Friday, March 9, 2018

No Gods Before Me: The Dangers of Religious Syncretism, and My Re-Conversion To Christ Alone

Like many young men who read him, I was taken with Thomas Merton. I connected with him on many levels, from his struggles and complex personality to his path to conversion, his thirst for experience, and being a seeker. Though I discovered his writing about a year after I came into the Catholic Church in 1998 at the age of 18, I felt I had found a spiritual kin, and considered him a kind of older brother in the Faith.

Like Merton later in his life, I had always had an interest in the East. One of my earliest exposures to it was a small thin Penquin paperback I found in high school titled "Zen Flesh, Zen Bones," a collection of ancient Zen and pre-Zen writings. They were eccentric and esoteric, while also being simple and parabolic. What really drew me to it (this was prior to my conversion to Christianity) was that these Zen monastics were serious about finding the truth of existence, and sought after the Dharma "the way a drowning man seeks after air," as the saying goes. I also read a lot of "Beat" literature--Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg. I wanted to be a writer, and Jack Kerouac was by far the biggest writing influence in my life. He and many of the other beats were into Buddhism as well, so I just took to it, their kind of rag-tag Dharma bumming and never-ending quest for kicks and Enlightenment.

In high school I read and studied the basics of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Eight Fold Path, the sutras, and of course the enigmatic koans and parables found in my little Zen paperback. I meditated--not with a strict regularity, but I would set up a straw beach mat under the maple trees in our back yard and cross my legs and just count my breaths and try not to think. It was somewhat neutral (this breathing) I suppose, considering I had no religious faith to speak of and no real exposure to Christianity, but that would soon change by the time I got to college.

I came into the Catholic faith by way of personal conversion and encounter with the Holy Spirit; I really didn't reason or think my way into it. Although Buddhism held appeal intellectually, I knew experientially, and by God's grace, that I was a sinner in need of a savior, that I could not save myself, and that Christ was the answer. I wanted to protect those experiences, and the Catholic faith seemed to be the most authentic and true to the roots of Christianity; it was Truth, after all. And so, I became Catholic. Unfortunately, I had laid the stones for an Eastern intellectual foundation on which I would build the life of faith with my newfound Catholicism. The brick and mortar was Christian, but the foundation it was built on was Buddhist. So I ran into some difficulties throughout my early years as a Catholic, that were exacerbated by those who were supportive of a kind of mutually-complementary synthesis of Western Christian belief by way of Eastern praxis.

I discerned monastic life for about ten years (I discovered Merton's writing about a year after beginning that discernment process), which led me to visiting different religious communities across the country. I spent my first summer at a contemplative Benedictine monastery in New York as an observer, and subsequent summers in New Mexico and Virginia. It was at a Trappist monastery in Virginia that I worked closely with their vocation director, who agreed to serve as a spiritual director for me during this period of discernment. We exchanged letters for many years, and he was very kind in taking the time to write. He also was generally encouraging of my interest in Eastern spiritual practice, seeing it as somewhat complementary to the Christian contemplative life. I suppose this is where the "Centering Prayer" practice began to grow out of, and I eventually was given a book by M. Basil Pennington, OCSO, on the practice. I also read about Catholic monks like Bede Griffiths who devoted their lives to living in a way that synthesized traditions. So, I thought, maybe there is nothing wrong with this, it is a non-traditional way of getting closer to the Divine and maybe Catholics can learn something from the East.

During all this time I attended Mass regularly, was convinced of the Truth of the Catholic faith, but did not realize the dangers--or at least the lack of fruitfulness--in being of "two minds" seeking to supplement or synthesize Catholic truth with the practice of Eastern meditation and mindfulness. I thought it was kosher, so to speak, to seek a deeper experience in prayer in this way, and I really had no guides or teachers to tell me otherwise. I was kind of making my own quasi-monastic-hybrid blend of spiritual practice, taking the "best of" two opposite traditions and seeking to synthesize them.

For me, in my pride, I was put off by who I saw as the 'goody two-shoe' Catholics who were pious and devout, because I was nothing like them. I struggled and struggled to be good, to turn away from intoxication, fornication, and the like, but I continued to live like a prodigal, vacillating between two worlds--the flesh and the spirit. I felt very alone in my faith, but largely because I had shunned conforming to an established tradition and praxis and was piecing together my own esoteric quasi-Buddhist Catholicism. I didn't see any contradiction; looking back, I can see it as a wholly Gnostic and self-serving approach.

I continued in this vein for a number of years. What did this look like in practice? I continued to try to practice Centering Prayer and contemplation as I understood it from Fr. Pennington's book, and the piecemeal compilations of Eastern practice. Friday nights in my apartment I would listen to a master of the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) on CD ode to the kumuso, the mendicant monks of the 13th century Fuke Zen sect, as a way of deepening my meditation.

One night I walked down the street from my apartment and into the woods of Fairmount Park to meditate. I knew there was a "hermit's cave" known as the Cave of (Johannes) Kelpius from the 17th century less than a mile into the woods and I decided like the Buddha in front of the Boddhi tree, I would meditate there all night. It was a site popular with the Rosicrucians, an esoteric mystical sect, who had erected a monument there. I laid out my straw mat and lit my candle and some incense and sat cross legged in the dark cave and began to meditate. But I was disturbed by what felt like a malevolent force, spirits, and it freaked me out, as this was not a positive spiritual experience. I left before sunrise, shaken, and did not return there.

