Thursday, November 20, 2014

The Church as a Sign of Contradiction

A very chilly scooter ride to work this morning compelled me to think about things other than the cold.  And on my mind was the ongoing debate occurring in the Roman Catholic Church about what it could mean to read the signs of the times, and how it is that the Church is to do this guided by the Holy Spirit.  The recent on-line dialogue between Ross Douthat and James Martin, SJ had me thinking about it, as did Stephen Okey's excellent assessment of this dialogue.

One part of Mr. Douthat's response to Fr. Martin struck me particularly, because it represents a common refrain I've heard in recent months whenever the question of sex and marriage is discussed:
It seems to me that there have been many cases in church history when the faith did need to learn from a changing culture, to read the signs of the times and to adapt. But there are just as many cases, under regimes ancien and modern, when “adaptation” meant corruption, worldiness [sic], the partial abandonment of the gospel. And I always wonder, in our contemporary discussions about sex and marriage, how would-be reformers so confidently distinguish the Spirit from the spirit of the age. By which I suppose I mean: Does it make you feel uncomfortable at all that every power and principality of our age—every establishment, political and judicial and cultural—is on the side of change in these internal church debates? Does it ever make you worry, even a little, that these reforms are truer to a passing historical moment than to Christ?
What Douthat appears to argue here is that the church is called to be a sign of contradiction in the world, and those who advocate for change on the church's viewpoints on sex and remarriage veer dangerously close to accommodation rather than to contradiction.

I think Douthat is right to point to the idea of the church as a sign of contradiction, but whenever this idea is cited with reference to the issues of sex and marriage, these thought always goes through my head: Surely it isn't only, or even primarily, in the realm of sexuality that the church is called to be a sign of contradiction? Is it not about so much more than that?

What we need to discern more clearly is what it meant for Jesus to be a sign of contradiction, to the point that his offensiveness to the prevailing order cost him his life.  And what we see, in my humble opinion and as someone who is not a biblical scholar, is someone who calls his followers to a way of existing as community that was fundamentally different from the status quo; one that called into question the centrality of power, wealth, and domination and offered a way of being community that reversed the predominant 'rules' that characterized his age, and frankly our own.

There's something both terribly frightening and exhilarating about Jesus' call, and something that appears to me to be far more revolutionary and far-reaching than is usually understood.  If I may be so frank, it seems to me that Jesus' message looks more like the Catholic Worker than it does Catholic Vote.

So yes, let's do appeal to the important idea of the church as a sign of contradiction.  However, let's stop fooling ourselves by thinking that the church fulfills this call to be a sign of contradiction when it proposes a sexual morality supposedly at odds with the dominant culture.

It seems to me that the notion of the church as a sign of contradiction is far more serious than that.

Here's my Twitter rant after my scooter ride this morning.  I am, as always, open to dialogue.

Painting above is Rembrandt's "The Descent from the Cross" and was found on

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Our Little Oratory

In January 2013 I took a group of students from Bellarmine University's Master of Arts in Spirituality program to the state of Kerala in India.  We stayed at a vibrant Franciscan friary, and traveled throughout the state exploring Christian history and spirituality - tradition has it that St. Thomas evangelized Kerala in 52 C.E. - as well as the ways in which Christians in Kerala engage in dialogue with one another and with their Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters.

The most moving experience for me wasn't visiting sights associated with St Thomas, nor was it engaging in a discussion about interreligious dialogue at a Jesuit ashram.  It was, rather, being invited over to a family's house for supper along with two students.

The friary in Kerala
The hospitality was amazing.  The family walked us up and down the street and introduced us to their neighbours.  At each neighbour's house we were greeted warmly and were, of course, fed.  When we returned to their home, a carpet was brought out and the entire family - grandparents, parents, and children - knelt before a prayer altar on which were placed candles, icons, and statues.  The prayers were led by the mother and, though they were in Malayalam, I could tell that the family was reciting the rosary.

The prayers ended after twenty minutes - we were told that they shortened them for our benefit - after which we ate an incredible meal.

This image of the entire family knelt in prayer together moved me deeply, and continues to stay with me.

Our little oratory
While my family prays together, we don't do so as consistently as I would like, nor did we have a spot
in our house designated specifically for prayer.  It seemed to both Kim and I that this needed to change, and so we decided to create a little oratory in our dining room.  We found a little cabinet at the Good Will store, and we have plans to refinish it at some point in the future.  In the meantime, we put up some icons that we had throughout the house as well as in my office at work, and found some candles.

The little oratory is a work in progress; we plan to find more icons, statues, and candles.  But I'm loving how our kids are reacting to it.  All of them love the process of lighting the candles (and blowing them out), and I can tell that they realize that we've created in our dining room a sacred space, carved into our dining room a corner where one can focus one's attention and be still.

I'll put updates here and on Twitter as the space transforms.  And I would love to see any spaces you've created in your homes.  Send me your photos on Twitter, and tell me how you use it.