Friday, June 30, 2017

Drawing The Line

"Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere." 
--G.K. Chesterton

I have a bit of an artsy streak in least I did growing up. When I was in middle school my mom brought me home an Art History textbook from the community college where she worked. I poured over the pages, from the Renaissance to Modern Art, and many artists' names still stay in my mind as if it were yesterday: Andrew Wythe, Paul Klee, Manet, Monet, Van Gogh, DeKooning, Kathe Kollwitz, Jackson Pollock, Albrecht Durer, Dali, Toulouse-Lautrec, Michelangelo. Influenced by this early exposure to great art and artists through the ages, I set out to create, bypassing all rules and form and fast-forwarding straight to modernism. At the age of thirteen, I was convinced I had created a masterpiece. It was a contemporary piece titled "Bonjour": a blue dog on an aqua surfboard, wearing a beret. I implored my parents to take me to the Michener Art Museum in town tout suite so I could meet with the Curator and he could recognize my genius right away and we could decide where and when "Bonjour" would premiere.

Pablo Picasso had a quote attributed to him (accurate or not, I'm not sure) that went something like, "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist." Under the tutelage of his father, he learned to paint as an academic realist and naturalist, but later in life began to experiment, moving into abstraction, earning the right.

Art (as a movement) is reactionary. It moves in phases and periods, reacting to what came before it. Same goes for literature. And poetry. And music. Politics. Social conventions. Religious practice, as well. It seems to apply to everything, this "swing of the pendulum."

Now, I am no art critic. At all. But I think there is something to be said for timelessness and beauty, something I appreciate as I get older. Post-modern art is lauded as revolutionary and bold, but I see it as kind of boring and stale, though I suppose a sign of its time. It depends on pushing pushing pushing the envelope, tearing down without rebuilding, and eventually the "anti-" character of the work results in blasphemous tripe such as "Piss Christ" and Statues of the Virgin Mary covered in feces.

Post-modernism has no place (and, I would argue, no tolerance) for dogma and doctrine, objective morality, natural law, and truth with a capital 'T.' Even the kind of anti-foundationalism found in some strings of liberal Christianity--those that deny the Resurrection, downplay the miracles of Jesus, etc--denies this kind of framework as important for holding up the "form" of faith, the way a skeleton gives shape to the body and protects internal organs from damage.

Now, there is some loose analagous overlap between the art world and the world of religion. I don't think 19th century Realism is "better" than the work of the Renaissance, or vice versa. Art is largely a matter of preference and individual taste (yet critically subject to more than just that), often a product of its time, and diverse.

So too with the life of prayer. I have an old yellowed copy of Jean Pierre de Caussade's "Abandonment to Divine Providence" in my library that I have been re-reading. It is one of my A-list books, a slim spiritual classic and an unpretentious and straightforward treatise on living what he calls the "sacrament of the present moment". It is not as lofty as the heavy-hitter St. John of the Cross's "Dark Night of the Soul" or Doctor of the Church St. Theresa of Avila's "The Interior Castle", but seeks a similar spirituality of abandonment of the will to God for common people (like myself).

Caussade had to be cautious when he penned this treaty, however, since one of his 17th century contemporaries--the Spanish priest Miguel de Molinos--was jailed for life for putting forth a similar popular contemplative work which was condemned as heretical, since it skirted the line with Quietism.

There is nothing heretical in "Abandonment to Divine Providence" (imprimatur and Nihil Obstat are in the cover of my 1975 edition), but engaging in and writing about the contemplative life is not for junior-varsity spiritualists; it is very easy to inadvertently stumble into heresy, much as like when speaking about and teaching on the mystery of the Trinity.

Molinos got into trouble when he touted contemplative prayer as the supreme mode of communion with the Divine. Cassaude does not make this mistake, recognizing that contemplative prayer has its place, as does mental prayer, devotions, etc, and one is not "better" than the other. At the heart of true prayer--prayer that is pleasing to the Father--is one that seeks to align itself with the will of God.

"If the business of becoming holy seems to present insufferable difficulties," he writes, "it is merely because we have a wrong idea about it. In reality holiness consists of one thing only; complete loyalty to God's will." He goes on, "to be actively loyal means obeying the laws of God and the Church and fulfilling all the duties imposed on us by our way of life."

Mary's fiat is the most unadorned and profound example of this simplicity in prayer.

"I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your Word." (Lk 1:38)

Mary's life was very ordinary, her character very simple. She heard, and she obeyed, even though she did not understand. She was Christ's first disciple.

Do we really have to make it anymore complicated than this? We live in a post-modern age of pain, confusion, and complication; a noisy society that seeks the novel and rejects the timeless, that has torn down a tower of reason to rubble and failed to build anything in its place. It is a steady diet of cereal...the frosted kind.

In contrast, the Church is an amazing gift in its diversity. There is a place for me, and a place for you. It attracts and gathers in the most profound intellectuals and the simplest most uneducated peasants under the same umbrella, and offers them both the opportunity to plumb to the deepest depths of reality. It allows the strictest realist and the most expressive Cubist creative license within its walls, providing an expansive and limitless canvas in which to live out their vocation. It is guaranteed from error, protected by the Holy Spirit, God Himself, and so offers assurance and rest, with infinite interior room to explore. The gift of grace, both sanctifying and sacramental, is available to all at no cost (except one's life). There is no caste system, no litmus test. Felons as well as Pharisees are invited to the banquet. It is one, it is holy, it is apostolic, and it is catholic--a true classical school of love as well as a hospital for the spiritually wounded.

The age of post-modernism is coming to its crisis close. It is a failed experiment and a sinking ship. It is spiritually impoverished and intellectually dishonest, and cares nothing whether you live or die.

If you're tired of feeling empty, of being hungry all the time, of living in confusion and angst and meaninglessness...drop your bags and come to the banquet. Drink from the well that never runs dry, and never thirst again. Come and see for yourself, for "eye has not seen and ear has not heard...what God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Cor 2:9)

Another Way

"Do not worry over things that generate preoccupation and anxiety. One thing only is necessary: to lift up your spirit and love God." 
-St Padre Pio

I am very discerning and cautious about speaking about my faith at work. If I do so, it is somewhat clandestine because of where I work--an environment that is relatively hostile to orthodox religious belief. That being said, if given an opening in the right time and place, I try not to pass on the opportunity to speak about faith in Jesus Christ.

That happened this morning. The building was quiet, and not many people were in yet. A co-worker came over to chat, and she seemed upset. She was shaken, saying that a girl had just been shot up the road where my co-worker commutes on in a road-rage incident--a completely senseless and tragic act of violence over a traffic merge. She was 18, had just graduated from the local high school, shot in the head, and died.

"This world is just crazy," she anxiously said. "I just don't understand it. I'm just so fearful."

I knew where she was coming from. She has three teenage and 20-something kids, and it is a crazy world we live in. I knew she was Catholic, but I didn't know to what extent she believed really.

"That's awful," I said, "honestly my faith is the only thing that keeps me from going off the rails into worry and anxiety these days."

"What do you mean?" she replied, a bit taken aback.

"Well, you're right about the world. But thankfully as a Christian we are not living for life in this world--we're preparing for the next."

She looked at me with a little bit of deer-in-headlights stare.

"I mean we need to do what we can--to do good, and all that. I struggle with anxiety myself, so part of trusting in God's plan and having faith in Him is survival for me, because I think if this world was all there was it would break me. But it's not...there's more to life than what's going on here."

"I don't know how you do that," she said incredulously, and with a slight tone of flabbergasted disbelief.

