The Cloud of the Unknowing, Cafeteria Catholics and Pope Francis

Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene--OlsenOne of my favorite spiritual works–I haven’t read it in its entirety but as I do with most of my God books I read bits and pieces and skip around—is The Cloud of the Unknowing.

The Cloud of Unknowing is an anonymous work of Christian mysticism written in Middle English in the 14th century. It is a spiritual guide on Catholic contemplative prayer. It proposes the only way to truly “know” God is to abandon all preconceived notions and beliefs or “knowledge” about God and be courageous enough to surrender your mind and ego to the realm of “unknowingness,” at which point, you begin to glimpse the true nature of God.

With the election of Pope Francis it seems a new era has swarmed into the Church. I am careful not to say a “better” era. I felt Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was a brilliant pope who left us beautiful epistles, wonderful homilies and made great strides in uniting certain facets of Christians with the Church.  Also, he held fast to supporting the Church’s moral truths which are under attack in the secular world, therefore our very Catholic selves are under attack.  I loved him, looked at him as a true shepherd of our Church, guided by God to shepherd the whole Church.

What I mean by this new era is how Pope Francis is able to appeal to the other Catholics, ex-Catholics and the ones who might be more cafeteria-style in their Catholic morality but who nonetheless want to know, love and serve God. Unable to grasp the importance of God’s moral truths in following Him, they still want to follow Him.

And Francis opens that door, without compromising on the Church’s moral truths. By his humility, his meekness, his imperative and primary call to serve the poor, these Catholics fall silent–in a good way, silent. They stop attacking temporarily. They perceive a pope they might actually be able to relate to. This is the God they know and love, the God who serves the poor and the God who loves all of us, even those of us who can’t—-by nature of our ignorance and pride, which we all have to some extent in different capacities—come to accept moral truths.

I’ve listened to the commentary and have been impressed with comments like “breath of fresh air in the Church,” and “guarded hopefulness.”  As for me, it’s funny because the Church has ALWAYS been about social justice–at least in my lifetime. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were tremendous champions of the poor and the vulnerable.  So why couldn’t these other Catholics see it? And why do they see Pope Francis as a breath of fresh air?

I can only guess it’s because these types of Catholics abhor authority, hierarchy, pomp, Catholic morality?  I don’t have a problem with authority, hierarchy, pomp (beauty!) and theological morality. So, I saw the Church’s grand social justice network as part of a whole, not a separate thing.

Anyways, for those cafeteria and ex-Catholics who might entertain coming back to the fold because of Pope Francis, welcome! And yay! You don’t have to have a perfect understanding (I say “understanding” because if these Catholics truly understood Catholic morality they would embrace it) of morality in order to be welcomed in the Church.  Just come back. Your understanding of the necessity of her moral teachings will come more readily once you’re here for a while.  So come back and let the Church and the Holy Spirit transform you.

The most important moral teaching, the foundation of it all, is the Church teaching on the dignity of the human person. Thank God for her stubborn insistence on condemning abortion. Pro-life in all circumstances, it is my prayer that Catholics who support a “woman’s right to choose abortion” will come to understand the love behind the Church’s teaching on this.

I’ve been thinking about the things that appeal to more liberal Catholics–and in addition to social justice, to me they seem to be more existential in nature. I’m making a big generalization here but it’s also an invitation.

where-only-love-can-go-30-days-with-john-kirvan-paperback-cover-artCheck out the Cloud of the Unknowing. A contemplative myself, this is a great entry point for those looking for the softer side of the Faith. Softer as in—it’s all about “love”— and not morality.  But this spiritual classic is not for beginners who wish to dabble in spirituality and new ageness. This spirituality is deeply rooted in Jesus, in forgetting everything about the world and getting to know God without distraction.

