Thursday, July 26, 2007

Prayer is the subject of this Sunday’s gospel, and in it, we are told to be persistent and ask for what we need in prayer. Why do we pray? We do not pray to change God; we pray to be in relationship with God. In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) says,
“I do not pray because it changes God. I pray because it changes me. I pray because the need flows out of me constantly.”
In other words, it is not as if God has determined a certain event will or will not happen (the Packers will lose to the Bears), but we pray, so God’s mind is changed and the outcome is altered (the Packers beat the Bears). Granted, this is a somewhat trivial example, but there can be a tendency to ‘use’ prayer this way with major issues as well – illness, getting a certain job, safety in traveling, etc. The danger with such prayer is that when one’s wish does not come true, one’s faith can be shaken. At the same time, we do need to pray for all of those major issues in our lives (though maybe not for the Packers to win) as well as minor ones. Why? Because prayer is about being in relationship with God. We share our deepest thoughts and the desires of our heart with the one who created us, loves us, and knows us better than we know ourselves. We do so through prayers of intercession, but also through prayers of praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. The difference is not whether or not we pray for things we want and need, but how we understand that prayer. Prayer is not a way to control or manipulate God.

When we pray, we are responding to God’s universal call to us. There is something in the way in which we are created that gives us a desire for relationship with God. Theologian Karl Rahner says that each of us has been created to be a ‘hearer of God’s Word’. St. Augustine says,
“You created us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
In other words, we are already hard-wired for God. God’s call to each and every person is built in, and prayer is one of the ways in which we respond to that call, thus entering into a covenant relationship with the one who calls us. At the same time that we offer our response in prayer, we remember that our ability to respond is in itself a gift from God.

We also believe that God hears and answers our prayers. In saying this I do not mean to contradict what I said earlier about not controlling God. It may be difficult at times to recognize the answer to a prayer. While God is calling us into relationship, a relationship must be freely entered into by both parties. We are called to put some effort into the relationship and persevere even when we do not see or understand the response to our prayer. One’s relationship with God will have the same ups and downs that any human relationship encounters. In my own prayer life there are times when I feel very connected to God and other times when I feel like God is totally absent. It is at those times that I must call on all of my resources of perseverance and the help of the Holy Spirit to trust that God never abandons us, even when life seems the darkest or prayer seems the most empty. Sometimes that is when God is actually the closest. The mystic, saint, and doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila, went through three years of a ‘dry period’ in her prayer, a dark night where she felt entirely abandoned by God. Her advice to us was whatever you do in those moments, do not stop praying because to do so is to take yourself out of relationship with God.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

As reports started trickling in last week about Pope Benedict XVI proclaiming the Catholic Church the "one true Church," I must admit that I was loathe to even delve into the story. Yet, when I did, my overall reaction was that the media was making a much bigger deal of this than was necessary. This is front page material for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel? Really? The reaction of most Protestant leaders was something to the effect of "yeah, we know they think that." So what is this story all about?

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (not Pope Benedict XVI, by the way, though he did approve the statement and gave basically the same interpretation in Dominus Iesus in 2000 when he was Prefect of the CDF) released a document entitled, "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church." The CDF is responding to the work of some unnamed theologians that may involve "erroneous interpretation which in turn may give rise to confusion and doubt" and so are "clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in theological debate." When the Protestant leaders responded that these statements are not saying anything that has not already been said, they are absolutely right. The Commentary itself states that to respond to this issue the CDF has "chosen to use the literary genre of Responsa ad quaestiones, which of its nature does not attempt to advance arguments to prove a particular doctrine but rather, by limiting itself to previous teachings of the Magisterium, sets out only to give a sure and certain response to specific questions." The main issue is how one is to interpret the line from Vatican II's Dogmatic Constitution on the Church that the universal Church or the Church of Christ, which is referred to in the Creed as one, holy, catholic (which means universal, by the way, not Roman Catholic), and apostolic, "subsists in the Catholic Church." The controversial word is "subsists." Some (including some of those present at the Council) argue that the "subsists in" was used instead of "is" to indicate that the universal Church is not limited to the Catholic Church, that in fact, the concept of the universal Church is a larger or wider concept than the Catholic Church, while nonetheless acknowledging the union of the Catholic Church with the universal Church. The clarification in the current document, which simply repeats what had already been said in Dominus Iesus, states that the phrase "subsists in" means "the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. The important factor that was revolutionary in the Constitution on the Church at Vatican II was the teaching that there are "numerous elements of sanctification and truth" in the non-Catholic Christian churches (or ecclesial communions, if you prefer) and that "the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation." If you remove the double negative from that statement, it says that the Spirit has/does use them as instruments of salvation. This development was truly ground breaking in an era with Catholics and Protestants did not even enter one another's churches! As for the interpretation of the phrase "subsists in", it is not a teaching that could not possibly be reinterpreted at a later date, but to clarify the interpretation at this point (even if some disagree with that interpretation) is part of the teaching office of the magisterium of the Church. Because of the media spin, I think it is more important than ever for us to reach out to our Protestant brothers and sisters in Christ in ecumenical dialogue and prayer personally witnessing to our respect for their deep faith witnessed in their communities, their prayer, and the way they live their lives.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

With the recent headline about Pope Benedict's (or really the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's) teaching on the Church, I thought about writing on that, but I wanted to talk about an experience I had while on vacation in Mexico last week (hence why there was no blog entry last week) while it was still fresh in my mind. I promise I will address the recent statement about the Church next week, which will also give me time to do a bit more research! This story comes with pictures though as an added bonus!

