Category Archives: Matters of Faith

Why Do You Believe in God?

That’s the elephant-in-the-room question. Huge. Invisible. Usually ignored but too big to be ushered out the door.

As for me, I have three answers to this question.

First, something happened to me at the middle of my life that I can’t explain except in divine terms. I was an unbeliever, but I went to a monastery, found God and joined the Catholic church. I can’t reduce that change to some psychological flip-flop or a mid-life crisis or whatever. It was a radical change unlike anything I’d experienced, and I’d experienced more than a few changes in my life by that point.

Second, the world is more than higgledy-piggledy, to use a term from debates between believers and non-believers. I think I understand the value of that term. In nature, we see complex and organically ordered patterns that seem to emerge from purely random forces, like a river delta that resembles fractal-generated patterns.  But to say that we and the universe are just clusters of molecules bundled together higgledy-piggledy seems a stretch. I believe in evolution. I think of evolution as how God thinks. But in strictly evolutionary terms, we’re wildly over-engineered for mere survival. Higgledy-piggledy can’t explain a Mozart, an Einstein, you, me or a new-born infant. The world is far, far more than it has to be.

Third, lots of other people believe in God, millions and billions of people down through the centuries. This is called the argument by consensus. For me, it’s the strongest argument, even as for certain non-believers it’s the weakest. I don’t think people are stupid. We’re all intellectuals, more or less. Sure, some of us have knacks and talents. A mathematical knack, an intuitive talent. Some of us read more books than others. But I’ve spent too much time sitting in a circle in a church basement somewhere listening to others not to understand that when it comes to the really big questions — Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going? — all human beings are pretty much on a level playing field. Millions and billions of us, trying to puzzle things out.

I think of human history, including the history of religion, faith and doubt, as a kind of parallel processing, a vast population of servers added down through time that are all working on the same problem. The sheer size of this server farm can’t be ignored. Yes, we have all collectively come up with an almost infinite number of wrong answers, but I also think we have a collective intelligence greater than any individual insight. 

So that’s what I think about the Big Question. Does it care? It puts another trunkful of hay in its mouth, steadily chewing as it looks at me with those ancient elephant eyes. It still doesn’t leave the room. Maybe it’s waiting for better answers. What do you think?

Subway Mystic

Let me tell you a story.  I used to live in New York City, and one day I had a mystical experience on the subway. I know how that sounds, but work with me here.

I was coming home on the F train. It goes from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Rush hour. Crowded. Ordinary day. But as we rolled along in the tunnel, I began to have this strange feeling. It was a feeling of complete, unconditional love for everybody in that car. No exceptions. The mom beside me with her kids, the baby on her lap. The young guys trying to look tough. Business people reading the Times. Construction workers. Even the drunk passed out in the corner. I looked at all those tired New York faces, and I felt an amazing peace. These people were not strangers, they were my family. I knew them, somehow, had always known them, and honestly, I would have given my life for any one of them. There was no division between me and them. And this feeling stayed with me, minute after minute, this steady and overwhelming sense of absolute love, and then the train came up out of the earth in Brooklyn and the whole car filled with sunlight — and the moment faded. It just went away. I was back in the ordinary. The passengers around me were just passengers. I was just me. I got off at my stop and walked home. I was a bit dazed.

For the next few weeks, I kept thinking about what happened. The experience had been so vivid, so undeniable. I was enlightened ― for about ten minutes ― and then I wasn’t. Maybe I never was. Nothing changed in my life. I wasn’t a better person or a worse person. Yes, that was an authentic feeling I had on the subway, but as another wise person has said, “Authentic feeling is not to be confused with the Truth.” My experience was real enough, but I wasn’t a believer at the time. I had no larger understanding to help me change my inner life and certainly not my outward, physical life.

Has anyone else had what might be called a mystical experience? I know that for some folks, the term “mystic” suggests loosey-goosey notions, a lack of rigor in thinking and even a certain silliness. As for me, I’ve always thought it made all the sense in the world to recognize the interconnectedness of reality as a mystical truth. But hey, that’s just me. What do you think of the term? Does it make sense or should it be avoided?

Thanks and Giving

Going through my files, I found this reflection for Thanksgiving that I gave at St. Austin parish, a few years after my conversion. That was a decade ago, but if I had to write it again, I think I’d say pretty much the same things.

Jesus said to his disciples: As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. –  John 15:9-10

Today’s Gospel is, in a way, about gift giving. And today’s holiday is about giving thanks. We have many reasons to be thankful. But I won’t bore you with the details. If you want a list, you can check the newspapers. You can check the 6:00 news.

Instead, I thought, let’s cut to the chase. Let’s focus on just one reason. One of the biggies why we should all be grateful. Something we can all agree upon. I decided that it could be the simple fact that this Thanksgiving, the world and most of us are still here.

