My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. --Thomas Merton (Trappist Monk 1915- 1968)
As the war rages on, one has simply to listen to the latest snide repartee vented among the television News channel favourites to appreciate the extent to which the age-old 'us' and 'them' talk has, once again, become shop in the land of cheesy journalism. Not since the Protestant Reformation have differing religious affiliations become, relative to public opinion, either more partisan than before or else altogether dismissed as superfluous. After Bush's incorrigible inference that America's retribution on Afghanistan might be comparable to a crusade, it is certainly unlikely that relations between muslims and the West have suffered such a calculated blow since the Third Crusade. But whether or not Islam will redeem itself from those isolated pockets of fanaticism which have effectively hijacked from popular sympathy even the most moderate among our arab counterparts, it has to be a bold brand of logic indeed which pretends to use the atrocities of history to justify what, when reduced to its raw motivation, would be tantamount to a perverse form of jihad against Islam. One hopes, in the interests of tolerance, that those among the trigger-happy who are behind this war will seek rather to employ less divisive angles in selling their propaganda.
Beneath it all, however, there yet remains the nagging sense that any critical study into the development of just one of the myriad of belief systems or social groupings to which individuals ascribe a personal point of reference would, in all probability, yield to very mixed sentiments of shame and pride. As to the search for social and religious identity, then, perhaps it is something like being hurled into a choppy sea of events past and present - ostensibly by an accident of fate. Thus confronted by the mixed baggage of which one is an inheritor, invariably at some point one will be challenged, at best, to view one's tribe in a spirit of strained impartiality. Hence the underlying suspicion is that for a Muslim, no less than for a Christian, contentions around faith might, after all, have less to do with belief in God than with more practical issues of forbearance within the group as, at some point, a conscious decision has to be made to embrace one's chosen tradition - warts and all.
Though in the line of apologetics I could hardly pass for your conventional enthusiast, in the light of this recent polemic I presume here nonetheless to proffer some thoughts on Catholicism. To begin, and for all my disgruntlement with clericalism, I am the first to own that it is often easier to denigrate the Church than to defend it. Yet I find the oft-heard assertion that any incompetence in it's historical demeanor has reduced the Catholic alternative to a meaningless life choice to be, frankly, puzzling. After all, we are to still reasonably believe that though it be a church of sinners, the saints, as members, continue to accord it a peculiar moral position in society if one be willing to accept such as those who, forever accusing themselves of falling short of the commission to witness to the Jesus of the Gospels, have variously had the courage to at once acknowledge their spiritual ineptitude and pick themselves up again. Supposedly, by so doing those who have taken the faith question more seriously have become 'little' enough to at times fall even helpless before the throne of grace, begging for new hope, an enduring faith, a closer intimacy with the same mystery of love which this Christian God is meant to enfold. The pretext : if these of exemplary life hold such a cherished station within a worldwide community which, for two millennia, has claimed to draw strength from the message and promise of this risen Christ then, in fairness, Catholicism cannot be 'all bad'.
True, for me the menacing variables here are, as always, the unsettling contradictions of history. In judging these, certainly the advantages of being situated in the present are more likely to include the privilege of a bird's eye view, which has some weight in ensuring that the winning verdict be squarely ours when discriminating among conflicting contexts of the past. That said, it follows that by laying claim to his baptismal dignity the believer acknowledges, existentially, the reality of sin - including his own potential to opt for its course in his own life. This would necessarily extend to the assumption of responsibility even for former abominations, such that he would assent that, in it's participation throughout the ages with the periodically turbulent events theologians have dubbed the story of salvation, the accompanying drama and enduring pathos of this great adventure in time recounts in some measure his own story as well. Does this preclude the daunting admission that, being human, had he been one among the first stewards of the Gospel message, he might have become as preoccupied with power or enmeshed in ambition as any one of the popes or prelates of the more important sees ? If that be not so, evidently he is compromised. Assuming, then, it is as one broken that he must count himself among this family of the broken, the allusion is that he awaits expectantly a loving, healing God whom (he trusts) will one day put the shattered pieces together again.
