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Disclaimer

The contents of this website are for contemplative purposes only. No medical advice will be given, and emails asking for medical advice will be ignored.

Although patient vignettes are based on my experiences with real individuals, I liberally change details to maintain patient confidentiality.

I also reserve the right to change old postings to correct errors, and to delete comments that include obscene language or that I deem abusive to me or other commentators.  If you are looking for a open mind, I suggest you consult a neurosurgeon.

Tuesday
Mar222016

Seven Last Words III: Abandoned

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.

This utterance always struck me as among the most authentic of Jesus’ statements. In Mark, these words are also rendered Eloi, eloi, lama sabachthani, which is thought to be Aramaic, the common language Israelites would have used at the time of Christ. Mark’s choice to write the words of Jesus in both Greek (the original New Testament scrolls were all written in Greek) and to retain it in the original language suggests that Mark wanted to emphasize that these words were the words of Jesus.

But few things in life are straightforward. To complicate things, Matthew uses Eli, eli, lama sabachthani, words which are slightly different than in Mark’s account, because they are Hebrew. (Hebrew and Aramaic were similar languages.) And so, to recap, both Matthew and Mark thought so much of the “why have you abandoned me” saying that both tried to retain it in its original language, except that Matthew thought that was Hebrew and Mark thought it was Aramaic.

In Jesus’ time, Hebrew was the language of scripture, and the historic language of the Jewish people. Most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and it was widely used in the Temple and synagogues. Aramaic was the street language, very similar but not identical to Hebrew. Most people in Israel spoke Aramaic, and although it was replacing Hebrew as the standard language in Palestine, many if not most Jews would have known both. Thus, it is easy to see how, given the similarity between the two phrases, that a person overhearing it could have mistaken one for the other.

I don’t think the difference matters. When an important event occurs and eyewitness accounts do not precisely agree with one another, this does not disprove their accuracy. Paradoxically, it make the story more believable.

When people want to deceive, they compare notes and get their facts straight. A group of people who want to foist a lie tend to carefully stick to a script. Contradictions raise doubts in the minds of listeners. A perfectly clean story is either an extremely precise account of the truth, which is rare in oral reports, or a well-executed con job.

When several people separately observe the same event, it is common for each person to remember it slightly differently. Everyone has a different point of view and different perceptions. If ten people watch a car accident, it is likely that each of the ten will give a unique version of the story. Some of the accounts may even be contradictory. This is natural and expected from human beings.

Thus, it makes sense that a single utterance of Jesus might be remembered differently by two different people. From that perspective, the inconsistency looks more like an honest difference of opinion reported by two people who were there rather than proof that anything was concocted. If you are an eyewitness to an important event, you are not likely to back down or change your account when confronted with another’s account. I can easily imagine two people sticking to their stories because they were there and comfortable with what they saw.

A number of details in the Passion story are like that, varying among the accounts. And in most cases, the variations look to me to be the result of independent points of view, rather than signs that the events did not happen. The variations, which would be expected in oral recollections, humanize the story.

“Why have you abandoned me?” is a post-modernist cry. They are words of desperation, of emptiness, of expenditure. Sartre or Camus couldn’t have done better. They are probably the most disturbing of the Last Words, because Jesus seems to be asking if God has gone away.

Well, has he? Has a God that has let his Son suffer and die gone away? Jesus’ words are our words, perhaps more so than any other pronouncement in the Gospels. Jesus asks the same question almost everyone has asked at some point: Why would a God that loves would allow so much pain?

The resurrection of Christ could be taken as an answer. If after God abandons his Son, He then raises him from the dead, this suggests that we too will rise again, and God will make good on His promises to us as well. If we follow Jesus’ way, we will share in his redemption.

That doesn’t seem like quite enough, though. I’m not looking forward to suffering in my own life just because Jesus suffered. That is a path I could follow, but God forgive me if I would rather not. Certainly the Passion is not telling us that we must suffer a horrible death to find paradise. There has to be another answer.

And in a way, there is, and it comes in the very question, “Why did you abandon me?” The question is not answered, at least not on Good Friday. When Jesus dies, he experiences the same silence we sometime feel when we wonder what is the point of it all. If God will not answer his own Son, we cannot expect an prompt answer either.

