A Few of My Favorite Things

Someone in the parish office must have decided to focus on baptism during the Easter season, extending it beyond the baptisms of the catechumens at the Vigil and having infant baptisms during morning Mass on Easter Sunday and today.

One of the glories of Catholic liturgy is that if you say the same things often enough they really start to sink in — and eventually you’ll hear all of them, no matter how distracted you are during any given Mass.

I have developed a couple of favorites from the rite of Baptism over the last few years:

“Do you reject the glamour of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin?”

At first blush this sounds horribly old-fashioned and hyper-pious, at least to me. But that phrase, “glamour of evil,” I know just what it means, though I can’t improve upon the language. As a somewhat weak example, I can have a very dry, dark sense of humor at times. Sometimes that’s great — usually it’s better to laugh at darkness then be frightened by it — but sometimes that laughter seduces me to be mean-spirited, callous, cynical, in the guise of being “hip” and irreverant.

I had a good friend from high school and college who seemed to be seduced by the glamour of evil. She relished her “bad girl” status, honed that persona, and made herself into a bitter, cynical, and apparently joyless person by the age of 25. I don’t mean to judge her — I know the many trials she had to bear, and it seems like her family situation set her up to fail. And I know that her “bad girl” persona gave her a way to have at least fleeting feelings of security, belonging, and being loved, which would be pretty irresistable in her circumstances. As her best friend and her foil, however, I also knew how much of herself she disowned in pursuit of that “glamour of evil.” By the time our friendship faded away, it seemed like her ability to feel joy or intimacy was lost. Honestly, until this moment I had forgetten a lot of the fun we had together, because my strongest memory of her is the bitter young woman she was the last time I saw her. So when I’m asked if I reject the glamour of evil, I say “I do” wholeheartedly.

“This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. We are proud to profess it.

On any given day, I’d say at least half of the congregation has some aspect of the faith that, on that particular day, they are not so sure of. I have always been dubious of those colleges where you sign a doctrinal statement saying you believe certain things in a certain way — so much emphasis on individual beliefs, which can wax and wane. Belief is like love — it can feel strong or weak or even absent depending on your mood and the circumstances. How it feels isn’t what matters most, it’s how you persist in it. We profess our faith as a community that we might persist in it, even if on a given Sunday we are thinking more about whether Mass will ever end.

Still, when we say those words together, “This is our faith and we are proud to profess it,” I do indeed feel proud. I stand in the midst of a community of people who not only do good and love each other and work for justice in the community, but also persist together in belief. Whatever the mulitple failings of the institutional Church, when I say those words I remember how much I love it.

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Published in: on March 30, 2008 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  
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seven steps for patience

How can I pass up a chance at navel-gazing? Here’s a meme transformed into seven steps (out of how many?) on the path to my eventual conversion to Catholicism.

1. My best friend in elementary school was Catholic. (A note about this friend: she, her brother, her brother’s best friend, and I were our school’s entire gifted program. Do you think we were a little weird together?) I associated church with coffee and donuts, and to a lesser extent a creepy sense that a dead person was always watching me, but she had something called “CCD” in a building that was round! and rituals and funny words, and saints and monks and nuns. I had no idea how being Catholic would differ from any other form of Christianity, but all that “stuff” made me think that there must be more going on there than there was at the Methodist church. I had no way of finding out, but I planned to some day. And then I forgot about it.

2. I tried to become born-again in junior high, several times. But it never worked. I said the magic words you can find on any Fundie tract — when I was feeling really brave, I said them aloud — and then . . . nothing. Silence. Worse than silence. A dead stillness that meant either God did not exist or God did not care that I existed. For kid who was already weird in so many ways, that was just too much to contemplate.

3. My husband was raised Catholic (though he is not a believer now), and told me in those days that if he ever went back to religion it would be “to the Pope,” because (to paraphrase badly) Catholicism had you covered from birth to death and all other areas of your life. Falling in love with him while we listened to Stevie Wonder brought me to a more confident sense that God was there after all. We married in the Methodist church, because that seemed to me the most logical place. I had not been attending church, but I knew that our relationship was of God, and so I wanted our ceremony to reflect that. (I could write a whole post on that process and other people’s reactions to it, but I won’t. Even after 12 years I know it would bring up some old resentments that I would do better to let go.) When I learned the term “sacramental marriage,” I knew exactly what it meant, because I had been living it.

