Writing on Religion: Prayer in captivity


Mark E. Rondeau

Journalist James Foley, murdered by terrorists from the ISIL group in Syria, was a 1996 graduate of Marquette University.

Though most Americans might be more familiar with Marquette as a basketball powerhouse, the school was founded and is run by the Society of Jesus, the Roman Catholic religious order better known as the Jesuits.

After Foley was freed when he was captured and imprisoned in Tripoli, Libya for 45 days during the 2011 war in that country, he wrote a letter to Marquette, which the university published on its website after he was murdered.

In captivity in Libya, Foley prayed that his mother would know he was OK. "I prayed I could communicate through some cosmic reach of the universe to her," he wrote. "I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed."

Foley had many people praying for him, a fact of which he became aware when he finally got to call his family and access the Internet as he was being freed.

"If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us. It didn’t make sense, but faith did."

Unfortunately, things did not work out as well in Syria.

On Thursday, Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope, called Foley’s parents -- who are practicing Catholics -- in Rochester, N.H. to console them for their loss and assure them of his prayers.

The pope himself just suffered a loss in an car accident in Argentina in which one of the his nephews was severely injured and the man’s wife and two children were killed.

PERSECUTION WATCH: I think it’s important not to demonize a whole religion because of the chaos and slaughter going on right now in the Middle East. Under the right -- or rather wrong circumstances -- people of any religious group -- or none -- can become extremists.

For instance, in Myanmar, the Buddhist majority, including the current authoritarian government, is harshly persecuting the Rohingya, a resented Muslim minority.

The persecution includes shootings, rapes, confinement to camps and denial of medical care.

In a recent online chat about the persecution, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof replied to a questioner who said the repression "Doesn’t seem like something Buddhists would do. What part of story is missing?"

"Frankly, everybody commits atrocities every now and then. It’s not the fault of this or that religion. Buddhists have often been particularly mellow, but Sri Lanka is an example of a Buddhist majority country that has engaged in a long and brutal civil war with its Tamil minority," Kristof replied. "And Bhutan is a Buddhist country that has been profoundly repressive of its Nepalese minority. Don’t blame any of that on Buddha or on Buddhism, any more than you can blame Serbia’s mass atrocities on Christianity."

HARD LIFE INHERITED? Speaking of Nicholas Kristof, I cannot speak highly enough of his extended opinion piece in the Sunday, Aug. 10, New York Times, "Is a Hard Life Inherited?" It takes an honest look at the hard life of a friend of his from his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, which serves as a "window into the national crisis facing working class men."

Basically, an upbringing in a poor and possibly abusive household, lack of education and opportunity, and a few bad choices here and there can easily lead to a hard life in poverty. Pulling oneself up from one’s bootstraps is increasingly a myth. The days of my parents and grandparents, when someone in New England who hadn’t even graduated high school could get a decent-paying mill or factory job with a chance for advancement for the industrious are gone.

"One delusion common among America’s successful people is that they triumphed just because of hard work and intelligence," the article begins. "Yet many are oblivious of their own advantages, and of other people’s disadvantages. The result is a meanspiritedness in the political world or, at best, a lack of empathy toward those struggling..."

‘FREEDOM’ THE MAGAZINE: A copy of a magazine I didn’t know existed showed up in my work space on Tuesday. It is "Freedom," which among other things describes itself as "the voice of the Church of Scientology."

The 64-page, slick magazine is very colorful and well done graphically.

"Freedom addresses issues, not politics. Freedom uplifts human aspirations. It stands for accurate and accountable reporting and publishes information available in no other publication," the mission statement states in part. "The magazine expresses our stand for human rights, openness, freedom of speech and freedom of religion, understanding that responsible journalism and the free flow of information are the lifeblood of all great societies."

Some of the articles seem to be of genuine quality, especially one on slave labor in the U.S.

Not so impressive is an investigation into the insider game of who gets assigned to write book reviews at major publications like the New York Times. This article seems to be quite self-serving, as it focuses around a favorable review in the Times of the "Going Clear" by Lawrence Wright. "Going Clear" is very critical of Scientology. This article also takes aim at a positive feature about Wright in the same newspaper and at the man who wrote it.

Actual Scientology doctrine is saved for the end of the magazine. This includes a 1950 essay by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, titled "My Philosophy." The last page has an article titled "The A-R-C Triangle: Affinity --Reality -- Communication."

A boxed item on the last pages states that "The Scientology Religion founded by L. Ron Hubbard, offers a precise path leading to a complete and certain understanding of one’s true spiritual nature and one’s relationship to self, family, groups, mankind, all life forms, the material universe, the spiritual universe and the Surpreme being."

Wow. In my experience, religion -- or at least non-fundamentalist religion -- does not provide a "precise path" and the result of a sincere following of a religious tradition is not a set of "complete and certain understanding(s)" of one’s nature and relationship to everybody and everything else. Faith is not complete understanding, that’s why it’s called faith and not knowledge.

In my experience, even those within the same faith and denomination often do not take the same path or reach the same exact understanding about things.

Whether Scientology is a religion depends on what your definition of a religion is. If the definition is a significant number of adherents around the world who subscribe to a certain set of ultimate beliefs of any sort, then I guess it is.

Mark E. Rondeau is the Banner’s religion editor. He can be reached at mrondeau@benningtonbanner.com. Twitter: @banner_religion


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