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.
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.
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!
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…