"Well," I went on, "it helps me to trust that when God sends good into our life and God sends hardships and tragedy, it is all because He loves us, when we trust in Him as a loving Father. When we try to align our will with His--wanting only what He wants, doing only what He wants us to do--there's a kind of "peace that surpasses understanding" that the Bible talks about, that helps me survive and gives me an assurance. So that's what I try to do. Not easy, but I have peace despite the craziness in this world."

I didn't have time to go into the effects of Original Sin and the Fall and free will (haha, felt I was saying too much already!). I think my words shook her a little, like she was expecting commiseration and a kind of hopelessness and didn't know what to make of it. I felt a little foolish, but I'm getting used to that. I'd rather look foolish and have somebody come to see another way of living in the upside-down world--the Way that Jesus lays out for us--if it helps them, then stay quietly in my place.

If we don't have the assurance of God's presence and provision, forgiveness and grace, that He has the wheel and only asks us to trust Him...well, I can understand the worry and apprehension. I have lived with it all my life, but the world is almost so off the rails that to continue to do so would result in my imminent mental demise.

So I have to turn it over.

I remember doing this when our second child was born. Everything felt like too much, too heavy. And so I took a drive while Deb slept in the hospital bed and stood outside a Wawa smoking a cigarette and thinking and fretting. And I just said, "I can't." Lord, I can't, it's too much. Please, I entrust her to you. I trust you, please do it and help me do it too." And that was that.

I knew some people say faith and religion is a crutch. Meh. For me, as I may have said before, it's about survival, with a happy and surprising byproduct being...peace. A peace that surpasses understanding, and is available to all.

Evangelization doesn't have to be a dirty word. It can express itself in listening or genuine concern for another persons and their situation or well being. It can be doing something for them out of love and putting your own needs aside. And it can offer a kind of peace that the world doesn't offer, because it comes from God alone. It is speaking the Truth in love. Don't forget the love part. And do so "with gentleness and respect" (1 Peter 3:15). They are free, like everyone, to make choices. You never know, might give someone another way.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Entertaining Angels Unaware

"Let all guests who arrive be received as Christ." (Rule of St. Benedict, Chap 53)

Last year we got involved with an organization called Hosts for Hospitals. I came across an announcement somewhere when the Holy Father was visiting Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families. Out of town families who were receiving long-term medical care for things like prenatal abnormalities, cancer, etc at Philadelphia hospitals were having trouble find lodging. It is expensive to stay in a hotel for months on end, so this organization was founded to help families by pairing them with a local family for lodging. It is a secular organization founded by a man who was in that boat with cancer, and he wanted to help other families and, in turn, give others the opportunity to help a family in need.

The first people we hosted were a young couple from Scranton; the wife was pregnant but there were complications with the baby in utero, something with the heart. They stayed with us a week or so. Another couple that stayed with us had a son who was deformed and couldn't eat or hear. It was a real blessing to have them with us. We haven't hosted any families recently because things got crazy for a while, but we hope to in the near future.

My wife jokes that I am our 'social planner;' even though we are both introverts, I'm less so (she calls me an 'ambivert') and I enjoy having friends over for dinner, throwing parties, and entertaining. Maybe I got it from my mom, because she is such a gracious and kind host, genuinely loving and welcoming. I enjoy it, but it has also become an important part of our family's faith practice.

We struggle with time--having it and making it--in our family. Hosting families in this way has been a good opportunity to not have to 'go out and do something', but to rather take in and welcome Christ himself. I have a friend who is a great man and mentor, who is very busy with his four kids and job as a physician. A young man--a new Christian--approached my friend and wanted to learn from him. My friend said, "I don't have a whole lot of time to kind of set aside, but you are welcome to just hang with us." That time spent "just hanging" with his family, I think, was invaluable to this new Christian. He learned though osmosis and example, and my friend for his part didn't have to set aside extra time that he didn't have.

I witnessed this simple spirituality of welcoming Christ in the guest and stranger through the Benedictine practice of hospitality, as laid out in the Rule of St. Benedict, when visiting various monasteries. It is a very practical spirituality that anyone can do. I have also received such hospitality from strangers while traveling, and it is a true blessing. Dorothy Day practiced this as well in recognizing that one never knows when one might be entertaining angels unaware, as written in the letter to the Hebrews and making reference to Lot's welcoming of angels knocking on his door in Gen 19:1.

I also struggle a bit with understanding the divide in the church between those who emphasize service to the poor and marginalized but downplay the importance of doctrine and life issues vs those who do the reverse. Maybe it's just me, but I see them both as two lungs. It's kind of a false dichotomy, for I think it is plain that the corporal works of mercy and the spiritual works of mercy are both required. It doesn't make one a heretic to do both.

St. John Chrysostom said that the rich exist for the sake of the poor, and the poor exist for the sake of the rich. Those who have been blessed financially receive great blessing in ministering to Christ in the poor and those in need. Those who are poor financially offer a simplicity of heart, sometimes a challenge or hardship, and also the opportunity to practice and be a blessing. It is a 'ministry of encounter' for us, and teaches us not to judge others and their situations outright but rather break bread together and serve. God is so good.

God calls us all to serve with joyful hearts in the ways in which we are able. It may just be a smile which is what you are able to offer. The size or duration is not important, and it will look different for everyone. Small acts with great love, as St. Mother Teresa said. For us, witnessing in this way works, and it is a true blessing for us to serve Christ dinner, make His bed for the night, give Him a key into our home and our hearts. Our children learn by osmosis what it looks like to welcome Christ and hopefully they will do it in their own little way with their little friends as well as they get older. If you're short on time, sometimes just doing it, just "hanging out", is the best way to teach and learn.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

He Opened Not His Mouth

When I worked in the inner-city, I would take the neighborhood boys camping for a week in the summer, to escape the heat and noise and violence of our Allison Hill section of Harrisburg.

The boys were used to shootings and street deals and non-stop noise of the city...but the quiet stillness of the woods freaked them out, big time. They were not used to it. They had trouble sleeping. This was before smartphones and all that, so their distractions were minimal. I think they were ultimately glad to get back to the hood where we all lived.

I'd like to read Cardinal Robert Sarah's new book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, because silence has been on my mind lately. The book was fittingly recorded from conversations between Cardinal Sarah and Nicholas Diat at La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian monastery near Grenoble, France, where Into Great Silence was filmed (please do yourself a favor and rent this powerful, artful and moving film if you get the chance.

Silence is multi-faceted:

  • It can be used as a weapon--one "silences" the opposition. You see this with identity politics, shutting down conversations.
  • It can be indicative of a kind of moral cowardice, when we "remain silent" when faced with injustice, when we are called to speak out to defend innocent men.
  • It can indicate an reflectiveness that does not betray one's innermost thoughts, as "the mouths of fools are their undoing" (Prov 18:17)
  • It can look like "pleading the 5th" in the Constitutional sense when one refuses to incriminate oneself before a jury by remaining silent.
  • It often holds the key to hearing God's voice which often comes not in earthquakes and fire, but in a whisper (1 Kings 19:12)

Take Jesus before Pilate:

"Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him. And he questioned him at some length; but He answered him nothing.
And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and send Him back to Pilate. Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other." (Lk 23:18)

This is a very telling scene that I have been reflecting on. Herod was a fool, and regarded Jesus as a source of entertainment. It is written in scripture, "do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words." (Prov 23:9). Later before Pilate, Jesus is again accused and stands before the chief priests silent, and Pilate "is amazed". (Mk 15:5).

Jesus is a man who knows his power. He knows his innocence, and he knows who He is. When he speaks, every word is imbued with power. When pressed by the High Priest point blank, "Are you the Messiah?" he replies.