Today is a good day. It’s a day. Once again, the sun came up, right on schedule. We came to church. We’re still alive. I know — it might seem like I’m grasping at straws here, trying to think of something positive to say. But as time goes by, I’m increasingly aware of the simple fact that God in his almighty power could pull the plug on the universe anytime he wanted. We’re all on life support. He brought the universe into existence. He could take it all out. Mountain ranges could wink out of existence if He winked, and He hasn’t. Not yet, anyway. The more I think about this fact, the more it seems that the continued existence of the universe and ourselves is a real cause for thanksgiving. Let’s say the average heart beat is 75 per minute. Now, this little reflection of mine is going to be about 450 heartbeats long. The Mass will be about 4,500 heartbeats long. There’s about 500 of us sitting here in this church today, so for this one hour, God will be listening, watching over a quarter of a million heartbeats. A quarter of a million heart beats and in between each one, for a single moment, for a second, God is pausing in his eternity, considering perhaps whether to allow the next heart beat to occur. And then, so far, he has said for each one of us, “Yes.” For one more beat, anyway. Yes. And our lives are made possible only by a long succession of yeses, a billion yeses, God saying yes … yes …yes to our existence until the final moment of our physical lives when at last he says, “no more.”

But as long as we live, God is also saying more than just yes. He’s saying “I love you.”  With every heart beat that he gives us, he is saying “I love you.” A quarter of a million times this hour for everyone here in this church this morning, “I love you. ”

And what do we say when some says, “I love you”? Do we say, “That’s nice. Thank you.” Do we just give thanks? Of course not. The best response, the worthy response, the happiest response if at all possible, is always to say, “I love you, too.” An exchange of gifts.

Love is a true gift. It’s not private. It is not property. And like all true gifts, it’s something we can’t keep for ourselves. We pass it along. This is what Christ is telling the apostles and us in today’s reading. He’s saying “This is my love which I receive from the Father. Pass it along. Don’t keep it for yourselves. Pass it along, to God and to one another.”

To follow Christ, to accept his love, we have to give, not get. The bumper sticker says “He Who Has The Most Toys When He Dies, Wins.” But Christ reminds us of the very real possibility that he who has the most toys when he dies, dies. In heaven, nobody has pockets.

What’s more, Christ shows us that we have to throw down our nets to follow him. In other words, abandon not just our possessions, but the means we have to acquire them. This is a toughie because we all have our nets. We have nets for money. Nets for love. We even, most of us, have nets for God Himself. Our spiritual ambitions, our good intentions, can become a net. But, of course, we can’t catch God in a net. God is the net, and He’s already caught us. We can slip through the meshes. We can struggle away. But he’s always here, all around us, drawing us in with the net of his love.

God emptied Himself to create the universe. He gave Himself to us as Christ. And now he wants it all back. Because he knows that his gift, the gift of love, has to be returned. Has to be passed along and shared.

So let me share with you a little story. Let me give it away. Three years ago, I attended my first Thanksgiving Mass at St. Austin. I was in the RCIA then. I could barely spell Catholic. I remember when we were asked to present our gifts, and suddenly the church was filled with this sort of excited rustling sound of 500 grocery bags ¾ paper and plastic — being lifted up and carried forward. As I stood up with my own little bag of canned beans, I looked across the church, watching this bucket brigade of grocery bags being passed up the altar steps, and I thought, “Oh. I get it. Maybe. This is the Kingdom of Heaven everyone’s talking about. It’s where you say, ‘Here. Take this. Take everything. Take everything I have. It’s yours.’ The Kingdom of Heaven is where we can give and give and give and give and give until at last we’re free.”

What’s more, the best gifts, the true gifts are always what we get from someplace else, someone else, and pass along. I’m happy to say that there’s not a single original thought in this reflection today. For the past 400 heart beats, you’ve been listening to stolen property. A lot of ideas have been lifted from a wonderful book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Other ideas have been taken from a lot of you sitting here today. Some of you know who you are and some of you don’t. I’m not going to name any names because I assume that all those great ideas weren’t yours to begin with — the great ones anyway. Like me, you’re probably just passing them along. So in the same way, I’m passing along, or passing back, whatever I’ve received. This reflection is a gift exchange, a way to say thank you to all of you in this parish, to say thank you to God.

But we have to remember: Saying thank you to God is never enough. We say “I love you.” This is what we can do today at this thanksgiving Mass with our prayers and our grocery bags. It’s what we can do at every Mass, of course, which is always a Eucharist, a thanksgiving. For a lifetime, second by second, God is saying to each of us, “I love you. Here. Have another heart beat. I love you.” And by passing this gift and all his living gifts along to others, we can say, as Christ has taught us to say, “I love you, too.”

Getting Lost

For several years now, I have been thinking about the short story “The Bear” by William Faulkner.

