Monday, April 24, 2006

Torture and Eucharist

William Cavanaugh, Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ (Malden, Mass: Blackwell, 1998) 286pp.

William Cavanaugh is a professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. He is one of the leading lights of a new generation of theologians trying to forge a new conversation between theology and politics. Torture and Eucharist is a revision of his 1996 Duke University doctoral dissertation: “Torture and Eucharist in Pinochet’s Chile.”

The book is not really about him but about the embodied theological practices of Chilean Christians under the regime of General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte from 1973-1990. Cavanaugh argues that when Pinochet rose to power, the church in Chile was dominated by a disastrous ecclesiology of Pius XI and Jaques Maritain that relegated all political activity to a merely social and secular sphere. Because of this, when Pinochet sought through violence and torture to impose a totalitarian state on Chile, the church was left without a sense of its own resources as an embodied political entity. The shepherd being absent the laity were left to act individually and impotently.

Telling the story of Pinochet’s inhuman regime, Cavanaugh contrasts a regime of torture with the eucharistic community: “[T]orture is a kind of perverted liturgy, a ritual act which organizes bodies in the society into a collective performance, not of true community, but of an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious (p.12).” As such, torture is “the regime’s strategy to fragment society, to disarticulate all intermediate social bodies between the individual and the state—parties, unions, professional organizations—which would challenge the regime’s desire to have all depend totally on it….Wherever two or three are gathered, there is subversion in their midst (p.38).

Cavanaugh writes that in the early years of Pinochet’s regime, the destructive ecclesiology in which the Chilean church had been formed failed them for it assumed a secular state that the church could then inhabit as conscience or soul. The church had no political sense of itself independent of the state and could not combat the violent fragmentation of society. Over time, however, the Chilean church discovered this political sense by ressourcement in the Eucharist. In 1976, Cardinal Silva formed the Vicariate of Solidarity which boldly reasserted the identity of the Church as a social body. In 1980, seven Chilean bishops began to excommunicate (literally, bar from the Eucharist) anyone who was participating in acts of torture. In 1983 the entire Chilean episcopal conference determined to do so as well. In fits and starts, the church in Chile constituted itself as “contrast society” with the Eucharist being a “counter-politics” to the politics of torture. In urging the use of the church’s unique disciplinary resources—Eucharist, penance, virtue, mercy, and martyrdom—habits and consciences are formed that subvert the totalizing vision of the state and transcend the secular-sacred dichotomy established by modernity.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Hi! I'm Tom Cruise. You Might Remember Me From Such Films As...

Tom is morphing into Troy McClure before our eyes. Last week his cooky self-promotion wandered into insisting that his girlfriend had renounced Christianity in favor of Scientology and would have a completely silent birth (sans medication). Today he announced that he will eat the placenta and ubilical cord after the happy event. How long before we hear about Tom's bizarre behavior at a local aquarium?

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Little Flower: Story of a Soul

John Clarke O.C.D. trans. The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, 3rd Edition (Washington D.C.: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1996) 306pp.

Sainte Thérèse de l'Enfant-Jésus et de la Sainte Face (1873 – 1897) was born Marie-Françoise-Thérèse Martin in Alençon, France. She was the daughter of Louis Martin, a watchmaker, and Zélie-Marie Guérin, a lacemaker. Both her parents were very religious and had aspired to religious life before their marriage. Lacking vocations themselves, they vowed to give all their children to the church. Thérèse was the youngest of nine children (only five surviving to adulthood).
Zélie-Marie died of breast cancer in 1877, when Thérèse was only four years old. Afterwards her father was unable to continue to work and sold his business. The family moved to Lisieux where Zélie-Marie’s brother, Isidore Guérin, a pharmacist, lived with his wife and two daughters.

When Thérèse was nine years old, her sister, Pauline, entered the Carmelite order of nuns. Thérèse too wanted to enter the Carmelite order, but was told she was too young. At 15, another sister, Marie, also became a Carmelite. Thérèse renewed her attempts to join the order, but was prevented the bishop of Bayeux. Thérèse accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to Rome. During a general audience with Pope Leo XIII, she importunately asked him to allow her to enter the Carmelite order, but the Pope stood by the decision of the bishop. Shortly after, Thérèse’s bishop relented and she entered the Carmelite community. Upon the death of her father another sister, Céline, joined the order.

The Story of a Soul was written at the behest of her mother superior. The autobiographical account of her life discloses her so-called "Little Way" approach to spirituality. The pursuit of holiness, she argues, does not require great or notable acts, but only little acts of sacrifice and great love for God:

Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.

The book bears all the marks of a woman religious who was very young. As such, much of the work is tinged by melodrama and, frankly, unworthy approaches to the spiritual life. One such flaw is when she compares herself to a ball to entertain the baby Jesus.

I had offered myself, for some time now, to the Child Jesus as His little plaything. I told Him not to use me as a valuable toy children are content to look at but dare not touch, but to use me like a little ball of no value which He could throw on the ground, push with His foot, pierce, leave in a corner, or press to His heart if it pleased Him; in a word, I wanted to amuse little Jesus, to give Him pleasure; I wanted to give myself up to His childish whims. He heard my prayer.

At other times, however, Thérèse’s determination to serve God in the little details of the ordinary are quite mature and profound. In these places, they suggest a happy affinity with the “sacred ordinary” we also find in Brother Lawrence’s Practice of the Presence of God.

Reformed and Catholic readers are well reminded that the sovereignty of God is ultimately a pastoral doctrine. The Dutch Calvinist, Abraham Kuyper, once wrote that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” This confident reality underwrites our ability to abandon the willful pursuit of our own wills in favor of an active, involved, and considered self-offering to him. Nothing that we offer him is truly lost for in saying, “Not my will, but yours” we consummate the gift that is our very selves.