Do This In Memory Of Me

       ImageOn Christmas Eve in 1914, the soldiers of the Allied troops were dug in on one side of “No Man’s Land,” a neutral territory that divided the trenches of the Allies from the opposing trenches of the German army. The trenches of both armies spread along a border nearly thirty miles long, with the distance between them varying depending on the terrain. Harold Jenkins, a private in the British army, was assigned to the front just outside of Paris where the fighting had been particularly heavy. He had just received a Christmas package from home. The hand-knit woollen socks were a God-send. His feet had not been dry or warm since he had entered the flooded trench that his battalion had been charged with defending. He also relished the thought of enjoying a good smoke and some pieces of chocolate that had been included in the package. Most of all, he appreciated the lengthy letter with news from home. It brought tears to his eyes to think of how the family would all be celebrating Christmas, going to Church and sharing a delicious dinner this evening. 

     All of the soldiers were feeling a bit sad and sentimental. Over the past twenty-four hours, memories of Christmases past made the continuous sniping and the rapid machine gun fire, the soggy muck of the trench floor, and the hastily eaten rations and gulps of water seem all the more terrible. Some of the men were even crying because they were feeling so homesick. A few of the guys, more optimistic and hopeful than the others, were trying to make the best of a bad situation. In the spirit of the season, they had erected a sign on the parapets of their trench, facing towards the enemy trenches wishing the German soldiers a “Merry Christmas.” 

     To their surprise, within an hour or so, the Germans had erected a sign as well. Then, word began to spread through the ranks that the Germans had sent a message across to the Allies, asking if it would be agreeable to have a short ceasefire in order for their troops to get a small Christmas concert together. The Allied commander had agreed to this and before long, the sounds of familiar Christmas carols were drifting over from the other side of No Man’s land. Spirits began to lift, and since the fighting had stopped for the moment the Allied soldiers spent time exchanging some of the gifts they had received from family with one another and sharing news from home. When a chocolate cake arrived as a gift from the German troops, there was nothing to do but to put together a gift to send back. Soon soldiers were venturing out from the trenches on both sides and meeting one another, singing some songs together and exchanging small items from their meagre stores. Since the sun had come out for the first time in days, men from both sides even got up a few soccer scrimmages. 

     The Company Commander, acting on orders he had received “from above,” tried to stop the exchanges between the enemy troops, but he had no success. Finally, after several days, new troops were sent to replace the troops in the trenches and the fighting resumed. For those who experienced this Christmas truce, the suspension of hostilities during the Christmas season became a surreal memory. As impossible as it would seem, enemy soldiers had crossed the small piece of land that belonged to neither army to share conversation, gifts and camaraderie with one another. For a brief period of time, No Man’s Land had become Common Ground.


     This story, based on a real event that occurred in the early days of World War One, serves as a reminder that, often, our enemies are chosen for us by circumstances and events that seem to be beyond our control. On the command of our superiors, we trudge our way through battles that often make little or no sense to us. The troops in the trenches often said, in reflecting on this Christmas truce, that it seemed hard to believe both at the time and later in the war. It’s tempting to make this story one of nostalgia and sentimentality, and to gloss over the very real tensions that must have been present in the situation.

     This story reminds me of another story – the story of the “Last Supper” that appears in every one of the four Gospels in the New Testament. In a way, this story helps us to “disenchant” that most important of Christian narratives. In almost all of the art that depicts the inauguration of the Eucharist, and in most of the homilies and teachings I have heard or read about it, the supper that Jesus shared with his disciples seems to be cast in a hazy, warm glow. He lovingly shares food and wine, offers up the blessing of thanksgiving and gives praise to God. Often the disciples are shown to be resting upon one another, or leaning forward eagerly to engage each other in conversation. But, if we read back into the story the accusations of Jesus and his warnings that he knows about the coming betrayals of his faithless followers, we have to also reinvest the story with tension. 

     Jesus called Judas to be one of his followers and appointed him the keeper of the common purse. At the dinner, he lets everyone know of Judas’ treachery. Jesus called Peter and ultimately appointed him to tend to those who needed Jesus’ care and guidance. At the dinner, he lets everyone know that Peter hasn’t got what it takes to endure faithfully with him to the end. When Jesus states that he knows that first Judas and then Peter will betray him, he would certainly have lent the atmosphere in that room an air of tension, conflict, discomfort and embarrassment. And yet, we seem to always focus on the serenity and loving kindness of Jesus as he breaks the bread and shares it with everyone present, and when he blesses the cup and allows it to be passed to all of the disciples as a common ritual drink.

