Archive for November 5th, 2012

The Blame Game

Perhaps you were as astonished as I to read about the recent conviction of some seismologists in an Italian court. Their crime was breathtaking in its scope and diabolic if true: they had failed to predict an earthquake that had devastated a hilltown and its neighborhood. The area had a long history of seismic activity, but locals must have assumed that there would be no more tremors ever again. Then came this latest nasty one; and because of scientific neglect scores lay dead and the landscape was in ruins. Someone had to be blamed.

What equally amazed me was the court’s apparent lack of interest in the motive for this crime against humanity. Were these rogue scientists completely indifferent to the sufferings of people? Was this a hate crime? Was this an act of vengeance for their failure to get adequate raises or elegant new Gucci-designed lab coats? We’ll never know until someone offers them immunity for their testimony. Meanwhile, most of us are left to speculate; and the northern Italians now live in terror of where the next crazed scientist might strike.

We may wring our hands and lament this “scientists-gone-mad” story, but jurists on both sides of the Atlantic have already seen the silver lining. They’ve begun to lick their chops, because this case opens unimagined opportunities for justice to be done, and for damages to be collected.

What’s mind-boggling is the wide net that can be cast. What about all those palm readers who promise love and fortune but time after time fail to deliver? What about weather prognosticators who guarantee sun but send hail instead? And what about the clairvoyants who withhold detailed and life-saving information? And then there’s the horoscope industry. The latter just cries out for regulation and enforceable standards. It’s enough to keep a congressional committee in session for decades. But justice must be done, and culpability must be assigned.

Ever since Adam blamed Eve, and Eve fingered the serpent, human beings have always tried to shift responsibility for their mistakes onto others. For one thing, no one wants to look bad in front of other people. Assigning blame to others accomplishes two things, then. It leaves our reputation for perfection intact; and conversely someone else looks bad by comparison. We are to be trusted; while others should not be trusted. We appear to be capable only of good; while the source of evil is found exclusively in our neighbor. What outcome could be better?

There is a down side to this, however. If we don’t deserve any blame for the sins we commit, then we don’t deserve any credit for the good we do. And there’s the rub for many of us. I’m as willing as the next guy to point fingers at the faults of my neighbors. But I also know that I am unlike most of my neighbors — thanks be to God. And when it comes to doling out blame on others, I and the Pharisee in the gospel are of the same mind. He and I are members of the same congregation, and we have zero in common with that miserable publican. The latter was righter than rain when he admitted his failings. But I and the Pharisee deserve a pat on the back for the great things we do.

Abbey church: east door

Dishing out blame all the time is a dangerous thing, and we’d be better off doing it sparingly — if at all. For one thing, others may not deserve the blame we heap on them. God forbid, they might even be innocent. But beyond that, if we engage in an ongoing blame game we can grow blind to our own reality. If we never own up to our own faults, there will never be a shred of a chance for growth or personal conversion.

In the Catholic liturgical tradition we have many opportunities to confess our failings. At the beginning of each Eucharist there is a penitential rite in which we own up to our sins; and among our sacraments is the rite of reconciliation — aka, confession. The goal of these rites is not to impart a deep sense of guilt from which we cannot escape. Nor are they intended to leave us miserable and wretched. Instead they focus us on our own reality. At the end of the day we can blame everyone else for all the troubles in the world. But until we admit our own solidarity with other sinners, we miss entirely the helpng hand which God extends to us. That hand guides us through the rough spots and into a fulness of life that we can never achieve all by ourselves.

Guesthouse garden

As for our friends in Italy, I sympathize with their predicament. If the meterologists and psychics and fortune tellers all admit their guilt, they might wind up in jail. But if they don’t admit it, they might end up in jail anyway — along with paying punitive damages. Perhaps it’s time for them to proclaim their innocence and fly off to Brazil.

Most of us don’t have that option. Wherever we fly, or to whatever place we think we are escaping, we will eventually discover we are still the same person. We’ve brought along with us our gifts, most certainly, but the liabilities have trailed along with us as well. So my advice is that we may as well own up to our own reality once in a while. Let’s stop passing all of the blame onto others, and let’s shoulder just a little bit of it ourselves. Maybe then we can be grateful for the hand that the Lord extends to us each day.

Abbey crypt: the relic chapel

Abbey Notes

+Throughout the month of November the monks of Saint John’s Abbey remember both our departed confreres, as well as people for whom we’ve been asked to pray. The month begins with All Saints Day, which is the occasion on which we honor the vast number of the blessed who don’t have an assigned feast day in the church calendar. On that day we bring out icons and other remembrances of the saints, and we open up the relic chapel, located on the lower level of the Abbey church.

On the feast of All Souls, November 2nd, we make our annual visit to the cemetery for noon prayer. Then, through the last day of November, we pray for the departed friends of the Abbey. In recent years we have invited visitors to the Abbey church to complete a card that lists the names of those for whom we should pray. As we enter the church for Mass or the liturgy of the hours, individual monks take a card from the basket below the crucifix, and we pray by name for the persons inscribed on the card.

Since we began that custom, I for one have appreciated the chance to connect with others who now sleep in Christ. Sometimes I’ve run across the name of someone I know. More often than not it’s someone unfamiliar to me. But each time it’s a reminder of my kinship with others who went before me and did the best they could with the gifts that God had given them.

+On November 1st our confrere Brother Urban Pieper passed away peacefully. He spent most of his life as a gardener, and for ages he managed the production of vegetables and flowers from the Abbey garden. Generations of novices and young monks worked under his direction, and at the end of a hot summer afternoon he would welcome them into the garden house for popcorn and a cool drink. We will miss his smile and his gentle ways.

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