That does not mean we will never get one. But we will not get one at this moment. God’s silence to Jesus reminds us that God may be in the loving business, but that does not necessarily mean He is in the answering business. This should not be a surprise. Parents do not always answer their children’s questions; sometimes the time and place is not right. Sometimes, for a parent, the right answer is no answer. For now.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Monday
Mar212016

Seven Last Words II: Paradise

“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43.

The word Paradise feels medieval. When do we use it anymore? “Paradise” sounds like the name of a cheesy hotel, or a South Pacific-themed dance club. Or a word to be found in the sales text of a travel brochure. When I think of paradise, I can’t escape the Meat Loaf album from the 1970s, Paradise by the Dashboard Light. That title says it all; we have so used up the word that we can’t think of it without some irony or diminishment.

But at one time the word meant something more. In the Judeo-Christian world, paradise originally meant the garden of Adam and Eve. Jesus used the word to emphasize the fulfillment his ministry brought to the promises of the Old Testament. In other words, Adam and Eve had a paradise, and it was in the past. Jesus replaces it with a new paradise, and it lies in the future.

One of the reasons we can’t pump any meaning out of paradise any longer is because modern humans are no longer forward thinking. Yes, we talk about the future and we write science fiction novels. Every modern politician who ever delivered a stump speech spares a few words of hope for future generations. But we are really bad at this. We build houses and public buildings and have no expectation that they will last more than 50 years. Take a walk down your street or, better yet, if you work in the city, take a walk down the street where you work and ask yourself if the people who built those strip malls and glass buildings expect them to still be standing in 500 years. Medieval people and ancient people, when they built a structure, intended it to last for generations. I doubt a single person who helped build the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris thought the building would ever be knocked down or replaced. Those were forward thinking people.

These days, our ideas about paradise are diminished, not only because the afterlife is so difficult to believe in, but because we are so buried in our temporary existence, dreams of quick money and instant pleasures, that the future seems impossible. Being focussed on now is not a bad thing if we are deeply engaged with the joys of the present, but we aren’t. Our joys of the present are things like cable TV, the Internet, sex, food — hollow pleasures that pass in and out of our lives so quickly that we do not have the time to relish them.

If we were up to our necks in the present and focussed fully on the now, our lack of interest in paradise would be more excusable. But because we do not bother to linger over the pleasures in front of us, instead gobbling our meals in our cars as we race towards the next titillation, we are in even worse shape than that. Our materialism has stripped away our future and given us a present so filled with distraction that the now moment has no meaning to us.

The classic modern activity, eating dinner in front of the TV, is a perfect example. We are not enjoying our meal, we are watching TV. And we are not fully watching TV because we are distracted by the stuffing of food into our mouths. We eat, we watch, but pay full attention to neither. Where are we?

It is no wonder modern people are terrified of death. Our present is empty, the future beyond death is unknown. We ought to be terrified. We have no meaning in the present, are doubtful about the future, and death stands ready to strip whatever shred of value that remains between the two right out of our hands. There is much to fear.

Context for this Last Word: Jesus is hanging on the cross, and two criminals who have also been sentenced to death hang on each side. One of the criminals mocks Jesus. The other, sometimes known as the Good Thief, asks for Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What is interesting here is that the Good Thief does not ask for heaven, or redemption. All he asks is to be remembered, a very simple and vague request. Jesus’ answer, to offer him Paradise, is like responding to a request for spare change for coffee by handing over a winning lottery ticket. What Christ offers is so far beyond what is asked that the two cannot be compared.

I personally doubt that Jesus, hanging on the cross, had a clear view of what he was offering. His next Last Word, “Why have you forsaken me?” implies that as a human Jesus had not yet fully come into the vision of resurrection. But he knows God offers something beyond death, and he knows this something will be offered to the Good Thief, should he be open to accepting it.

In his book Practicing Catholic, James Carroll tells the story of visiting a friend who was enduring a terrible tragedy. The friend asks Carroll if he believes there is a heaven. Carroll responds by saying he has no idea what lies beyond death, but he does know who lies beyond death — God. And he trusts God.

Today, one of the reasons we do not trust God to deliver on his promises for the future is because we do not even make the lesser effort to find the truth in the present. We are so obsessed with, as Wordsworth put it, “getting and spending,” that we know nothing of the simple truths of life. Living in the moment is the beginning of finding these truths, and thus the basis of our relationship with God.

