A Light Under A Basket

  

A law was passed in 342 AD which banned same-sex “marriage” in ancient Rome. This came 29 years after Christianity was decriminalized by Constantine the Great. Fast forward to 2001 when the Netherlands became the first nation in the modern world to grant same-sex “marriages.” And now, the Supreme Court has decreed that it is legal in the United States. Of course, it could be that the Court is wrong in their opinion. This has happened before in our history. The Dred-Scott and the Plessy vs. Ferguson decisions come to mind. Morally, it got it wrong in Roe vs. Wade, as well. There may be legal challenges to the recent ruling, but I think those will be of little consequence in the long run. The bigger picture, at least for me, isn’t what is legal, but what is true. As George Weigel, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center says, “The marriage battle was lost in the culture long before it was lost in the courts.” 

Loosely speaking, from 342 AD until Henry VIII, marriage in Europe was seen as a covenant relationship that was ordained by God and existed between one man and one woman. practically speaking divorce did not exist. The civil law and the faith Sacrament were essentially overlapping and complementary. Priests were sometimes also civil ministers and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony was binding both in Church and in the civil courts of jurisdiction. In some places, a couple’s marriage was licensed by the civil authority only after it had been celebrated as a Sacrament in the Church. With Henry VIII, marriage first lost its sacramental identity when the king decided he wanted a divorce at any cost.  

Popular culture long ago decided that marriage was merely a civil contract that, like any contract, could be dissolved through the courts. And most Christian churches went along with the culture, despite Jesus’ teaching on marriage (Matthew 19:3-6). While many denominations may discourage divorce and remarriage, it is not a formal impediment to membership in most cases. Over time, and through our own fault, marriage has become a fluid state, even among most Christians. What culture has declared, we have unfortunately accepted.  

It should come as no surprise then that our country no longer believes that God’s word and will for our lives still applies to marriage. Americans like to define things for ourselves. We don’t like anyone telling us what to do, certainly not the Church and not some rather old-fashioned God. We define who we are, even which gender we are. We know what’s best for us and usually that means whatever we want at that moment. And if anyone disagrees with that, we should kindly shut up. We have no right to any opinion other than the groupthink of modernity.  

And we Catholics, although we have continued to uphold the teaching of Sacramental marriage, have been too silent and too compliant for far too long. We’ve allowed the world to shove us into the corner of public debate. We’ve lost any credibility as moral leaders through scandals and lawsuits and our particular gift for making the Gospel seem boring and irrelevant. God has given us the fullness of truth, the Holy Eucharist, and two thousand years of fidelity to Jesus Christ, and yet we seem to have little impact on our culture. This is the challenge facing the Catholic Church in America today. How do we continue to live out our faith in a pagan world? How will we live the Gospel in a culture seeking our demise? The lessons of history foretell persecution, isolation, and martyrdom. We must be ready.

“A religion that doesn’t interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.”        —Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen 

My Polluted Heart

 It took me a while, but I finally read all of the Pope’s latest encyclical “Laudato Si”(“Praise be to You”) released this week. The one bit that I can’t stop thinking about is that the world we live in “out there” is a reflection of our hearts “in here.” If we see chaos and disarray and dwindling resources in the natural world, we can expect to find a similar poverty of life within our souls. This intimate connection between humanity and the world is a marvelous gift from God, Who created us to live in harmony with the world He made. As we breathe, so breathes the world. It’s marvelous because it means that we can make our world less disordered by restoring the proper order in our souls.

