New Pope, New Vision – New Hope?

Matthew Fox’s Letters to Pope Francis Offer Audacious – and Necessary – Guideposts to Rebirth the Church

As an Earth-based escapee from the Catholic Church for lo, these 30-odd years, I’ve puzzled some friends with my enthusiasm over theologian/activist/author and ex-Dominican Matthew Fox. After I’d shaken the Catholic – and Christian – dust off my shoes so very thoroughly, they ask, what’s the deal? Why follow the work of this theologian- still more, why promote him?

Simple: Fox has spent more than 40 years teaching creation-based spirituality – a mystic Christian tradition in tune with leading-edge science, focusing on original blessing rather than original sin, teaching pan-entheism (God in all things, and all things in God, a transcendent and embodied Divine) and speaking out for social, environmental, and gender justice.

He’s spent almost as long calling the Vatican to account for its repressive policies shutting down the voices of justice, dissent, and theological progress, and for promoting the blindly sycophantic and the criminally greedy, corrupt, and pedophilic.

Even a spiritual-but-not-religious Earth-based edgewalker can appreciate a  theologian like that…one who teaches “the Christ Path” rather than Christianity, who honors women, feminism, and the Divine Feminine, who’s transformed worship into a high-energy, dancing communal meditative journey and who attends sweat lodge and Sun Dance and pays heed to the wisdom of Indigenous teachers.  And who carries the scars of Vatican anger for doing all of the above.

So when “Speakeasy Mike” offered me the opportunity to review Letters to Pope Francis, of course I leaped at the chance. ..with the caveat that I’m not an unbiased source, just one speaking from the other side of the religious fence.

Fox has told the story of his struggles in writing The Pope’s War, his comprehensive expose of the corruption in the Vatican. Recently released in paperback, the book is a damning portrait of the corrupt and repressive papacies of Benedict XVI and John Paul II. It is an exhaustively researched and documented – and emotionally exhausting – read, as well as an act of profound moral courage.

Reading Letters to Pope Francis: Rebuilding a Church with Justice and Compassion after experiencing The Pope’s War is like moving from darkness to dawn. Fox is writing from the heart, pouring out hope and prayer and support to a spiritual brother. He addresses Francis as a pope who has demonstrated an understanding and commitment to the teachings of the historical Jesus: justice, compassion, and the reform of corruption. And he challenges the new pope to act boldly and lavishly on those principles, calling on him to fulfill the promise of the papal name he chose and return to the forgotten values of Vatican II.

Nothing escapes examination in this small but intense volume: the need for healing the Church from the wounds inflicted by the Vatican at all levels, from criminal cardinals to molested children…the need for a new awareness and commitment to the poor in the face of global corporatocracy…the need to expunge the influence of fundamentalist christofascism from the Church…the need to recognize the martyrs of the New World and reinvent the failing priesthood…

All of these are themes that the new pope has already sounded. But Fox dreams bigger, audaciously envisioning a Church not only reformed but also re-birthed at the deepest levels to become a voice for healing and transformation in the world, as the Pope’s namesake saint and indeed Jesus, the object of the Church’s worship, taught

He urges Francis to adopt the principles and paths of Creation Spirituality – an ancient mystical tradition within Christianity which Fox learned from his mentor, Marie-Dominique Chenu, o.p., of the Institut Catholique de Paris, and which includes such luminary spokesmen as the late Teillhard de Chardin and Thomas Berry, and which Father Bede Griffiths called the “spirituality of the future.”

Fox urges the pope to recognize the need for the Divine Feminine in the spirituality of this century….to advocate for the rights of women, and to step away from the myopic anti-sex/anti-birth-control/anti-abortion/anti-gay sexual policies of past papacies and embrace the teachings of Jesus on sexuality between consenting adults – i.e., silence. He urges him to hear the words of indigenous peoples on the sacredness of the earth, and to de-centralize the Church, giving greater leadership to the laity, and particularly to women. He speaks to the need for deep and genuine ecumenism, sharing wisdom among faiths – not the Church’s historic facsimile tolerating other denominations as “separated brethren” and ignoring or invalidating other traditions.

