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The Scandal (Part 2)

(In Part 1 of this series on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, I laid a foundation to promote understanding of the phenomena of sexual abuse and why it is often covered up, both inside and outside of the Church. Much of this information was drawn from my background as a psychologist. Here, in Part 2, I plunge more deeply into the faith aspects that have led me to remain a Catholic Christian despite the scandal.)

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“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)

As I have been contemplating how to explain my remaining in the Catholic Church, these are the words that keep appearing and reappearing in my mind.

I think this means that this is where I am supposed to begin.

These words, of course, were uttered by Simon Peter when Jesus saw that many of His followers were leaving Him because they could not accept His teachings.

The circumstances of Peter’s proclamation are very different from my own. Jesus had just delivered what we now refer to as “The Bread of Life discourse”.

Those of us who are at all familiar with the New Testament know this discourse well – so well, in fact, that we can easily forget how very scandalous it was.

Yes, scandalous. There, in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus told His followers that, in order to have eternal life with Him, they must eat Him, flesh and blood. The Gospel tells us that the word He used for “eat” meant quite literally to “gnaw” or “munch on”.

It is not surprising that a good many people were shocked and decided that this was just a bit too much. It might have flown had He presented it as something symbolic, e.g. “I will give you living bread, even better the manna your fathers ate in the desert, because you will know that I am with you when you eat it.”

The only problem is that He didn’t say this. What He said sounded very much like cannibalism. It was, indeed, scandalous and many of His disciples left Him as a result.

But Peter stayed. Even though it must have sounded just as odd to his ears, he had come to believe that Jesus was the Anointed One of God, the Messiah. To whom else could he go?

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I realize that this Scriptural reflection may seem like a digression from the topic at hand.

The scandal I am dealing with today is about the sexual abuse of children and the cover up by clerics, not merely a difficult teaching given by Jesus.

But if I stop and consider this a bit more, it becomes apparent to me that this is about a difficult teaching of our Savior and whether I will continue to follow Him despite the seeming impossibility of what He asks of me.

May God guide me and grant me the words to explain.

The Catholic Church, as a human ecclesiastical institution, is made up of many, many sinners. In fact, every member of the Church is a sinner, including me. Undoubtedly, some of us are grievous sinners.

The message of the Gospel is for sinners, telling us that we are welcome, that we are forgiven, that salvation is ours – not because of any accomplishments of our own, but by God’s gracious mercy.

The Gospel also tells us that God wants none of us to be lost. He wants every human person He has fashioned to enter into the fullness of His healing, His mercy, His love – without exception.

When we hear this message for ourselves, we are much consoled. Whatever evils I am struggling with pale before this message. I may not feel like I am winning the battle but I know that God has not and will not ever forsake me despite my weakness.

This teaching becomes infinitely more difficult to my human ears, however, when the divine message is clarified: I am to offer everyone else, no matter what the state of their soul, the same mercy that I have received.

My instructions are to want for all others what I want for myself, to love them as I love myself.

Rather than raging at the sinners I see around me, I am to pray for them with heartfelt love, genuinely hoping that they emerge victorious in their battles, with Christ at their side.

Jesus did not make any exceptions in this teaching. He did not name a single individual, class of people or type of sinner that we need not love, forgive and pray for.

Not only that, but He demonstrated this in His own human life. He extended love and healing and mercy to some of the most feared and despised sinners of His time. He loved and embraced prostitutes, hypocritical Pharisees, Roman centurions, tax collectors and those possessed by demons.

He fearlessly touched the ritually unclean and made them clean. No longer was the leper to be cast out – he was to be freed of his leprosy.

Those severely possessed by evil no longer needed to live apart, for He cast the evil out of them. Christ saw who the person truly was and cast out the evil spirit that controlled them.

This is the Gospel. It seems impossible – perhaps even wrong to our human sensibilities. Surely Jesus did not intend this message for the likes of Stalin and Hitler. He could not have meant it for those who rape and molest children. He cannot have intended it to apply to His own priests who betrayed the Church He called them to lead.

And yet there was a betrayer among His closest followers – actually, more than one. Of course, Judas Iscariot betrayed Him. But so did Peter, the Rock, the one on whom the Lord promised to build His Church.

Peter, whom we just encountered proclaiming his faith in John’s Gospel, after Jesus’ arrest, denied even knowing Him – three times. But, unlike Judas, he returned to the Lord in humility.

And Jesus not only forgave him but again entrusted the Church to him, despite this terrible sin.

This is the Gospel and I must follow it. Despite my many sins and weaknesses, it rests in my heart as the Truth, the most fundamental Truth of my being.

I may not  live it perfectly, but it is the only way I know to live.

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I realize that there is a risk in writing so boldly of the mercy of our Savior. I risk giving the impression that I think that the child-molesting priests, having confessed and received absolution, should be free to carry on their priesthood.

Or that the members of the hierarchy who covered up for them, who sent them back to serve families and children with full knowledge of their deeds, should be given a slap on the wrist – or perhaps even praise for being “merciful” to the erring priests.

“What about mercy for the victims? Don’t you care about them? They were innocent children!”

I hear the raging accusations echo in my mind.

Be still, my accusers.

This is not my message and certainly it is not the message of the Gospel.

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When any of us sins, mercy is immediately available to us for the asking. Of course, we must ask with a contrite and humble heart, but forgiveness is not withheld to one who genuinely seeks it.

However, it does not end there. It is not that God’s forgiveness of us is incomplete. Rather, our sins have consequences and we still have work to do as part of our repentance.

Any sin, large or small, damages our souls and causes harm to the human community, even if it never reaches the public eye. I may not know what damage I have caused but it is there. I have added something to the evil that grips our world.

Doing the work of repentance is much more than saying a few prayers after my confession.

Indeed I must pray. I am not paying a price with a list of prayers but crying out to God with all my soul to be with me, to transform me, to grant me a new heart.

Not only must I pray, but I need to make amends to those I have harmed. Even if I do not see a victim before me, I must perform good works to help heal the community I have damaged with my sin.

And if my sin has harmed another grievously, I may need to devote the rest of my life to repentance, to forfeit my own wishes and will, to submit to confinement rather than risk repeating such a sin.

This, of course, assumes that I have the emotional and spiritual maturity to acknowledge the gravity of my sin and to repent deeply and genuinely.

With certain especially egregious sins or spiritual diseases, such as pedophilia, we can be reasonably certain that this maturity is absent.

When Jesus encountered the demoniac, He did not ask the man if he wanted to be freed, if he was sorry for his actions under the influence of evil. He knew the man was possessed and He took control, casting the evil out of him.

Similarly, when encountering those who are unable or unwilling to fully repent, Church leaders and civil authorities have to take control. They have a duty to protect the community by confining those dominated by evil, while simultaneously giving them the opportunity to turn to Christ and be restored to emotional and spiritual sanity.

This, of course, was the rationale behind the early penitentiaries. It is clear that we still need such places, absent the drugs and crime that have infested our modern prisons. Mercy demands the confinement of those who cannot be trusted to control themselves.