Popular media often presents the state of the earth as crumbling, overheated, overpopulated, and facing crises in multiple systems from water to air to the distribution of resources. I’m no scientist or anthropologist. I can’t debate the claims that some folks make in these regards. I can, however, see that the weather around me is different than it was fifty years ago. I can’t remember the last time I saw a covey of quail. There seems to be a few more new diseases that pop up every year now. Society seems to be getting more and more violent and divided. Mass shootings, genocide, or murder in the name of religion or race are in our headlines almost every day. We scream at one another. We’ve forgotten how to be present and to listen to those with whom we disagree. We live in a harsh and unforgiving culture. It seems that the poet W.B. Yeats was describing our own time when he wrote these lines in 1919:

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

Pope Francis rightly connects the state of creation with the state of our hearts. We treat one another badly, just as we treat God’s gifts carelessly. We live in a throwaway culture, both in terms of the environment and in our attitudes toward unborn children, or the disabled, or the elderly. We see other people as things to be used selfishly and then discarded. We even use our own bodies as things we may reject by throwing away the very gender that God has given us. Respect for creation and for our human dignity go hand in hand. We combat the trade for endangered animal species but protest in favor of abortion and euthanasia. This schism adds to the chaos in which we now find ourselves. Rather than addressing the needs of the poor with real solutions, we only propose a reduction in their birth rates. Each person is infinitely valuable, regardless of their economics or abilities or age. In short, the Pope teaches us that we’ve been putting ourselves in the place of God and as a result, creation has been provoked into rebellion.

Those who may have expected Pope Francis would “soften” Church teaching on abortion, birth control, homosexual unions and transgender issues were probably disappointed by “Laudato Si.” On the other hand, those who support unfettered consumerism with a disregard for the economic, sociological, and environmental impacts that follow from that were also challenged in their beliefs. Pope Francis reminds us of the sovereignty of God and the dignity of the human person. He calls us to live the Gospel with charity and with respect in our role as stewards of His creation.

“A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion, and concern for our fellow human beings.”

—Pope Francis in “Laudato Si” 

 

Lourdes: The Veil Is Thin

  

We took the night train from Paris and rumbled south through the countryside until we arrived in Lourdes just as day was breaking. My two friends and I were in the middle of our fall break from classes at the University of Dallas campus in Rome. When we walked out of the train station, I really didn’t know what I’d see or even, to be honest, what this whole Lourdes thing was all about. I’d just become Catholic a few months before moving to Rome. Most of what I knew about St. Bernadette and the miracles at Lourdes had come from watching the movie, “The Song of Bernadette” (Note: I still love this movie and highly recommend it). We found a room at a little hotel near the train station and had breakfast. Then we walked the few blocks to the Shrine. 

Lourdes is a small village in the mountains near the Spanish border and its business is the healing waters of the spring that began to flow in 1858. The Virgin Mary appeared to the 14-year-old Bernadette on 17 occasions that year. Since that time, millions of pilgrims have made their way to Lourdes to pray for healing and to wash themselves in the water of the spring. My friends and I bought bottles at a shop and went to the spring, where we drank the water and filled our bottles to take more home. As 19-year-olds in good health, we weren’t really looking for a physical cure. Towards noon we walked up a winding path to the huge Basilica located over the cave where the Virgin appeared. The church seats 25,000 people and is truly immense. I was overpowered by the size of it. Hanging on every bit of available wall-space were crutches left there by those who have proclaimed themselves cured over the years. Religious medals and notes written in every language hang there too, in thanksgiving for answered prayers. During the days we were there in Lourdes, there were thousands of pilgrims coming to pray and to be anointed and to take the waters. The place was overwhelming and intense and confusing to me. The pilgrims seemed so devout and needy. Did I really believe the Virgin Mary came here to speak to a peasant girl and to cure sick people with spring water? I didn’t know. My visit had, in many ways, suffocated me.

It would be more than 20 years before I would visit Lourdes again. So much had changed in my life since those college days. Marriage, career, the deaths of loved ones and, thanks be to God, years of a deepening faith had made me into a much different person. I was a lot less sure of myself and a lot more sure of God. When I knelt in the cave where the Virgin had appeared to St. Bernadette, I prayed to have the eyes of faith that allowed her to see heaven on earth. When I drank the spring water, I asked God to heal me of my selfishness and doubt and, most of all, my pride. The crowds seemed smaller (they weren’t), the church more intimate (it wasn’t) and the pilgrims seemed more like me. We had all come to this place out of our need for God. All of us wanted healing. All of us wanted to be touched by heaven. I believe there are places in the world where the veil between heaven and earth is thin and, in some circumstances, even transparent. Lourdes is one of those places. If you can’t travel to France, visit your local Catholic church. At every Mass, heaven comes to earth again. In every confessional, we meet the love and mercy of Jesus Christ. These are thin places, too. Lourdes taught me that. We are all on this pilgrimage together and it is never easy. But God and His Blessed Mother walk among us along the way. We’re never alone. Heaven’s breath is always calling us home. 

