Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Spirituality of Advent: What are you waiting for?

Throughout scripture we can discern a theology of waiting. In the Old Testament God waits on his people to return to him. In every age He endures our unfaithfulness. Yet our falleness makes waiting on God unbearable at times. Frequent prayer, mass, and adoration easily become inconveniences to daily living. And, though very often we convince ourselves otherwise, what we are communicating through our actions to our God is that He is not worth our time. We'd rather spend our time otherwise. After all we are important people and we have many important things to accomplish that takes precedence over spending time with God. And when we do spend time with God, sometimes its motivated by selfish reasons. How often do we expect God to answer us immediately when we do call out for him? How quickly do we expect him to solve our problems? How frustrated do we become when he seems silent to our sufferings? "Why do we complain about God, Who has more reason to complain about all of us?" (Salvian). 

Advent is indicative of the spirituality of the Old Testament. The entire Old Testament is an anticipation and foreshadowing of Christ. We are called to reflect on the experience of waiting on God's faithfulness to redeem our falleness. We must always be prepared for the coming of God. Truly Christ has already come (incarnation), and as he continues to come (Eucharist) he will come again (Final Judgment). As our spiritual ancestors waited for God to fulfill the Old Testament covenental promises, we are called to spiritually reflect on their experience that we may be able to recognize, receive, and respond to God's grace when it is manifested. 

Sadly, sometimes we do not really want a God of infinite wisdom, but a divine vending machine whose buttons we can manipulate with our petitions to satisfy our demands. True patience, and thus true hope flows from love. When we love and trust God we realize that His will shall prevail, and that this will be a glorious thing that we should welcome wholeheartedly. We pray, "Lord, not as I will, but as you will." We become much more concerned as to whether our will is conforming to God's. We say, "Holy Spirit, teach me how to pray and guide the desires of my heart." In this way we avoid a relationship of manipulation. By waiting on God we should learn to treat his responses to our prayers (even the silences) as a gift and not with a disposition of entitlement. 

Look towards the children who immediately receive everything they want whenever they want from others. They become very selfish and it becomes very difficult for them to receive anything with a spirit of gratitude. Appeasement is a bad parenting practice for it doesn't teach responsibility. Quite literally such spoiled individuals lack the ability to respond properly to gifts which screws up their ability to love. They are never able to properly receive a gift of love and thus they cannot properly give a gift of love. Bottom line is that God is wiser than us and we should conform to his will rather than trying to get him to conform to ours. 

At pivotal points throughout scripture and all of history, God’s people are met with silence. A prominent example of this is when Israel, after many centuries of being displaced during the Diaspora and subjected to a series of different rulers yearn for God’s answer to their plea for restoration and the fulfillment of his promises. “Israel is living once more in the darkness of divine absence; God is silent, seemingly forgetful of the promises of Abraham and David, the old lament is heard once more: We no longer have any prophets, God seems to have abandoned his people” (Benedict XVI). During this time God’s people were experiencing the spirituality of advent where their waiting constitutes a prayer of great longing and anticipation. In the silence they wait for God.    

We must learn how to put ourselves in God’s time frame rather than expecting him to work on our own. Very often we are not ready for what God wants to accomplish for us and in us.  We must wait and prepare our hearts. To use an analogy of St. Augustine that I've heard via Fr. Robert Barron (the video is below), sometimes God delays the answering of prayer in order that the heart of the person may expand and receive what God wants to give. We ask and God makes us promises but often the heart isn’t big enough to receive, but as we faithfully wait the heart grows larger and more receptive so that when God is ready, we might also be ready. 