As C.S. Lewis put it, the present moment is the best understanding of eternity that we have. Jesus and the Good Thief may have been suffering enormously, but they were living in the moment. In particular, the Good Thief, who is the easier of the two (at least for me) to identify with, found truth in a moment of great suffering. And when he reached out to Jesus to share it, he found Paradise as well.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Sunday
Mar202016

Seven Last Words I: "Father, Forgive Them"

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24.

Words change in their connotations. Cool, for instance, means something completely different from what it meant fifty years ago, transforming from an observation about temperature to a description of alignment with the latest fashion. Fantastic, another changing word, once meant of or about a fantasy, but now more often means simply very good.

Regretfully, amnesty is one more word whose meaning has shiftedin the last few years. Amnesty used to mean to forgive, to wipe clean. Amnesty was an act of love and compassion. These days it is a politically charged word, and means to let undocumented immigrants apply for citizenship without risk of deportation, something many people these days consider a serious injustice.

Amnesty used to be a great word. To forgive another person and wipe the slate clean is a very special kind of forgiveness, one that exceeds our ordinary sense of the word. Often when we find the courage to forgive, it is a half-hearted gesture. “Forget about it” or “don’t worry about it” is closer to what we mean. We want to forgive, but the casual way we do it means we have not completely set aside the hurt we feel.

But to wipe the slate clean, to give the other person a complete, new start, is a rare gift. It deserves its own word. It is regrettable that politics has deprived our language of the perfect term for it.

On the cross, Jesus forgives his murderers, and does so with compassion. This is not a typical act of forgiveness, but rather an act of amnesty, a complete forgiveness. Jesus looks into the hearts of his killers and finds that they do not know what they are doing. He is giving them the benefit of the doubt, and in a very compassionate way: When he says he forgives them because they do not know what they are doing, he is implying that if his killers knew what they were doing, they would not be doing it. Their fault is not in being evil, but in not knowing good from evil.

 In our human eyes, we may not see things the way Jesus does, but since Jesus is divine, we must take his intuition very seriously. Jesus is saying that his killers would have done the right thing if they had known what it was, even though in reality the right thing is the opposite of what they do.

Amnesty is the root, the wellspring, of true forgiveness. Forgiveness only God can give. To understand that humans, being children of God, are always good at their deepest level, is an insight only an infinitely loving God can have. In God's eyes, even our worst acts have some motivation in goodness — we cannot escape being good; we cannot completely reject God, no matter how hard we try.

Evil is not the opposite of good, it is the absence of good. And this is very different from the way we usually think of evil. Absence can be filled up. Opposite can only be destroyed. Thus Jesus is no destroyer, but a redeemer.

It is crucial that we all seek out, and mete out to others, pure forgiveness -- amnesty -- before our deaths. Only in this way can we be redeemed after death. In these Last Words, Jesus is offering just such amnesty to us.

This is a very optimistic view of evil; perhaps too optimistic for most people. Many people may have difficulty with the idea that creation is good and that evil is only a perversion of goodness and is not a thing itself. Evil seems so real. But it is true, if one thinks about it. Beauty and and ugliness are considered opposites, but they not two equal substances. Ugliness is the absence of beauty, but not a thing itself. Or take hatred, which is also not a thing, but the absence of love. We know this because love can fill up and remove hatred, and beauty can fill up and remove ugliness, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Beauty defines ugliness but ugliness does not define beauty. We never think of something beautiful as an absence of ugliness. We never think of love as the absence of hate. It simply doesn’t work that way.

So, while it is optimistic to think of evil not as truly existing but as being the absence of the attributes of God, it is a fair way to view creation. And since sin and evil are the absence of God rather than the opposite of God, it is through forgiveness -- amnesty -- that God can fill up evil, remove it, and render it harmless.

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Thursday
Mar102016

Seven Last Words: Introduction

As part of my Lenten devotions, I started reading the book Seven Last Words by James Martin, SJ. As Fr. Martin explains, there is a tradition, today more common in Protestant churches than Catholic ones, of reflecting during Holy Week on the seven phrases that Jesus uttered on the day of his crucifixion. In the Catholic version of the tradition, churches will invite seven different people to comment on each one of the quotations at a service on Good Friday. The invitees are not all priests — some are laymen, women, and sometimes even non-Catholics.

The practice is not widely observed; I have never been a member of a church parish that practiced this. I have seen it at a few Baptist churches, however. Since I know that no one is ever likely to invite me to do anything of the sort, I am taking it on myself in the time we have left until Easter (March 27) to do the reflections myself.