Like those who murder, those who sexually violate children need this confinement. And the Church, recognizing this, must not stand in the way of this consequence for such grievous sins. In addition to the obvious harm to more potential victims, neither the Church nor the offending priest benefit from denial or cover-ups.

If we know a brother or sister’s soul is in great peril, mercy demands that we confront them with this knowledge. We must not abandon our modern “demoniacs” to their diseases/sin, imagining that we are doing them a favor by remaining silent.

Nor must we abandon them once confined, as though our duty is now over. As followers of the Savior, we pray for the healing of both victim and offender and we minister to them and their families in their time of need.

All are God’s children – and it is His will that none of them be lost.

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I have written many words and it may seem as though I still have not answered my own question: why do I remain in the Catholic Church when it is evident that, at least in this one area (and likely many more), it has failed to live out the Gospel message as I myself have just described it?

I now return to the words of Peter:

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6: 68-69)

I must follow Him, the Savior, the Holy One of God.

I can imagine what many may be thinking. “But you don’t have to remain a Catholic to do that. Join a different Christian church, become a Protestant or join the Orthodox Church. Or are you one of those Catholics who thinks only your Church is the right one, even when it is so obviously wrong?”

This is a very fair question – but I could not begin my discussion there.

With regard to Peter’s question, “to whom shall we go?”, many responses could be given – and, in fact, many different paths have been taken by others who once called themselves Catholic. Here are a few:

  1. I could become a Christian who believes but doesn’t go to Church. I can read the Bible and pray on my own.
  2. I might follow Buddhist teachings or practice yoga. Healthy stuff without all of the dogmatic baggage.
  3. I could investigate the various Protestant denominations, trying out churches where I know good people and see which one suits me best.
  4. I could become an Orthodox Christian. Those who have been reading my blog regularly know that I am already halfway in. 🙂

I have known some sincere, good and very holy people who have taken one of these routes, either beginning their spiritual journeys there or changing course in reaction to the scandal.

I love and respect these people – but cannot make the same choice. I will address each option.

First, I cannot be a Christian alone. I need community – and Christ has given us community in the Church. So many times over have I been comforted, forgiven and rescued from error because there were good and holy priests, religious and lay people offering me their love or simply modeling for me the Christian life.

Second, there is much truth and wisdom in spiritual traditions outside of Christianity. I learn from them and make use of them all of the time. But I cannot walk away from Christ. And I do not believe that there is any tradition or church in which there are no sinners.

Third, I have known and loved many in the Protestant denominations. Some of them certainly are holier than I am. But, once again, a different church would not deliver me from the company of sinners – nor should it. (As it has been said, the church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.) And I would lose something. I mean no insult to my fellow Christians, but I fear I would lose the fullness of the Sacraments as I have come to know them – the shared faith in the real Presence of Christ in Eucharist, the opportunity to encounter Christ in confession.

Fourthly, while I have come to love Orthodoxy, it is not my home. If I had to leave the Catholic Church, I would run to the Orthodox. As I have written elsewhere, I believe that we are one Church in the eyes of God, sharing the ancient Faith with the full expression of sacramental life. May we celebrate it together, openly, someday soon.

I did consider Orthodoxy, having entrenched myself in reading, online and off. I did not consider it because of the Catholic scandal – for they are sinners too – but simply because of how beautifully many of them express their faith.

But, at one point, when I was regularly reading an Orthodox blog, it seemed that other readers frequently described how they entered an Orthodox church and knew they were home.

As I reflected on my own life direction, God’s message came to me with uncomfortable certainty: “You already have a home.”

And I knew then that He wanted me to stay in the Church, in the home He had given me from my birth.

Because He is my truth, my love, the center and direction of my life, I do as He bids. And not with any regret as though a wish of mine had been thwarted.

I know He is leading me on a path, for my good and the good of others. I have seen so much evidence of this that I cannot deny it, though I take no credit for any of the good.

I often cannot see the good of the path, blinded as I am by my own sin and weakness. I often do not see where it is leading at any given moment nor do I have any confidence that I am following it faithfully.

I do not know the answers for the Church as a whole. How could I, not even knowing the answers for my one small life?

But I know what I am called to do – to live a life of repentance, of prayer and loving actions. I must not repent only for my sins but for the sins of us all. Lost as I am, I can only hope that there are others repenting for my sins too.

As our sins bring harm to one another, so also does our repentance build one another up in grace.

This is the life of the Church. This is the Gospel.

Thanks be to God for His gracious mercy.

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The Scandal (Part 1)

(Without a doubt, this is a difficult topic. While that never seems to cause me to shy away, I know that it may be more than some want to read. If this is a painful area for you, take care of yourself first and feel free not to read this article. Be blessed.)

For quite some time now, I have wanted to speak or write about why I have remained a Catholic when scandal after scandal seems to surround the Church. And it is about the worst kind of scandal one can imagine: widespread sexual abuse of minors and widespread cover-ups by high-ranking church officials.

On August 23, I read an opinion piece in the New York Times that pulled out of me some of the words that I had been wanting to write. (Click here to read the original article.) After reading quite a few of the comments already published, most of them relating when and why their authors left the Church, I posted my own comment:

I understand the anger and rage behind this article and many of the comments. But I cannot agree with Mr. Nathaniel.

I am a psychologist who has treated many survivors of sexual abuse, both men and women, who have had perpetrators who were both men and women. One of these survivors was abused by a Catholic priest. Others were molested or raped by their parents, step-parents, grandparents, uncles, neighbors, family friends, scout leaders, doctors, other children, etc. The vast majority of them were violated by someone they knew and trusted. Sexual abuse of children is, tragically, prevalent in our world.

Some leaders within the Catholic Church went to great lengths to cover up for pedophile priests. This is a great evil for which they should be removed from their positions and prosecuted. Does this evil occur solely in the Catholic Church? Certainly not. I have had more than a few survivors tell me that they were sure that their mothers (or other adults) knew what was happening and did nothing. Or told the child that she/he was making it up or lying. Covering up sexual abuse is, tragically, also very prevalent in our world.

I continue to be a practicing Catholic. The sins (or diseases) of other Catholics are not cause for me to stop believing in the truth of the Gospel nor are they reason for me to stop receiving the Sacraments that God entrusted to the Church. The human institution we see is diseased; the eternal Church offers the only antidote: Christ Himself.

There was a lot more that I wanted to write – to inform people, to help people understand and heal from this horrible tragedy. However, quite sensibly, the Times limits the length of comments. So, God willing, I will write here.

Please understand that none of what I write here is intended to in any way justify or minimize these evils perpetrated by members of the Church.

In this first post, I hope to shed some light on the phenomenon of child sexual abuse itself. In a subsequent post, I hope to share why I have remained in the Catholic Church despite the ongoing scandal. May the Spirit guide me to offer words that bring understanding and promote healing and hope.

