Saturday, July 21, 2018

This Son Of Yours

I remember one afternoon in college sitting on a bench with a friend. He was a lifelong Catholic, I had been Catholic for a year or so. "You know," he said to me, "guys like you get to have all the fun. You get to sleep around and party and have it all forgiven." He didn't say it in a mean or accusatory way, just that he "always wondered what it would be like," that is, the life of a prodigal, since he had pretty much been a good, rule-following Catholic most of his life. He feels like he missed out.

I didn't know any other way. Though I could sympathize with my friend, the life of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was foreign to me. I was a prodigal through and through, and it was how I came to God: finding Christ through heartache and brokenness, looking up from the pigsty, far from home. Not that I would necessarily advocate going this route--pursuing sin is a quixotic exercise in futility, since peace and joy are always kept at bay as you chase after illusionary windmills. The "fun" my friend refers to is really just rotten consolation fruit, and in reality, I was the one who missed out. Though I was washed clean and forgiven by the blood of Christ, I spend most of my adult life just getting back to zero in terms of the passions.

We like to think of justice and mercy as two separate things, and we may gravitate towards one of the other depending on our individual proclivities: the righteous and upright long for justice, and call on the God of vengeance to render recompense to the proud (Ps 94:1-2), while the poor in spirit cry out for mercy (Ps 86:16).

But God does not regard justice and mercy the way we humans do, in a dichotomous manner. Msgr. Pope has an excellent post here, and writes: "When we discuss the relationship between justice and mercy in the Church and in God, we must avoid distinctions that merely see them in opposition. We must seek to see them as rooted in God, simply, and in a way that harmonizes them."

I have always had to learn the hard way, doing things myself and finding out for myself. So part of me was jealous of my friend, in the same way he was jealous of me, for his ability to follow the rules. We were both brothers in faith, loved the same by the Father. And yet our struggles were different--I did not struggle with resentment of feeling like I missed opportunities, but needed mercy more than anything; my friend did not struggle as much with the damage done by sin and its fallout, but may have struggled more like the workers who went out into the vineyard at daybreak who were paid the same as those who came in the late day (Mt 20:1-16).

I can't go back and do it again, but knowing what I know now about the wasteland apart from God, I would advocate for my children--for their own good!--to keep the statutes of the Lord and to walk in His ways and not stray. Yes, where sin abounds grace abounds more (Rom 5:20), but should we go on sinning so grace may increase? Of course not, says the same Paul (Rom 6:1).

We should consider it a great gift and mercy to receive punishment for our sins and chastisement in this life so that we might be spared from it in the next. Sin always comes with consequences--nobody has all the fun without the cost, and if they do they are in for a rude awakening come Judgement Day. Msgr Pope again:

"Punishment is, therefore, an aspect of mercy. The purpose of punishment is to help us to experience the lesser consequences of our sin so that we do not experience the fuller, more dire consequences. Punishment also imparts a greater a greater understanding of God’s justice and vision for us, as opposed to the false promises offered to us by this world.  
For many of us today, it is difficult to see punishment as an aspect of mercy, because we tend to equate love and mercy with mere kindness or approval. It is an immature notion of love that says, “If you love me you will always be nice and kind, and you’ll let me do and be whatever I please.” God loves us too much to yield to that notion of love and mercy."

Justice and mercy are not opposed, but unified in God's economy, emanating from the same source. My friend from college feels like he missed out on all the "fun" of sin, while I feel like I spent most of my adult life trying to overcome the effects of it just to get back to square one. In many ways, the parable of the prodigal son (which is just as much a parable of the older son as well) is a picture of the Father holding justice and mercy together in the equilibrium of His love, which overflows from His very being and spills out, soaking the feet of both brothers.

If I could go back and do it again, I would hope to never choose sin, nor would I advise anyone else to. We save ourselves a lot of heartache and damage when we listen to the Lord's commands and follow His statues, for they are for our own good. And yet it was sin that brought me to the feet of Mercy, and grace surely did abound. So whether we are are a good rule following lifelong Catholic or a wayward son or daughter that learns the hard way, may we always trust in God's mercy and respect his justice, bathing in the font of His love from which both flow.

Friday, July 20, 2018

"I Was A Lefty Catholic" And Other Tales

We were at dinner a few months ago with some friends. My son's godmother introduced me to one of the guests at the table who attend the Traditional Latin Mass. "This is Rob," she said good naturedly, "he used to be a lefty-Catholic!"

I couldn't argue. But when I joined the Catholic Worker after graduating college (and three years after joining the Church), I wouldn't have known what you meant if you called me a "leftist Catholic." Sure, I read books by John Dear and the Berrigan brothers, and like any good twenty-something was attracted to the revolutionary spirit of those working for justice on behalf of the poor. My friends would protest at the School of the Americas in Georgia, we had a community garden, we hung bedsheets from the windows in a spirit of solidarity and liberation. When I moved to Philly, I went to St. Vincent de Paul in Germantown where we joined hands around the altar when the priest would break leavened honey-wheat bread; the liturgical abuses, in hindsight, were legion.

It's all easy to see now. But at the time, I was totally ignorant of the factions in the Church, just happy to have been saved, forgiven, and redeemed, and feeding, clothing, and sheltering the poor as Jesus called us to do.

But now I see the hold-overs form the Ploughshares movement and other social justice initiatives, and they just look...weary, and a little passed-by. I'm not sure if their children practice the Faith, but my guess--since the "praxis" of liberation and the here-and-now was often given more importance than stodgy old doctrine--is that many do not, since the spirit of the revolution is harder to pass on than formative teaching by way of the catechism.