The friend with whom I was traveling knows a young man, who I am going to call "Abraham" (not his real name, of course, but I will call him after thefounding father of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition who was himself a migrant) in his early 30s who is among the undocumented here from Mexico. "Abraham" works for a hotel in the laundry service in the States. We decided to go and visit his family in Mexico. One of the consequences of the fact that "Abraham" is undocumented is that he has not seen his family in seven years, since he obviously can't return to Mexico to visit on holidays and family occasions. He is from a small "rancho" that we reached by driving on very hilly dirt roads for a good 20-30 minutes (with the help of a local from the nearest city whom we hired to come along with us and give directions; it turned out that the rancho we were looking at is basically made up of one extended family, and he knew of the family and where they lived).

We arrived at a collection of maybe 20 houses (though I use that term rather loosely by our standards), stopping every so often to ask the way to "Abraham's" mother's house. When we arrived, she was a bit leery of who these strangers were, but when we explained who we were and the connection with her son, tears immediately filled her eyes. She was completely overwhelmed to meet someone who had seen the son she had not seen in seven years only days before. She introduced us to "Abraham's" sister-in-law and proudly showed us pictures of his brother's wedding that had taken place last April, but which "Abraham" of course could not attend. She also introduced us to "Abraham's" grandmother who lived across the road. We went to visit the chapel, which was nicer than any of the homes we saw. She was extremely proud of that chapel, though they only celebrate mass there once every one to two months when the priest is able to get out to their rancho.

We then met "Abraham's" aunts, uncle, and cousins. His sister-in-law went to fetch "Abraham's" brother and bring him home from work so that he too could meet us. They brought out wooden benches, and we all sat in the cool shadow of the church while we talked. His cousin told us that her husband, and the father of her four year old daughter, was in Alabama. She had not seen him in two years. They told us they had all been wondering who we were as we drove into the village, asking one another about the car driving through with the "white girl" in it (that was me!). We were the first Americans that had ever been to their village. They went to get a bottle of Coke, which they apparently bought to serve us (though I am not sure where they bought it, as there did not seem to be any type of store anywhere - perhaps from a neighbor?). We speculated later on about their incredible hospitality in desiring to serve us when they clearly had so little themselves. They wanted us to stay for lunch as well, but we refused, saying we needed to be moving on before that.
They took us around the village, including up to the top of a hill that held a brick and cement cistern to gather water, which was then piped down to spigots in the yards (no running water in the houses) of the individual homes. They proudly explained that that cistern contained the water that served the entire village. They showed us the one room school where "Abraham" had been educated until he was old enough to work, after which time he worked during the week and attended school in town on Saturdays. We then returned to "Abraham's" home, where they explained that they had built their new home with money that "Abraham" had sent them from the U.S. This is the house in which "Abraham" grew up:

This is the picture of the house they have since built with the money "Abraham" has sent:

Still not much by our standards, with two rooms, and no glass on the windows, but clearly a vast improvement to their previous home. Furthermore, "Abraham's" brother introduced us to "Abraham's" animals, the animals that have been bought with the money he has sent home: goats, pigs, and cows.

They also showed us a full grown mango tree that "Abraham" had planted before he left. We took pictures of all of them and the village and "Abraham's" home to take back to him. They said he would not even know the children under seven, but they would explain to him who was who when they spoke with him on the phone. He does call home periodically, but since they have no phone in their village, he calls someone in the neighboring village. His mother then has to be sent for so that she can come and talk to him on the phone. While we did not meet his father, my friend told me that "Abraham" has been sending money home recently so that his father can buy a truck - his first ever, having only ever had a donkey previously. They were a wonderful family who all gave us hugs as we said goodbye. The little girls picked some of the orange flowers I had admired off a tree and gave them too me. The hardest part of the morning for me was the emotion that filled the face of a mother who had not seen her son in seven years and her incredible gratitude (and his whole family's joy) at having been able to have some contact with some small portion of his life in the States. When we consider the issue of immigration in our country and ponder the teachings of our Church, it helps to have a human face on the issue and to see first hand both the struggles involved for the families of the undocumented, but also the reason they take the risks they take. I share this story and these pictures with you so that we can all ask ourselves, if we were in their situation, what would we do? "Abraham's" family has been able to vastly improve their lives by the mere fact of his making minimum wage at a hotel laundry in the United States. For many of these families immigration (legal or otherwise) isn't a choice, it is a matter of survival.