A Pastoral Letter to Surfers

Bishop Larry Silva of Honolulu has written a wonderful Pastoral Letter to Surfers for the Year of Faith. I have seen some  attempts of connecting surfing to the spiritual lessons of the Christian life, such as  Peter Kreeft here. But this short and simple letter is my favorite so far. Quoting Benedict, Augustine and Aquinas, Bishop Silva manages to capture some essential elements of what surfing means and shed a Christian light on it.

The most interesting insight to me, having been a surfer who once sought God on the waves and travelled the world looking for the ‘perfect wave’, is the following:

There is a tendency in surf culture to see surfing as a religion: to settle for creation rather than Creator.  Yet the ocean is an “icon of God”. The beauty, awe, and joy you experience should lead on to the Author of the universe: our loving God (Rom 1:19-20). The search for the “sweet spot” on perfect wave is really a search for ultimate happiness, which leads us to God, because nothing else totally satisfies that desire. As St. Augustine put it: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”… 

Just as you search for waves, do not be afraid to search for truth. Do not let the many competing voices cause you to give up on the possibility of discovery.  Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” [John 14:6] As Pope Benedict XVI encourages:  “[T]he happiness you are seeking, the happiness you have a right to enjoy has a name and a face: it is Jesus of Nazareth.” (World Youth Day, Madrid, 2011)”

ricAussieAfter surfing from Sumatra and Bali to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and Tahiti, this is precisely what I discovered, that I was looking for too much in surfing. Not that surfing was bad, but I had placed divine expectations on it, and surfing is not God. I could only rest in God himself (here is a picture of me camping by an Australian park in a surf spot in Australia when I was 18). R. R. Reno, has an interesting quote about this, with regards to his experience with Rock Climbing. Reno is now editor of First Things, known as a ‘conservative’ Christian magazine. He is the editor and also a  serious theologian. But apparently was once a serious climbing bum, and this is what he found:

““[Climbing] is not as important as it seems. Don’t overestimate it and if you don’t, you’ll probably

enjoy it longer because you won’t make it play a role in your life that it can’t really play. It can’t be like religion. It’s a temptation to confuse the intense experience of climbing with something that’s more life fulfilling. I think the people who did that ended up unhappy.” This is undoubtedly the salient nugget of wisdom in this article. It was Rusty’s interpretation of what Dale Bard told him as a young climber. Climbing is one of those unusually addicting activities, which makes its participant susceptible to placing a higher worth on it than is appropriate. The climbers who have not fallen in this trap, it turns out, tend to enjoy their sport more in the long run.”

I think this captures the spirit of the Pastoral Letter to Surfers, but in the negative. The positive side is how our anthropological longing for infinity many times is expressed in activities like surfing and rock climbing. Understanding the difference between the expression of, and the reality itself, can make a huge difference. It is in the encounter with the infinite, with the face of God – Jesus,  that the longing can be fulfilled. Pope Benedict XVI spoke this existential language on his 2nd catechesis on prayer. Below an excerpt, and below that an incredible video on surfing and the waves of Teahopoo:

Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a longing for eternity, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and for truth which impel him towards the Absolute; man bears within him the desire for God. And man knows, in a certain way, that he can turn to God, he knows he can pray to him…

Man is religious by nature, he is homo religiosus just as he is homo sapiens and homo faber: “The desire for God” the Catechism says further, “is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God” (n. 27). The image of the Creator is impressed on his being and he feels the need to find light to give a response to the questions that concern the deep sense of reality; a response that he cannot find in himself, in progress, in empirical science.

Spiritual Lessons – Water and Blood

Here are a few highlights from the last week, which I will briefly post and add links. First the title: “Water and blood” because the first highlight comes from the Pope’s recognition of the importance of the World Water Day event; and blood from his reflection on the New Evangelization – with plenty in between. Below the different themes, links and quotes:

1. Water: This came from the Pope’s Sunday Angelus about Jesus and the desert. He mentioned the importance of water, a recurring themes in his pontificate and the Church’s social and environmental concerns. It was at a similar event in Zaragoza when he stated the Catholic position on the “intrinsic value” of created things – an often debated and polarized issue among many environmentalists who can only consider a position that subscribes to either instrumental value or an intrinsic value of nature, never both. The Catholic position recognizes both the intrinsic value of creation and the greater dignity of humankind, giving creation an instrumental value as well. Below the Angelus text:

Yesterday was the conclusion, in Marseilles, of the sixth World Water Forum and next Thursday will be observed the World Water Day, which this year underscores the fundamental link between such a precious and limited resource and food security. I hope that these initiatives contribute to guaranteeing equal, secure and adequate access to water for everyone, promoting in this way the rights to life and nourishment of every human being, and a responsible and solidary use of the goods of the earth, for the benefit of present and future generations.

