A recent comment I read from Mark Patrick Hederman, current Abbot of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick Ireland said: I never go anywhere unless I receive three signs that I should do so! He was commenting on how things have a habit of striking us and all of a sudden the same idea, thought, person, or event can come at us from a number of sources almost simultaneously. This might be regarded as chance, as Providence, as the energy of the universe coming together in a creative way, as some other interpretation, but it seems to come from ‘beyond’ in an unexpected way.
It was in this context that the name John Feehan surfaced late last year for me. With a Presentation Sister and a Presentation Brother, I was part of a group of three to organise a week together for our Leadership Teams in the following September – in fact, just last week now. One of us had been speaking to some of our fellow religious who had had some sabbatical time at An Tairseach, the Ecology Centre run by the Dominican Sisters in Wicklow Ireland. They had spoken very positively of John’s presentation to them. A second of our team of three had heard John’s name from another source in terms of a course he had run recently. We also heard that he was going to publish a further book in January of this year, now entitled The Singing Heart of the World. So, we decided, after consulting with our teams, that it was no coincidence that his name was surfacing!
John is a scientist, a geologist, and a biologist in particular. At the end of this coming academic year, he will retire from University College Dublin as Senior Lecturer in the School of Agriculture, Food Science and Veterinary Medicine. Having spent some earlier time as a student with the Salesian formation program, lived in Africa, raised his own family, published numerous articles on science and philosophy, and been a observer/participant in Irish and Church and world life, John had quite a unique background to bring towards expanding our consciousness as leaders. He graciously agreed to spend a day with us.
There was no doubting John’s passion for his subject – Creation as Revelation. A few days afterwards, what is staying with me is his challenge to us to be people of contemplation and wonder. Unless one is able to let the wonder of the mystery of all creation, and one’s oneness (in reality) with all, then it is still only a head-trip, and our world will not be changed from its all-pervading consumerist ideology pedaled by a developed world, desired by the less developed world, and totally unsustainable in terms of population and resources. People are needed whose hearts are touched to live and be in new ways. The only way to come to that level of consciousness is to be contemplative people, touched with the extraordinary grandeur of the mystery of creation, as revealing a God both deeply within and beyond that creation, and to allow that Mystery to change us. It is undoubtedly our deepest call to conversion today.
The kinds of changes that are needed in our human lifestyle will not be made by rational arguments. There are already sufficient of those, and they are able to be deflected by the powers of self-interest in business and politics, and also in the lethargy of each of us. It is only through a massive ground-swell of people who know that the present is killing the future that such change will begin to occur. It is happening, but the forces of resistance are strong. Perhaps a key role for religious is to be and encourage the kind of contemplative people who are able to be outspoken in areas concerning the future of our planet.
As I write this now, there is nothing new here, and yet everything is new! What is it that moves one from being somewhat complacent to taking more than cosmetic action. Is it a John Feehan? Is it someone else who has touched our psyche, and we know that truth has been spoken directly to our hearts? Is it in fact the person of Jesus whose message of the gospel takes new root in us for the specific needs of these times?
As I have been grappling with these questions in recent days, I also have had the chance to look at a powerpoint presentation kindly sent to me by Mark O’Loughlin in Melbourne Australia. Mark gave the presentation some weeks ago to a group of people and entitled it Attempting to Understand a Spirituality of Transcendent Sacredness of All Being. Having experienced Mark’s passion and rich insights on other occasions, I was struck forcibly by what he was saying and its connection with what John Feehan had said. Seeing all of reality as having being – not only humans, but all other forms of existence, such as creation, art forms, light, memory, … – has a powerful impact on how one looks at reality. If we are all beings, and are in one communion of beings with all else, then so much of how we live must be seen in new ways.
Mark invited his audience to be in touch with ‘transcendent’ experiences which take us out of the ordinary into another realm of consciousness, and which often become guiding lights for how we wish to live. Experiences of beauty, of nature, of wonder which lead us deeper into mystery become moments of grace to take us beyond the immediate. Touching into the transcendent is touching into the Sacred. Mark finished his presentation with some reflections on Mary, in particular seeing the Mary presence today as the Transcendent Feminine, a part of the transforming and creative divinity always giving birth to the sacred. My few comments are clearly an inadequate and superficial overview to the depth of Mark’s presentation, which reinforced for me a way of looking at being that is becoming the only sustainable way in terms of living into the future.
