The Prophet?

Even if you are a Kahlil Gibran fan, you have to concede that
this is at least kinda funny because it is, at the very least, kinda true.

Published in: on November 11, 2007 at 7:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Lesson from Yoga

There was a time that I studied and practiced yoga very consistently. When you first start yoga, you’re concerned with big movements: where your limbs go, bending at the hips, pointing right or left.

Then after you’ve gotten the basic posture down, you find that even the most minute adjustments can make the biggest difference. Distributing the pressure among your toes and trying to increase the weight on your pinky toe suddenly opens your hips, which opens your chest, and suddenly you are like a blossoming flower with a sense of lightness and openness that is at once totally new and like coming home.

What’s funny in yoga is that sometimes the movements are so tiny they are nearly imaginary. I remember my yoga teacher telling us to adjust our tailbones in a way that, she admitted, may not be physically possible, yet somehow making the attempt makes a difference in your sense of alignment.

This is the way of a Christian life, as well. Small adjustments make big differences.

For example, I am a person who suffers from cyclical depression. It’s not chronic in the sense that I am constantly feeling depressed, but it is chronic in the sense that I have experienced multiple bouts of depression and can expect to experience more in the future. “Depression management” is a necessary part of my daily life whether I feel great or awful.

I have had some graces from my experience of depression. One is that in meditating through depression and not denying it (and to be clear, this also involves using medication and working with both a therapist and a psychiatrist) I have felt my heart break totally open. Though my heart, like all hearts, has a human tendency to want to close up tight, one grace of depression is that I have had my heart wide open at a time of utmost pain, and I survived it. So I can carry that knowledge of survival with me into anything else. Another grace is that I know, not just intellectually but from profound experience, that my thoughts are not always trustworthy. What seems like cold, hard reason in depression is merely an illness talking. I know this so deeply that it is much easier for me to regard my thoughts and feelings with interest and a bit of skepticism. This is a blessing.

I am, however, offended deeply at the notion that God gave me depression to teach me these lessons. I can’t bear to hear people say that God gave a child cancer for the purpose of building character or correcting a fault. The verse is “God turns all things to good,” not “God does all things for good.” This may seem like a minor adjustment to the notion of how God works in the world, but it is a crucial one.

I have recently made a “re-alignment” in the way I pray that has made a huge difference to me. A common motto of those who pray is “give it to God,” as in “let go, let God.” This is a nice idea. But it is not one that ever clicked genuinely with me, as I never really felt that sense of peace that I had truly decided to let God steer the ship.

After some additional meditation training this summer, in a class on depression management, I came to try a different way of praying. I had an experience much like the “opening up” experiences I have had in yoga. I could see that in “giving it to God” I was pushing things away, trying to separate a person, a thing, a problem from myself and hand it off.

What I do now is “give it to God” through me. I use my “broken-open heart” as a doorway to the heart of Jesus. I embrace that person, thing, or problem that is causing me so much distress, because I know my heart can take it, and it can because behind it lay the heart of Jesus, which is big enough for every mistake, every hurt, every injustice.

When I pray this way I have that sense of lightness and openness that is at once new and like coming home. I have a closer understanding of what Jesus meant by saying “I leave you my peace.”

Published in: on November 11, 2007 at 10:36 am  Comments (2)  
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Sunday Gospel — the judge and the widow

The Gospel of Luke, Chapter 18, verses 1-8

Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.'”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I had tried to prepare this Sunday’s gospel with my children. I was not feeling inspired, but I have long ago given up the thought that my level of excitement is a good indicator of what’s really going on. Basically, I tried to extrapolate from the parable the idea that we should pray continually and not be afraid to make requests of God, because if the judge would finally yield to the widow, how much more would a just and loving God respond to our prayers.

This was awkward, at best, because going through my mind as we talked was the thought that I was passing on problem of “magical thinking”: we pray, and if we pray enough or in the right way, God gives us a pony, just like a big, magical Santa Claus. It’s no surprise that children who grow up with this idea of prayer reject God later, when it turns out that God is not a big, magical Santa Claus.

Today’s homily during Mass made things much clearer. The parable does tell us something about God and our relationship to God. It’s just that the judge is plainly not the god-figure. The widow is the god-figure, who persists in the face of human hard-heartedness, injustice, uncaring, and faithlessness. We are not usually in the place of the widow, pleading to a capricious judge; we are too often the judge who ignores the need for justice or the basic demands of discipleship, like acting kindly towards those closest to us, let alone those we don’t know.