Perhaps this is not unlike the practical hazards of biblical revelation. In reading scripture, at which point do the exegetes establish when the God of Israel reveals himself ? Clearly the Old Testament is replete with merciless oppression of the enemies of Israel (not excluding the cruelest massacres), all at the express sanction of Yahweh. Even so, many continue reverently to reflect upon these selfsame passages. The motivation : it is precisely because they show up humanity in its base and sometimes ugly reality that these texts speak to sinners, as it were, in their own language. Moreover, as it is in this condition of incompleteness that God elects to meet his people, it would follow that it is here they are able in some way to relate to, and finally discern, his voice.
Curiously, despite his inherent spinelessness Christ appoints Peter as head of the Apostles (Mt 16:18, Jn 21:15-18). As God he is supposed to have the foresight to deduce that, for all the good intentions, the man is everything but competent. In fact, he might more wisely have chosen John, knowing he would at least remain faithful to him to the end. He doesn't. Instead he singles out this weak, unlettered fisherman to lead the early Church. Throughout the Gospel this Peter is incessantly diminishing himself with his characteristically excitable behaviour : the capricious judgement and that vulgar impetuousness evident both in his action and in his speech. Either he is rushing into some situation beyond his capacity to follow through to a conclusion (Mt 14:28), or he is making valiant (and empty) declarations of fidelity to his master (Lk 22:33). Again in the Acts of the Apostles there are indications that he holds a certain primacy over his contemporaries (2:14), a role which many today understand to have mutated into the form of apostolic succession represented in the office of the pope.
For all that it is clear numerous pontificates have given way to historical development and certainly one can always argue around the point of whether or not the papacy is defensible in it's present form. But however one may view the Bishop of Rome, it would appear that by his apparently ill-advised choice of Peter, Jesus entrusted a vocation as much to those more intimate companions who surrounded him as to the movement he saw himself inspiring - as a whole. By it (and allegedly with the co-operation of the Holy Spirit after his Resurrection), it would appear that he was inviting his followers to assume responsibility for the course that movement would take. Succeeding centuries see Christians participate, to a greater or lesser extent, in this vocation, variously challenging their communities where and when they are unfaithful to God - no more, it can be noted, than the prophets of old did from the time of the Exodus. Certainly the Church has been, as it continues to be, in need of change. Yet the question remains whether the contributions of Luther and others after him might more effectively have taken the form of a series of revolutions from within. Though I would not presume to attempt an answer (or even suggest that there be one at all), it seems to me that people like Francis of Assisi offered a form of resistance no less exacting, even echoing something of the selfsame message which has traversed the ages to reach us on this side of the Third Millennium : that this lukewarm multitude who claim to be Christ's own, this family of turncoat practitioners, is each day and in every way invited to convert, reconvert, and then again to convert back to the teachings of the Gospel. Sometimes it does this with credible conviction, other times decidedly not.
Whatever may be the last word on the present pontiff as he totters between this world and the next, John Paul II can be seen to have been impressively vocal throughout Europe and the US in calling for the cancellation of Third World debt in recent years. We know also that in the early 80's he played a significant role in destabilizing in Poland a regime which had become insufferable to many, a process which would culminate in the end of the Cold War, and which would later be considered a triumph for democracy. Nevertheless, it is equally clear that in co-operating so slyly with the Reagan administration over this time the Vatican seemed to suffer no qualms of conscience in making a pact with the devil to achieve its objectives on this one.
It is for the reasons I cite here that my personal conclusion is that, as it be unlikely we will all have the benefit of a road-to-Damascus type conversion, there are bound to be two sides to this hapless Catholic coin. I once heard Faith likened to a pilgrimage. I guess that doesn't exclude the perspiration, the hard work and raw fatigue of remaining receptive to the mystery of grace and pliable to the workings of this Holy Spirit which Paul keeps talking about. Finally, after the lessons of the Augustines or the Mertons of history, I begin to suspect fidelity to the will of God might more usefully be seen as the journey rather than as the destination if we are to derive from it any plausible meaning.
Merton T, 'Thoughts in Solitude,' Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1993, Boston, MA.
Bernstein C, 'The Holy Alliance,' Time Magazine (Cover Story), February 24, 1992.
S Agostino d'Ippona, 'Le confessioni'.