Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Thinking Out of the Box

Father John J. Lombardi

Boxed in? Is your thinking all wrapped up in a strangulating box? Are you enclosed and imprisoned by a boxy kind of discipleship?

You've heard that saying-sometimes innocuous, I must admit-"think outside the box"-haven't you? Perhaps it's helpful, and, as often, sometimes not. Occasionally I get on my guard when I hear it, as in, thinking someone's trying to derail a traditional value, or, in faith matters, someone wants to change a doctrine of our religion or a discipline of the church (say, male celibate priesthood).

However, that out-of-the-box saying may come in handy regarding this Sunday's Gospel (St Mk. 9:39ff): the disciples question Jesus about a healer who is not "of their group" (a freelancer exorcist?)---and Jesus responds by giving us, the "principle of non contradiction": "Anyone who is not against us is for us" (Mk. 9: 40).So: don't box in that healer by boxy thinking!

Really, Jesus did get the Jews of His time to "think outside the box"-especially regarding God, that He, God, is not, as Jews mostly thought, always and only transcendentally above all, but, actually, as Jesus taught us, He, God-Is-with-Us ("Emmanuel") in the Incarnation, Jesus Christ; that God is a Trinity of Persons (Mt 28:19)-and dwells within us (cf. St. Jn 17:23); and that it is not enough, as some rigorous Jewish rabbis thought, just to worship God and offer sacrifice while ignoring others, but what is also needed is charity. Jesus also got folks to think outside the box regarding women--they are not second class citizens or to be abused; the Lord Himself taught all of us to think differently about the poor, and that God is not only for the Jewish people but for all to know and love (Mt. 28). And most famously, Jesus said: "Don't cling to Me" to Mary Magdalene: even the Resurrected Jesus couldn't be boxed in!

Jesus' Way is liberating for all of us; He wants us to be free of sterile thinking, praying and acting. Below, now, are some other "Out-of-the-Box-Thoughts" for all of us to consider…

Respect Life (this Sunday is Respect Life Sunday): Deacon Jesse (of Baltimore) was preparing for his homily and his dad said that when the space shuttle takes off in Florida, the scientific flight crews remove birds and eggs from the shuttle area, those over 12 days old. All others they dispose of. Yeah…? If scientists and environmentalists reach this distinction at such an early age that there is life-of baby birds, then, just think-out of the box--why not preserve human babies who are in the womb of their moms awaiting, like the birds, life on the outside world? And yet our country allows the abortion-killing of babies as late as 7-9 months…How can you think out of the box and see this above contradiction-saving nascent birds but not babies--and then help others see it-and thereby preserve and promote all human life from womb to tomb?

Vatican II said that there are seeds of truth in other religions (in Nostra Aetetae). These religions obviously don't have the fullness of Truth as in the Catholic Religion-because our Faith is Sacred Revelation directly from God Himself. However, perhaps you may have heard a helpful, challenging saying, the Catholic Church is not afraid of truth whatever it is. This may strike at the heart of this Sunday's Gospel of the healer who is not of Jesus' Apostles. There are truths and practices (other than Catholics know and do) which may, actually, be user-friendly and helpful to us-if we don't' box ourselves in. There are others that, obviously, do not fit in with our Faith and beliefs which we must be wary of. However, I myself learned about deeper prayer, contemplation and mysticism not exactly-or only--from my Catholic Faith but from college classes and from dialogue and conversation with Eastern religions. The "box" of my faith was not delivering these truths; unfortunately, others were. This is not to condemn anyone, nor condone "syncretism" (shopping around for Truth and blending religions and spiritualities together). No. It is to imply that we Catholics have a rich, diverse, even Divine revelation and treasury of spiritual Truth and liberation that is not getting out to people, and that other religions are doing this-and that many are flocking to them…How can you think out of the box and discover these Catholic teachings and share them with others?