I attended talks by the Dalai Lama when he came to Philadelphia, and also Buddhist retreats in New York City when an acclaimed Lama came to the Shambhala Center on West 22nd St to offer teachings. I simply saw this as training in the mental and spiritual life. Yes, it was not strictly Catholic, but if I could gain control of my mind perhaps it would help my spiritual life and life of prayer as a kind of complement to it. I was on my own, spiritually speaking, and no one was warning me that maybe this was not the best idea. I did not find the American Buddhists in NYC or in Philly to be very friendly people. They were cold and impersonal and seemed to be more concerned about their own self-awareness than that of others. They did not talk to me, but I didn't care as I was there to learn and train.

My practice in meditation was taken to the next level when in November of 2007, after a breakup and needing a change and looking for greater discipline, I booked a flight to Thailand after hearing about a Theravada Buddhist wat (monastery) deep in the jungle of the southern province of Surat Thani named Suan Mokkh, founded by Venerable Ajahn Buddha­dasa Bhikkhu ("Slave of the Buddha"). Buddhadasa was a reformer--he tired of the corruption and laxity in the city wats and sought a purer form of Buddhism, getting back to the Theravada (old school) roots. I flew to Bangkok and made my way south to embark on an 11-day Vipassana (meaning "to see things as they really are") retreat. There was no way to 'sign up' for the retreat, you just had to show up at the gates and hope that the monks let you in.

There were people from all over the world wanting to learn the dharma and the ways of mind-training. It was a rigorous monastic schedule of meditation, yoga, and teaching, and strict silence was expected to be observed. We were not allowed to write either or take notes. We slept in individual cells on a bamboo mat atop a concrete slab, with a wooden block for a pillow (the infamous "wooden pillow"), washed in cisterns, had a candle for light, and ate vegetarian meals. The gates to the monastery were locked every night, so no one could leave. The monks who lived there would regularly meditate in the jungle in where they knew to be tigers present, so as to cultivate an acute awareness that comes when one is so close to death (being devoured by a tiger at any moment).

There were strict rules governing behavior as well. The required tenant of 'no killing' extended even to mosquitoes. At one point during sitting meditation a mosquito landed on my leg and I could feel every movement of its stinger inserting itself into my skin, but I couldn't kill it, nor could I scratch the itch of the welt when it developed. The silence and not talking was very difficult for many people as well. At one point the young Irish man whose cushion was next to mine failed to show up for meditation one morning. I heard (from another participant, after the retreat) that he couldn't take the rigor anymore and climbed out the bathroom window and over the monastery gates in the middle of the night and ran off into the forest! Although it was rigorous, I enjoyed the structure and the tranquil setting and the simple pleasures that come from not having many material comforts. I really thought that studying and practicing non-sectarian Buddhist meditation would make me a better Christian. No one was telling me otherwise.

I did have one Christian friend, though, who questioned it, when I returned home from Thailand. She basically said point blank, "What's with all the Buddhist stuff? Are you becoming a Buddhist?" She was a faithful Christian. I tried to explain that no, I was Christian, anyone can practice meditation and take what they want from it, whatever is useful, and leave the rest, but it wasn't very convincing. But I don't think she bought it; we are not in touch anymore, though I would like to ask her if that was part of why we did not stay in touch. But otherwise, I did not have too many Catholic friends, no one to kind of call me out on all this syncretist nonsense.

A few years after my experience in Thailand, I came across a few articles on the internet that gave me pause and made me just slightly begin to question the efficacy of this kind of religious syncretism. The first was titled, "Can I Trust Thomas Merton?" on a website called Catholic Spiritual Direction. The author said,

"My advice? Well, it’s not like the Church is hurting for solid and perfectly trustworthy writings on the spiritual life. I personally don’t know why anyone would want to carefully sift through this kind of literature when it is clear that Merton had serious issues. It seems a bit like sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant. You are likely to find much that is of nutritional value, but why not just go take your seat at the table for the best and purest meals available? I would encourage you to stick with the spiritual doctors of the Church."

Now it seemed kind of square to question Thomas Merton since he was so beloved by so many people and was such a renaissance man and after all, he was a Trappist monk so he was authentically Catholic. Right? In seeing my own tendencies and personality in Merton, though, it made me think, "what if I, too, had "serious issues" like Merton? In fact, I knew I did have serious issue. I was struggling with bi-polar disorder, submission, obedience, chastity, temperance, prudence, patience, gluttony, fornication, idolatry, and blasphemy. All this hip meditation was perhaps training my mind and making me fit in with my secular friends (who I deeply cherished) but was not redeeming my character and may, in fact, be justifying my sinful and self-destructive behavior.

So, the Merton article gave me pause. There was one more article that I came across titled "Yoga: A Cautionary Tale" that also made me begin to question the things I could not see beneath the surface of my spiritual life. I was not big into yoga, but we did do yoga at the retreat every morning. I did not know the Theravada stance on 'Buddha as a god," but there were certainly statues everywhere and I just didn't know what kind of spiritual influence I had subjected myself to during all these years, the way you may drink water tainted with an odorless, tasteless chemical that causes cancer. Yoga was not my issue, but in regarding it as a more macro-issue of non-Christian 'worship,' I just began to get uneasy. My sins during this time, the volatility of my spirit, and (as I realized years later) not being in a state of grace all made me vulnerable to influences that may not have been of God.

