Tag Archives: Enlightenment

The World Trade Center

world trade

Tomorrow is the 20th  anniversary of the terrorist attach on the World Trade Center in New York City, September 11, 2001. Like many others I remember where I was then. I watched the towers fall from a rooftop in Union City, New Jersey, just across the river. Many from that area died that day and as the days went on their bodies were recovered and they were buried in nearby churches. A frightful time.

About a year later, I went to an exhibit about the attack called “Recovery,” at the New York Historical Society. The exhibition rooms were filled with debris from the tragedy: parts of smashed police cars and fire engines–I remember a little child’s doll, parts of one of the planes that crashed into the buildings. A black and white film of the disaster played silently in one section of the exhibit. Grim reminders of that awful day.

It was the exhibit’s opening day and media people were there. One of them came up to me with a notebook in hand. “What do you think of this?” he said. I had my clerical collar on so he knew who I was.

I told him I really couldn’t put into words what I thought. It was an overwhelming picture of evil.

He wrote what I had to say in his notebook and then put it in his pocket and said, “You know I don’t believe in evil.” That began a conversation that lasted for a hour or so.

I asked him first of all why he didn’t believe in evil, so evident here.

“Yes, this is bad,” he said, “ but we can change the way people behave. We can rinse out the evil in them by giving them a better world.” How? “Science and technology can change the world,” he said, “we can give people what they want and give them all they need.”  Later I found out that he was a writer specializing in science and technology

“Do you believe in God?” “No, I don’t,” he said. “In fact, it would be better to get rid of God altogether. And that goes for religion too. Get rid of it. The fanaticism of religion was responsible for this.”

At the end of our conversation, it seemed to me his hope about creating a better world through science and technology seemed naïve and unreal. Even if everyone in the world were given a new iPhone, his kind of thinking doesn’t seem to be the answer. Evil is hard to rinse out of our world.

In a post-modern world, optimism about science and the rationalism that came with the Enlightenment seems on the decline and nothing is taking its place. Post modernism is against everything from the past, including religion and religious truth.

I noticed among the news items that St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, destroyed in the World Trade disaster has been rebuilt in the World Trade complex. An icon of Christ within the church will be visible even in the dark. A good sign.

Resurrection Thinking

Some  years ago the Anglican Bishop N. T. Wright, a highly regarded New Testament scholar, addressed the Conference of Italian bishops on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. His theme was “Christ is risen from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.” 1 Corinthians.  His thoughts on the  resurrection are particularly interesting. The theme of the Italian bishops’ conference was “Jesus, our Contemporary.”

He begins with this challenging picture of the Risen Christ.

“ On the one hand, it is precisely because Jesus is risen from the dead that he is alive in a new, unique way; that he is able to be with us as a living presence, which we know in prayer and silence, in reading scripture and in the sacraments, and (not least) in the service of the poor.

“All those things he has promised us, and his promises do not fail. He is, in that sense, truly our contemporary. But at the same time, as our title indicates, in his resurrection Jesus stands over against us. He is different. He is the first fruits; we are the harvest that still awaits. He has gone on ahead while we wait behind.

“What is more, the meaning of his resurrection cannot be reduced to anything so comfortable as simple regarding him as ‘contemporary’ in the sense of a friend beside us, a smiling and comforting presence. Because he is raised from the dead, he is Lord of the world, sovereign over the whole cosmos, the one before whom we bow the knee, believing that in the end every creature will come to do so as well.

“It’s not enough that Jesus intervenes at the moment of our death. He is the Lord of creation.”

Wright says that our belief in Jesus as Lord of creation has been undermined by the thinking of the Enlightenment, which placed God (if God exists) beyond our world. We are the lords of creation, then. This life and all in it is in our hands to shape and control as we think best.

Our belief in the Risen Christ is influenced by this thinking, Wright believes. The only role we give to the Risen Lord is to save us from death and bring us to heaven. But he is Lord of Creation, present here and now. We must live in him today and continue his work, not in a heavy-handed way, but humbly as Jesus called for in his teaching on the beatitudes.

“This is how Jesus wants to run the world: by calling people to be peacemakers, gentle, lowly, hungry for justice. When God wants to change the world, he doesn’t send in the tanks; he sends in the meek, the pure in heart, those who weep for the world’s sorrows and ache for its wrongs. And by the time the power-brokers notice what’s going on, Jesus’ followers have set up schools and hospitals, they have fed the hungry and cared for the orphans and the widows. That’s what the early church was known for, and it’s why they turned the world upside down. In the early centuries the main thing that emperors knew about bishops was that they were always taking the side of the poor. Wouldn’t it be good if it were the same today.”