I am very grateful to both John and Mark for their insightful thoughts. I am beginning to find that the groundswell I notice in myself, almost the awakening from being a sleepwalker in seeing the truth of reality, is happening to others as well. There is some bigger plan at work, and we are all part of it. It is the progressive journey into new consciousness. Experiences of transcendence are often key moments on this journey.
John and Mark keep bringing me back to these words in the poem Oceans by Juan Ramon Jiminez:
I have a feeling that my boat has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
And nothing happens!
--Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
Christian Brother Peter Dowling
It is two years since the Congregation Chapter in Munnar. Where have my thinking, my imagination, my dreams, my hopes, my fears gone since then? Have I taken a single step, travelled many miles, or even gone backwards? Loreena McKennitt’s song Never-Ending Road reminds us that we’re always making the path. Even when we’re not sure where it is going (most of the time!), there is an attitude to be lived that we are always engaged with the Mystery whom we call God.
My strongest image from the Chapter is that of ‘flying free’. I hear a call to living freely much more strongly than before. It is not a freedom from responsibility, but freedom to embrace a deeper humanity and a release of the fears that bind me. I used to think of lack of freedom in terms of personal weakness – the expectations that I put on myself that were unhealthy, the patterns of living coming more from addictive tendencies, the approach to morality I adopted that was more self-focused than attentive to global implications. My awareness is that these areas are still relevant, but less significant than I once regarded them, as a bigger picture opens up.
I realized after the Chapter that I needed to read much more and engage in conversation with people around the Universe Story, about which I had rather limited knowledge. What I have read, thought and talked about with others all reinforce the reality that the human being is the cosmos come to conscious awareness, and realising that we are related to all other elements in the community of the universe. This is a much wider understanding than I have had before, and it opens me up to questioning so much of what I took for granted. Taking seriously the learnings of science which result in new understandings of cosmology helps me to be in touch with what is being referred to as ‘emerging spirituality’. Of particular interest to me, as a professed/consecrated follower of Jesus, is how his story is part of the bigger picture of the Universe Story. I am finding this a great impetus to read some of the latest thinking on Jesus in scripture, and have found Marcus Borg’s book Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary an excellent one in this regard. It is helping me to see Jesus afresh. Cynthia Bourgeault’s The Wisdom Jesus is another book that has helped me.
I’m finding that to focus on the divinity of Jesus is a distraction that is less helpful in living as disciple today. That is not to deny his divinity, but to see it as less relevant for the present time. My emerging awareness is that a focus on Jesus’ divinity so easily takes him into another realm, and away from my learning how he himself as a human person experienced and grew in relationship with God. I’m called to learn to relate to God as he did, to be a son of God myself. Seeing what this means in a time of much expanded knowledge of the universe is both challenging and exciting, and goes beyond what I have taken in the past as my traditional understanding of the Catholic faith. ‘Catholic’, if it is to mean anything to me now, has to be expansive, embracing, universal, finding ‘truth’ in many places which once I might have considered suspect. How broad or narrow are the boundaries in which I choose to live? How free am I?
I’m finding a resistance in me to what I see as restricting, as wanting to consider a smaller vision. Jesus’ vision was expansive, and his God was able to embrace all people and situations, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ without exclusion. I worry that at the present time the hierarchical leadership of the Catholic Church seems to have its own survival at centre stage rather than reaching out beyond. It really has no grasp of the freedom which our Chapter calls us to, if one looks at so much of what is currently emanating from the Vatican. I believe even more strongly in the importance of the Church as ‘People of God’ which was a central platform of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, and which has never really been implemented in practice. In fact, the effort to move back to clerical control, and particularly Roman control rather than collegial action of Bishops, seems to be dominant.
So I find myself now asking: how does change take place in our world and our Church? It can only come about by people living differently, and that implies a risk as it will not easily be accepted by those in power at present. I can’t see any other option than to keep engaging in new conversations with people from many different backgrounds in the awareness that the search for God is wide. I saw recently a book entitled Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. The title is catchy, maybe offensive to some, yet it reminds me that I can only reclaim and own my Christian tradition more deeply if I realize and accept the truth in other faiths and journeys beyond the Christian and maybe even beyond any professed religion or faith. The reform of the Church that I want to commit to is not back to pre-Vatican II, but to a fuller implementation of the freedom that the Council called us to, and which embraces a global and universal vision. Unless conversations, decisions and actions around this bigger vision are part of the Catholic life, then Catholicism will be seen as irrelevant, which is how an increasing number are seeing it.