The woman in the Yoga: A Cautionary Tale article made mention of a deliverance priest named Fr. Mike, and I knew a guy I went to college with who was named Mike, became a priest, and did deliverance ministry now as a priest, so I wondered if it was the same guy. I never reached out to him, but when I was at a conference in Detroit last year for the street evangelization apostolate I am a member of, I witnessed healing of many people of infirmities. I asked one of the men healing in the name of Jesus to pray over me "for forgiveness and deliverance from any of those things from my past to which may have been not of God." I did not know for sure, but I just had a suspicion that those years of being in an esoteric spiritual wasteland of my own making was not good. And I begged God's forgiveness for it.

I don't care much for labels--being a 'traditionalist' or a 'social justice warrior,' a 'conservative' or a 'liberal.' But I will say that I have become much more traditional in the practice of my faith. I remembered the words of the person who wrote them on the Catholic Spiritual Direction website: "like sifting through the refuse at the back of a good restaurant...why not take your seat at the table for the best and purest meals available?"  God helped lead me--via Confession, inner-knowledge of my sins, and certain sacramentals (such as the scapular and Miraculous Medal)--back to the Faith that was not tainted with these kinds of esoteric and gnostic attempts at enlightenment.

Even now I am somewhat wary or delving too much into spiritual things of contemplative practices, since I don't have a guide, and choose instead, like St. Therese of Liseiux, to just trust the Lord. Attending daily Mass and rosary, monthly Confession, regular prayer, and remaining in a state of grace have become indispensable for my spiritual life as a Catholic. I still have a long way to go in terms of mental prayer, as Catholics understand it, but I find that being obedient to the Lord and Church teaching has taken a greater role in my life now that I have abandoned these Eastern practices of meditation. I can instead focus my energy on serving the Lord and not being "a man of two minds," as St. James says.

I am glad at least prior to becoming Catholic that my parents had me baptized--I shudder to think where I would have been without that grace at least. And after becoming Catholic, He continues to be patient and gently correcting me in my waywardness as I find my way. He has sent me orthodox friends to help me in my journey, "strong meat" in the way of traditional writings and teaching, and grace to discern those things which are not healthy for me spiritually, and courage to leave them aside. Our Catholic faith is too rich, the depths too deep, to need to look outside of it for nourishment. It is all right there; the Lord has given us everything we need to attain holiness and salvation. You cannot serve two masters.

I am a prodigal. I've eaten the husks and have finally found my way home. I can never repay the Lord for all He has rescued me from. I simply have no other way to explain the graces in my life--a supportive wife and woman of God, a healthy mind, a spirit properly disposed to the workings of grace, and a life ransomed from death and confusion. I can say with confidence, like the Psalmist, "The Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes." (Ps 118:23)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

On Communion

This Sunday my mom joined us for Mass. It was nice having her--everyone who knows her jokes that she is, literally, "sunshine in a bottle," one of the kindest, most patient, and good natured people I know. My dad is in the hospital recovering from knee surgery, and I always ask her, good-naturedly, "Mom, when are you going to join us? Just give me the word when you are ready to jump the Episcopal ship and I'll get you on the first RCIA boat out of the harbor!"

Ever since she has been going to Mass with us (occasionally, and on holidays) she always refrains from going up for Communion. And, not being Catholic, this is the right thing to do and I respect her for taking that initiative herself humbly and with grace. Still, my heart always tears a little bit when I see her sitting in the pew herself. I know it can't be any other way. "You know, Rob, the liturgy is so similar, it's so close (in the high Episcopal service)." Close in form, but no cigar.

I have great respect for church-goers who attend Mass regularly but, for whatever their reasons, do not receive Holy Communion. It is a source of great pressure to "just go up." No one wants to sit in their pew alone; everybody wants to a do what everyone else is doing. I cringe at weddings and funerals when time to receive the Holy Eucharist comes. I pray and pray that the priest will make mention something about the need for Confession, or the Church's guidelines about reception of the Eucharist, or what it means to be in a state of grace, or even that non-Catholics should not be going up to receive Communion. But it always just ends up being a cacophonous cluster, and the words of St. Paul ring in my ear “For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:29–30). The lackadaisical attitude towards the Lord fully present in the Eucharist and the lack of discernment is like a dagger to the heart sometimes, which is why I usually close my eyes and not open them, for my own benefit to keep from the temptation towards judgment, until the priest takes his seat.

Those who are in the process of becoming Catholic but who are not yet permitted to receive the Lord in the Eucharist describe a kind of aching for it. The not being able to receive is so hard, because they know Who it is (not what "it" "represents"). But their time will come at the Easter vigil. And they will know the sweetness of the Lord.

Those too, who, for whatever reason--be it an irregular marriage or a sin that they cannot yet bring themselves to confess--who refrain from the Eucharist at Mass yet who fully worship and participate with their whole hearts. As long as it's not a kind of Jansenism or scrupulosity, I think it indicates a healthy respect and self-knowledge that believes and trembles, like the publican who would not raise his head to Heaven but beat his breast saying "God, be merciful to me a sinner." There has to be something to that. Contrasted to the brazen attitude of those who march up and 'demand their Eucharistic due' for their tithe or good behavior or whatever, like the Pharisee, eat and drink condemnation on themselves.

