a conversation between faith, culture, and the church

kazuend cherry blossoms

Whenever a community receives the message of salvation, the Holy Spirit enriches its culture with the transforming power of the Gospel. …In the Christian customs of an evangelized people, the Holy Spirit adorns the Church, showing her new aspects of revelation and giving her a new face.

—Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 116

Image: detail of a photo by Kazuend


faith in conversation with experience

John Price concert

No sooner do we formulate a faith conviction than we must integrate into it the chaotic flow of experience. Since we now have an ultimate perspective, it must shed light in some way on all that is proximate. We cannot “cry God” with a self satisfied grin and fall silent. Hot on the heels of faith comes theology.

Theology is not so much faith seeking understanding as faith scrambling for respectability in the midst of a Mystery which it has latched onto firmly enough to say, “Oh yes!” but not thoroughly enough to say, “This is how it works.”

—John Shea, Stories of Faith

Photo by John Price

of compassion learned through discouragement

Leyroy windows w dead vines

About three years after my first vows I hit a low-point in my vocation. I’d made it through seven years of training and early experience as a religious sister. On the one hand, I’d navigated a culture change from American teenager to vowed religious sister sustained by a genuine delight at finding myself in a place that simply felt right on so many levels. The more I learned about, and experienced the life of a Daughter of St. Paul, the more it resonated with something deep within my mind and heart. On the other hand—oy vey!—it was tough. Not so much the surface things such as how I ran up the stairs (no more taking them two steps at a time), but rather the more subtle discoveries. I’d never been so challenged to see beyond what turned out to be my surface self-interests, and to reach instead for genuine agape love.

Then after taking vows, I was stationed along with another junior sister in a small community made up of six sisters who evangelized both through our Pauline Book & Media center and through parish visitations. As the months in this first assignment as a newbie-nun unfolded, I found myself broadsided again and again by an older sister who had an uncanny ability to embarrass me before others. I was still learning how to interact with the general public in the setting of our ministry. She let me flounder, and then berated me for my faux pas in front of whoever happened to be around. In the same community we had two emotionally needy sisters. At the time I just wrote it off as two bad cases of midlife crisis—bad enough to land one of them in the psychiatric unit of a nearby hospital. One of these two religious left the community in those years; the other one soldiers on to this day. In the midst of it all, the term of our local superior finished. She had been a wise and compassionate woman who helped me navigate the vagaries of community life. Her replacement seemed anxious to make sure that the two of us juniors “got it right.” I managed to mostly get it wrong—or so it felt. Between one thing and another, I fell into a funk.

Looking back at that experience in the first half of my twenties, I realize that I was young, very young. It was my first sustained experience of vocational discouragement. The life that I had dreamed of—being a religious sister—was not turning out to be what I’d expected. Oh yes, I knew all along that things weren’t going to be rosy. Of course I expected my share of the cross. But I hadn’t thought it would come in that form. I hadn’t banked on living with the demons of others in community. It opened up a window into the chaos that can sometimes lurk in the heart of the well-intentioned. It frightened me.

In the midst of this Lenten season of my life, the collected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins fell into my hands. Hopkins’ terrible sonnets voiced exactly how I felt at the time:

Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

In the end, I believe that Hopkins gave me the words and images to work through my own discouragement, to the point where I learned to have compassion on both self and neighbor.

+ + +

“Son though he was he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

Lent is an uncomfortable season. The suffering and sacrifice of Lent isn’t the point of this season, it’s the learning obedience part of Jesus example. Not obedience as in slavish fulfillment of duties; check of the boxes; jump through the hoops… No, we’re talking about obedience in the sense of active listening to God.

Lent is the time to learn the art of mindful attention to what God is saying to me/us right here, right now. The point of the classic triad of practices: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer is to let the extra things drop away, to the point where one is not carried away by alternating currents of self-satisfaction, anxiety, indulgence, or that pleasure which comes at the expense of others. Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer teach us to deny our first-impulses of self-interest in order to see and hear what we’d otherwise miss.

Pay attention to what God is doing here and now eventually means coming to grips with the passion played out in our midst. It means finding Jesus in his wounds and woundedness. It means living into a life of active compassion for self and neighbor.

My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,

Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

Two excerpted poems taken from: Hopkins, Gerard Manley. Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. New York: Oxford University Press, 1956

Photo by Leyroy

in memoriam umberto eco—mac vs dos


This past Friday, February 19, the Italian semiotics scholar and novelist, Umberto Eco died at the age of 84. He is one of those authors whose shorter writings have popped up on my radar from time to time. He has a peculiar mix of insightful, funny, and maddening things to say, and I’m resolving once again to read dive into one of his books …eventually!

For now, here’s an article that I remember reading back in the 1990s.

A Holy War: Mac vs Dos

Insufficient consideration has been given to the new underground religious war which is modifying the modern world. It’s an old idea of mine, but I find that whenever I tell people about it they immediately agree with me.

