Monday, July 30, 2012

Heart Divided

 "When my heart was grieved and my spirit embittered, I was senseless and ignorant;  I was a brute beast before you" (Psalm 73:21-22). Its no wonder the Psalmist prayed "Give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name" (Psalm 86:11). In Matthew 3:25, Jesus reminds us that "...if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.". The Apostle Paul also spoke of this battle between flesh & spirit in the infamous tongue twisting Romans 7:14-20. 

I've been thinking about how the Temple veil was rent in two on the day Jesus died. No longer was the Holy of Holies hidden. The barrier between God & man had effectively been breached, the rocks were split & tombs were opened. All of this happened under a cloak of darkness (Matthew 27:45-54) & it must've been a pretty terrifying day. I find it interesting that scripture takes pains to clarifiy that while tombs were opened, the people who were raised to life didn't actually emerge till after Jesus' resurrection.

When I set my eyes on the cross, that is, to follow Christ to it, darkness always seems to descend. And just when I think I've victoriously shuddered through my own last breath, the ground beneath me begins to shake & crack. (Here, of course, you should imagine some great, hidden pride welling up within me during my last living nano seconds. Afterall, I am now the epitome of humility, discipline & self-sacrifice. I will resurrect as a new creature in Christ...). After the ornate veil that separates my oh-so-pious heart from my unholy humanity is ripped in two, time passes & I "rise", to undoubtedly dwell as "one" with Christ. And then, something  comes crawling out of the tombs...

To quote MiracleMax in the Princess Bride: "It just so happens that your friend here is only MOSTLY dead. There's a big difference between mostly dead and all dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive. With all dead, well, with all dead there's usually only one thing you can do. What's that? Go through his clothes and look for loose change." Ba-dum-bum. But seriously, these things that have been "raised"  are only mostly dead. They look alive, but they're nothing but white washed tombs themselves, full of dead men's bones & they're headed for the temple (that is, me)... & my freshly exposed self. When these things slink in toward my "holy place", they're not coming to bow down before my awe-inspiring righteousness... They're coming to remind me of who I really am, of what lurks within. And that's when I realize I too am only mostly dead...

A house divided cannot stand... but apparently, I'm not quite as divided from my own flesh as I'd like to be. To my horror, my house actually stands quite firm & I find myself routinely divided against Christ instead. What do I have to live for? True love? Of Whom or what? Christ, or myself? And if He & I are divided, I can't possibly stand with Him... What can I do? For I do what I do not want to do...

"Hear, O daughter, and consider, and incline your ear,  forget your people and your father's house..." (Psalm 45:10). Ah.... Yeah. And slowly the realization comes that there's no real  power in me to die, to be raised or to raise the dead things in me. The rending of  my veil has done nothing but expose the death that still lurks in me. And yet Christ calls me to pilgrimage, to follow rather then feign death & "play house". He calls me to His Father's house & I hear its quite the journey...

There's a traditional Catholic image of placing one's self within Christ's wounds & hiding there. See: "Anima Christi".  Indeed, Jesus has exposed Himself that I might not only see His life, but be buried in His wounds (like a grain of wheat that must die to live). But it will not be I who lives, but Christ in me. This is the pilgrimage... to sink in, to hide in Christ, to live as He lives...  no longer mostly dead or slightly alive.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

She's Not Scary, She's Mary!

As I've been thinking about how to get grounded in my Catholic faith, I've become very interested in learning more about the traditional aspects- why did people believe what they did for so long & why has this changed in modern times? Were they just living a fairy tale? Have we moderns finally woken up & joined the real world? Or have we lost something valuable? I'm not about to run off to buy a chapel veil & memorize the Mass in Latin, but one of my goals this summer has been to get to know Mary better. On July 13th, I began a book called “Preparation for Total Consecration to Jesus Through Mary, according to St. Louis De Montfort  by Fr. Hugh Gillespie, SMM. Total Consecration is a 33 day “course” (for lack of a better word) that takes one through 12 days of preparation & 3 consecutive weeks of looking at one's self, the role of Mary & the role of Christ.

