Why the name?

"Holy Conversation" does sound like an exceptionally pious name, even for a parish blog. And we can't guarantee that everything here will meet the high standard the name implies. But the phrase comes from the story of our patron saint, and we think it fits. Here's why.

St. Scholastica was a sixth-century abbess who, according to the Dialogues of Pope Gregory I, used to meet once a year with her brother, St. Benedict. On the last occasion they were together, they spent their time "satisfying each other's hunger for holy conversation about the spiritual life."

We hope that this blog can become a place where the members of our parish can find a taste of the companionship and conversation that Scholastica and Benedict enjoyed so much. Welcome!

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Workers at the Center

Labor Day is a good time to remind ourselves of the rich Catholic tradition of reflection on work and the rights and responsibilities of workers.  One place to start is the annual Labor Day statement issued by the U.S. bishops.  Written this year by Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, it notes that: “Our nation needs an economic renewal that places workers and their families at the center of economic life and creates enough decent jobs for everyone who can work. Work is more than a paycheck; it helps raise our families, develop our potential, share in God's creation, and contribute to the common good.”  The goal is to achieve an economy that “serves the person rather than the other way around.”

Bishop Blaire quotes Blessed John Paul II:  …society and the State must ensure wage levels adequate for the maintenance of the worker and his family, including a certain amount for savings. This requires a continuous effort to improve workers' training and capability so that their work will be more skilled and productive, as well as careful controls and adequate legislative measures to block shameful forms of exploitation, especially to the disadvantage of the most vulnerable workers, of immigrants and of those on the margins of society. The role of trade unions in negotiating minimum salaries and working conditions is decisive in this area.” (Centesimus Annus, no. 15)

To read Bishop Blaire’s reflection, click the link.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

St. Augustine again: looking for God in our experiences

     Where do we look to find out about God?

     The people of Israel looked to the mighty deeds that God had done on their behalf, especially freeing them from slavery in Egypt and leading them into a good land.  Early Christians looked to the words and deeds of Jesus, and especially to his resurrection, another mighty act of God.

     Over time, both Jews and Christians assembled stories and writings that testified to God’s actions on our behalf.  Now people could find out about God through those Scriptures, the Bible.

     As time passed and the Christian churches grew, they found it necessary to authorize leaders to gather in order to regulate the life of the community.  Synods and councils met and part of their work was to present the heart of Christian teaching in a way that met new challenges but was also faithful to the Scriptures and to the story of God’s mighty works.  They composed statements of belief (creeds) and other teachings to explain them (doctrines).  Here was another source for finding out about God.

     That’s where St. Augustine comes in.  As bishop of the town of Hippo in North Africa, he certainly taught his own people and, through letters and other writings, taught far-away Christians as well.  But one of his works, the Confessions, stands out from the rest.  In it, Augustine tells his own story in the form of an extended prayer to the God who had saved him.  His message seems to be: “Here is how God acted in my life.  Pay attention to how God is acting in yours!”

     Here was another source for learning about God—looking into our own experience!  I wonder whether Augustine, in his own theological vein, was doing something similar to the early hermits and monks who had begun to separate themselves from ordinary life in order to look deep into their own hearts and find God there.

     Sometimes today, Catholics are suspicious of  people who talk about their religious experience, especially if they want to change something in our religion.  Certainly, we always need to be careful as we try, like our forebears, to be faithful both to the tradition we have received and to new conditions that may be calling us to growth.  But if God can act in the world, if the Spirit moves in our hearts, if Augustine is right, then we can never discount our experience as a source for knowing God. This way of knowing is part of our tradition, too.

     One of my favorite passages from the Second Vatican Council makes the point.  In Dei Verbum, the  document on divine revelation, the bishops wrote:  "The tradition that comes from the apostles makes progress in the church, with the help of the Holy Spirit.  There is a growth in insight into the realities and words that are being passed on.  This comes about through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts (see Lk 2: 19 and 51).  It comes from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience.  And it comes from the preaching of those who, on succeeding to the office of bishop, have received the sure charism of truth.  Thus, as the centuries go by, the church is always advancing towards the plenitude of divine truth, until eventually the words of God are fulfilled in it." (Dei Verbum, #8)

     Look at that quotation carefully.  The bishops are saying that the growth and development of the tradition depends not only upon the official teaching of the bishops, but upon the reflection of believers and upon their sense of their own spiritual experience.  One of the great unrealized challenges of the Council is this:  how do we find ways to put the reflection of the faithful on our religious experience into conversation with the official teaching of the bishops?

