I am just back from the retreat that I preached at Westminster Abbey in Mission, BC, for the Secular Franciscans. News of the events in London reached us, even in the relative seclusion of a Benedictine monastery. The question was asked whether forgiveness can really be the answer when challenged by the atrocity of a terrorist attack. So this morning, I updated a section of the last conference, to address this topic. The overall topic of this final conference was “Being Sent into the World,” and here is an excerpt.
Our idealism is about human persons and their ability to know God. Our idealism is knowing that power must be constrained by wisdom and directed towards goodness. Our idealism is a profoundly religious attitude to life. It is an attitude that recognizes a debt that we have, to God the creator. It is an attitude that is fundamentally opposed to the secularism that believes that goodness can be had without learning what it was that had to be overcome by the cross of Christ. These powers of darkness are still with us, defeated by Christ, but still capable of misleading those who have yet to grasp what was shown to them in Christ.
We have to become subversives again, subversives who undermine the self-satisfied stability of a modern and highly economically developed culture that believes that they do not need God, do not need Christ, and do not need to consider any value other than the ones that they chose. We have to become dangerous again.
Now, I want to come back to a question that was asked last night. I did not really have the strength to really answer it at that time, but it is important to answer it. Clearly, the issue of our time is terrorism that takes it justification from religion—mostly Islam right now, but not only Islam. You will find examples in other religions, including our own. We say that this is misguided religion, as it is unreasonable.
I read a book by Ian McEwan last week that had as its plot line the legal case of an almost adult boy who needed a blood transfusion, as part of his leukemia treatment, but who refused on account of his religion: he was a Jehovah’s Witness. Since he was a minor, the judge overruled him and his parents so that a blood transfusion was given to him. The boy survived, and at first, he was happy that the judge had acted in this way. When he had seen his parents’ reactions, he had begun to realize that he had been misled by religion. What had changed his mind was his parents’ evident relief to have been overruled by the judge, as it meant that their son would live, in spite of their obedience to their faith. But this is not a story with a happy ending. The boy recognizes that he had now lost his sense of direction and meaning and purpose. The stability given to him by his religions upbringing was lost. He has nothing with which to replace it. A year later, when there is a relapse of his leukemia, he refuses further blood transfusions. As he is now an adult, his decision stands, and he dies.
You can see that this story is also about the power of religion, and the dangers of this power. But it is complicated. We need religion to affirm live as an irreducible value. But, it must be reasonable religion. Religious conviction must be grounded in reason, and faith and reason can never be in opposition to each other. The Gospel, including its call for radical forgiveness, must be understood as well as believed so that we can truly forgive, even after the most atrocious events.
I told you yesterday evening that it is not easy to see reality, and that some people get easily confused about what is reality and what is fantasy. I have only scratched on the surface of this question. But just as we say that God is love, we can also say that love is the most fundamental reality. In times of confusion, we can hold on to this. We cannot control the physical aspects of reality, but we can control whether we are open to love. And throughout the last three conferences, I emphasized that the emphasis on love is not just idealistic dreaming, but truly an understanding of reality, including what we have learned from the sciences. To bring this together, one does have to do a lot of philosophy. But this is what it takes, if we want to hold on to our faith, especially today.
The reality of our time is that we have many religions, and some of them must be opposed. Only reason can help us to make it through this time. But it is the kind of reason that knows that reality is not practical usefulness, but love. Reality is not made up of atoms and molecules, but of persons.
This is our Gospel reading for today’s mass:
“When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’”
This is the call to forgiveness that is the hallmark of the Holy Spirit. The most important consequence of recognizing God in all creatures and in all creation is to know that our response can only be forgiveness. Our debt is always before us: we owe our lives to the creator, as they originate in him, not in us. When we recognize this, it can only make us want to forgive all others. If we do not forgive, then we are like the slave who has his large debts forgiven, only to then try to demand repayment of the little debts owed to him by his fellow slaves. When we understand reality and our place in it, then we understand that we are truly sent to be instruments of God’s mercy. Whatever we do, it must be done in the spirit of communion and forgiveness.
All went well with the retreat, and in future posts I will share more about my presentations and how they were received by the Secular Franciscans. But first, it is time for a break, as it is time for me to go to Germany for my holidays. It has been two years since I was last there. I am leaving tomorrow. So, no new blog posts until late June! Unless, of course, the mood strikes me to post something in German. Happy Pentecost! Receive the Holy Spirit, and become an instrument of forgiveness and reconciliation in the world.