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for me, a poor sinner.”

 —the last words of St. Bernadette 

Because God IS Truth

  

There’s at least one belief that is central to all of Christianity and Judaism and that is that the God of Abraham is a truthful God. He is, in fact, Truth Himself. “The sum of Your word is truth…”(Psalm 119: 160). There is nothing in God but truth. He never lies, never “mis-speaks,” never goes back on His word. God doesn’t trick us or try to lead us astray. He simply IS, and in being Who He is, is all that is true and good and beautiful. This is one of the great assurances and consolations of our faith: our God is Truth.
We can read Holy Scripture and know that God’s revelation can be counted on, without reservation. He keeps His promises. Christians can know with certainty that our God is truth and that He has fully-revealed Himself to us in His Son, Jesus Christ. And yet we see many Christians all around us who have come to believe that God lies to us all the time through His creation and through our culture. Our daily life is rife with illusion and deception—from politics to social media to the corporate world. Who can believe any photograph anymore since the invention of Photoshop? Who can believe music since the coming of AutoTune? Breast implants, facelifts, hair extensions and Botox have made the human body a canvas for plastic surgeons. What is real? What is true?
But our infatuation with being deceived goes much deeper than our skins and our voices. And the implications of our shadow dance have eternal consequences. Many Christians, even many Catholics, believe that abortion is just another medical procedure that women should be free to choose. They don’t believe in the reality of the child in their womb. The baby is a lump of cells that is part of her body and she is free to dispose of “it” like a bothersome wart. Most women suffer great guilt and regret after an abortion. Deep down, they know that abortion kills a child and yet we continue to live this lie and to support it.  
Research shows us that most Americans, including the majority of Catholics, support same-sex “marriage.” Ireland recently voted to legalize it. But because something is legal to do doesn’t mean that it’s in accordance with God’s law. Marriage reflects the unity of God with His bride, the Church. Just as human marriage bears the fruit of children, the marriage of the Lamb bears the fruit of eternal life. Same-sex couples (or triples, or groups, at some point) may become legally contracted together but is not marriage as revealed in Holy Scripture. To believe that it is the same is to embrace a distortion of reality.
Most recently, our culture has told us that God lies to us in our very creation. We’re asked to believe that the most basic scientific revelation of God’s will for our lives—the DNA that defines our biology—is a mistake or a trick. We can, by our own choosing, decide not to be a man or a woman, but we can change what we are. The truth is, we can’t change one cell of our bodies, but only the clothes we wear and the names we call ourselves. Who we are is not determined by how we look. And a baby is a baby, no matter if it’s born or unborn. Truth is truth and no amount of our own imagining or wishing can make it otherwise.  
“Truth is not determined by a majority vote.”  

             —Pope Benedict XVI 

The Bogeyman Inside

  

[SPOILER ALERT: Monsters are real!]

Anyone who has spent any time in the woods has probably seen or heard something they can’t quite explain. The sound of a branch breaking when nothing is there. The call of an animal that you’ve never heard before. A strange-looking track you can’t identify. The feeling that you’re being watched or followed. Later, safely back home, you think things over and wonder what you just saw or heard. A bear? a mountain lion? Bigfoot? Zombies?

Our human story has always been shot through with monsters. We’re fascinated with scary stories or tales of the “unknown.” We cover our eyes at the terrifying parts of the movie, but we open them just wide enough to see the vampire show his fangs. We’re scared, but we’re also attracted. Why does the shadow in the woods frighten us and at the same time, draw us to it? Why does the girl always take the flashlight and go down the creaky basement stairs? She goes because, like each one of us, she’s a monster, too.