"I AM. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (14:62)

Should you ever stand accused, remember that "it is better to suffer, should it be God's will, for doing good than doing evil." (1 Peter 3:17) Jesus gives the truest example of the Suffering Servant, as prophesied in the book of Isaiah:

"He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet he did not open His mouth;
like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers,
So He did not open His mouth.
Because he had done no violence,
Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.
But the LORD was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief
If he would render Himself as a guilt offering,
He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days,
And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand." (53:7-8,10)

Let your silence be power, and when called to speak, speak with power by the Holy Spirit. "Be strong and courageous! Be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed!" (Joshua 1:9)

Friday, June 23, 2017

Christian Non-Binary

When I was studying Buddhism in high school, the life of Gautama impressed me.

He was a prince who had everything and was not happy, not satisfied, still suffering despite the attempt of his parents to keep him sheltered from that which would cause discomfort. After sneaking out into the world and encountering an old man, a sick man, and a corpse, he swung to the opposite end of the pendulum--extreme self-denial. His rigorous asceticism and fasting left him emaciated but not enlightened, still subject to suffering. Finally he vows to sit until he figures it out and after attaining enlightenment through a 'Middle Way' between the extremes.

The reason I mention this is not to compare religions or try to reconcile or synthesize radically different worldviews, but to rather point out that the idea of a "middle way" in Christianity does not square with the call to Christ, for "Whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in Heaven." (Mt 10:33). Despite that fact, I see a strong temptation to chart such a  middle road between Calvary and Jerusalem in our contemporary culture, a road that ultimately leads nowhere, as is written "there is a pathway that seems right to a man, but in the end it is a road to death." (Prov 14:12).

What does a "middle way" look like in a post-Christian culture? Though I'm not endorsing these novels/films (Mother Angelica called The Last Temptation of Christ "a blasphemous film that has the power to destroy souls eternally", and Endo's Silence, while nuanced, was troubling to many Christians, and not well-received by descendants of the Japanese martyrs themselves), and also do not want to do a full on synopsis, I do use them to illustrate just exactly the kind of nefarious and subtle temptation we face as Christians today:

The first is Shusaku Endo's Silence, a historical novel. The scene in question involves Fr. Rodrigues, a Jesuit missionary captured and forced to apostatize by the authorities by trampling on a fumi-e, a an icon of Jesus or Mary. He has a very clear choice here, but with a complicated twist (temptation): he can refuse to renounce his faith and be tortured and killed; or he can trample, marry, and live a comfortable life (another missionary, Fr. Ferreira, did just that). The temptation for Rodrigues is that his people, the Japanese Christians, are being tortured for their faith and if only Rodrigues will trample, they will let them go and end the torture against them. A noble motive. In what seems to be an act of selflessness, Rodrigues supposedly sacrifices his faith and apostasizes, trampling the fumi-e, to save the Christians from torture.

In Nikos Kazantzakis' controversial The Last Temptation of Christ there is a scene when Jesus is tempted to get down from the cross by Satan in like manner--in a "you would do more good alive than dead". He gets down, goes on to marry Magdalene, and lives out a life in the world of men. It all ends up being a dream-like temptation in the film, but the message is clear: you don't have to do this, there is another way and this is it.

I do not think either of these novels/films should be used as a model for faith, especially for new Christians. But they do back-handedly lend insight into the temptation many of us face in our walk of faith, the whisper of the serpent in the Garden: "Did God really say?..."

I think some Christians today are trying to make this 'middle way' of compromise and reconciliation with the world. It is a kind of what I would call a 'practical apostasy':

"If you would tone down your rhetoric," it goes, "you would attract more people rather than drive them away."
"If the church only changed a,b,c teaching, I would definitely join."
"I don't think Christ really calls us to x,y,z. Jesus did not want us to live a life of unhappiness."

Now, Christianity is absolutely reasonable in its doctrine and theology; that is, the tenants of Christianity are in accordance with reason and Natural Law. But the demands of Christian discipleship are another story. We don't want to hate our mother, leave our dead father to bury himself, be estranged from our siblings. "I have become estranged from my brothers, and an alien to my mother's sons. For zeal for your house has consumed me and the reproaches of those who reproach You have fallen on me." (Ps 69:8-9). So it is understandable that we would seek to make concessions.

Christ puts us in an impossible situation, does he not? We either follow him, "baptized into his death," (Rom 6:3), or like the rich young man, we "go away sad," (Mt 19:22; Mk 10:22; Lk 18:23) when we are unable to unsaddle ourselves from what weighs us down to follow Him, unwilling to pay the cost for a 'yes', an assent, when it puts us at odds with the world. The world knows Him not, as St. John says, because it neither sees Him nor accepts Him (Jn 14:17). There really is no middle way when faced with assent or apostasy, and no place for compromise or assimilation (see 2 Chron 20 to see the seeds of compromise in the life of King Jehoshaphat), though the temptation in a post-modern world is strong. There is only life and death. There is no middle way, for a middle way seeks to retain what is in the world. "If the love of the world is in you, the love of the Father is not." (1 Jn 2:15). There is only the Way (Jn 14:6).

When you start to follow Jesus, not on a complicated middle self-made path, but on the one He lays out that leads to life and costs, there is a weird tension--there is deep joy and suffering co-existing. The early apostles "rejoiced" after leaving the Sanhedrin, that "God had counted them worthy to suffer disgrace for the Name" (Acts 5:41). Who in their right mind rejoices at facing derision and humiliation in the world? Those who have been filled with the Holy Spirit and know that they are not living for this world. They gladly forsake a home here for the many mansions prepared for them in Heaven (Jn 14:2).

Those who follow Jesus to His death know that there are only two paths, and that compromise with the world only seeks to make lukewarm people (Rev 3:16), salt that has lost its saltiness, good for nothing, not even the dungheap (Mt 5:13), and accomplishes Satan's work. Let the words of St Faustina reassure you--there is no middle way:

"One day, I saw two roads. One was broad, covered with sand and flowers, full of joy, music and all sorts of pleasures. People walked along it, dancing and enjoying themselves. They reached the end without realizing it. And at the end of the road there was a horrible precipice; that is, the abyss of hell. The souls fell blindly into it; as they walked, so they fell. And their number was so great that it was impossible to count them.
And I saw the other road, or rather, a path, for it was narrow and strewn with thorns and rocks; and the people who walked along it had tears in their eyes, and all kinds of suffering befell them. Some fell down upon the rocks, but stood up immediately and went on. At the end of the road there was a magnificent garden filled with all sorts of happiness, and all these souls entered there. At the very first instant they forgot all their suffering." (Diary, 153)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Web Darkly

A couple nights ago I came across and read a two-part article in WIRED about the rise and fall of Silk Road and it's founder, Ross Ulbricht. It is a dark and harrowing account of how a mild-mannered engineering student in his late twenties created a one billion dollar a year underground online empire for the sale of illegal drugs, crime, and black market contraband.

But it started innocently enough. Ulbricht's strong libertarian ideals motivated him; it was never really about the money (Ulbricht was pretty frugal, living with roommates in San Francisco), but the movement. Free choice and liberty without interference was everything, and a noble vision--keep people from resorting to risking their lives buying contraband on the street. Silk Road was in many ways the epitome of a frictionless marketplace where people could be free to do as they liked, "as long as it didn't impinge on anyone else's freedom."

