Monday, October 31, 2011

A Note About How to Listen during Prayer in Daily Life

In section 22 of the Spiritual Exercises (the “presupposition”), St. Ignatius writes the following: “in order that the one giving the Exercises and the one receiving them, may help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good [spiritual person] is to be more ready to justify than to condemn what another says or writes. If he cannot justify it, he should inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, then let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to understand the statement in the best possible sense.”

This paragraph helps us to focus on the positive during the prayer period and to avoid theological and political debate. Theological and political debate are fine outside of the context of the Exercises, but it disrupts the necessary trust between director and exercitant and among the fellowship groups making the retreat together. In the case of a group of people journeying through our Prayer in Daily Life together without a “director,” as you are sharing your prayer experience with each other, be more willing to justify than to condemn what each person says. The same is true for pairs of trusted friends who are making the retreat.

I find it helpful to consider the advice of Kay Lindahl in her book The Sacred Art of Listening. She writes that

Listening is a creative force. Something quite wonderful occurs when we are listened to fully. We expand, ideas come to life and grow, we remember who we are. Some speak of this force as a creative fountain within us that springs forth; others call it the inner spirit, intelligence, true self. Whatever this force is called, it shrivels up when we are not listened to and it thrives when we are.

The way we listen can actually allow the other person to bring forth what is true and alive to them. . . .

Listening well takes time, skill, and a readiness to slow down, to let go of expectations, judgments, boredom, self-assertiveness, defensiveness. I’ve noticed that when people experience the depth of being listened to like this, they also begin to listen to others in the same way. (11-12)

Later in the book, Lindahl suggests that we learn to listen to understand, rather than to listen to agree or disagree. When you are involved in some kind of political debate, you are listening to find a flaw in the other’s argument or you are listening to find “common ground.” In the context of the Exercises, you are not listening to agree or disagree with another. You are listening to understand the other, hoping to help the other hear herself or himself so that we might better understand how the Spirit of God is at work in our thoughts and feelings. According to Lindahl, “one important guideline of dialogue is listening to understand, not to agree with or believe. I do not have to agree with or believe what another person is saying in order to come to a new understanding of their experience” (50).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

An Olympic Prayer Exercise For Akron: Phase One, Week One, Experience 1

Akron is the birthplace of AA, one of the most important spiritual movements in the world, and yet Akron, like any other city, has room for growth. If Akron is going to help host the Olympic games, Akron needs to grow in humility, generosity, freedom, and hospitality. Many people who are from Akron may claim that there is no need for growth. They claim that everything is fine as it is. It is true that there is a lot of good here, but are we really full of the Olympic spirit? Are we truly as creative as we could be? Or do we cling to our comfort zone?
The upper classes in Akron may feel that Akron cannot be improved, but they’re not the ones who are hurting. Economic stagnation hurts the working class and the poor more than anyone else. We need a new spirit of entrepreneurship, of risk-taking, and, in light of our goal to host the Olympics, a spirit of openness to the gifts of the divine.
We come from many different spiritual traditions. I write as a Catholic Christian, but I do not expect everyone to use my tradition to pray. Rather, I propose that we adapt the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius so that they nurture prayer and meditation in all of our great traditions. Let’s ask for the Spirit of God to guide us to be more open to God’s gifts, more courageous, more open to positive change, more critical of abusive power structures and our complicity with them, and more full of faith, hope and compassion.
What I am proposing is called Annotation 18. All of the great Ignatian spiritual directors have adapted the Exercises to people in diverse situations. That is just what we are going to do.
I propose that we begin our prayer in daily life experience next week, starting on Sunday, November 6. If Sunday is too busy, then pray on another day. Just find a quiet place to pray for 30 to 60 minutes. It also helps to talk about your prayer experience. If you can, find a spiritual director. If not, then try to meet with a trusted friend or group of friends. Discuss what happened when you prayed.

Phase One, Week One, Prayer experience 1: An invitation to prayer.

A. Use the following passage from Isaiah 55 to pray. Slowly read through the passage once. Then ask for the grace that God might give you a spirit of generosity over the coming weeks. In the words of the Isaiah ask that you might come to the water.
If you are not Christian or Jewish, then read the passage the way you would read good poetry. Pray if you feel moved to pray.

Isaiah 55
All you who are thirsty,*
come to the water!
You who have no money,
come, buy grain and eat;
Come, buy grain without money,
wine and milk without cost!a
2Why spend your money for what is not bread;
your wages for what does not satisfy?
Only listen to me, and you shall eat well,
you shall delight in rich fare.
3Pay attention and come to me;
listen, that you may have life.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
the steadfast loyalty promised to David.b
4As I made him a witness to peoples,
a leader and commander of peoples,
5So shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and a nation* that knew you not shall run to you,
Because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you.c
6* Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near.
7Let the wicked forsake their way,
and sinners their thoughts;
Let them turn to the LORD to find mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving.
8For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways—oracle of the LORD.
9For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
my thoughts higher than your thoughts.
10* Yet just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
11So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me empty,
but shall do what pleases me,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
12Yes, in joy you shall go forth,
in peace you shall be brought home;
Mountains and hills shall break out in song before you,
all trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13In place of the thornbush, the cypress shall grow,
instead of nettles,* the myrtle.
This shall be to the LORD’s renown,
as an everlasting sign that shall not fail.