4. During the time my husband and I were — well, we never dated. We met because we were living in the same house, and we’ve lived together ever since. So, in our pre-married state, we got really into yoga. Which naturally led to interest in meditation and Eastern religion. I read a lot of Thich Nhat Hanh, and that got me interested in reading about religion in general, everything from Elaine Pagels and Bishop Spong to C. S. Lewis. (But wait, I’m speeding ahead.) Reading about Buddhism, yoga, and other non-deistic kinds of spirituality gave me a new perspective on Christianity. I could look at it with fresh eyes, not the eyes of a depressed teen or a cynical graduate student. (Wait, I think I was still a cynical graduate student then . . . anyway . . .)

5. While I was pregnant with my oldest, I decided to just go for it. I took myself to Mass. This was not the first time. The first time had been with my husband’s family. I was intimidated — I had always heard that non-Catholics at Mass had to be worried about standing or sitting or kneeling at the wrong time. That proved to be false. I think I remember being a little disappointed that it was not more mysterious, after years of wondering what those Catholics were up to. Anyhow, years later, pregnant with our first child, I needed to get to church. I went to the beautiful Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, and in the bulletin I read something by the priest about his experiences with depression (something I had a passing familiarity with!). My main memory is the oft-disparaged (by liturgical traditionalists) sign of peace, when an older man (50 something?) turned to me and said “Peace of Christ be with you” as warmly and openly and confidently as you could imagine. Something in that touched my core and stayed there. But after Violet was born I did not go to church for some time.

6. Within 6 months after Violet was born, I was swept under by the worst depression of my life (which is saying something). I did not want to use drugs (a resistence I regret — I’ll never get those months of my infant Violet’s life back — but what can you do?), so I meditated and met frequently with a therapist and cried oceans of tears. I had learned about Kuan Yin, Goddess of Compassion, a favorite goddess among American Buddhists and meditators, and I tried to meditate on her. But she seemed so distant; she lived in another hemisphere. So as I sat with my legs crossed on my apartment floor, bawling my eyes out, I shifted to Mary. I had a phrase I repeated, that I can’t remember at all, except that it involved the words “Queen of Heaven.” I sat and cried and cried to her until I had exhausted all my tears, and I did it again the next day, and many many days after that. That was about a year or so before I decided to join the church officially (and more than 2 years before I actually did join). It was not a moment of conversion — even I knew it was a little weird to cry to Mary when I wasn’t really sure about either her Father or her son, but she was there for me anyway.

7. My RCIA process was so blessed. Sr. Josetta, who leads the program at our parish, is just amazingly brilliant in addition to being deeply compassionate and profound. This may sound awful, but I’m not sure I would have been able to do it without her. This woman holds a PhD and teaches theology, she’s smart and articulate and a true feminist as well as a faithful Catholic, and curious as I was I’m not sure I would have made the effort with someone less obviously intelligent. She accepted every question and doubt I had, and though I know her now to be a force of nature, she could not have seemed more gentle at the time. I was an odd fish in my group of catechumens and communicants, always asking why and pushing hard at comprehending knotty theological problems that, really, aren’t of that much interest to most people. (That’s not supposed to be self-congratulatory, just an observation.) She could have put me off or given me pat answers or even told me that my role was not to question but to accept church doctrine. She never did, and as a result my RCIA time was a wonderful period of serious reflection, learning, struggle, and discovering that it would be OK to be led and to recieve.

And now here I am, Shaun the Catholic in 7 gut-wrenching steps! See how easy? šŸ˜‰

In the Face of Grief

I attended a funeral this weekend, for the wife of a lay leader in our parish. I didn’t know her personally, though I knew her husband and sons to be bright, kind, and generous, which obviously speaks well of the woman of the house. The tender of the garden, as Fr. described her in the homily.

Our big cathedral-style church was packed front to back. This family was loved. Yet looking at a husband standing alone, two not-grown young men who watched their mother waste away from an aggressive cancer, so many of us were overcome with grief and sorrow. There is nothing to do to take away that sadness, to mitigate that loss. Rejoicing for someone who believed with all her heart that she was going “to a better place,” as she said often before she died, doesn’t fill the hole left among us.