Trinity Sunday




A story’s told that St. Augustine, the great philosopher and intellectual, was walking along the seashore one day when he saw a little boy playing in the sand, taking water from the sea in a small bucket and pouring it into a hole he had dug. Back the forth the boy went.

“What are you doing?” Augustine asked, “Do you think you can put the whole sea into that little hole?”

“No,” the little boy answered, “And neither can you put God into that small mind of yours no matter how smart you think you are.”

The story reminds us that our minds are limited before the mystery of God, even the smartest, most brilliant mind. God is beyond us. The Feast of the Holy Trinity is, first of all, a reminder of our limits before the mystery of God.

And yet, this feast also says that God invites us to know him, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As Father, God is the creator of heaven and earth. All creation ultimately comes from God’s hand. Creation itself is God’s gift;  through the created world we come to know God.

God has also invited us to known him in Jesus Christ, who was born of Mary over two thousand years ago, who walked this earth and died on a cross, who rose from the dead and remains with us.  We have his words, his actions, his promises. He’s our Savior and Redeemer, a sign of God’s love;  he’s promised us life eternal..

The Holy Spirit also is God with us, within us, guiding us and our world to our common destiny.

Yet, though God reveals himself, we’re still like the little boy on the seashore. We’re looking at an unmeasured sea that we approach with the little buckets of our minds. We can’t grasp it all. Even the most accessible person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, remains a mystery to us.

Remember the story of the conversion of Paul the Apostle. Saui, the unbeliever, was on his way to the City of Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus, when suddenly a blinding light throws him from his horse. “Who are you, Lord?” Paul cries out. “I am Jesus whom you persecute, “ the voice from the blinding light says.

Jesus Christ is like the blinding light of the sun. Yes, he is human like us, but he shares in the nature of God, who is brighter than sunlight. He blinds us when we try to see him. God dwells in light inaccessible, the scriptures say, and so even though we know much about Jesus, even though the scriptures and great saints and scholars describe him, he’s still beyond anything we can know.

Like the sun, Jesus is a blinding light, and yet, paradoxically, his light shines into the darkness of creation to give life and light.  St. John says: “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.” (John 1,18)

As people of faith we’re not like those who say you can’t know God at all or like those who say God doesn’t exist because my mind cannot grasp him. Yes, we have to admit that we are children of the Enlightenment, that movement in our western world that says there’s no need to pay much attention to God. Pay attention to the world at hand. Pay attention to yourself. That’s what’s important.

As people of faith we know God is important. God reveals himself to us little by little. God is the most important reality we can know and love.

The Feast of the Holy Trinity is a reminder of God’s invitation to know him, to serve him in this life, to pray to him and to be with him one day where we will know him much more. It’s an invitation God extends every day, all our lives. Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Successful and Unsuccessful Saints

In yesterday’s post I offered a summary of Bishop N.T. Wright’s talk to the Italian Catholic Bishops in which he stated that our understanding of the resurrection of Jesus is influenced today by the thinking of the Enlightenment, which placed God (if God exists) beyond our world. We are the lords of creation, according to that thinking. This life and all in it is in our hands to shape and control as we think best.

Yet, the Risen Christ is Lord of creation, still present in our world, fashioning it to become God’s new creation. He has not just come and now is gone, with us only at our death to take his own into heaven. Nor is he just lord of the perfect. Every knee bows before him.

I wonder if the thinking of the Enlightenment has also influenced our thinking about the saints. We like “successful saints” who seem to leave their mark in society by what they accomplish: building schools, hospitals, blazing new trails on the world scene. We like saints who do something big.

What about saints like Saint Gemma, Saint Pio–who seem to be sidelined most their lives without obvious human accomplishments­– aren’t they witnesses to the power of the Risen Christ to reach into humble life and be present there?

I heard recently that Saint Pio is probably the most popular saint in the church right now. Interesting. Books about St. Gemma are the most popular books we distribute at Passionist Press. Interesting.

Is holiness only for the perfect, the bright, the accomplished? Or does the Risen Christ reveal himself to the humble, sometimes giving them the treasures of his wounds? Maybe the voice of the faithful is telling us something.