There has been massive criticism of the Church, even escalating in recent times to take in the Pope’s personal role, for its handling of sexual abuse. The media has a strong agenda and many wish to attack anything religious. Perhaps we are seeing two worlds collide. One world is the remnants of the Holy Roman Empire with its laws emanating from the Canons of the Church. The other world is the one of nation states that has a set of common or civil laws to govern themselves. One sees a “cover up’ when the other sees a care for both victims and abusers. Whatever the accuracy or not of this idea, more and more people are finding that there seems to be an unwillingness on the part of the Vatican to look at issues that may be related to the ‘Roman’ culture so entrenched in many parts of the Catholic world. Some of the key issues are not readily open for discussion and for new ways of thinking. Questions around use of power and decision-making in the Church, approaches to sexuality, role of women, institutional structures, lay people taking their authority, bishops acting collegially – these are the ones which need addressing.
A constant message that the CLT is hearing as we move in different parts of the developed world in particular is that many people are not finding a spirituality which speaks to them in their parishes. Yet, when there is an opportunity, they thrill to share their stories and their own experience of God – a God they recognise as beyond the boundaries in which they have grown up or often allowed their thinking to be bound. They experience a renewed sense of freedom and community. As a Brother, I want to encourage that new model of Church where there is freedom to share the God of our experience and to find new ways of celebrating this faith in liturgy and action for justice. The God whom I experience, and who speaks to me in the Munnar Chapter document, is clearly bringing new life to people as they touch with wonder into the new story of the cosmos and experience that God in their living.
The last two years have reinforced for me the obvious reality that Religious Life is changing, and is dying, and even dead, in some of its forms. Radical discipleship of Jesus is to be lived in new ways. If we are to be followers of Jesus as we engage with the new cosmology, discipleship seems to require of us a challenging of ‘domination systems’ (as Marcus Borg calls them), wherever they are found. Sandra Schneiders’ article published in NCR in January entitled Religious Life as Prophetic Life Form says eloquently what we are called to today. I’m wary of religious calling themselves ‘prophetic’. If they live a radical faithfulness to the gospel in these times, they will be prophetic, but it is up to others to give their actions that name. Love of the Church as People of God enables us all to call our priests and bishops our brothers too, engaged in the human search for God as part of all of life, and not separate and aloof, as many currently are. Actions based on deep contemplation of the gospel and the emerging spirituality coming from a new cosmology will, I believe, be prophetic as they touch into the divine invitation to creative growth in freedom.
For me, the constant challenge is to keep speaking the truth as I am seeing it now. It will not be the ‘full’ truth, but unless I am speaking what I see as ‘my truth’, I will not be making a contribution to changing those structures in our world and Church which desperately need changing. When enough people are doing things differently, then new things are possible. The Berlin Wall collapses, the Soviet Union breaks up, and the Church can be renewed too. All of a sudden, the ‘different’ becomes the reality!
I like the words of Juan Ramon Jiminez in his poem Oceans
I have a feeling that my boat
has struck, down there in the depths,
against a great thing.
And nothing happens!
--Nothing happens? Or has everything happened,
and are we standing now, quietly, in the new life?
Peter Dowling cfc
Remain in my Love
Here is the text of Francis Hall’s homily on the occasion of the Final Profession of three Indian Brothers - Jayanti Chauhan, Ryan Fernandes, and Roshan D’Cunha – on 28 December 2009.
The readings were: Is 43:1-7; 1 Jn 4:7-19; Jn 15:4-5 & 7-17.
I would like you to think for a moment: Why are you here today? I am here because I was invited by you, the Brothers in India, and I feel most privileged to come and join you on this most special of days. I want to support Jayanti, Ryan, and Roshan as a brother and bring brotherly greetings from Victor, Jack, and Philip…but I also want to join the community of faith which you are all part of, the community of faith within which Jayanti, Ryan, & Roshan have grown during these years.
“Remain in my love” – what an amazing theme for our gathering today! We find those words in John’s gospel, said by Jesus to his disciples. We can see these words as a Master speaking with his disciples some time before that Master is to die for living out these same words, “Remain in my love”. What is so shocking about these words that they led to Jesus’ death?
The words of Vatican II give us a clue: “The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted, … are the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the followers of Christ” (Gaudium et Spes).
Who is Jesus speaking to when he said “Remain in my love”? Just his disciples, just Catholics, just Christians, just believers …?
