Wednesday, April 27, 2011

On Being Catholic

Writing a blog post with this title fills me with tremendous joy.

At the end of the Easter Vigil, Father Michael addressed our RCIA group all sitting together.  He started out,
"And to all of our new Catholics, not the elect, not the candidates, but fully-fledged Catholics..."

I still must remind myself that I am one of them.  I'm no longer special or a subject of uncertainty or in some difficult-to-explain state.  I'm just your normal, garden-variety Catholic.

Here is how I feel about that:

The Meat of This Post:
One question I have is how to relate to my Protestant friends and family.  On the surface, this question is very simple: with love, of course.

But digging a little deeper, I find some real uncertainty.  Am I to hope and fervently pray that my Protestant loved ones come to the Catholic Church?

Coming to the Catholic Church was like coming home for me.  It's competitively in the running for the best decision I've ever made and the best thing that's ever happened to me.  The beauty of this faith, the lucidity of its doctrines, the deep unity that binds the Church together, and the breathless, giddy joy of quietly discovering it all for the first time... I want that for my loved ones.
And of course, receiving the Eucharist is glorious and moving in a thousand tiny ways.  I desperately want that for my loved ones. Naturally, if I think I've found home, I want my friends and relatives to come home, too.

Yet... their faith is so true and real, and always has been.  I know this; I've lived it.  How can I look at my devout mother and tell her her faith lacks something vital? 

I struggle with balancing between two extremes:
  1. Protestantism is basically as good as Catholicism; it all depends on what you want and where God puts you.  The Church is the Church; it's all good.
  2. Protestantism is sufficient, but only just; it really lacks something.  Protestants are not in full communion with the real Church Jesus established.
Does anyone else have this problem?

I am beginning to think that the answer may lie in Acts 10:
While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message.  The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles.  For they heard them speaking in tongues and praising God.
   Then Peter said, “Surely no one can stand in the way of their being baptized with water. They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.”  So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days.

In this case, the Holy Spirit came on the household of Cornelius.  Cornelius was a devout man, honoring God as he knew how.   For the believers at the time, the shocking part was that Cornelius was a Gentile. But it is also unusual for the Holy Spirit to come on someone not yet baptized.  Yet God chose to bless this man and his household with a special and unusual outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  This outpouring was real, it was from God, and it produced the gifts of the Spirit demonstrated in the older believers.

However, Peter did not begin looking to Cornelius for advice.  This event was seen as a special gift of God, not implemented as normal for the rest of the Church.  Eventually, Cornelius and his family were given the normative Sacrament of Christian conversion: baptism.

Perhaps Cornelius' household can help us see how to interact with our Protestant brothers and sisters.  In His wisdom and kindness, God appears to have given our Protestant brothers and sisters the Holy Spirit, along with the fruits of the Spirit and the love by which believers are to be known.  Their faith is real, it is from God, and it produces the devotion to God and love for one another we see in faithful Catholics.

Despite this, I do not believe division from the original Church is the normative state.  I think the validity of Protestantism is a special gift of God, not the rule.  God in His goodness may maintain this special gift to Protestants all their lives, or He may choose to call them to the Catholic Church.  Which He does is, of course, entirely His business.  (Of course, in a different sense, God alone gifts the Catholic Church with its faith, too!)

Does this Scripture actually apply?  How have you handled Protestant friends or family members in your life?  Feel free to comment or PM me if you have insights.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Christ Alone

Happy Easter!  Christ is risen!  May this truth resound throughout your life!

Tonight at the Easter Vigil, Christ and His resurrection were proclaimed in every imaginable way, in every imaginable medium, through every word and action and song, as it should be.  From the gold and white of the vestments and the drapes on the altar and the tapestries to the white lilies all over the sanctuary to the Exsultet to the Scriptures read in darkness to the candles to the Psalms we sang to the beaming radiance on Father Michael's (and Father Wade's and Deacon Dave's) face as he placed his hands on my head and silently prayed for the Holy Spirit for me and made the sign of the cross in sweet-smelling Chrism oil on my forehead, to the hope and reverence as he held up the body of Christ and placed it in my hands, to the joy on each face as he dismissed us, to the final blessing, to walking out of the sanctuary as the Hallelujah Chorus played behind us to the glory of God, every moment proclaimed the resurrection.

I cannot fully describe everything that happened tonight.  I cried at least five separate times. Watching my new friends being baptized was one of the best parts.

I have imagined what the "laying on of hands" would feel like.  The reality was better than I ever imagined.  The oil is still on my forehead, and it smells so beautiful.  I'm laughing at myself as I scheme how I can get away with never washing my forehead again.
When Father prayed and asked that the Holy Spirit would come on me, the old, beautiful voice I've come to know seemed to smile, and said simply, "I have accepted you."