As we sang the litany of the saints, I appreciated that part of the liturgy anew. At times during that litany I have felt great peace, a strong sense of being securely part of an eternal and beautiful web of space and time. (OK, clearly words are failing me here. It’s hard to describe that feeling.) But during this funeral, I felt very deeply how much our human community needs prayers. Full of sadness that can’t be removed, questions that can’t be answered, and a certainty of repeated losses that can’t be prevented, all we can do is be humble and ask for the prayers of those who know more clearly than we on earth ever can, that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things will be well.” (Julian of Norwich)

Now Mary Ellen has joined their number. As her sister said, she now has “the world’s best guardian angel.”

Published in: on February 11, 2008 at 12:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

Whither the Subtitle

Why “As Catholic As I Wanna Be . . . ” ?
1. When I first thought to myself, hey, I might like to blog about religion and spirituality, I was feeling a little defiant. I am in a mixed-faith marriage (i.e., faith + no-faith), and sometimes I feel a little constrained when The Domestic Church is a central part of Catholic life. I have some friends who are anti-Catholic. Enough said on that. So I liked the idea of having a ready place to talk about things on my mind, and hang any of those people in my life who weren’t buying it.

2. I belong to a fairly middle-of-the-road parish. We are a mixed bag, politically, though probably lean more liberal than conservative. I have friends of both parties who are active in the parish, and I think they all seem to be at home there.

Theologically and liturgically, again, we’re a mixed bag. But I like what our former director of liturgy encouraged us to do — take part in all that the Roman Catholic Church has to offer. Sure, there are folks in the parish who would never touch a rosary — too old-school — but others who lead family rosary during Lent. We’ve expanded our time for Adoration of the Eucharist during the week. We have a significant section of Boomers who freak out whenever the guitars are missing from Mass, but we also have chant and songs in Latin. The basement of our church was as plain as a concecrated worship space could be (we no longer use it because it was not accessible to anyone not good with stairs), but our main worship space is filled with statues, old-style confessionals, and a Mary chapel.

When I say I’m Catholic as I wanna be, I mean I’m not giving up traditional Catholic practices because some people associate them with unhealthy aspects of the church. We can study the saints in our homeschool, we can learn to pray the rosary, we can go to confession — and we can participate in Centering Prayer and walk a labyrinth. Our tradition is so rich, and I’m blessed as an adult convert that I can approach it without the negative connotations some lifelong older Catholics feel.

3. At the same time, I tire of the phrase “Cafeteria Catholic.” I hear that and I hear, “I am the judge of all things Catholic; differ from me at your peril.” It’s not clear to me why people even give energy to this kind of activity. Have they erased all occasions from sin in their own lives, taken care of all the hunger and homelessness in their own communities, and rooted out all instances of pride, greed, and sloth in their own hearts? What happened to that thing about not removing the mote from someone else’s eye before getting the log out of your own?

Is the Roman Catholic Church so weak that it cannot withstand a little disagreement — even what might look like “disobedience”? Is that how we parent — expect perfection and eager, instant cooperation or you’re out on your ear? When I started poking around the popular Catholic blogs, I was shocked and more than a little depressed by the snide attitude many self-proclaimed Orthodox Catholics (and I don’t mean neoTraditionalists) took towards fellow Catholics who, say, allowed altar girls, liked hymns by certain modern composers, had questions about whether Cardinal Ratzinger would be a good pope, etc. (FWIW, I think many of those who had questions have been pleasantly surprised — if not consistently pleased.)

It’s pretty clear that to those folks I’m a mere shadow of a Catholic. But hey, screw them, right? I’m Catholic As I Wanna Be. And to me, that means giving up on pretending to know the right answers. If the Buddhist-loving poet-priest Thomas Merton is not a True Catholic, I don’t know who is, and this is what he says:

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

– Thomas Merton, “Thoughts in Solitude”

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconcilation — Part Two

A bit of history, wherein we are reminded of the crucial role of tradition in our faith.

