Sunday, November 23, 2014

Leaving the Well Behind

I've been thinking about Jesus' disciples- how were they "initiated"? Were they baptised like He was? We know they were Jews & that some had been followers of John the Baptist. But did they confess their sins regularly? Did Jesus have elaborate ceremonies like the Catholic Easter Vigil to welcome them into the fold? Or was their simply following & saying "I believe" good enough?

Jesus didn't tell the woman at the well (John 4) to go & sin no more. He didn't approach her with a crowd of religious leaders & lambast her. No, His disciples had gone off to find food & He was tired. He sat down by a well & asked for a drink. He even sparred with the woman a bit. Maybe He was feeling feisty. He acknowledged her faith, told her she was missing something, then proceeded to reveal He knew she had been married 5 times & was pursuing a 6th. For whatever reason, she didn't find this offensive or intrusive. Someone from this generation would most certainly find Jesus' words accusatory, inflammatory... We might hear someone say "Who is He to judge me?! He should mind His own business!". And indeed, beyond the fact that He is God, what right did He have to say anything to that Samaritan woman?  He was, afterall, sent only to the lost sheep of Israel. This didn't seem to matter to Jesus & as a result, a few ordinary moments at a foreigner's well changed the lives of many... throughout history.

My personal faith started out in black & white, with crisp, clear lines. God created me. I am a sinner. Jesus died for me. I can be saved. Or like the woman at the well believed, Jews were technically off limits & her people lived by their own traditions (John 4:9,12). But as I've gotten older, the lines are starting to blur a bit... there are variations of light & shadow creeping in. I no longer see things through a lens of a hard & fast "right or wrong", guilty or not guilty verdict. Each person is different. I'm not praising relativism by any means, but if God is infinite, then faith should be too. Each person has the potential to express their faith in an infinite amount of ways. Would God rather me follow the "rules" of the Christian faith & drink from a stagnant well? Or would He rather that I fumble toward Him & drink from the banks of Living Water?

I wonder how many of us overlook the fact that Jesus actually praised the woman at the well for her honesty. "I have no husband" she said. She could have made up some story to save face, but she didn't. "You speak the truth!" Replied Jesus. For some reason, I can picture Him looking somewhat astonished.  No doubt this gal had a reputation. But He didn't tell her she was bound for hell... He didn't tell her to repent & do penance. He didn't even make her confess her sins. He already knew. He simply told her He was the water she was thirsting for...

I think this is how I'm beginning to see my faith. Its not at all what I expected... in fact, it feels very unpredictable, uncertain, unsafe. What did the disciples expect when they followed Jesus? All through the Gospels we see them saying & doing things based on the "law", based on what they thought they knew about God & faith... but Jesus always seemed to blow their minds. In time, they came to realize there was no telling what He'd do next. Or how. Or why. In time, they learned to leave the well behind & drink from the Living Water.



Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tofu Love

I know faith is something "good" that should "work". But why isn't my faith "working"? Why does it constantly get trampled by pigs, stolen by thieves or hijacked by lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh or the pride of life? Where is my hope anchored? And why doesn't it hold?

I feel as though I've lost the "essence" of Jesus, lost the very point of His coming, of religion, of faith. Sometimes I'm tempted to think religious tradition is just a myth, just an elaborate human yarn that reaches back too many centuries to even remember how or where it first began. Why do we tell stories? And how do we know the ones we've heard are really true?

Does my faith only depend on what I've been taught? On what I've heard? Does it depend only on someone else's interpretation of scripture, of doctrine or life? Or is faith... MY faith... something more internal & personal? Does it depend on something more than the written word or the spoken tradition? Does it even depend on more than my own senses, feelings (or lack thereof)?

I've found myself wondering what the core issues of belief actually are, especially in light of organized religion. What am I missing?! Certainly there must be a center to this nebula of differing opinions, expectations & constant failure.

So I prayed about it. And the 1st thing that came to mind was the famous verse at the end of 1 Corinthians 13- the one that talks about faith, hope & love...  "and the greatest of these is love". Honestly, that answer seemed kind of cheesy to me. I mean, how many times does a Christian hear about love in their lifetime? Love has become some innocuous word that can mean anything you want it to.... kind of like tofu. Yet out of love- true love- springs forth hope. And from hope, comes faith.  Paul said the greatest of the three was love. Not surprisingly, he also lists love as the first fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. Without love, it seems, everything means nothing. I am nothing & I gain nothing if I don't have love.

