I used to think I was part of a religion founded by Jesus Christ. The older I’ve got and the more I’ve come to know Jesus, the more I’m convinced I got that wrong and have outgrown it.
Not that pressure to keep up religious appearances is flagging. It is still alive and well. We live in age of identity politics but also of identity religion. I find both, and the satellite culture wars they trigger, just tedious, often odious and so destructive.
It’s not just that the sex abuse scandals and associated hypocrisies in the Catholic Church have soured me. I must confess to being not entirely surprised that things are as crook as they in the leadership of my Church.
But then I had the benefit of a mother who was committed Catholic and who had a big dose of that particular type of anti-clericalism that thrived among Irish and Irish Australian women. In my teens, she dismissed the first Australian-born Cardinal and archbishop of Sydney, Norman Thomas Gilroy, as just “wood from the neck up”!
Religion has become for me a doorway at best. For many in today’s world, it’s a doorway that has slammed shut or, if it’s open at all, not one many choose to walk through.
Not so for me, though I have left many of its restraints and permissions behind a long time ago. And the reason I have done that is not that I have become what religious hardliners yesterday and today would call a “wishy, washy liberal trendy”. It’s because I have found something much richer and far superior. And something that “religion” points to but is often missed by religious adherents.
I think John Henry Newman, the recently canonized English saint, got right and dignified what I’ve experienced when he made the distinction between “notional” and “real” faith in his Grammar of Assent. The notional stuff makes what has become a common descriptor – a “cultural Catholic”.
Many just give nodding assent to Catholic beliefs and practices without the journey of faith taking hold of them. Some are now called “devout atheists” and cover all manner of people from the likes of Viktor Orban in Hungary to the devious and destructive Steve Bannon. One author I read recently described Benito Mussolini as a “devout atheist”.
“Real assent” is something that takes hold of you, centers you and makes the relationship with Jesus and absorption of his message an ever-growing center of your life. It can only come at a great cost and is often nurtured in sorrow and suffering.
It has been for me. In February 2019, I made a retreat in northern Thailand, in Chiangmai. It’s an annual retreat for eight days that we Jesuits are asked to make and I thought it would be remarkably unspectacular. Life was bumping along though I thought I had to gird myself for an impending experience of failure.
But the retreat was the experience of something that completely reversed my expectations and trajectory in 2019. I was drawn by the Spirit to embrace the suffering, marginalization and abandonment my refugee and asylum seeker friends were trapped in. I committed to redoubling my efforts to get them resettled.
I knew it would be an impossible ask and would entail a fair deal of the experience of dereliction they endure daily. In Jesuit parlance, I knew it would entail a fair deal of the experience of Third Degree of Humility which is a share in the dereliction that Jesus experienced on the Cross.
Since 2013, I have accompanied some of the most forgotten poor people in the world – refugees and asylum seekers, mostly Christian and mostly from Pakistan – who escaped persecution by Islamic fanatics only to flee to Bangkok where they are punished by the Thai police for fleeing persecution. They are “illegals” and Thailand is not a signatory to any of the protocols protecting refugees and asylum seekers.
In the era of Donald Trump and with populist nationalism that is widespread throughout the world, refugees and asylum seekers are the outcome of violence mostly of America’s making and fair game for those who are hostile to migrants fleeing the violence.
At the end of 2018, I thought I would have to spend 2019 comforting many as I told them I couldn’t do anything for their resettlement, that their torment wouldn’t end happily and that they should reconcile themselves to repatriation to a place where their lives are in danger. Or reconcile themselves to living forever in an open prison in Bangkok without income, work, medical support or education for their children.
Instead, doors opened in the most unexpected places in Europe (50) and even Australia (100) and good old Canada – which has maintained since 1979 its community-based resettlement scheme of sponsorships by groups like parishes and Protestant religious congregations. The Canadians agreed to take 200 through parish resettlements.
It’s long, slow and frustrating work and the “wins” are few and far between. But there’s enough of them to encourage me that there can be a happy ending for a lot. But it’s been a lonely slog – sharing their grief and pain, seeing the indifference of Church and NGO officials firsthand and just feeling there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s led me a long way beyond what my religious upbringing taught me and taken me on a journey that has led me well outside the boundaries it provided. It has completely relativized the claims those boundaries ever made on me and taken me to waters I found to be completely unchartered. It has led me to take a lonely journey that has taught me what faith is really about and which religion can only point to.
And being an Australian Catholic hasn’t been a lot of help either. It was tribal and ritualistic in my formative years and hardly prepared us to deepen the interior life that is indispensable for a growth and deepening of faith as life’s ambiguities and paradoxes unfold.
At a basic cultural level, Australia has to be among the most diverse societies on earth. It’s been our boast that with such diversity, we have a remarkably integrated society where the diversity hasn’t blown up on us. Given the potential for conflict, we lead a blessed existence.
That we haven’t blown up and the old Australian habit of live and let live has prevailed has meant the contours of religion have been reshaped in Australia as rivalries and competition have evaporated. But even more, the contours of Australian hearts are being refashioned. And mine has been and is being refashioned by an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus that the religion at its best, but only at its best, just points to.
So, what is to become of us? God only knows. Each of us has our unique pathway and a unique way to follow on our journey. Whatever becomes of us on that journey is developed between us and God. But one thing I’m sure about is that God never gives up…on me or anyone. Stick to the surrender in faith and love and amazing things happen.
For me it’s been the discovery Shakespeare aptly described:
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
– Hamlet (1.5.167-8), Hamlet to Horatio