Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Challenging a Bishop


            On the only time I ever theologically challenged a Bishop

He was a warm, friendly auxiliary Bishop of a very large Eastern Archdiocese. He loved priest parties especially when he sang melancholy Irish Ditties. He never pulled rank but joyously relished being a Bishop, especially  a teaching  one. He was enormously popular with clergy and laity, Catholic or otherwise. His open, life loving spirit was instantly attractive.   Surprisingly to me, he had a powerful, lifelong, pervasive love affair with a young nun from Normandy who was called the Little Flower or St Therese of Lisieux. He read every book, article, comment, letter or evaluation of her he could find. He devoured and savored her remarkable skill in finding a simple way to love God pragmatically with intensity and profound passion. In our priestly circle, he was known as the ‘Guru’ of the Little Flower. He really “knew” The Little One.

Today I shudder and tremble when I recall my incredible adolescent gall in challenging him on what has become known as the “Little Way” of St. Theresa. My professional training was hardly a theological one beyond the sketchy, minimalistic four year charade required for ordination.   My spiritual insights came from my  Grandmother who was beaten and roughed up by life but who had  suffered and loved, with the Faith and Trust one sometimes finds in  the hearts  of those with only  a  third grade education.  With the help of the Baltimore catechism the Holy Cross Sisters imbued me with a love of Jesus, the Eucharist and the saints.  This faith I was totally unable to justify intellectually.  The compelling Irish Christian Brothers gave me a slant on God which is intuitional and transcendent but which did not qualify me as a “theologian.”   My professional training was in psychology where I spent
years probing, questioning, challenging, thinking, experiencing reality. One of the occupational hazards of studying the psychological is that it sets one up for imprudence in entering mine fields. Psychology can make one over confident and hence vulnerable.  This was so in my case with this wonderful Bishop.                                  

I had met the Bishop one day at a local restaurant where I was feting my mother who was visiting me from Seattle. Since they were both loaded with Gaelic charm, laughter and an inbuilt tendency to outdo any other, they spent what seemed to me to be a bit  too much  time jousting  and competing.  My mother was pretty and loved  to flirt with handsome men  (in or out of dog  collars).When  they finished  their little game of  Irish interpersonal competition , I eagerly and somewhat impatiently leaped into the conversation with what I considered “important”   insightful  material about the French saint.  I had recently read a fascinating book on Therese written by a woman psychiatrist who made a core point that this young girl was the perfect model  for this tormented and highly  neurotic era. I was anxious both to impress and please the Bishop by expanding his repertoire of “The Little One” and exhibiting my own understanding of her depth.  But instead of impressing and pleasing   him, we wound up in a debate and a vigorous difference of opinion on his specialty !!!   Our meeting was so intense, we continued it by mail. In one of his letters he skillfully patted me on the head with a little implicit praise while simultaneously negating my dogged resistant stance. He wrote “I feel almost silly in daring to explain Therese to Jim Lloyd. I hope I have her right.”  He then proceeded in a scholarly, objective and convincing way to show me what a dumb-dumb I had been about this marvelous young nun. 
I had argued in the fashion of my childhood wherein I gloried in the collection of  do-good goodies. When some jackass of a kid insulted, harmed or slighted me in any way, instead of whacking him in his big fat mouth, I had adopted the practice of  “offering it up”   fully  believing that each time I made such an act of  the will,  the Good Lord by some kind of  celestial accounting was adding it to all my good works.   Similarly when I did the “good” things,  helping the ungrateful,  sacrificing  for someone more needy than I, the healthy submission to His Will, offering unsolicited help to another, there was no need for exhibitionistic behavior since I believed  a la the gospel reading on Ash Wednesday,  God knew all about it anyway. Those yokels (as I saw  them in my arrogant manner) who trumpeted their virtues on the street corners of life, already had their reward. In that way, I thought, on my “superior” intellectual plateau,  I was cooperating, substantively in some way, to my eternal salvation.  I saw the whole structure as a kind of  bank into which I deposited what I called my “ brownie points” which I believed  ( and probably still do) would be  trotted out, on my behalf, when I appear before the Lord  for my personal  judgment. However, while, as I note, my theological expertise is pedestrian, I do understand the absurdity of both the quietistic and the pelegian.  How nonsensical to think I need do nothing after making the great act of Belief and Trust in the Saviour! How primitive to think that I can effect my own salvation by the force of my own will and my powerful good intentions with little or no Divine aid!  My Protestant friends almost faint at my simplistic reductionism.

To assume that my salvation is assured  simply in the light of  my “accepting” Jesus as my personal savior without any responsibility for my own actions or inactions thereafter,  seems to me, prima facie, to be unbelievably immature if not  manipulative. “Leave It all to God” is a cosmic cop-out.  But my Episcopal opponent admitted that –in his view—Therese abutted, somewhat, a near Lutheran Position. He claimed that Therese taught that good works condemn us and make us displeasing  to God. Wow! That statement, I thought, blasted my life long spiritual view. Was my Brownie Points theory now blown to bits? The Bishop explained: “…….IF we THINK  they please Him and thereby earn a place in heaven.”  The consequential point is incontrovertible. God’s love for us is utterly free and absolutely gratuitous and undeserved. Of course, of course.  I concede the obvious.    Further, the Bishop  said,  Therese taught that God wants us not only to sense our  littleness but also to love it.  By so doing we put all our trust in Him and none in our works or merits.  What do I make of this?