The scriptural basis of the sacrament seems clear enough — for a pithy explanation and clear explication of the theology of the sacrament see Jeff Vehige at The Catholic Witness, whose discussion starts with this passage:

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ā€œReceive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retainedā€ (Jn 20.19-23).

In addition, the sacrament is rooted in Jesus’ ministry as he walked the Earth: he healed and he forgave sins. This is what Jesus does, and it is what the Church must do in order to be the Body of Christ.

If you joined the early church, you joined as an adult. When you were baptized, your sins were washed away and you were expected to stop sinning. “Go and sin no more,” as Jesus tells us, and Paul makes clear that Christians were expected to do exactly that. And in such small communities, it was not easy to sin in private.

The persecution of Christians made for a special problem however. The martyred saints are saints for a reason–they overcame the very human and understandable temptation to apostacy (“Christian? Who me? Thank Baal, I’m no Christian!”). Many early Christians did not–they sinned in the most serious way, yet they wanted to continue to be disciples. These early Christians needed to have their sin washed away again, with the baptism of repentance.

Early Christians who committed one of the Big Three Sins (murder, adultery, apostacy) could of course be forgiven–this is central to Christ’s message–but their absolution and reconciliation to the community was a long and arduous process. Something like being a catechumen but a lot less pleasant. After a private confession to a bishop, the penitent had some work to do:

Start wearing the sackcloth and ashes
Get a sponsor to vouch for your repentance and your progress
Avoid communion (as the penitent had effectively excommunicated himself)
Instead of participating in worship with community, stand in the vestibule as others go in and ask that they pray for you and your conversion.

After a period of some years , when the community was ready to take you back and vouch for your genuine reconversion, you would complete the baptism of repentance, after which you were again expected to go and sin no more. If you slipped up again, boo hoo for you. The scandal you created by your ongoing sinfulness was a clear and present danger to the fledgling Christian community and a barrier to the Church living its mission in the world.

Thus certain savvy would-be Christians (**cough** Constantine **cough**) saved their baptism for late in life. The baptism of initiation was much, much easier than the baptism of repentance: better to wait until you could be relatively sure your sinning days were behind you– though not so long that death was upon you — before taking the plunge (literally!).

Christian legalism — plus Ƨa change, eh?

End of Part II

Go to Part I

Part III coming soon.

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 4:12 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Sacrament of Penance and Reconcilation — Part One

This past weekend I attended a totally fabulous talk on this sacrament by Fr. Joseph Weiss, S.J., formerly of the Notre Dame Center for Liturgy and department of theology. I make no claims for originality as I transcribe my notes, which are a mixture of my own thoughts and his.

It always helps to call to mind what a sacrament really is before delving into a particular sacrament. As one who “came home to Rome” as an adult, I have a long history of thinking of sacrament as ritual–a specific event or thing. I learned in RCIA that I was barely scratching the surface. Some better definitions:

A sacrament is an expression of the relationship between the Church and Christ.

and

The sacraments are encounters with the person of the risen Christ.

or

A sacrament is a peak moment to grab onto and to help us assimilate what God is offering (although God is always offering, and our imperfect participation in the sacraments does not affect that in the least)

My best example is this: I always thought the sacrament of marriage was a wedding ceremony. You “do” the sacrament, and then you’re done with it. Au contraire, mon frere! The sacrament is the marriage itself. The marriage is the physical, concrete expression of the relationship between Christ and His Church. Thus the prayer during the ceremony:

Send therefore your blessing upon these your servants, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.

And now we approach the reason why the Church reserves her sacraments for her members. Because Christ is the sacrament of God —

Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9)

And the church is the sacrament of Christ:

[S]he is the sacrament of Christ’s action at work in her through the mission of the Holy Spirit (CCC, 1118)

The seven sacraments, including the sacrament that I really am going to get to eventually, exist for the members of the church so that they can be sacrament for the world. We receive the sacraments not only for our own benefit but so that by being transformed by our encounter with the risen Christ we can become transformers in the world.

When we receive the sacrament of Reconcilation (understood to mean confession, penance, and absolution) we then must live the sacrament in order to be reconcilers in the world.

This is why going to confession is so much more than getting a fine from God the traffic cop or even a theraputic chat with an understanding priest. No wonder so few Catholics are going to confession these days — if that’s all I got from confession, I could surely find that on my own or stumble on without it.