Mary & Traditional Catholicism
I can understand why its difficult for many Protestants to grab a hold of Mary as anything more than Mother of Jesus. I certainly never gave her much thought beyond Christmas & Easter. Compared to Abraham, Moses or Jesus Himself, she's a passing character as far as Biblical history is concerned. It seems grossly unnecessary that she should be given the attention Catholics afford her. But in my limited observance, she doesn't appear half as prominent as she used to be. Every church has a statue of her tucked away somewhere, but it seems more a nod to tradition than anything. Ever since Vatican II, many believe the church has sacrificed its heart & soul to try & remain relevant. On a side note, I've yet to hear much about traditional theology such as purgatory, indulgences, or the eternal danger of mortal sin "preached" anywhere but the Catechism. I'm told in reality, these things are archaic & passing away. I've also gathered that many people don't really believe that kind of stuff anymore. I was astonished to learn that a considerable number of Catholics don't even believe in the Real Presence of Christ. As for Mary, she's hardly mentioned except briefly in the Creed or a Eucharistic Prayer (unless of course, its a Holy Day like Christmas or the Assumption, where she gets more specialized attention). Why is Mary important? How can getting to know her reveal anything more about the Source of my salvation? She is mentioned precious little in the scriptures... What can I possibly derive from those crumbs to make my participation in the life of Jesus more substantial?

Marian Theology
As a recent convert, I have to admit that Mary is still something of an enigma to me. I don't really hear much about her role in my life in the here & now. When she was on this earth, we're told she was wise & thoughtful. And yes, she was a virgin. Every Christian knows that. But Catholic theology teaches she was also immaculately conceived -without sin- as a grace from God. It teaches she remained a virgin after bearing Jesus & that she was assumed- body & soul- into heaven when she passed on. She didn't actually “die”. Since she was unstained by sin & death is a wage of sin, she just “fell asleep” & was taken to heaven. In heaven, she was crowned as a Queen by virtue of Jesus' kingship & joins her intercessions for us with His before the throne of God. At least, this is how I understand it (Please, any wise Catholics out there, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong!).

Consecration Is Biblical
Is consecration to Jesus through Mary biblical or is it some wild idea thought up by Fr. De Montfort a few centuries ago? The common definition of consecration is the act of making or declaring something sacred, to devote one's self to holiness in the service of a deity. Consecration itself is absolutely Biblical. Even Jesus did it (see John 17: 19)... Remember the Nazarites who couldn't cut their hair, get near a dead body or drink the fruit of the vine for as long as their vows stipulated? And what about the Levites? They had some pretty strict rules for serving in the temple. In the Catholic Church, our buildings, priests & rituals are consecrated. At the Mass, the priest consecrates the ordinary bread & wine which become the Holy Eucharist. These things are holy because they've been devoted to the service of God. Even within the spectrum of Protestantism, ministers, worship, the preaching of the word & other such “rituals” are often set apart for God through prayer. What of me, am I not consecrated, made holy & set apart for service to God by virtue of my baptism & confirmation? Aren't these things enough? The Church doesn't require an individual to consecrate themselves in private devotions. Then again, It doesn't discourage such acts either. In a similar way, God didn't require all to become Nazarites or priests. The Catholic church acknowledges that Mary was a human vessel, a dwelling place, a temple, if you will, of the Holy Spirit. She was the first disciple, the first Christian saved by grace, but contrary to popular misconception, she has never been elevated to the status of deity. Hence, consecration to Jesus...

She's Not Scary, She's Mary! Part 2

Mary & Tradition
If one looks at the writings known as the Gospel of the Birth of Mary or the Protoevangelion, the concept of “Ad Jesum per Mariam” actually begins to make sense. While these non-cannonical books were once read in the early church, they aren't recognized as authoritative. It may be that an author or date of writing is disputed or that some events can't be corroborated with known historical fact. Since this criteria doesn't rule out these works as complete fiction, the following is considered along the lines of “tradition”. The basic story goes that Mary was born to a barren woman named Anna (who was from Bethlehem). Mary's birth was announced by an angel who remained nameless in both accounts. As their thanks to God, Anna & her husband Joachim (who hailed from Nazareth) vowed to dedicate the child to serve in the Temple (which was, of course, in Jerusalem). Only the Gospel of the Birth of Mary mentions she was of David's lineage. After Mary was weaned in Nazareth, her parents kept their promise & brought her to Jerusalem. Mary lived a sheltered life & was taught the things of God as she grew up in the temple. When she was 14, the high priest decided to marry off all the virgins. But Mary was the only one who had made a vow to remain a consecrated virgin all her life. The high priest, confounded, consulted God & through a series of events, Joseph entered the picture. He was old & put up a stink about the whole matter. Everyone would laugh at him & call him a cradle robber! The idea was ridiculous. Eventually he agreed to the betrothal & made up his mind not to touch her. He went back to Bethlehem to get his affairs in order & when he returned to retrieve Mary some time later, he discovered she was with child. The rest we know from scripture- he wanted to divorce her quietly out of respect for her, but an angel appeared to him too, assuring him all was as it should be.