Ulbricht made it clear that was not an entirely free-reign cornucopia of anarchy. He wrote the rules, central being to "treat others as you would wish to be treated." But like so many revolutionaries before him, the idealist became an ideologue, and his lack of a moral compass and the blurring lines between the online world and that of reality made rationalizing the need to put murder-hits-for-hire out on competitors easier.

A couple things struck me reading this incredible and disturbing account.

One, his family and friends maintained his innocence. "Ross is such a nice guy," they said, "he wanted to make the world a better place." He was an Eagle Scout, mild mannered and sensitive. "Ross is a hero!" one sympathizer at his trial yelled. Institutions and government were the problem, which is why he was "creating an economic simulation to give people a firsthand experience of what it would be like to live in a world without the systematic use of force."

Two, the rise and fall was astonishing for how fast it took place and how fast things started to get out of control, the spotlight it shown on the elusive and sinister "dark web", and how much money it generated. But the story was also boringly predictable. Like Che Guevara or other brutal revolutionaries, his youthful ideology divorced from objective morality laid the groundwork for the ends justifying the means. He thought the revolution and overthrow was just around the corner, and that rules and laws didn't apply to him. Now he's in prison serving a life sentence.

Third, money is a powerful force. One of the undercover agents himself was indicted on charges of theft and money laundering, despite having re-committed his life to Christ prior to getting on the case. "How easy it is to forget the solidity and consequences of the real world when you live online."

Finally, I shared a lot of traits with this young man. We're close to the same age. Same kind of background and upbringing, both Penn State grads. Fueled by idealism, taking things to extremes, and a desire to see change in the world. Reading the account was like watching "Into the Wild," about Chris McCandless' life and death in the Alaskan frontier, fueled by the same purist idealism. I cried in the movie in the last scene, when he is starving to death in the bus, emaciated and covered in diarrhea, because I saw in it my own death, a death that could have been mine.

Honestly, some days I think I am a Christian for no other reason than it is an anchor that keeps me from going off the deep end (some of my friends might argue its too late for that, lol) like these young idealists. A kind of beach grass in the dune, the roots of which keep the sand, my life, from eroding away. It's about survival. Of course its more than that too, but when you are susceptible to being swallowed up by your own personal dark web, you learn to hold fast to what keeps you afloat, even if it means being seen as somewhat rigid or somewhat uncompromising. I don't pray or go to church because I'm some Ned Flanders kind of guy--I pray so that, as Christ said, I might not undergo the test (Mt 26:41).

We all have our dark webs of the heart, the places we go to indulge in what we see as a harmless and frictionless libertine marketplace of sin and licentiousness. When one is bereft of a moral compass, ideology can take a dangerous turn. And when you have plumbed the depths of your own sinfulness--despite your loving parents or your nice suburban upbringing or your Eagle Scout badges--in places so dark that there's in perceptible way out, and you know your potential for destruction despite being "such a nice guy" or "wanting to make the world a better place," light and order look pretty good, something worth holding to when you finally are pulled to the surface by a benevolent hand. If only we knew who was fighting for our soul, and how cunningly he tries to slip it from us...well, you would hold on tight too.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Twisted Straight

I was able to get to Mass this morning, and the visiting priest gave a homily on St. Aloysius Gonzaga, since it was his feast day today. 

Now, I used to recruit next to tiny St. Aloysius College located in Central PA at fairs, and the prospective students avoided their table, probably because they did not know how to pronounce the name (I didn't either). And I only heard of Gonzaga because of their recent fame in making in to the Final Four in NCAA basketball. Apart from that, I was entirely unfamiliar with the 16th century saint.

But his life spoke to me. Born into a rich influential Renaissance Italian family, he wanted to be a saint from an early age, but he didn't know how. In devotions he is portrayed as insufferably pious, the perfect chaste docile teenager, while in reality he was bull-headed and teen-extreme. While devout, Aloysius was attempting to make his way into Heaven through sheer effort. He cobbled together a DIY routine of severe asceticism and mortification and committed himself to it.

When he entered the Jesuits at the age of 17, he was an appointed a spiritual director, St. Robert Bellarmine. Level headed and patient, Bellarmine listened to Aloysius describe his extreme schedule of individual religious practice, then ordered him to cease it. He was assigned instead to work at a local hospital tending to the sick and infirmed. Squeamish, he was repulsed by the work, and he disliked people, which is probably why he was initially inclined to his private devotions and mortifications. When the plague hit Rome in January 1591, the sick and dying were everywhere, overwhelming the hospitals, and Alyosius had to dig deep and draw on that Italian stubbornness and bulldog like willpower to stomach the work.

But in time, a transformation happened by God's grace. Though this was never work he would have chosen for himself, Alyosius began to see Christ in them, similar to St. Francis' encounter with the leper. He experienced compassion for the sick and dying, and often carried them from the streets to the hospital on his back. He contracted the plague as a result, and died June 21st, at the age of 23.

Why did his story speak to me? I can see Alyosius' youthful pride and ascetic extremism in myself, his desire to follow God and now knowing how, as well as the temptation to try white-knuckle our way to Heaven through sheer grit and effort and religious practice. The grace of guidance under a holy and level-headed director tempered this self-made salvation plan and forced Alyosius into situations he would not have chosen for himself. It moved him out of himself and his own private retreat into the real world of need and suffering, a world which is not sterilized and sometimes chaotic. He learned submission through obedience, temperance through outward charity, and the overwhelming saving power of God's grace, unmerited and undeserved.

The temptation to stay in our safe prescribed religious spaces and construct for ourselves DIY salvation plans is a recipe for stunted growth. "The first step of humility," writes St. Benedict, "is unhesitating obedience...for the obedience shown to superiors is given to God (Rule, Ch 7). God's call for our lives is dynamic, sometimes forcing us into uncomfortable situations we would rather not get into in the first place were it not by humble obedience to faithful and holy directors entrusted with the heavy responsibility for the care of souls. "I would rather be the vilest worm by God's will, then a seraph by my own." -Bl. Henry Susso. 

I think it sometimes takes a kind of admirable stubbornness, that Italian bull-headedness and tenacity in St. Aloysius, to keep on the path that leads to life, since there is so much working to knock us off it. It finds its fruition and full power when combined with the docility of humility, the cornerstone for all virtues to lay upon, the humility to allow ourselves to be molded by the Potter's hands. When we give God our unique imperfections to use them for His glory, He works a great and mighty thing in us. "I am a twisted piece of iron," the saint wrote, "I came here to get twisted straight."

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Staying The Course When The Stakes Are High

Where we live we are about an hour's drive from Amish country; while it may feel like another world for people outside the Pennsylvania/Ohio area, passing horse and buggies on the road is not an unusual sight.

When they are on the road, horses wear blinders--cups of fabric on their eyes. A horse's eyes are on the side of their head, and they have almost a 360 degree peripheral vision, allowing them to see everything around them in a full circle. While on the road the blinders are necessary to keep the horse focused on what's in front of them. It keeps them from getting distracted and spooked by what is behind the wagon.

I went to my first pro-life sidewalk prayer vigil outside a Planned Parenthood last year. I have to admit, I was always a little intimidated by the pro-life crowd. In San Francisco years ago, a friend took me to a party where there were a lot of pro-life people my age; I felt uncomfortable, out of place, and I didn't know why. Maybe it was that the focus seemed too exclusive, too narrow, too focused for my tastes. I was a "360 degree" guy, a seamless garment. I left the party early and took a taxi back to where I was staying.