     It would seem that the New Testament authors wanted us to know that, despite the fact that those present at the last supper of Jesus and his disciples were far from perfect, and might possibly have been considered enemies to Jesus, the sharing of the ritual Passover meal takes place as a way of suspending hostilities so that the group can be united in giving thanks and praise to God. If we remember this while we read the accounts of the soldiers on the front lines who likewise suspended hostilities in order to celebrate Christmas, perhaps we can grasp the meaning of true communion without having to resort to denial of the very real problems faced by people who were, in fact, enemies.

     There is a very real difference in these two stories and it is one which ought to be reflected upon by the church. In the army, the officers who were appointed commanders of the troops were issuing orders to the troops to stop fraternizing with the enemy. They knew, no doubt, that it would be very difficult to resume fighting once they had gotten to know one another. If we consider that Jesus was, in truth, the “high commander” of the band of disciples, we must acknowledge that he did not act in this way. Instead, he acknowledged the betrayals, the mistrust, and the conflict that were present in their relationships. Then, he suspended any hostility and enacted a shared meal where not one of the disciples – particularly not those who had broken faith, as it were – was excluded.

     What do we do when we gather to obey Jesus’ command to “Do this in memory of me?” Do we follow the example of Jesus? Do we act like the soldiers at the front lines in the war and suspend our hostilities? Do we put aside our grievances and issues with one another to celebrate our unity in God? Or do we act more like the Company Commanders and the Generals in the army? Do we seek to disrupt or disallow anything that might seem like “fraternizing with the enemy?” Which of these two situations, given the act of Jesus in instituting the sacrament of communion, should the Church represent? 

     It seems obvious that the Church should follow Jesus and should correct itself when it finds that its practices have become irreconcilable with who Jesus was and what he did. But the Church often seems more inclined to imitate the views of the Generals and Company Commanders in dictating that its members avoid fraternizing with the enemy. That logic is present in decisions to deny communion to certain members of the Church, even though we must remember that Jesus never seems to have followed this path in his teaching and companionship with his own disciples. In the media, the Church hierarchy often seems to demand that the faithful obey their directives and stop the practices of communion that are taking place in communities with serious issues, conflicts and animosity. By casting out the wrong-doers, do they believe that peace and harmony will be restored? Or are they afraid that if people are encouraged to come together despite their differences, the fighting will not resume once the communion is done?

     Within the army, the views of the Generals do drift down and are taken up by ambitious soldiers. They try to act like Generals in the hope that they will be chosen to climb the ladder of military power. The same thing can happen in the Church. People who ambitiously seek the approval of official superiors can try to act like them, to show that they understand why the war must not be allowed to be suspended in order to enjoy a ceasefire and communion. Maybe the reality of the tension that was present in the story of the Last Supper should give us pause to think about what communion really is – it is the sacramental act of overcoming apparent division in order to gather in unity to express thanksgiving and praise to one God who is the God of all. It is a sacrifice. We sacrifice our entitlement to grudges, self-righteousness, divisions, superiority and the right to exclude others from our table in order to appreciate and give thanks for the essential unity that binds us all despite our differences, even despite the very real evil for which we bear responsibility within our own communities.

     Human beings betray one another. We perform evil acts upon one another. Our church communities reflect this reality. Being perfect is not a requirement for participation in the Eucharist. If it was, no human being would ever feel worthy to participate. In fact, such heresies pepper church history and have often led to the faithful denying themselves communion because of their sense of unworthiness. But the truth is that communion in our parishes – especially in those parishes that are experiencing conflict and disharmony – should be cast more in the light of the Last Supper and the Christmas Truce of World War One, and less in the light of commands and directives from the “higher ups” in our institutions. If for no other reason, this should happen to remind us that nothing – nothing we can do – can overcome the love of God and its power to unite us.


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Thought of the day – March 28 2014

We live in times of such political upheaval. It makes me wonder what politics will look like in the future. I have asked myself – what is the most important feature of our Canadian political landscape and how hard will we work to make sure that feature endures into the future?