2. Mary’s availability: This week Pope Benedict XVI gave a masterful catechesis on the role of Mary in prayer. If reconciliation is the key to solving the rupture with creation, a Jesus is the reconciliation himself, then encountering Jesus takes center stage. The one who teaches us the path to Jesus is Mary, with her full availability. This is a term very close to my spirituality and vocation, the Pope actually says “complete availability”:

Mary quietly followed her Son’s entire journey during His public life, even to the foot of the Cross; and now she continues in silent prayer to follow along the Church’s path. At the Annunciation in the home of Nazareth, Mary welcomes the angel of God; she is attentive to his words; she welcomes them and responds to the divine plan, thereby revealing her complete availability: “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (cf. Luke1:38). Because of her inner attitude of listening, Mary is able to interpret her own history, and to humbly acknowledge that it is the Lord who is acting.

3. The silence of God: In the previous weeks catechesis he also mentioned the importance of prayer and learning how to deal with the silence of God. This silence can be found in nature as well.

…often in our prayer, we find ourselves before the silence of God; we experience a sense of abandonment; it seems to us that God is not listening and that He does not respond. But this silence of God – as Jesus also experienced – is not a sign of His absence. The Christian knows well that the Lord is present and that he is listening, even in the darkness of suffering, rejection and solitude. Jesus reassures the disciples and each one of us that God knows well our needs at every moment of life. He teaches the disciples: “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matthew 6:7-8): an attentive, silent, open heart is more important than many words. God knows us intimately, more deeply than we know ourselves, and He loves us: and knowing this should suffice…. The prayer of Jesus indicates to us who are often preoccupied by the efficiency of our work and the concrete results we achieve that we need to stop and to experience moments of intimacy with God, “detaching ourselves” from the daily din in order to listen, to go to the “root” that supports and nourishes life.

4. Educational emergency: In an address on the occasion of the annual Course on the Internal Forum organized by the Apostolic Penitentiary, the Pope drew connections between the need for confession and the New Evangelization. This was because of how the New Evangelization requires that people be open to the truth, and confession ” begins with a look at one’s actual condition in life” and opens our hearts. This rings so true when one looks at the hardness of heart and mind in academic settings among professors and students who shut themselves out to the truth, starting with a lack of truth about themselves. Humility was a central theme of his lectio divina to priests this year.

In an age of educational emergency in which relativism is calling into question the very possibility of an education understood as a gradual introduction to knowledge of the truth, to the profound sense of reality, hence as a gradual introduction to the relationship with the Truth which is God, Christians are called to proclaim energetically the possibility of the encounter between today’s people and Jesus Christ, in whom God made himself so close that that he may be seen and heard. In this perspective the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which begins with a look at one’s actual condition in life, contributes uniquely to achieving that “openness of heart” which enables one to turn one’s gaze to God so that he may enter one’s life.

5. Lifeblood: Finally, in the same address the Pope talked about the lifeblood of evangelization which is holiness. The logic is simple and unbeatable:

In what sense then is sacramental confession a “path” for the New Evangelization? First of all because the New Evangelization draws its lifeblood from the holiness of the children of the Church, from the daily journey of personal and community conversion in order to be ever more closely conformed to Christ. Then there is a close connection between holiness and the Sacrament of Reconciliation, witnessed by all the saints of history. The real conversion of our hearts, which means opening ourselves to God’s transforming and renewing action, is the “driving force” of every reform and is expressed in a real evangelizing effort. In confession, through the freely bestowed action of divine Mercy, repentant sinners are justified, pardoned and sanctified and abandon their former selves to be reclothed in the new.

“That Mountain which is Christ”

I have written about the spirituality of mountain climbing before, for which Pope John Paul II has a beautiful reflection, posted here. Recently a friend brought to my attention an official Catholic prayer for the blessing of tools for rock climbing, approved by Pope Pius XI. Here the Church recognizes the spiritual dimension of our activities among other things, and how rock climbing can serve as a metaphor for the Christian life. Thanks to Mary for the link. Below the blessing:

BLESSING OF TOOLS FOR SCALING MOUNTAINS(Approved by Pope Pius XI on October 14, 1931)

P: Our help is in the name of the Lord.
All: Who made heaven and earth.
P: The Lord be with you.
All: May He also be with you.

Let us pray.
Lord, we beg you to bless + these ropes, staves, mattocks, and
these other tools, so that all who will use them in scaling the
mountains’ heights and precipices, in ice and snow and raging
storms, may be preserved from all accidents and catastrophe,
safely reach the summits, and return unharmed to their homes;
through Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

Let us pray.
Protect these servants of yours, O Lord, by the prayers of St.
Bernard, whom you have made patron of mountain dwellers and
travelers; and grant that along with scaling these heights they
may also reach that mountain which is Christ; through the same
Christ our Lord.
All: Amen.

They are sprinkled with holy water.

