Sunday, February 26, 2012

1st Sunday of Lent

Well, my 1st 5 days of Lent have kind of been a blur. I realized as I was sitting in church today that while laying down fear & doubt is noble, its still not enough. That "sacrifice" isn't really affecting me in every day life. I still cling to it "out there". I can see my attachment in the words that I speak or refrain from speaking... I can see it in the things I avoid & the challenges I choose not to face as a result. My daily life thus far seems to have nothing to do with my sacrifice, but everything to do with my self-preservation. I could beat myself up, demean my efforts (or lack thereof), but what good would that do? The question I should be asking is what good can be done henceforth? Certainly Lent is salvageable...

I was prepared to be content with my "success" to overcome anxiety in Mass (& it was a victory, to be sure), but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Now I need to ask myself: Does my sacrifice touch others? Does it glorify God? Does it cost me something? King David paid a price for a threshing floor so he could bring burnt offerings to God. The owner, Araunah, wanted to give him not only the floor, but the oxen & all the other equipment as a gift. But David replied something to the effect that he couldn't sacrifice to God unless it cost him something. The nation was suffering under plague because of his sin. His purchase & subsequent sacrifice was his repentance in action. Its interesting to note that David's son Solomon built the Temple on this very same site years later.

So... Besides me, who else is affected by my sin? What does MY repentance in action look like? What cost am I willing to incur? And what can God build on the site of my sacrifice years down the road?

Under God's Roof

It makes me sad & even a little angry to think that Catholicism gets such a bad rap because no one knows what its actually about. Not many will take the time to lay aside what they think they know & read the Catechism, attend Mass, talk to a priest or an actual practicing Catholic. Fewer still will consider the Rosary or study church history.

Many think the Catholic Church has set itself up as an authority. What right do they have to tell me such & such? Keep the church out of my home, my body, my bedroom. Some even go so far as to shut the Church out of their life. But what these folks don't realize is that the Church wasn't set up on some elaborate, centuries old conspiracy theory. Some power tripping group of guys bent on ruling the world didn't launch out & just start some movement. The Church was set up by Christ Himself, who ordained Peter & the other apostles to carry the message to the world. They were the first pastors of the first "church" & they passed their authority onto successors. All authority in heaven & on earth was given to Jesus, which He also gave to them. Therefore, (I believe) the Church is a spiritual authority which exists by God's will. When Its leaders follow God wholeheartedly, the Church provides a tangible parental model. While its true that most kids don't appreciate the rules & discipline a good parent offers, if that parent makes sure to under gird all they do with unconditional love, their children are more likely to respect that authority, even if they don't like how it feels.

As long as I am under the authority of God's roof, I'm required to abide by His "rules". What happens to a kid who slacks off or rebels? Maybe there's grace, maybe there's discipline. Instead of being a spiritual runaway or considering myself a no good lump of snow covered dung (as Luther once suggested), I can "have access to the facilities" & be renewed daily... but only as long as I remain under God's roof. Rather than being left to my own devices, I can feel safe within the structure of the Church- tangibly & spiritually- because God loves me without condition & only seeks my good. My definition of "good" may not look like His though... Sometimes "good" comes with a yoke & a burden to bear. But Jesus said His yoke is easy, His burden is light.

I think one of the main turnoffs to Catholicism is this issue of authority. Everyone wants to be autonomous & strong. Being subject to someone implies weakness, powerlessness, vulnerability. But autonomy only serves to isolate us from God's love. It can even be a form of rebellion. Doesn't God oppose the proud & give grace to the humble? Doesn't God say when we are weak, He is strong? And doesn't He tell us to rend our hearts, not our garments? Why are we so opposed to submission to authority? Because we can't trust it? Because we fear we'll lose our freedom? Even if the Church is under the jurisdiction of fallible human beings, if God is the authority by which It exists, can't I trust that He'll watch over me?

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Rite of Election

I fear my descriptions can't do justice to the evening. We all met at the beautiful Cathedral in downtown Portland. From what I could tell, the place was essentially full of candidates, catechumens, sponsors & God parents. No family & friends were invited because there just wasn't room! I had joked with a friend of mine earlier that this is where they roll out the spooky stuff no one else was supposed to see... But there was nothing weird about the night except for the flickering lights throughout the service. I think there were at least 10 or so parishes represented. I wished it was light out so I could see the stained glass, but I was sated by the 9 amazing murals on the walls of the apse behind the altar (Emil Jacques, 1930-36). The one in particular that caught my eye was Mary's assumption into heaven. She wasn't wearing blue, but a light peach/rose sort of colour. She wasn't perched on the shoulders of a bunch of fat little cherubims, but two beefy young male angels in their prime. Their wings were enormous & somehow muscular. It just seemed fitting. The walls were white with gold accents & the ceiling was painted a rich dark blue & red. It was all very tasteful. An old, ornate & ginormous organ loomed from the balcony in the back of the church. I would have liked to see it, but perhaps some other time.

The Archbishop, a priest, a deacon & few other altar servers made their way to the altar during the entrance song. I've never seen an Archbishop in person, so it was interesting to note his clothing, hat & staff (or "regalia" as I like to call it). After he greeted us, he went to his chair & sat down, which means we got to sit down too. The Liturgy of the Word commenced. We had our first reading, a responsorial Psalm, a second reading & then the gospel. Everything was bi-lingual as there were so many Hispanics in attendance. The Archbishop delivered a short homily on confession & repentance & then it was time for the Celebracion del Llamando a la Conversion Continua (or, the Celebration of the Call to Continuing Conversion).

This is the time for the candidates to be presented to the Archbishop. We stood with our sponsors when our names were called by our RCIA directors. Then we sat & our sponsors stood to offer testimony about our readiness. The Archbishop queried the assembly, asking if they would accept the sponsor's testimonies & support us with prayers & love. Of course, everyone said yes. Then we candidates stood to hear him tell us the Church recognizes our desire. He invited us to join the Church in a spirit of repentance this Lenten season, to hear God's call to conversion & to be faithful to our baptismal covenant. Then we were seated & the Rite of Election began for the catechumens in much the same fashion. When all the names were called & testimonies offered, the Books of the Elect were brought to the Archbishop to sign. We sang songs & when all the books were signed, the Archbishop declared all of us "members of the Elect, to be fully initiated into the sacred mysteries at the Easter Vigil". We stood for prayer & a blessing & were dismissed with song. As the Archbishop & company left, I noticed he made the sign of the cross over each section of pews. I thought of it like a kiss blown. I am blessed. I'm not alone anymore. I am empowered, supported & safe. I'm coming home...