Prayer: Father Thomas Dubay, world renowned scholar and retreat director, recently gave a retreat near Mary's Mountain and spoke eloquently on contemplative prayer (Union with God thru Loving silent adoration). To wit-Fr Dubay said all are called to at least strive toward deeper prayer and that this is part of the Universal call to holiness. And yet so few speak about it from the pulpit or otherwise. Why not? Perhaps because we Catholics are so used to business matters, activism and secular-matters-versus-spiritual matters that we've dumbed down our religious expectations and are accustomed to safe, more "concrete topics" and are afraid of loving relationships with Jesus and the Trinity and the sacrifices that this entails…Fr Dubay challenged the retreatants to think out of the box of lukewarmness and dumbing down discipleship and to strive for deeper unity with God -what about you? Are you praying? Praying more? Praying more deeply?

Charismatic Prayer & Healing: Why are so many Catholics and Christians afraid and/or unfamiliar with this form of spirituality? Perhaps it is because we may want to restrict the Spirit by our own familiar confines of religion. Disciples may "box-in" the Spirit and His healing power by controlling, comforting practices and beliefs which are errant, and yet if you read the Gospels, Jesus was healing, exorcising and spiritually cleansing people frequently; and in the Acts of the Apostles-the "Story of the Early Church"-the Apostles were following upon Jesus' custom by charismatic signs and wonders. I know of a lay-person "prayer team" guided by the Church who regularly pray over seeking, wounded souls and actually heal them…Do you seek this kind of prayer and support it in your community and thereby think-and get--outside the box? While we certainly need our Orthodox Faith to guide and direct us in belief and prayer, we also can't stifle the Spirit of healing, inspiration and prophecy.

Thinking: We humans are used to finite "thought-boxes" (ideas) which help us grasp realities (by names and descriptions) which are, yes, necessary, but which never totally deliver or describe reality in itself. If we think the thought is reality itself we are wrong. It merely points to the reality, doesn't contain it. A static repetition of this pattern of deluded thinking may develop wherein we are afraid of reality itself (say, by accepting a stereotype of a person or a country) or even new realities (new experiences), and, ultimately, the True Reality-God Himself (He is a fiery reality-Heb. 12:29) ---and we fear perhaps even the unknown or ungraspable Infinity of Being (once again, God) all these protected and protracted by our imprisoning thought. We thus fail to go deeper and dis-cover the Mystery and Majesty of God through purifying thought and prayer. There's a saying I like to recall regarding this: "Better to see the face than to hear the name." …Are you boxed in by your sterile thinking, or spiritually "flossing your mind" to the reality God wants you to experience? Is the menu the meal? Or is the name actually the person? We must be liberated from our boxy thoughts!

False Shyness? Bud, a graduate of Mt St Mary's, visited the Grotto office recently-really, he "whistled and floated in" the door! He was a bubble of energy and spirit-and he didn't even know us. He eventually related how he once feared sharing a healing received from his cancer (now completely gone) and then thought of spreading the word about it. He said he thought this would be too selfish. Then he thought that this would be uncharitable to others and ungrateful to God in a false kind of way. He further said he prayed one time, while very sick: "Lord, say the word and I shall be healed" (Mt. 8:8). He was later healed. He then said he relates this prayer and healing to many different people and even to a hospital priest Chaplin where he ministers so he can pass it on to patients suffering and thereby give them hope. He got me out of my boxy thinking to consider praying this prayer and pray it over people. Thanks for the liberating, un-boxy thought, Bud!