My answer is that, in Canada, we have developed our right to be responsible for one another through our constitution, our charter, our laws, our customs, our social programs, our cultures and our religious traditions. This “right to be responsible” is a basic Canadian right and freedom. One way it is expressed is in a universal health care system that is government funded. This is an internationally recognized feature of Canadian life. It reflects our intention to gather together the resources of the community and task the government with using them responsibly to care for those most in need.

What makes this a spiritual matter? Desire. Desire is at the heart of our compassion and care for our neighbours – desire to offer the other what they need to have life. It is desire, also, to receive from our communities what we need to have life.

We hope that our political expression will be the expression of our desire. Will voters and leaders of the future continue to protect our “right to be responsible” and our desire to make our compassion a reality in our society? Or will selfishness and greed diminish our capacity for responsible and compassionate action?

The Canadian political landscape of the future will reflect how faithfully we have protected and nurtured our right to be responsible. We must keep this in mind – not only at election time, but always.

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Thought of the day

Truly great leaders are those people who are blessed with a limitless capacity for vision

and an absolute rejection of regime.

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Beyond Feminist Theology: Is It Time for a Theology of the Human Being?

     Doing theology is a human activity, but we are learning that it is an activity hampered by useless and unproductive divisions that compromise its validity and value. I grew up in an age where the activity of doing theology changed in remarkable ways. The Second Vatican Council formed the background of my early religious education. The Church’s normative theology underwent radical changes during that time, even though that is still roundly denied by various conservative and traditional groups. 

     What didn’t change, unfortunately, was that the object of worship continued to be described as a male deity, who offered humanity a male son as “His” earthly manifestation. The Holy Spirit continued to be described in male language as well, or described as proceeding from the male deity and His Son, which essentially made the Spirit male by inference.

     After Vatican II, theology underwent more radical transformations and different modes of doing theology began to be explored and taught. The new theologies included Liberation theology, Ecological theology, Ecumenical theologies, and perhaps the most controversial theology – Feminist theology. Elizabeth Johnson was a pioneer in articulating the earliest challenges to the patriarchal bias of the Roman Catholic Church. She still finds herself in a position of controversy as she presses the Church’s hierarchy to take the feminist challenge to its theology seriously.

     While the new Pope, Francis I, has given a nod to most of the theologies that have developed over the past decades, he has not given his blessing to any aspect of feminist theology. He has upheld the long-standing bias that the Roman Catholic Church has exhibited in male language for God and in the Church’s absolute ban on ordaining women. Instead, Pope Francis has declared that we need a “deeper theology of women,” which presumably would be quite unique and separate from the theology currently endorsed by the Church. 

     Francis’ beliefs seem to be grounded in the teachings of former Pope John Paul II about the theology of the body. This theology suggests that the fact that women are biologically and physiologically different from males makes it impossible for human beings to develop a theology that would apply equally to both men and women. Each gender needs its own theology. First of all, we must understand what theology is in order to understand why this is a fallacy. Theology is “faith seeking understanding,” in the words of Thomas Aquinas. Put simply, theology is what occurs when human beings study the nature of God and report back to their communities on what they learn.

     Or, at least, that is good theology. Good theology is open to discussion, dialogue, criticism, demands for proof, contestation, challenge and revision. It leads to justice in the community, to compassion, mercy and forgiveness, to change for the better. Bad theology is theology that people can easily set aside because it doesn’t seem relevant to their lives, or it is an understanding of God that is imposed upon people in rigid and controlling belief systems. It almost always endorses forms of elitism and can be recognized by the entrenchment and protectionism of its promoters.

     Theology began to be of interest to people who faced different challenges. They needed to express what they learned about God in order to understand better how God could be encountered by human beings in their world. That is why we began to encounter theologies about the planet’s sacredness. People were concerned about the ecological devastation they were becoming aware of and began to speak of how they were encountering God in new ways as they faced the escalating spiritual outcry of a planet in peril. Many new theologies have been integrated into the overall theology of the Church – although there are still many pockets of resistance to non-traditional ways of speaking about God.

