Friday, July 31, 2015

"With words of truth let me be fed"

A very late traditio, but an extremely beautiful and much needed one. The Crossing singing "For Help and Protection."

What does the Church teach about hell?

There still remains much talk in support of what is called universalism. Like all such concepts universalism comes in many variations. The basic concept universalism seeks to instill is that in the end everyone goes to heaven, even if only eventually. So-called Christian universalism holds that all go to heaven because of Christ's sacrifice. It usually hearkens back to the writings of Origen. The variety of Christian universalism that seems to be gaining traction today does not dismiss hell altogether but seems to conflate it with purgatory.

It is never enjoyable to talk about hell. It is certainly quite out of vogue in our current situation as we see the evisceration of Christianity by secular states, which might yet prove to be a great gift. It is also true that more and more people have only a vague and passing familiarity with Christianity, often possessing only a grotesque caricature of what Christians believe. I will be the first to acknowledge that a message of fear is probably not the most effective method of evangelization (see "Evangelization means to 'Open the doors to Christ'"), but the stakes are high and will remain so until Christ returns in glory to judge the living and the dead. After all, eternal life is not the life begins after mortal death. Eternal life begins at Baptism, through the waters of which we die, are buried, and rise with Christ. Living sub specie aeternitatis ("under the aspect of eternty") is a very different way of living than quasi Deus non daretur (as if if there is no God). As human beings lovingly made in the image of God we have an end for which we are made and for which we are redeemed, that is, a destiny.

As I did last time I posted on universalism (see "Seeking clarity about heaven and hell") there are some necessary caveats that I need to state up-front. First and foremost, I personally desire the damnation of nobody and try to evangelize in the different milieux in which I find myself. I am content to let God be God, even as we know from Scripture that there are damnable activities (1 Cor 6:9-10 and Gal 5:19-21- I encourage you to read these in context to see this is no exercise in proof-texting). Second, while there are situations in which explicit faith in Christ Jesus is not possible and so does not preclude the possibility of salvation, I believe wholeheartedly that following Christ as a member of His Body, the Church, is the surest means of salvation. One of the surest signs of Christian discipleship is evangelizing others. In his Letter to the Romans, St Paul wrote about the law written on our hearts:
For when the Gentiles who do not have the law by nature observe the prescriptions of the law, they are a law for themselves even though they do not have the law. They show that the demands of the law are written in their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even defend them on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge people’s hidden works through Christ Jesus (Rom 2:12-16)
Third, anyone who is saved is saved by Jesus Christ, without whom there is no salvation for anyone (Acts 4:12). A person who has never heard the Gospel is neither automatically saved nor automatically damned. If people who had never heard the Gospel never became accountable to God then we would actually do people a disservice by sharing the Gospel with them. After all, why risk automatic salvation for something that is not a sure thing?

Given all of the above, it is important to know what the clear teaching of the Church is when it comes to hell. We are blessed to have a sure guide - the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The Catechism allows us to determine in clear, precise language the Church's teaching on this very solemn matter. For those familiar with the structure of the Catechism one can read about hell in Part One, Section Two, Chapter III, Article 12. IV, which consists of paragraphs 1033-1037:

The Last Judgement, by Rogier van der Weyden, 1445-50

1033 We cannot be united with God unless we freely choose to love him. But we cannot love God if we sin gravely against him, against our neighbor or against ourselves: "He who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him." [1 John 3:14-15] Our Lord warns us that we shall be separated from him if we fail to meet the serious needs of the poor and the little ones who are his brethren. [Matt 25:31-46] To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God's merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called "hell."

1034 Jesus often speaks of "Gehenna" of "the unquenchable fire" reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost. [Matt 5:22] Jesus solemnly proclaims that he "will send his angels, and they will gather . . . all evil doers, and throw them into the furnace of fire," [Matt 13:41-42] and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire! and that he will pronounce the condemnation: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire!" [Matt 25:41]

1035 The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." [there are a number of references in this footnote, not least of which is from Bl Pope Paul VI's Credo of the People of God- #12 "He will come again, this time in glory, to judge the living and the dead: each according to his merits-those who have responded to the love and piety of God going to eternal life, those who have refused them to the end going to the fire that is not extinguished"] The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.