Fear of the Unknown? At the Grotto I met a man and his wife who are military folks. The one spouse related that they are moving-again for the umpteenth time, and that the other spouse fears moving because of not being used to "the unknown". The one spouse was used to moving often and the other not. The one spouse saw moving as an adventure---a new opportunity, and the other spouse saw it as a fearful thing…Is it too simple to say and think: it's all in our attitude? And that our thinking sometimes boxes us in to fear certain realities-and, actually, un-realities?...How can you abandon more to adventure, God's Will and Providence so you don't get boxed in? Fr Joe Lizor-50 years a Baltimore, archdiocesan priest!-just related how he once gave a homily on patriotism and faith and he got the angriest letter from a parishioner. Very upsetting. Instead of getting boxed in by the morass of this negative thinking, what did this holy pastor do? He went out and volunteered for military service and journeyed to Vietnam as a chaplain, and then served the world and souls for the next three decades. His heroism liberated me out of miserly boxy thinking to be more abandoning in ministry and service. This guy is heroic-why can't I, we, be?

"A coincidence is God's Way of changing Anonymous" Think about it, we usually think, box-like, that God is not here, not present in our daily lives, that He is just up in Heaven and not among us. And yet if we count our blessings each day and think about His many graces and providential care for us, right under our nose, in our daily, mundane lives, we will see and know His divine Presence more readily and receptively…and get out of our boxes!

Black Leadership: In his pointed book, "Enough," Juan Williams, the African-American media commentator-critiques some forms of current black leadership. Within the book he interviews Bill Cosby, citing his out-of-the-box challenging-charge to black Americans and their leadership to overcome past mistakes and policies which denigrate black communities and families…This out-of-the-box thinking is challenging to many and can re-ignite discourse and help black liberation in our country.

Healing: In a Wall Street Journal article (Sept 26) I read of a new psychological practice which stresses positive therapy, which helps depressed persons focus on what is good rather than fixating on the "boxy thinking" of all the negatives which lead to strangulating despair. In another New York Times article (Sept 26) I also read of a psychotherapist who challenged a patient away from "chronic dissatisfaction" which leads to seeing oneself (the patient) as a victim. In an out of the box thinking, the therapist showed the patient how to focus on self-empowerment and healing thru getting over past hurts and bad relationships and on to freedom and new life…How can you adapt these strategies, and spiritual ones, to new life-counting blessings, focusing on what is good, on your strengths and blessings, and thereby getting out of depressingly-boxy-thinking and being!

Creation and Creator: An article in the Washington Post (Sept 24)about a wildlife-wilderness defender in Idaho got me out of boxy thinking, by the astonishing statements: "I'm fighting in every possible area that can still be experienced as the Creator made it…You don't compromise what the Creator made." I had never thought about the world that way before-but hopefully ever after!…How can you experience both God's original creation thru recreation and hikes and even picnics, and also defend against unjust, unnecessary development of what God himself has made?

Detachment: I just talked to a beautiful priest who is in difficult times, just after a move from his parish assignment. He said heroically, and simply: "It's a lesson from God to have my mom removed (she died recently) and then a friend (also dying) and moving from my parish. It's a challenge to live in the present moment-you never know what the future will bring. Now the nest is gone (his previous home). The first attachment is from mother's womb and then, finally from the body at death-but I really believe that all the crosses are kisses and embraces from God..I take it one second at a time-joyful moments, sad moments and all"…What "boxes" are you enclosing yourself in-- holding on to false securities--and thereby failing to trust God like this priest? And you may be missing the Providential Present Moment, too!

Priesthood: At a priest convocation recently I heard an amazing-un-boxy series of statistics. The recent clergy sex abuse is obviously sickening and even evil-like. However, a priest present said that the numbers may box us in if we don't' think right. The actual number of Catholic youth between 1950-2004 who were abused is .019%. of the total American Catholic youth population served by priests. Once again, one abuse is wrong and denigrates all of us. However, if you think about the low percentage we may think more straight-out of the box, and recover hope and holiness. Meanwhile the priest said that in public education, 10% of the general school population has been involved in sex abuse and harassment. Is there a bias against the priesthood boxing us in?

Prophets: Catholics think a 'priest' or a 'religious' or someone else should be prophetic or a prophetic whistle blower to enlighten to the truth… No, we are all called, from our baptism, to be prophetic and challenge others to truth and justice…So cultivate: courage, wisdom (how-where to be prophetic).

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi