03 March 2009

Rebels Without a Clue

Many of you have asked me to comment on the recent email from Sr. Sandra Schneiders concerning the upcoming apostolic visitation of U.S. religious sisters. The email is long and whiney and chocked full of delusional meanderings on the reality of women's religious life in the U.S. I don't intend to fisk the whole thing. This is Lent after all.

As I read the email though I was reminded of my years working in adolescent psych. Most of our teen patients were drug and alcohol abusers and most had been sexually molested. By far the most common diagnosis was ODD, "oppositional defiant disorder." Below you will find a description of this affective-mental disorder. Read it and then click over to Sandra's missive and see what you think.

In children with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), there is an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority figures that seriously interferes with the youngster's day to day functioning. Symptoms of ODD may include:
  • frequent temper tantrums
  • excessive arguing with adults
  • active defiance and refusal to comply with adult requests and rules
  • deliberate attempts to annoy or upset people
  • blaming others for his or her mistakes or misbehavior
  • often being touchy or easily annoyed by others
  • frequent anger and resentment
  • mean and hateful talking when upset
  • seeking revenge
Check all the above.

Here's my take on the whole thing. . .most of the dissident women's orders in the U.S. have spent the last four decades destroying their history, dismantling their faith, and deluding themselves into believing that they are somehow leaders in the vanguard of
an ecclesial revolution. Well, they are leaders of a sort, leaders of a devolution into non-existence. We don't need to recount the stats that trace their rapid disappearance from the Church scene. As I have said many times before, "Tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock. . ." Fr. Z. rightly calls this the "biological solution" to the problem of New-Agey priests and religious.

What's interesting to me about these groups is their oppositional-defiant relationship with Church authority. You see, when I worked with ODD teens in the hospital, it was often the case that the teens would act out when discipline on the unit grew lax. When staff and clinicians got a little lazy about the rules, the teens would let us know--through their bad behavior--that they felt unsafe and needed the boundaries to be enforced. When the staff got tough again, there was a little sassy lip and the occasional time-out, but most of the teens quickly dropped back into their polished disinterest in authority. . .all the while carefully crafting for themselves and for their peers attitudes that let them be safely contra staff.

Sandra and sisters like her have spent the last forty years establishing themselves as oppositional-defiant figures in the Church. Their entire identity as Catholics, religious, women, and human beings is so deeply entangled in being O-D to the Church that they no longer know how to exist outside their comfortable (i.e., well-funded, tenured) bubbles of oppositional nastiness.

If I had to bet this month's stipend on a sure thing, I would bet on this: Sandra and her sisters are thrilled to hear about this visitation! It gives them something to oppose, something to rally against, something TO DO that ratifies their already self-confirming identity as courageous ecclesial rebels. There will be workshops, conferences, websites, petitions, "calls-to-action," oh but the phone trees and email lists will be lit up, rallying opposition to the visitation.


Because in the absence of any identifibly Catholic characteristics in their "religious lives," Sandra, et al only have the reassuring warmth of their communal temper tantrums and the thin gruel of their rebellion to sustain them in the few winter years they have left. Without this Evil Vatican Visitation--heck, without the Evil Vatican!--Sandra and her goddess-worshipping sisters, would be rebels without a cause.

As it is, their whining is little more than adolescent snarking from the time-out room.

Here's my deadly serious challenge to Sr. Sandra and her ilk: Leave. Simply, leave. Go to another ecclesial communion that will celebrate your wingnut religiosity. If the Roman Catholic Church is so horribly oppressive, so unjustly bigoted, so irrecoverably patriarchal, and these features cause you so much distress and anguish, then leave! But see, you won't leave. Why? Because you have an ODD relationship with Church authority. If you join the Episcopalians, a group that will embrace you and all your moon-batness, if you join the Episco-pagans, you become the establishment. You become the norm, the regular. . .and since you are constitutionally incapable of forming a positive identity, you will cling for dear life to your oppositional-defiant identity in the RCC. You need the Pope. You need the hierarchy. You need the haunting spectre of an Evil Vatican Visitation. You need the orthodox sisters of the CMSWR. You need bloggers like me writing posts like this. . .ah well.

If that weren't so sad, it would be funny.

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Bountiful desert of Lent

First Week of Lent (T): Is 55.10-11; Mt 6.7-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

[NB. Also podcasted. . .right sidebar under "Roman Homilies."]

Our Lord says to Isaiah, “My word,” falling like rain and snow from the heavens, watering the earth, “shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it…[to give] seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats.” Rain and snow watering the earth. Bread to eat. Sowing seed on fruitful soil. Can we see the desert sands of Lent as rich, fertile ground, abundantly sown with well-watered seed? Is this how we should be imagining our fasting and prayer? Isn’t this a time for cutting away, cleaning up, setting aside, and trimming down? Aren’t we suppose to find ourselves wounded and weak, in need of rescue and restoration? Is Lent the proper time for us to be thinking about planting well-watered seed in fertile ground? As any good farmer will tell you: you cannot plant a field choked with weeds and brush…first, you have to clear the land, then you start to plant.

Let’s clear some spiritual land this morning! Starting with prayer. How do you pray? Jesus tells his disciples not to babble like the pagans when they pray. Don’t babble? That’s right, don’t babble. He says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” So, how then should we pray? We ask for what we need. Nothing more. Daily bread. Forgiveness. Rescue from temptation, deliverance from evil. And for these we are to give constant thanks and praise. Why ask for what we need when the Father already knows what we need? We are completely dependent on God for everything. Asking for what we need exercises our humility, thus making our prayer all the more fruitful for understanding ourselves as creatures loved by our Creator.