The Cloud of the Unknowing is written in middle English and for me is very difficult to read. I have to read every sentence three times to get it. So books like the one by John Kirvan, “Where Only Love Can Go,” are excellent tools for me to embrace this spiritual classic.  Where Only Love Can Go is a thirty day trip through The Cloud of the Unknowing, in modern language.  Here is an excerpt:

My dear friend in the Spirit, up until now you have lived a good but ordinary Christian life, not very different from your friends. But apparently God is calling you to something more. Because of the love in his heart, which he has had for you from the moment of your creation, he is not going to leave you alone, not about to let you off so easily. You are beginning to experience in  a special way God’s everlasting love, which you were brought out of nothingness and redeemed at the price of his blood. You can no longer be content to live at a distance from God. In his great grace he has kindled a desire in your heart to be more closely united to him.”

Kirwan notes that the anonymous author of The Cloud of the Unknowing instructs its reader that this is a book and a journey, which requires serious attention. He goes on to say, “The Cloud of the Unknowing is not for those who are tempted to “dip into” spirituality, to play around the edges of contemplation, presuming that the journey to God is a trip into warm fuzziness and uninterrupted serenity.”

So, in conclusion here I’m excited that ex-Catholics and “cafeteria” Catholics are looking at Pope Francis fondly and therefore looking more fondly at our Church. If only they would stop criticizing her for a minute and simply experience her in all her beauty and complexity, they will come to love her as I do. The Cloud of the Unknowing, a very Catholic spiritual work, might be a good place to start. And eventually, their understanding of God’s moral truths will come—and they will see the moral truths are there not to punish or condemn us but to free us and perfect us to closer union with our Creator.

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5 Reasons Pope Francis is a Great Choice for Alcoholics

ignatius.trinity5 Reasons Pope Francis is a Wonderful Choice by the Holy Spirit for Alcoholics

1.       A Jesuit, Pope Francis embraces Ignatian spirituality

The spirituality of Saint Ignatius in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is undeniable. Bill W., the “co-founder” of AA did not rely on Ignatius’ teachings in drafting the Steps; however, he developed a devoted friendship with Father Ed Dowling, a Jesuit priest who was the first to notice the presence of Ignatian spirituality in the Steps.

A gentle, charming man, Fr. Dowling sought Bill Wilson out and introduced him to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. It is said the Bill Wilson took his 5th Step with Father Dowling. The similarities between the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and the 12 Steps hint at why the Steps have survived intact over the years. The principles of the Steps are based in ancient Christian principles.

ignatiusspirituality projectA remarkable Chicago-based Jesuit ministry which offers retreats to those who are homeless and seeking recovery from alcoholism and addiction is the Ignatian Spirituality Project. This ministry helps them find meaning and purpose as they reclaim their lives. The Ignatian Spirituality Project also trains the formerly homeless to assist in giving retreats.

As a Jesuit, Pope Francis no doubt is familiar with and practices these Spiritual Exercises, which would foster an empathetic understanding of the plight of the alcoholic and the recovering individual.

2.       Choosing the name “Francis” and the Prayer of Saint Francis for Alcoholics

In Alcoholics Anonymous’ companion book, the “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” Bill Wilson offered the Prayer of Saint Francis to alcoholics as a way of practicing the 11th Step. This prayer is typically noted as the 11th Step Prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.

What practicing, active alcoholic is not focused on self?  By design alcoholics put the drink before all else. We may call ourselves “functioning alcoholics,” but are we really?  Are we really present in the lives of our loved ones or are we seeking to be understood, loved? Aren’t we in the end in despair and lacking in hope?

By choosing the name Francis, this pope is reaching out to all of us to let us know that the key to peace, the keys to the kingdom are in serving others and thinking less often of ourselves and our needs, which also happens to be the foundational principles of 12 Step programs.

3.       Pope Francis and the “War on Drugs” in Latin America

As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, then Cardinal Bergoglio was familiar with alcohol and drug addiction and its impact on families, cultures and parishes.

In 2011, in the annual Mass for Education he spoke to more than 5 thousand students about fighting drug trafficking in the schools. “We are giving future generations a culture of death and darkness,” adding that, “drugs and alcohol kill.”  On Apr 23, 2009, he exhorted thousands of students present not to be trapped by “the proposal of the easy shortcut, instant gratification, alcohol or drugs, because that is darkness.”