* [55:1–3] The prophet invites all to return, under the figure of a banquet; cf. the covenant banquet in Ex 24:9–11 and wisdom’s banquet in Prv 9:1–6. The Lord’s covenant with David (2 Sm 7) is now to be extended beyond his dynasty.
* [55:5] The “nation” is Persia under Cyrus, but the perspective is worldwide.
* [55:6–9] The invitation to seek the Lord is motivated by the mercy of a God whose “ways” are completely mysterious.
* [55:10–11] The efficacy of the word of God recalls 40:5, 8.
* [55:13] Thornbush…nettles: suggestive of the desert and therefore symbolic of suffering and hardship; cypress…myrtle: suggestive of fertile land and therefore symbolic of joy and strength. To the LORD’s renown: lit., “to the name of the Lord.”
a. [55:1] Jn 4:10–15; 6:35; 7:37–39; Rev 21:6; 22:17.
b. [55:3] 2 Sm 7:12–16.
c. [55:5] Acts 13:34.

B. Read the passage again. This time stop when your mind has an image from the passage. Perhaps you stop at water. In your mind and heart, you can imagine running water. It is water your soul longs for. It nourishes your heart. Perhaps another image occurs to you.
C. Read the passage one more time. Maybe this time, you read it aloud. Then just sit back and let your mind wander. What happens in your mind and heart? Ask yourself: what is my heart’s most authentic desire?
D. Now take a notebook and write down what happened. Use your notes to talk with your spiritual director, your friend or to your fellowship group.
E. Once again ask God for a spirit of generosity. Then, choose a favorite prayer of yours to close the prayer period. It could be the Our Father or any other prayer. Choose a prayer from your tradition that has a lot o f meaning for you.
F. Meet with your spiritual director, fellowship group, or trusted friend.

May God’s peace be yours! I am praying for all of you. Please pray for me. This is the healthiest way to begin our Olympic effort.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Essential Quality of Moral Self-evidence in our Labor for Progress

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all (people) are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

For nearly two centuries these words conveyed a summary of the social ethics of nearly all Americans. As Americans we knew that God had given humanity rights that no government should violate and we professed that any rational person could know this truth. Any rational person could know these truths because they are self-evident: their truth flows from the rational nature of human existence itself, regardless of the culture, religion, or station in life of particular individuals. Unfortunately, the idea of self-evident moral truths has fallen on hard times. For decades, a creeping moral and cultural relativism has undermined rational attempts to pass down a few irrefutable moral principles. In an effort to expose western minds to the voices of those previously oppressed by western minds (and the oppression was real), some have argued that all of morality is socially constructed and that all moral positions are equal. Furthermore, some have claimed that to argue that one ethics is superior to another is a form of cultural imperialism. Although I sympathize with oppressed minorities whose civilizations and personhood have been mocked and objectified, I find cultural relativism to be irrational. My argument may seem conservative, but I consider it to be very progressive. I will explain this later.

Multi-culturalism claims that all marginalized groups need to be heard. In order for the voices of the marginalized to be heard they need to be alive. It then seems that it is self-evident that human beings have the right to life. A culturally relative denial of this right is self-contradictory. It would amount to saying that non-western, female, and homosexual people have the right to freedom of expression but they do not have the right to life. You have no political freedom if you are dead.

That is not to claim that all moral principles are absolute or that western ethics are better than Buddhist ethics or other eastern ethical systems. Nevertheless, reason leads us to the conclusion that not all systems of thought contribute to progress. Communism's slaughter of nearly 100 million and Nazism's slaughter of 6 million proves this. Both Communism and Nazism denied the possibility of moral self-evidence. Both claimed that they were bringing about a brave new world that would leave the moral wisdom of the past behind.

Systems of thought that contribute to individual and collective progress abide by the self-evident moral principles articulated by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence and by the principles derived from these fundamental principles.

I would contend that the following moral principles are self-evident, absolute and universal:

Right to life
Right to free expression--includes right to critique government and other institutions
Right to freedom from cultural imperialism.
Right to religious freedom.
Right to family life (this includes rights for gays and lesbians)
The right to privacy.
Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.
The right to elect government representatives in a pluralistic, democratic system.
The right to freedom of assembly.

All moral systems can be called to grow according to these absolute principles.

To claim that there are absolute principles is not the same as claiming that there are a priori absolute answers to all moral situations. In living the good life we muddle through at times and make the best approximation. Nonethless the fundamental, self-evident moral principles are absolute.

We need to recognize that all moral systems can grow, but they cease to grow and actually regress when they ignore respect for life and human freedom. The American moral system grew when it recognized that women had the right to vote (I did not write that it gave women the right to vote because women have always had that right. We just used the law to deny that natural right). All moral and governmental systems need to be open to growth. As Karl Rahner has written, we are always systematizing but we never have a system.

