“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them.”—Matthew 7:15-20
In this post I take our blog title and begin to explore, in a roundabout way, what it might mean if the house we are meant to “rebuild” is ourselves, that is, to paraphrase Pope John Paul II, the human person as a living house of the divine.
When I lived in Scotland, I had a wonderful spiritual director, a good tree bearing good fruit. He was gentle, wise, perceptive, and had a fine sense of humor. Most importantly, he could see. He could see in the way the writer and cultural theorist bell hooks moves to define it in her wonderful book Belonging: A Culture of Place. She tells the story of her grandmother, Baba, who taught her that human beings are “shaped by space.” Baba’s house was filled with things of varied texture and color: sunlit lace curtains, strings of red peppers, braids of brown tobacco leaves, cups of burgundy wine. “Do you believe that space can give life, or take it away, that space has power?” Baba asked her granddaughter. She showed hooks “the beauty of the everyday,” taught her that “we must learn to see.”
My former spiritual director did for me what hooks’ grandmother did for her. For me and for many others in Glasgow and beyond, Catholic and otherwise, he helped create a sanctuary at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre in the heart of the city. As soon as I crossed the threshold into that space, I felt more at ease, more myself. Inside those walls the air seemed lighter, the colors, brighter. Ordinary objects provided a sense of welcome and safety: teacups and biscuit tins, bookcases crowded with books and house plants, a chapel full of light and art. I would meet with my spiritual director (though I prefer the term “anam cara,” or “soul friend,” which was used in the early Celtic Church) and talk about my prayer and daily life. Sometimes, after listening awhile, he would simply ask: Where was God in all this? Gradually I came to see patterns in what initially seemed formless and chaotic. Like bell hooks, I had found a space that gave life and “rebuilt” my interior landscape.
Watching the Democratic National Convention last month, my soul friend unexpectedly came to mind, though I had not thought of him for some time. The same question arose that he had asked so often. Where is God in this? Or, in other words, where is life? Was this virtual space, created to guard against the spread of COVID-19 and thus protect participants, life giving? I found it overwhelmingly and surprisingly so, especially in its inclusion of all U.S. people—Native American, Black, Hispanic, white, men, women, young, old, straight, gay, from every region, from many faiths and none. Here was a portrayal of the United States as diverse and reunited, a welcoming, merciful space, one of possibility in which a society might actually begin to heal and even flourish. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden, a Catholic, appeared human and humane, vulnerable and humble, yet strong and ready to protect and serve all Americans. “I will be an ally of the light,” he promised, “not of the darkness.”
Nothing I saw those nights of the convention led me to believe that Joe Biden is “Catholic in name only,” as one speaker declared during the Republican National Convention not long after, nor that Catholics who voted for Democrats would be condemned to hell, as a Wisconsin priest claimed in a viral video recently. I saw no evidence, as was claimed by some, that there was no mention of God at the DNC. To the contrary, there was more than enough to make an American voter aware of the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”) uneasy.
By their fruits you will know them. In response to what David E. Decosse politely called the “fever pitch of false statements on the part of many claiming to speak for Catholicism,” he and others have attempted to clarify the responsibility of the American Catholic voter in the midst of a bombardment of constant lies and chaos. They turn to the teaching document on the subject from the U.S. bishops, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” What are the most important considerations for the responsible Catholic voter? The bishops name four principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and solidarity. Political decisions ought to be governed by reason and confirmed by revelation using a well-formed conscience. Crucial is the formation of conscience, which seems neglected in today’s world. How does one develop a conscience, know the good tree? Perhaps all the Church needs to refocus on this, the “rebuilding” of interior landscape, on learning how to see.
Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.