I began to realize that my problem isn't necessarily faith... My problem is my tofu love... its so easily moldable, crumbled or flavored by any hand & season of life & consequently, easily devoured. But true love is more substantial than that. You don't have to water it down or flavor it & it doesn't leave you feeling famished later on. Or so I've heard.

Love, it seems, is a word I tend to subconsciously pass over. Even telling someone I love them feels kind of strange & empty sometimes. I think I love them... of course I care about them deeply. But when I observe what love actually does to other people, I have to ask... what has love done to me? More specifically, how has "love" for God changed me or anyone else?

Maybe it hasn't. Not really. Because maybe it wasn't really love. Am I rooted & grounded in love (Eph 3:17)? Maybe that's why my faith doesn't work so well, or why my hope tends to drift off into oblivion.Go figure.




Thursday, March 13, 2014

Critical Compassion

The past couple days, my thoughts have been scattered. I've been agitated, ruminating on some situations occurring in the lives of people I know. I want to criticize their choices, judge their excuses & even put distance between us because we just can't see eye to eye. To them, the sin I see isn't sin at all. But to me, it couldn't be more black & white. Frustrated, I prayed for God to help me out & today I ran across the following passage from Chapter 43 of The Spiritual Combat:

"When... we are inclined to judge others for some fault,
let us inwardly be indignant with ourselves as guilty of the same...
and thus the weapons which, when aimed at others,
would have wounded you yourself,
being used against yourself,
bring healing to your wounds."

Ouch. How is that possible? How does the bitter gall I mean for another in fact heal my own wounds when I apply it secretly to myself? Well, for one, it brings a sense of compassion & humility to the situation. Re-focusing criticism & judgement on myself causes me to change, even if others never do. When I'm more inclined to acknowledge my own need for forgiveness & mercy from God, then, and only then, I can extend that compassion to others.

Why should I stoop to accuse myself of like sin or have compassion on one who condones sin? Because I am a sinner & God continues to be compassionate with me... how can I dare do any less for another?

Monday, March 10, 2014

Reflecting the Kingdom

Today in the Office of Readings, St. Gregory of Nazianzen was "speaking" about God's generosity. He encouraged us to give back to God by giving to each other for the sake of each other.

He went on to quote a familiar passage of the apostle Paul's that reminds us how we now see the kingdom of heaven & vision of glory darkly, as in a mirror (1 Co. 13:12). And that illustration struck me- the idea that we're looking into a mirror to see our hope, even the very kingdom of God. The rest of the verse, which St. Gregory does not quote, goes on to say that we will see God face to face... "Now we know in part, but then, we will know in full, even as we have been fully known.".

If a mirror reflects whatever stands before it, what does it reflect when I gaze into it? Can it see the kingdom in me? Can I? Am I able to see any hint of the One with Whom I'll stand face to face some day? The mirror "sees" me, "knows" me. But do I see what it sees? Do I know what it knows? How dark is the reflection of the kingdom in me & how can I see more clearly?

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Lent 2014... The Beginning

This year for Lent, I decided to avoid typical Lenten reflection collections. Instead, I've taken up a 16th century book which was often recommended by St. Francis De Sales, my confirmation saint. The book is called The Spiritual Combat by Lorenzo Scuploi, who was actually a contemporary of De Sales. Scupoli was a member of the Theatine Order, whose specific mission it was to return the clergy to its original calling (to instruct on morality & spirituality) & to call the laity to the practice of virtue.

I'm choosing to read the book at my leisure. The Spiritual Combat consists of 66 short chapters at 123 pages. But the focus of my Lenten devotions is contained in the 2 separate works included at the end: The Supplement (to The Spiritual Combat) & Of Interior Peace (also known as The Path of Paradise). I split up the two works according to the days of Lent, up to the Triduum. There's one reading for each day from The Supplement, Sundays excluded. Sundays, there are 3 readings from The Path.

I've covered 4 readings thus far. As I dig into the various parts of the book, I'm kind of taken aback by the strong language of self denial. We don't often hear about self denial in our culture. No, we hear about self love, self worth, self-promotion. We hear about all the wonderful rights we can claim,  not only as human beings in general, but as the royal children of Almighty God. I think the author's take strikes me because its quite obvious we've drifted away from what Jesus actually called us to. We can quote Him as often as we like: "Deny yourself, take up your cross & follow Me". But I don't think the implications actually sink in for most of us. I know they certainly didn't for me. The cross? Its just figurative. Following Christ? Sure. I can do that. Following somebody is easy. But there's more to following than I thought. Just because He died for me doesn't mean I get to escape the cross of self-denial. Where did we get the idea that He did it all so we wouldn't have to? Just because He said "It is finished"? Like Inigo Montoya in the Princess Bride once said, "I do not think it means what you think it means".