This is a departure from the usual subject matter of my blog, I realize. But it is an exercise I would like to go through, if for not other reason than to give voice to ideas I have touched on at various times in my essays, but never directly expressed.

In the world, we can find every degree of spiritualism, from those who live practically every moment in prayer to those who reject religion in every way. My sympathies lie towards the religious side: I have never thought it possible to live without some kind of spiritual life. To live with the belief that there is nothing transcendent about the universe is, in my view, to live an empty life. Many people, I know, strongly disagree; but for me, the universe cannot simply exist, it must have a meaning, a purpose. There is no sense in my fighting the idea. Purpose has much more of a hold on me than I have a hold on it.

I have never attempted biblical reflections before, at least not aloud. These reflections are solely my own, but they are informed by my Catholic faith. I lay no claims on them as infallibly adhering to Church doctrine (although I think they are close). I do not desire to play the theologian. I say this not because I have anything against theologians, but because arguments about things like the biblical justification for the sacraments, or the meaning of “justification through faith,” or the meaning of the Eucharist, are not my focus here. They are interesting, but not essential. They are endpoints for belief, not its foundation.

The central challenge of religion for me is not theological knowledge, which is arguable, but faith, which is not. Faith is a profound mystery. How it works, what it means, these things elude me. This is not to say that faith itself eludes me; I feel it, but I don’t know exactly what it is. Faith, in this sense, is like love. Sometimes we find that we have loved another person without realizing it, such as when a friend moves out of town and we feel his absence. Brothers and sisters can love like that — they may live in and out of contact with one another for decades, only to discover late in life how deeply they cared for each other after all. Other times love is palpable and constant, like a mother’s love for her child, or the love of newlyweds, of of partners who have been committed to one another for decades.

Faith is like this. Sometimes faith is bold and intense, as present and awesome as a mountain. Other times it is present, but unnoticed. We have faith in things that we may not realize we believe in until that faith is threatened or betrayed. My faith in God has been like that. I am not always aware I believe in God, and sometimes almost think I don’t, until something happens that threatens that faith, and then suddenly it is plain. Then it emerges, like a flag out of the fog of battle.

And that is what these reflections will be about. Not about theology, not about religion, but about something deeper. Faith, made plain.

The Seven Last Words of Christ are:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Luke 23:24.

“Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23:43.

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46.

“Woman, here is your son….Here is your mother.” John 19:26-27.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46.

“I am thirsty.” John 19:28.

“It is finished.” John 19:30.

 

For a complete list of links to the seven essays on this topic, please go here.

Saturday
Feb202016

Harper Lee (1926-2016)

Rest in peace, Harper Lee.

To Kill a Mockingbird is in the upper echelon of American novels, one of the books widely taught in American schools that allows me to continue to hope for the future of public education. It was a runaway success because Lee was able to take a serious literary concept and made it optimistic and accessible to the general population. This is no mean feat. If it were easy, all literary giants would be billionaires. We all know how that is working out.

In Mockingbird, Lee had something important to say and found a nation of readers that wanted and needed to hear it. She made her statement in a succinct and entertaining fashion. Rarely do literary writers combine a crowd-pleasing, popular style with a timely and important message, and Harper Lee was able to do that.

Her great achievement was to be the right writer at the right time. An accomplishment, indeed.

A year ago my daughter had to write a paper about To Kill a Mockingbird for school, and since I had forgotten a lot of the details, I re-read the chapter where Atticus shoots the rabid dog. I had forgotten how tightly woven and concise Harper Lee was, her writing as clear and concentrated as nectar. In that chapter, a rabid dog is loose in town, and several citizens get together to draft Atticus to shoot it, knowing Atticus had the reputation of being the best shot in town. Atticus was reluctant to do the job because he had so carefully taught his own children to reject violence and didn't want them to see that he was an expert at a violent skill.

But in the end, Atticus shot the dog because the job had to be done and he was the best candidate to do it. Rather than turn away, he faced the duty, and did so with dignity and compassion. Scout understood this to mean that violence should be avoided, but when it cannot, violent power is best wielded with compassion, skill, and good judgment. If you are going to do a nasty job, do it right.

A great chapter and a great novel. And as it true with all great novels, it was even more of a pleasure sharing it with my daughter than it was reading it myself.

Atticus said to Jem one day, "I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird." That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something, and I asked Miss Maudie about it. "Your father’s right," she said. "Mockingbirds don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corn cribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”
― Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
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