Yesterday was Ash Wednesday & I went to get my ashes at the parish. The coloured banners which denote liturgical time had changed from green to purple- the beginning of Lent. I was surprised to discover that anyone can receive ashes because they are a sacramental, not a sacrament. A sacramental is something like a crucifix or a rosary- something tangible. Anyone can use it.

Lent is about fasting, prayer & almsgiving, but these things don't have to be fasts from food, hour long prayers or giving lots of $$ away. We can "sacrifice" intangible things too. I decided to give God my doubt & any residual fear I have about becoming a Catholic. For the next 40 days, I will live like I am unconditionally loved by my parish. I will live like I belong. I will live like everything the Catholic church tells me is true, without fear, without doubt. Something in me wondered how I would be able to do it if I haven't been able to overcome these things on my own outside of Lent? What about my paralyzing anxiety? Like Isaac, I thought- there's some wood and an altar, but where's the offering? Abraham told his son that God would provide the sacrifice, even as he prepared to tie him up & stand over him with a knife...

The Rite of Sending was the first time I emerged from my pew for a blessing during communion. At Ash Wednesday Mass, I began to kneel before sitting, cross myself after prayer and speak the obscure responses at Mass. I greeted people wholeheartedly during the Peace. And I joined the line for ashes. The EM (extraordinary minister- a person "deputized" by the priest to administer a sacrament), dipping her thumb in the ash & putting it to my forehead said: "Remember you are dust..." The Lenten journey has begun. God will provide the sacrifice.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Finding Jesus

In the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, we're reminded of the first events of Jesus' life. There's His conception, His mother's visit to Elizabeth & getting to meet His cousin John womb to womb. Then there's His birth, the presentation in the temple & finally (fast forward 12 years), the finding in the Temple.

The finding has always intrigued me because there's such a long gap between Jesus' presentation as a baby & this random childhood scene. Is it even that important? If so, why? The finding is in the last half of Luke 2, starting in vs. 41. His parents brought Jesus to Jerusalem to attend the Passover Feast. It was a custom their family & friends followed every year. When the festivities ended, everyone headed home, but it was a day's journey before His parents finally figured out Jesus wasn't with them. Maybe they thought He was with Uncle Zack or Aunt Liz. Maybe He & John were off hunting lizards somewhere. I can only imagine how scared & maybe even a little frustrated Mary & Joseph were. Jesus was old enough to know better! They searched everywhere for 3 days before going back to the Temple even crossed their mind. Lo & behold, there He was, hanging out with the teachers, asking questions & listening intently.

In the Catholic expression of faith, Mary is seen as a representative of the Church. If we look at the finding symbolically, we could assume that since Jesus arrived with the church, He also leaves with her & goes where she goes. It's been a long journey... The church is tired & looking forward to getting back to the comfort of everyday life. It takes her a while to realize Jesus is strangely absent. No one seems to know anything, so she backtracks. She's feeling a little frantic right now... a little scared. Where IS He?! She goes between feeling guilty & playing the blame game. She looks everywhere- the media, the marketplace- but He's no where to be found. Finally, she goes back to the source of all this- the House of God. She's kind of surprised to find Him there. But Jesus responds to the church by saying "Didn't you know I had to be about my Father's business?". Do we maybe take it for granted that Jesus is with us by default? How long does it take us to discover that our agendas might differ from His at times? Where do we start looking for Him?

President's Day

Its a national holiday. I think its sad that its become the norm to equate holidays with sales, maybe a day off work or the inconvenience of the banks & post offices being closed. Do we even remember why we celebrate anymore? I grew up in the late 70's, early 80's. Kids back then knew why we celebrated Lincoln or Washington. We knew what Veteran's day, Memorial day & Pearl Harbor day was & why the Ladies Auxiliary sold those little plastic poppies in front of all the grocery stores. We knew where Thanksgiving originated & what they were celebrating. We knew explorers like Christopher Columbus by name. We knew who wrote the Star Spangled Banner & we knew all the words because we had to sing it every day in school! We pledged allegiance to our flag: one nation, under God. We knew why we celebrated the fourth of July. That concept seems so foreign anymore. Now its all about partying with the biggest, baddest, fireworks display & copious amounts of alcohol. We knew that Christmas was about Christ & nativity scenes & family, not 3 day, last chance Christmas blowout sales. There wasn't a card & seasonal merchandise for every holiday & holidays weren't marketed in the stores months in advance like they are now. The average kid doesn't know these things & probably doesn't even care. But history matters.

How we celebrate our heritage matters. I'm not talking about Americans only, but every human being in general. We used to hold people, places & events in memorial because their presence meant something to us- past, present & future. These things changed us somehow, for better or worse. I believe its God Who makes us human, but the act of being human is left up to us. Preserving heritage is an act of humanity. Accomplishing things worthy of memorial for future generations is an act of humanity. Holiday sales & competition between who has the better whats-its, frustration from having our lives interrupted or inconvenienced for any length of time or the expectation of a day to escape work & responsibilities are not acts of humanity. Our holidays used to be something special. The community celebrated because it remembered that our heritage & history was not about the "me" or the "I", it was about the "we", the "us", the "why".