     It is time for a new way of doing theology for human beings – one that is relevant, meaningful and valuable to the whole People of God. It should be grounded in the study of human beings, since what God reveals is revealed to the whole people and not simply to men or to women separately. We need a theology of the human being that includes all human beings. Maybe feminist theology was a prelude to this, but the real object of doing feminist theology was always headed this way when it was aiming for human equality.

     If whatever can be said of the Church’s theology cannot be considered equally true for men and women, we have a problem with bias in favour of a certain group of people. Even more unfortunately, we have a problem with the relevance of theology for all human beings. If the theology of the Church continues to promote maleness over femaleness in its desire to reserve certain male attributes to God in its theology, it becomes a theology that is increasingly irrelevant to the entire People of God.

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Just in Time for Sochi – An Olympic Spirituality


Photo: The author at Tremblant, Quebec. (courtesy of Alan Perry)

            Ask anybody who knows me where I can be found in the winter and they’ll direct you to a mountain. I confess: I am an avid skier. In just a few days, the whole world will watch in awe as skiers careen down steep courses in a bid for Olympic gold, silver and bronze. It seems like a good time for me to reflect on this sport that I’ve come to love.

            Recently, I was in Tremblant, Quebec and enjoyed some steeper and more challenging runs than what we normally ski at our small Ontario hill. In addition to the more challenging terrain, we encountered freezing temperatures after driving through an extreme blizzard that made our 5 ½ hour trip into a 9 hour ordeal.

            People may ask: Why do you do it? It’s a fair question. For me, my skiing life has been one of the many contexts in which I have confronted serious questions about spirituality. Think about it. A skier loses essential contact with the very ground on which they stand. Once the skis are on, and the skier stands on the snow or ice, the traction we normally experience when our shoes or boots are on the snow is gone. Since skiers are also on a slope – a literal “slippery slope” – we have to learn new ways to maintain our balance and some techniques to move ourselves where we want to go.

            Isn’t that a metaphor for life’s spiritual journey? We often find ourselves needing to dig deeply into our personal resources when the normal, expected ways of getting through the day to day routines just won’t work. That’s when we find ourselves asking what it is we truly need, what we need to let go of, and where we really want to go.

            Having spent a number of years in a Jesuit educational community, I learned to focus on the interior movements of attraction and resistance that we become conscious of when we reflect on our experience, our world and our relationships. Skiing provides a great environment for becoming more conscious of both attraction and resistance. When we ski, our desire to glide down the mountain often conflicts with our resistance to doing so. I find myself asking what it is that pushes people to overcome many fears – fear of heights, fear of losing balance, fear of crashing, falling or breaking bones – to follow an attraction to flying downhill for recreation.

            A personal experience may help to illustrate. I learned to ski as an adult. One of my desires was to be able to ski well enough to keep up with my husband and our friends who had all skied since they were children. They didn’t seem to experience the same fear and trepidation I did. They enjoyed the speed while I was often terrified. So, I thought, I will go off by myself and practice. Since we live very near the local ski hill, I decided to take advantage and to ski for an hour or so every morning before work. Surely, I would become more comfortable with skiing and come to enjoy it in the way that they did.

            One day, I set out on my skis only to find the hills extremely icy. Icy terrain is much more difficult to ski on than soft and pliable snow. Since my ability level was very low, I was unable to cope with the conditions and quickly decided to take off my equipment and go home. After all, if it wasn’t fun there was no point in doing it, I thought.

            Something significant happened to me that day, however. After putting my skis, boots and poles away in the car and getting behind the wheel to head home, I experienced a shift in intention. Something within me called as a challenge. I turned off the car’s engine, got my boots back on, hoisted my skis to my shoulder and headed back to the lift.

            What happened that day is an everyday illustration of what happens to us spiritually when we experience a movement calling us beyond a resistance, a fear, a time of grief, a prejudice – to do something we really desire. And, as it is with the spiritually motivated life, in skiing I had to learn techniques, new orientations, new ways of balancing and moving in the context that had previously seemed so perilous to me.

            Do you have a similar experience in which you’ve confronted a deep-seated resistance and found a pathway through to new life? Have you ever experienced a shift in your desire when a perceived barrier turns into a challenge, and then finally, into an opportunity? If so, these everyday occurrences become treasures of experience that build confidence in our ability to transform, to move creatively in new directions.

