Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
Spirituality: Is the question any different?
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 2, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Faithful to my intention to read every book I purchase, I recently cracked the binding of one from the sacred reserve. The book focused on what has become a personal hobby – exploration of the old Oregon Trail. The author’s commentary was particularly enriching because it was seasoned by frequent quotes from letters written by the men, women and children who risked life and limb to find a new life out here in the gorgeous Northwest.
I was struck by the quaintness of the language and imagery used by the various letter writers. Their world seems to be so different from ours. The true reality of their experience is lost to the dust of the trail. Even though only 150 years have passed since the days of the squeaky wheels, grunting oxen and plodding feet, it is hard to enter into the realty of the world at that time. After all, we live now in an age of spacecraft, instantaneous computer connections, and other technological marvels.
Trying to span a culture-lag is not necessarily easy, but it is fruitful. A parishioner reminded me of that recently when he observed how difficult it was to understand the convoluted letter-writing of St. Paul. “The faith journey of people in the first century was so different from our own,” he objected.
To an extent I had to agree. In the pagan world around St. Paul people believed in the influence in human affairs of shapeless principalities and powers. The Divine largely was considered to be a numinous element present in all creation. Earth, water, wind and fire were seen in the popular mind as the fundamental building blocks of all reality. In order to engage in its skullduggery the Divine (or any expression of the Divine Spark) could take on the material form of anything from a farm chicken to a table leg – and usually it was for the purposes of skullduggery.
What a different world from ours! We are tempted to snicker at those who affirm personified elements of nature and gods who can usurp the form of table legs. We bask in our Christian enlightenment that the Divine is, in fact, a personal God who has made himself known in the son of Mary, Jesus of Nazareth. We affirm that, although something of God’s self-revealing love is recognizable in all created things, spirits and demons and holy sparks do not manipulate our world and spook us from around every corner.
People seemingly held (and defended) strange belief systems in St. Paul’s day. But there is no guarantee that even a “christianized” population – even a church-going population – necessarily has a genuine understanding of the truth of Christian Gospel. I think, for example, of the young student who quite sincerely asked me if Jesus “just beamed down to earth.” I think of the adult who insisted that Jesus was just one among a series of “spiritual asteroids” who have streaked though human history over the ages. I think of the many newscasters who (in their need to be faith-neutral) speak of Jesus as just another fine man of good moral values.
At a turning point in the Gospel narrative, Jesus asks his disciples “Who people say the Son of Man is?” In other words, whom do people identify as the agents or revealers of the Divine? The disciples had answers at the ready: Elijah of old; a mad prophet from the desert (John); the prophets of a distant time; or … take your pick.
We likely would offer similar responses. To whom do we turn in our day and age as the agents of Goodness and Wholeness of Life? Posing this question at the mall, sports stadium or supermarket would surface some rather strange images of the Divine. We presume that most people would confess Jesus, but would they?
Every culture points in some fashion to where the Divine is to be found and who is its spokesman. As he did with the disciples in the Gospel, perhaps Jesus would listen patiently to our profound insights and enlightened confessions. Would he not still press us in light of our intellectual groping: If that is what you say that all those people, then who am I? Who am I for you?
In our day and age we cannot presume that our Christian profession of faith is one which is affirmed readily by all those around us who bear the title “Christian.” Those with whom we rub elbows in the classroom, workplace, sports field or neighborhood may well surprise us with their understanding of God, the gods or whatever elements they claim give shape and purpose to the universe. In every age, Jesus’ question to the disciples remains persistently proper. We may no longer speak or write about “the Son of Man,” but we all still look to the Other for the ultimate meaning of life. Regardless what “they” say, Jesus’ question remains: Who do you say that I am? How we answer that question makes all the difference in the world.
(Father Savelesky is pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane. His book, Catholics
Believe, is available from Harcourt Religion Publishers.)
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