When we think of following someone, we tend to understand that they are the one blazing the trail. They have the proverbial machete, they have the navigational know how. They're supposed to make it easier for us & for others to come after them. All we have to do is stare at the back of their head & listen to them banter a little. Maybe we expect there to be some pack animals in tow or an entourage of locals to carry our supplies. But I don't think Jesus called us to follow Him like that...

Maybe we think of Jesus as a kind of Predecessor or Benefactor- because of His sacrifice, we can enjoy this or that blessing. We don't have to suffer like He did because He set us up to live a more profitable, comfortable life. Now, the call to follow Him might mean we maintain daily devotions or enter into some kind of ministry opportunity in honour of His influence on our lives. We say "Thank You for saving us" as if His life, death & resurrection happened thousands of years ago (which, of course, it did). But Jesus was not just a blip in history... He's not some past event. He lives & calls us to follow "as long as it is called Today".

Do I live like He's truly present in my life or do I follow an ideal born in antiquity? Is Jesus just an historic figurehead? Do I cling to an antithetical interpretation of true salvation? Or do I deny myself, follow Him & take up my cross like He did?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Being Catholic 2

Being Catholic for me has mostly been a solitary journey centered around the Liturgy of the Hours & the Rosary. In the Liturgy of the Hours, I daily encounter various hymns, Psalms & writings of the Church Fathers. In the Rosary, I encounter the life of Christ in 20 separate "scenes". Occasionally, I'll "fulfill my obligations" & make it to Mass & confession. But honestly, I find it hard to take the Church seriously in matters of obedience because leadership seems out of touch with God & each other half the time, not to mention the people.

When I pare away the hierarchy of Rome & the sensational "mythology" of the saints, when I take what the media & the non-Catholics have to say with a grain of salt & focus instead on Christ crucified, I'm much more at ease with my faith. I don't think being Catholic is about my relationship with the magisterium or my attendance at Mass. Its not about my affinity (or lack thereof) for Mary or the saints. Its not about defending my chosen expression from the criticism of outsiders. Its about my relationship with Jesus.

I want to make it clear that I don't advocate for "disobedience". I happen to agree that the priesthood should remain male. I don't however, agree that celibacy should be the hard & fast rule. I agree that abortion is wrong. I don't think I'm totally on board with the Church's view of contraception within marriage though. It seems cruel & controlling. I think if something gets in the way of my loving God & loving others as Christ loved me, that thing, whatever or whoever it may be, will get left behind. And, I've discovered, there are many Catholics who feel the same way... not that its right. While I don't advocate for disobedience, I do advocate for caution, wisdom & discernment. Not every sheep is a sheep & not every shepherd is the Lord's...



Being Catholic 1

I've been thinking about writing this post for a while, but didn't feel I could truly write about what "being Catholic" was like if I wasn't attending Mass regularly. But is that all that constitutes being a Catholic?

I hear a lot about the corruption of the Magisterium, right on down to the priesthood. I hear a lot about the misogyny & tired old ways of the Church. I hear about the evils of contraception, abortion & homosexuality. But most of this, I hear from the media.

From the pulpit, I hear about Jesus, the struggles of His disciples, the need for forgiveness & loving one another (a.k.a., "social justice"). Sometimes the homiles are meaty, other times, not so much. I definitely don't hear about what the Church teaches in the Catechism. I don't hear much about confession, & I certainly don't hear anything about Mary or the saints unless its a special feast day. Sometimes they're mentioned briefly in the liturgical prayers somewhere. If I want to know anything about being a Catholic, I have to go hunting for it. And I do. Some folks are hard core fire & brimstone. Others are all about the grace, man. Me, it looks like I prefer to toe the middle line. 

From the non-Catholic consortium, I've become familiar with the misconceptions that we worship Mary, the saints, the Eucharist. The idea that Catholics believe they're really consuming the flesh & blood of Jesus must be downright horrifying. News flash: Many Catholics don't actually believe it either. Dare I forget to recall that the Pope is the Anti-Christ & the Catholic Church is the Whore of Babylon? The arguments are always the same & it seems there are plenty of proofs for both sides of the coin. *Yawn*

I don't worship Mary & I usually forget to acknowledge the saints. I believe the Eucharist is the Body & Blood of Christ, but I'm not sure we should keep it to ourselves & keep barring other Christians from the table. When I first became a Catholic, I loved the simplicity, symbolism & organization of the Mass. That hasn't changed... but tell me I have to go under pain of sin, well, that kind of pisses me off. I know about keeping the Lord's Day & not forsaking gathering together, but to tell me I HAVE to "or else" is another story.