He urged, “Open your hearts to the light even though it is hard, do not allow yourselves to be enslaved by the promises that seem to be freedom but are in reality oppression, the promises of vain happiness, the promises of darkness.”

To the same group in 2008, he spoke about the children of alcoholic parents, of the boys and girls who are “abandoned of love, meaningful conversation, joy and who do not know what it is to play with Mom and Dad because their parents have succumb to the proposal of alcohol or drugs, which,” he says, “is darkness.”

An alcoholic mother myself, I appreciate Pope Francis’ focus on the perspectives of our children and how family alcoholism affects them.

in 2008, on Holy Thursday he washed the feet of 12 recovering drug addicts at a rehabilitation center in Buenos Aires.

4.       Pope Francis and Humility—the hallmark of recovery

One of the first things we discovered about our new Pope Francis was his apparent humility. From asking the crowd to pray for him to the stories of him washing the feet of AIDS patients, this Pope has already been identified to us as a very humble man.

ignatius2In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the guiding principles behind the 12 Steps, and especially steps 2, 5 and 7 is humility. The word “humility” occurs 52 times in the first 164 pages of the “Big Book” and the “12&12.”  An alcoholic who fails to capture the essence of humility in her heart—not just in her mind—has a difficult road of recovery.

In speaking to the necessity for Step 7, Bill W writes in the 12&12, “That basic ingredient of all humility, a desire to seek and do God’s will, was missing.”

In speaking of taking Step 2, Bill writes on page 33 of the 12&12, “True humility and an open mind can lead us to faith, and every A.A. meeting is an assurance that God will restore us to sanity if we rightly relate ourselves to Him.”

And to Step 5, it says in the 12&12 on p.58, “Therefore, our first practical move toward humility must consist of recognizing our deficiencies.”

Fr. Joseph A. Tetlow, S.J., who became a Jesuit in 1947 and has served as a professor of history and dean of arts and sciences at Loyola University, writes in Making Choices for Christ,

“True humility does not attract many in this new age of self-realization. We tend to equate humility with self-abasement, but such “humility” would attract only the mentally ill. Christian humility, properly understood, requires a strong sense of self, and the greater the humility, the stronger the sense of self. For as more than one saint has remarked, humility is seeing and acknowledging the truth about yourself and your world.”

By practicing such a deep and obvious humility Pope Francis will show the way to those of us in recovery hoping to do the same.

5.       12th Step Work and the then-Cardinal Bergoglia’s call for a new evangelization in Latin America

Pope Francis, as Cardinal and head of the Church in Argentina, has shown a committed focus to the new evangelization, which is key for Catholic alcoholics.

Last May, along with the Latin American Bishops at their convention, then Cardinal Bergoglio, presented the Aparecida Document, which is the comprehensive document proposing a new evangelization. Pope Benedict gave his blessing to the Document. Our new Pope Francis spent a great deal of effort through this Document insisting the way to bring others back to Christ is by evangelizing through our actions. We normally might think of “evangelism” as intrusive and salesy. But this is not what is meant here. We are to evangelize by our example.

According to 12 Step texts, alcoholics are initially spiritually bankrupt; but many find their way back to God through practicing the principles of the 12 Steps.

The 12th Step calls us to “carry this message to other alcoholics.”  We are to “evangelize.”  We are, through our actions and example, to show active alcoholics how good life can be without alcohol.  We never insist or compel. We don’t force interventions. We can only be an example. We are to “evangelize” other alcoholics not with words but by our actions.

Taking the 12th Step a bit further, the Catholic alcoholic is in a position to be an example of how Christ transforms us.

Alcoholism has driven many away from the Church. In AA meetings I sit beside many “ex-Catholics.”  These ex-Catholics have found their way back to God, yet have not found their way back to their Church.  How do we evangelize them?

This is delicate but important 12 Step work. And I believe in addition to participating in communities like the Calix Society, the best way is by our example. Like Pope Francis’ example of forgoing the palace and the limo, our example of living our Catholic faith joyfully in recovery will lead ex-Catholics home. The New Evangelization called forth in this Latin American Aparecide Document, in the Year of Faith is in essence “12 Step work” for the Church.