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Why, one might ask, is sexual abuse of children and teens so prevalent? And why have so many priests in particular offended against the children they were charged to protect and serve? Could they and their superiors not see the evil in these acts?

Before exploring these questions, allow me to lay a bit of groundwork with information that may be known to some but not all. The term “pedophile” is most correctly used in reference to someone who engages in sexual behavior with a child who has not yet reached puberty. It is still sexual abuse when someone engages in sexual behavior with an older child but there is some value in making the distinction.

While both are considered pathological, the abuse of the prepubescent child is considered more so. The reasons for this should be obvious. When an adult wants sexual contact with a child who looks like a child, their pattern of desire is severely disordered. Adults with a healthy psychosexual development generally find the notion repugnant or, if fleetingly experienced, a thought to be banished from the mind as quickly as possible. The child, unless already tampered with, may be flirty in a childlike way, but has no concept of what sexual behavior is or how it will impact him/her.

A teen who has developed, on the other hand, has similar body features to an adult and therefore may trigger the “normal” desires of an adult. The young person may also be curious or even excited at the prospect of intimate contact with an adult. However, a mature adult will resist such attractions if they occur, recognizing that teens cannot truly give an informed consent when approached by an adult, especially if the adult occupies a position of authority.

I differentiate between these types of offenders, in part, to point out what wasn’t known, even in professional circles, as recently 40-50 years ago. In the past, it was not known that the pedophile tends to be a serial offender and that psychological or spiritual treatments are seldom effective. The pedophile is fixated on children and will likely offend as long as they have access to children. In earlier times, a naive superior might send an offending priest to treatment without any recognition of the futility of this approach.

We also know that some (though not all) who offend against teens do so either as a regression under stress or as part of a broader pattern of promiscuity (with the distinction between a 16 year old and a 20 year old being blurred). This type of offending may be more amenable to treatment, especially for one-time offenders. Even with this knowledge, however, it is virtually impossible to predict whether the behavior will recur.

It is also important to note that sexual abuse of boys is not a “homosexual thing”. Adults with a same-sex orientation are no more likely to offend against children than heterosexuals.

Neither is sexual abuse of children induced by celibacy. The vast majority of people living in vowed celibacy are oriented to adults. If they should break their vows, they will do so with adults, male or female, depending on their sexual orientation. This is sinful but similar in nature to married people violating their vows by committing adultery.

However, this is not to dismiss the possibility that a celibate priesthood might not be a draw for higher functioning pedophiles. (By “high functioning” I mean that those able to function well enough to meet the requirements of the priesthood as opposed to those who are obviously disturbed.)

The draws for the pedophile is that the priesthood offers access to children, as well as a position of positive status that tends to (or used to) evoke trust from families. It is also a position of power because children are taught to obey priests, much as they are taught to obey teachers, coaches and scout leaders.

Celibacy also creates a good cloak for a pedophile who cannot perform sexually with an adult, a situation that is not uncommon with the true pedophile. As a priest, no one expects him to marry and he may even receive added status for having “sacrificed” marriage and children.

However, it is not at all clear that there are more offenders in the Catholic Church than in Protestant denominations where clergy marry. The Catholic Church is much larger and has a single, hierarchical identity that results in staggering statistics of abuse when seen as a whole. There is little data (that I know of) that breaks down offenses against children by denomination. However, we know that no religious group is immune to these evils.

This, of course, does not make the offenses by members of the Catholic Church any less egregious. I mention these points only because hearing the aggregate statistic may lead people to mistakenly assume that sexual abuse of children is prevalent only in the Catholic Church.

If this were the case, we could, as Mr. Nathaniel suggests, just shut down the Catholic Church and our children would be safe.

Were this true, I would gladly leave the Church to save so many people a lifetime of suffering.

Unfortunately, we have no such simple remedies available…

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Having laid some groundwork, I will now offer some discussion on why sexual abuse is so prevalent, not only in the Church but throughout the world. Certainly the reasons why any given individual offends are unique and multi-faceted – so the generalizations I make here are inevitably lacking in comprehensiveness.

In discussing why people sexually abuse minors, I find myself torn between classifying this behavior as disease vs. sin. In reality, of course, such a classification is largely unnecessary since sin is an expression of spiritual disease that almost always has psychological components. However, I will examine both aspects because it may guide us in understanding what is to be done with sexual offenders, whether in the Church or in society as a whole.

Would it be too outrageous for me to say that sexual abuse emerges from the passions, passions that are common to all of us in our struggle against sin?

Perhaps that is too outrageous, but allow me to explain what I mean.

Sexual abuse often occurs because of disordered desires for love, power, acceptance and/or sexual stimulation. What is so disturbing to us is that attempts to meet these desires at the expense of children represent such severely disordered passions that we cannot relate to them.

To illustrate this point, we might examine the passion we call “anger”. It is not too difficult to imagine the disordered expressions of anger on a continuum. On one end of the continuum, we have anger that is not disordered at all. It is a helpful and sometimes even necessary emotion that, when handled properly, motivates us to protect ourselves or others.

A somewhat more disordered passion on the anger continuum is well-known to most of us. This is an anger that is about ego, about how you hurt, disrespected or undermined me.  Now I want to strike back at you and let you know what it feels like. So I cling to my desire for revenge or I use harsh words or unnecessarily punitive behaviors with you.

A more extremely disordered passion on the anger continuum is the person who, so consumed by rage and wounded ego, kills the person who affronted them. Even more disordered, is the person who tortures others or kills at random, having become so immersed in the passion that they have lost their reason.

The more extreme the disordered passion, the more likely we are to label it as evidence of disease or evil. It is also apparent that the more extreme the disorder in the passion, the more it appears to be not just a matter of degree but a perversion of the passion itself. It is one thing to have so much anger that one could kill; it is quite another to shoot bullets into a crowd or to take pleasure in torturing another to death.

The minor disorders we tend to consider weaknesses, flaws or sins but within the range of what we can understand and possibly forgive. The more extreme and twisted the disordered passion, the less comprehensible and tolerable we consider it.

And this is clearly the case with the disordered passions underlying sexual abuse of minors. If we were to learn, for example, that someone sexually abused dozens of children under the age of three, we would be horrified and consider them utterly monstrous. Not only is the passion taken to extremes but it is twisted to the point of being hardly recognizable to us as one we know.

What evil or disease enables a person to engage in such extreme distortions of the passions? Years ago, when I was working with a pedophile, I struggled between wanting to understand this and not wanting to understand it. As a psychologist, I typically want to understand my patient’s inner world; in this case, I wasn’t sure I could emotionally handle what I might find there.

I will share just a bit here. One thing that I came to understand is that there is an extreme characterological immaturity in those who sexually offend with children. With some pedophiles, this immaturity is obvious – they identify with children. They sometimes talk like children, want to play with them and imagine themselves to be the best defenders of disadvantaged children because only they truly love them. They redefine the abuse as “tickling” or some other innocuous or even loving behavior, demonstrating no understanding of the impact on the victim. They may even lack a clear boundary between themselves and the child as separate persons.

