The students bounded into my office with twinkling eyes, ebullient enough to clue me in that a prank was about to unfold. They stood around my desk in a solemn semi-circle. Then they placed before me an oak plaque, in gothic calligraphy: “Jon R. Powers, Metho-Catholic Rabbi.” Now three decades thick with muddled memories, I claim that prankish moniker as my core witness to the power of Jesus Christ in my life and ministry.
No faith community has influenced me more than Catholicism. Francis of Assisi is the Saint I most enjoy “becoming” in my various first-person portrayals. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk of the Abbey of Gethsemani, Kentucky, called me to a pragmatic Christian pacifism. Dorothy Day, co-founder of The Catholic Worker Movement, grounded me spiritually since the tumultuous 1960s. Pope Saint John XXIII was my earliest and most powerful reassurance that I could be baptized as a Swedish-Lutheran child and still participate in a Lithuanian-based Mass in my local Catholic parish.
Throughout my nearly seven decades of life, no Catholic has influenced me more than the Jesuit priest and poet Fr. Daniel J. Berrigan, whose defiant protests and pastoral passions for the poor and dying imbued my soul with a vibrant realization that the Gospel of Jesus Christ connects our daily bread to our daily blunders. I was with Fr. Berrigan for Mass on the morning he was released from federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut, where he had served three years for spilling his blood on draft files. Later, he joined me at my ministry as a university chaplain, and spent a day in quiet conversation with my students. He gently listened to their hopes and dreams and fears, and he prayed for the Holy Spirit to touch each one and make clear their Divine Call to discipleship and obedience.
Fr. Berrigan died last year, at the age of 96. Even so, he lives on in my ministry and my love of Roman Catholicism. He also lives on in my deep sense that God is with us for the long haul, and that despair is a foolish distraction. Among the many gifts Fr. Berrigan has left us, perhaps the most fun and fundamental is his ten spiritual rules from his book, “Ten Commandments for the Long Haul” (1981).
Here they are:
1. Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).
2. Don’t be afraid to be afraid or appalled to be appalled. How do you think the trees feel these days, or the whales, or, for that matter, most humans?
3. Keep your soul to yourself. Soul is a possession worth paying for, they’re growing rarer. Learn from monks, they have secrets worth knowing.
4. About practically everything in the world, there’s nothing you can do. This is Socratic wisdom. However, about a few things you can do something. Do it, with a good heart.
5. On a long drive, there’s bound to be a dull stretch or two. Don’t go anywhere with someone who expects you to be interesting all the time. And don’t be hard on your fellow travelers. Try to smile after a coffee stop.
6. Practically no one has the stomach to love you, if you don’t love yourself. They just endure. So do you.
7. About healing: The gospels tell us that this was Jesus’ specialty and he was heard to say: “Take up your couch and walk!”
8. When traveling on an airplane, watch the movie, but don’t use the earphones. Then you’ll be able to see what’s going on, but not understand what’s happening, and so you’ll feel right at home, little different than you do on the ground.
9. Know that sometimes the only writing material you have is your own blood.
10. Start with the impossible. Proceed calmly towards the improbable. No worry, there are at least five exits.
The Rev. Jon R. Powers is the university chaplain at Ohio Wesleyan University.