Back to the sidewalk vigil, though. I met a strong pro-life advocate, the aunt of a friend, who lived in Delaware. She was gracious and joyful, but very very committed to the cause. I emailed her one day, and she encouraged me to meet them outside Planned Parenthood at 7th and Shipley in Wilmington. It was a small gathering, and most people were older than me by a few decades, but they were focused, because they knew the great evil taking place inside the walls just a few hundred feet away. They realized they were fighting a war, spiritually, this rag tag group of sidewalk rebels, and they could not afford to be sidetracked. 

There is a common refrain that happens sometimes in online commentary about moral issues that I've seen. It is that "you can't talk about X without considering A, B, C, D, E, F, etc..." But there is a kind of paralysis there that works against you in this mindset, the spectre of hypocrisy that hangs over the discussion. "If you were really pro-life," the reasoning goes, "you wouldn't just care about just unborn babies, but unwed mothers, refugees, poverty, universal health care, etc." And so the discussion becomes about everything, and unless all those things can be treated equally and solved first, any focus on X is a non-starter. 

I'm starting to see the role of blinders in the Christian life--putting in place those things that keep us focused on Christ, the Cross, and our mission and charge as disciples. There is a negative connotation there--that blinders make us narrow-minded and bigoted--but when we find ourselves at war spiritually, we cannot afford to lose focus. If you've ever driven through a snowstorm, you can understand the need for concentration to stay on the road and see; limiting distractions almost becomes an issue of survival. 

We will have times when life is easy and we find ourselves in a meadow or on a plateau. But other times we are climbing a crag and one small move, one patch of loose scree will send us hurtling down. Blinders in prayer, in mission work, during periods of spiritual warfare, sometimes become necessary. That could be blocking out certain music of TV programs, or limiting contact with people who will detract what Christ is trying to accomplish in us. It may mean discerning what we are uniquely called to, and what particular gifts to cultivate in order to accomplish that work, even if it is at the expense of other things, as St. Paul speaks about in 1 Cor 12.

It would be good to remember when we are paralyzed by the sheer volume of need or suffering in the world, or accused of inconsistency or hypocrisy, to put our blinders on--not to be oblivious to the world, but in order that we see what is in front of us, so that we may put our hand to the plow and not look back, as Christ encourages us to do. As St. Teresa of Calcutta said simply, "Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you."

Monday, June 19, 2017

It Is A Dreadful Thing to Fall Into The Hands Of The Living God

"How do you know whether it's God speaking to you, or just your own voice in your head?" my brother asked as we stopped to rest at a shelter. It was 2002, and we had driven up to Vermont over Thanksgiving to hike part of the Long Trail for the weekend. Everything was quiet, and a blanket of snow covered the ground. We were the only ones around.

At the time my brother posed the question, I hadn't been a Christian very long, so learning to discern the voice of God was new territory for me. Living with a mental illness made the issue of "voices in the head" a complicated one, as well. I was sensitive to trusting my suspect mind, which had betrayed me on so many occasions and given me reason to be wary.

Whereas in my life I acted on intuition, seeing the forest for the trees, and was pre-dominantly right-brained, my brother was an engineer and he approached things like this from a different, more systematic perspective. I was always kind of jealous of the engineers in college--I respected their well laid out path, their diligence in study, and their laser-focus in problem-solving. Pretty much my exact opposite. But for my brother, it seemed the things of faith posed a bit of a conundrum, as if they existed in another sphere.

I don't remember how I answered his question, but I hadn't forgotten the question posed fifteen years ago, and ask myself the same thing even today: how do we know when God is calling us to do something, go somewhere, speak to someone? How do we make sure we are doing God's will, and not our own, since "the greatest glory we can give God is to do his will in everything" (St Alphonsus de Liguori)? "Doing God's will" has a lofty, ethereal connotation but the reality is it plays itself out in the very concrete world of our daily lives and decisions. Every prophet and every major player in Scripture has experienced God's call and responded--sometimes immediately (Mt 4:19), sometimes reluctantly (Ex 4:10), sometimes even running away from it (Jonah 1:3)!

Recently I got myself into trouble. About six months ago I started feeling more and more comfortable in my life. I started praying, "Lord, send me into your harvest field. I want to be a worker in your vineyard. Prune me, so that I may bear fruit. Send me."

And then, as I was driving down Route 1 on my way home from work last week, between the Wawa and 322, I got a call.

My phone didn't ring. No one was in the car with me. There was no audible voice. I can only kind of describe it as a sudden kind of electric shock, a kind of spiritual morse code that spoke to my spirit and translated: "I need you to do something. I need you to go where I am sending you." I knew the time-sensitive situation. There was no ambiguity. There was just a call that demanded a response.

In the remaining leg of the drive home, I was simultaneously filled with excitement, joy, and dread. Now, I am kind of a naive and stupid person. When the Lord has called me to do something in the past, I have done it. When He said, "Buy this bus and live in it," I did. When He said, "give the shoes you are wearing to this homeless man," I did. When He said "write a not-so-small check to this person in need you have never met before", I did it. I don't know why or for what purpose, but I had gotten in the habit of saying 'yes' to God and it has lead to many adventures and many blessings of knowing His will better.

But this particular situation God was calling me to was especially daunting. It was costly, both financially and in other ways as well; it was physically grueling; it was intimidating; and it was unknown. I was to meet such and such a person at such and such a place at such and such a time, and I didn't know why. All I know is this person needed help, and the Lord was saying, "Go."

Now, this kind of thing happens every day for His purposes. I saw a video of two Catholic evangelists, young men my age, who take the call of God in their lives very seriously. They listen and respond, even when it seems crazy and they don't know why. It one instance, God gave them a vision of healing, that they were to meet a man of a certain description in the city, a man He would show them, and they were to pray over him and speak a word to him. They drove around the city until sure enough, they saw the man who fit the description. They spoke the word given to them to the man, and he knew exactly what they were talking about. They prayed over him and he was healed and released from his bondage. All because they heard the voice of God and did what He commanded, for "Blessed is he who hears the word of God and keeps it." (Lk 11:28)

Now, there are three things to keep in mind when God calls you that have been helpful to me:

One, God will not ask or tell you to do something that goes against His Word, the Bible. God is not going to ask you to do some terrible thing. It must be in accordance with His statutes and decrees.

Two, when God tells you to do something, He will open the way. In this particular situation, which seemed impossible, God opened doors. He sent me the right people to provide counsel, to make connections for material and corporal needs, and solved logistical complications that would prevent me from carrying out this particular calling. It was, quite frankly, somewhat miraculous, and made me trust Him even more to see what impossible things He can do to make a way.

Third, God talks to our spirit. In Scripture it says, "If today you hear His voice, harden not your heart." (Ps 95:1). He speaks in whispers, and when it is something He is truly calling us to, it will not go away, unless we are obstinate; he does not force His way with us, He respects our freedom. It feels like a kind of pressure, like something one has to do. It is more than just an idea, but rather an imperative. It is a feeling, but more than a feeling. It will go away if we say 'no' enough. I don't know how to describe it.

There are some other things I have had to change or be more attentive to after this.

-Regular, daily prayer has become indispensable. It's how I hear His voice. It's where I receive direction. If I'm not praying, I'm vulnerable. So are you.

-Distractions need to minimized. That means certain things I have been lax about--the music I listen to or the shows I watch, wasting time on the internet in frivolous things, and not being careful with my words--need to be tightened up.

-I need to make sure I am mentally healthy. This is particular to my state of being. I cannot afford any mental instability, and need to carefully discern the spirits and imperatives at work. I owe it to myself and my family to stay on top of that.

-I need to keep my eyes focused on the cross. As a priest told me recently: "Just remember--it doesn't cost anything to do bad. When you start doing good, that's when it costs you. A lot." The cross is the cost of love. Jesus instructs us to count the cost (Lk 14:28).