I liked what the Archbishop of Toronto, His Eminence Thomas Card. Collins said, on the topic of not receiving Communion at Mass:

"Many people who are divorced, and who are not free to marry, do enter into a second marriage. There are various reasons that can lead to this, and their fellow parishioners should not occupy themselves speculating about them. Catholics in that tragic situation can be involved in many ways in the life of the community, but they may not receive the sacraments, such as Holy Communion, since whatever their personal disposition is or the reasons for their situation, known perhaps only to God, they are continuing in a way of life which is objectively against the clear command of Jesus. That is the point. The point is not that they have committed a sin;  the mercy of God is abundantly granted to all sinners. Murder, adultery, and any other sins, no matter how serious, are forgiven by Jesus, especially through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the forgiven sinner receives communion. The issue in the matter of divorce and remarriage is one’s conscious decision (for whatever reason) to persist in a continuing situation of disconnection from the command of Jesus. Although it would not be right for them to receive the sacraments, we need to find better ways to reach out to people in this situation, to offer them loving assistance. 
One thing that would help would be if all of us realized that receiving communion is not obligatory at Mass. There are many reasons why a Christian might choose not to receive communion. If there were less pressure for everyone to receive communion, it would be some help to those who are not in a position to do so."

I try to walk a line and draw a balance between recognizing my unworthiness as a sinner to receive the King of the Universe under guise of bread and wine, while also recognizing that He thirsts for us to "eat his flesh and drink his blood" so that we may "have life in us" and that my sustenance in the spiritual life depends on being fed this heavenly food. I used to struggle with scrupulosity, but not anymore by God's grace. I am wholly dependent on His mercy and completely unworthy of this gift. I will never be perfect or completely without sin. But that's no reason or basis for spiritual neurosis. It just means that I NEED Him to LIVE, lest I starve. The devil often exploits scruples to keep us from God's's a different kind of problem than those who cavalierly presume it

I would want everyone in the world, including my mom, to be unified in God's One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.  I suppose God has His reasons why He permits that not to be the case at this time. The Creed--what we believe--unifies us as a family, and we profess it each time we attend the Mass. It's like a renewal of vows. As Catholics, we are not some kind of exclusive country-club, but a family. We have our beliefs and our statements of faith that bind us but are open to all, without the limitations of caste or class or race or sex.

But we can make it easier for people to at least be exposed to the awesome wonder of the Lord fully present body, blood, soul, and divinity at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass--invite someone to Mass. Instruct the ignorant (a spiritual work of mercy), in a compassionate way, why the Eucharist is reserved for those members of the family. Pray for them, that they may have a hunger and burning thirst for the Eucharistic Lord. You yourself do not be hypocritical or a source of scandal. Do not judge those who receive or not receive, leave it up to the Lord. And remember to beat your breast when your eyes are cast down before Him, repeating the words of the publican: "God, be merciful to me a sinner."

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Our Family's Journey To Total Consecration To Jesus Through Mary: A Complete Game Changer

I had a "Little Flower" moment when I was in Detroit this past September. Fr. Ignatius, a priest of the Franciscan Friars of the Immaculate, was giving a talk on the stages of spiritual ascent and outlined it on a whiteboard:

Purgative (Beginner) 

Illuminative (Proficient) [Night of the Senses] 

Unitive (Perfect) [Night of the Spirit] 

As I studied the path laid out from my table, feeling like the mountain was too lofty, too out of reach, I remembered the words of St. Therese of Lisieux:

"I leave to great souls and lofty minds the beautiful books I cannot understand, much less put into practice and I rejoice that I am little because children alone and those who resemble them will be admitted to the heavenly banquet. I am glad that there are many mansions in the Kingdom of God, because if there were only those whose description and whose road seem to me incomprehensible, I could never enter there."

I needed help if there were any hope for me. That is when Fr. Ignatius mentioned the spirituality of St. Louis de Montfort and St. Maximilian Kolbe, and the tender devotion of those who are fervent souls, to Mary as a way to Jesus. "Write Mary a blank check," he said, "by totally consecrating yourself to her, and she will lead you to Jesus."

Now this is a tough sell for many people, even devout Catholics, and total blasphemy to Protestants. But I was open to listening. I knew there is no human who was closer to Jesus than his very mother, his first disciple, flesh of his flesh. To give her liberty, to turn my life over to her, to write her a blank check was indeed a daunting prospect because, of course, it meant my life was not really my own anymore. Was she trustworthy? Yes, I had faith in that. So what was holding me back?

It became clear that attachment to my sin and "loving my life" (Jn 12:25) was a hindrance. It was scary too, since Fr. Ignatius made clear that "the blessings our Lady sends....are crosses." What would become of my life, the life of my family, should we consecrate ourselves to the mother of the Lord, totally dispose ourselves to her aid, to lead us to Jesus? Would we lose it all? Would we suffer?

It was as if I had been playing pretend Christian all these years, keeping one foot in the door and one foot out. A blank check. Do you know what Jesus writes in the 'Amount' line when you give him a blank check? "EVERYTHING" All of it. Empties the account. Net zero. Doesn't leave a cent.

