many traditions have known, but which is rarely mentioned these days: hurt, wounds, suffering are not all bad if we approach them rightly. Pain can kill us, but it can also bring us life!
Monday, March 14, 2016
We have seen the True Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit! We have found the True Faith! Worshiping the Undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.
Every Sunday there is a line we sing in the liturgy in my church, the words of which are above. Many readers will twitch when they see them, they seem so arrogant, so self-assured, so politically incorrect. How can anybody claim to have found the true faith, to have embraced the true way to live? This smacks of certainty, monolithic belief, black and white thinking which many of us thought we had left behind. Isn’t it exactly this kind of thinking which leads to intolerance, fundamentalism, paternalism and other kinds of evil and dark philosophies?
Ever since the past century plunged the world into totalitarian regimes we have shied away from anything that smells of certainty, that seems to claim for itself to be true. The writings of Jacques Derrida, Lyotard and others have helped to articulate our instinctual feelings that what is true for you should not necessarily be true for me; if it were, then some of us would be right and others wrong, and that is only a step away from oppressing those who err. Enlightened souls have left such dogmatism behind, allowing each other to believe what we think best.
What that raises, however, are not only theological or philosophical questions. It puts to us very bluntly the question how long a society can survive that has as a logo the question mark of uncertainty? We all know the quote by Martin Luther King “If a man hasn’t found something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” It captures the insight that convictions, values held dear, are what motivates people to sacrifice. If such values evaporate, then so does the ability and willingness to sacrifice.
I am struck how many people admire the heroes of World War II who stood up to Nazi ideology, both within Germany (such as Bonhoeffer) and outside, such as Winston Churchill. But those acts of heroism were dependent on those people thinking there was right and wrong, and wrong had to be opposed.
I now live in a country where it is considered evil to voice opinions about the value of life, the boundaries of marriage and the God-given purpose of sexuality. Even if one has no intention to legislate that such views need to be upheld by the government, let alone to try to change the minds of those who think differently, such certainty is considered pernicious and opposed to democratic values. Even in Christian circles the greatest evil (according to a recent Barna study) is no longer murder or adultery, but the failure to recycle.
If confronted with the question whether there is anything worth fighting and dying for, many Westerners would say “only our comfort and ease”. This lack of conviction makes our societies very easy prey to those who are on the other end of the spectrum, such as fundamentalist Muslims. But even without those external threats, I believe that it is impossible to pass on any kind of value to a next generation, if it is no longer politically correct to believe in anything; and maybe that is why we prefer having dogs to children.
If we look at history, it was always those forces that shaped a culture which had convictions and confidence; at its best, Christianity was such a force that changed empires, not by power, but by martyrdom. At its worst, it abused of political power to shut down those who believed differently. So I shall dare to continue singing that line on Sundays, hoping that some of us maintain our convictions and are ready to die for them.
Thursday, February 04, 2016
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage
Many children’s tales have as their crucial element somebody inheriting a fortune from some distant uncle; it seems like a more virtuous version of winning the lottery. Suddenly all one’s financial troubles are over and one can fulfill one’s material dreams, such as buying a Porsche, going on a cruise, or building a villa on the coast of Florida. But if you ever actually found yourself a designated heir you know that in reality inheritances are a lot more complicated: wills are rarely unequivocal, so you find yourself arguing with lawyers, or worse, with siblings. The tax man and other legal entities make sure it takes forever for you to finally get your portion of the pie; and many times the inheritance has some strings attached. I found myself once inheriting a house which, while beautiful, was in a very distant location and required significant upkeep; another time a lawyer informed me that with the money and property that were mine by right also came also a yet unsettled lawsuit, and thus potentially a huge lawyers’ bill. In other words whenever you inherit things become, to quote Facebook, complicated.