-I need to trust wise counsel. Thankfully those I have encountered who are faithful and with strong lives of prayer have encouraged me and provided an example of what it looks like to follow the Lord, even when it hurts, even when it costs. They have given a set of footprints to follow, and tips in order to stay faithful to the call in periods of doubt.

There is no shortage of adventure when you start to follow the Lord, because you never really know what's ahead, like headlights illuminating the way just in front of you, but not a mile down the road. If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart. (Ps 95:1). For eye has not seen and ear has not heard what God has prepared for those who love Him. (1 Cor 2:9)

For man says, "Show me and I will trust you." But God says, "Trust me and I will show you."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Life Abundant

I'm starting to see a pattern in my life: I don't always "get" things from the start. I'm not dumb or dense, per se; I just don't always go from point a to point b in a direct line. Whenever I sit down to write, it's usually preceded by a good hour or so sometimes of just bopping around on the internet, following my fancy. Sometimes I'm reading other blogs, or academic journals or encyclicals, or following pop culture on Yahoo news. It's "wasted" time, but it does have a purpose in the end. Thoughts or insights or connections start to meld together from unrelated corners and the next thing I know badda boom badda bing, some stuff on a page, my humble offering to you.

I've never been able to relate to the obedient son in Luke 15, but the prodigal son is my archetype: leaving home to find he misses home, coming full circle to where he began. The journey for the prodigal is, on the surface, largely unnecessary. "If he would have just listened from the start," the brother chastises, "he could have avoided all that mess and heartache!" But for the prodigal, the words of the Master "to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little" speaks to his heart (Lk 7:47).

Half my life is examples of coming full circle after a persistent desire to "go my own way." I've always been like this, ever since I was a kid--it's not enough for someone to tell me; I have to find out for myself. It took me twenty years of smoking and addiction to realize nicotine wasn't really benefiting my life in any meaningful way (#rocketscience). I didn't come to the altar on my wedding day a virgin, and it pains me to think of the string of sexual connections following me up there, stuck to the hem of my shirt. " I felt I had to give up a perfectly good job and apartment to go through living on the streets in a converted schoolbus as an urban hermit before I realized hey flush toilets are kind of nice and buses were made for driving, not establishing residency. Even coming to belief and faith was a process of exploration, curiosity, investigation, encounter, and, eventually, assent. If only I knew then what I know now!" Wouldn't we all.

As Deb and I come up on our seven year wedding anniversary next month, the most contemporary example at this point in my life of coming back to start has been on the topic of life--aka, babies. And for this, I need to start at the beginning.

Even before I became Catholic, I was hung up on the practical absurdity of the Church's prohibitory position on artificial contraception. As a fish in the ocean of culture, I didn't even realize how much I was breathing in the locus of mainstream contraceptive thinking that regarded babies as expensive burdens; catastrophic products to be avoided at all costs in hook-ups or non-marital monogomous relations, accessories to be customized; or, within marriage, something to keep limited for sanity's sake. There simply was no other narrative I was exposed to.

So, when Deb and I met on a Catholic dating site, I was what I called a "six out of seven" Catholic. That is, the site we met on asked seven questions about your assent to Church teaching. I had no problem with papal infallibility, Mary, Eucharist, Confession, pre-marital sex, etc. But I simply didn't accept the Church's position that the use of artificial contraception was morally illicit. Mostly because it didn't make sense, and also because I had just started grad school in Theology and thought I was the smartest guy in the world.

So fast forward a bit. Deb and I are in our first year or two of marriage and like most people and many Catholics even in that boat, we wanted a few years together before any kid(s) make their way onto the scene. How to make that happen? Well, you have an array of choices of course. We thought that was prudent and made sense and that's what you did. I was working at Starbucks part time and at a community college part time.

One day I came across an article by a bioethicist named Janet E. Smith titled, "Contraception: Why Not?" late one night on the internet. It was a well-reasoned, thoughtful, and articulate proposition that "Maybe this (modern artificial birth control) isn't the best thing since sliced bread after all." I can't do it justice to summarize, but suffice it to say it cracked the door into an alternative moral worldview in which artificial birth control and it's touted benefits was maybe not all it was cracked up to be.

This wasn't quite an A plus B leads to C forgone conclusion, though. I simply couldn't get past the foreboding prospect of throwing out the condoms and opening the tap full-tilt on life and life abundant. Sure, we wanted kids, but how to keep it at 1 or 2 max? Hm. By this time we had David and like most new parents were overwhelmed, exhausted, and slightly stressed. I kind of half-heartedly looked into what resources were available for methods of natural family planning methods that were available and Church sanctioned. Local support was few and far between but we did manage to find a Creighton instructor about thirty minutes away who would meet with us for $40/session and go over method, basics, charting, etc, to tell when you were fertile and when you weren't.

Our instructor had five children, and we would meet in her home. She was nice and even-keeled, though I think she was slightly self-conscious that people who came to her (like us, seeking to limit their family size) saw her as "um, not very successful" at this method of spacing births. But she also recognized that the Church expects couples to be generous and open to life, and that's what she was doing. We had moved to an au naturale method, but our mindset was still very much about controlling out fertility and being very very careful to avoid "errors" that would cause "failures of method." This resulted in a lot of yellow stickers on our chart, when cycles were not clear, and more periods of abstinence than I think we were expecting. It was not always fun, but we did learn that it could be done and that I wouldn't actually die from lack of sex.

I came to appreciate this kind of self-discipline later after our second (who was also somewhat planned) was born. Going from one to two felt like a big jump and we were just treading water above the surface. We practiced white-knuckle control for a good four years and felt we just couldn't handle anymore than what we already were dealing with.

Now, I'm not a huge rah-rah NFP advocate, but the touted upsides do have some truth to them. We did communicate more when it came to sex and the possibility of life, where we were at both personally and a couple with everything, and how we envisioned out family. Deb learned about her body, and so did I (basic biology, really). Self-control wasn't always easy, but I think in the long run it is really beneficial. After all, if Deb ever fell sick or infirmed, how would I handle my sex drive? Masturbate? Pornography? Another partner outside of marriage? The Church hold the bar high. The only real moral option was chastity, and learning what it looked like in a marriage was a process, but one I might not have come to were it not for learning NFP.

After a few years with two, our hearts began to soften to the idea of considering, well, more than two. The chaos in the 2-3 year old stage was not as bad now, we had moved and had more space, and so the question shifted more from "why?" to "why not?" Did we have serious reasons for postponing or not having more children? Deb's age meant that realistically our door was closing, and we began to consider the very real possibility of regret--that is, that we would regret not being more open to life during those last years of fertility.

Throughout this whole time, God was doing a thing. He was softening our hearts and opening us up as a couple to the light of reason, to the irrefutability of Natural Law, and to truth as revealed by Catholic doctrine on the dignity and great blessing that is human life. The decision of family size is a very personal one and needs to be made by couples themselves, and should not be judged by others, at least that is my contention. But like the prodigal, I realized I (and it really was me more than Deb) was really holding up a sense of control as an idol. I wanted to be the author of life. Yes we need to use reason, discernment, prudence; but was I trusting God? With everything?...even our fertility? This seemed to be one of those 'off the table' parts of our lives that took years to realize. Once we did, I can say, there was more peace and a move closer to trusting that God would provide if we put our faith in Him, even if we didn't know what the future held. We are moving from fear to trust, and while it is a process and we are not sure what the outcome will look like, it is an affirming one that I am confident the Holy Spirit is working through.

