Fr. John's Memoir: Preface

Revealed & Discovered: Reflections on a Life Seeking God's Way
by M. John Farrelly, O.S.B.

The split between the Gospel and culture is without a doubt the drama of our time . . . .”

Pope Paul VI wrote this in his On Evangelization in the Modern World ( Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), 20). And he added:

What matters is to evangelize man’s culture and cultures (not in a purely decorative way as it were by applying a thin veneer, but in a vital way, in depth and right to their very roots), in the wide and rich sense which these terms have in Gaudium et Spes, always taking the person as one’s starting-point and always coming back to the relationships of people among themselves and with God (20).

All Christians face this split and are called to be honest both to the Gospel and to our culture in the way we live our lives as well as in the way we think and speak. Not all do engage this split; many defensively keep to an earlier cultural expression of their Christian belief and reject much that is good in more recent times, while many, many lightly jettison their Christian belief in favor of what is incompatible with it in our current culture. In recent decades, sociologically, particularly with the young, the Catholic Church has partially changed from an institution handing on the truths of faith and morals from the top down to a communion of seekers. This was encouraged by Vatican II itself with its new emphasis on the Holy Spirit bringing about the communion in faith among Christ’s disciples. With this, over the past four decades or so vast numbers of Catholics, Christians or erstwhile Christians or Catholics have been searching for meaning in their lives without accepting wholesale the Christian message. This change has been fed not simply by openness to the Spirit but by a dominance of the prevailing culture, frequently pragmatic and individualistic, by confusion induced by multi-culturalism, by divisions among the Christian Churches that weaken their witness, and by some tragic failures of Church leadership. Such a large number of Americans who were raised Catholic now consider themselves former Catholics, that this segment of the population constitutes the second largest religious group in the United States, second in size only to the Catholic Church.

With very many other Christians, I too have faced this split in my life and thought between what was given in the Church and what was given in our culture, perhaps in a more acute way than many. Though raised in a Catholic family strong both in Christian belief and modern Western culture, I had to, with the help of God, the Church and other wayfarers, discern what I judged to be God’s way. As the pages of this journal will illustrate, this search was frequently unsure and in tension with much within me and in my immediate and larger environment. Even when we genuinely try to discern God’s call and the “signs of the times” in our lives, we live our lives forward, and we do so with much uncertainty, ambiguity and stumblings in the dark. We get reassurances along the way, but it is frequently only late in the journey of faith that we can look back with perspective and feel we see God’s hand more clearly.

It is this conflict and this search for reconciliation between Christian belief and what is good in our cultural heritage that is the dominant issue that integrates my writing efforts through the decades. As the awareness of this problem grew in me, I wrote many articles and some books addressing it from different perspectives. With other theologians and philosophers, I have been given a series of insights before and after Vatican II that, it seems to me, are one central part of how we should not only critique but also integrate elements of contemporary Western and broader cultures to deepen our understanding of the Christian mystery and communicate it more effectively. These insights were mediated to me by my Catholic upbringing, my Benedictine life, my philosophical and theological studies, some non-reductive writings in the human and physical sciences by twentieth century experts whose work both challenged and enlarged this heritage, and above all by Vatican II. They took root in me, because I listened and was open to them, and needed them for my own life and ministry.

All this was a gift I felt called to share through teaching, writing and preaching. As this memoir will illustrate, it is my opinion that the value of many of these insights has not infrequently been confirmed by others. I am not claiming credit for anything good in this. If to some degree I have been the one our Lord has called me to be or done the work he has called me to do in his vineyard, this is more than any other reward I could ask for. And if to some degree I have missed the mark, these publications offer a point of dialogue to which others can respond to correct me.

It has seemed to me that in addition to publishing a good deal of this in articles, books, and lectures on philosophy, theology and spirituality, it would now be appropriate for me to share with others a memoir of my life. A memoir enables me to publicly thank God and acknowledge many who helped me along the way, without whom these gifts would not have matured or been shared. Also, a memoir shows how I have understood God’s interaction with me through the mystery of his call, support, guidance mediated by the Church, my Benedictine life and the need for personal decisions about many issues. It shows through an individual life, in a way different from what theological or philosophical essays and books can do, what I have proposed elsewhere as an authentic interrelation between Christian Gospel and modern culture.

My ability to write this memoir is helped greatly by the fact that through the decades I kept occasional journals in which I would express my struggles with the problems of my life and direction at the time, trying to find God’s way, not without anxiety, in the midst of situations and choices that frequently seemed dark and ambiguous. Before starting this memoir, I had been reading through some of my early journals and throwing out a good deal of what I found there. But I did feel also that it may be of interest to some others if I retain what I found there that is central to the spiritual journey and ministry with which God has graced me. I wrote in my journal:

Today the thought came to me that an account of how God has raised surface and doubting me might give some people hope for themselves. Then it also came to me that I have written five books on theology and philosophy and they have reached very few people, as far as I can tell. Though they were generally well received, and I hope that with time they can help the Church present its message more appropriately in our time and place, perhaps it is time to take another genre approach – a narrative of how this one person has walked this path and why – with the obstacles, the finding of God’s path and the weaknesses along the way – and costs! It obviously was not only I who did it; it was my family, teachers, Benedictines, theologians, etc., etc.

Though my life setting is very different from that of most, readers of these memoirs will, I suspect, find that this story of a spiritual search amid doubts has a commonality and overlap with their own. There are, particularly among those who have read some of my other writings, also those who will find this story of my intellectual development about some theological issues the Catholic Church has in our time of most interest. The two stories are one story and cannot be divorced from one another. God called me to a change of mind as well as a change of heart, and to share the results of these changes with others. Without the challenge cited in Pope Paul’s statement above, my spiritual journey would not have been the one it has been. The ‘scandal of particularity’ is the real context for any genuine spiritual journey.

I add that, as so many times when I started writing something, I felt the way the Book of Wisdom described the plans of us poor mortals: “For what man knows God’s counsel, or who can conceive what the Lord intends? For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans” (Wis 9:13-14).

Acknowledgements and thanks . . .

Chapter 1 →