The fact is that the world is divided between users of the Macintosh computer and users of MS-DOS compatible computers. I am firmly of the opinion that the Macintosh is Catholic and that DOS is Protestant. Indeed, the Macintosh is counter-reformist and has been influenced by the ratio studiorum of the Jesuits. It is cheerful, friendly, conciliatory; it tells the faithful how they must proceed step by step to reach—if not the kingdom of Heaven—the moment in which their document is printed. It is catechistic: The essence of revelation is dealt with via simple formulae and sumptuous icons. Everyone has a right to salvation.

DOS is Protestant, or even Calvinistic. It allows free interpretation of scripture, demands difficult personal decisions, imposes a subtle hermeneutics upon the user, and takes for granted the idea that not all can achieve salvation. To make the system work you need to interpret the program yourself: Far away from the baroque community of revelers, the user is closed within the loneliness of his own inner torment.

You may object that, with the passage to Windows, the DOS universe has come to resemble more closely the counter-reformist tolerance of the Macintosh. It’s true: Windows represents an Anglican-style schism, big ceremonies in the cathedral, but there is always the possibility of a return to DOS to change things in accordance with bizarre decisions…

Naturally, the Catholicism and Protestantism of the two systems have nothing to do with the cultural and religious positions of their users. One may wonder whether, as time goes by, the use of one system rather than another leads to profound inner changes. …

And machine code, which lies beneath and decides the destiny of both systems (or environments, if you prefer)? Ah, that belongs to the Old Testament, and is talmudic and cabalistic.

—Umberto Eco, excerpt from an article in the September 30, 1994 edition of Espresso. English translation found here.

Image credit: By Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

spend some time before Jesus

st t cross in chapel

In a time of intense difficulty in the period following the foundation of the Pauline Family, Blessed James Alberione had what he later called a dream. It came in answer to his prayer and self examination in the face of setbacks. In this dream Alberione heard Jesus telling him: Do not be afraid. I am with you. From here I will cast light. Live with a penitent heart. When he described this prayer experience to his spiritual director, the latter told him: “Be serene. Dream or otherwise, what was said is holy. Make it a practical program of life and light for yourself and for all the members” (Abundantes, 154).

The words in various translations of the Latin original appear in all of the chapels of the Pauline Family. Since the words were “heard” in a dream, I often wonder if we do ourselves a disservice to think of them as distinct phrases separated by punctuation or line breaks. In the following guided examination of conscience I’ve taken the liberty to play with these elements.

Do not be afraid … of your failings, or the failings in the world around you.
+      Even if I cannot put it into words or understand it myself, can I bring my deep-down uneasiness before God?

Do not be afraid I am with you … you are not alone, I am with you. I AM.  I am faithful.
+      Do I work out difficulties on my own, or with everyone else but God?

I am with you from here … Here in the Eucharist I am your nourishment & your source. Here in this community which I form around this altar—I am with you here.
+      Jesus is with me here—but where am I? Am I here, or am I stuck in the past, or living in the future?

From here I want to enlighten … I am your light and I want to use you to enlighten others.
+      Do my words and actions reveal Jesus or do I obscure his compassion, his truth?

I want to enlighten, live with a penitent heart … Let my example challenge you in your inmost heart. Always live in an ongoing conversion.
+      Am I honestly trying to live the way Jesus lives? Where do I fall short?

Live with a penitent heart, do not be afraid … do not be afraid to acknowledge sin and darkness – atone for it.
+      Do I bring the failures of the world before God in prayer?
+      Do I bring my own sins to the Sacrament of Reconciliation regularly?


Photo credit: Sean Mayer

he dwells among us—if today you hear his voice, harden not your heart

NamphuongVan winterview

The new Jerusalem, the holy city (cf. Rev 21:2-4), is the goal towards which all of humanity is moving. It is curious that God’s revelation tells us that the fullness of humanity and of history is realized in a city.

We need to look at our cities with a contemplative gaze, a gaze of faith which sees God dwelling in their homes, in their streets and squares. God’s presence accompanies the sincere efforts of individuals and groups to find encouragement and meaning in their lives. He dwells among them, fostering solidarity, fraternity, and the desire for goodness, truth and justice. This presence must not be contrived but found, uncovered.

God does not hide himself from those who seek him with a sincere heart, even though they do so tentatively, in a vague and haphazard manner.

—Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel, 71

Photo credit: Namphuong Van

love is faithful, and yet it is also completely unpredictable


This past week my religious congregation, the Daughters of St. Paul, officially closed the centenary year of our foundation. We are one of ten religious institutes of the Pauline Family all founded in the the Twentieth century by Blessed James Alberione (1884-1971). What started as an experience of enlightenment from the Eucharistic Lord during a night of prayer in 1900, grew to a family of religious and consecrated persons dedicated to using the new means of communication and apostolate to proclaim Christ Jesus. Today our institutes make sense, but in those first decades, Alberione’s vision of “writers, technicians, and evangelizers, who were also men and women religious” [1] seemed quite radical.