This made such sense I felt embarrassed about our earlier discussion of the Gospel passage. I felt a little stuck in that childish idea of a God who grants wishes, and I felt relieved by being reminded that in Jesus God calls us to participate as “priest, prophet, and king” in the kingdom of heaven rather than begging for the scraps from the table.

The question “will the Son of Man find faith on earth” is then not a question about whether we’re begging God frequently enough to take our side against an adversary, but whether we are persistent in our work as Church.

Published in: on October 21, 2007 at 12:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Sensible Entry in the Liturgy Wars

It alternately cheers me and sets me despairing when I discover in the Catholic Blogosphere that the liturgy wars of my home parish are but one minor skirmish in a conflict plaguing the entire US Church. I’m glad to know that my parish is not horribly worse than others, but extremely depressed to see how passionate people are about tearing down their fellow Catholics.

I found myself nodding in agreement to much of what Jeff Mirus wrote at Catholic Culture. For example:

The mindsets of traditionalism and modernism are characterized by a lack of spiritual detachment. Strong, undisciplined attachments prevent spiritual growth and generally lead straight out of the Church. For the traditionalist, the attachment is to “the way things were”, all the external aspects of Catholic piety and discipline which he finds attractive and from which he derives spiritual consolation. For the modernist, the attachment is to the fashionable ideas of the age, all those perceptions and conceptions which, because they are dominant, appear to be the keys to every kind of success.

Both traditionalists and modernists have a point when they argue that when we discard healthy traditions or ignore the key themes of modern thought, we do so at our peril. It is neither their respect for tradition nor their willingness to engage modernity which gets them into trouble. Rather, it is their profound attachment to these things, an attachment so strong that both groups feel their world is shattered if the objects of their attachment are removed.

Personally, I would go so far as to use a few words that I had all but dropped from my vocabulary: Idolatry, and Evil.

The worship of particular Mass elements is idolatrous — I can’t help it if that word sends some folks into paroxysms of Evangeliphobia. I’ve witnessed it, listened to it, and even tried to compromise with it, and “idolatrous” is the most accurate word I can find to describe it. And it is evil:

sinful or wicked: check
causing discomfort or repulsion: check
causing harm: check
arising from actual or imputed bad character or conduct: check

The bad behavior, the harm, and the repulsion from the Catholic Church caused by these battles over liturgy—smells evil to me.

Even this:

a cosmic evil force

seems right on the money. The hostility, malice, and general absence of Christian kindness generated by the liturgy wars is no longer (if it ever was) limited to the category of personal, private sin. The numbers of people banding together within parishes or across the Internet has created a monster greater than its individual members. We’re no longer dealing with some individuals acting in an evil way—we are confronting An Evil.

This sentence bears repeating:

Strong, undisciplined attachments prevent spiritual growth and generally lead straight out of the Church.

Evil indeed: when we put anything before our unity as the Body of Christ and the sacrament of His love on earth, we’ve set the trap for our own destruction.

We are sent to be Good News—and the Good News is not that Mass is in Latin or that Sr. Sara’s folk guitar trio is leading the hymns.

Published in: on March 31, 2007 at 3:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hell is Still Other People

Because I can’t say it any better than this guy

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 4:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

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, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (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 ça 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  

Another ‘Why We Homeschool’ Moment

Perhaps it’s preaching to the choir, but I enjoyed this article on the benefits of homeschooling, published by a Catholic mom in the journal First Things.

Choice quote:

To my mind, however, homeschooling’s greatest efficiency lies in its capacity for a rightly ordered life. A child in school almost inevitably has a separate existence, a “school life,” that too easily weakens parental authority and values and that also encourages an artificial boundary between learning and everything else. Children come home exhausted from a day at school—and for a child with working parents, that day can be twelve hours long—and the last thing they want is to pick up a book or have a conversation. . . . At home we can do what’s nearly impossible in a school setting: We can weave learning into the fabric of our family life, so that the lines between “learning” and “everything else” have largely ceased to exist.

Published in: on March 24, 2007 at 3:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Father said what?!

Good thing I brought a pen — the reconciliation talk was sooooooooo good. I’m looking forward to writing it all down.

Father was discussing prayer and reminding us that

“God is talking to us all the time.”
. . . pause . . .
“That’s how I know God is a woman.”

After the hoots and howls died down he had to make peace by adding,

“And I know God is a man because the world is in such disarray.”

Well, OK then.

Published in: on March 24, 2007 at 12:18 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, “It 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.

“Something 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.”

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)