When I got back home from the conference, I thought a lot about Marian consecration--what it meant for me, for my family, and for my relationship with Jesus. I knew my weaknesses. I knew my lack of discipline. I knew I needed help (of course) to have any hope of eternity with Jesus in Heaven. I needed friends, allies, and a bodyguard from the forces of evil surrounding us in the culture. People told me about it at the conference, and I had never before heard of such a thing, but that was no accident.

On Friday the 13th of October I took my family to a traditional Polish church in the city for a Mass commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Apparitions at Fatima. A statue of Our Lady of Fatima was in the front of the Church, and we were gratefully able to receive the merciful gift of the Holy Father in the form of a plenary indulgence, and consecrate ourselves and our family to Jesus through Mary, and enrolled in the Militia Immaculata (MI), founded by St. Maximilian Kolbe.

I started praying the rosary, every day. When I came across the 15 promises of the rosary that were given to St. Dominic and Bl Alan de la Roche, I recognized the fruit of this devotion laid out in my own life:

1) Whoever shall faithfully serve me by the recitation of the Rosary, shall receive signal graces. 

2) I promise my special protection and the greatest graces to all those who shall recite the Rosary. 

3) The Rosary shall be a powerful armor against hell, it will destroy vice, decrease sin, and defeat heresies. 

4) It will cause virtue and good works to flourish; it will obtain for souls the abundant mercy of God; it will withdraw the heart of men from the love of the world and its vanities, and will lift them to the desire of eternal things. Oh, that souls would sanctify themselves by this means. 

5) The soul which recommends itself to me by the recitation of the Rosary shall not perish. 

6) Whoever shall recite the Rosary devoutly, applying himself to the consideration of its sacred mysteries, shall never be conquered and never overwhelmed by misfortune. God will not chastise him in His justice, he shall not perish by an unprovided death (unprepared for heaven). The sinner shall convert. The just shall grow in grace and become worthy of eternal life. 

7) Whoever shall have a true devotion for the Rosary shall not die without the sacraments of the Church. 

8) Those who are faithful to recite the Rosary shall have, during their life and at their death, the light of God and the plenitude of His graces; at the moment of death they shall participate in the merits of the saints in paradise. 

9) I shall deliver from purgatory those who have been devoted to the Rosary. 

10) The faithful children of the Rosary shall merit a high degree of glory in heaven. 

11) You shall obtain all you ask of me by the recitation of the Rosary. 

12) All those who propagate the holy Rosary shall be aided by me in their necessities. 

13) I have obtained from my Divine Son that all the advocates of the Rosary shall have for intercessors the entire celestial court during their life and at the hour of death. 

14) All who recite the Rosary are my sons, and brothers of my only son Jesus Christ. 

15) Devotion of my Rosary is a great sign of predestination.

My spiritual director recommended a book for at at home retreat title "Consoling the Heart of Jesus" by Fr. Michael Gaitley, MIC, which I have started reading. I was encouraged that the book opens with the words of St. Therese, the great Doctor of the Church, in her radical "little treatise", helping me to realize that maybe there is hope for me yet in God's great mercy--not in anything I can do or any great pious feats, but by my very inability to do great things:

"Alas! I have always noticed that when I compared myself to the saints, there is between them and me the same difference that exists between a mountain whose summit is lost in the clouds and the obscure grain of sand trampled underfoot by passers-by. Instead of being discouraged, I said to myself: God cannot inspire unrealizable desires. I can, then, in spite of my littleness, aspire to holiness. It is impossible for me to grow up, and so I must bear with myself such as I am with all my imperfections. But I want to seek out a means of going to heaven by a little way, a way that is very straight, very short, and totally new."

I was never a "Mary guy." Like many converts, I struggled for most of my early years as a Catholic of 'what to do' with Mary. I prayed the rosary, but truth be told it wasn't my favorite of prayers, and I struggled with distraction. But now, I don't know what I would do without her. She has changed my life, and brought me closer to her son. I need her help, and I have entrusted myself and my family to her by way of total consecration to Jesus through Mary. I'd encourage you to consider it as well, as she is true to her promises and so much like her Son, is able to be trusted.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Hard Work Of Mercy

Let's face it: for the Christian disciple, the Works of Mercy--those Spiritual and Corporal--can be just that: work. For those who have devoted their lives to it--religious, missionaries, apologists, and those who work and advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized, it is their daily way of getting their hands dirty, both literally and figuratively speaking. We are called to do the work, as Jesus' hands and feet. Disciples are called to the harvest field to work.

The Corporal Works of Mercy (Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; Clothe the naked; Shelter the homeless; Visit the sick; Visit the imprisoned; Bury the dead) are a direct imperative of Jesus. It is pretty straight forward in scripture how it impacts our salvation:

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.  
34 “Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? 38 And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ 40 The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’ 
41 “Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ 44 Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not [a]take care of You?’ 45 Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ 46 These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mt 25:31-46)

Less obvious, and sometimes more neglected, are the Spiritual Works of Mercy (Admonish the sinner; Instruct the ignorant; Counsel the doubtful; Comfort the sorrowful; Bear wrongs patiently; Forgive all injuries; Pray for the living and the dead). They can be uncomfortable to exercise. Especially the first two, since no body likes to be regarded as a 'sinner' to be admonished, or 'ignorant' and in need of instruction.