One of the reasons we’re so fascinated by the bogeyman in the woods is because sometimes we feel and act like a wildman ourselves. We let our emotions get the better of us and instead of being rational and reflective, we scream and wave our hands in the air. We feel like picking up a club and running amok. But we don’t. At least most of us don’t. That fleeting moment of “monster-me” goes away pretty quickly. But we remember what we’re capable of. Those out-of-control impulses help us transform a shadow into a zombie in the closet. Or a ghoul in the basement. After all, if there’s one inside of me, why wouldn’t there be more out in the world?

We’re all a mix of good and evil, of light and dark, of angel and beast. Humility keeps us aware of how broken we are. Humility whispers to us: “Without grace, you’re just another one of the walking dead.” It’s pride that tells us that it’s that OTHER person who is sinful and selfish and short-tempered. Pride tells us that we’re just fine, that our sins are few and tiny. Or else it tells us we’re so sinful and lost that God could never ever forgive us and welcome us into His arms. Pride is the soul-killer, the life-taker, the sin that can transform us into one of the walking dead.  

The Catholic writer Michael Kelly says that there is a clear line that separates good from evil and that line runs through the middle of my heart and of your heart. The grace of God calls us to be the light of the world and our own pride uses every chance to put a bushel over that light. We see that same struggle going on in our Church, in our country, and in our world. We change the world by allowing God to change us. The Sacraments give us life in Christ, and they increase our humility. You never see a humble vampire or zombie, do you? Immersed in Sacramental grace, we keep pride at bay and share the Light in a world of shadow and darkness. Pray for humility, for the grace to be aware of your sins and to seek forgiveness in Confession. Take your monster to the closet of confession and leave it there. God loves monsters.  

Not all the monsters have fangs.”

                     —–Jack London 

The Spreadsheet of Faith

  


Over the last week, a lot has been written about the recent Pew Research Center survey on religion in America.  The gist of the survey is that fewer Americans identify themselves as Christians and, of those who do, fewer are claiming membership in mainline protestant denominations and Catholicism.  The headlines have also focused on the increasing number of folks who say that they are atheists.  Some writers sound almost despairing in their review of the survey results.  It’s as if the end of Christianity is just around the next corner.  Others have analyzed the numbers in any way they can that will shore up their own particular beliefs and prejudices.  I’ve been reading the survey and many of the varied commentaries on it and have come to my own peculiar conclusions.


It’s not that I don’t think information like the Pew survey can be informative.  But for me, the responses to the survey are even more interesting than the survey itself.  To begin with, what do these survey results have to do with our faith?  Evidently, it’s enough to make many writers and chroniclers wring their hands in anxious worry.  But I think they’re wrong to worry, at least about this.  The Church is not a spreadsheet.  And we’re led by a Shepherd, not an accountant.  There’s a danger in looking at faith through corporate eyes.  We forget that the world’s rules don’t apply to followers of Jesus Christ.  If we allow them to, then we’ve truly lost our way.  Getting us lost is what the world is always trying to do to us.  And we can’t allow it.  

Christ never told us that the Church would enjoy the favor of history.  He told us just the opposite.  “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves”(Matthew 10:16).  “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet”(Matthew 10:14).  Since the earliest years of the Church, there have been those who have left and those who have rejected Christ outright.  Heresies come and go like the wind.  The faith of Christ isn’t easy.  Many find it too hard to bear.  We have to remember that the only measuring stick for the Church is that tree on Golgotha’s hill.

Jesus has promised to always be with His Church and that the Holy Spirit will always protect and guide His flock.  Did He promise that the Church would never see a decline in members?  No.  And we also have to remember that the United States, which is where the survey was conducted, isn’t the center of the world.  His Church is bearing fruit in great numbers in other countries.