Tecla-0022Our co founder Venerable Thecla Merlo (1894-1964; seated to the left) along with the first sisters drew the ire of some and the ridicule of others for behavior that was audacious for women to undertake in the 1920s—behavior that was deemed completely unsuitable for women religious at that time. In the early days we wrote diocesan newspaper columns, ran printing presses, sewed books together (literally), and then sold them door-to-door and in bookshops. Was it novel? For the times, yes. Was it faithful to tradition? Yes. Was it an undertaking inspired by deep love? Absolutely! Our first sisters were responding a need of their time, which continues to have relevance today. And yet even within our community the pull to remain faithful to the charism means that  we have had to shift our initial self-understanding from being apostles of the good press to being evangelizers in the world of communications media.

The whole long history of religious life in the Church is a story of communities of disciples responding in love to the needs of their time and place. Did Anthony of Egypt think he was doing something new when he decamped to the desert? Who knows! In a sense he was innovating, and yet in another sense he was searching for that completely self-outpouring response to the Gospel which he believed that the Church had lost in a post Edict of Milan Empire where asking for baptism was becoming politically expedient, and martyrdom was less and less likely. I think of the many attempts to found groups of religious women that were not bound by cloister. Was Jane Frances de Chantal attempting something new? Yes as far as the ecclesiastical authorities were concerned; no in terms of fidelity to the Church’s commitment to the works of mercy.

Love is faithful, and yet it is also completely unpredictable. Love is the foundation of all that is true and good, and at the same time deep love is profoundly unsettling.

Love communicates. In the face of new circumstances, love finds a way to keep on loving.

“Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” —1 John 2:7-8


[1] James Alberione, Abundantes Divitiae: Charismatic History of the Pauline Family, 45

Photo credits: MediaApostle.com and Daughters of St. Paul archives

the love that moves me to speak

Aaron Burden Bible Study Write

The driving force behind God’s giving human beings his ineffable gift of the Holy Scripture was love: Deus qui amas animas (cf. Wis 11:26). This same love must be the driving force behind the apostle’s writing: “It was love that moved me to speak.” Love of God makes God become the hub of one’s being…

Awash with this love, endowed with the right intention, strengthened by prayer, and steeped in Scripture, the apostle will be able to take up the editorial task confident that his or her writings, like the holy book, will succeed in being light, guide, and support for people; or, in other words, be for them, way, truth, and life.

—Bl James Alberione, The Publishing Apostolate, 166-167


Photo credit: Aaron Burden

no story is an island entirely unto itself

Samuel Zeller conversations

The process of interpreting and ‘narratizing’ personal experiences—’biographical work’—is artful, to be sure, but it is also constrained by the repertoire of stories available and sanctioned in one’s context of action. As the sociologist Margaret Somers notes, ‘all of us come to be who we are (however ephemeral, multiple, and changing) by being located or locating ourselves (usually unconsciously) in social narratives rarely of our own making’ (1994: 606; emphasis in original). Stories, even self-stories, are inherently social.

—Joseph E. Davis “Narrative and Social Movements: The Power of Stories” in Joseph E. Davis ed., Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements, (Albany, State University of New York Press: 2002) 20-21

Photo credit: Samuel Zeller

conversion—grace at work in the community


The Lord said to Ananias, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying. …Go for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”

—Acts 9:11,15

The Acts of the Apostles narrates the conversion of St. Paul three separate times (in chapters 9, 22, and 26), which means that it is more than just an interesting story. Saul’s conversion had a huge impact on the early church, and the writer of the Acts of the Apostles wanted everyone to hear this story several times so that the message would sink in. This conversion story still has a huge impact on us today. Among other things it tells us that reaching out beyond our comfort zone is what Christians are called to do. It highlights the primacy of God’s grace in our lives, and at the same it showcases the fact that grace works through the members of the community.

When Ananias worked up the nerve to follow God’s instructions to go to the house of Judas and ask for Saul of Tarsus, he reached out to someone who until a few hours before posed a real threat to Ananias and his fellow Christians. At the same time, this Jew born and raised in the Roman city of Tarsus, educated in Jerusalem, was a real catch for the Christian community. Because of his background and education, Saul was perfectly positioned to bridge the cultural divides present in the first century Mediterranean world. Without losing his Jewish identity, Saul became a Christian and took the name Paul. He answered the summons to preach Jesus Christ “before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” But all of that would not have happened if Ananias had not been in an attentive conversation with the Lord in prayer. Each conversation with God in prayer, and each conversation we have with others about God, is an opportunity for grace to build bridges between us.

Saul’s conversion came about because God intervened powerfully in his life. But it was not a simple matter between Jesus and Paul. God’s grace involved Ananias and the other disciples in Damascus; and then it involved Timothy, Titus, Priscilla and Aquila, and countless others. God’s grace sparks a conversation that spans generations until it reaches us. It is a conversation that changes hearts and lives.

Photo: Baptism of St. Paul, Capella Palatina, Palermo Italy (cropped)  © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro  / CC-BY-SA-4.0, via Wikimedia Commons