To be continued...

Monday, January 20, 2014

Lost Connection

I had the radio on for background noise this morning & started thinking about the past... What was life like before the internet, tv & movies & telephones? What was life like before microwaves, cars & radios? Some might venture to say it was a lot harder. But was it? Maybe compared to what we have now, sure.

But think about the life of an average person a little more than a century ago- what did they do to entertain themselves? Did they sing while hauling in wood for the stove? Did they play instruments, read poetry or classic literature together? Did they invite their neighbors over for dinner & drinks to  discuss the day's news? How many more "real" people did one encounter from having to go to the same general store, the same butcher, the same doctor, druggist & blacksmith year in & year out? How much more in touch were they with their communities? Did they pray together? Attend services together every Sunday? Were their children born in the beds they were conceived in? Did grandparents exist & die in the same house where grandchildren grew up? Was silence as threatening then as it seems now?

Families tended to stick together back then... everybody had a role to play. To get anywhere, you had to walk or own a horse. Things that take us moments now could take people hours to do then. They were also more physically fit. Generations of people in the community were known to one another. News was heard by word of mouth, telegraph or newspaper. Entertainment was centered on human interaction- people shared with one another their homes, food, talents... They went out to the theater to see comedies & plays. A "concert" to them was a trip to hear the symphony or local quartet. They dressed up to go out & wouldn't think of yelling at the performers unless they were at a sporting event...

Today, you could say families still stick together- via skype, phone, email & visits once a year. But its not quite the same as flesh & blood breathing the same air every day. You could say we still hear news on the internet, tv, newspapers & by word of mouth- in fact, how cool is it to know anything that's going on anywhere, at any time?! But its not quite the same because there are so many sources to choose from... Who can you trust? You may as well be inviting a stranger off the street to take care of your children. We still go to theaters & concerts, but not without some kick ass speakers, smoke & lights to keep us entertained... We experience life through filters now- tv, computer, even cell phone screens all serve to disconnect us from the source. We filter sounds through headphones or the hustle & bustle of activity around us. Our senses are bombarded. Where can you interact with another human being these days without the din of background noise or the influence of modern technology? Even home can be distracting anymore. 

What has the lack of quiet & communal human interaction done to us thus far? And what are the kids of this generation going to experience when they're our age? Will they crave silence & connection? And how will they satisfy that need if we obliterate those things from practice & memory?!

Monday, January 13, 2014

Modern day Annunciation (Or, the 1st Joyful Mystery)

Imagine you're just sitting in your house, minding your own business. Maybe you're engaging in a mundane task like washing dishes, folding laundry or balancing your checkbook. You're a single girl, you've got the day off work & you're not expecting to see anyone for hours. Maybe you just sat down with a cup of coffee & its time to relax with a good book. You're calm & all is calm around you. You allow your ears to focus in on the birds outside. The sun is shining & a warm, gentle breeze passes through the screen, teasing through the curtains ever so slightly.

You raise the cup to your lips & savor the sweet, dark liquid. All of a sudden, there's a voice behind you: "Hi!" it says. You lose your grip & spill your coffee all over the table. Your heart is racing. You're afraid to turn around. No one should be here. Is the front door locked? Where's your phone?! You feel a little panicked. You don't recognize the voice. Slowly, your shift in your chair & look behind you. Its hard to see the figure outlined against the blinding light. "Hi!" the voice says again. Its a male voice. He doesn't sound threatening. What does he want? You lift your arm up to shield your eyes.

The voice calls you by name now, tells you you're highly favored & that the Lord is with you. What is this, some kind of joke? Did you finally win the mail order sweepstakes? Maybe some religious looney just escaped, looked you up in the phone book & you're his first victim. Great, you think. What a way to go. You try to remember that self defense acronym: Solar plexus, Instep, Nose, Groin... The voice steps into view. You lower your arm. He's so... sparkly. And then you realize this is no man. Its an... an angel! No way, you think to yourself. Your face goes pale & you suddenly wish you could hide.