Often this characterological immaturity develops out of a tragic childhood in which the abuser was sexually abused and experienced nothing resembling adequate parenting. They want to be loved because they were never loved. They want to be in control because they were utterly powerless throughout their childhoods. They wanted to be rescued so they imagine themselves the rescuer of others. They want intimacy (closeness) but feel safer with children – because children will not judge them inadequate – but adults mostly likely will.

This is the extreme. But I suspect some of the same principles are operative within the so-called higher-functioning pedophile. They may be able to pass for “normal” by virtue of being more intelligent or having developed a stronger sense of self that enables them to “compartmentalize”, i.e. to have a mature-appearing outer self that functions in the world, while allowing the grossly immature self to emerge only under certain circumstances. They may be haunted by this other self or they may have so successfully defended against it that they see nothing wrong in its behavior. It is even possible that they may banish this other self from active memory.

And what about the adult who sexually offends against the adolescent? I would hypothesize that there are similar roots in the passions: I want to be loved and feel safer with the young. I want intimacy or sexual release but need to be in control because I feel powerless (because of a lifelong sense of powerlessness or a severe stress that makes me feel powerless now). I want to be accepted and admired. While this individual may have greater psychosexual maturity than the pedophile, maturity is still woefully lacking. While fantasy feeds the ill-formed ego with notions of being loved, wanted and appreciated, the mind rationalizes away the immorality of the behavior as well as the harm inflicted upon the adolescent.

In a side note, though not the case with priest offenders, it is also worth recognizing that some sexual abuse of children involves offenders with severe cognitive challenges. Someone who has cognitive deficits, either congenital or acquired (as in brain injury), may have a level of understanding or judgment typical of a child but they are encased in an adult body that has adult sexual urges. While this type of offender may seem to fall into a completely different category, that is largely because we know the cause of their gross immaturity. With highly intelligent and accomplished adults, it is much harder to comprehend.

In the next section, I will offer some reflections on the covering up of sexual abuse.

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As hard as it is to understand anyone sexually abusing a child, it may be equally or even more difficult to understand another adult purposely covering up the offense(s) rather than trying to protect the child. Who would not come to the aid of an innocent child? What would motivate someone to knowingly allow this to continue?

This is where many people become truly enraged with the Church. Perhaps the individual priest was mentally disturbed, a victim himself. But what excuse can a bishop offer?

Before addressing this question, allow me to discuss the cover-up of sexual abuse in general. Once again, I am in no way justifying it – simply seeking understanding.

First, it is important to recognize who tends to “cover up” child sexual abuse.

Very often the child victim attempts to cover it up. This is not hard to understand. Fear and shame are two of the primary reasons why children often do not report what has been done to them. Fear may arise from threats made by the perpetrator, threats that may range from “I’ll deny it” to “I’ll kill your parents”. Because the perpetrator is typically older, stronger and considered more credible, children often have very good reasons to fear that harm will come to them or the people they love.

The anticipated harm may be violence but it may also involve being scorned and rejected for having said something so awful about a well-regarded adult (relative, teacher, priest, etc.) If not believed, the child-victim may suffer greater abuse or humiliation at the hands of their perpetrator or other adults upon whom they rely for survival. Their own credibility may be permanently damaged; even if they are not old enough to conceptualize this, often they instinctively know.

The child victim also may feel shame, sometimes profoundly. While sometimes children, especially very young children, may not understand that there is something wrong with the behavior, often they instinctively sense that it is not right. This not-rightness stems from the behavior taking place in secret, typically along with admonitions not to tell anyone, “not even Mommy”. As a result of this, maintaining the secret may feel like a betrayal of the parent, adding another level of shame. Young children also may perceive themselves as having been complicit in the naughty behavior, as though it were realistic for them to have refused. The very young may have no words to describe what happened or how they feel – so they say nothing and bear the shame alone.

Teens may not report abuse for the same reasons – fear and shame. In addition, they may, at the time of the sexual contact, be unaware of the emotional complications it will later cause them. With the discovery of their own sexuality, they may feel flattered at being invited into a more intimate relationship with a respected adult. They may not see the frank sexual behavior coming and, once it does, feel that they will only implicate themselves if they speak up. Some may even think they are mature to handle this “relationship” and thus not see it as abuse. Some may want to protect the abuser out of a confused notion of “love”. Others may want to protect a family member whom they know would be devastated to learn the truth.

Of course, some children do tell – and tell right away. Some do not tell until they are older and more confident. Why some children cover up their abuse and others speak up is not entirely understood. But it is never the child’s fault if they do not speak up. They are children.

Also covering up the abuse of the child is the perpetrator. While the motive for this may seem obvious, it may be more complicated than simply wanting to avoid punishment. While some abusers rationalize their behavior, it is not unusual for perpetrators to feel profound shame about it. The shame and the rationalization may vary in prominence with changing circumstances. Although the sin is far more arrant, the shame sensation is not unlike how most of us feel when we knowingly sin. There is a shame at having been so weak. Allowing others to know of this weakness may feel unbearable to the perpetrator, leading to elaborate ruses to conceal or deny their behavior, even when the evidence is compelling.

Another group we may not often consider are the other children who know about the abuse while not victims themselves. Siblings and best friends may know, by rumors about the perpetrator, by recognizing the signs in the child-victim or by holding confidences. These children are indirect victims of the perpetrator, sharing in the victim’s fear and shame, while often wanting to protect them. As with the victim, it is not their fault if they do not speak up – they too are children and cannot be expected to bear this responsibility.

Lastly, many adults, knowing or suspecting sexual abuse of a child, may engage in covering up. This includes parents, other family members and neighbors, as well as adults in positions of authority, such bishops, school teachers, principals and therapists. Mandatory reporting became the law for many professionals for a reason: adults were not always reporting physical or sexual abuse they knew of or suspected.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), two primary reasons for adults not speaking up to protect the child include fear and shame. Fear may occur in the adult for a number of reasons: if he/she is being abused or controlled by the abuser also (e.g. a battered spouse); or if the adult was raped or sexually abused him/herself and has not acknowledged or worked through the trauma. There may be fears of retribution from others, especially among family members. If the abuser is family’s primary or sole breadwinner, there may be a fear of impoverishment if the abuser is imprisoned.

Shame is also very powerful among adults who, while not abusers themselves, know of abuse perpetrated by someone close to them. Who would not feel shame in admitting that their own father (or mother), for example, sexually violated their children? Often this type of shame leads to denial – it didn’t really happen, I’m sure the child exaggerated, etc. It probably isn’t what it looks like.

Because of the desire to avoid the shame, either for oneself or another, rationalizations often enter into the denial process.  Some examples:

“He’s been working so hard lately. It was probably just a slip in judgment – he said he won’t do it again and I believe him.”

“She’s an alcoholic; I’m sure she wouldn’t do that if she were sober. Sending her to AA should take care of the problem.”