There is an expression, that God writes straight with crooked lines. Even when we go off on our own explorations and shortcuts, He manages to gently lead us back to the path as long as we are not ostensibly refusing to follow Him. When we stumble, he stoops down and brushes us off, quick to forgive, to renew, to love. Grace drips drips on our hearts, wearing away the hardness, when we even push the door to his room in just a crack to see what's inside. And in the process, on the journey back, the words come to us:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget none of His benefits!
Ps 103:1-2

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reasons For Hope

I recruit for a living. I also love sharing the Gospel and my Catholic faith with anyone willing to listen. Can one inform the other? You bet!

Here are nine tips for evangelizing more effectively that I’ve learned in my job as a university recruiter:

1) "Customer Service" can go a long way (and is not just for businesses) 

We have prospective students come in our office all day long. Some know exactly what they are looking for, some are there to explore the idea of school. We do not make assumptions based on appearance, accent, or dress, and are consistent in treating everyone who walks through the doors with dignity and respect. What is the customer service like at your church? Do you return calls, greet people when they walk in the door? How about the community itself? Can it answer someone's question, "Why should I come here, and why should I stay?"

2) You only get one First Impression 

The decision to attend a certain school is not always a logical, numbers-based decision. A lot has to do with how students "feel" when they step on your campus. Can I see myself here? Am I excited about the prospect of being a part of this community? Imagine if someone was interested in the Faith and meeting a Catholic for the first time in their life. Would they see someone full of joy, filled with the Holy Spirit, generous, kind, sincere? Or would they see someone going through rote motions, dour faced, stingy, cold, or abusive? You only get one first impression, and they can be hard to overcome. Make sure it is a good one.

 3) Smile

Mother Teresa said, "Let us always meet each other with smile, for the smile is the beginning of love." Every now and then a student will come up to me frazzled about getting into a class, or upset about a problem with their application. So I try to smile a lot, and it tends to put them a little more at ease. When someone encounters you, who may be the only Christian they know, do they see joy? Peace? Love? (fruits of the Spirit). For "Joy is a net of love by which you catch souls." (Mother Teresa) Just smile. It goes a long way.

 4) The Funnel

“The Funnel” is known in admissions as a model for the lifecycle of a student--from their first exposure to thinking about school, to their graduation. Spiritual Seekers have their own funnel. It can start with a generalized curiosity and end with “spiritual matriculation” in the reception of the sacraments and becoming part of a church community. It's good to recognize that people are in different stages in their journey and needing different things at different times to "spiritually matriculate". As Paul says in 1 Cor 3:2, "I gave you milk, not solid food, because you were not yet ready for it.

5) Get Out There 

 In addition to the day to day operations of enrollment management, we hit the road to get our name out there. As the saying goes, if you're not out there nobody knows about you. So too with the faith. Of course we need to witness with our actions, but that also includes our tongue! Paul states emphatically in Romans 10:10 that "it is with the heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved." Don't be shy about telling people--with your mouth--about Jesus if you truly want them to know about him.

6) Invest

Many parishes operate of a shoestring budget. But Catholics are also one of the least generous among Christian groups when it comes to tithing, offering less than 1% typically of their earnings to the Church. Imagine what parishes could do if even that was doubled to expand efforts to grow and be intentional about bringing more people into the fold? It's not all about money. But you need money to operate. Put your money where your mouth is.

7) Follow through 

 At work, I have a policy to return all calls and emails within 24 hrs. This is a personal matter of respect for the person writing, that they are being heard and attended to, but it's also just good customer service. I still think back to the lack of a return phone call when I inquired about volunteering to teach CCD. It said to me that I wasn't needed, wasn't really that important, whether that was intended or not. I moved on. You can literally lose a future Christian member over such a thing. Just return the call.

8) Make It Easy

We focus on "pain points" in our admission process at work--what are those areas that make it frustrating/unenjoyable/discouraging for applicants or prospects. Someone wants to give their life to Christ? Our Protestant and Non-denominational brothers and sisters are stepping in and saying, “Come on up. What an honor. Let's get you discipled and baptized right away.” They take them under their wing and support them. Get them involved in fellowship and mentoring. They call them. Check in on them. As Catholics, we are FAILING at this. The Gospel is an IMPETUS. There should be nothing more important that bringing people to Christ. Now I recognize the place of sacramental instruction and classes, etc. But we are losing opportunities by introducing these many "pain points." Is there a better way?

9) Word-of-mouth

Ever shop on Amazon? Of course you do. And of course you read the reviews. People relying on other, real-life people who had a good experience with such and such product is a great marketing tool. You can bring the light of Christ to others through this kind of word-of-mouth. It's how the early Church spread, and continues to spread in areas of the world in which written communication is sometimes outlawed or not commonplace. People hear about a Christian community, "See how these Christians love one another!" and want to know more.

1 Peter 3:15 says, "Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have," adding "But do this with gentleness and respect." This should be our model for evangelization, and not be afraid to innovate as well in bringing the culture to Christ. The life of the Church depends on it!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Indulge Me

Trigger warning: Blessed Virgin Mary; praying for the dead; honoring statues; indulgences; purgatory; the Pope; saints and their intercession; the rosary. Just fair warning for any of my Protestant friends whose head might explode reading this! lol

Our family will be making a trek up to the National Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown on Tuesday evening on pilgrimage. Pope Francis has granted the opportunity to receive a plenary indulgence for the centennial anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima appearing to three shepherd children in Fatima, Portugal in 1917.

What is a PLENARY INDULGENCE? It is a complete remission of temporal punishment due to sins.

Why is it important? Because only saints and martyrs go straight to Heaven after death; most of us have to go through a period of purification before we are ready to be with the Lord for all eternity. This is called PURGATORY, and it has it's root in scripture and tradition.

For our loved ones who have died and are going through this period of purification (the Church Suffering), there is no greater gift we can offer than our prayers, offering Masses, and obtaining indulgences on their behalf. Belief in indulgences and Her authority to grant them is an INFALLIBLE teaching of the Church.

Honoring the BVM during the centennial of her appearance in Fatima by PRAYING BEFORE A STATUE OF OUR LADY OF FATIMA that is on public display in a church for public veneration, in addition to going to Confession and Communion; being interiorly detached from sin; and praying for the intentions of the Holy Father will obtain for one a plenary indulgence for the complete remission of temporal punishment due to sin.

Our Lady appeared to the children in Fatima and gave them a vision of Hell, what awaits those who do not repent from sin and heed her call. Hell is real...ignore at your peril. She also encouraged families to PRAY THE ROSARY every day. We are at war with evil, and souls are blithely falling into hell every day like snowflakes, in the words of St. Catherine.

Sound extreme? Sound crazy? It's not crazy, though I know I sound like a lunatic zealot. But when you are in your room tonight getting ready to go to bed, just ask yourself in the dark of night...what if it's true? What if I am bound for Hell and I don't even realize it?

My job as husband is to help my wife get to Heaven. And her job as a wife is to help me get to Heaven. It is not to be happy together and to live a lifetime in comfortable security in the suburbs. It is to do whatever the Lord calls us so that we are with him FOREVER in eternity. This is very hard and we need HELP ALONG THE WAY! The SAINTS in HEAVEN (the Church Triumphant) are our friends and helpers. They have ran the race, they have fought the good fight, and their salvation is secured. The rest of us here on earth (The Church Militant) are still fighting, still hoping, still striving, still trusting. Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for few find it.