In simple terms, “The Bear” is set in Mississippi in the 1880s and follows a young boy, Isaac McCaslin, as he grows into manhood. Every year he spends two weeks at a hunting camp in a 100 square-mile stand of virgin forest. He is taught hunting and woodsmanship by old Sam Fathers, “son of a slave and a Chickasaw chief,” who also teaches him a respect, even reverence, for the woods and the creatures in it.

In the camp, Isaac listens to tales about Old Ben, a legendary black bear who has lived in the woods for decades. Isaac knows that he is not the hunter who will finally bring down the bear. He just wants to witness, to catch a glimpse of this mythic animal. Old Ben becomes an obsession with him. The bear “ran in his knowledge before he ever saw it. It loomed and towered in his dreams before he even saw the unaxed woods.”

Faulkner invests the story with obvious and powerful spiritual overtones, at one point even calling Isaac’s instruction by Fathers the boy’s “novitiate.” Certainly the story is about innocence and a fall from grace, the woods as a “doomed wilderness where edges were being constantly … gnawed at by men . . .”

To be honest, I think it would be a stretch to see the story as any kind of Christian allegory. Faulkner probably had other things on his mind—the old South, humanity and nature, a fall from primeval innocence, the succession of races that oversaw the mystery of a forest they ultimately helped to destroy.

At the same time, I keep coming back to the part when Isaac turns to Fathers after having searched through the woods every year but failing repeatedly to even find the tracks of Old Ben. “You ain’t looked right yet,” Fathers tells him. “It’s the gun,” adding, “You will have to choose.”

So Isaac leaves his rifle back at the hunting camp. He enters the wood with only his watch, a compass, and a walking stick. By noon, deeper in the forest than he has ever been before, he has still seen nothing of the bear, not even tracks. Then comes the moment when he makes his final choice:

“He stood for a moment—a child, alien and lost in the green and soaring gloom of the markless wilderness. Then he relinquished completely to it. It was the watch and the compass. He was still tainted. He removed the linked chain of the one and the lopped thong of the other from his overalls and hung them on a bush and leaned the stick beside them and entered it.”

Isaac becomes lost, “his heart beating a little more rapidly but strong and steady enough,” and continues forward. Fathers has told him that the bear has been watching him from the shadows, but only when the young man is completely lost, only when he has “relinquished”—the term used by Faulkner—everything that he thinks he needs as a hunter, only then does he finally see Old Ben. Ironically, this is only after he has followed the bear’s tracks back to the very place where he had left his possessions.

So what is the point of all this?

As I said, I do not think Old Ben is any specifically Christian symbol, but as someone of faith, I see the story as a reminder of what we also have to “relinquish” on our spiritual journeys.

We all have to go empty handed into our own deep forest. We have to leave behind our personal weapons, whatever they might be, along with all the ways we orient ourselves, connect to the world, and control our lives. We have to get lost, sometimes over and over, and go where God, not our expectations, lead us.

That is why we often hand over our watches and cell phones, sometimes even our wallets, at the beginning of spiritual retreats. Yes, it can be disorienting not to carry those items, and that is the point—to leave the world behind so we can better focus on what is larger than ourselves.

Getting lost has its advantages. Behavioral scientists have pointed out that our attention is greatest when we are uncertain about our environment or impending events. Thomas Merton embraces this uncertainty in his well-known prayer:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.

I do not see the road ahead of me.

I cannot know for certain where it will end.

Dante writes at the beginning of the Divina Commedia:

In the middle of the road of our life,

I came to myself in a dark wood

where the straight way was lost.

Of course, we need a path to God. Dante had Virgil to guide him. Our Church gives us a wealth of directions, a 2,000 year-old tradition that has guided millions. But this tradition itself contains the reminder that we are all pilgrims who can take nothing for granted. The Israelites wandered through the desert. The Apostles were always lost, and when they armed themselves or thought they knew their destination, Christ would take away their weapons or internal compasses and turn them around, upend their assumptions, until they had lost their bearings again. The point is to follow the Lord, one step at a time. The path to God is not God.

With that in mind, we can ask ourselves a few questions. When was the last time we were really lost? Do we enter into deep prayer with an eye on the clock? Do we try to find God while still armed with grievances, worry or even our best intentions? Do we carry a compass that keeps us secure, that gives us a sense of crossing all the right spiritual milestones, of “making progress”? If so, we might be keeping God at a distance.

Richard Rohr has written, “The last experience of God is frequently the greatest obstacle to the next experience of God. We make an absolute out of it and use it to strengthen our ego, to self-aggrandize and self-congratulate. Then, of course, nothing more happens.”

Only when we lose our way—that is, the way we have personally cut for ourselves—can we find the true one. So we can say to ourselves: Get lost. God only knows where we really are, and yes, at the proper hour and place, He will always appear.