In short, Fox passionately envisions a rebirth of the Church to one that is truly catholic – i.e., universal – in its joyous worship, compassion, mysticism, creativity, community empowerment, prophetic voice, and activism. His love for the Church is plain to see – as well as his desire to help midwife the rebirthing.

Reading his words, as an escaped Catholic who bailed out over many of the issues he describes, my heart warmed to the vision of a Church that was genuinely a force for healing and positive change: one that played nicely with other spiritual traditions, that favored the poor over the powerful and the Earth over corporate greed. That recognized the Earth, as the newly canonized Saint Hildegard of Bingen did, as Mother, and all the cosmos radiant with divinity.

I see this book as a message not only to Pope Francis but also, especially, to ex-Catholics and spiritual-but-not-religious “nones” dreaming of what a welcoming and supportive church might be. This is a vision worth manifesting…and now, if ever, is the time.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.




A Christ for the Spiritual but Not Religious?

This may come as a shock to those of you who know me – an Earth-based spiritual edgewalker who’s clenched her teeth, swearing silently “I will not bolt, I will not bolt” when she hears a minister edging too close to standard-issue Christian doctrine, and who shies away from enmeshing dogmatic constructs like poison ivy.

And who, for years, has been seeking to bridge the psychological chasms between a “heretical” childhood vision of the Divine conscious oneness of creation, versus evangelical-charismatic teen and college years, versus a near-vocation to the convent, versus an adult life drawn to Earth-based and indigenous spirituality, along the way witnessing too many spiritual manipulations and abuses across too many denominations, and grieving helplessly over the injustices done to the First Peoples of the world as Western Civilization proceeds on its rapacious way, mowing down primeval cultures and ecosystems like blades of grass.

That search finally found its fulfillment in the ancient/post-modern Creation Spirituality teachings of theologian/author/activist Matthew Fox…and never more so when he said that the Earth, women, GLBT people, people of color, and indigenous nations are being crucified on the cross of modern Christians’ shadow-Christ. This priest, I knew in that moment, saw what others could or would not. Two years later, I was managing his website and helping to promote his work.

Even so, it was a stretch for me to attend the first in the newest series of trainings that he and author Andrew Harvey are co-directing, the Christ Path Seminar: was this just Christianity in a sneaky new wrapping, a new form of pious deception, I wondered? No – knowing the integrity that both of them demonstrate, that was impossible.

It was a worthwhile and healing stretch, as it turned out, as I listened to the two authors deconstruct the pop-Christ for a deeper, truer, more integral cosmic Awareness, and reframe Jesus from a schmaltzy best friend/copilot to a potent advocate for justice and compassion for all, and especially for the most vulnerable. I found myself reconnecting to my earlier, forgotten experiences of Jesus-connection, forgiving and integrating the see-sawing spiritual path of my past. Yes, I was (and am) still a solitary, Earth-based, spiritual edgewalker, but a door that had been shut in my soul was now ajar.

So why am I sharing this?

For the past six months, I’ve been promoting the Christ Path Seminar. True to Drs. Fox and Harvey’s teaching techniques, these weekends engage participants, on-site and online, in learning and practices for the mind, body and spirit, exploring questions such as:

And true to Drs. Fox and Harvey’s commitment to the Gift Economy, making this transformational content available to all, registration for the trainings – both on-site and online – is only $50 plus whatever donation you choose to add, based on the value of your experience.

If you want to get a sense of the passion and eloquence of these two master-teachers’ offerings – enough to make this Earth-based “spiritual anarchist” come back for more! – check out the DVDs of their first Christ Path weekend – just $50 for the full 12-DVD set, 20 hours of recorded content.

But more important, do sign up for the upcoming weekend, “Cosmic Christ and Youth – the Occupy Generation,” featuring guest speaker Adam Bucko of the Reciprocity Foundation – a transformational educational refuge for homeless youth in NYC. Adam Bucko recently collaborated with Matthew Fox in the soon-to-be-published book, Occupy Spirituality: A Radical Vision for a New Generation (Sacred Activism)

I guarantee – there will be no altar calls, but lots of challenges to your preconceptions and invitations to step beyond them into a new, broader and deeper experience of the Divine. Truly a worthwhile and inclusive experience to be savored again and again, whatever your faith tradition.