In here somewhere is a deeper reason for us to be here today ….our presence here today only makes sense if it is part of our choosing again to be part of this community of faith. This community sees Jesus’ words “Remain in my love” extending out way beyond ourselves to “the people of this age” whoever they are. Such boundary–breaking is seen as a threat by some in political, religious, and social circles who want to keep things the way they are …
In my work for the Congregation I am privileged to visit Brothers in many places. I remember staying for some weeks in a town called Blama in Sierra Leone in West Africa. Mr Bellay was a teacher in the Catholic secondary school where some Brothers taught. Like many teachers in Catholic schools there, he is a Muslim. I asked him if I could join him at prayer in the mosque. He said he would find out. A few days later he said “Yes, it’s fine for you to come on Friday for afternoon prayer”. When I told the other Brothers and some members of the parish that I was going, they seemed a bit anxious … what will you wear? how will you know when to bow down? I wasn’t too worried about these things as I knew my friend Mr Bellay would tell me all I needed to know. So we turned up at 1.30 pm and were ushered into the front row of the small mosque. I sensed a lot of male eyes on me but we got on with the business of praying – and I duly followed Mr Bellay next to me. I seemed to do okay. I found it very prayerful though very hot and sweaty too. At the end I was introduced to the Imam and formally welcomed. I told them that our church leaders sent greetings for Ramadan and urged faith traditions to work together for the needs of our world. They were very happy with this and promised to pray for my family. That evening, the Brothers and people of the parish seemed amazed that I had survived an hour in the mosque!
Obviously, what the Spirit has in mind for our world is bigger than the Catholic Church, just as Jesus learned from his Father that his mission went beyond the Jews. Somehow we Brothers are being called at this time to go beyond our own Catholic world. How do we live out such a demanding call?
Today’s reading from Isaiah tells us that it starts with our being called individually:
“Thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jayanti”
“He who formed you, O Ryan”
“I have redeemed you, O Roshan”
the reading continues … “I have called you each by name”.
So the call from God to each of you three men – and to all of us – is by name. For me that means: in that particular way which is you – in a way that no-one else is called. It means making your unique contribution to God’s kingdom, to the transforming work of God’s Spirit in this world. But we rarely take our unique calling or vocation seriously enough so the next part of the readings gives us a reminder … God has been with us through all our trials … when we felt overwhelmed by waters or fire – by life - we were not brought through for nothing! To make this real for ourselves, I invite you to reflect for a few moments on which real trials God has brought you through.
Our Jewish forebearers in faith constantly retell the stories of the way God brought them through the trials of life. As they do this they realize that these trials make them who they are. So Jayanti, Ryan, and Roshan, you might reflect on your trials during your years so far and see them as testing you, forming you into who you are today as you pronounce your vows as a Christian Brother.
So the call to “Remain in my love” is demanding and begins with our personal call from God … but how can it be sustained and really become part of us?
As we look at our gospel today, it is helpful to remind ourselves that the writer John wrote from his experience of the Risen Jesus at the time of writing, - not just from his memories of Jesus. So when he quotes Jesus’ words, “Abide in me as I abide in you”, he is speaking from his current experience of the Risen Jesus living in him. And when he quotes Jesus’ words, “apart from me you can do nothing”, he must have been speaking from his own experience of operating apart from Jesus at times and seeing the results: nothing of worth happens.
I operate that way sometimes – doing a lot for people, maybe all very good in itself, rushing around the world … busy. But I sense that the Risen Jesus’ call to “Abide in me” is calling for a deeper response from me. What does that deeper response look like?
The Congregation Chapter held last year in Munnar experienced words from the same Risen Jesus that John knew: “Open wide your shutters and allow me to inflame you. Dare to enter my Mystery and become hope for the world”.
So it is something about allowing Jesus into our lives in a conscious way … yes, it’s about reading the gospel, about prayer with Jesus in community & alone, and seeing Christ in those we meet - but I think it’s most about an openness with Jesus about absolutely everything in our lives including… our little habits of unfaithfulness, which we don’t like to admit to ourselves, never mind to Jesus!
Jesus experiences such sharing of everything with his Father, so he wants the same for his disciples. He talks about them as being his friends. Why does he use this word ‘friends’? Because friends are those with whom we can share everything. Our challenge is to share ourselves at that level with Jesus.