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Rite of Sending

Today we had our Rite of Sending. "What's that?!" you ask? The Rite of Sending, though typically for those who are unbaptized & known as catechumens, can also include the baptised, or candidates. It's the beginning of the end for us- the last leg of our journey through RCIA. We attended Mass as usual, only this time we entered in precession with the priest as we had for our rite of Acceptance/Welcome. Catechumens & candidates sat on opposite sides. After the homily, the catechumens were called to the front & faced the congregation. Their sponsors stood behind them & testified to the priest that the catechumens were indeed ready to continue on their journey toward confirmation. The candidates came up in like fashion & sponsors also testified in kind. The mass of catechumens, candidates & sponsors formed a dense horse shoe of humanity beneath the icon of a crucified Jesus. One woman sitting in the congregation commented later that it was as if Jesus had gathered us to Himself, arms outstretched on the cross to embrace us. My perspective was much different, staring out at a sea of faces. Its always kind of surreal being up front.

The catechumens were invited to go up to the altar- the very place where the bread & wine are consecrated- to sign the Book of the Elect. Its just a book with reproductions of old woodcuts & lines for people to sign their names... but our names will be read from that book when we are presented to the Archbishop in just four days... hence, "the Sending". The Catechumens signed one page & candidates, another. The sponsors stayed in place & their positions seemed to form a sort of haven for us to get up & sign behind... It's as if they were a wall, protecting us. Despite my nervousness, I felt no fear in signing. I couldn't believe I was doing it. When we had returned to our positions, the priest asked the congregation to pray & affirm us on our journey. They stretched out their hands & prayed. We were warmly welcomed back to our seats & the Mass continued as usual.

The St. Vincent De Paul Society threw a fantastic pancake breakfast afterward & I got to chat with the resident iconographer, as well as my sponsors & some other folks I knew at the table. It felt very communal. Random people congratulated me & were so excited for me... now its onto Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent & the Rite of Election at the cathedral on Thursday.

Heaven Has No Queen?

Yesterday I was introduced to a book written by a guy named Todd Burpo. Apparently his 4 year old son had an out of body experience & went to heaven. He described the Trinity, the angels, the beauty of it all & even saw famous Bible people & departed family members. I watched interviews from TBN & other ministers who seemed very excited, full of faith & wonder. I, however, am not easily convinced. Whether the kid's story is true or not, one thing troubled me: where was Mary in the mix?

I understand this book is written from a Protestant standpoint, so of course Mary would probably be absent. Nevertheless, I came home & asked God to reveal Mary to me... Was she really alive in heaven? Are the things the Catholic Church says about her true? Later in the evening, I opened up my copy of the Magnificat. The readings for that day centered around none other than the Blessed Virgin. I can't help but think of this as an answer to prayer, though it may just be coincidence.

Some folks say Protestants don't "see" Mary because she's not really "out there" to be seen. But perhaps the problem is that Protestants haven't been encouraged to look for her. Artists tend to render her as a petite, demure white woman dressed in blue & white... nothing threatening there. But folks seem to bristle at the idea of Mary existing anywhere outside the confines of the Gospels. When they see Catholic artists depicting her floating through the sky with a crown on her head & beams of light shooting from her hands, that's it. Of course they can't take her seriously. But then how can we take the claims of Jesus' disciples seriously? What about when He walked on water, was transfigured on Mt. Tabor, or appeared in one place in one form after His resurrection & then disappeared & appeared as Himself somewhere else miles away? Was it all a crock? Do we REALLY believe the eyewitness accounts? If so, why can't we believe what the Catholics say about Mary? Since she was still alive when the New Testament was being written, its stands to reason that accounts of her death & assumption into heaven wouldn't be there. After the Bible, what do we have to rely on? Its important to remember that the Bible is just a snapshot of a greater whole. Everyday, outside of the Bible, we rely on history, culture, tradition, faith, science & continuing educational experiences to teach us who we are & how we should live. Mary is a big part of Christian history, both written & unwritten.

To steal the format of a once popular bumper sticker: No Mary, no Jesus. Know Mary, know Jesus. It may sound lame, but it's true. I took a challenge at the beginning of my conversion journey to ask Jesus to reveal His mother to me. That led me straight to the Roasry, which led me right back to Christ. If looking for Mary leads me away from Jesus, then pursuing her is worthless. But if she in fact leads me to Christ, how can I deny her importance & the possibility that Catholic tradition is true?

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Feeling Fed

I got to hang out with an Evangelical friend from my former church this evening. She asked me how I got "fed" at Mass- as in, everything seemed so rote- what was I able to take away from that? She bravely went with me once & felt nothing, though she wanted to & tried. What about me? Do I "feel" anything when I'm there?

I suppose I should get used to these kinds of questions. I wish the subject of my conversion didn't feel awkward, but it always does. Not only does my company feel strange, but I'm put on the spot to try & explain things that are still new for me too. I try my best, but sometimes I just have to say "I don't know yet".

As to my friend's questions, I do indeed get "fed" at Mass. There are 3 main scripture readings, 1 from the OT, 1 from the NT, & 1 from a gospel. There are other portions of scriptures scattered throughout, including responsorial Psalms, hymns & spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19). We confess & repent of our sins together. We sing an ancient hymn known as the Gloria. We speak out the Creed as a communal profession of our faith. We pray for the needs of our community, world & leadership & somewhere in there, we even get a homily. We also pray the Our Father as a community and partake (well, not me, not just yet!) of the Eucharist as one Body. Yes, I get fed. How could I not? In fact, most Sundays, I feel like I'm sitting at a smorgasboard! I suppose from the outside, it could seem rote... dry, dull. It can look & sound very mechanical. I have no doubt for some its just that. But its not that way for me at all. As to the feeling portion of my friend's question, being at Mass feels very much like an adventure to me. There are so many ways God can (& does) speak in that setting & I get to explore every nook & cranny.

Being "fed" in my former churche(s) seemed to depend on how professional or emotionally charged the first 20 minutes of musi- er, worship was. The pastor would unpack a few verses of scripture, tell some jokes, share some stories, etc. After 45 minutes or so, the challenge to practice some spiritual principle in daily life was extended, sometimes during an altar call. I always felt like I was at a concert or in a classroom, listening to a teacher lecture on their own opinions. In contrast, the Mass isn't about the feeling one gets from singing. It's not about the priest's opinions or how eloquently he can unpack a few scriptures. The Mass is about community, coming together to worship God.

Lift Up Yer Head!