            The history of human achievement has been one of pushing past obstacles, weakness and fear in order to follow our heart’s desire. We need not look only to Olympic athletes to find examples of this kind of interior shift, of dedication to transformation and attaining our desires. It is not just something that superheroes do. We can all look into our own lives to find examples of “going for gold.”

            In the next while, we’ll be inundated with Olympic news, with images of athletes attempting to do what has never been done before. It’s a celebration of human perseverance, stamina and dedication. But let’s not simply project these achievements onto a small number of athletes who strive for success half-way across the world. Let it be something that unites us in a spirit of conscious striving by linking our own experiences with theirs.

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Student Uses University Policy to Discriminate Against Women

     I have just learned of a request by a student to be excused from participating in certain aspects of a course at York University because his involvement would require him to associate with women. Apparently, being with women in public violates his religious beliefs. At the beginning of the term, he appealed to Professor Paul Grayson to excuse him from working with female students in group work scheduled for the class.

     The professor initially felt compelled to refuse the request, but on second thought he passed the request on to the dean of the University. Surprisingly, the dean allowed the exclusion request. The director of the University’s Centre for Human Rights also supported the student’s right to accommodation for religious reasons.

     While the professor and the student came to a mutually acceptable solution to the student’s problem, there is incredulity over the University’s official position in which they deferred to what many see as a very unreasonable request. In addition, many fear that this truly represents the University’s willingness to allow for a negative view of women and worry what this could lead to down the road.

     Why was the dean of the university compelled to allow the student’s request? Does this indicate a need for a change in policy, since religious rights trumped the University’s policy that forbids discrimination based on gender? Or, as seems more likely, does it require examination of the dispositions of University administrators who are in danger of blindly embracing a culture of accommodation with regard to appeals for exceptional treatment?

     Such requests may increase in the future, although that seems hard to believe. The religion of the student was not disclosed, but it must certainly be true that the student is involved in a very strict fundamentalist sect that could be an off-shoot of a major religious tradition. Since fundamentalism in all religions appears to be on the rise, it is quite possible that such requests for gender segregation could increase in the future.

     What will secular institutions be able to do to confront and deny these requests if they do not change their policies now?

     Where there are lists of human rights that demand protection in social institutions, there are hierarchies within which those rights are deemed to have relative value. Some rights can trump others, if they are an appeal to protection of a right that is higher on the scale than another right. We cannot rest on our laurels with respect to gender rights in Canada and we cannot be naive about where, on the hierarchy of rights, the right of females to equal treatment in our social institutions rests. This is especially true in many religions, where defining women’s rights to participate in certain aspects of society becomes enshrined in complex belief systems.

     The ratio of female to male students in university populations has experienced a constant trend towards increasing numbers of female students. It will be increasingly difficult, therefore, for university administrators to accommodate requests for special treatment that allow for compromise or relaxing of gender rights in order to accommodate discriminatory views of women.

     From one perspective, it might be said that this student is simply closing himself off from interaction that should be part of a full student experience, so he’s the one who will suffer from the exclusion while women won’t be affected. From that perspective this is true, but there is more to the story. The university has communicated a message that it will tolerate challenges to the practice of gender equality as it is understood to be applicable in the university setting. Part of that message clearly communicates that, at least in some cases it is acceptable to discriminate against women.

     When is it acceptable for an educational (or any other Canadian social institution) to allow men or women to use religion to override the human rights afforded to all Canadian citizens regardless of gender or sexual orientation? The answer should be “never.”

     Thankfully, the professor found a way, through discourse and dialogue within his department, to deny the student’s request even though it means possible disciplinary action from his employer.  

     It is time for University administrators to sit down and carefully go over their policies and to close any loopholes that can be used to discriminate against anyone. This is a frontier issue in Canada’s pioneer movement towards full acceptance of women as equal citizens who, by law and by custom, are entitled to enjoy full human rights in a free democratic society.

     Every policy statement should also ensure that even actions that indirectly imply anyone’s unequal status are unacceptable. Along with policy, we need careful interpretation of policy. Close the loopholes and do it now.

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Forgiveness as Political Power – the Lesson of Mandela

            The whole world is watching as Nelson Mandela is celebrated, mourned and laid to rest after a dramatic life as the leader of a struggle for freedom in one of the world’s nations. We have heard, over and over, that his most remarkable characteristic was a capacity for forgiveness.