The Church is only as healthy and strong as each one of us.  If folks are leaving the Church, we have to look at the example each one of us being for Christ.  The world will know us by the fruit we bear:  love, charity, kindness, joy and peace.  Are we so muddled and lukewarm in our own journey that we are no longer a light in the darkness?  If we are away from the Sacraments that Jesus gave us, how can we keep our eyes fixed on Christ?  If we aren’t on our knees before Him in Adoration, how can we be surprised when no one else is?  Our faith is not about surveys or spreadsheets—it’s about relationships: my relationship with Christ and with my neighbor.  We have to remember His words above all—“…apart from Me, you can do nothing”(John 15:5).

“So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it’s foolishness.”
            —I Corinthians 1:23

When You’re Angry At God

  

Most of us have been angry with God.  We can all recall circumstances in our lives when we’ve been overcome with emotion and directed our wrath to the Lord.  We lose a loved one and in our grief we lash out, demanding to know why God would do such a horrible thing to such a wonderful person.  We’re caught up in the emotion of our grief and we demand an explanation.  We have to find a logical or at least an understandable reason for why this happened.  Sometimes, when we’ve calmed down a bit, we look back at our anger with God and we’re shocked and ashamed.  We feel guilty for being angry with the Lord.  We see our anger as a sin.  But, is it really?


Anger is an emotion.  It flows out of our humanity and isn’t consciously willed.  You don’t get cut off in traffic and “decide” to get angry with that thoughtless driver—your anger is upon you without you thinking about it.  If you read some of the Psalms, you’ll soon realize that David was often angry at God.  Read Psalm 22.  David has an intimate relationship with the Lord and in intimate relationships, you don’t try to hide your feelings from the other person.  Honestly sharing your emotions is a key to the bond you share.  David couldn’t have hidden his feelings from God if he’d tried.  So David owned up to his feelings.  He cried out to God in his anger and despair.  You don’t encourage trust and intimacy by shrouding your heart.  But after David expressed his anger to God, the Psalm show that he didn’t just stay in that wrathful place.

After David genuinely rales at God, he gets it out of his system.  He moves on.  In Psalm 22, David moves through his anger, to praise.  He gets back to his right relationship with God.  And isn’t this what happens in our healthy relationships?  We get angry with our spouse, we express it, get over it, reconcile, and move on.  A friend wrongs us, we hash it out, we work through it, make up and go on with our friendship.  The relationship we enjoy with God is like this, too.  Sharing our genuine emotions with our Creator and Savior is a great gift and reveals our “family” relationship with Him.  Yes, our anger also reveals our own brokenness and it shows how little we truly understand His love for us.  But God knows our hearts and loves us anyway.

In some ways, our anger reveals how much we love God.  After all, we reserve our strongest emotions for the ones we love the most.  But we can’t allow ourselves to remain in that anger.  Emotions like anger, are involuntary.  But allowing ourselves to continue in anger is a choice we make.  And choices can be wrong.  There comes a time when our anger at God does become sinful. David reveals a way for us to move beyond anger and that way is through repentance and gratitude.  

The moment we turn our thoughts to all the many blessings of God, our anger turns to sorrow and from sorrow, to praise.  Gratitude takes all the air out of our wrath.  For me, I move from anger, to tears, to praise.  My tears are the sorrow I feel for being mad at the One Who has given me everything.  I offer them to Him and He accepts them, over and over again.  We’ve been through this before and, sinner that I am, we’ll probably go through it again.  That’s how true love works.  Its’a journey that is so much deeper than fleeting emotions.  I know that God understands my anger and I know as well that He wants more for me than that.  Only His grace can heal me.  Your anger with God doesn’t surprise Him.  He knows you loved your friend who died unexpectedly.  He understands the anger you feel at your broken marriage.  Don’t feel guilty over that genuine anger.  But, like David, don’t make your home in it, either.  Let it out and move on.  Thank God for all the love you still have in your life and trust Him to give you even more.

“For He has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch.  He did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out.  I will offer praise…”
      —Psalm 22:25-26

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