While these rationalizations seem so naive or ignorant when viewed hypothetically, it can be quite different when someone knows, loves or holds the offender in high regard before learning of the behavior. Example:

“I just can’t believe that Fr. John would do something like that. He is such a good and holy priest. He obviously loves children and someone probably just misunderstood his affection.”

Indeed, such comments are not unusual when a shocked congregation first learns of allegations made against their beloved priest. It is hard for us to imagine such good and evil existing side-by-side in one person. We tend to see things in black-and-white. A person is either good or bad; he/she cannot be both.

Of course there are many more selfish and sinful reasons that lead adults to cover up sexual abuse. These reasons might include wanting to protect their own reputations, imagining them sullied by association. Others may secretly think that sexual contact with a teenager is not such a big deal; just a little “lapse” that can be confessed and forgiven like any other sin.

Still others may believe that it is their duty to keep such things out of the public eye, lest the faithful be scandalized (which, of course, is happening now on a very large scale). The call to offer forgiveness to sinners may also be considered as part of the Christian duty, with the distorted belief that mercy precludes prosecution. After all, we have no stories of Jesus telling someone that their sins are forgiven – and then handing them over to the authorities. Forgiveness is absolute and the confessional sacred.

While clearly distortions, these beliefs can pass muster in some minds because there is a tiny kernel of truth in them. However, the towering falsehood inherent in them involves imagining that the Church could be somehow be served by concealing and even enabling such gross violations of the Gospel message.

+++

If nothing else, perhaps this article demonstrates one reality: that we human beings are incredibly complicated creatures.

The notion of “ancestral sin”* is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the incestuous family, where generation after generation has experienced sexual manipulation or violation and, once emotionally damaged or inured to the dysfunction, pass it on to yet another generation despite the irrationality of doing so.

The Church, as a human ecclesiastical institution, is far from being immune to such transmission of sin through the generations. The sins of one subgroup justifies the sins of others to the point where there is more hatred and infighting in the Church than there is in most secular organizations.

In one sense, this should not surprise us. The evil one most especially wants to disrupt the  work of the Church and is therefore going to sow the seeds of lust and pride and vengefulness where they will do the most damage.

Still, seeing daily evidence of our institutional failings portrayed in the media is enough to shake even the most devout Catholic.

We want to defend the Church, having received so many graces and blessings from it – but how can we possibly defend the indefensible?

Fortunately, we do not have to. Our faith is rooted in something far deeper than the human ecclesiastical institution we call “Church”.

We have our roots in Christ Himself and in His Holy Spirit Who guides us through all peril. Nothing evil happens without our loving Father knowing of it – and knowing how it will be ultimately defeated.

To Him all glory be.

+++

*I realize that, from a theological perspective, my use of the term “ancestral sin” is not quite accurate. However, I could think of no better term to capture the idea of how spiritual disease begets more spiritual disease, on both a local and a universal scale.

 

Powerlessness

I was working at my computer last night when suddenly everything around me went dark and quiet.

No warning. No explanation. Not even a storm to justify the outage.

I was without power.

In years past, I was not as bothered as I am now by temporary losses of electricity. I used to experience them an opportunity to become quiet and reflect, to have a chat or play a musical instrument.

I no longer am able to maintain such a casual outlook. In fact, though I am loath to admit it, I feel afraid when the power goes off without explanation.

A most disturbing thought enters my mind: is this The Big One?

In the last couple of years, the state of our nation and the world has heightened my concerns. Always such things were possibilities. It is only more recently that they have started to feel like probabilities.

Some opposing nation, some terrorist group, hacking into our power grid and reducing us to helplessness in a second. We cannot deny the possibility, though denying it is what helps us move through daily life with relative calm.

Even when acknowledging the possibility intellectually, it is still rather easy, when everything is working, to minimize the impact such an outage would have.

But I remember, just 15 years ago this month, the great blackout of 2003. Much of the Eastern seaboard lost electricity, most of us for about 2 days. Between Canada and the United States, 55 million people were affected.

Those of us who worked in buildings without windows that opened could not work. The heat quickly became stifling without air conditioning or even fans. Even worse, by the second day, toilets were not flushing as this region relies on electricity to maintain its water supply.

And this shutdown was unintentional, caused by a random software bug.

And it only lasted two days.

We were inconvenienced and we had to throw out a good bit of food. We were worried but we also had some assurance that all would be righted within days.

We were very fortunate. We are very fortunate. If (or when) The Big One occurs, we will indeed be powerless – in more ways than one.

+++

I recently returned from my pilgrimage to California which always fills me with gratitude. The beauty of the earth and the love of friends combine to help me see God afresh.

Adding to my journey this year was an extraordinary book that I read on the way there and back again: The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom.

I had read quotes from this book and it is such a classic that I thought I had read it before. It did not take long for me to realize that I had not.

I am not sure just why God led me to choose this book for my pilgrimage reading but I am so very grateful that He did.

I have read many Holocaust stories and memoirs but I believe that this one moved me like no other.

For those unfamiliar, the story relates how Corrie and her family, living in the Netherlands, experienced World War II.

As deeply Christian people, when it became increasingly evident what was occurring, they could not refrain from acting. Hiding Jews and growing the Underground to save more people became the center of their lives, despite their own country being occupied and arrests occurring all around them.

When it was their turn to be arrested, they were rendered powerless in every sense – or so it would seem. They were forced to stand for hours in terrible weather, deprived of food, clothing and the last shred of their human dignity.

They had to live amidst stench and vermin and were forced to work even when very ill. They lived in the shadow of the chimney and they were not oblivious to the source of its smoke. Some survived. Some lost their lives.

But what is most extraordinary is that, despite all of this, they never became completely powerless. Not only did they know that God was with them, but they actively sought opportunities to share the Gospel.

It is hard to imagine being in such horrendous circumstances and remaining fully committed to the Good News. One can imagine the people around them questioning: “What’s so good about it?”

Yet people gathered around them in secret, longing to learn and experience the power of the One who had died for them. His truth could not be silenced, even there, where darkness and evil appeared to have control of not only their bodies but their minds as well.

+++

Last evening, when it became apparent that the power outage was not going to be brief, I considered what to do. Neither my laptop nor my cell phone were charged up.

I could always pray, I thought.

It is not unusual for me to feel spiritually dull after a retreat or pilgrimage. Some of this may be due to travel fatigue, some to the natural ebb and flow of spiritual energy.

The enemy knows how to make use of such vulnerabilities and these last few days were no exception. I was tired yesterday evening and did not feel much like praying.

I could do a round on my prayer rope, I thought. Sometimes pushing myself in this way starts my spiritual engine more effectively than I expect.

It was growing darker inside but the final glow of sunlight lingered outdoors. I saw some people taking walks.

I could do that, I thought, considering the physical benefits more than the spiritual. I won’t go far.

Putting on my walking shoes and locking the door, I headed out. Instinctively, I reached in my pocket for my prayer rope.