             We may be tempted to describe forgiveness on the part of a victim of injustice like Mandela as wrong-headed and too soft-hearted. After all, white racists robbed him of a large part of his life and did everything they could to destroy him. Even so, he publicly forgave them and vowed to work with them to forge a new nation built on ideals of racial justice and equality. Was he too soft on those who oppressed him? We may be tempted to think so if we only base our considerations on the moral principles and normal forms of justice to which we have become accustomed.

            Normal forms of justice take the shape of accusation, discovery, proof and punishment. We listen to the victims. We turn to face the oppressor with scowls of disdain and with exclamations of “how could you?” We launch inquiries dedicated to arriving at conclusions about culpability. We demand signs of remorse and we assign labels of guilt. We let the victims have their say. We scrutinize the evidence. We seek sentences of prison or punishments suited to the crimes committed. In South Africa, we watched as Nelson Mandela seemed to side-step this normal process and stepped forward boldly with a forceful expression of forgiveness that shocked the world, and that continues to mystify people.

            And many call him a saint. Many call him a hero.

            People around the world saw, in this act of forgiveness, something divine. We saw some evidence of a behaviour that was so astoundingly out of the norm that we had to elevate Mandela as a figure who was different. And that he was. Mandela understood the power of forgiveness as political power. His vision seems to have demanded it of him, just as it demanded many other things of him. Forgiveness was a means to the end of apartheid. It was the action that was required to move the situation forward towards resolution and reconciliation. It was a disposition required of him if he was to realize the vision for which he had sacrificed so much.

            So often, I believe we see forgiveness as an act of concession. I think we believe that the person “gives in” when they forgive their oppressors. We witness them relinquishing their rights to see their oppressors dealt with harshly, punished, shamed and shunned – perhaps even imprisoned or executed. When we think of justice, don’t we often think in these ways?

            Our vision of justice changes when we regard forgiveness as political power that is held in the hands of the victim. The astounding example of the case of Nelson Mandela is that he carried that power through the simple act of publicly forgiving his oppressors. The power of forgiveness evaporates if nothing in the social relationships between victim and oppressor changes after the act. That is not what happened in Mandela’s case. Mandela took advantage of the power that his act of forgiveness provided.

            The justice dynamic in South Africa required the world to hear the stories of the victims. It was the victims who “wrote” the apologies of the oppressors by telling their stories, by revealing their anguish, by exposing the suffering they had endured to the light and by telling the truth of what had been happening in their own words. The dominant group – the white ruling class in South Africa – was not given the power to draft their own apology.

          Through the Truth and Reconciliation hearings the oppressors were forced to listen to the terms of their apology in graphic detail. They were given new boundaries in their relationships that were drafted with full consciousness of the way things had been before, and they agreed to respect those new boundaries. This is the power of forgiveness in action. It is the only path to reconciliation, because no genuine reconciliation can take place until the apology of the oppressor has recorded the real content of the aggression they have inflicted upon their victims. No genuine reconciliation can come until people who were formerly oppressors hear what it is they have done and learn to abide by new boundaries of decency and respect.

            Nelson Mandela’s example of forgiveness was more than a simple movement of the heart and an act of setting aside his desire to punish his oppressors – although it was certainly that. It was a shrewd and supremely intelligent maneuver towards the political cooperation he was seeking in service of his magnificent vision of a united, free and democratic South Africa. There are so many lessons to be learned from this story that it will take generations of dedicated study to describe, explain and analyze the dynamics that unfolded in this particular history.

            It will be a challenge to activate this study if we elevate Mandela too far above the human race into which he was born. We risk a great deal if we heroize his history to a place above and beyond human capacity. We can lose the real and practical power he utilized if we sanctify his actions and see them as only the extraordinary spiritual acts of a person “not like us.” Mandela’s story begs of us that we try to understand the political power of forgiveness so that we can move beyond the loop de loop dynamics of aggression and counter aggression that often define our sense of justice.

            I hope we hold up the figure of Mandela as a fully human man – a man who did what we are all capable of doing. We are all capable of making forgiveness the means to lasting peace. We are all capable of sticking with the process until the victims have written the confessions of their oppressors. That is the only lasting and viable path to peace, justice and equality among persons.

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