I've recently been looking at fear & how it affects my spiritual journey. My sponsor recommended a book to me: Henri Nouwen's Inner Voice of Love

At first, I was skeptical. What could I possibly read that I hadn't read before? I was pleased to find this to be a particularly thin book with short entries. I perused a few & then came to rest on "Stand Erect In your Sorrow". In a nutshell, it's an encouragement to stay present in whatever kind of pain, sorrow, fear, etc., you may be experiencing. Avoid clicking into autopilot by complaining, looking for pity or just shutting down.

I get the image of a flower drooping & curling in on itself. If only it could lift up its head, drink in some sun & feel that its roots are still gripping the moist, nutritious soil that holds it steadfast...

I know that when I feel pain, sorrow or fear, everything tends to collapse within me. Darkness falls & I feel overwhelmed. I'm a droopy little flower. Woe is me, you know? Henri suggests that standing firm instead of retreating into myself when I feel the weight bearing down will help me remain connected to others. But I have an objection: if I "stand erect", everyone will see me! Well, isn't that the point? Don't I want help? Don't I want someone to recognize the pain & come alongside me? Obviously the answer is yes, right? Well... not so fast. If I'm honest with myself, I have to admit that maybe I haven't really wanted to be seen... maybe I haven't been as open to help as I would like to believe. Being seen & receiving assistance from others requires something of me... change. And I think I'm afraid of change. I explored this in prayer the other day. I thought that it was only change I feared. Back in the Bible, John says fear has to do with punishment. If I am afraid of change, what's the punishment involved? Perhaps its the idea that part of my identity will be ripped away from me... I've staked a big part of it in the deceptive functionality of fear. But no, that wasn't all. Did I fear punishment from God? Oddly, no. But I actually realized I do fear the punishment of others. I don't "stand erect" & let others see me because I am afraid of how they might respond to me. It seems ridiculous. I can't know how they'll respond! But fear is a very good director, able to assign parts & scenes in moments. Who is my director- fear or the Spirit of God within me? Why so downcast oh my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise Him! Psalm 43:5

Friday, February 17, 2012

Jesus In the Moonlight

It was just before the Passover. Jesus celebrated a somewhat emotional & confusing Last Supper with His disciples. After feet had been washed, Judas bolted & the meal had been eaten, they sang a hymn. I wonder if this was joyful, bittersweet or merely a function of devotion to God? Jesus then led His disciples out to the Garden of Gethsemane. It had been a long night & everyone was already exhausted.

In Matthew 26:31-46, Jesus is described as being sorrowful. We know from the other synoptic gospels that this included falling down to the ground, crying out to God & sweating drops of blood. But I'd like to look at the moments leading up to that... The garden is on the Mount of Olives & it appears to be about 1/4 mile from Jerusalem proper. That's not a terribly long way to walk, but it's also uphill. I imagine the walk only exacerbated Jesus' anxiety about the events of the days ahead. Think of how YOU would feel after an emotional evening... You're walking in the darkness with a crowd of people you call your friends, but you know they don't get it. Its all shadows & torchlights up the hill. The air is cool & dewy. The guys are yawning out loud, walking slowly, wondering what the heck Jesus is up to now. Is He just being eccentric? They stop & Jesus tells some of them to wait there. He motions for Peter, James & John to come with Him as he walks a little further.

I wonder what His face looked like when He finally turned around & told them He was "Sorrowful, even unto death". He asked them to keep watch with Him & pray. They tried, but quickly fell asleep. I think of how moonlight & shadows can distort someone's features... I wonder if the disciples could even tell that Jesus was distraught? Did He have tears in His eyes? Was His voice trembling at all? Jesus seemed to say & do a great many things the disciples didn't understand right away. Maybe He was trembling because it was cold out there. Perhaps they couldn't see the tears welling up. Maybe they just took it for granted that He was feeling emotional & wanted to pray. Afterall, Jesus was no stranger to going off by Himself & praying in the evening after long days of ministering. Perhaps it was normal for the disciples to go with Him & sleep while He did His thing. But on this night, He told Peter, James & John that He was sorrowful for a reason. He kept coming back to check on them & found them sleeping. Imagine this feeling of abandonment coupled with intense sorrow... His disciples took Him for granted that night & no doubt regretted it.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Foreigner's Homeland

Today my RCIA director asked me if converting to Catholicism felt like coming into a foreign land or like coming home. This was actually a hard question for me to answer on the fly, because it's felt like both most of the time. And maybe that's my answer. But I liken it to the following:

Say I'm in America & I found out that I have family in Eastern Europe. We've been in contact & they're wanting me to come for a visit. So I do some research as to the place I'm going, customs, language, etc. I shell out the bucks to get my passport & medical taken care of & book a flight about 6 months out. I'm already anticipating how I'll communicate with these people or what we'll have to talk about. I wonder what stories I'll hear or what new things I'll be exposed to. The months pass by & suddenly the week of the trip is upon me. I need to start thinking about what to pack. Then comes the day I get to drag my bags through the airport & board the plane. I'm buzzing with excitement & a little bit of apprehension... I'm drained from being around people, standing in endless lines & all the other restrictive minutia of traveling in the 21st century. Its going to be a long flight. And when I land, these people I've only known through pictures & letters & emails are there to greet me. Someone in the family knows English, so we converse in broken sentences & nervous laughter. Its kind of awkward, but at the same time, this is my family. They bring me to their home (which is now my home) & we eat together. We talk some more. We stay up all night pouring over history. The days are full of things to see, places to go, people to meet. Short story shorter, I fall in love with it & decide to stay. This is kind of what converting to Catholicism is like for me. It's my foreign homeland. It's the place where I come from...