Our age is the age of social experimentation. We have experimented with marriage, with conception and human life, with the foundations of society--the family--with political ideology, with what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman. In the Church, the years of experimentation in throwing off the shackles of dogma for primacy of conscience and religious communities traded habits for secular garb.

Since I've been laid up in bed sick for the past couple days, I've been watching some movies and things. One recommended by a priest I know was an obscure 1973 made-for-TV film on Youtube called "The Conflict," starring a young Martin Sheen who plays Fr. Kinsella, a young liberationist priest sent from Rome to his religious order in Ireland to straighten them out and to work on banning the TLM.

A telling exchange occurs about halfway through the film between Fr. Kinsella and one of the monks:

Monk: You're one of those new priests, aren't you, the revolutionaries? 

Fr. Kinsella: Are you interested in that? 

M: Tell me: is it true, in South America, some priests are overthrowing the government? 

FK: Yes they are. 

M: How can they be doing the likes of that? 

FK: Well why not? The early Christians were revolutionaries, remember? 

M: What does that got to do with saving souls for God? 

FK: Everything! Do you know in places like South America young priests our age are dying for the causes of social justice? 

M: What are they doing being priests? You know, if i wanted to join the IRA, I'd have joined the IRA. But I joined the Church. 

FK: So the Church can be a powerful instrument of change! It can lead a revolution that people will follow. You have enormous influence! 

M: You know, that's trite! Look at the people over there on the mainland. They don't want your social justice. They want the old Mass. They want to believe in something, something more than this world can offer them. And what do you offer, Father?  

FK: Well perhaps a better life, Father, not pie in the sky. 

M: Ah, but you're a priest. That's not your job. They want you to forgive them their sins, to baptize them, marry them, bury them. Show them there's a God above them, a God who cares about them. Now the old parish priests knew that. You don't.

The exchange was meaningful for me not as much for what it had to do with the Mass (though that is a primary focus of the film), but because, in this particular exchange at least, it got to the heart of the role of the priest and the desires of those who cling to the Faith:

They want you to forgive them their sins
to baptize them
marry them
bury them
Show them there's a God above them
a God who cares about them

Liberation Theology was wedded and adapted to a godless Marxism and concerned itself more with the immediate here-and-now than the eternal, the social more than the timeless. As a praxis-based experiment, it's motives may have had some merit (alleviation of the suffering of the poor, economic justice, etc), but it failed to bear the fruit to sustain itself. Personal prayer and sanctity, at least in my experience in the movement, was never emphasized very much. I know enough to know that any life without the sustenance of prayer doesn't have much of a future. 

Here's the thing: Anti-foundationalism, post-modernism, and 21st century liberalism are not homes of peace. Because the work of justice is never fully accomplished, and the revolution is always just around the corner, and the fuel tank of agitation and outrage is always needing a refilling to keep the vehicle of change from stalling out. That does NOT mean we can ignore the plight of the poor or become like the rich man dining sumptuously at his table while Lazarus licks his sores. It does NOT mean we cannot see and admire the laudable work of justice and models of civil disobedience, as could be seen in, for example, the fight for civil rights in our country. 

But as a whole, if I had to put money down, I would not place my chips at the table of the National Catholic Reporter types to save the Church in a post-modern wasteland. The force of the culture is too strong, and we need a rope braided strong with centuries of tradition and clear teaching to keep us from washing out to sea. We need a 'movement' that lauds the timeless and encourages (and gives the tool for) the development of personal holiness, for the culture is converted a saint at a time. We need a movement that steeps itself in deep and devoted personal prayer, develops a practice of piety sharpened by mortification, and draws its strength from Christ in the Eucharist. A movement that encourages frequent confession, and does not see sacramentals as nice little charms, but recognizes them as the armor necessary to protect its followers spiritually. A movement that thousands of canonized saints have themselves been a part of, leading the way and leaving their footsteps in the dirt for us to follow, for the themselves follow the crucified Christ. 

Judge a tree by its fruits, but make sure you see the fruit through eyes that can distinguish the temporal from the eternal, the 'here and now' from the place where souls exist until the end of time. Gear everything you have, everything you own, everything you can will, towards the Eternal. Follow closely in the footsteps of the saints who have gone before you, read about their lives and follow their examples, and don't stray from the path. Pass the Faith to your children so that they might be saved. Form your conscience in obedience. And never cease in prayer.

I can't afford to put my hope of eternal salvation in a social experiment like liberal Catholicism. Maybe I'm just getting older and (hopefully) a little wiser--or, at least, am wising up a little, but I'm happy to have left liberal Catholicism behind. Only took twenty years to "get woke" to tradition, obedience, and the hard road to sanctification. 

But better late than never.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

In Too Deep

I just got back from the Courage International conference. Not having SSA, I have no idea why I was there, but the Lord said go, so I went. Bishop Seitz of El Paso and Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix celebrated Mass, I got to meet Fr. Bochanski and see my friend Joseph Sciambra and got to spend some time with Paul Darrow. Missed both talks because I just ended up talking with people at the conference.

Paul said something in our conversation about Courage being "the last domino" holding him in the Faith amidst a sea of gay-affirming ministries. At the conference, I got the impression that for many with SSA remaining Catholic, it was a lift raft amidst a world of damage that so easily draws people back. As he testifies to in the video he appeared in for Courage, he had everything and was deep in the gay world, both personally and professionally. He knew when he made the decision to appear in the film and give his testimony, he would lose it all, and there was no going back.