     There are a number of areas in which there is a gap between official church teachings and the practice of many Catholics.  Sexuality is probably the most obvious one.  What effect might it have on a Catholic understanding of sexuality if the bishops were to pay attention in a serious way to the experiences of believers in this area, whether those believers are single or married, straight or lesbian or gay?  What if they were to ask, “Where, in your experience of sexuality, do you find God?  What, in your experience, leads you away from God and others?”   It is impossible to know what might result.  But I believe that we owe it to our living tradition to try.  And we owe it to St. Augustine.

                                                                                        © 2012  Andrew K. Bechman

St. Augustine of Hippo--August 28

     There are few saints whose lives have been considered from more angles than St. Augustine’s. I was reminded recently of one aspect of Augustine’s legacy—his enormous influence on Christian theology. I’ve been (very slowly) working my way through Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. (The title’s not a misprint, by the way—MacCulloch begins the story of Christianity with an exploration of Greek culture and of the story of the Jews, both of which are rooted in times long before the appearance of Jesus on the scene.)

      MacCulloch notes that beginning around 1490, the first scholarly edition of St. Augustine’s works was published in Basel. St. Augustine himself had died over a millennium before, but this was a time in which the combination of a new approach to learning (that we call humanism) and the development of printing led to widespread new consideration of ancient texts. In the decades that followed, theologians mined Augustine’s thought. The saint’s writings are so vast in scope, and his thought at times so paradoxical (if not self-contradictory) that the new thinkers tended not to be able to hold together all that Augustine seems to have held together in his own mind.

      MacCulloch quotes B. B. Warfield, a historian of theology: “The Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” Martin Luther and the reformers followed the bishop of Hippo’s insistence on God’s grace as the sole font of our salvation; Catholic theologians emphasized the need to be connected to the Church. “From one perspective,” MacCulloch concludes, “a century or more of turmoil in the Western Church from 1517 was a debate in the mind of the long-dead Augustine.”
                                                                             --Andy Bechman

Monday, August 13, 2012

What is your practice of prayer?

As another way of following up on the last post:
What is your practice of prayer?  How many different ways do you pray?  Which ones are most fruitful for you now?  Why those, do you think?

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Hummingbirds and the Approach to God

A small group of people gathered at St. Scho’s yesterday morning to watch the ninth episode in Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism series.  The episode was about prayer, and afterwards we talked about our practice of prayer.
One person commented on how her prayer life had changed over the years.  She noticed that forms of prayer that had been helpful at one time in her life gave way to new practices that seemed to bear more fruit.  Another person commented on how the Mass was the highlight of her prayer life.  Yet another spoke of how she was moved to prayer by natural beauty, giving the example of hummingbirds that she loved to watch as they buzzed about her feeders.
As the conversation continued, I raised a question that I struggle with.  There is a strong strain in the Christian spiritual tradition that insists that we must free ourselves from attachments to the fleeting things of this world in order to approach union with God.  Fr. Barron emphasized this “purgative” tradition during the video, pointing out that when we try to fill the infinite longings within us with finite things, we are on a path to addiction.  We try more and more of our preferred fixes in an attempt to fill a gap that only God can fill.
Okay, but what about the hummingbirds?  Is there any better example of a “fleeting thing of this world”?  In order to get close to God, do we need to turn away from the hummingbirds?
As a group we agreed that things like hummingbirds, far from being obstacles to God, seem to provide us doorways into prayer because of the gratitude that their beauty evokes.  This is thoroughly in line with a Catholic sacramental sensibility that sees God as potentially present to us in many persons, things and events.
But the purgative tradition has a point as well.  I love to be comfortable.  I tend to arrange my life with comfort in mind.  I am truly grateful—and I thank God!—for all the comfortable and pleasurable things:  a cooled house on a blistering afternoon, a quiet time and place to pray, a pulled pork sandwich for lunch, my family gathered at the table at dinnertime.  But no matter how grateful I am, doesn’t the gospel call us away from organizing our lives around our comfort?  After all, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” (Lk 9:58)
So what do you think?  When does our attraction to earthly beauty and goodness and pleasure lead us toward God?  How do we know when they start holding us back?  What is your experience?