To my knowledge, no one in my family was Catholic... but the more I learn, the more I realize how aligned in heart I've been all these years. Even though some facets of the faith are definitely foreign to me, other things are somehow very familiar. I can't shake the feeling that this is where I belong.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Fear Not

God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love does, in fact, live in God, and God does, in fact, live in him. So our love for him grows more and more, filling us with complete confidence for the day when he shall judge all men—for we realize that our life in this world is actually his life lived in us. Love contains no fear—indeed fully-developed love expels every particle of fear, for fear always contains some of the torture of feeling guilty. This means that the man who lives in fear has not yet had his love perfected. 1 John 4:18 [Phillips]

I like this translation because it breaks things down where other translations say "there is no fear in love". I used to assume that since my life is wracked with fear, I must not really love God. But the verse actually implies that fear has to do with the threat of punishment. If we're afraid of punishment & do good only to avoid it, our motivation doesn't come from love of God. It's more self-preservation than anything. But what if we come to expect it- not in the sense that we think of God sitting in heaven with a cache of lighting bolts- I'm talking about knowing the consequence for our sin beforehand. A kid knows not to sneak cookies before dinner but does it anyway. The rules are laid down for us. If we deliberately sin, do we usually fear punishment? Obviously not enough to stop the behaviour. We're probably not even thinking of the consequences. But this lack of fear isn't showing love for God. Its exhibiting a blatant disregard for His authority, which is another form of self-preservation. So in what instance is the lack of fear showing love toward God?

I think it might have something to do with the opposite of self-preservation, which involves surrender, submission, humility... all those nasty words that make our corpuscles cringe. Remember the 1st part of that verse says "God is love, and the man whose life is lived in love... lives in God, and God... lives in him". The man who lives in God does all out of a love for God that is yet being formed & perfected. This leaves room for error... even for sin. But that man doesn't have to fear punishment or discipline- not because he expects it won't happen, but that it will- and he knows its for his ultimate good, to train him up in righteousness. He knows this because he knows the character of God, which is love (which is still being perfected in him). If perfect love casts out fear, then love that's being perfected should at least diminish it. Gradually, because of God's faithfulness to discipline us, we're able build trust & love Him more fully... again, not because we're afraid of His punishment, but because we've come to know His love for us.

The Real Sacrifice

Paul makes a point to say that Jesus died for sins on the cross once, for all. Because of this, some people think Catholics believe Jesus dies over & over every time the Mass is said. But the Mass is not a re-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Its not a second, third or fourth sacrifice, its "THE" Sacrifice, the re-presentation of the very same one He offered on the cross 2,000 years ago. That sounds a little crazy, doesn't it? But my propensity toward sin is made present daily... My sin is a re-presentation of Adam & Eve's rebellion. It may look different, but at the core, its the same. Christ's Sacrifice may look different because there is no body, no blood, no cross, but at the core, its the same.

In John 6, Jesus said "My flesh is real food & My Blood is real drink"... He was at the synagogue in Capernaum speaking to a crowd of people. The Jews scoffed & grumbled & some of His own disciples walked away. The account seems to imply that only the 12 stuck with Him. This concept of Jesus' flesh & Blood being real food & drink is known to Catholics as the "Real Presence". As we see from this story, many thought the idea was crazy. Cannibalistic. Reprehensible. No self respecting Jew would drink the lifeblood of any creature. Was Jesus speaking figuratively? Why did so many walk away?

I wonder if non-Catholics have trouble with the idea of the Mass as a re-presentation of the original Sacrifice & real presence of Jesus because it simply boggles the mind? It pervades the confines of time & humanity. It seems disgusting to subject someone to torture over & over or to even think of consuming their flesh & blood as sustenance. Its crazy. And that kind of understanding is precisely what caused everyone but the 12 to leave Jesus behind.

So what about me? Do I believe such things? Honestly, I'm still not sure. I know there is something different about the Catholic Eucharist as opposed to a Protestant communion service. I know the peace I feel in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. But I honestly can't wrap my head around how the Sacrifice of Mass is the very same Sacrifice Jesus offered on the cross. I'm told that as the priest prays, the bread & wine are consecrated to become the Body & Blood of Christ, an "unbloody Sacrifice". The priest is the representative of Jesus to us, essentially Jesus with flesh on. It is Jesus as priest Who consecrates the elements & then presents Himself to us as the Sacrifice, "once, for all". He re-presents the core of His Sacrifice as He says "Do this in remembrance of Me"... "Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world", none other than the "Body & Blood of Christ"... It truly is a mystery to me.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

What If...

What if Jesus really paid the penalty for every sin of humanity by His sacrifice on the cross? Why is it we're still warned of eternal punishment? What if all that was necessary for salvation from such a horrible future was faith alone? Why all the hub bub about repenting & seeking forgiveness for sins? Why wouldn't faith in Jesus' work on the cross be enough to save us despite our current sins? Could we even call sins "sins" anymore if Jesus effectively drained every single one of them of their power to condemn us? What if everyone's sin was absolutely, completely forgiven on the cross? Why bother with the Christian life at all if we're already saved from the penalty of eternal condemnation?

Some have said we live for God for the love of God, but this explanation seems far fetched to me. What human has the capacity to trust & love God so perfectly (aside from maybe a newborn babe untouched by the traumas of life)? Why do we really choose to submit ourselves to God & attempt to live Holy lives? Why are we still concerned about sin? Are we still trying to atone for it? Could it be that sin, though forgiven, still merits some kind of punishment? Did Jesus take the punishment or the wages of sin from us? Aren't they the same? One verse says the wages of sin is death & the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus. But why does 1 John 5:16 talk about the contrast between sin that doesn't lead to death & sin that does? If death is not always the end result of sin, then sin must have some other outcome. I submit that it might come in the form of disciplinary punishment. But doesn't God's grace release us from the punishment of sin? Again, I ask, why couldn't disciplinary punishment be God's grace & gift of life to us in lieu of death?