We reach a point in our lives when we get serious about the Faith where the Lord asks us if we are willing to be "marked" for His glory. The "hedging" we do when we are between two lives--the world/the flesh and the life of discipleship--is an uncomfortable one, and it should be, because it is not a place one can stay in for long. For Paul, initially he would drive to a church far from his home so no one he knew would see him, and was ashamed and would hide his watching of Mother Angelica on EWTN "the way you would hide a blowup doll."

It's an interesting conundrum--when you are living between two worlds (as I did for so long) you have no peace, but you can at least retain old friends, old habits, the privileges of life in the world. But when you become "marked" you can't claim those things anymore. As St. Augustine describes in Confessions about crossing over to the other side to Lady Continence, one foot must leave the shore and plant itself firmly on the other side, where Truth resides, in a horrifying moment of loss:

"The very toys of toys, and vanities of vanities, my ancient mistresses, still held me; they plucked my fleshy garment, and whispered softly, "Dost thou cast us off? and from that moment shall we no more be with thee for ever? and from that moment shall not this or that be lawful for thee for ever?" And what was it which they suggested in that I said, "this or that," what did they suggest, O my God? Let Thy mercy turn it away from the soul of Thy servant. What defilements did they suggest! what shame! And now I much less than half heard them, and not openly showing themselves and contradicting me, but muttering as it were behind my back, and privily plucking me, as I was departing, but to look back on them. Yet they did retard me, so that I hesitated to burst and shake myself free from them, and to spring over whither I was called; a violent habit saying to me, "Thinkest thou, thou canst live without them?"" (Confessions, VIII)

When you cross over, there is no going back. And suddenly there is peace, there is some rest, but there is also loss, though they are no losses worth mourning for too long. But once you've lost, there's no way way at all. You are a man without a map, because you now walk by faith, led by the Savior's hand, only able to see one foot in front of you at a time. You're in too deep. There's no way way at all.

But we have all had our Peter moments, haven't we? When we are marked by association, recognized, and thrice deny:

"Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest's house, and Peter was following at a distance. And when they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat down among them. Then a servant girl, seeing him as he sat in the light and looking closely at him, said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” And a little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not.” And after an interval of about an hour still another insisted, saying, “Certainly this man also was with him, for he too is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the saying of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly." (Lk 22:54-62)

In many ways, we are pre-Pentecost people. We say, with Peter in those days, "Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you!" (Mk 14:31) and yet we do, every time we sin. We prefer the allures of comfort to suffering, our own way to the narrow way, retaining our goods and going away sad.

But this was not Peter's defining moment. Human, yes; but legacy-worthy, no. For Peter's legacy came the day he stood up after Pentecost--fearless, confident, and fully committed. He was marked by the Spirit, and went to his death never to deny Christ again.

I always joke with friends who are thinking of having kids, "there's a no-return policy with kids. You can't push them back in once they come out." For my wife and I, turning our fertility over to the Lord has been an exercise in dying to self and acting in trust and obedience, and our children become reminders, "marks" of the fact that we do not belong to ourselves anymore, the fruit of obedience, that they exist because we trusted. I write publicly, I will be on EWTN next week, and I have enough evidence to convict me in a court of law if ever brought before a tribunal who accuse me of saying, "you are a Christian, you are one of his disciples!"

Should I apostatize and deny it all, I have no recourse. My back is against the wall; I'm in too deep. But the temptation to lose faith is a landmine of the Enemy's, the grenades he lobs into the cave where you are praying to drive you out of it, the trip-lines he sets up along the path.

You cannot let go of the Lord's hand in these states. It is too dangerous. The casualties of apostasy litter the ground everywhere around us today--fallen away Catholics, blasphemers, atheists and agnostics. Churchy people talk about prayer as a nice and pleasant thing to do, but the reality for me at this point is I cling to prayer in desperation just to survive. If I don't pray, I die, and I do not survive the fall from the cliffs. I pray for humility, I pray for perseverance, I pray for purity of heart like a desperate, embarrassing man. I simply cannot afford to lose sight of the Lord for a moment, because when I do I am so off-kilter that I know a fall is coming.

So, prayer is not a nice and pleasant thing for me to do. I pray to survive. I pray to persevere to the bitter end, for the grace to endure what is coming to me, my due for being marked, for my conviction in court, for the day I appear before Him praying that I am not a stranger He does not recognize; praying for forgiveness for my faults, praying to forgive myself and the people who make it impossible to forgive, praying for miracles and big big things, praying for strength and steadfastness, to continue to be open to life, for my children to make it out alive, to see my wife in Heaven, to please, please God don't let me fall.

Prayer is not a nice hobby when you're back is against the wall, when you've taken the step to the other side and the bridge has fallen into the ravine behind you, when you're backed into an alley with no way back; prayer in these instances is dirty grit, and pure survival to endure to the end.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Time Is Money, and Money Is Time

My wife and I are coming up on eight years of marriage this week. That's not a long time, but it sure has been an eventful eight years.

When we met in 2009, my wife was working as a research nurse in the Emergency Department at the hospital. I was working part time at Starbucks and part time at a community college evaluating transcripts. We got engaged after five months of dating, and married a year later.

I moved into her rowhouse in the city after the wedding. It only took one trip--everything I owned fit in my Honda Civic. I don't know what we did with all the time we had back then--we went to the movies, had coffee and breakfast on the back porch, took bike rides. By then I had gotten a job in admissions at a small local college, and was making $30,000 a year, and Debbie was promoted to supervisor and eventually manager of the research department. We were DINKs (dual income-no kids) for about a year before our first child was born, and then we were, I guess, DIOKs.