As I was waiting in my pew for the Eucharist to be given, I noticed suddenly how incredibly hungry I was.  But it was the strangest hunger I have ever had; the need and longing rose from my very soul.  I realized with a start that I wasn't physically hungry.  My soul was hungry for the Eucharist.  I must have looked so strange sitting there with this befuddled look on my face as I figured it out and as I then forced myself to sit still and wait.  I've waited nine months, and longed for the Eucharist nearly every day.  But I had never before needed it like I did.

My hands shook a bit when I finally approached Father Michael.  I cannot remember ever seeing anyone look so deeply, genuinely full of joy as he held up the bread for me and said, "The body of Christ."

I held out my hands and replied, "Amen."  Then he placed the body of Christ in my hands.  I'm glad I've watched so many people take Communion; otherwise it would not have been beyond me to just stand there and stare at the body of Christ in my hands, speechless.  As it was, instinct took over, and I put the wafer in my mouth.

Eric asked me later to describe how I felt, admonishing me with a smile, "You're an English minor.  Use your words."  But for Eucharist...

... there are no words.  No words.  There are no words.

The mind just waits in silence when the soul leaps in glorious joy.   Maybe that's why we simply say, "Amen."

The joy is overwhelming.  I do not have the resources to handle the magnitude of the beauty, the glory, the magnificent depth and width and height of the gift God has provided.  Maybe that's why we have a word: Alleluia.

As a mathematics major, I offer the following summary of the night:

Lord, Your glory is overwhelming; Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.  Thank You, thank You, thank You, thank You.

Friday, April 22, 2011

My Source of Strength, My Source of Hope

Today during Communion, I walked to the front of the sanctuary to be blessed during the Good Friday service at my parish.  A young man I had never met touched my shoulder and blessed me, and I said "Amen" and walked with my head low back to my pew.

I remember the first time I walked to the front with everyone else.  I had just started to accept that the little wafers the people in front of me were getting were the body of Jesus.  If you do not accept that, this will probably make little sense.  But if you do, you may understand how I felt as I approached the front.

The body of Christ was before me. Everything in me seemed to know it. I watched in awe as the person in front of me bowed and then held the body of Jesus in her hands.

I have loved Christ for as long as I can remember.  Achingly, I fought and studied and prayed my way into the deepest faith I could muster.  I had toyed with different theories about the nature of God, each one an attempt to somehow pull into my mind a God who is laughably far beyond its capacity.

Unlike Paul, I was not faultless.  But like Paul, my circumstances gave me every imaginable push into the faith.  At eight, I was baptized into the faith my family taught me.  I was the first person baptized in the new building, and the water was cold.
At nine, I began attending Christian summer camps.  These week-long retreats taught me some of my most valuable spiritual lessons.  Often, those lessons were far from what I was supposed to be learning; I never fit in well and so I learned to find company in God's presence, and friendship in the other nine-year-old outcasts.
At twelve, I received the small Bible that would carry me through the rest of my teenage years.  I had already read my old NIV cover-to-cover.
At fifteen, I heard the voice of God for the first time.

I began to ask myself, "If I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was in... China right now, what would my next impulse be?"  It became my way of checking my priorities.  I tried to let absolutely nothing stand in my imaginary way of leaving that instant, flying to China, and falling at His feet.  Sometimes I would have fallen at His feet and rejoiced.  Sometimes I would have fallen at His feet and cried.  But no matter my reaction, I wanted this to happen so, so much.  To finally meet the God who suffered for me, the object of my deepest devotion and greatest longing, was the cry of my soul itself.

At twenty-one, I walked to the front of a Catholic church and watched in awe as the girl in front of me held the body of Jesus in her hands.

Suddenly it was my turn.  Hastily, I crossed my arms over my chest.  Father David paused and blessed me, and that was that.  I turned away, slowly returned to my pew, and knelt and cried.
To approach my Lord, to be so close and then to turn away...  I was crying for everything I was and everything I was not, and because my choices had led me to the moment I had longed for, but had also turned me away.

Since then, I have cried during Communion many times, including today. But by the Lord's fantastic providence, tomorrow, at twenty-two, I can watch in awe as I hold the body of Jesus in my hands and feel the blood of Jesus run down my throat.

If I do cry, I will be crying for everything I am and everything I am not, but mostly for the grace that gives me the moment I long for and will never turn me away.

Have a blessed Triduum.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Just One Thing

Phew.  I just finished a particularly difficult couple of weeks, homework-wise.  My stress level shows, most notably in my bedroom (in utter disarray at the moment) and in the kitchen (where the puppy has been the primary mode of floor-cleaning) and in my hair (which gets less and less attention as the exams draw nearer).

But now I have finished the last round of exams before finals and begun the rehabilitation process, resting up for the final push of the semester.

I get a rush of low-grade euphoria the afternoon after an exam, especially if I feel reasonably good about it. I also get a rush of euphoria after grocery-shopping, incidentally.  I love the feeling of being "stocked up"; it makes me feel safe.

So after driving home from my post-exam grocery-shopping trip, I was listening to Comptine d'un autre été, by Yann Tiersen and driving down Texas Avenue.  The gentle happiness seemed to be wafting from my skin, and in the beautiful broken chords, a wonderful peace surrounded me.

