Spirituality for today

26 01 2009

by Frank Turner SJ

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Frei  Betto (Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo OP) is a well-known writer and social activist, an adviser to the President of Brazil on the Zero Hunger programme.

Frei Betto (foto de Anselmo Dias SJ)

Frei Betto (foto de Anselmo Dias SJ)

He began his presentation by considering “inner ecology”, the practice of compassionate self-awareness: ‘caress your heart’; ask if your sense of humour is intoxicated with anger and arrogance, whether your gestures are aggressive and ‘poisoned’; consider whether you seek tolerance and forgiveness without sacrificing justice and respect for life, whether you treat everyone as an equal, whether they be ‘devoured by misery’ or lost in the illusion of nobility. This awareness is crucial, since we always bring ourselves to our social struggles.

As others have done in these days, he proposed that we are living through a change of epoch. As the hegemony of the Church gave way to that of reason (where “reason” could be narrowed to Cartesian rationalism) and a theocentric paradigm to an anthropocentric paradigm, we are at the point of moving to a paradigm that can be called “holistic”. For both science and spirituality disallow the previously reflex opposition of ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, the ‘human being’ and some inanimate ‘nature’. In the whole of divine creation there is a convergence, a synergy, a unity that is fully to be realized. Similarly we can now, once again, understand the vision of Meister Eckhart, that to come close to God is also to come closer to ourselves, just as in the depths of ourselves we find God, who is indeed in all things and people (panentheism). Science now discloses that we humans are not above nature but part of nature. In an equivalent way, we should realize more deeply that spirituality is not an escape from life (the too familiar images of autumn leaves, sunsets, that are so far from the daily realities of the lives of so many who suffer) but is found in the heart of life as its fullness. The spiritual journey of Jesus has nothing to do with the contemplation of nature at its most tranquil, but is a path of struggle. The infancy narratives themselves direct us firmly to his Crucifixion as the victim of two political powers.  So what kind of faith in Jesus is not political?


Frei Betto noted that the question, “What must I do to attain eternal life?” is always the question posed by the privileged or prosperous insider: by Zacchaeus, Nicodemus, the doctor of the Law. Jesus refuses to offer any version of eternal life as an added extra. The question of the poor, that draws his full response is “What must I do to have life here and now?”. It may be a leper, or Bartimaeus or the Canaanite woman. To this, Jesus responds by offering more abundant life. The fullness of Christian life is fully human life: we are not made human by faith in Jesus as such but by sharing the faith of Jesus.

In  this way, Frei Betto integrated his inner ecology (the peace we must bring to our struggle so as not simply to spread our own disaffection), with the challenge that our struggle is valid only as an expression of the conflict with those forces of destruction that threaten the lives of the poor, the conflict that forms a central motif of the Gospels. For this hearer, his argument may best be summarized in the promise of the Fourth Gospel: “I leave you peace, but not peace as the world gives it. In the world you will have trouble. But fear not, I have conquered the world”.




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