I recently attended a Legacy conference, a meeting of young professional Christians from around the USA: the title was inspired by the conviction that this generation has received a lot from the Lord and from previous generations and it was theirs to figure out what to do with that legacy. As I pondered the metaphor I realized that spiritual inheritances are almost invariably just as complicated as material bequests. The choice whether or not you accept the inheritance is tricky: it often sort of lands in your lap, and refusing it is often a huge deal. Most legacies, while making you richer in some ways, also require maintenance, upkeep, in other words, cost. And there is always a fly in the ointment, i.e. something you would as soon not receive as part of the package.
Allow me to give a couple of examples. I was born Austrian and on the whole, I am very grateful, even proud, of my nationality. But it does not take a genius to know that parts of my history are very checkered and I’d just as soon not count them as part of my national patrimony. I am also a European and gladly so. Recent events have shaken that continent’s confidence in the political project of the European Union. What people are beginning to realize is that the dream of Robert Schuman and others requires nurturing and tending, otherwise the very basis of it will get eroded: many of us who have enjoyed the benefits of the EU have forgotten that the basis of it is an understanding of the Judeo-Christian roots of our countries. It will require some hard choices by politicians and ordinary citizens to take care of our legacy. Finally I am also Catholic and am very convinced of that choice; both distant and recent history of my church contains events which are shameful and which I just as soon not acknowledge. But they are part of my history, and I need to stand by them too.
So what is your inheritance? What have your parents, your forebears, your spiritual fathers, left in your cradle? What of it is rich, enjoyable and something to be proud of and what is less of a gift and more of a liability? And what responsibilities come with the gift, be it for maintenance, upkeep or sharing? Psalm 16 is the prayer of somebody who is embracing his inheritance and who boldly acknowledges what he has received. Consider praying this Psalm…
Monday, December 28, 2015
The Feast of Holy Innocents, Truly a Strange Feast?
In the Western Christian Tradition, a couple days after Christmas, a special celebration takes place for what are called “The Holy Innocents”. It refers to the babies who, according the Bible, were murdered in and around Bethlehem when the then ruler, Herod, found out that one of them was the “King of the Jews”. Feeling threatened by this birth but not sure which child was the one, he decides to wipe out all potential usurpers. This bout of ethnic cleansing, as we would now classify it, was like all such events, a tragedy; so why do Christians make a celebration out of it? Is this another case of Christianity glorifying pain and suffering?
In order to understand the thinking of Christian tradition one needs to wrap one’s mind around the idea of martyrdom. This concept, which literally (from the Greek) simply means witness, refers to a person testifying to his or her faith by rather dying than denying it. So a martyr is somebody who dies for his beliefs and convictions: in so doing he is believed to be the ultimate follower of Christ who himself died for his beliefs. In honoring martyrs one honors the courage of people who did not deny their faith simply to save their skins.
But the respect of martyrs goes deeper: they also show with their lives that Christianity cannot be suppressed by violence and killing. Indeed one of the early Christian thinkers observed that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” since the courage of martyrs traditionally attracted new followers to that religion. The church does not simply celebrate the faithfulness of its members, but the victory that they have won in defeating their enemies through shedding their blood. What seems like defeat actually turns out to be victory. Strange indeed!
I cannot help but turn my mind to Christians in Syria and Iraq when I ponder today’s celebration. Does this mean that we should be happy at the news of more Christian believers being killed or driven out of their homes in that part of the world? Surely that would be perverse; our hearts need to go out to them, and any support we can lend them and their relatives must be provided. But there is a fine line between showing sympathy to them and becoming alarmists, as if the most recent persecution was going to threaten the very survival of God’s people in the Middle East and beyond. If it is true that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, then such calamities, in God’s miraculous way, only serve to strengthen and revitalize the church.
So what should alarm us is not when Christians are persecuted in the Middle East, but when their confreres in the West succumb to materialism, immorality and lukewarmness, thus losing their saltiness. It is not those whose witness is daily tested through hardship and opposition we need to be concerned about, but those whose witness is subtly eroded through ever greater conformity to the reigning spirit of the age. While not looking or praying for persecution to come our way, we Westerners should very carefully observe today’s feast and ask ourselves what it has to teach us.