Tony, a Roman Catholic priest who once lived across the street from me in Springfield, had spent 15 years among the indians of the Brazilian forests. During that time, he had fallen in love. Like all love affairs, the grounding for that love took some time and it took some mind-changing.
Tony had come to the forest as a Roman Catholic priest ... to help, to serve and, where possible, to convert. He had to learn respect for the tribal shaman, a man who might prescribe pounding a woman's belly with a stout stick during a difficult birth. He had to learn that knowing what was right was not necessarily knowing what was true. Tony ate and slept and learned ... and came to love.
But there came a time when Brazilian logging interests made a bid to usurp indian lands. There was money to be made and these powerless and backward indians needed to be swept away. Tony went to the nearest diocesan office -- the place where Roman Catholic power might be brought to bear. He begged and he pleaded for the church to support the indians he respected and loved. The land and its money-bearing trees were their home, their life, their mother. The indians had no great power, but weren't these the very people for the church to defend and succor? Tony asked those further up the Roman Catholic feeding chain to intercede and defend.
Tony never went into detail about the meetings he engineered with the church hierarchy. In my mind, the conversations were predictably polite and respectful and top-heavy with church gravitas. The punch line, however polite and respectful, was this: Fugettaboutit! The church was not about to use its political and financial clout to defend the indians. The church needed to consider where and when to expend its well-woven treasure and this was not such a time or cause. The church had its reasons, just as any of us might have our own.
Sometime thereafter, Tony contracted a severe tropical disease of some sort. He was shipped back to the United States. His attempts to return to Brazil were rebuffed. When I knew him, he was saying several Masses a week, some of them in Portuguese, in which he was fluent, at a variety of local churches.
It's a conundrum in organized religion: Organized religion is by its very nature conservative because religion needs a stable and relatively well-fed arena in which to ply its trade. This is not a criticism -- it just strikes me as a fact: Without stability -- and the preservation of that stability -- who would ever have time to consider a wider, more ethereal and uplifting possibility? Stability and the conservative outlook needed to preserve that stability are par for the course. It is one thing to marvel that Jesus turned over the money-changers' tables; it is quite another to ignore the money or perks that provide stability.
And so it is in the heart, I think: A certain stability, a certain well-fed way of being, and a certain unnoticed conservatism are part and parcel of the spiritual adventure. How would it be possible to tear down the church if you did not lovingly build the church in the first place? In political-speak, perhaps, the staid and steady Republicans invite the cavorting and confused Democrats in.
And all of this happens within the heart: My Republicans, my Democrats, my stable conservatism, my life among the Brazilian trees.
There is no getting away from it, no wailing or philosophizing or humanist grand-standing that will change the course.
But there is noticing, I think.