How about fasting? First, why are you fasting? Are you taking advantage of Lent to lose a little weight for summer? Maybe trim down for the beach? Are you fasting to acquire a good habit? Or perhaps to lose a bad one? Are you following the rules merely to follow the rules? If your fasting is something other than a means of clearing away the spiritual brush, a way of pulling the noxious weeds that strangle your fruitful growth, then your fasting is without good purpose. Fasting is a discipline, that is, it is a way of learning. What are you learning from your Lenten fast? Come Easter, what will you know about your life in Christ that you do not know now? What can fasting teach us? Like praying for our needs, fasting can teach us about our dependence on God, about our need to acknowledge our dependence and give God thanks for His generosity. Fasting is not about “going without” food or drink or shopping. Fasting is about “going with” God instead of food or drink or shopping.

The Lord tells Isaiah, “[My word] shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” If the Word of the Lord is to achieve its end for you, it must do so with you. The Word must find in your heart and mind a field cleared of strangling weeds and choking brush. The Word waters thirsty ground, and the seed finds welcome in rich soil. We have forty days to turn a Lenten desert into a verdant field. Pray, fast, and never forget, never forget: gives thanks, always give thanks!

Why is Jesus tempted?

First Sunday of Lent: Gn 9.8-15; 1 Pt 3.18-22; Mk 1.12-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Jesus is driven into the desert. Not invited or called. Not lured or encouraged. But driven. With the waters of the Jordan still running off his head and the Spirit’s proclamation of his divine Sonship still ringing in his ears, Jesus is sent forth, by that same Spirit, into the wilderness sands to be tempted by Satan for forty days and nights. This is not a very dignified way to celebrate the baptism of the newly announced Son of God. This is not the welcome we would expect for the freshly washed, the newly purified. Nonetheless, Jesus is driven into the wilderness to live among wild beasts and to be ministered to by angels. What purpose does this indignity serve? What possible good could come from allowing Jesus to be tempted by the Devil?

Let’s understand what all this business about being “driven into the desert” implies about Jesus and his baptism. How is he driven into the wilderness? It seems as though he goes out into the sand reluctantly, under compulsion by the Spirit. Other English translations use “sent forth into,” “impelled to go out,” “put forth” instead of “driven out.” What’s missing from these other translations is the sense of immediacy and urgency Jesus feels. But using “driven out” leaves the impression that Jesus goes unwillingly. In fact, his baptism and the announcement of his divine Sonship by the Father—events immediately prior to his going out into the desert—are so profoundly definitive of Jesus’ ministry, mission, and identity that he is “driven into” the desert in the same way that athletes are driven to competitive perfection and artists are driven to creative expression. Gifted at his incarnation with both a human nature and a divine nature, the one person, Jesus, perfects his gift of Sonship in the crucible of the desert so that that gift might be used for God’s greater glory in the service of others—the salvation of all creation.

This first chapter of Mark clearly indicates the incarnational nature of Jesus’ Sonship by marking the divine with his baptism and marking the human with his temptation in the desert. After the forty days with the devil, Jesus is a finely honed, razor-sharp weapon of gospel preaching and miracle-working. Having been shown the limits of human loyalty to the Word and tempted to violate them, and having been shown the limits of angelic loyalty of the Word and tempted to violate them, Jesus walks out of the desert victorious over the devil, proclaiming: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” How much more forceful is this proclamation once we know that its clarity and simplicity were forged in the heat and sweat of the devil’s wilderness by “a man like one of us.” And how much more are we encouraged to hear this proclamation knowing that it comes from a man like one of us, and not only a man like one of us, but also the Father’s only-begotten Son. Fully human, fully divine—the gift of divine Sonship perfected in the trials of the desert—Christ Jesus comes to us as John prophesied, and we hear the gospel preached from the Word himself.

Jesus proclaims, “This is the time of fulfillment,” this is the moment of consummation, of satisfaction and completion; this age is the age of achievement and conclusion, of having done and being done. Every contract has its terms to be fulfilled. Every promise comes due. Every I.O.U. waits to be made right. We have a covenant with the Lord that surpasses Law, that surpasses Promise, that surpasses even the words of the Prophets. Our covenant with the Lord is the Lord himself in human flesh. The terms of our covenant, if you will, are etched on his skin, signed with a whip, and sealed with nails. Peter puts it rather succinctly: “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God. Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.” If our sins were to be healed, Christ had to become sin for us. If our sufferings were to be relieved, Christ had to become suffering for us. If our temptations were to be defeated, Christ had to become temptation for us, standing in the stead of our dis-ease, so that health might triumph. Origen gets it exactly right, “The whole man would not have been saved, unless Christ had taken upon himself the whole man.”

In as much as the man Jesus goes into the desert to try the limits of his humanity against the enticements of evil, so we are driven into that same desert to test the limits of our divinely-gifted end. All too familiar with the devil’s lures, we should look instead for the enchantments of our loving Creator, our God Who made us to come to Him and live with Him forever. Of course, the devil will lurk as he always does, but our attention, our focus and energy are wasted fighting the Loser. Christ has beaten the devil. But the devil refuses to concede the fight. Though he has lost, he can still find some satisfaction in convincing you that there is something to fight him about! And if he can convince you to spend your Lenten retreat fighting him, then he has succeeded in preventing you from glorying in God’s gifts of mercy and care.

We asked early on: what possible good could come from allowing Jesus to be tempted by the Devil? Simply put: our good, that is, the good of all the Father’s children who strive to reach and grasp His promise of divine life beyond this life. Without the bridge of the incarnation, without the sacrifice of Christ—fully human, fully divine—and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we would be left to our natural end: death and decay. Christ’s defeat of the devil’s enticements in the desert marks just the beginning of our recovery as loved creatures destined for divine union!

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