Seeking Answers Beyond the Outrage

On the evening of 9/11/11, I watched the streaming video of theologian/activist Matthew Fox‘s 9/11 commemorative lecture at the First United Methodist Church in Boulder, CO, where he decried the loss of moral outrage – values wrapped in passion to sustain purposeful action over the long haul – in this couch-potato culture, addicted to immediate gratification. Quoting the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, he said, “Moral virtue is found not in the will, not in the intellect, but in the passions. That is what is missing in our culture.”

These passions weren’t the tantrums of the Tea Party, nor the hysteria that gripped the nation after 9/11, he said, but a balanced form of warriorship focused on protecting the earth and creating a just society, ensuring that the coming generations (of all beings, not just humans) would have a livable planet for their home.

“Warriorship” – that’s a loaded word. I should add that Dr. Fox warned also against militaristic “crackpot religions” of the sort espoused by presidential candidate Rick Perry and his allies, and on the Catholic side of the fence by Opus Dei and its confreres. He described these as aberrations gaining in influence because responsible Christians had lost touch with their moral outrage, allowed the passion of conscience to be made taboo, and so surrendered the inner fire that could drive change.

I sat listening to his words with deeply conflicted feelings. While working through an Independent Study for my Master’s, walking the four paths of Creation Spirituality as laid out in Dr. Fox’s primer, Original Blessing, I struggled with his affirmation of the value of anger as fuel for action against the powers of oppression and injustice.

I still struggle. As healing and transformative as I have found the teachings of Original Blessing,  the prophetic path of action to create change is profoundly challenging for me.

I grew up in a household filled with moral outrage: my mother, Helen Rizzo, was an essayist on conservative politics and spiritual matters. During my childhood, I longed to follow in her footsteps (I decided at age 4 that I would be a writer just like my mom; she warned me that it was not a lucrative career. Undaunted, I pursued it anyway).

We came to an early parting of the political ways, however, when the nuns at my parochial school urged our second-grade class to ask our parents to boycott iceberg lettuce and seedless grapes for Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. My mother all but exploded at the thought: Cesar Chavez was a Communist; her daughter was being indoctrinated! While she was having harsh words with the nuns,  I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about: people were suffering and we could help them. What was wrong with that?

So I grew up a closet liberal in a conservative house, coming to see my mother’s political essays as increasingly at odds with the message of Jesus that I heard in the gospels.

My mother’s viewpoint certainly did not lack in moral outrage; however, her religio-political polemics only polarized her readers.  It was spiritual warfare for the soul of the nation, there was no middle ground; one either agreed or one didn’t…and if one didn’t, one was verbally flayed.

The most telling moment came in real-time, the day after I’d given birth to my son, and my mother and liberal Quaker mother-in-law had both come to help with the baby while I recovered. I should have known it was a mistake: both mothers were deeply values-driven, politically impassioned readers and thinkers. I awoke from a nap with my son to hear them in the kitchen – at the other end of our large apartment – in fierce debate, belaboring each other with snippets from their favorite pundits. I doubt either of them was even hearing the other; there was no effort at genuine communication in that Battle of the Quotes. I kept the bedroom door closed (expecting to see steam seeping under it any moment), nursed my baby, breathed deeply, and waited for the conflict to subside. Eventually they stopped, came to check on us rather sheepishly, and were painfully polite to each other for the remainder of their visit.

But as I sit with these memories, I see that there can be differences in the expression of moral outrage. Dr. Fox, in his 9/11 lecture, quoted medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas: “A trustworthy person is angry at the right people for the right reasons, expresses it in the appropriate manner for an appropriate length of time.” This, he has written elsewhere, is healthy anger, which can be used as fuel to drive creatively and productively toward a positive end…the polar opposite of destructive rage or self-consciously righteous venting.