I felt it there, familiar in my hand, but there was something else in my pocket that I did not recognize. As I began the Prayer*, I pulled out another thin strand of black cord. I wasn’t sure how it came to be in my pocket but there it was.

As I began to walk, I tied a single little knot at one end of the cord as I said the Prayer. And then another. And still more, one after the other.

I sauntered up the street slowly, undoubtedly a strange sight, tying knot after knot while the Prayer hummed on in my heart.

Since it was getting quite dark, I returned home, still praying and knotting, wondering if the piece of cord would be long enough to include 33 knots. Not quite.

But the engine had indeed gotten started, though I was still without electricity.

I found the original bundle of black cord, cut off a longer piece and began again. A knot and the Prayer, a knot and the Prayer…until there were 33, one for each year of Jesus’ life on earth.

I wanted a Cross for this little rope but did not have one. Ideas came and went from my mind but they had to wait; my heart which was lost in the Prayer.

Lighting a candle, I picked up another prayer rope, this one composed of 100 wooden beads and a Cross from the Holy Land, and sat before my icons. The Prayer continued.

As I moved through the beads without hurry, it was clear to me that God had “roped” me in. My fatigue and moodiness of earlier days had disappeared.

The Prayer felt as automatic as breathing. And I had no desire for it to stop.

Having completed the wooden rope, I found a little Cross and attached it to the tiny knotted rope. Now it felt complete.

 

+++

In the course of my work, I often hear people lamenting the fickle nature of their minds and moods.

Though we do not generally expect ourselves to be able to direct the workings of our other bodily organs, when it comes to our brains, we expect control of ourselves.

My thoughts, my feelings – how can I say they are truly mine if, in reality, they are the result of brain chemicals that shift capriciously?

And, if they become out of control without the aid of manmade medications, who am I really? Am I no more than a cocktail of neurotransmitters over which I have no control?

It is part of the disordered state of our souls that we link our identity, the nature of our being, with control of each and every nuance of thought and mood we experience.

Some of this desire for control may stem from our sinful pride. If I truly had the power to control all of these variables, everything would go so much better for me and the world around me.

(Implying, of course, so much better than it does when God is in control.)

But our confusion has another level, just as deep as the first. We have been taught that God gave us free will. Does this not suggest that we should be able to control what we think and feel and do?

After all, if we cannot control these things, how can we be considered “free”? How can God judge me at the end of time for how I’ve lived my life if, in reality, I was subject to the whims of genes and early environment?

As I reflect on my experiences over the last few days, two things become apparent:

  1. I am powerless.
  2. I am free to choose God.

I was as powerless to think my way out of my malaise yesterday evening as I was to make the lights go on. I was in darkness and my own strength could not save me.

I could not make myself feel happy, energetic or spiritual.

But I still had a choice before me: given this state of affairs, what am I going to do?

Apart from my human desires, befuddled as they can be by so many biological and environmental factors, there is in me (and all of us) a totally different type of desire – a holy desire.

The desire for God is like a seed that God planted in me at conception. Over many years, my parents cultivated its growth, preparing me for the choice to take over this effort.

Regardless of how I feel, regardless of what happens in the world around me, because of this seed, I can choose how I respond.

Last night, I could make my hand reach for my rope, even in the absence of emotional or spiritual inclination. I could tie a knot and push my way through the words of the Prayer. I could wait and hope and trust that the engine would start so that, once again, I could be free of my inner paralysis.

This was a very small “yes” my will said to God. So small that it hardly seems worth mentioning, especially when viewed alongside the many heroic yeses of the Ten Boom family.

How is it that such feeble desire could produce any spiritual movement at all?

It is in this awareness that I can embrace my powerlessness – for I cannot help but see that God was waiting for this little “yes” from me so that He could shower me with all of the grace I needed in my moment of dullness.

It is not power that I need but an open and willing heart.

May it be so.

+++

* “The Prayer”, as used here, refers to the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner” (or more simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”).

a poem for my Lord

 

still drunk

on the splendor

of divine communion,

i walked – no, staggered –

to the garden of my delight.

and there, i saw him,

the king,

the little one,

flying and flying

as though unable to stop.

 

i had to meet him…

and so began to whisper

soft butterfly sounds.

“come, rest a moment,

my little one,

drink of the nectar.

see how beautiful it is?”

but he swooped and dove

 in frantic, fervid flutter,

heedless of my call.

 

 “might i receive your image?”

i pleaded. “please?”

his assent was but a pause.

the shutter clicked

and he was on the wing,

his flower-fast intact.

but i had seen him –

and seeing, had gasped,

so like our Master was he

in his affliction.

 

he had no majestic bearing –

no beauty to draw me to him;

pierced, crushed, stricken,

spurned and avoided,

yet even more

did i long for him…

rising to the heights,

descending to the depths,

he raced a course

i could not follow.

 

but i had to follow.

how could i leave him

who was giving everything,

when i had nothing to offer

but my empty heart,

poor burial-place for my lord?

watching, waiting,

his wounds ever before me,

i reached for him –

“if i can but touch…”

 

open and obedient,

yearning to be his home,

my tomb-like heart

awaited the final flutter;

 the king himself cannot elude death

bearing wounds such as these…

+

a stillness comes over me.

spirit seeing what eyes cannot,

…his beauty fills my heart.

+

amen.

+++

+++

{Many of you will recognize the allusions to the prophet Isaiah’s words about the Suffering Servant (chapter 53) in the fourth stanza. Not wanting to disrupt the flow of the verse with a footnote, I acknowledge the reference source here.}

a gift received (painting + poem)

+

it always begins as something small –

a pair of seeds losing themselves in zygote,

pursuing refuge in uterine darkness;

a tiny spark of light amidst collapsing stardust,

nebulous particles deep in cold black space;

or perhaps just a wish, a dream, a quiet moment,

glowing beneath the surface of life’s chatter.

 

i do not know who or what it is –

or how it will come to birth.

i simply know what is.

 

at first, all i see is that tiny spot of brightness

suspended in abyss, void of shadow or form.

frightened and fearless in its uncertainty,

it waits, it struggles, it pushes forward and draws back,

listening for the gentle whisper of wings,

the hovering from above that will define it.

hearing the Word, the birth begins.

 

listening, i hear.

watching, i behold.

not knowing what is before me.

 

like a spark one blows upon, i see the fire blaze,

an unfurling frenzy of light and life

splashing itself over the naked canvas

yet never quenching its undying thirst for more.

worlds are born and thrown into orbit –

spinning and singing, dancing and laughing,

an explosion of brilliant joy.

 

blinded by the light,

humbled before Him,

i worship.

+

+

(Dear Reader: the first image was the very beginning of a painting; the second, its completion. As a photo reference, I used the image of a galaxy received by the Hubble telescope.)

Universal Salvation?

The question of universal salvation is, perhaps, the flip side of the question that plagues so many who want to believe: can eternal damnation have a place in the plan of a loving God?

A couple of years ago, I ventured to write about hell (see Hell?). Having just re-read the post, I still stand by what the Spirit led me to write on this topic.