But these two are especially needed today. Evangelization in the proper sense of the word is bringing the Good News to those who have not heard it. The 'New Evangelization' is really a re-catechization of those baptized who have not had the seed of faith brought to fruition in their lives.

Progressives adopt this work of 'instructing the ignorant' with vigor. They lobby and march, infiltrate and indoctrinate to get their messages to the unenlightened, and work to punish those who do not comply with their ideology. Those who are poorly catechized and who have given themselves over to the world find themselves to be easy targets for such secular 'instruction.' But who will do the work of the Church, that of instructing those ignorant in the faith, and bearing the brunt of pushback when doing the tough love work of admonishing the sinner? Many times, the need for instruction and admonition far outweighs the capacity of those going out into the mission field. Yet, we are still called, and shouldering the weight of that call of Christ may very well be our cross to bear. A joy and a privilege, yes. But demanding work as well.

When reading accounts of exorcists who do the Church's work of casting out demons in the name of Jesus, what strikes me is just how tiring it can be. The time and energy, the physical demands, and the overwhelming numbers of afflicted in relation to those able to help them--it's real work, and demanding work as well. But for those who are on the receiving end of such deliverance, the minister who has undertaken this work has literally saved their life, ransomed them from death, by the power of Christ.

If we don't speak the truth to those who need to hear it, who will? If we don't instruct those who know only the basics of faith and about the gift of salvation, who will? If we don't take the beating and the pushback from those whom we love when we call them out because of our love for them, who will?

I recently was in the position of feeling the need to instruct my father in the Faith concerning the nature of sin and the Church's teaching on Confession because of some erroneous beliefs. It's one thing when you are instructing strangers, but sometimes with our own family it can be very awkward. It was very uncomfortable for me, and I was very reluctant to do so. I literally had to pray hard about it and force myself to obey the urging of my conscience and write him. Because my house was generally in order, I was able to come at it from a place of love and concern, and not judgement or condemnation. But it still took an investment of time and effort and an uncertainty in how he would respond. Thankfully, he was open and grateful for the long email, and it was the kick he needed to get his own spiritual house in order that might not have happened otherwise.

You are the hands and feet of Christ, and hands and feet are made to work and march. Performing the Works of Mercy is our duty as Christians, even when it's a grind and we'd rather not by staying silent or by staying home. We work by grace, propelled by the Holy Spirit, and sustained by prayer. But it's called 'work' for a reason--it takes effort and sacrifice, and opens us up to pushback and disappointment as well. But like Paul, we should consider it a woe to us if we do not preach the gospel, since we are compelled by God to do it (1 Cor 9:16). We need to love our brothers and sisters, our families, and even those we have never met, enough to put ourselves out there an do the work Christ calls us to--the works of mercy.

Monday, February 5, 2018

A Jailbreak For The Prison Of The Self

The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
We hate in other people what we hate in ourselves. And I will confess: selfishness and self-centeredness is a pet-peeve of mine because I am one of the most self-centered people I know.

I use myself as a test-subject constantly, especially when it comes to writing. There are a couple reasons for this--one, I have plenty of material to work with. Two, I don't have to ask permission to use it. Three, I'm hyper-self aware, which is the other side of the double-edged sword that is self-centeredness, so I'm relatively confident in what I am writing about. Maybe it is the artist-temperament. Whatever it is, it comes with downsides and unique requirements for mortification.

Saint Louis Marie de Montfort spoke of mortification as "the deliberate restraint that one places on natural impulses in order to make them increasingly subject to sanctification through obedience to reason illumined by faith." With Lent arriving in less than two weeks (doesn't it always seem to come at just the right time?), we are afforded a great opportunity to practice what St. Louis de Montfort saw as an absolute necessity for acquiring true wisdom. "Beware of thinking that bodily mortification is not necessary to acquire Wisdom, for Wisdom is never found in those who live a life of ease and who gratify their senses" (RW 172)

We often deceive ourselves that we are being selfless when we set the conditions for how we will serve. "I'll wash the dishes," I say (because I don't mind washing dishes), when I really should be saying, "I'll change the diapers." I'll follow you...but let me say good bye to my family first, bury my father first.

And yet, what does Paul call himself but a slave of Christ. Slaves don't choose how they serve their master, because they are not their own, but owned, bought at a price. There is no self to speak of anymore, there is no subjectivism, only the call to obedience and duty. A disciple who chooses how he follows Christ of his own accord and on what terms is not a disciple, but a fan-boy. You have been bought at a price, and that price is your very life itself.

I had a professor in grad school who introduced himself as a "filthy Thomist." I'm not sure Aquinas was fully appreciated in the Theology dept at this particular school, so I can only assume the self-deprecating comment held a lonely air of ostracization. He was a great professor, but I had been taken with the writings of Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism prior to starting my program and as a post-modern subjectivist fan boy I couldn't appreciate Thomism for what it was. The Summa seemed tight, stiff, musty, overly-rational, and just beyond what I could comprehend.

But my experience of faith--that was a summa in itself. Like Descartes, I thought and I was. Or, as faith would have it, I believed and it was! I was the protagonist in this divine play, the principal actor. Without my assent, faith simply would not exist. I could not worship God for His own sake, but only in relation to myself and my experience. This has been difficult to extricate myself from, this extreme subjectivism. My self-centeredness is wiley--every time I try to pin it down to run an iron spike through it, it squirms out of my grasp, buyoed by this or that appetite that has for its whole life been satiated, or by emitting a piercing cry at the threat of it's demise. For if you lose your self, what do you have left? It's a terrifying prospect, and is not easily crucified.