"Don't be afraid", says the angel. He tells you again that you've found favor with God. Were you looking for favor?  You don't remember asking for anything specific, except maybe that one thing... Before you can engage your internal dialogue further, the angel continues, "You're going to have a baby & name it Jesus". "Whoa, hold on now", you say, "I'm single & I believe that love waits, you know... I've never even been with a guy in that way. How am I supposed to get pregnant?!" Your mind is spinning. The angel looks you in the eye & tells you the Holy Spirit will "overshadow you" (He's gonna what?!) & the child conceived in your womb will be holy. "Wait, like HOLY holy?" you ask. The angel continues, "He will be the Son of God".

The moments following cover you like heavy molasses. Why you? When will all this happen? What will life look like if you say yes? Can you say no? But you find that mere seconds have passed when you suddenly utter the words that  surprise even you: "Ok. Let's do this".

Your "ok" corresponds to Mary's "Yes". Did she say yes because she was scared? Did she say yes because she wanted fame? Or did she say yes because something within her told her that God had given her this purpose in life? Did she feel worthy? Did she feel excited? Humbled? The more I think about it,  I can't help but imagine her fiat involved more resignation than enthusiasm. After all, who was brave enough to say no to God? And who was brave enough to dare think they could take care of a child on their own back in that day, let alone the Son of the living God?! What would Joseph think? Surely he would be outraged & leave her. They were betrothed at the time, but he could've called the whole thing off. In fact, he wanted to when he heard the news. We don't read anything about what Mary must have felt or what was going on in her head during this encounter or after. We only read that once she consented, the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. She conceived in her womb the Son of God, who she would name Jesus. We also read that Joseph, while notably disappointed, was quickly reassured by the very same angel that all this was of God.

And the fruit of this 1st Joyful mystery?  Humility.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Obligation

Today it occurred to me that obligation doesn't necessarily equal grace, even though the Church tells me that I receive grace by fulfilling my obligation to attend Mass each Sunday. The Church tells me I receive the grace of absolution by confessing my "mortal" sins to a priest. Under pain of sacrilege, I can't partake of the Eucharist until I fulfill this obligation. The Church tells me the Eucharist brings grace & is the source & summit of my faith, but I'm only obligated to partake once a year, during the Easter season (after having confessed my "mortal sins" of course).

I don't want to be obliged to go to Mass every Sunday. It feels like blackmail. You do this, you get that. While my failure to fulfill my obligation as a Catholic "legally" bars me from the Eucharist, I don't feel the need to stand in line on a Saturday afternoon & "confess". Logically, I can't bring myself to believe its a sin. But it seems missing Mass is likened to betrayal. Christ the King sends His invitation to come & celebrate His presence with His people. To refuse is to reject Him, like the subjects of His parables did. Yet how can the Sunday obligation truly be equal to grace? I look across the proverbial fence line of my Church's restrictions & see Christians of all denominations engaging in communion with Christ & each other... most, it seems, have open communion where all are welcome, regardless of sin or piety. Why aren't all welcome to partake at the Catholic Mass when they choose? The Church says its because we're to celebrate the memorial of Christ's sacrifice together on the Lord's Day, Sunday. They say the Eucharist is the actual Body & Blood of Christ. To eat & drink unworthily (that is, with sin on one's soul) brings condemnation. To reject obligation (confession to a priest, attending Sunday Mass, etc.) is to reject grace. To reject grace is to reject Christ & thus, to sin, which brings condemnation.

Why does Paul say there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus? The Church seems to say if you are not baptised, instructed & confirmed as a Catholic, you are NOT in fact, in Christ. If you have unconfessed sin in your heart, if you have not fulfilled your obligation, you are also apparently not in Christ because one can't abide in Christ & also in sin. They say Protestants, Evangelicals & even Muslims are our brothers & sisters "in Christ", yet they're barred from partaking of the Eucharist with us. Is there a double standard here?!

The Church uses John 20:21-23 to substantiate the requirements of forgiveness. It says Jesus commissioned the Apostles, "sending" them into the world as God had sent Him. 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (NRSVCE)  But was He speaking only to the Apostles & their successors? Or was He speaking to us all, with a nod toward the prayer He Himself taught us: "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us..."? Why would anyone retain the sin of another & refuse to forgive them? Why, indeed. People do it all the time. Was Christ teaching that in order to be forgiven of our sins, we need to confess to a priest? Did He teach that the Church is the sole gatekeeper of grace, of what is sin & what is not? Is it true that forgiveness can only be doled out by an authorized human representative of the faith? Frankly, it sounds a little absurd...