Many others have far more knowledge than I do and have written extensively on the topic of universal salvation (see Fr. Aidan Kimel’s blog for a wealth of discussion and resources: Eclectic Orthodoxy).

So why should I attempt to write about it, especially given that I have read very little of what has already been written in the circles of the learned? (Sorry, Fr. Aidan, just can’t make it through all of that theology.)

I can only respond to this reasonable question by saying that I feel the inclination to write – and that inclination is one I pray about before I begin. May the Spirit guide me – either to write something that will be helpful to at least a few of us with our faith dilemmas – or to abandon the project altogether if I cannot.

+++

Let us consider the dilemma itself.

We are told very clearly in the first letter to Timothy that God “…wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2: 4).

This should come as a great consolation to those of us who long for salvation for ourselves and those we love.

It also is in keeping with the central tenet of Christianity: that Jesus, the Christ, died for the sins of all people and rose from the dead with the promise of the new Life to all who believe.

There is no one that falls outside of the net of this salvation. He died for everyone.

While this certainly sounds like universal salvation, there is a catch. What about those who don’t believe? (Or those who sort of, vaguely, kind of think it may be true but aren’t sure?)

We might wonder why believing in Him is so important. If He died for all and He wills for all to be saved, why not leave it at that?

The dilemma is that the Life God is offering us is, at its very heart and by its very nature, Love.

And, as I have written in a number of other posts, for love to be love, it must be voluntary. Forced love is no love at all.

The conundrum is exposed: God wills for all to be saved and to live in His love but, if He imposes salvation universally, the laws of love are violated.

In giving us free will, it seems that God makes virtually inevitable the thwarting of His own will by mere creatures.

How can this be?

+++

Painted myself into a corner again, I have. I knew this was going to happen but, having seen this predicament coming, I could not un-see it.

Let me back up for a moment.

Is salvation universal? I must answer a resounding “yes!”. Our Savior lived and loved, died and rose, for each one of us without exception. The gift has been given and will never be taken back.

But will all step forward and claim their gift? And if some don’t, what will become of them?

As believers, it is hard for us to imagine that anyone would truly reject the gift of eternal love if they knew, unhampered by the afflictions of this world, what it was and that it was truly theirs for the asking .

Who in their right mind would turn away an eternity of love-filled life? Surely those who, in this life, seem to reject it must not be in their right mind. Certainly our loving God would not hold against them their illnesses or their wounds.

What could anyone possibly value more than love? Especially once all of the false allurements of this world that masquerade as the way to love have been removed from the table?

Sadly, there is one thing.

The one thing we just might value more than love is, yes…ourselves.

+++

We have been told, though the precise story has never been clear, that this is how Satan and his followers came to be the opposition.

The evil one is not in God’s league, i.e. he is not uncreated Being.

No, we are told that he was created by God as were all of the angels, good and beautiful and free.

And that he was cast from heaven because of pride. He wanted his own will, not God’s. He wanted to serve himself and be served as god, rather than serve Another.

This choice, never repented of, made of him the direct opponent of love and of God.

The inherent diversity of love necessitates the outpouring of self for other/Other.

Clinging to one’s self, one’s own will, above all else is thus the antithesis of love. It is ultimate separation from God and it is, indeed, a choice.

+++

If this sends chills of terror down your spine, please do not stop reading.

In one sense, having such a choice before me should scare me out of my wits. If I had any inkling of how very weak and prideful and selfish I am (and surely in my own mind I minimize the gravity of my sin), my situation would appear hopeless.

But I must remember that the gift of salvation is promised to me. I only need to accept it, to believe.

Yet a voice inside cries out, “But don’t you see that this is the problem? I scarcely believe at all. Sometimes I’m not sure I believe and certainly I don’t believe well enough…”

Would you believe that that “voice inside” is the work of the evil one himself?

What better way to draw me away from salvation than to convince me that I am not good enough to receive it?

Such fears are, strangely, yet another temptation to pride.

This seems paradoxical to our ears. And yet, as one who has extensive personal experience with the sin of pride, I believe it is so.

“I don’t have enough faith.”

“I don’t know how to surrender my will to God.”

“I know that I am selfish – too selfish to truly say yes to God.”

All of these statements begin with “I”. They are all about me and my power to thwart God’s will, His desire to save me.

Take these very same statements to confession, humbly struggling to turn God-ward, and His mercy is poured out upon me. It is no longer about what I can’t do – rather, it becomes all about what He does for me.

In this act of humble confession, all of my doubts and fears and weaknesses become part of the “yes” that God so longs for, a small whispered “yes” from a contrite heart.

This is our salvation. We need not fear.

+++

But what of those who have been shown the glory of God’s love and still hold onto their own wills? If such creatures exist, what does God do with them?

This, of course, is up to God and unknown to me.

But there are a few things that I believe with considerable certainty.

God never stops loving these dear creatures of His. He does not torture or torment them. He does not abandon them. He does not cast them out of His presence – for where is He not present?

Some say that this is hell indeed, to be ever in the presence of the God one rejects.

Perhaps. But if this is so, even then I believe that God’s mercy is greater than our resistance to it – always greater.

What will His loving mercy do with the unrepentant?

I have no idea – and truly the specifics are no concern of mine. What healing, help or relief He offers another soul is between that soul and God. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis, it is not part of my story.

My story is just that – my story.

I walk, I limp, I stumble onward in search of my God.

Lost and confused, I reach out my hand in the darkness, longing for His mercy.

And He is there, always there, wrapping me in the robe of salvation that He has promised me from the beginning…

+++

God as Eternity

(This is the final segment in a series written for the Lent/Easter season. Once again, I have borrowed my title for this article from Met. Ware’s book, “The Orthodox Way” – in which he named the epilogue, “God as Eternity”. Unless otherwise noted, the content is mine – so please do not blame this good man for my ramblings.)

What will it be like?

Are there any among us who have not wondered?

Certainly the question of what, if anything, follows death is endemic to our species. For we who  believe the question extends even further – an eternity further.

What will heaven be like? Can we truly hope for everlasting life and love in the Presence of God?

Our Faith teaches us that we can. Yet believing this with the full depth of our being is far from easy. As St. Paul so eloquently described it:

At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known. (1 Corinthians 13: 12)

Our knowledge, our vision at this time is so incomplete that we cannot fathom what it is that God has in store for those who love Him. And it is hard for us to have firm faith in what we cannot imagine.

Have you ever secretly wondered if heaven might be, well… boring?

The thought has crossed my mind, I am ashamed to admit. But I think this is largely because attempts to describe an eternity with God often omit two essential elements – elements that Met. Ware brought to my attention.

(C. S. Lewis brought these same elements to my attention years ago – in the story form of “The Chronicles of Narnia”. However, I don’t think that I had words to describe what it was that I learned when I read this. I simply knew that I was attracted to it.)

Met. Ware indicated that we can be sure of these two things:

First, perfection is not uniform but diversified. Secondly, perfection is not static but dynamic.