Religion Isn’t the Problem

Charles Taylor in the recent issue of Commonweal Magazine (February 25, 2011) wrote an article called “Religion is Not the Problem: Secularism and Democracy.” He’s the author of a previous, highly-praised book called “A Secular Age” which examines the process of secularization at the heart of so many of the disputes today between religion, the churches and society.

Taylor addresses the judgment of some today who hold religion responsible for many of the problems of our times, and so society is better off without it and the churches that profess it. Religion should have no voice in public affairs; it’s a private matter that shouldn’t enter any public debates. This view is found particularly in the western world.

Those against giving religion a public voice in the world argue that when you see a transcendent world linked to this world–which is what religion does– you see reality through a distorting lens of superstition. You can’t build society on insights that come from religion; it can only be built on what human reason and experience knows, they say.

The denial of a role for religion in society and its displacement by human reason is a modern development, Taylor writes. The view didn’t exist in societies of the past; it’s a creation of the western world and develops from the time of the Reformation.

A crucial step occurred in the 18th century with the rise of Deism, a philosophy that saw human reason as the dynamo behind human progress. The Deists acknowledged God as the Great Architect, but human beings are the builders who take up the task. For them, religion has a place, but it’s like a cop on the beat. Religion keeps things in order with its code of ethics.  For Deism, “some religion, or at least some piety, is a necessary condition of good order.”

I think of the 18th century Anglican Chapel of St. Paul in downtown New York, still standing among the great skyscrapers, where George Washington and the city’s leading figures worshipped. Before the recent renovations in the church (a mistake, in my mind) the focus in the old church sanctuary was a list of the Ten Commandments spelled out large over a modest table. That corresponded to what, in the eyes of the Deists, was the church’s function– to produce honest, law-abiding citizens.

On the brink of converting to Catholicism in the early 19th century, Elizabeth Seton, now a Catholic saint, sat in that church and thought of the Catholic Church of St. Peter,  a short distance away, where Jesus Christ was honored in the Blessed Sacrament and scenes of his saving life and death were prominently  displayed in its decoration.  She wanted a religion that was more than an ethical code.

I think also of St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists and a saint of the 18th century, who had a vivid sense of a world beyond this one, which could be known through prayer. He preached that life here on earth was a preparation for a future life, won by us through Jesus Christ, who died and rose again.

Taylor describes the process of secularization nourished by the Enlightenment reaching a radical stage with the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century when reason was exalted as the only tool of human progress and religion was banished from society.

The denial of a role for religion in modern western society, particularly in the modern state, creates a severe problem today. For one thing, it sees no place for any Moslem society, with its laws and customs based on a religious faith.

Can a society exist that is not simply secular? This is an important issue today.

Taylor argues for this possibility. It would involve a separation of church and state, “meaning that the state can’t be officially linked to a religious confession except in a vestigial and largely symbolic sense, as in England and Scandanavia.” It would also require

  1. No one must be forced in the domain of religion, or basic belief. This is what is often defined as religious liberty–or the ‘free exercise’ of religion…
  2. There must be equality between people of different faiths or basic beliefs; no religious (or areligious) Weltanschuung can enjoy a privileged status, let along be adopted as the official state view.
  3. All spiritual families must be heard and included in the ongoing process of determining what the society is about and how to realize these goals. And I believe that we might add a fourth requirement: that of maintaining harmony and comity among the supporters of different religions and views. “

Taylor offers a way into the future, I think. In a global society, the state must respond to an increasing diversity in an even-handed way, protecting people with their differences, treating them equally and giving everybody a hearing. He does not conceive of secularism as an evil, but as a challenge brought about by new times. He calls for “a revisionary understanding of secularism.”

“In order to merit the name ‘secularist,’ regimes in contemporary societies must be conceived, not primarily as bulwarks against religion, but as good faith attempts to secure a few basic goals. They must protect people in what religion or outlook they choose. They must treat people equally. And they must give all people a hearing. As our modern democracies attempt to shape their institutional arrangements to a remarkable diversity of beliefs, we must not be afraid to adjust our hallowed democratic traditions in pursuit of liberty and equality for all.”


A Lenten Journey with Jesus Christ and St. Paul of the Cross

I’ve been working on this book for two years now and it’s finally finished, in time for Lent. Christus Publishing from Wellesley, MA, a new publishing firm, asked me to write the book and I see they have it on their internet site today for sale. We’ll put it on Crossplace.com  ,our Passionist site for selling books and media, as soon as we can.

It gave me an opportunity to look again at St. Paul of the Cross, the founder of the Passionists, his spirituality and the community he founded. He was a great teacher of prayer, a gift we need today more than ever. He saw prayer as a gift given to everyone, and his letters to all kinds of people witness that conviction.