We were happy in our little house. We had great neighbors, but the surrounding area was getting a little rough with the violence and drugs. When Deb's maternity leave was up, our boy went to daycare at the local Catholic community center in Little Italy. Then number two came, and we continued to do the "daycare shuffle," with every intention to stay in our house and send the kids to the local Catholic schools for elementary through high school. This was what people did, and we just thought it was what we would do too.

After a couple years we crunched some numbers and figured it might make more sense to move to the next state over. My wife had gone to Catholic school her whole life, and I had gone to public school. The cost of private Catholic school in the state we were in did not seem to offset what we would spend in higher property taxes in the next state over, and I felt the kids would get a better education in the public school system. We put our house on the market in January of 2015 when the kids were three and two years old, respectively.  By the grace of God (and a good relator), we said goodbye to our old house and moved into a new house that Spring. We had more bedrooms, half an acre of land and room for a garden, could leave our cars unlocked in our driveway, and were situated between our two places of employment. The schools were good in the area, so the plan was to start our son in Kindergarten the following year, and our daughter the year after that.

My income had bumped up a little, and my wife was moving up as well. But the daycare shuffle was starting to wear on her. She hated being away from the kids during the day, was bringing work and stress home with her regularly, and it was hard to keep up with the pace of things. In an attempt to alleviate the constant driving and daycare expenses, we had a live-in au pair from Italy to take care of the kids while we worked, since it wasn't much more than daycare for the two. It was nice not having to shuttle constantly, but as relatively private people having a live-in childcare worker was an adjustment.

We eventually found out we were pregnant with our third in May of 2017. It was around this time we experienced a conversion thanks to finding a Miraculous Medal down at the beach and wearing it. The Blessed Mother was reorienting our hearts to life, and we began to trust God's will for us in a way we hadn't before. We turned everything over, consecrating ourselves to the Immaculate Heart in October of that year.

Our son had started Kindergarden that fall at the local elementary school. He rode the bus, and made some little friends, and had a great teacher. But as my wife and I moved closer and closer to an orthodox expression of our faith, we began to wonder whether this was what God wanted for our lives, for our children, and for our family. We had friends who homeschooled, and we were always impressed by their children--their manners, morals, and how they learned. I think my wife in her heart of hearts wanted to be home and homeschool, but knew I had to be on board as the spiritual leader of the household, and at that point I wasn't. I didn't know how we would make it work financially. In many ways, I still don't.

After our third was born, though, my wife was dreading the thought of going back to her management position. We prayed, and decided it might be better to go back to bedside nursing despite the sizable paycut. This might also allow us to pursue homeschooling, should we go that route. My wife was happiest when she was home on maternity leave with the three kids. She made dinner, cleaned, and just relished being a wife and mom with undivided time and attention. It aligned with her nature. I, for my part, was adjusting to the loss of the salary we had been bringing in. We never had an issue writing big checks for repairs and charities; it gave us a comfortable cushion in which we could handle just about anything.

But even at twenty hours a week, my wife was struggling. We considered ourselves fortunate to have options for her to work part time and still make a good hourly rate as nurse. But it was hard to find time to sleep, and the house was always a mess and hard to keep up with the attention the kids needed, especially with the beginning of our commitment to homeschooling approaching this Fall. So we decided to double down and trust, turning everything over to God to make a way where I didn't see one.

The Lord has never let us down. My wife's favorite psalm is Psalm 37:4: "Delight yourself in the Lord, and He will give you the desires of your heart." We reached out to stay at home moms and learned about budgeting and a more traditional approach to marriage and family life, about men and women's roles and the natural order God established. I began to pray about having the courage to accept and embrace more my role as provider, and my wife began to realize her role in stewarding and caring for the home. God truly did make a way in making the numbers somehow balance, and providing opportunities for me to make some more income, and for my wife to work a minimal amount of hours to move us closer to that ideal.

We have never really had to budget before, but now we are doing so. We are learning to trust the Lord with our finances, with His provision to provide for our needs, and to appreciate the little things. Our income has dropped by more than half of what we were bringing in previously. but that salary did come with a cost, and the cost was, for my wife, time. My dad used to have a picture of a mountain stream in Colorado above his dresser when I was growing up with the words underneath: "Nothing is ours, but time."

But ultimately, our time is what the Lord lends us. No one knows the amount of days he will live. We have to be stewards of our finances, what the Lord has entrusted us with to live. But we also deal in the currency of the day, which is really time, which we trade for money. We never trusted God with our fertility, until the past year, and He was returned what we trusted Him with a hundred fold. We are now embarking on that same journey with regards to our finances, entrusting them to His management. We are at the beginning stages of that journey, but we look back to all He has done for us, all He has provided, and we don't doubt He can multiply those loves and fishes again.

God is so good. All He wants is for us to trust Him, not just with this or that, but with everything. It is exciting, and we have peace, which is itself worth its weight in gold. We don't have nearly as much disposable income, but we have learned to appreciate everything that comes our way, whether it's ice cream cones or just time together with books from the library. We don't judge anyone for how they structure their families, but for us we have found a contentment and peace with trying to bring that structure in alignment with how He intends it, and it has been a true blessing.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

You Can't Defend What You Don't Know

This afternoon my dad texted me. He was upset over an encounter with a neighbor who made a disparaging remark about non-Catholics not being able to receive the Eucharist at Mass. My dad got a little defensive (understandably, given the tone of the neighbor's complaint) and felt he had made things worse and strained the relationship. I suspect he was offended, wanted to defend the Faith, but was on shaky ground with how to go about doing it. His getting upset was compounded by not feeling confident in being able to explain why the Church teaches against intercommunion, getting flustered, and going away feeling that things were made worse after the encounter.

