Psalm 151b

sinead-oconnor-take-me-to-churchI can’t claim to know much about Sinéad O’Connor. When she did her Saturday Night Live act a few years back, I remember the outrage among several Nashotah House students muttering unholy threats. Not that they were Catholic, having *ahem* celibacy issues, but they objected to a picture of Pope John Paul II, known colloquially as “J2P2,” being torn up. This symbolic gesture lost her, on campus anyway, about a dozen fans. I had nearly forgotten the Irish bardess when my wife sent me an NPR story on her recent song, “Take Me to Church.” I was immediately struck by the lyrics that, to this old Psalter reader, sounded very much like a Psalm. The lyrics, while some will certainly disagree, resonant very strongly with the self-confession that permeates the hymnal of ancient Israel. Not that O’Connor has suddenly become a proper Catholic, but she has entered the band of David.

Many popular artists over the years, I would contend, have struck that familiar chord. Anyone who reads the Psalms at face value will find it hard to miss the angst of the writer who tries to do right only to find that s/he needs someone to “take them to church.” Music is the confessional of the soul. Psalms can be a most secular book. The way some biblical scholars like to explain it is that the Torah and the prophets are God speaking to (read “commanding”) people, and Psalms are the opportunity of people to speak their mind to the divine. This might explain the otherwise inexcusable anger that pours out in invective which, if we’re honest, we’ll have to admit to having felt from time to time.

The line we draw sharply between sacred and secular is attenuated in the Psalms. In fact, it is in any honest religion. When religions present themselves as strictly lived as if people could be truly righteous while others should be excluded, trouble is on the horizon. Pictures get torn up, and the “faithful” grow angry. I know few who would argue that humans are perfect just the way we are, yet, for the most part, we try to do what is right. The standards any religion proffers are too high, and we are bound to fail. Perhaps the saving grace, if I may borrow a bit of religious language, is that even the secular can write effective psalms along the way.

Unusual Thanksgiving

Believe it or not, preaching was once part of my job description. At Nashotah House all faculty were called to the pulpit, ordained or not. Falling into the latter camp, my obligations were generally held down to once a semester. My first homily, focused on the lectionary readings for the day, was about the problems of social inequality. Afterward the senior faculty member came to me in the vestry and said, “It has been a long time since I’ve heard the social gospel preached from that pulpit.” This little incident came to mind as I was reading a CNN Belief Blog story my wife pointed out to me. The article highlights some of the provocative comments by Pope Francis in his recent document Evangelii Gaudium. Francis, in a startlingly refreshing vein, suggests that the church must get back to basics. Human basics. I agree with those who say the church has not gone far enough on gender equality, but the idea that the cut of your surplice demands more divine attention than the homeless and starving has got to go.

At Nashotah House many students who wanted to be Catholic priests but also wanted to be married (the flesh is willing, but the spirit is weak) had Pope cards, rather like baseball cards, in their chapel stalls. This was in the era of the great conservative John Paul II, affectionally known as J2P2 in the theological ‘hood, when men ruled and a congregation might split over the use of a maniple. The gnat-strainers were clogged in those years. Camels fled for their lives. I wonder what these priests now make of the very head of their favorite chauvinistic church stating that even the papacy itself must change. I keep wondering when Pope Francis will have his accident, or unexpected heart attack or stroke. As the Belief Blog makes clear, not all appreciate the challenge to the status quo. There is too much power at stake.

This Thanksgiving, this old Protestant finds himself unaccountably thankful for a Pope that is willing to start turning things in the right direction. It will take decades, if not centuries, before the church can possibly catch up with the realities faced by the vast majority of the powerless, disenfranchised, and the needy. These are uncomfortable realities. When I saw a picture of Pope Francis laying his hands on a badly deformed man during a service in Rome a few weeks back, I could almost believe that someone was taking the message of Jesus to heart. That message was, and is, a radical one. We only have all-male disciples because we can only count to twelve. And we tend to forget that just about all of those guys were working-class slobs. Maybe if we could really be thankful for the gift of people all of this might just come to mean something significant after all.

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Photo credit: Tomaz Silva/ABr

Expect a Miracle

The Pope has been in Portugal. No visit to Portugal would be complete without a stop at the shrine of Fatima. Named for one of the most fascinating characters in Muslim history, Mohammed’s strong daughter Fatima, this small, centrally located town had no claims to fame until 1917. Suddenly three children declared that the Virgin Mary had appeared to them while tending their sheep. The story is about as eerie as the canonical photograph of the unsmiling youngsters. Their sincere proclamations were met with acceptance by many war-weary Europeans and predictions began to emerge from these visions. On October 13 that year some 70,000 pilgrims alleged that the sun itself danced, twirled, and took on new colors. Astronomers reported no solar anomalies at the time.

The events at Fatima have fascinated both religious and secular explorers of the supernatural. The religiously devout claim nothing shy of a miracle while those seeking more dramatic non-theistic explanations claim that aliens were behind the show. Whether or not a physical event transpired, something out of the ordinary occurred in Fatima that day. Now a permanent shrine graces the location. If the apparition appears again, she will be comfortably housed in doors, out of the elements. She might even see one of the bullets fired at Pope John Paul II during the famous assassination attempt. Many believe the Pope’s survival was itself a miracle.

Gnu version of Virgin under Glass

Now Pope Benedict XVI has visited the shrine where heaven once touched earth. Afterwards he climbed into the Popemobile, the motorized bullet-proof reliquary that allows papal viewing by the faithful while protecting Rome’s most valued asset. The message is clear: it is wonderful to believe in miracles, but it is prudent never to trust in them. Two of the three children (Jacinta and Francisco) died before they reached twelve, felled by the famed Spanish Influenza. The miracle that could have preserved their young lives never occurred. Lucia alone survived to 97. Expect a miracle? The odds are hard to predict on that one.