1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: "Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few." [Matt 7:13-14]

       Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord        and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed,        we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the ,        blessed and not, like the wicked and slothful servants, be ordered to depart into the        eternal fire, into the outer darkness where "men will weep and gnash their teeth."       [Lumen Gentium par 48 and scriptural references]

1037 God predestines no one to go to hell; [Citations of canons from the Councils of Orange and Trent] for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want "any to perish, but all to come to repentance":[2 Peter 3:9]

Father, accept this offering from your whole family.
Grant us your peace in this life,
save us from final damnation,
and count us among those you have chosen.[Roman Missal, EP I (Roman Canon) 88]
You must know your faith in order to live it fully.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"Free to be what He made me to be"

For the first time in a long time I did not post a Friday traditio yesterday. Why? Well, I was having a really difficult time figuring out what to post, which is never a good thing because it means I neglected listening to music this past week.

At least in these United States we fervently seek freedom. After all, liberty is the founding principle of our nation, not "blood and soil." Too often we conceive of freedom as freedom from instead of freedom for. I don't mind witnessing that only in Jesus do we find freedom, a liberty that just can't be found in any other way, or by any other means. But as Social Distortion sang in "Ball Chain," wherever you are you are sure to find yourself there, "you can run all your life but not go anywhere."

Jesus is our freedom because He is the Truth (John 14:6). We are freed by truth. At least for me the most freeing truth is realizing the truth about myself. Since my last birthday, my 49th, by the grace of God, I have been confronting myself and so it's been a tough year so far. I don't mind saying it;s been uneven and at times rough, like sliding naked down a rough piece of wood, but oh so worth it. A relevant passage here for anyone who cares to follow up is John 8:31-36. In verse 34 Jesus says, "Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin."

Our traditio this week is Aracely Bock performing a song off her Purple Flowers EP, "Free." She made "Purple Flowers" while she was being treated for thyroid cancer. The 5 songs that comprise "Purple Flowers" are amazing. I draw a lot of strength and resiliency from listening to her. It has become one of my "go to" sets when I am feeling down because it's sympathetic without throwing a pity party. Best of all, it disposes me to pray.

Grab that old yellow number
Let's begin again

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Year B Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mark 6:34-30

In our first reading the prophet Jeremiah not only reprimands the religious leaders of ancient Israel, but foretells, even if obliquely, of the coming of Christ. Christ Jesus is the “righteous shoot” whose name is the “The LORD our justice” (Jer 23:5-6).

Our responsorial psalm is one of the most beautiful and well-known of the one hundred-fifty psalms. Psalm 23 gives us very beautiful imagery of what the Lord, who is the Good Shepherd, has in store for us. Without a doubt the most beloved verse of Psalm 23 is verse four: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me.” Of course, mortal life is “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Let’s look at the last phrase of verse four for a minute – “your rod and your staff comfort me.” A shepherd uses his rod and staff to keep the sheep within the fold. As most of us probably know, what we, as Catholics, call the bishop’s crozier is a shepherd’s staff. It has a hook on the end of it, a shepherd uses his staff to hook and pull back a one of the flock who is going astray. By contrast, the shepherd’s staff can be used as a rod. A rod is used to strike, usually not in a hard, vicious manner, but in a corrective way, a way analogous to how you might gently tap the bottom of a toddler who just did something dangerous and needs to know that it is dangerous so he doesn’t do it again. A shepherd who did neither of these things would be a bad shepherd.

Citing Proverbs (3:11-12), the author of the Letter to the Hebrews wrote: “You have also forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as sons: ‘My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges’” (Heb 12:5-6). Getting back to Psalm 23, the Lord does this in order to lead us to our true home, the house of the Father where He spreads a feast before us, anoints us with perfumed oil, and fills our cups to overflowing (Ps 23:5).

Let’s face it, we’re sinful and fallen, but the good news is we are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb and are now being sanctified. In order to be sanctified, made holy, made more like Christ, we must freely cooperate with what God is doing in and through our lives each and every day. We have to understand that part of the process of sanctification is being corrected and disciplined when we go astray or to keep us from wandering off. This is why we need the grace we receive in and through the sacraments. In addition to participating in the Eucharist, going to confession with some regularity is vitally important to our spiritual health and well-being. It is also the way we experience the Lord’s kindness and mercy. Confession is the sacrament of mercy.

Being Catholic is not an accessory to a full life, one more thing we do to be considered “good” and “respectable” people. No! Putting our faith into practice daily, even if imperfectly, is what we do out of gratitude and love for what the Father has done for us in Christ. It is how we keep the Lord Jesus at the center of our lives, where He belongs. Too often we have the tendency to push Him to the periphery in attempt to keep Him at a safe distance. In other words, it is one thing (and an important one at that) to acknowledge Jesus as Savior, but we must also acknowledge Him as Lord. Like the twelve in today’s Gospel we need to spend dedicated time with the Lord in prayer.