I sit now contemplating the scrapbook of Mom’s political essays and letters to editors, remembering her readers’ responses: warm admiration from those who agreed, flames from those who didn’t. In a country – a world – where hate speech rules much of the political discourse, I emerged from my childhood with the conviction that such venting only adds to the problem; it wins no converts, achieves no unitive blossoming.

But when the ears of one side are closed to the views and values of the other, what does healthy anger – or healthy communication – look like?

Mom and I struggled with our spiritual and political differences as I matured and came out of my ideological closet. We never did come to a political understanding, but toward the end of her life she began to ask sincere questions about my faith and earth-based spiritual practice. To help her understand, I tapped into my memories of seeing her in tears at the sight of forests clear-cut for development.

It was an effective tactic – she did come to understand my passion for the earth – but at a certain point she called a halt. The reason was not a fear of heresy or apostasy, but a fear of her heart breaking – in the words of Melissa Etheridge, a fear “of crumbling.” Beyond the point of intellectual understanding, she could not move into conscious connection with the immanent Divine, clearly though she felt it. Below her doctrinaire conservatism lurked a profound, devastating, and unanswerable grief. And so she remained by choice on the surface, immersing in her Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, William F. Buckley and George Will, rarely leaving her house.

Even so, the right-wing rhetoric never claimed her soul; in her final decline after a fall and head injury, her spirituality radiated love. And on her deathbed, she gave me, her liberal panentheist daughter, her blessing: “I can see you have a vocation, though it’s not the one I would have chosen for you. I want you to follow your vocation.”

Building this conscious connection with Spirit and the Earth – seeking the Transcendent/Immanent Divine in my experience, supporting others in doing so for themselves, I say, is the focus of my Independent Studies toward my Master’s degree. And yet my Spirit/Earth connection, like my mother’s, is limited and manifested mainly through intellectual pursuits.

Oh yes, I do walk the woods, keep an organic garden, reduce/reuse/recycle, use green energy in my home to the greatest degree I can, sign petitions, write letters, and choose my clients for their level of conscience and social entrepreneurism.

But like my mother, at a certain point I become immobile, paralyzed by fear of my heart breaking. Aware that my ability to see, understand, communicate arises from hard-won personal clarity arising out of long inner wrestling. Having been devastated by hearing the scream of a tree being cut while I sat meditating in nearby sacred space, I shrink from opening my consciousness fully to the land. Knowing that I cannot spend half an hour in a bar without  picking up on the energy being shed by the drinkers, I avoid entering a highly charged direct-action protest atmosphere of slogans and counter-slogans, chants and counter-chants.

Remembering my mother’s withering condemnation of liberals, I limit my engagement in political arguments; I know from witnessing her – and from my own impulses  –  the desire to go for metaphorical blood. There’s a stimulation to be found in such debates, sure, but it’s (for me) a toxic energy that leaves me feeling sick at heart. It is not the clear, generative energy of which Dr. Fox writes.

So instead of engaging, I isolate, working to make my home a still haven of safety in a wildly careening world, while I immerse in, and share, the words of spiritual teachers urging a dynamic, engaged, and fiercely compassionate balance. I support the “99%” of Occupy Wall Street in all the ways I can, but have not visited the occupation sites.

I am not proud of this.

The memory arises of a time of similar paralysis as a child, tiptoeing into the ocean surf, fearful of moving beyond the painful  line of sharp shells, stones and sea glass to engage in the duck and dive of the deeper water, unwilling to give up and retreat.

I ask myself:  If I am afraid of fully letting down my shields against the pain of the world, how much more might others be, who have at risk a greater attachment to the things of the world, who have not experienced all things as inescapably alive, aware and sacred? Who are defensively immersing themselves in the voices of fear,  projection, and objectification that rule the airwaves?

And I ask: Is  moral outrage the path I need to follow, or is it healing, open-hearted connection – taking the risk of letting down the shields? And if I am struggling to do so,  fearing the heartbreak of authentic connection with Spirit, the Earth, the People, how can I ask others to take that step?