Kierkegaard's radical Protestant subjectivism came with the price tag of anxiety and dread. The radical freedom and responsibility of our choices in 'leaping to faith' was the underlayment in his philosophy and it weighed on him in his life as well. Experience was everything. I clung to that in my conversion when I didn't know where to 'put' it, what vessel to use to guard it.

Although I do not attend the Latin Mass, it's attraction is starting to make sense to me. In essence, worship is not about you; it is about God. The external orientation matters; the prayers matter; the rubrics matter; beauty, in the objective sense, matters. In the rubble of post-modernism and anti-foundationalism, the liturgy stands as phoenix rising--though of course, that is not really an accurate description, for it has always been and through careful safeguarding and handing on has been preserved. I see the value now (and hope to see a renewal) in Thomistic philosophy as an antidote to a self-centered and subjective culture that has forgotten how to reason, how to worship, how to see beauty, and how to recognize objective truth.

The thing about the self is it gets wearisome. It gets wearisome to constantly serve it as a master, feed it as an appetite, pontificate about it as a subject, and groom it as a pet. Experience is powerful, but it is not a sovereign king. It rots on the vine if its not picked and pressed in service to a greater reality than the self and its finite tunnel vision of existence.

But there is an antidote, an Rx from the Church herself: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting. Sound familiar? These three pillars of Lent help us get out of ourselves, lift our eyes to Heaven and implore Heaven for others, practice mortification, and exercise charity. It always seems to come at just the right time when my self-absorption and obsession with experience has reached boiling point. It is an objective cure for a post-modern subjective disease.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Stacks Of Error

I took a walk over to the university library on my lunch break this afternoon to do some writing. All the computers in the lab were taken, so I decided to wander among the stacks. I ended up in the religion section on the 3rd floor (big surprise), and as I was perusing the shelves it hit me how much we need the Holy Spirit.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide our Holy Church and keep Her from teaching error. Thankfully we have that assurance, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it (Mt 16:17-19).

We need the Holy Spirit to change hearts, because all the intellectual arguments and reasons and miracles do not have the power to do that. But the Holy Spirit does have that power.

We need the Holy Spirit to impart the gifts we need to live virtuous lives pleasing to God: Wisdom, Understanding, Knowledge, Counsel, Fortitude, Piety, and Fear of the Lord.

We need the Holy Spirit to heal us from our wounds, both physical, emotional, and spiritual. When a member of Christ's body prays for and over us and healing occurs, it is only by the power of the Holy Spirit--God Himself--that such a miracle takes place.

We need the Holy Spirit to guide us into all the truth (Jn 16:13). Because without the Holy Spirit, we are lost.

I attended a liberal graduate program, eschewing a more orthodox program faithful to Church teaching at the local seminary. I did check out the seminary, though, and I remember meeting with the Dean of the Theology program there and mentioned where I was considering and that it seemed to suit my sensibilities, to which she replied, "but we teach the Truth here." I found her calm statement arrogant and off putting--"what is Truth anyway?" and went with the other program. Given where I was at in my faith life and the formation I had had until that point, it did fit. But just why it fit should have been reason for concern. But I had no one to guide me otherwise.

I had a Jesuit spiritual advisor for a number of years. I didn't know any better. It took me as many years to 'unlearn' how I was advised, because it withheld hard truth and placated me with soft affirmations in my sin.

I read books by Teihlhard de Chardin and John Dear and Richard Rohr and Ronald Rolheiser because it was either eclectic or pushed boundaries or because it was just what was available and I didn't know any better. I figured this was what Catholic was. It wasn't until years later that I learned the books were better off in the trash.

I was so happy when I started working at a Catholic university years ago, but realized later in talking with the students "what is it that makes ___ University Catholic?" the answer was more times than not, "We do service." Even atheists do service. I asked why the National Catholic Reporter was in the library and not the Register, and was ignored. I started to realize something was amiss.

Take, for instance, the life of a new Catholic. It is an impressionable and somewhat vulnerable time. You read everything you can get your hands on. That is why I take such offense at the dissidents and the dangers they pose. If I were fresh in the faith and thinking to myself "wow, what a selection!" of anything with "God" or "Catholic" in the title and just started innocently picking books off the shelf--Hans K√ľng or Charles Curran--and started your formation there, it would be disastrous. You wouldn't know any better, sure, but without anyone to tell you, "better be careful," or "here, read this instead," it's a spiritually perilous position one is in.

It can't be presumed that just because a school is "Catholic" that it authentically is, or a person who is a priest or religious that they will teach the Truth as the Church understands it. But God can lead us back to truth when we have strayed, lead us back to grace when we have turned away from it, and lead those outside of it to the Church despite all the obstacles and heterodox landmines in the way. By His grace, he did for me, and I give Him thanks and praise for sending some joyful orthodox guides to gradually correct my course and open me to seeing the danger in those who did not hold to correct teaching. Were it not for the Holy Spirit and the mysterious and gentle way He works, I don't know where I would be.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Taking Lust Out Of The Frame

This is going to be a quick n dirty post.