Musing on my happiness, I realized:

Survival is having everything you need.  Happiness is knowing you have everything you need.

Most of what I have, I don't need.  My possessions just complicate my life.  I try to minimize the complications, because I want a simple life of grace and beauty.

I think most people do not know what they need.  This is why people are so unhappy and why suicides happen so frequently.

When it comes down to it, what do I need?
Physically, I need water, food, oxygen, sleep, medicines, and so forth.  Emotionally, I need reflection, relaxation, and security.  Spiritually, I need grace, peace, assurance, and so forth.

I do not need the latest gadget.  99% of the time, when I buy something, I'm not buying it because I want it.  I'm buying it because I hope that if I do, I will catch a particular boy's eye, or impress a friend, or be able to avoid a bad habit of mine, or be able to have more free time.  That's what I really want, and even those things are only gateways to something else.

I do not need the things advertised to me.  In fact, if something is being advertised, it's a strong sign I don't need it.  If I did need it, its value would be obvious to me, and they wouldn't be trying to convince me to buy the thing.  They advertise products to me because I do not need them.

I think this realization explains why some of the poorest people in the world are the happiest.  They know exactly what they need, and know that right now, they have it.  They know this because they've seen what it's like to not have those things.
This is true physically, but I think it's also true emotionally.  Some of the happiest people I know are those who have known the deepest suffering. They know what it's like to be without, emotionally.   When they have what they need, they know it.  Thus, they are happy.  And of course, a small voice inside me whispers, "Blessed are the poor in spirit..."

Part of my happiness is knowing that I have what I need.  I don't actually need new clothes, fancy coffee, or special makeup.  I don't need to know who I am.  I don't need to find myself.  I don't need to know what is going to happen or what will become of me.
I do actually need faith, meaning, a sense of purpose, and the utterly irrational, radical hope that has been growing inside me for the last few months.  I do need peace.  I do need Adoration. I do need Confession.  I do need prayers and readings and reflection.
I will not always have what I need emotionally.  It's virtually certain that someday, I will not have what I need physically.

Is this part of the meaning of life?  Life is a battle, a long train of suffering of various kinds.  Life is hard. Life will knock you down, crush you, press you to the floor.  Life will push you to the place where you look up from the darkness and cry out for deliverance.  Life will break you and batter you until you learn to look not at the darkness around you or the darkness within you but at the light above you.
Maybe the purpose of life is to teach me what I really need, to whittle down my must-have list, as time goes on, to fewer and fewer items of greater and deeper significance.
In the end, maybe life is the story of the long, painful suffering designed to teach us, at the very end, that we really only need one thing.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Public Speaking, Spiders, Death, and Confession

Sometime in the next couple of weeks, I have to make my first confession.

Confession (also known as Reconciliation, or Penance) is one of the sacraments of the Church.  The very idea is one of the "weirder" sacraments of the Church, but it is Biblically, historically, and practically sound.  James 5:16 commands confession of sins to other Christians.  Jesus in John 20:20-23 gives the disciples the power to bind and loose, and to forgive and retain sins.  Jesus sends them forth as the Father sent him, suggesting they acted and spoke by Jesus' authority, as Jesus spoke by the Father's authority.

Confession is one of the times when the priest acts "in the person of Christ".  The priest acting as a man cannot forgive sins; he's just a man.  But acting in persona Christi, the priest can say, "I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

Historically, the Church has practiced Confession since at least the beginning of the 100's A.D., as explained in the Didache, chapters 4 and 14.

But knowing this, I am still more afraid of Confession than of anything I've walked into voluntarily in my life.  I will be confessing things everyone knows (such as how unforgiving I can be),  as well as things no one on earth knows about me.

So I am compiling a list of every mortal sin I've ever committed.  The magnitude of my sin is overwhelming.  Combing through my life bit by bit has been humbling.  My sinful nature is truly sinful, and truly my nature.
But most of my sins have not been done with full knowledge of their sinfulness, which is one of the criteria for a "mortal sin".  Most of my sins were done out of laziness or ignorance.

But they still hurt God and wounded me.

Sin is sin.

Jen Fulwiler said that ten minutes in the confessional were worth ten years of psychotherapy.  For me, I keep hearing the words "I absolve you of your sins..." in my head and wondering how I'll feel.

I have a couple of very old sins that have eaten at my soul since I was a child.  At times, the sheer magnitude of the guilt I felt over a couple of specific sins drove me into deep depression.  No one told me I had done wrong.  No one had to.

I've mostly moved on, because I simply don't think about it.  But it lingers, driving my oddest actions, motivating me in little ways.
I never speak of these things.  But I'll be telling the priest even about these darkest parts of myself.  This is why Confession feels to me like the next step in the long story of how I've dealt with the reality of my own depravity.

Lord willing, I'll let you know how the story goes after this.  Thanks be to God.