I appreciated the opportunity to write a short biography of the saint; I don’t think I copied others exactly. He lived in an interesting time, when the Enlightenment was pushing ahead in Europe, changing the worldview of the church and society. We’re still feeling its affects.

I read most of his letters while writing the book and was impressed by their earthiness. He was an earthy mystic who took people as they were and didn’t mind their darkness. I revised many of the present English translations of his writings for the book, perhaps for the better.

A recent exhibit at the Morgan Library in New York City featured the letters of Jane Austen. Letter-writing was the rage from the 18th century on and Paul of the Cross used this “new” communication to reach others. He would be using the new media today, I think.

I liked writing reflections for all the Lenten gospels for the book; the readings for Lent are indeed a treasure to be explored. Our catechesis and spirituality are becoming more biblically and liturgically based, and we need to see how a spirituality like that of  Paul of the Cross fits in to this new trend.

“From their place in heaven they guide us still.”



You can’t miss seeing relics in Rome.

Devotion to relics is waning in the church today as far as I can judge. In the western world, influenced as we are by scientific thinking,  we find them puzzling. Rome, the center of the Roman Catholic Church, is filled with them.

Most of the churches we are going to, like St. Peter’s and St.Paul Outside the Walls, were built to house them. So why are bones of saints and relics of the mysteries of the life of Jesus, like relics of the cross in St. Peter’s Basilica and Holy Cross in Jerusalem, the holy stairs at the Scala Sancta, St. Peter’s chains in the church of St. Peter in Chains, the crib from Bethlehem at St. Mary Major, there in the first place?.

The cult of relics flourished when people believed in an “enchanted world,” to use a phrase from Charles Taylor, where heaven and earth were close together and God was seen as actively engaged in nature and history.

Our western world believed in an enchanted world until the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century, when scientific thinking began to emerge. From then on, religion came under the microscope of science and reason more and more.

You can see an enchanted world in the psalms. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” (Ps.18) God is “maker of heaven and earth, the seas and all that is in them.” (Ps.146) God is savior as well as creator: “The Lord sets prisoners free; the Lord gives sight to the blind…The Lord protects the stranger, sustains the widow and orphan,  but thwarts the way of the wicked.” (Ps. 146) He “dwells in a holy temple” and they are happy who find him there. (Psalm 84) He “takes delight in his people.” (Ps.149)

God is close to creation and is its loving savior, these prayers say.  God is not distant, as many followers of the Enlightenment came to believe, or unknown as many might say today. According to Christian belief, God is present in our world, as Jews believe, but he reveals himself now in Jesus Christ, his Son.

The sacraments of the Church–Baptism, Confirmation, the Holy Eucharist, etc..– are special signs of God’s abiding presence in our world. They’re signs of Christ who remains with us from birth till death, and leads us to a kingdom that will come.

Relics are part of the sacramental dispensation. Relics of the saints, like those of Peter and Paul,  are reminders that God works in people on earth. Now they see him face to face, yet “from their place in heaven they guide us still.” They are part of a communion of saints; even now drawing us into God’s loving friendship.

Similarly, relics of mysteries like his cross and his birth are sensible reminders that the great mysteries of Christ abide with us too.

One danger of an “enchanted world,” a world where God is close, is that people misuse its powers for their own selfish purposes and not as aids to salvation. The abuse of relics became particularly acute in the 15th century when they were bought and sold and used superstitiously. A slide to magical thinking began.

At the time, voices within the church condemned the abuse of relics, but church authority didn’t move quickly enough to stamp out the abuse–partially because they benefited economically from it themselves.

A major attack came from Martin Luther and other Protestant reformers, who not only condemned the abuse of relics for endangering  faith, but also called for their elimination altogether.

In its own movement of reform, the Catholic Church upheld the practice of honoring the relics, but laid down laws governing their use. They are not magical objects that give us power over things, but holy signs calling for conversion and humble recognition of an all-powerful God.

A second attack on relics followed the scientific revolution that began in the 17th century. Rationalist scholars, focusing on the Christian faith, questioned the historicity of  Jesus himself and the gospels. Since relics were part of church belief and practice, they also came under scientific scrutiny. If they didn’t pass the test of science, they were rejected.

Because of religious and scientific questions about relics, some avoid them and turn to art and architecture instead. But don’t miss the relics. They’re important; you can’t understand the churches without them.