Monday, May 26, 2014

Religion is a Handshake?

   Here in America we tend to think--no, we always think--that we are the center of the world. That our concerns are universal, our  problems the most pressing, and that our nation somehow holds the key to freedom and happiness for the rest of the world. And no matter how quickly our culture continues to degenerate into a pornography-plagued charnel house we continue to hope against hope that somehow history will judge us not by our actions, but by our intentions. Kind of like the lukewarm  Catholic who never goes to confession because he knows he's basically a "good person" who "never hurts anybody"-- he has good intentions.  Lacking introspection, he has no consciousness of sin, and lacking that, he has no compassion. He judges his moral life by his circumstances, his physical health, and his financial security and whether or not his children are successful. He is lulled into this every Sunday by homilies which reference the less challenging passages from the Bible, and knows he is a righteous man because he bothers to go to Mass in a country where it is dangerous to say "Merry Christmas". His pastor knows not to bother him too much about money too often, and his spirituality reaches its apex each week when he shakes hands with his neighbor during the Sign of Peace. 

      Pope Francis was in Jerusalem talking to Arab Catholics today--nuns, priests, seminarians in a place where public religious processions are not allowed, there are 5 different Catholic Rites, and the Cathedral is filled to brimming with them every day. My father's family were Lebanese Catholics and hearing the prayers in Arabic (something I never heard from my Arab relatives living in Brooklyn) reminded me of where I come from, how different it is from my own understanding of tradition, and how strange. When I was a little girl my grandmother gave me a tiny vial of sand from the banks of the river Jordan she got in the mail. To me, it was magic, just as it was magical that when I ate Arabic bread and Syrian cheese, in olive oil with mint, from the Sahadi food store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn I was eating the same kind of food that Jesus ate. As I looked at the people listening to the Pope talk about the Agony in the Garden, betrayal, and the love that overcame fear when Mary and John stayed at the foot of the cross, I was watching the starving being fed. And because I can watch him and listen to him in my comfortable room, I can be fed as well.  It was as good for me to see the congregation as it was to see him--because to be a Christian in  other countries, is not an easy thing. It can be a deadly thing.  And the Christians in the Middle East know this.  They have been Christians longer than Europeans. Many years ago well-meaning Protestant missionary was chatting with a young Arab Christian. "And which missionaries converted your family?" she asked.
     He was a little taken aback by her question. "My ancestors were converted by the Apostles," he said.

    It is almost laughable that people are criticizing the Pope's political leanings and calling him a socialist, as if it were somehow incumbent upon him to accept our teachings instead of the other way around.  The American laity seems poised uncomfortably between two states: comatose, and irascible, depending on one's orthodoxy. We are so immersed in our  own problems we have almost completely forgotten about the rest of the world.

     Some psychologists have noticed that there is a great deal of a disorder called Complex Post Traumatic Stress going around in this country. It stems not from getting shot at or surviving a terrorist attack, but being the child of American parents who are abusive and neglectful. One of the symptoms of this disorder is a numbness, a disconnection from one's own emotions. The denial of emotional pain suffered in childhood engenders a flight from negative emotions; the ultimate result is not only a disconnect from sadness, but from joy as well. Perhaps that is what is going on with us. We are terrified of pain because we have been promised freedom from it. One of the only ways to recover from CPTSD is to learn how to feel the pain that one has been avoiding perhaps for a life time. It is the pain that can reconnect us to life, and hope, and joy.  I have no doubt that God provides that pain to us when we are falling into spiritual numbness.

     In Dante's Inferno the Devil is encased in ice--which makes sense, because God is love, always in act, always alive, and any denial of that must be without motion, or life, or heat. But if I were writing the Inferno today I would put the Devil in a nice, warm bubble bath.



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