This isn't an uncommon scenario. We need both heart and head when it comes to apologetics. In my experience, the less knowledge about the faith one possesses, the more fervently they tend to argue, assuming they care and have the heart. When you know you're on a firm foundation in terms of apologetics, you don't get your blood pressure up, but let sound argument carry their own weight as you serve it up calmly and politely.

I know enough about the basics of my faith to enter into reasonable discussion without feeling like I'm on an episode of American Gladiators. And I have evangelized enough to know when to fight and when not to take things personally (which is most of the time). But I've also spent twenty years living, breathing, and learning the Faith, so I feel relatively confident there (though there's always more to learn!). It's not enough to be right. How you deliver the message, as well as its content, is just as important.

We need both head and heart. Wisdom and understanding (the head) comes to us by grace and study; thankfully, the Catholic faith is a reasonable faith, one which we can understand with our reason and intellect, while retaining the refreshment of mystery. Zeal and humility (the heart) also is a gift of grace. Without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6), and faith is strengthened in prayer, which is also essential to "heart knowledge."

I did end up telling my dad not to let this encounter steal his peace of mind and not to dwell on it too much, but use it as an opportunity to learn more about his faith so that the next encounter might be different. Catholic Answers is a great and invaluable resource that is easily accessible online to learn the Faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is another, which is also available online on the Vatican's website. It doesn't cost anything to learn, and it's accessible from any computer. And many parishes also offer adult faith formation classes which can be valuable as well. The hardest part, sometimes, is not the learning, but coming to a place in which one desires to learn. Once you have that, the learning takes care of itself.

But we also need to be people of regular prayer. Prayer roots us, gives us a firm foundation on which to stand, and a place of peace from which to instruct and inform. We don't eat once a week, why should we pray just once a week? Angry apologetics, like a disgruntled combox, doesn't do anyone any good and just leaves everyone feeling downcast and offended. All the head knowledge in the world is worthless without prayer.

You can't defend what you don't know. And the way we know is by taking the time and making the effort to learn. There will always be people ignorant of the Truth, but we should see it more as opportunities to instruct when given the invitation to do so; always with charity, always with love. As Ven. Fulton Sheed wisely noted, "Win an argument, lose a soul." Don't lose a soul.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Necessity of Religion

Whenever I come across someone who is spiritual but not religious, I think of a body without a skeleton. We have a heart that pumps blood and delivers oxygen to essential organs. We have a brain which is the seat of cognition and the intellect. We have muscles which allow us to move. We have skin to hold it all in and keep bacteria and the elements out. And, of course, we have a soul, which is ethereal and immortal.

However, without bones, we have nothing to give our bodies form; without a skeleton, we would be nothing but sacks of organs and sheets of skin on the floor. The skull protects the brain; the ribcage protects the heart and lungs. (Nothing really protects our private parts, though, so we have to be careful there!)

Religious faith, dogma, doctrine...all those "undesirable" words in modern society serve a vital function--to give structure to our lives, form to our personhood, and protection for our vital organs. Bone is a dense composite that can withstand force, weather the elements, and remains long after the rest of the body returns to dust. Skulls, femurs, vertebrae...they all work together to form a whole--an intricate skeletal system underneath it all.

Of course, if we are simply Pharisaical in our practice of religion, we are indeed nothing but a collection of "dead men's bones" (Mt 23:27). And skeletons on their own are kind of creepy!

We are more than just sacks of skin or bones knit together, brains in a jar or hearts pumping on their own. People like to talk about religion as if it is an extracurricular activity, a peripheral endeavor. No. Doctrine is as vital as the bones which give limbs their structure, dogma as necessary as the ligaments which join them together, and the Church as timeless and enduring as the skeletal system which holds us up, protects our heart and mind, and gives form to our human bodies, even after they pass away.

"The glory of God is the human person full ALIVE." --St. Irenaeus

Monday, June 25, 2018

I Will Not Rise From Here

I was listening to a man last night on Youtube recount how he came into the Catholic Church. As a young, wayward man, a couple he was acquainted with had prayed the rosary for him every day for a year, unbeknownst to him. He credits that act of persistent charity, in large part, for his conversion.

That snippet from his story resonated with me, because a year ago I had undertaken a similar practice for someone--a kind of "spiritual adoption"--in large part because I believe someone unknown to me had prayed me into the Church, and I was indebted. This was not a family member or even a close friend I was praying for, but someone I got a strong feeling and premonition about--that our Lord wanted this soul, and someone needed to pray for them to bring them home.

For years, I saw the examples of the blind men calling out to Jesus to be given their sight and refusing to be quiet (Lk 18:39); the woman with the flow of blood boldly pushing her way through the crowd just to touch Jesus' cloak (Mk 5:25-34); and the parable of the persistent widow (Lk 18:1-8) as a kind of foreign example of annoying persistence--something I didn't possess. When I was sixteen and struggling on the second day of a multiple day bicycle stage race I was in, I pulled over and my dad gave me a pep talk, "If it's too hard, just quit. You don't have to finish." I took his advice. I always remembered that.

But in the life of faith, this kind of stubborn persistence is really a kind of exercise of faith. It offends the Lord more when we ask so little of him. Our Blessed Mother told St. Catherine Laboure in the vision in which she appeared to her that "The pearls that don’t have rays are the graces of the souls who don’t ask." The blind men receive their sight, the woman is healed of her flow of blood, and the persistent widow is granted her request by the judge--all because they refused to give up, had faith that the Lord would grant their request, and were almost annoyingly persistent. The Lord says:

"Will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?  I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?” (Lk 18:7-8)

We often think of St. Monica, the mother of Augustine, as the model of persistent imploring. And it's true. But I came across the story of a young woman tonight, St. Gemma Galgani, who took 'not taking no for an answer' to a whole other level. She spiritually adopted sinners and was willing to give the Lord years of her life simply for the conversion of total strangers whom she didn't even know. That blew me away.