If you are a baptized Catholic, make a Confession. Go to Mass and receive Communion. Learn about Fatima, and read the Catechism....see for yourself what the Church teaches. Consider the request of Our Lady to honor her and listen to her warning. Hell is real, and it is forever. "Make friends quickly with your opponent at law while you are with him on the way, so that your opponent may not hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Truly I say to you, you will not come out of there until you have paid up the last cent." (Mt 5:25-26)

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Like Culture

There is a guy named Trent Shelton. I don't know who he is or what his deal is, but every now and then I come across these generic inspirational quotes of his on Facebook. Things like, "Just because you made mistakes doesn't mean you are one" and "Never settle for anything just so you can have something. Know your worth."

And I have a confession: I am secretly jealous of this guy. He consistently gets 25k likes and 18k shares on these deep and affirming words of wisdom in visual form. How do I become popular like him? What is his secret? I need to know.

All joking aside, the truth is I feel like I have lost a number of friends in recent years. Nothing drastic, just people I think who got tired of their newsfeed getting clogged with my posts about faith. I like having friends. I like getting along with people. I don't know how it got to this point, but it's a painful reality that the closer you walk with Jesus the more alienated you become from the rest of the culture, put at odds with things you never realized you were called to be at odds with before.

I have to believe Jesus is above cheap meme culture. LOVE LOVE PEACE PEACE gets the thumbs up because, really, who doesn't want love and peace? But then he comes and ruins it all but being straight with those who want peace and love in a tidy package:

"Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man's enemies will be the members of his household." (Mt 10:34) 
"If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple." (Lk 14:26) 
"Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead.'" (Lk 9:60)"

I'm prepared for this, but it is a high bar, a lot to ask of someone. To set your own family against you...who does that? To be hated? Who wants to be hated? It's true though...when you become a disciple of Jesus, things start to separate, like curds and whey.

I love my family but we are not united in faith. It's one thing to evangelize to strangers but to your own family is kind of awkward. They know you so well, that I sometimes second guess any authority I have to speak about Jesus or the faith. It can also be hard to tell when to just listen and when to speak, when to lay in hard and when to tread lightly. But there's no one I want to see in Eternity more.

And so the other day when I was on my way to the Adoration chapel to spend an hour with the Lord after work, I invited my dad. "Do you want to come?" I txted. "Yes I would" he replied. He didn't quite know what Adoration was. I tried to explain it after we left the chapel, but I think it didn't really register. I asked him when the last time he had been to confession. The conversation was a little forced and awkward, like two people on a first date. Why was I so resistant about inviting my dad to pray together, to go to Mass, to suggest a trip to the confessional? Isn't that what evangelization is? Why is it easier with strangers than my own family? Was I being too challenging? Not challenging enough? It's hard to tell.

In God's economy, the rich young man went away sad when Jesus told him it was harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God because he had a lot of likes. We are surrounded by riches and comforts and spiritually impoverished. We may know the best investments, the best restaurants, but its all rubbish if we aren't rich spiritually, and can even be an impediment to growing in that realm.

Freedom is a great and terrible thing. The desire to be liked, to get likes, to have friends, to be popular, to be financially comfortable, is a great comfortable temptation for me. I am getting closer and closer to not caring what happens to me as long as I am doing what the Lord commands of me, but I am not there yet. And so the fear lingers, but it is slowly dying away. It's like you have everything to lose, and nothing to lose at the same time. And Jesus requires everything of us, not just a few things here and there in a kind of temp-agency contractual agreement. It requires signing on, like a marine, and going where you are told to go, doing what you are called to do, ready to pay the price. Great freedom. High cost. Indescribable reward.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Inside Out

In 2004 I was a relatively new Catholic. I loved The Lord and wanted to serve Him and His people, especially in the poor.

I took for granted that Catholics were Catholics were Catholics, and that Truth was Truth. So when I heard about an organization sponsored by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops called the Catholic Campaign for Human Development that was working to "break the cycle of poverty" through community grant funding and empowerment, it sounded great. And to boot, they were sponsoring a cross country bike tour to raise awareness about poverty in America and what CCHD was doing to end it by addressing its root causes. Sign me up!

Now, I've always been a pretty naive person. My 'gay-dar' doesn't work. I give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to think the best of motivations, that they are not in fact deliberately sinister. I am discerning, but I trust easily. So I had no idea about the history CCHD until fifteen years later when I came across Richard and Stephen Payne's recent documentary "A Wolf In Sheep's Clothing" about Saul Alinksky and his successful attempts to infiltrate the Church with marxist ideology at the highest levels, and to undermine the teachings of the Church in the process. There was also the recent leaks and revelations about the billionaire George Soros funding dissident progressive Catholic groups intent on working to change church teaching from the inside out. I was sincere...but I was unknowingly had.

I don't care so much about left and right, differences in charisms and veneers, and recognize there can be legitimate differences in how we approach social problems--but I do care about Truth and that which threatens to undermine and overthrow it.

The Devil deceives by distorting the truth and repackaging it, presenting it as something other than a lie. In the Garden of Eden, he introduces the question, "Did God really say?..." setting the stage for second-guessing the Lord's clear command. Once the seeds of doubt are sown, he lays out the lie: "You will not die. For God knows..." (Gen 3). When the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness, he employs the same tactics, quoting scripture for his purposes to make him stumble, again presenting them as 'goods.'

Lies can look like truth. The subtleties of deceit are often intentional and possibly even well-meaning--that is, to achieve a good end--but when they are not rooted in truth they pave an alternative path, to Hell. If I was a new Catholic and I didn't know the difference between the National Catholic Reporter newspaper (dissident) and the National Catholic Register (orthodox) or priests and religious who preach practices contrary to Church teaching, I would be confused as to why some people were say, supporting gay marriage and women's ordination, while others were speaking out against it. Such disunity and confusion in the Church on her moral teachings is a product of the one who sows weeds among wheat (Mt 13:24-30), the Enemy. It has weakened the Church from the inside, and while the Gates of Hell will not prevail against Her, the Devil is leading many people there with very little effort. The faithfully stubborn few who refuse to take the wide path will endure much suffering in order to enter into the Kingdom.

So, how does one come to Truth? Have faith in Christ and in His Bride, the Church. Read the Catechism. Submit to legitimate authority, and lean not on your own understanding. Pray in all humility for wisdom and understanding--the gifts the Holy Spirit imparts through Confirmation. Search your heart and confess your sins. Choose to follow what is true, even when it costs you reputation, rank, and life. Pray without ceasing. Study the lives of the saints, and ask for their intercession. Be baptized if you are not already. Surround yourself with orthodox people who can speak to truth, reason, and genuine faith that is not misguided. The Devil will do whatever he can to lead one astray through gentle whispers and subtle deceits.

I remember on our bike tour, there was a very orthodox guy my age who kind of stood alone because of that. He was simple and conservative and humble, and I hated him in my heart for what he stood for. I reconnected with him this year, after fifteen years since we had last seen each other. He and his wife have nine children, and was as gracious as could be when I called him last month to ask his forgiveness for the way I regarded him in my heart, even if he never knew it. There was also one of the guy's wives who came out to visit while we were on tour, who I thought was crazy because she was so conservative and so committed to the pro-life movement. I realize now that I was the one who was crazy, both literally and spiritually, and I have since reconnected with her as well and am so grateful for her friendship and prayer.

Trust in the Holy Spirit, who will lead you in all truth (Jn 16:13). Always check everything against God's Commandments and the true teachings of his holy Church. Make friends with saints. And if you are moved to seek what is reasonable and what is True, don't resist the gentle nudging in your heart. You may find yourself on a narrow path strewn with thorns, full of sorrowful and difficulty, going against the grain. But rest will find life in the end.