Today’s Gospel reading follows closely on the heels of last week’s, when Jesus sent the twelve out with only the clothes on their backs and the sandals on their feet. According to St Mark, it seems their mission met with so much success that people kept coming to them, making it impossible for them to even eat (Mark 6:31 ). Jesus invited them to “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). But many people followed them and even arrived at their destination before they did awaiting their arrival.

As the people gathered, Jesus “was moved with pity for them” because “they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:34). Recognizing this, the Lord “began to teach them many things” (Mark 6:34). What exactly did Jesus teach them that day? St Mark’s Gospel does not tell us exactly what He taught, but we have many examples of Jesus’ teaching and so we can probably ascertain that He preached the coming of the kingdom, their need for repentance, and invited them to follow Him, and then explained what following Him meant. The next event in Mark’s account, as we will see next week, is Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5,000, but in the lectionary next Sunday we will use St John’s account of this instead of St Mark’s.

One way of looking at our readings this week and seeing how the message differs from last week is to sense the shift between being sent to preach the Gospel and the content of the Gospel message. In a nutshell, the message of the Gospel is Jesus is Lord. When the Lord Himself, in the very first chapter of St Mark, begins His proclamation by saying, “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15), He announced He was Lord. Jesus is the kingdom in person. His Incarnation marked the time of fulfillment. You might ask, “The fulfilment of what?” His Incarnation was the fulfilment of all the prophecies, like one from Jeremiah in our first reading. It marked the culmination of God’s plan of salvation and the ushering in of the new and everlasting covenant.

The Gospel is attractive because it corresponds to reality, to the reality of our individual lives and our life together. Only Christ feeds the hunger every human being experiences, our hunger for love, our hunger meaning, our hunger for belonging. The belonging part is important because, as we see in our reading from Ephesians, the Father not only seeks to unite us to Himself through Christ by the power of the Spirit, but to unite us to each other. We participate fully in the unity when we come to Mass.

Note that in our reading from Ephesians, it does not say that Jesus Christ brings us peace, but that “he is our peace” (Eph 2:14). Christ is our peace with God and our peace with one another. He “broke down the dividing wall of enmity” between us and God and between you and me. The word “enmity” means being actively opposed and/or hostile to someone. Of course, God is never opposed or hostile towards us, but we can certainly be opposed and hostile to God. We call our opposition to and hostility towards God sin. God permits this now, but will not permit it forever, which is why contrition and repentance are so very necessary for everyone, making our proclamation of Jesus’ lordship always urgent.

Christ established peace by establishing His Church, which is what it means when we read that He created “in himself one new person in place of the two, thus establishing peace” (Eph 2:15). The Church is Christ’s Body, His bride. We see these two metaphysical realities come together a few chapters later in Ephesians concerning marriage: “So husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body” (Eph 5:29-30).

My dear friends Jesus is the one foretold by the prophets. He is the Good Shepherd who leads us through “the shadow of the valley of death” to life everlasting if we choose to follow Him. By His passion, death, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Spirit, He is our peace with God and with one another. In short, Jesus is Lord. At end of this Mass you will be sent forth in peace to glorify the Lord by your life. I urge you to heed His call and submit to His Lordship.

The reality of the Church in the Western milieu

While it has dampened considerably there is still talk of the so-called "Francis effect." The "Francis effect" refers to the hypothesis that given the dynamism of our current Holy Father's pontificate that people are flocking back to the Church in great numbers. Apart from anecdotal stories (i.e., "It's because of Pope Francis that I went to confession and started going to Mass again), there is really no discernible trend we can call the Francis effect, let alone tens or hundreds of thousands flocking back to Church. This is difficult for many people who want reality to be other than it is. Like them, I would love nothing more than for people to return to the practice of the faith and to become Catholic. But the fact is that the truth of the faith is increasingly in direct confrontation with Western "values," such as they are. The Sexual Revolution has been so successful that marriage and issues concerning sexuality as well as sexual morality remain the large elephant in the room. Let's face it, for many the world is more attractive than the faith of the Church, the latter of which many don't know at a deep enough level to really understand it. It's true that this lack of understanding is primarily due to Church teaching not being communicated clearly or consistently.