The silence of God in the Old Testament foreshadows his plan of salvation when he enters into the silence of the human condition through the Incarnation.The peaceful silence of the nativity contrasts greatly with the violent silence of Calvary. This silence of Christ culminates on the cross when he silently allows himself to be slaughtered and enters into the silence of the grave, into the silence of death so that he may destroy silence through the Resurrection. May all our spiritual advents be a preparation inviting Christ to enter into the silence of our own lives that we may receive what God wants to give us. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

Dorothy Day: Bridging the Gap

Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of (Servant of God) Dorothy Day. There are few figures in American Catholicism who manage simultaneously to balance radicality with orthodoxy, activity with contemplation, or liberality with poverty -- Dorothy Day was such a figure.That Dorothy spent her life -- even before she was a Catholic -- defending the poor, the worker, the homeless, the disenfranchised is well-known; addressing injustice was her life's work. And yet, haven't these activities, in a certain detached sense, become somewhat trite to us? To say she defended the poor, to say she fought for justice, to say she lived voluntary poverty -- how much of these phrases has become, for most of us, a snazzy phrase we use to gild the grit of the saint's life? To apotheosize a life spent in the real world, full of grime and sin?  Not to say her works lose their beauty, but that they begin to mean so little to us being 30-years removed. Certainly Dorothy Day has had many wonderful eulogies -- her work is not, as far as I know, a mystery. But how is she relevant today? In Advent 2010? How can her example bear fruit in our lives, not as a nod to make ourselves feel better, but as a call to conversion?

Perhaps such questions are a bit daunting for this little meditation. With that in mind, I'd like to offer the role Dorothy Day has played in my own conversion. As you, reader, may or may not know, I was confirmed Easter 2007. Upon entering the Church, I was a confused liberal: a vegetarian, pacifist, socialistic, tramping, poor little college student with a new idea every five minutes. I had been confirmed in the Holy Spirit and received our Lord in the Eucharist, and yet the "world was too much" with me -- I could not brook the seething Republican Catholicism with which I was confronted; could not understand why more people hadn't embraced the poverty espoused in Matthew 19:21; couldn't assuage my conscience which told me war was a horrid, heinous defeat for humanity, or that capitalism was a "dirty, rotten system." I was in a difficult spot: I had been entranced by the Beauty, Reason, and Order of the Church, and yet I found much of her milieu to be disheartening. I was as faithful a Catholic as I knew how to be, and still found myself on the fringe. And yet, that is where Dorothy met me: on the fringe.

Dorothy, for me, was an anomalous figure -- a Catholic pacifist and anarchist, who derided capitalism, but was not a communist; an outspoken woman who faithfully adhered to all the creed while vociferously rampaging against the cruelties of her time. When I began to read about her and Peter Maurin (who, I must sheepishly admit, remains more of a hero in my heart than even Dorothy), I was inspired, I was filled with hope, I was vivified. Her Personalist Ethic, Pacifism, Voluntary Poverty and Love of the Poor -- all spoke to my heart that I need not despair; that there was, despite many voices to the contrary, a place for guys like me in the Church. Dorothy and Peter thus became not only my inspiration but my guiding light -- in them, I saw the "bleeding heart" of a liberal, not destroyed by grace, but perfected. Because the heart full of compassion for the lost and indignation for the abused is not to be smothered out -- but the fire needs the fireplace, the wild vine needs tending. The Church thus molded Dorothy, and Dorothy thus molded me.

This perfection of the liberal's heart is what I think Dorothy has most to contribute today. Not as though her contribution to American Pacifism isn't enormous, or that her example of true love and solidarity with the poor isn't astounding; but rather, that Dorothy's gift, as I see it, is to be the saint that stands in the gap between the Church and the liberal. The world is positively brimming with well-intentioned people, crunchy-cons and bleeding heart liberals alike, who have a desire for justice and equality, not merely as it relates to performing works of mercy, but as it relates to the structures of society itself. But they, like their estranged conservative cousins (without whose stability we would be lost, I'd wager), need the guiding hand of the Church, to shape them, prune them, and teach them true justice, true equality free from the errors of modernism. And so for me, and for many other liberals who have found their way into the Holy Catholic Church, Dorothy is a bridge and a friend. She is an image of the machinations of grace upon the liberal heart, showing us that there is indeed, as Peter Maurin said, more "dynamite" within the Church than without.