The absolute principle of free expression leads westerners to critique non-western systems. To claim that non-western voices should be free of critique because of past victimization is to patronize non-western voices. It is to deny their intelligence. To claim that a westerner cannot critique a non-western system is to deny the humanity of both the westerner and the easterner.

The Arab Spring has brought us face to face with a living critique of Arab culture which westerners and easterners must encourage. It has also demonstrated that all human beings long for political arrangements that respect human life and human freedom. The Arab Spring has demonstrated that democracy is still superior to tyranny and oligarchy. The Arab Spring has proven that the founding principles of our nation--including moral self-evidence-- are universal.

This leads us to our next question: how do we respond to the claim that a good part of reality is socially constructed? We accept it and ask how do we know this. We know because, using reason, psychologists, sociologists, and other thinkers have proven this to be the case. Nevertheless, fundamental reason is not socially constructed. Under God's guidance, it evolved as a capacity of homo sapiens (the idea of divine guidance is not self-evident, but the rational evidence for the evolution of reason is irrefutable). Fundamental faith, hope and love are not constructed. They are gifts given by the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit is not socially constructed. Images of the Spirit are socially constructed, but the Spirit herself is now, always has been, and always will be.

Other religions can also claim that although their images and words about God are socially constructed, God always has been. At this point, our study of comparative religiosity must stop for it goes beyond the focus of this specific essay. Our analysis concerns reason and moral self-evidence which apply to all moral systems regardless of religion.

In summary, we have proven that there are self-evident moral principles and that these principles are absolute. These principles can be known by reason. There are moral principles that are not self-evident. These are known through religious revelation and meditation. However, as Thomas Jefferson knew, the principle "Respect human life" and many other principles are universal, absolute, and self-evident.

Now this seems to be such a conservative argument coming from a progressive writer. I will respond that progress conserves and builds upon the moral successes of the past. The Declaration of Independence is a success! Moral self-evidence is a success, not some barnacle to be removed from the wisdom of humanity. Moreover, the principle "respect human life" supports many progressive arguments: to respect human life we have enacted OSHA regulations, we have sought to abolish the death penalty, we have sought to make health insurance universal, we spend money on aid to developing countries, especially those suffering from famine and starvation, and we have negotiated arms control agreements. The list could go on.

We are a good nation. When we build upon our self-evident moral principles, we are great.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Looking Forward To The Cleveland Center For Intercultural Healing And Reconciliation

In past blogs, I have written about reforming the Olympic movement so that the Olympic movement furthers its goal of being a vehicle for peace and development. In short, I have advocated for a progressive Olympics. An important criterion for a progressive Olympics concerns the utility of the Olympic facilities after the Olympic Games. An Olympics that is socially just will not build a park that will not be used after the Olympics have ended.

The 2020 Lake Erie Olympics will guarantee that the Cleveland Olympic Park and the neighboring Cleveland Center For Intercultural Healing And Reconciliation will be used after the Lake Erie Olympics has ended. The Cleveland Olympic Park will host concerts and rallies, including LiveAid concerts for the developing world. Because it will have a retractable roof it will host events all year long (except perhaps during the month of February which is terribly cold).

The Cleveland Center for Intercultural Healing And Reconciliation will host a number of events. There will be student trips from New York, DC, Chicago and other cities. Other events include field trips from all over Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Summer programs in non-violent conflict resolution will attract national and global attention.

We will give scholarship money to bring together Palestinian and Israeli teenagers. They will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, engage in team building exercises, go to concerts together (music global teens like as well as the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra and the Akron Symphony Orchestra), go to the ballet together, go to a U Akron soccer game together, play soccer together, and work together in other friendship building exercises. They will also learn how to listen attentively to others. Finally, if the religious leaders can design an appropriate prayer exercise, they will pray for and pray with each other.

We will give scholarship money to bring together North and South Koreans, Catholics and Protestants from Northern Ireland, Pakistanis and Indians, and people from other parts of the world. Each of these groups will engage in exercises similar to the Israelis and Palestinians.

The closing ceremony of each intercultural conference will be held in the Olympic Park. There will be a few celebrities present. There will be music. The Governor of Ohio, a representative of the US President, representatives from the governments of the participating countries, Ohio senators, representatives, and the mayors of Cleveland and Akron will attend. It will become a custom for Buckeyes from all over Ohio to congratulate those who have attended these conferences by attending the closing ceremony for free (or for minimal cost of $2-$3). People may come to see the celebrities and to hear the music, but the real reason they will attend will be to become instruments of peace. Even if they attend just to see the celebrities who will attend, they will be so engaged by the ceremonies that they will want to advocate peaceful methods for resolving conflicts. They will feel a bond with the people who have attended the conference and will foster that bond by continuing to learn about those countries. People will come for the celebrity and ceremony and will leave ambassadors of peace.