For a criminal offender, there is condemnation (life sentence, death penalty) and there is punishment (community service, fines and/or other reparations). The one has no hope of parole. The other is free, but that freedom has strict guidelines. In a sense, that one is a slave to the system. If we Christians are free, could it be said then that we're also slaves to God's system of Salvation? That is, are we, like Paul, bond servants & slaves to Christ because He set us free from a life sentence of death? What if we violate God's system by sin? What would happen to someone in our legal system? Well, honestly, maybe nothing. They'd have to get caught first. But if justice was served, they might face punishment via jail time. Under extreme circumstances, they might get slapped with the sentence they originally deserved, or they might be able to make a deal with their parole officer in exchange for repentance. Based on God's character, I think He opts to let us repent. He seems to prefer discipline first rather than the sentence of death we actually deserve. I think of King David when he slept with Bathsheba & had her husband killed; David should have died for this, but his punishment was the loss of the son born from that union. God is not unjust, but disciplines those He loves. He's not willing that any should perish, but that all would come to repentance. (See Hebrews 12:4-17, 2 Peter 3:9)

Monday, February 13, 2012

Black & White Fright

I have to wonder if fear always fits into the black & white Christian definition of sin against God. I've heard that fear is perhaps the worst, most subtle kind of pride... its unbelief & its like spitting in the face of God. Is He not on His throne in heaven? And haven't I become His child by virtue of my baptism into the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ? Haven't I been given all things in Christ? What's the problem then? Look at the Bible, its full of people who struggled with fear & triumphed. Why, there's Abraham, Moses, Gideon, David, Elijah, the Apostles, even Jesus Himself. But to me, that's like comparing pennies to dollars. Guess which one needs a lot more substance in order to compare? My proverbial penny jar is sparse.

I've heard that fear goes against the admonition NOT to fear, to NOT be anxious for anything... but have I not prayed & petitioned? I have indeed. Have I offered these with thanksgiving as Philippians 4:6 also says? Hmm. Not so much. What have I got to be thankful about? I don't even want to exist when I'm faced with such fear. My accuser (ahem, that would be me) points the finger at me & says "Aha! Selfish wench, always looking inward, always thinking about yourself..." What am I supposed to be thankful for in the midst of fear? That I'm being presented with an excellent learning opportunity? That this too shall pass? Fear is kind of juvenile in this way. It knows what it knows, end of story. That "knowing" usually leads to a rebellion of sorts... I'll shut down or extract myself from the situation, much like a teenager might cut through a conversation with their parent(s) with a huff & a mumble. The bedroom door slams & the stereo gets cranked. Fear is in control & that's that.

What can stop the cycle? The empty space in my penny jar only serves to incubate the fear. I've been contemplating what it means to just "be" with the fear... to sit with the emptiness, the frustration. It doesn't mean I beat myself up for feeling the way I do. It doesn't mean I rely on the old Christian standby that feelings don't matter. "Feelings aren't facts" is a popular one. No, but they're valuable, much like each individual penny in my proverbial penny jar. Even though my jar is lacking, I suppose I can thank God for the few pennies of confidence that I do have. I can thank Him that even though I may have to work harder at gathering more to make a buck, each cent is a small triumph toward the goal. I can revel in the victory clink of each coin as it drops into the Sea of Lincoln. I don't have to fill the empty space all at once. I'll aim to make small triumphs. It sounds slightly more valiant than taking baby steps...

Sunday, February 12, 2012

When The Community Goes Home

I hate that when I say "I fear" to another person, its instantly swallowed up by something else... I feel like people treat fear the way one would treat a freaked out animal. You throw a cover over it, confine it & the animal usually calms down.
"Its not that scary."
"Lots of people have
a) felt this way
b) been where you are or
c) have feared but mustered the courage to go through it."
Another may say, "Feel the fear & do it anyway", adding on the fact that "You'll be glad you did!". Something I've learned from a lifetime of anxiety is that it is not logical or reasonable. It cannot be conquered by a veil of words. It remains just as alive under cover as it was without it. The only difference is that it's not so frenetic, not so raw, not so scary... to others... beneath the veil. But it doesn't change how I feel inside. It'll take more than darkness to calm me.

My sponsor came & sat with me after Mass today. Everyone else had left, but I just wanted to stay... I told her how I was afraid that I couldn't go through with the rest of the journey because I was so scared. I told her how exposed I felt in the attempt to express myself as a Catholic. Physical expression for me feels sacred & I tend to keep it to a minimum. I said "I fear", expecting to hear the same kinds of things I've heard from everyone else, but to my surprise, she didn't try to cover it up. She didn't offer a band aid or a 3 step solution. She just sat with me, let me cry & let the fear "be". She didn't tell me I had to make up my mind or that I had to take any action beyond feeling the fear & praying. God knows my heart afterall. I'm still afraid, but something has changed. There's no veil to blind or confine me. I still trying to get used to that...

Fear makes me feel like a leper in the family of God. I usually keep my fear covered & stay away from people... from within, I shout "UNCLEAN!" just to beat others to the punch. But Jesus talked to a leper. And He not only talked to him, but consented to heal him. He didn't berate, belittle or condemn him for being a leper... in fact, Jesus did something completely radical- He reached out & touched the guy. The leper didn't have to keep people away any longer. He didn't have to rend his garments or cover his face. He didn't have to live out on the fringe of community. He was free. So... what of me, Lord?! Readings for 2-12-12

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Anxiety & Truth

I've struggled with anxiety for most of my life & the process of converting to Catholicism seems to be shaking me up a bit. I'm realizing that if Catholicism doesn't affect your heart, you aren't "doing" it right. If it doesn't challenge you daily to your core, you're missing something. And its not Catholicism itself that rends one little by little from the weight of the flesh, but the Spirit behind it... none other than the Spirit of Christ. Catholic Christianity is something experienced, not just through physical actions, but internal ones as well. It changes one from the inside out, much like medication can. We take pills internally to manage our headaches or to regulate some bodily operation. We see the external effects through our ability to function pain free. Like medication, Christianity is most effective when taken internally.