Once we turn our attention to the perfection of heaven with this understanding, it no longer has the sound of one extremely long church service.

Instead of picturing God sitting on a throne, choirs of angels singing and the rest of us endlessly bowing down in worship, we can begin to imagine a living, growing relationship that encompasses both individuality and unity.

An eternity of life similar to the relationship within the Trinity…

+++

Naturally I can only write this with fear and trembling. For who am I to imagine that I understand what is to come – or that I understand life within the Trinity?

Of course, I understand none of this. But what has been revealed to the Church by the grace of the Spirit certainly hints at such a life for us.

As noted earlier in this series, the Holy Trinity includes a diversity – a three-ness of Being. The Father is not the Son, the Spirit is not the Father and the Son is not the Spirit. There are three distinct Persons in our God.

While this is incomprehensible to our human reason, this diversity is necessary for God to be love.

If God were One and only One, God would not be love within Himself.

He could love Himself, the One and only, but that would be an egocentrism rather than a pouring out of life-giving love.

He could love us – but then He would need us in order to carry out His love. In that case, He would be loving, but He would not be love in His very Being.

This suggests to us that we will not cease to be individual persons when we share in the divine Life.

This may be quite appealing to any among us who fear complete annihilation or loss of self in a formless cloud of energy.

But there is another side to this invitation.

And I became particularly aware of it when traveling through airports on my way to visit my mother.

A busy airport is teeming with diversity. I look at the other people waiting in line with me as well as the others milling around me.

There are many sizes and shapes, colors and languages. Some people look pleasant, like I’d enjoy meeting them. Others appear (to my eyes) a bit unusual, puzzling or even threatening.

Despite their considerable differences, each and every one of them was created in the image and likeness of God.

And each and every one of them was created to share in the divine Life, whether they recognize this or not.

Am I ready for an eternity that would include all of them? Is there any person or group that I really don’t want to meet in heaven?

Maybe they are just a little too different for my taste. I can’t tell if that one is a male or a female. This other one has way too many tattoos. That one dressed in clergy garb? Surely a hypocrite…

Certainly God wouldn’t let them in, would He?

Or perhaps I think they don’t deserve to be there. They were simply too evil. They hurt me too much. They hurt the world too much.

Certainly God would not let them in, would He?

Yet I am assuming that He has let me in…despite my idiosyncrasies, sins and shattered soul.

He wants us all – whatever condition we are in – so that He can cleanse us, heal us, restore us.

And the diversity among us is no accident in His creation. It is, indeed, necessary in order for us to participate in a divine Life that continuously pours Itself out in love for other.

+++

Of course, none of us will ever become love or become God in His essence.

We who are created can never become uncreated God.

But I do not believe that this limitation in any way represents a deprivation – i.e. a “Keep Out” sign that God has posted for any of us who want to get too close.

While I certainly do not know enough to enter the theological controversies surrounding the notion of God’s essence and His energies, I will offer a simple comment or two.

First, God is not divided into two parts, the energies which we can know and the essence that we cannot know. God is undivided unity of three Persons.

Second, the essence – energy distinction may be helpful to us in our effort to understand what we cannot understand. The distinction is one made for human minds, made of human words.

Our concepts, our words, can never adequately explain or describe God. But they can sometimes guide us away from error.

For example, the well-known words of Church father, St. Athanasius (ca 298–373), “God became man that man might become God”.

To avoid heresy, we must recognize that this statement is both true and false.

Truly we are invited to share fully in the divine Life. If we were not, for what purpose did our Savior die and rise?

At the same time, it would be a grave error to imagine that, in our dying and rising with Him, we become God in the sense that God is God. Or that the Trinity would keep growing in number to include all of us.

It is paradox to our minds. It is mystery.

It is all mystery.

+++

As we follow the mystery and consider perfection as dynamic and not static, we may, for an instant, think we have found something we can more readily comprehend.

Of course, God is alive and active. He who creates and sustains all living beings could not be otherwise.

But haven’t we all been taught that God is unchanging?

And haven’t I written as much myself, when pointing out that God does not have changing emotional states (The impassibility of God)? And that neither our sins nor our prayers “change” God?

Can God be both dynamic and unchanging?

To our minds, this may seem impossible. But that is only because our direct experience of living beings is that they change. Whether we are observing ourselves or the creatures around us, there is not a one that fails to change as it passes through the stages of its time-bound existence.

But the life of God is necessarily different in at least one very important way.

God’s revelation of His name to Moses, “I AM”, tells us that God is not like us, a created being passing through stages. He is not in the process of “becoming” a better or more perfect being. He is and always has been perfect Being.

His life, His “activity”, does not need to change. His perfection is complete and fully alive.

But how then can we know that He is indeed dynamic? Is it not possible that He created everything and is now detached, disinterested, so to speak?

This is where the notion of God’s “energies” becomes helpful to our struggling human minds.

We know that God is dynamic, alive and active because we are surrounded by evidence of this. Creation is not over but continuously manifesting itself – every time a bud blossoms, every time a baby is born.

To again quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Earth’s crammed with heaven and every common bush afire with God…”

If we keep our eyes and hearts open, we see an endless “Theophany”, not only in creation, but in the day-to-day movements of our lives.

How could I even write, stumped as I am by my own questions, if the Spirit were not actively moving in me, unworthy instrument that I am?

The dynamic nature of God’s Being manifests itself not in Him changing, but in how the “energies” of His Being change us.

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The astute reader will note that I began writing about heaven, eternity and what comes next, but have centered most of this article on God and His perfection.

This, of course, is no coincidence. What comes next, I believe, is God.

Heaven is God and God is heaven.

Heaven is not a place (at least not as we conceive of places) but it is life in God, in His presence. It is union with Him and His creation, a union that allows us to be distinctly ourselves while fully in communion with other/Other.

It is a state of divine perfection, diverse and dynamic.

It cannot be boring because God in His Being is infinite, ever unfolding and made manifest.

To try to imagine this (which certainly we cannot), we might begin with the estimated 400,000 species of flowering plants on earth. Suppose, at my leisure, I could watch each and every one bloom?

And then suppose we move on to the butterflies on earth. With about 15,000 species of butterflies, I might discover each one as it hatches from its egg, feeds as a larva, spins its cocoon and emerges with its uniquely beautiful wings.

I think you get the picture. But of course I have only listed a few of the known created things on one planet in the estimated trillions of galaxies of the universe.

And, rather than discovering these temporary little created lives, I am writing of the infinite unfolding of the One who creates them all.

Contemplation of the boundless beauty and creative love of God overwhelms the human mind.

Our little brains, temporarily tools of our souls, cannot fathom such Being. Nor can I as an individual fathom that this glorious life is intended for me personally.

But He made us for Himself. He made us for an eternity of life and beauty and love unfolding.

Let us rejoice and be glad in Him who gave Himself up that we might share in this life.

Praise and glory and honor to Him forever.

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