What If?
Ok, so let's say Mary was born to a barren woman... that she was conceived without sin... What does that mean? I read somewhere that since humanity was corrupted in the fall, the sex act was also corrupted & all are born into corruption, unto corruption by that act. Sin was not present in Mary's case because she did not conceive by the corrupted seed of a man, but by the Holy Spirit. For this reason, Christ was born the Sinless Lamb. Was the same true in the case of Mary's parents? Neither writings mention Joachim sleeping with Anna, (whereas scripture specifically tells us Abraham slept with Sarah to beget Isaac & Elkanah slept with Hannah to beget Samuel)... From the Catholic perspective, only Mary & Jesus are said to be conceived without sin. Of course, there's that old standby in Romans 3 that says “...all have sinned (excluding Jesus of course) & fallen short of the grace of God.”. How does Mary fit in here? Surely, as a human being, she was not exempt! Why not? What if she was? She was called “Mary, full of grace” by the angel Gabriel for a reason... No one else in the Bible was greeted like that. What does that mean, if grace is a gift of God? Can we say God can't give fullness of grace to one & leave another wanting? The angel acknowledged her as full, that is, not lacking anything. Was it by any virtue she had attained herself? Not likely. We are still all saved by grace & this is not of ourselves, but its a gift of God... If she had been conceived without sin, this was a tremendous gift! Who am I to say God couldn't do such a thing? God can do as He pleases.
When she became mother of Jesus, even though she was a virgin without sin, Mary went to the temple to offer gifts & sacrifices to God at the appointed time. Was this a subtle betrayal of what Catholics have come to believe about her? Or could it have been more an act of humility- like Jesus, Who had no need of baptism but was baptised anyway, Who rendered to Caesar what was Caesar's even though His Father owned the cattle on a thousand hills, Who donned the servant's towel to wash the feet of His disciples & offered Him own body on the cross?

She's Not Scary, She's Mary! Part 3

Filling In The Gaps
I think getting to know Mary better will be an asset to my relationship with Jesus... if any of this is valid. In light of Catholic teaching, it just may be. My conclusions aren't fully formed yet. Its all still a little weird to me! But it makes sense that Mary was apparently a widower sometime after Jesus' 12th birthday if Joseph was already old when he came into the picture. It makes sense that she was a Virgin betrothed- though we are never told by whom. Its assumed her parents set it up, but we're never told in scripture. Given the unlikely pairing, why couldn't she have been a ward of the temple & a consecrated virgin at that? It certainly would have made her conception all the more scandalous. And indeed it was scandalous. If tradition is true, her betrothal to Joseph wasn't exactly a secret. Despite all this, Elizabeth & her husband, Zechariah the priest (the very same parents of none other than John the Baptist) understood the bigger picture when Mary showed up on their doorstep. If tradition is true, Zechariah would have known Mary from the temple... And what about Simeon & Anna? How did they know who she was? Perhaps Simeon had also frequented the temple while Mary was growing up. Maybe that old, widowed prophetess Anna was really her mother... We aren't told. Mary wouldn't have recognized her anyway. Anna had been an old lady to begin with & they supposedly parted when Mary was just 3 yrs old.

Aside from accepted Catholic theology, there's a reason Mary was known as a woman full of grace. She was highly favored of God. She was humble, obedient & wise. She submitted to the ways of God & by the power of the Holy Spirit, she gave birth to the Son of God. I may get thwacked for saying this, but it almost doesn't matter whether she was born sinless, remained sinless or retained her virginity. It almost doesn't matter if she was assumed into heaven or crowned as a queen. In the grand scheme, what matters is that she believed. She submitted to God, carried Jesus into this world, then stood back & watched Him work. Isn't that our mission too?
Its important to remember the undeniable fact that we've only been able to come to Jesus, the Word Made Flesh, through the obedience of Mary. Mary always points to Christ, reflects Christ & reveals Christ to us. She's not scary... she's Mary.