Another thing about her story that filled me with a somberness about the reality of the cost Christ paid, and just how narrow the way to salvation is and about how many the Lord will say "I never knew them":

"I will relate another fact in the words of a most reliable witness who told me of it. "I was asked," said this person, by a lady acquaintance to recommend her brother, a great sinner, to Gemma. I did so accordingly and she while in ecstasy began to plead to Jesus for him. But He [no doubt to try her faith] replied that He knew not that sinner. "How do You not know him," she said, "since he is Thy child?" Then she turned to Mary, but seeing that even she remained silent and wept, she began to pray to Blessed Gabriel of the Dolors [Passionist], and he also was silent. But Gemma, for all that, did not lose courage. She redoubled her prayers. At the same time she said to me: "That man must indeed be a great sinner. Jesus says He knows him not, Mother weeps, and Blessed Gabriel will not answer me.  
After a year of this assiduous praying, one day, while returning from church with Gemma, I met the servant of the above-mentioned lady in the greatest consternation. The brother of her mistress, she said, was dying. We were greatly pained, but we had only gone about twenty yards when Gemma exclaimed: "He is saved, he is saved." I asked her who? "The brother of that lady," she answered. I learned afterwards that this man breathed his last pressing the priest's hand precisely when Gemma was going home. That coincided exactly with the moment when she said aloud, "He is saved, he is saved.""

Whereas St. Pio often wrestled with the Devil, St. Gemma wrestled with the Divine Justice, the Judge Himself, imploring for mercy on behalf of sinners, especially those she had spiritually adopted:

"In spite of all these efforts, Our Lord remained inflexible, and Gemma again relapsed into anguish and discouragement, remain­ing silent, as if she had abandoned the strife. Then, all of a sud­den, another motive flashed to her mind that seemed invincible against all resistance. "Well, I am a sinner. You Yourself have told me so, and that a person worse than me You could not find. Yes, I confess it, I am the worst sinner, and I am unworthy that You should listen to me. But look, I present Thee another advocate for my sinner; it is Thine own Mother who asks You to forgive him. See! Oh, imagine saying no to Thy Mother! Surely You cannot now say no to Her. And now answer me, Jesus, tell me me that You will save my sinner." The victory was gained, the whole scene changed aspect, the tenderhearted Saviour had granted the grace, and Gemma, with a look of indescribable joy, exclaimed: "He is saved, he is saved! Thou hast conquered, Jesus; triumph always thus." And then she came out of the ecstasy.
When it was over, having withdrawn to my room, with my mind engrossed by a thousand thoughts, I suddenly heard a tap at my door. "A strange gentleman, Father, has called and wishes to see you."I bade him come in. He threw himself at my feet sobbing and said: "Father, hear my Confession." Good God! I thought my heart would burst. It was Gemma's sinner, converted that same hour."

St. Gemma adopted sinners--not in the general sense, but specific persons--and she did not take no for an answer, even when the Lord Himself refused to budge! And so neither shall we. We should be bold in our petitions, make reparations on their behalf, and lean on the Mother of God to advocate for us and "our sinners," even when our personal holiness falls short compared to that of St. Gemma's. Persistence in the spiritual economy is not uncouth or inappropriate, but laudable, for it displays a faith that refuses to give up, refuses to go away, until it obtains what it came for--the souls of those lost. Don't ever give up.

St. Gemma Galgani, pray for us!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

The Ins and Outs of Male Friendship

My twenty year high school reunion is this weekend, at a bar in my hometown. I want to want to go, but I just don't. I didn't have a bad experience in high school; I had a good group of guy friends, and we would hang out in each other's basements shooting pool and watching Saturday Night Live reruns, take off after school on Friday afternoons to hike in the woods and walk the railroad tracks, play backyard football, and cruise around town in our cars. I wasn't a Christian then, and so it seems like another life when those things were what we were really living for. Our common bonds were, for the most part, external; it was what we did together that bound us.

I don't, however, remember feeling like I could always rely on them when it came to inner struggles. One close friend in particular was more fair weather than I may have liked. Though we had grown up together, he never visited me when I was hospitalized, and he only seemed to call for his own purposes--when he wanted to hang out, or no one else was around. It was never completely without some kind of self-gratifying ulterior motive. We reconnected a few years ago and I had hoped all that had changed, but I saw relatively quickly that it hadn't. I was someone to hang out and have a good time with when it was convenient or suited him, but beyond that there wasn't a whole lot that bound us together. Still kind of stings to this day.

Men are often pegged as simple, uncomplicated creatures. This is generally true when speaking about our needs--when we're fed, working, feel respected, and having marital relations regularly, we are 98% taken care of. It's not rocket science.

However, if there's one variance between men and women where the inverse proves to be true, it's in the realm of friendship. From my vantage point, making and maintaining female friendships as a woman appears to be vastly less complicated than what it takes to forge lasting male friendships. If women are more relational in general, being relational comes naturally. For men, however--even the most normal, well adjusted men--forming lasting friendships can feel akin to what it takes to dismantle a bomb. There are a lot of wires, and touch one to the wrong cathode and boom show's over.

Men tend to view friendships as optional rather than ancillary--good things that they may long for but not know how, or be willing, to forge. And yet we see articles like this one in the Boston Globe, that the biggest threat facing middle-aged men isn't smoking or obesity, but loneliness. As I approach middle age, I can relate to this. It seems harder and harder to make friends. We are in a busy season--working, trying to advance in our careers, raising families, yard work and house maintenance.