What helps me is that Jesus reminds his disciples that he chose them – not the other way round. My limited understanding of the new cosmology which is arising from science and spirituality all over the world today, tells me that each part of creation, however apparently humble, has a unique role in the universe. So yes, we are chosen by God for our vocation in life, but in another sense we are chose by the universe to fulfill some vital function within this universe. Staying in tune with this calling from the universe gives us a deep meaning to our lives. This may be what Jesus meant when he said “I have kept my Father’s commandments”. The commandment of the God of the universe is: stay in communion with me and with everyone.
Returning to the Brothers’ Chapter: it quotes the Risen Jesus again: “Dare be my disciples. In you I am doing something new!” I would like to challenge our three men of this day to an act of deep trust that the last part is true of them: “I am doing something new!” That whatever you have done in your life so far, now the Risen Jesus is doing something new in you. That means not only ‘something that you have not done before’ but also ‘something that no-one else has done or is doing’. You will be doing something completely new for the human community and for the Universe. You three men are taking up the challenge of the Risen Jesus whom you have experienced in your life so far. Nothing is by chance in this divine universe we are all part of – so your presence among your Brothers, in our Church, and in the human community of India is for a purpose. So I want to finish by returning to Isaiah …
God’s promise to his chosen is described as a massive gathering of peoples from the four corners of the earth … east, west, north, and south.
You three men are being summoned to join this ‘great work’ of gathering the peoples of this earth. How? I suggest not only by being open to new places - whether they be Gujarat, West Bengal, the North East, or beyond India - but also by opening yourselves to a new way of being … a new way of being brother wherever you are. So it is no longer a question of just teaching to get good results for our pupils and the school, but the depth of our relating with those pupils, their families, and the wider community they are part of – are we able to listen to the stories underneath? Of injustices, of broken situations? Are we helping to challenge those injustices, helping to reconcile what is broken, and see beyond the day-to-day to a bigger picture? This is the “fruit that will last” that Jesus speaks of in our gospel today. This is worth giving your life to, as Jesus did.
And for us Brothers, it is no longer a question of just living in a house with some other Brothers and saying prayers together, but of choosing to listen to the stories underneath each Brother – sharing what we can of ourselves, gently, day by day. We could pray Tagore’s prayer for ourselves, for a fellow Brother in community, a member of our family …
“When the heart is hard and parched up, come upon me with a shower of mercy.
When grace is lost from life, come with a burst of song.
When tumultuous work raises its din on all sides, shutting me out from beyond, come to me with thy peace and rest.
When my beggarly heart sits crouched, shut up in a corner, break open the door, and come …
When desire blinds the mind with delusion and dust, come with thy light …”
The poor people of our world, the damaged parts of our universe, and our fragile Brothers communities need men like you - Jayanti, Ryan, and Roshan. We are truly blessed to have you choose to live among us. We promise you our support this day and every day. Remain in our love.
Francis Hall cfc
published January 2010
Passing through narrow lanes, vendors selling everything
Sights, sounds, smells all impinge on heightened senses
People, especially women, bearing heavy burdens, not only physical
Will sales feed a family for another day?
Walking with my brother is a rare gift of pilgrimage
A journey deep into human dignity
Where the stories of lives are told sincerely
And the struggles of each day are borne with hard-won grace.
Seeing light in the eyes of Romolo as he gives all
His attention to maths problems amid selling of papaya
Thirst for education drawing him into new possibility.
The women selling fish who share warmth and laughter
And don’t know where Australia is!
The young lad who won’t accept money for bananas
Because his sister is being helped with her schoolwork.
Women concerned about children, caring for grandchildren
As they go about the business of their stalls
Long hours, yet a great faithfulness to family
Even when there are many health and other problems.
The young boys too who come to the Manolo Centre
To find welcome, help and a spark of fresh hope.
I laugh with delight at the little kindergarten boy
Who shows me very seriously how I should wash my hands
And the young girl explaining hygiene in using the toilet
And the Principal justly proud of her teachers and kids.
Easy to be a superficial voyeur into such lives
To see and then move on, ultimately unaffected,
Yet the bread of life celebrated in eucharist is real body here
And it’s easy to see blood poured out.
I stand in reverence before Mystery – of people,
often thought of little impact in the eyes of the world
Yet whose dignity is stark before me.
I feel humbled by the gift of relationship with all
And by brotherhood finding expression in presence
May all my brothers, younger and older, continue to be
Richly blessing and blessed
Peter Dowling cfc
Bolivia, October 2009