Instead, the sacrament of Reconciliation is an essential requirement for assimilating oneself into the Body of Christ more and more perfectly. To riff on Paul, it’s no use for me to be the best and most pious, self-aware foot I can be if at any time I am not functioning as part of the One Body.

End of Part I

Coming soon:
Penance and the Early Church

Published in: on March 27, 2007 at 1:54 pm  Leave a Comment  

Speaking of Confession . . .

Browsing the ‘net tonight, I happened across this article in the National Catholic Register [that’s NCR to you].

Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI have been trying to bring back the sacrament of penance, and several US churches have tried to come up with creative ways to encourage this.

I appreciated what Benedict had to say:

Someone asked Pope Benedict XVI why we should go to confession regularly if we always seem to be confessing the same sins anyway. He answered, ā€œIt is true: Our sins are always the same, but we clean our homes, our rooms, at least once a week, even if the dirt is always the same; in order to live in cleanliness, in order to start again. Otherwise, the dirt might not be seen, but it builds up.

ā€œSomething similar can be said about the soul, for me myself: If I never go to confession, my soul is neglected and in the end I am always pleased with myself and no longer understand that I must always work hard to improve, that I must make progress. And this cleansing of the soul that Jesus gives us in the sacrament of confession helps us to make our consciences more alert, more open, and hence, it also helps us to mature spiritually and as human persons. Therefore, two things: Confession is only necessary in the case of a serious sin, but it is very helpful to confess regularly in order to foster the cleanliness and beauty of the soul and to mature day by day in life.ā€

Bishop John Nienstedt from New Ulm, MN, on the overuse of general absolution:

The misuse of the rite has led to confusion about the sacramental nature of grace, a general denial of the seriousness of sin, a lessening of the importance of the priesthood and a loss of countless opportunities for spiritual growth.

And Father Christopher Walsh:

The sacrament has been marginalized. We have to uncork this untapped power that Christ put in the Church.

OK, Lord, I’m hearing you!

Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 8:45 pm  Comments (1)  

Hi Ho, Hi Ho

It’s off to confession I go . . .

Not really. I’m going to a talk on confession tomorrow morning. To tell the truth — that is, I suppose, to confess — I’ve never been to confession. I joined the church as an adult, and it wasn’t necessary for baptism, since baptism wipes the slate clean. But now it’s been nearly four years. I need to go. I want to go. I can’t bring myself to go.

I’m going to the talk tomorrow because I’ve never really understood the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Why can’t I be forgiven in the privacy of my home? Every night I ask forgiveness (if not also during the day), so what does this add?

Here’s what the folks at Loyola Press/Finding God say:

Hereā€™s what the Sacrament of Penance actually offers:

restoration to honestyā€”no more need to rationalize

restoration to integrityā€”no more need to have secret or unacknowledged parts of your life

relief from unproductive guiltā€”transformation of remorse into living a new life. The purpose of this sacrament is not punishment but true reconciliation with God and the community.

an encounter with Godā€”meeting God in humility (not humiliation!) and weakness

spiritual guidanceā€”no need to struggle with your moral issues alone

inner peaceā€”no longer having to live a life at war with yourself

strength in meeting future challenges and temptations

graceā€”rediscovering, as did the prodigal son, your Father’s unconditional love.

So. What can’t you get from private confession? First, reconciliation with your community. Believing in a personal God does not absolve one from accountability to one’s community — particularly when that community is the Body of Christ. We need to be reconciled with that Body if we want to say we are truly reconciled with God.

Second, a genuine confrontation and acknowledgement of your human weakness. It’s hard to simultaneously be aware of your utter dependence on God, who comes to us so often through the people around us, and live a completely interior spiritual life.

Third, a fully human experience of forgiveness. If the Good Lord had wanted us to be merely walking thought processors He could have saved Himself a lot of time on the other systems of the body. Being human, and being Catholic, is a full body experience. We recieve not only in our minds, but with our sight, our hearing, our sense of touch. In this way we can really be fully present where God is also fully present–I can really re-conciliate, or be re-unified with all of myself and as a member of the Body of Christ.

So. Why am I still afraid?

Published in: on March 23, 2007 at 4:35 pm  Comments (2)