By her life, Dorothy reflects, in a particular way, for a particular time, the work of Christ throughout history: to bring the outskirts of mankind into the work of his Incarnation; to embody "grace and truth" in a period which needs certain graces and certain truths; an "antidote," as Chesterton phrases it. And thus was Dorothy Day for the 20th century and its liberals: a word of grace and truth to those who, in perhaps the world's darkest hour, desired the light of economic justice, freedom from the brutal obliteration of war, and liberation from the oppression of the State.

May Servant of God Dorothy Day pray for us, liberals and conservatives alike! And may her canonization come quickly!

Thursday, November 04, 2010

"Far and Away" and Here Today

Since we have just had political elections here in the United States, I thought it might be a suitable time to make a post regarding some political topics; however, just to make it interesting I'm putting this discussion within the framework of a work of artistic criticism. Specifically, I'm going to attempt to draw out the themes of Distributism which I see reflected in the 1992 film Far and Away, directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. (That being said, this article contains spoilers for the movie, so if you want to see it, you should probably avoid reading on until you do.) I think this approach is useful because it expresses both the fact that artistic expression can passively give birth to a bubbling forth of truths of the human condition in a wide variety of areas and can also, actively, demonstrate how artistic media can be useful as a vehicle for the propagation of the Catholic faith and teachings if you in an appropriate manner.

The film itself opens, finding us in Ireland in the late 19th century with a title card which reads: "The tenant farmers, after generations of oppression and poverty, have begun to rebel against the unfair rents and cruel evictions imposed upon them by their wealthy landlords." And it is this concept the brings us specifically to Joseph Donnelly (Cruise), a young man working on the farm which he shares with his father (who is fatally wounded in the opening scene) and brothers, rented from a landlord who lives far off. Joseph is immediately characterised by the opening action in which he struggles to work his rented fields while his brothers taunt him and, speaking of his "grand ambitions" his brother says to him: “Ambition is it? To break your back on land that isn’t your own?”

With such a thought in mind we can turn our attention to the words of Pope Leo XII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891):

If working people can be encouraged to look forward to obtaining a share in the land, the consequence will be that the gulf between vast wealth and sheer poverty will be bridged over, and the respective classes will be brought nearer to one another. A further consequence will result in the great abundance of the fruits of the earth. Men always work harder and more readily when they work on that which belongs to them; nay, they learn to love the very soil that yields in response to the labor of their hands, not only food to eat, but an abundance of good things for themselves and those that are dear to them. That such a spirit of willing labor would add to the produce of the earth and to the wealth of the community is self evident. And a third advantage would spring from this: men would cling to the country in which they were born, for no one would exchange his country for a foreign land if his own afforded him the means of living a decent and happy life.

In this particular instance, of course, the focus is placed on the second aspect described here, namely that men will work diligently and joyfully on their own property to a greater extent than the land of another. This concept is shown quite clearly in the case of Joseph's brothers, who would rather drink and fight than bother working the land, with specific reference to their lack of ownership.

As the film progresses, the agents of the landlord arrive and burn down the Donnellys' farm due to a failure to pay their rent. As a result, Joseph sets out to exact revenge by murdering the landlord. To make a long story short, it doesn't go according to plan and Joseph ends up a prisoner in the landlord's house awaiting a duel the next morning against the man who burned down his farm. However, in the night, the daughter of the landlord, Shannon (Kidman), enters the room and offers him the prospect of coming with her to America where, she informs him, they give away land for free. Incredulous, Joseph informs her: "I'm of Ireland and I'll stay in Ireland til I die!" This brings us to the third of the statement of Leo XIII, that a man would not abandon his own country if it could give him sufficient support. However, it seems that Joseph violates this principle, desiring to stay in is country despite the fact that he has no property of means of his own. However, the next morning shows the reality of Pope Leo's words, as Joseph ultimately relents and heads to America with Shannon, realising he has nothing left for him in Ireland save for fear of death.