Making friends as a guy can be tricky, though--there are a lot of factors and conditions that need to be right for the kernel of friendship to find good soil and take root. These are a few of the things that I have noticed:

1) Men do not just pick up the phone and call with a desire to relate their struggles or connect. If that is the objective, there needs to be an external modus operandi to facilitate the internal, something to "do." It could be going camping or building something, some activity to couch it in. Generally speaking, men do not call each other to get coffee and talk. Having a beer at the bar may be the exception to that rule, but it would have to be clear that the reason for getting together is the beer and not the talk.

2) Protestant men seem better equipped to support one another in their faith journey by way of "fellowship" and bible studies. I have heard Catholic men speak of such gatherings as effeminate (sharing, talking, etc); I don't necessarily think that is always the case, but the Catholic paradigm is one in which it is commonly posited that "the sacraments are all I need" or "I go to Mass to worship, not to meet other people." Men stand alone, as the thinking goes. If you're not isolated and holding your own on your own, there's a deficiency, a weakness, in your inability to stand on your own two feet.

3) You have to be mindful of the "weird" or "gay" factor. Men (and boys, generally) have a pretty strict code of conduct when it comes to revealing weakness and emotions in a group. No man, generally speaking, wants to be associated with effeminate men, because you might be regarded as effeminate by association. It sounds so stereotypical but there is truth in it, like it or not. Now, that being said, I feel pretty strongly that men with same sex attraction can benefit from friendship with heterosexual men, and that heterosexual men can extend such invitations to friendship as a mutually-beneficial act of Christian charity and brotherhood. But the maleness piece needs to take precedence over sexual identity, and that can sometimes be difficult for men with SSA to adjust to, because they don't know always know the codes and inner ways of relating in that way. That's ok--they are men first and foremost.

4) The mentor/mentee model works well with men. Again, it may necessitate revolving around some rite of passage or activity (working on a car together, for example), but the opportunities to pass on wisdom and life lessons are appreciated by both the one passing it on and the one receiving it.

St. Augustine had such a high regard for friendship that he posited it as one of two things in the world that are of the utmost importance:

"In this world two things are essential: life and friendship. Both should be highly prized and we must not undervalue them. Life and friendship are nature’s gifts. God created us that we might exist and live: this is life. But if we are not to remain solitary, there must be friendship."  [Sermon Denis 16,1]

As tricky as making friends as a guy in middle age can be, and as much as I have always wanted more from a friendship than seemed possible in this life, I still think it's indispensable for our social and spiritual well-being. No man is an island, no man is completely self-sufficient. It's perfectly fine to share common interests like sports and activities, but how much more so a common desire to cast ourselves on Christ and live the virtues? Friendship with other men, when it is built on the foundation of Christ, helps us to grow in holiness and shoulder each other's burdens. It doesn't have to be weird or awkward, but it more likely than not does require a degree of intentionality. As St. Thomas wrote, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

The Walls of the Playground: In Defense of "Vanilla Sex"

*Note: This post has been rated 'PG'

A few months ago a priest I am acquainted with threw out an invitation on Facebook for anyone to ask any question (via private message) about the morality of certain sexual acts in marriage. In a short period of time his inbox was flooded with questions and inquiries--from faithful, orthodox Catholics--to the point that he had to abandon the endeavor for lack of time to answer them all.

It was interesting because anytime there is that kind of interest or hunger for something--even when it happens to be a "don't go there" topic--it is kind of a litmus of a need. Those who crave the true, the beautiful, the timeless know this when it comes to liturgy in a post-conciliar culture. Those who wish for clarity in teaching can get frustrated with noodley catechesis and statements. And those who long for joy and peace in an age of depression and anxiety can be moved to despair when it seems just to be always just beyond the horizon.

It was also interesting because these were faithful, orthodox Catholics who were eager to ask and learn on this topic of chastity within marriage--people who are striving to be holy, live by the Church's teaching, and ensure they not offending their Creator inadvertently. Sure, some of them may suffer from scruples, but by and large, I think they just wanted to be assured they were respecting the marital bed and honoring God with their bodies with the nuts and bolts stuff.

It's hard to know in this culture sometimes, though, isn't it? It reminds me of the words of G.K. Chesterton in Orthodoxy (I am not a big GKC buff, but this example was given to me years ago and I always remembered it):

"Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian...Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased."

It's a fine line between scrupulosity and assurance, one that can be difficult to navigate depending on the modus operandi one is disposed to (operating from fear or love and trust). It is also the same way in which we as Catholics approach the issue of the assurance of salvation when we respond simply, "I have been saved, I am being saved, and I hope to be saved."

So what does any of this have to do with sex?

I came across a recent article in The Guardian citing that 62% of Brits have had a fantasy about being either dominant or submissive in the bedroom. You could point to the influence of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" films, that seemed to be wildly popular, but then it is a chicken-or-the-egg question: were these films made to tap into such secret desires, or did the film itself seek to normalize them? Or did it go farther back to Kinsey et al and their phony science on 'forbidden' sexuality on the cusp of the Sexual Revolution?

Regardless, the normalization of the abnormal in the culture leaves many who hold to traditional sexual practices as wondering whether they are in the minority. And it could be that they very well are. But is that such a bad thing? Erectile dysfunction for males in their twenties is not normal. Expecting violent sex on the eve of a first date is not normal. Expecting one's wife to mimic what they have seen in porn is not normal.

