Monthly Archives: December 2014

A Third Way

Recent, painful headlines have raised anew in all of our minds a dark cloud. How do we understand violence, our complicity with it, our response to it? Caught between an urge to respond and a growing sense of futility, responses of anger, grief and exhaustion all start to sound like the same question: where is the way forward?

A passage in Robert Barron’s The Strangest Way often draws my students’ attention when we read the book together. In his discussion of nonviolence, Barron offers this explanation of the term:

In the gospel sense, nonviolence is a third way between or above the two classical responses to evil: fight and flight. In the face of opposition or attack, one can, according to common wisdom, either fight back or run away. In the first case, as history has unambiguously and sadly shown, violence simply increases, since vengeance begets vengeance; and in the second case, violence is allowed to thrive since it is not opposed. Gospel love is a third path–neither violent nor acquiescent. It actively and provocatively opposes violence, but not through more violence, fighting fire with fire, as it were. Rather, it opposes evil through compassionate and forgiving noncooperation; it refuses to live in the world favored by the violent person.

We look together at Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek.” “Notice,” I have to say, “that this is not what your parents taught you. They all gave you the same, very practical advice when the question of fistfights on the playground came up at the dinner table.” And when I point to them, the students respond, all together: third way“Just walk away…” But Jesus doesn’t give that option. To fully grasp how foreign, and how difficult, this teaching is, we have to see that he insists that his followers neither to fight nor to walk away.

“But,” my students ask, “what does that look like?”

Sometimes, we together talk about nonviolent, group-action protests, and the training that is required to engage in such protest successfully. Passive resistance and sit-ins, the strategies of Gandhi and King, give at least some concrete example. Going limp, refusing to fight back, however, continue to be forms of what-we-are-not-doing. What do we do?

My proposal, to be explored in posts to come, is that we have a rich account of remaining, and it is a Marian one.

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On Suffering Surprise

Blessed Pope Urban V, I’ve suggested, might serve as a model to us in the practice of suffering surprise. There is, however, a danger here.

Those who are heavily secure–or at least perceive themselves to be–may be tempted to sentimentalize suffering and surprise. Relinquishing control can actually feel daring and romantic, if you feel you possess some control to begin with. As the growing study of trauma reminds us, though, not all surprises are good ones.  Surely we ought to allow that what many people need most is a little consistency, a little quiet day-to-day routine, with no surprises at all, thank you very much.

And yet.

Even those of us who feel the bite of vulnerability cannot resort to a barricaded life. We have to find some way to go forward unarmed, some way to close our eyes in contemplation, even when that prevents us from seeing possible danger.

In his great work, The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis tells us the hard truth: choosing vulnerability is our only option if we seek to love.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

This is hard.

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The Accidental Pope

Blessed Pope Urban V

Blessed Pope Urban V

Guillaume de Grimoard was a Benedictine monk and renowned professor of canon law, but he was not a cardinal, much less a bishop, in the fall of 1362. He was traveling on an errand when he learned that the pope who sent him had died. Now, he was was asked to return to consult with the papal conclave. Only after he arrived did they tell him the truth: they had already elected him as the pope’s replacement, raising him to the most esteemed office of the universal church. Why? Because the person they really wanted said no. In fact, as it turned out, none of the members of the conclave had any interest in the position. Thus, Guillaume became Pope Urban V.

Too, you should know, Urban V rose to the position of Vicar of Christ in the midst of the most embarrassing moment in papal history: the  “Avignon papacy,” (begun when a Frenchman elected pope declined to relocate, having decided that one could surely just as easily serve from the lovely French countryside). So, what would you do? Pope Urban effected the first of several crucial steps in righting the situation: he returned the papacy to Rome. He was known, beyond that, for a rigorous simplicity, repudiating the luxurious habits of the cardinals and bringing many kinds of reforms. He supported education, including founding the university of Hungary and singlehandedly saving school of music at Toulouse. He remained close to the people. He was always, it was said, available to anyone who sought his aid.

We live in an age in which choosing–and accomplishing what one has chosen–is everything. Maybe Pope Urban V, whose feast day is today, reminds of something else: the blessedness of the accidental. To choose is deeply appropriate to the dignity of the individual, to be sure, but here we’re reminded that choice so often take the form of what we do when we are caught be surprise. Let down, perhaps. Or informed we have been elected pope–at a moment when popes have become a laughingstock. Whether and how we give consent in such circumstances, how we suffer surprise, is so often the most important choice we make.

In his private life, Pope Urban always continued to live as a Benedictine monk. Maybe this was the source of his ability to respond, to be patient, to find a way, on that November day in 1362, to do as the Benedictines do, and begin again.

So, have a blessed feast of Blessed Pope Urban V. Burn the cake, perhaps. But suffer well. Think of Guillaume, and begin again.

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