I know, Bishop, that no human being, could make the sacrifice needed for the healing  of Adam’s sin. Not St. Francis of  Assisi  nor St. Teresa of Avila nor Mother Teresa nor Paul or Peter. Not Ignatius of  Antioch  or St. Sebastian. Not even our glorious Blessed Virgin, the very Mother of God. No collection of many or all  the  holy ones of all time would be enough to  make adequate atonement.  To offer God back to God clearly needs a Divine constituent.  Jesus on the Cross, to be specific!

But I have balked when good works” are apparently tossed overboard as in  the almost contemptuous dismissal of the beautiful epistle of James  as an  “epistle of straw”  when it  collides with Luther’s personal life. I am aware, for example, of Erikson‘s “Young Man Luther” wherein  psychologically it is strongly suggested that Luther’s personal self  concept of  his inner depravity leading  to his self  loathing,  could explain the formulation that absolutely nothing good can come from within this awful mess.  How could anything stemming from such muck  have any value? Hence all my good works are Practically meaningless with no real impact on my personal salvation... I find this abhorrent and contrary to my  Hell’s Kitchen pragmatism. Of course this is simplistic but something of that simplicity vibrates in my soul as I debate my betters. But of course I realize that my salvation comes from Him alone and the sacrifice on the Cross. He alone can save me. I know that.   I know that I must trust completely in Him. Of course, I do.    I hear Therese’s message coming   through the good Bishop, loud and clear.  We, I- are all so puny and sinful that we could never earn salvation. Claro! One doesn’t  wring  blood from a stone. But there are honest dynamics coming from my wounded ( I don’t believe “corrupted") soul. He searches my heart and my mind so that He can give to me what my beliefs deserve!!  Beliefs connected somehow to what I do bring me closer to my Lord or the opposite. Or more specifically, Psalm 62, verse 13, the phrase “according to our deeds” (relative to reward from the Lord) seems to me a clear index that God will treat me as I treat His law. Are not deeds within the genre of “work”? Or are we into more profound complexity about what grace goes where and to whom and what Jesuit makes a fool out of what Dominican? Nevertheless, does not St. Paul  speak of “achieving your salvation” as in Philippians, 2?

How often during Lent the prayers at Mass speak of the Reward for acts of virtue. How often the word ‘Achieve” appears in Scripture, in spiritual writings and commentaries of spiritual directors…as in 2 Peter where   he, our first Pope, clearly states:   “You are achieving, Faith’s goal, your salvation”.  Can I be blamed if I see such proximity here between achieve (work) and salvation?   Are my poor attempts at pleasing God  “nothing” in my hope for everlasting happiness?  ‘Scusa me’ my dear Bishop, my abject apology, my beloved Little Flower, but I have to say Balderdash!  Pragmatically and existentially, it is my own insight which has, under God, and with His gracious help, given me courage to reach beyond my grasp throughout my long life.  It is for this precise reason that the woman psychiatrist mentioned earlier in this essay sees Therese as the model for the buffeted soul of this era.  Therese can give some courage to the little guy, so that in the colossus which is our world, he can  become really aware of  his own value before the Lord. 

I blink when I realize that there must be something of my own neurotic self which inclines me to debate my betters!  But, also, obviously there must be some kind of congruence between these apparently opposing positions. Wasn’t I taught to work as if everything depended on me and to pray because everything depended on God?   But do I misread Luther? Arrogant shrink that I am!  Of course, I do. I am no scholar.  Perhaps it is my over developed tendency to want to see good and the worthwhile in everything?  Perhaps a   principle of logic might help---the principle of the excluded middle!  Or something.

However, my resistance is re enforced when so much of my Scriptural prayer seems to hit me again and again with calls for synchronicity between my behavior and my reach for virtue! I boggled this  morning at  Mass when  I read in the second Eucharistic prayer  that  “we may  merit to be co heirs in  eternal life.”   I boggled this morning as I heard confessions of wonderful religious women and heard myself say:  “ whatever good   you do  and evil you endure may be cause for the remission of your sins, the increase of grace, and the rewards of  eternal life.”  Good works and salvation?

And yet….and yet…

Perhaps, if I even remotely imagine the inscrutable  goodness and power of Almighty God  and His love for us crummy, punky and self absorbed human beings, I might begin to savor a touch of what Therese and her gallant  Bishop are saying. Perhaps, if I were totally absorbed in the thought and feeling of the gratuitous love of  God for me, I could   toss off  my Brownie points concept and automatically  do them all  --just for the love of  the glorious God of Therese and her Bishop   Well, I can try….tough  for a dirty necked kid from Hell’s Kitchen.  Why not give it a whirl?   

1 comment:

Thomas D said...

An excellent reflection, Father! Yes, we have to avoid the pitfalls both of quietism and Pelagianism. The notion that seems prevalent among Evangelical Protestants of "once saved, always saved" seems to me patent nonsense. Good works are needful! As Our Blessed Lord himself said, "You are My friends if you keep My commandments."

Of course, without God's grace we can't do a thing! The comparison suggests itself that our souls are akin to automobiles, and that God's grace is the fuel -- freely given, "without money and without price" (cf. Isaiah 55), not at $2.19 a gallon! (Of course, when we drive, we have to obey traffic laws, and be sober, et cetera. But without the fuel in the tank, we're not going anywhere!)

Thank you, Fr Lloyd, for writing. It's always good to see this blog updated.