Quiet thoughts about a Friend
By THOMAS C. FOX
I loved my father. He was a caring man and a great inspiration. I thought I should tell you this as I begin, for it involves our notion of fathers.
I recently returned from a month-long trip to India. One cannot spend that much time there without returning changed. I was changed. I went to gather information for NCR and for a book I am writing. I also went because I am attracted to nearly all things Asian, including Asian-American families, religion and spirituality.
Like many of us, I get mired in lifes journey. Praying becomes difficult, I take people and circumstances for granted, I dont make the effort to cultivate the spirit.
I was going through such a period as my plans for the trip developed. I left the United States thinking Indias rich cultures and mystical ways would lighten and enlighten my spirit. Ive borrowed from India in the past.
I was searching for something I couldnt quite articulate as we arrived in New Delhi. At the same time, I was finding elements of my Catholic spiritual home less comfortable -- without ever quite pinning down the reason.
In the course of our travels in India my wife, Hoa, and I encountered many wonderful and generous people. It is true that Asians are gracious in welcoming strangers. They appreciate any interest we Westerners show in their lives and ways.
During this journey we visited with many Catholics. These were serving and grounded people. I had a glimpse of what it means to be evangelized by the poor, as these Catholics were. Most work generously on behalf of the poorest and most marginalized of human beings.
Two priests in particular had a special impact on me. Since our conversations were personal, I will call one Saldanha and the other Siddharth. Saldanha and Siddharth were both elderly men and seemed to have something important to say to me. It was as if it was intended that we meet and that I listen and learn from them. With every opportunity I had I asked the men and women I met about their spiritual approaches to life. I shared some of my own. You can tell when you encounter holiness. Asians call it enlightenment.
After spending some time with one of the men one afternoon, I found myself in a confessional mood. Saldanha listened carefully, all the time looking closely in my eyes. Then he asked: Do you believe in hell?
No, I answered, I guess I dont.
Good. Then its love that makes you want to change, not fear.
I guess so, I answered.
You know what your problem is, he went on. You think of God as father. You still view God as judge. Youve got to get over it. Youve got to think of God as friend.
God is your best friend. You just dont know it. You dont trust this friend to accept and love you.
He reminded me that our church speaks of God as being all-merciful and all-loving. But we act as if God is our father-judge. There is nothing you can do -- no wrong -- that is not already forgiving, if thats the way you want to put it, by your best friend, God.
Saldanha then encouraged me to read a book. At first I thought he would recommend some ancient Indian text. Instead, he said I would benefit from reading Friendship with God, by Neale Donald Walsch, an American author.
I did as he suggested and have found it helpful.
We Catholics do have an exaggerated sense of father. I remember being in Rome in 1978 during the interregnum following the death of Paul VI and the free feeling many of us had -- of actually being responsible adult Catholics. It was as if father was gone and we had to fill in for him. The cardinals seemed to sense it, too. Then they went off and elected a new father. There was rejoicing -- but in the process, we all became children again. Can this be healthy?
In India I also had an opportunity to meet Siddharth, a man in his 70s. He had an impish temperament. His work calls upon him to encounter bishops and cardinals.
Ive stopped all this Your Eminence, Your Holiness nonsense, he told me matter-of-factly. To me everyone is simply Brother or Sister. At first they blink, but they adjust.
Siddharth encouraged me to enlarge my vision of God. He questioned some traditional Catholic teachings including the idea of original sin. He said it makes no sense to him in the wake of the Incarnation.
If Adam and Eve, mere humans, were responsible for all this [sin], then wouldnt it stand to reason that Christ, the God-person, so much more of an event, would obliterate it for all time? I simply dont buy protoplasmic sin.
Sri Lankan Oblate Fr. Tissa Balasuriya got into trouble for questioning original sin. Siddharth confided to me that he is a friend of Tissas. It seems Siddharth has been influenced by Tissa. Or perhaps its the other way around.
The larger point is this: The Asian psyche does not readily absorb certain traditional Western religious ideas and, as a result, is apt to be more questioning. As the Catholic church deepens its roots in Asia, as the universal church goes global, somethings got to give. No hemisphere has the whole picture of the divine. The difference is that the East understands this.
I cant yet explain why my trip to India, while deeply disturbing at one level -- the level of the encounter with absolute poverty -- was comforting and uplifting at another, the spiritual realm. Someday I might understand this. Ive returned altered, jarred, more hopeful. Im in a new place. Maybe Ill stay here for a bit. Maybe theres really no need to go.
Asians place talk of spirituality into the context of knowledge and awareness. Im giving this some quiet thought. Meanwhile, Im feeling much better about my Friend.
Tom Fox is NCR publisher. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, March 16, 2001