Pope Prays for the Environment

The Vatican has recently announced the Pope’s prayer intentions for 2013. As Catholic Culture explains here,

The practice of proposing specific monthly prayer intentions to the faithful arose in response to the formation of the Apostleship of Prayer during the nineteenth century. Members of the apostolate, founded in 1844, make a daily offering of themselves, in union with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, for the intentions of the Holy Father.

In the March intention for 2013, the following prayer is found: That respect for nature may grow with the awareness that all creation is God’s work entrusted to human responsibility.

For a full list of the 2013 intentions see the Vatican News service page here. The new and popular Vatican News portal also has an article on the environment here, referring to the Pope’s environmental statements at his address to Diplomats and reminds us of the UN’s “International Year of Sustainable Energy for All”.


Technology, Silence and the Pedagogy of Farming

Carthusian Monks in "Into Great Silence"

After the historic speech in Germany and his mention of the environmental movement as one example of a challenge to the bunker of relativism, Pope Benedict XVI continues to make reference to the environment. In a speech to the Carthusian monks in southern Italy, he gave an interesting diagnostic of our world, where technology and the stimulus anxiety of the new generation reveals humanities fear of silence and inability to connect with God. Monks, who live in silence and in touch with nature, are an important witness to the Church and the deeper dimensions of our humanity. Below some key excerpts.

Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic. Cities are almost always noisy, silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always a lingering background noise, in some areas even at night. In the recent decades, moreover, the development of the media has spread and extended a phenomenon that had already been outlined in the 1960s: virtuality that risks getting the upper hand over reality. Unbeknown to them, people are increasingly becoming immersed in a virtual dimension because of the audiovisual messages that accompany their life from morning to night.

The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude…. by withdrawing into silence and solitude, human beings, so to speak, “expose” themselves to reality in their nakedness, to that apparent “void,” which I mentioned at the outset, in order to experience instead Fullness, the presence of God, of the most royal Reality that exists and that lies beyond the tangible dimension. He is a perceptible presence in every created thing: in the air that we breathe, in the light that we see and that warms us, in the grass, in stones…. God, Creator omnium, [the Creator of all], passes through all things but is beyond them and for this very reason is the foundation of them all.

A few days later the Pope reflected on Psalm 126, and its message of joy. Reflecting on the psalm’s words of those who “sow in sorrow, will reap in joy”, the Pope deepens on the image of farming, sowing and reaping. He tells us how this act of socking reminds us of our smallness, weakness and necessity of something greater than ourselves. Counting on nature is an act of humility, it gives us this ” powerless time of waiting” for our sustenance to grow. Below his own words:

To scatter the seed is an act of trust and of hope; man’s industriousness is needed, but then one must enter into a powerless time of waiting, well aware that many deciding factors will determine the success of the harvest, and that the risk of failure is always lurking. And yet, year after year, the farmer repeats his gesture and scatters the seed. And when it becomes an ear of grain, and the fields fill with crops, this is the joy of he who stands before an extraordinary marvel. 

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The Spirituality of Mountain Climbing

This is a quote from Pope John Paul II on the significance of sports and specifically mountain climbing. The meaning it has for the Christian life and how it can enhance our spiritual growth. The original in Italian can be found here, and the quote in English can be found in the book “A Catholic Perspective: Physical Exercise and Sports”, by Robert Feeney. Enjoy!

“If it is true that sports activity, in developing and perfecting the physical and psychological potential of the person, contributes to a more complete maturity of the character, this is especially true for those who practice mountain climbing and engage in it in respect for the ideals which this sport sustains and nourishes. I exhort you in the words of my predecessor, Pius XII, to be “docile to the lessons of the mountain: 

. . . it is a lesson in spiritual elevation, of an energy which is more moral than physical.” I congratulate you on your programs which aim at educating your members in respect for nature and in a deepened examination of the message which she imparts to the human spirit. Have special concern for the young, to train them to follow the type of life that the mountains demand of their devotes. It requires rigorous virtues in those who practice it: strict discipline and self-control, prudence, a spirit of sacrifice and dedication, care and solidarity for others.Thus we can say that mountain-climbing develops character. In fact, it would not be possible to face disinterestedly the difficulties of life on the mountains if the physical and muscular strength, which is very necessary, were not sustained by a strong will and an intelligent passion for beauty. Help your members also to be contemplatives, to enjoy ever more deeply in their mind the message of creation. In contact with the beauties of the mountains, in the face of the spectacular grandeur of the peaks, the fields of snow and the immense landscapes, man enters into himself and discovers that the beauty of the universe shines not only in the framework of the exterior heavens, but also that of the soul that allows itself to be enlightened, and seeks to give meaning to life. From the things that it contemplates, in fact, the spirit is lifting up to God on the breath of prayer and gratitude towards the Creator.”