Ultimately, the pair end up in Boston and become affiliated with dangerous criminals who provide them with a place to live and jobs. Ultimately, Joseph begins to engage in boxing matches for them and comes into a number of material luxuries as a result of his success. However, when he loses an important fight (notably as a result of being distracted by inappropriate advances of one of his employers against Shannon, whom he seeks to defend), all this material prosperity is proven to have been an illusion--immediately they are ejected from their boarding house, driven away from employment and shunned by their former patrons.

This is ultimately the untenable situation of the vast majority of wage labourers under the system of capitalism who live their lives at the whim of those wealthy patrons who provide their salaries. This should be regarded as especially relevant to people in the United States, a country in which in 2001 a mere 1% of the population owned 38% of the wealth (if we look at the top 20% we find that they control over 80% of the wealth) and the bottom 40% owned less than 1%--a situation which has only grown more extreme in the intervening years. Furthermore, we have to bear in mind that a significant number of the people in that bottom 40% own literally nothing--their net worth is below zero, in that they owe more than they possess. The situation of individuals in this position is literally no different from that of Joseph and Shannon in the movie. How is this equitable? How is this just? What is the solution?

Well, Far and Away has a solution. And that solution is a wider distribution of productive property. This is envisioned in the idea of the free land grab in the Oklahoma territory--where everyone, the rich and the poor alike, theoretically have an equal chance to attain possession of land. This is particularly emphasised by the fact that we see Shannon's family--the wealthy landlords from Ireland--come to the United States to participate in the same land grab race with Joseph after revolting peasants destroy their manor in Ireland. And what does that bring us to but Pope Leo XIII's last remaining point: if the poor have a chance to gain possession of land, a bridge will be built between the social classes who will grown nearer to each other.

This is exemplified in two ways in the film: first, the relative equality of Shannon's wealthy family and the poor Joseph in their attempt to claim land in the Oklahoma territory where they will be, essentially, neighbors in possession of an equal amount of productive property. And finally, in Shannon's decision to be with Joseph rather than the more wealthy man to whom she was originally paired. The union of these individuals exemplifies the union of classes brought together by the appropriate distribution of land, as emphasised in their jointly driving in the stake which declares their ownership of the land they have chosen together.

Now, I have a couple of other points to make which I think really drive this movie over the top in this respect. The first is when Joseph attempts to defend Shannon against the advances of his corrupt employer during his great boxing match, which ultimately results in the lose of his material prosperity. I greatly enjoyed this scene because it emphasises a point which I think is largely lost in politics and economics today--that is, that they are not natural sciences. Rather, politics and economics are branches of moral science and they should, at their foundation, be regarded as dealing with people and not with objects. Is great material wealth worth the manipulation and exploitation of even a single individual? I think that if we are morally honest with ourselves, we must say no. So, even though winning the boxing match would be enough to secure for Joseph the wealth with which he could attain his dream of property ownership, if the price of attaining that economic vision were to sacrifice of Shannon, a human person, then the price is regarded as simply too steep. Humans are not means to an end, we are ends in ourselves!

The second scene which gave me great delight is the final scene. In a struggle with the other man seeking Shannon's romantic affections, Joseph is thrown to the ground and injures his head on a rock. As Shannon hovers over his body, begging him to live, the camera gives the impression that Joseph's soul is leaving his body and he is dead. However, at a few simple words, Joseph's soul rushes back and he is instantly revived and their dream is ultimately realised as they claim their land together as one. And what are those words which call him back? "I loved you." And this is the essence of the entire political, social and economic vision of the film, in my opinion: without love, not only is the entire process of social reform completely worthless, it is also fruitless. In fact, I limit too much, I think by saying social reform. No form of politics or economics--existing or reformed--is worthy of preservation if it is not founded on this simply fact.

So let us take this message away from this little movie of Ron Howard: let us love one another, not in a vague and sentimental way, but in way which finds its expression in sacrifice and self-gift to one another; where instead of trying to cheat one another and outdo one another, we embrace life of charity for our fellow men; and ultimately let us follow that path of love to the social, economic and political structures that are most congruent with that fundamental truth, like the natural fruit of a great and giving tree. Let us live lives based entirely in love.