That said, I must confess that I've been spending a lot of time being worried about whether or not I have enough information to "pass" as a Catholic. Will I say the right things? Will I do the actions correctly? I've admittedly avoided doing certain actions (in public) out of fear. And then I came across a quote in Magnificat Magazine:

"Truly humble people are centers of peace because they fear neither their own failure nor other's success. Let us pray for wisdom to judge as God judges: to look at our own & other's achievements from God's perspective."
Magnificat, February 2012, Vol. 13, No.12 Pg 121

What this says to me is that my fear is unimportant if I'm really seeking God. What will God see if I succeed or fail? Doesn't scripture say He looks at the heart? Why am I so worried about the judgement of those around me? Its God's judgement that matters, not theirs... Its the state of my heart that needs to change, not my actions. When my heart is changed, my actions will naturally follow. It seems that perhaps my fear (in this case) is better equated to an illness of pride that only an internal dose of humility can vanquish.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Back to Adoration

I went back to adoration today... I haven't been since November. I arrived at the top of the hour & met an older lady who I hadn't seen in a while. We chatted briefly & I entered into an empty chapel after crossing myself with water. Three others arrived within moments. After I settled into the silence, I decided to read through the Stations of the Cross. I didn't feel anything peculiar except my racing heart. There was a glare on the glass of the monstrance from where I was sitting & I had to strain to see the Sacrament. It was an interesting viewpoint, reflecting how I feel about Jesus lately as I strain to see Him through the glare of outside distractions. When I got up to leave, I crossed myself with the water & descended the stairs. Upon entering my car, I realized I had been there for an entire hour. It only felt like 15, 20 minutes.

I wish I could explain what adoration does for me, but I can't. If nothing else, it's most basic function provides a time to regroup, to be quiet, to "stop" & be. Ultimately, its a time of spiritual communion with the Lord. I still find it hard to wrap my head around the real presence of Jesus in that place, but I think my heart knows He's there. I still only see the little wafer with an embossed cross on it perched behind the clear glass of the monstrance. But then I look just outside the chapel & catch the sanctuary light flickering in the crimson glass. That light tells me the Real Presence is there, despite what I can or can't see or hear or feel. I see the light through the Crimson- that representation of Jesus' Blood- and somehow it changes everything.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Canned Prayers

Sometimes when I don't know what to pray, I'll default to saying the Creed, an Our Father & the Acts of Faith, Hope & Charity interspersed with a few Hail Marys. I'll end with a Glory Be, but strangely, that's never the end. By that time, I have some things to say. Sometimes I'll continue reading through & praying the prayers of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine & the like.

I got to thinking today about the communion of saints & how their intercession might fit into this practice of praying "canned prayers". When certain ones penned their prayers so long ago, it was probably a result of an actual prayer time, not just a contrived writing session. As I pray these words hundreds of years later, I've come to imagine that we're praying together... As I repeat their words, its as time between us disappears. They are no longer praying for themselves, by themselves; they're interceding with me as well. I am joining with them in their prayers & they, in mine. I've found that canned prayers prove themselves to be more effective than my own at times. Afterall, "The prayer of a righteous man avails much... " James 5:16

Learning How to Be Catholic

I hear it repeatedly: yes, your heart is Catholic. Yes, you may have the intellectual stuff down, but you still have to learn how to "live like a Catholic". This is a frustrating thing to be reminded of. Living it is different from knowing things about it, doing things that exemplify it or feeling something related to it. Going to Mass & saying the responses don't make me Catholic. Praying the Rosary & learning Catholic prayers don't make me Catholic. Feeling the Presence of Jesus in the Eucharistic expression doesn't make me Catholic. Even kneeling & bowing & crossing myself don't make me Catholic. These are all symptoms, if you will, of something that yet needs to be made manifest.

What's most frustrating is that I can't necessarily speed the process along, no matter how hard I try. Its kind of like waiting for a baby... everything is exciting at first, but by month 7 or 8, enough is enough! I've heard pregnant mothers tell me how they're tired of carrying all that weight, that they want to be able to wear clothes without elastic waistbands, that they want to be able to sleep on their stomach again. Of course, the addition of a healthy baby would be nice too, but the primary focus seems to be on getting things back to normal. But what's "normal" anymore after the birth of a child?! Everything changes.

Something is being formed in me. Realistically speaking, if I knew 9 months was the appropriate time for the development of a child, I would be very frightened if that time was cut short by a premature birth or some other anomaly. So I'm trying to think of my spiritual development as such. Even after I'm finally able to partake of the Eucharist, the process of living as a Catholic will take time, much like being human does. Though we are human in the womb, outside of it, we must live life to become "fully human", to realize our potential. Only in living life do experiences & intellect become a part of who we are. They change us, affect our perspectives & temper our actions or lack thereof. We "become" who we are over time. Learning how to "be", how to live like a Catholic it seems, is going to be a lifelong journey.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Meeting the Man

Today I got to attend my first ever John Michael Talbot concert. My best friend went with me. I'm glad she was there because I was so nervous! I've been listening to this man's music for the past 21 years or so, but have never seen him perform in person. He was the one who piqued my interest in Catholicism & modern monasticism way back when I was a teenager. Through his music & writings, I was introduced to the saints Francis, Benedict & Patrick. There was something about his work that made me believe he knew God in a different way
& it made me want to know God like that as well.

We arrived at the Episcopal church an hour early. It was afternoon & we entered into a sunlit sanctuary where John Michael was rehearsing. He was dressed in his brown robe with black socks & sandals & sported a long grey beard. We were the first ones there besides the crew & it was a perfect opportunity to find out more about the hermitage in Arkansas & related groups here in Oregon. The place started to fill up about 30 minutes out with mostly grey heads & some middle aged folks scattered here & there. Many were still in their "church clothes". I felt slightly out of place in jeans & a sweatshirt, but no one seemed to care. When he had finished his sound check, I watched John Michael walk out to the side of the altar. He paused in front of the sanctuary light, bowed & crossed himself as he exited through a door. When he returned a few minutes later, he invited us to interact, to sing, to pray... I knew the majority of songs & remembered the first time I'd heard each one. I enjoyed his style of mixing song, story & history of the church. He seems to have a great sense of humour & the ability to transition into serious business effortlessly.

After 2 wonderful hours, we were dismissed & folks headed to the library where he was signing. My friend & I got in line. I was too nervous to present him with the prayer book I had brought, so my friend offered to do it for me. He flipped through it, asking all sorts of questions. I stammered & stumbled over my responses. He signed "In Jesus, JM", but I couldn't leave without thanking him for his music & letting him know how he had influenced my conversion to Catholicism. He reached out his hand with a big smile & said "Welcome!" I was on cloud nine. So that was my first experience with John Michael live. I was very happy to discover he seems as I have always imagined him to be... very human, very talented, very much in love with God.