After the birth of our third child last week, my wife and I are probably going to be on a suspension of marital relations for a bit. We've basically had the last nine months to not have to think about cycles or abstinence, and it's been great, but that time is now officially over and we're in a different season now, as Solomon writes, "There is a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing" (Ecc 3:5).

So, a few quick things I try to keep in mind during these seasons, learned over time and with quite a bit of faltering along the way:

1) Take captive every thought (2 Cor 10:5). You have no right to look at another woman and/or entertain any thoughts or fantasies about her. Let me repeat that: you have no right. This is what we mean we say 'taking it (lust) out of the frame'--it simply should have no place to make a home in your heart or mind, there is no room at the inn. We know the words of the Lord with regards to lust and adultery (Mt 5:28). We can admire a woman's beauty objectively but when it descends to a place of sordid ransomed ownership (undressing with the eyes, holding images in the mind for later, etc), that is the delineation into sin, and it needs to be stopped in its tracks.

How? Some pragmatic steps are 1) bouncing the eyes to avert temptation; 2) not going back for 'second looks'; 3) a quick prayer--like notching an arrow in a bow--such as a recitation of a Psalm. My go-to is Psalm 69:2: "Oh God, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me!"

2) Fasting (Mt 17:21). I never understood the connection between gluttony and lust, thinking that limiting food as a spiritual discipline would invite stronger sexual passions. The opposite is actually true, as St. John Cassian notes, "The man who looks after his belly and at the same time hopes to control the passion of fornication is like someone trying to put out a fire with oil." Fasting helps us to control our appetites, put them in right context, and gives the opportunity to practice self-mastery. In times of separation and abstinence, fasting is a good discipline to keep the mind focused.

You can fast anywhere at any time. Sometimes if I can't do a full on fast, I will simply skip a meal, and not eat in between, say, breakfast and lunch. Or reduce to half of what you would normally eat for those meals as well. Or simply subsist on bread and water or juice for a day once or twice a week. For men, temptations to lust via the urges of the body need to be tempered, and fasting from food (rather than social media, or some other thing) hits straight to those bodily urgings and works to subject them to the will and reason. Living on bread for a day or reducing your meals isn't going to kill you, but it may be uncomfortable. That's the point.

3) Habit. It takes time to get into a bad habit, and it takes time to get out. If you are inclined towards pornography or masturbation during times of abstinence or dischord, remember #1 and #2, but also that the more you feed such things the stronger they grow. You have to starve it. When I was single I would look at pornography online...not all the time, but sometimes. I always figured if I give in this time I would get a good fix and then forget about it. That's not how it works. The more you give in, the more you spin your tires in a mud rut, the deeper it gets. Cut it out, cold turkey, get clean days under your belt, and, moving on to #4...

4) Buck up and take it like a man. I don't think women's biology allows them to fully appreciate just how much men's sex drive is tied to their physiology. There is an almost physical pressure exerted to do what we do as men when it comes to sex; God designed that drive, and it is good in its right context. Without some kind of healthy sublimation, the build up of sperm can feel like it is going to your head. It's going to be uncomfortable mentally, and maybe even physically. That's're not going to die. It also doesn't give you an excuse to go outside your covenant looking for sexual self-satisfaction. But having an attitude of willing discomfort rather than entitled self-serving will help you offer it as a mortification and to grow in chastity. Chastity takes practice, it doesn't come easily thanks to concupiscence. We know what is right, and what we owe God and our wives, and that is continence and purity of mind and heart. So just do it...or rather, don't do it....and take the discomfort as your due. Exercise. Cold shower. Prayer. Fasting. Whatever it takes.

5) Charity. When you are tempted to gratify your sexual desires when you know it is not right, it can help to get out of your self by acts of charity--praying for others, doing housework for old ladies who can't do them otherwise, feeding the hungry or visiting those in prison. Whatever gets you out of yourself is the antithesis of what fantasy and pornography offers, since they are all about getting you trapped in the prison of self-satisfaction. There's no shortage of things you can do to serve the body of Christ in need and get out of yourself.

6) Pray for your spouse. This is good practice at any time. Your job is to help your wife get to Heaven. Withholding love or being a jerk when you aren't getting any doesn't help with that. So, try to be extra nice and attentive, and show love in non-sexual ways. All of the above, and the subsequent discomfort, can be offered up as a mortification for her intentions. Be sure to spend extra time communicating verbally, since you won't be communing with your bodies in that unspoken language, at least maybe not for a time.

For the single man, much of this same advice applies, but maintaining self control may be in perpetuity, should you be a religious or unmarried. Marriage isn't a cure-all for lust; if anything, you have to fight even harder against it, to keep it out of the marriage bed and defiling it. Demons, once given a place in your home or heart, don't leave easily or willingly. Don't open the door for them, don't leave it unlocked, and don't give them opportunity to destroy what is good and of God in your life. Because they will; it's what they exist for.

So, take captive every thought. Fast. Break bad habit and develop good habit. Buck up. Practice charity. And pray for your spouse, offering up the discomfort for their sanctification. Lust is the downfall of many otherwise good men; it should have no place in your marriage, or in your life as a Christian, so be on guard. Remember your purpose, why God made you: to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven. Lust is a rotten fruit wrapped in a shiny package. Take it out of the frame all together.