People don't always know what they don't know, whether it's in terms of morality or effect. The thing is, in Catholic moral teaching on human sexuality, the mechanics of sex is not always talked about for reasons of prudence. That's both a good thing and a not-so-good thing. Catholic are told, "Respect your wife. Give yourself to one another unreservedly. Keep the marriage bed undefiled," all things many good Catholics want to strive for. But how?

I've written about the topic here and here, and of course, get acquainted with Theology of the Body if you are not familiar with it already. Out of respect for my wife (and for your benefit!) I will not be writing about our sex life in any kind of detail. The bedroom should be a private sanctuary for husband and wife. But what happens in the bedroom also tends to reflect how much of the culture has been absorbed in one's personal life and ideas about sexuality; conversely, living the virtues (or lack of them) in one's sexual life is imported back into the culture, for better or for worse. In the same way music can penetrate our psyches uninvited, the contraceptive mentality can get into our pores and nostrils in a way we don't even realize.

It is also not always immediately seen or recognized. One may not always realize when they are using their spouse, being selfish within the sexual act, or committing adultery of the heart. But a tree can be judged by its fruit, and the fruit of love is joy. This is the paradox of fences and freedom. Thankfully, St. Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body helps us dig the holes, sink the posts, and hang the fence in our sexual lives to give us the inner freedom to enjoy the fruits of the sexual act with abandon. The world and the culture looking from the outside-in may see old fashioned, "vanilla" sex as a puritanical recipe for boredom and rote conformist mechanics. What it doesn't see is the inner expanse; when one is not so focused on achieving maximum self-satisfaction by way of bodily gymnastics, foreign objects, and even violence and domination, there is a great deal of room to look to the other in self-abandonment and experience those things the world does not give sexual value to--trust, protection, selflessness, privacy, bonding, spiritual entwinement, and, yes, children--God's gift to us.

Remember the paradox in the Christian life--fences are a means to freedom, and walls a bulwark against the anxious abyss. It is within those walls, put up for our good by a loving God, that we can experience real freedom, true joy, and a love that, through the years, can run so deep it's hard to find the bottom. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

I Don't Belong Here Anymore

In getting ready to appear as a guest on EWTN's "The Journey Home" next week, I have been going over the past twenty years in my head. Why did I become a Catholic? What attracted me to the Christ, to the Church? Where did I come from, and what does it all mean?

My story is a bit of a "conversion wrapped in a reversion." In outlining it in chronological order (so I can keep things straight in my head for the show), I realized that the timeline looked like a weightlifters barbell--2 significant years on the beginning end, 2 significant years on the other end, and long stretch of "in-between" floundering to live the faith with integrity from age 18 to 36. I'd like to shelve the beginning part of that journey for now (I've shared some of it here and here) and focus on a detail I had forgotten about until I started writing it down.

It was the summer of 2016, and I was in Colorado for a bachelor party. Now, ever since high school I have loved to party, and even as a new Catholic I never stopped. I went to parties, threw parties, and would party into the morning with friends. I never had a drinking problem, but temperance was a virtue I had trouble developing. I prayed, went to Mass every Sunday, read spiritual books, but was 'friends with the world" (John 15:19), trying to have my cake and eat it too.

This particular bachelor party I was not really looking forward to attending, but I had to, for various reasons. The guys were younger, and I knew they partied hard; I was getting older, but still susceptible to influence. The first day I tried to not partake in any of the revelry, but concupiscence and appetites are a funny thing, and by day 2 I was crushing the opposition in drinking games. I found myself mirroring Paul's words, "I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do" (Rom 7:15)

At one point near the end of the weekend I went in my room in the mountain house the crew had rented, and sat on the bed. I wasn't in full on praying mode, but I was really hoping God could get me out of being there. No body else there seemed to have any pangs of conscience or problem with going full tilt since they weren't believers, and yet here I was, feeling the tension of having one foot in the world and one foot in the Church, not living as a good example as a Christian, and not be able to go in with full abandon either.

I always carried a small Gideon bible with me whenever I traveled. I took it out and sat on the bed and prayed a quick prayer for help. I remember to this day, I opened it and the first thing I read was

"Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourself of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and you have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator." (Col 3:5-10)

I was struck dumb. I recalled the story of St. Augustine in the garden, picking up the scriptures at the words he heard from a child, "Take up and read, take up and read." What he read was this:

"Not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." (Rom 13: 13-14)

I called a Christian friend back home, a man of integrity, and told him what had happened when I opened the scripture, what I landed upon, and how it cut to the heart and left me exposed to my inconsistency. He was encouraging, but in that room I felt alone in a crowd. I didn't belong there anymore.

In the Imitation of Christ, Thomas A Kempis wrote about this wretched 'in between' state of a lukewarm religious in a way that hit home:

"A fervent religious accepts all the things that are commanded him and does them well, but a negligent and lukewarm religious has trial upon trial, and suffers anguish from every side because he has no consolation within and is forbidden to seek it from without. The religious who does not live up to his rule exposes himself to dreadful ruin, and he who wishes to be more free and untrammeled will always be in trouble, for something or other will always displease him." (Chap 25)

Fence-sitting had never born a lot of fruit in my life. Reading the Word of God in the passage in Colossians made me realize it's a lousy place to be, and that friendship with world makes one an enemy of God (James 4:4). Who was I kidding? I had to get off the fence. The past two years has been a series of grace-encounters and renewal that have sifted weeds from wheat in my life, and introduced me to people that don't make me feel like so much of an outsider in my faith.

We all need that from time to time, being called to be in the world but not of the world. I pray for the grace to take that to heart, and to never go back to straddling the line. Now when it comes to my faith, I'm invested. It informs my choices, even when they come with costs. I'm in too deep. Thankfully, there's no where to go but deeper.