John Michael Talbot on Facebook

Catholic vs Christian

I prefer to think of Catholicism as another expression of the Christian faith. But I must admit, I've caught myself referring to Catholicism at times as if it were an entirely different animal. Its an easy mistake to stumble into & I wonder if it has anything to do with the way I was indoctrinated. I was raised to believe that Catholics were a cult who most certainly weren't Christians. I was raised to believe that they worshipped Mary. They knelt before the reprehensible figure of a humiliated Christ on the cross. They prayed repetitiously & babbled like pagans because that's what they were.

But I've not found these things to be true at all. I've heard more scripture in the last 5 months of Masses than I've heard in a whole year of Protestant services. The so called humiliated Christ is a more effective reminder of His love & sacrifice than an empty cross ever was. Yes, He rose & resides in Heaven. But I think the victory was in the dying, in overcoming the flesh. He didn't want to do it, but He knew He had to fulfill His Father's will. The humiliated Christ is what Christians are called to emulate when He tells us to take up our cross & follow Him. Where are we going? To Golgatha, just like Him. Only when we have fully died to our will can we fully live to the Father's. I think Catholics might have the better handle on this concept. Jesus didn't say that because He died for our sins we wouldn't have to die either. He simply said "follow me". As for Mary, she gets her 15 seconds of fame in the Mass when we bow to honour her during a few lines of the Creed, but she isn't the focal point. Concerning repetition & babbling prayers, I've found the prayers to be well thought out & poetic. The definition of vain repetition is subjective. What may be so for you may not be for me & vice versa.

The pursuit of faith should not be fought in an arena that pits Catholic against Christian. We're not called to a boxing match, but to a race. And we're not competing against one another for the prize of eternal life; we're teammates in the relay, all of us. I will be Catholic & I will be Christian. Not two separate identities, but one.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Journey in Words

The other day, I was thinking about how time is getting short. I'm just 2 months away from Confirmation & I know its gonna fly. The following are some words that came to mind when I began to think of my journey so far...

excitement, anxiety, frustration, fear,
exposure, clarification, understanding, symbolism,
remembering death & resurrection in baptism,
finding meaning, uncertainty, peace, the Rosary,
Divine Mercy, Stations of the Cross, writings of the saints,
childlike, humbling, rejuvenating,
mystery, tears, Jesus, community,
the Word, submission, ancient, Mass, rituals,
icons, crucifixes, colour, candles, light,
incense, song, voices, prayer, refuge, family involvement,
presence, Mary, antiphons, the ornate Gospel Book,
celebration, seasons, milestones, Holy things, Holy God,
communion of saints, authority, truth, kindness, forgiveness,
oil, love, kneeling, bowing, altar, sanctuary light, tabernacle,
adoration, silence, consolation, wisdom, Holy Spirit, Eucharist.

In contrast, this is what I tend to think of when I remember my Protestant roots:

feeling lost, feeling empty,
exposition of scripture with differing opinions, often condescending,
lacking authority, nothing "sacred" in church- its just 4 walls & a roof,
loud & emotional worship music, "me" focused,
well intentioned, fellowship, smiles & kindness,
communion cups & oyster crackers, "anything goes" mentality,
little or no knowledge of church history between the apostles & the reformation,
Bible studies by Christian celebrities,
the bare cross, feeling like I'm "just there" to sing a few songs,
listening to long sermons while my body parts grow numb,
walking away with the same burdens & hunger for Jesus I had when I walked in.

Why Catholic?

This seems like an obvious post to have written when I first began my journey, but I'm just now getting around to it. When I've told people about my decision, I've gotten all sorts of reactions. Some were horrified & convinced I was deceived & joining a cult. Some were o.k. with it, but cautioned me against worshipping Mary. Others just kind of looked at me with blank stares. What, was I going to be a nun? When was I coming back to the church I had been a part of for the last 4 years of my life? They didn't seem to get it.

So why DO I want to be a Catholic?! When I signed up for RCIA, my answer was something about the symbolism being very moving, or how the music of John Michael Talbot hooked me when I was a teenager or that I had always felt like I was missing something in my Protestant faith. I might have referenced the early church fathers & how their writings were undeniably Catholic. But now I can add the Catholic perspective of the Bible coupled with Tradition. I'm convinced that Luther's "Solas" & Calvin's T.U.L.I.P. model are not Biblical. Scripture actually seems to stand in opposition to these ideas. I believe God gave us the scriptures, but He also gave us Tradition as a context.
Another reason I want to be a Catholic concerns all the misconceptions surrounding the Church. As I've studied & wrestled with things, I've discovered that the truth is there, but its rarely believed. As with anything, negativity hogs the spotlight. Bad experiences, one's own unwillingness to submit to authority or external pressures from the world at large usually take center stage. We don't often hear about the good quite as much as we hear about the bad. But if you dig, you will find the good. If you seek it, you will find the Truth. Its sometimes not what we want to hear, but its there. I've been floored by how many misconceptions I've believed about Catholicism!
I've recently become convinced that Catholic leadership is in place by God's plan & purpose. Its survived for 2,000 years & guards the deposit of the faith. There is of course, the human factor that can screw with the sanctity of intent, but this is our fault, not God's. His design is meant to protect us & distribute His grace to us in community.
The Mass is another reason I want to be a Catholic. Its no ordinary church service. There is a communion of saints there, past & present. There is a reverence for the Word & for prayer. Jesus is present in the Eucharist. I don't know how or why I believe this, but I do. There is something markedly different about being at Mass!
I want to be a Catholic because I tend to think more about Jesus than I do myself when I'm praying "Catholic" prayers, listening to Catholic perspectives & contemplating 2,000 year's worth of wisdom & experience. As a Protestant, I hardly thought of Jesus at all. Strange, but true. My prayers were all about me, what I wanted, what I needed... Now I pray the Rosary & my prayers are about how I can follow the life of Jesus, how I can learn from Mary's "Yes" to God, how I can love God & learn to love my neighbor as myself. I want to be a Catholic because of these things & so much more...