The hope of those championing, or positing, the Francis effect was that Francis was going to go the worldly route and actually change what really cannot be changed. For a man who makes no secret of, among other things, his admiration for Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World, that was never going to happen. The enthusiastic reception of many of Pope Francis' early provocative statements (I am thinking of things like when he said even atheists are redeemed, which is true- that does not mean "saved," all are redeemed and his "Who am I to judge"- which was uttered in a clarifying context) was based on a poor understanding of what he was saying that seems rooted in poor catechesis and a superficial understanding of doctrine

The most evangelical pope of the modern era, perhaps in the history of the Church, remains Pope St John Paul II. This is in no way a criticism of Pope Francis. I love him greatly and appreciate the manner in which he exercises both the Petrine and Pauline dimensions of the papacy. As Sandro Magister and others have noted, the Franciscan pontificate has become more focused and sober since last year's Extraordinary Synod (see "The Closed Door of Pope Francis").

All of this was prompted by a blog post I spotted this morning while scrolling through my G+ feed: "A Smaller Church," by Fr John Hollowell. It is from his post that I obtained the graph I used above. Fr Hollowell's post also features a still very relevant quote from then-Cardinal Ratzinger about the Catholic Church in the West. The Church in the global South, particularly in Africa, is a powerhouse of dynamism. Let's not forget, it has been the African bishops, along with the Polish bishops, who have spoken out strongly against the innovators at the Synod, which consisted primarily of German bishops who preside over a Church that lost another 200,000 of their faithful just last year (see "Mass exodus continues from German Catholic Church").

While the Church should never be first and foremost about money, it is important to note that most people who give generously and steadily are older people who understand that they need to support their parish and diocese in order for there to be a parish and a diocese. Having a resident priest is already becoming a luxury in many places. While presently this is primarily due to not having as many vocations as we need, it will become more difficult as there are fewer people contributing. Like many priests of the various Eastern Catholic Churches in this country, it may become more common for Roman Catholic priests to work jobs in addition to being a priest. It is already common for a single priest to be the pastor of more than one parish.

My experience, not being raised Catholic, is that most Catholics my age and younger (I will 50 later this year) do not make a correlation between what their diocese and parish are able to do and what they contribute, not just in terms of money, but also time and talent. There is an erroneous view that the Church is loaded, but most people, certainly in my diocese, would surprised on how much of a shoestring many dioceses and parishes run. This affects the quality of everything from liturgy to catechesis to evangelization to social outreach to marriage preparation to family ministry, etc.

By no means is it all doom and gloom. Far from it! But it is only by facing reality squarely that we can fully engage according to all the factors that constitute reality.

Friday, July 17, 2015

"Still I'm waiting for the morning"

Our Friday traditio for this week is quiet and straightforward.

Billy Joel singing "Tomorrow Is Today" off his Cold Spring Harbor album is our traditio this week. Cold Spring Harbor was Joel's first solo album and was released all the way back in 1971.

Still I'm waiting for the morning
But it feels so far away
And you don't need the love I'm giving
So tomorrow is today

There is a lot I could write about this song and so I will limit myself to just one thing: I can't live just for the moment because time slips away as you can see by watching sands pour from the top to the bottom of an hour glass. I don't know about you, but I have to live for what lasts, which helps me make the most of today, even while realizing there will a tomorrow.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Seeking clarity about heaven and hell

At least in the on-line circles I frequent, there has been a lot of discussion lately about universalism. Universalism is the belief that somehow, some way, in the end, God will save everyone no matter what. Reading these exchanges has caused me to reflect on what I believe. It is these thoughts that prompt this post. I will tell you up-front, I am not looking to make a theological contribution to the exchange, but simply to clarify things for myself and perhaps a few others. As a result, apart from a few scriptural references, which I don't think amount to proof texting, I am just going to give a top-level overview of my understanding of this matter in prose and in as straightforward a manner as I am capable of providing.

In this piece I use the terms "salvation," "saved," "being saved," etc. in a reductive sense, only referring to ultimately enjoying the beatific vision of God and participating fully in the wedding feast of the Lamb.

To state my position clearly, I am a Roman Catholic who believes what the Church teaches. I believe that Jesus Christ is "the way and the truth and the life" and that nobody goes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). I also believe salvation comes through Jesus Christ and "There is no salvation through anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved" (Acts 4:12). I further believe that God "wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim 2:4). While I could cite more scriptural evidence, I think these passages show enough to grasp what we might call the dialectical tension at the heart of salvation.

This tension at the heart of what God has revealed about salvation in and through Christ is important because it is what allows us to consider salvation in light of the complexities of human life. Orthodoxy, it seems to me, usually requires Christians to hold two or more seemingly disparate ideas/concepts/notions in tension. So, when it comes to salvation, as with so many articles of Christian faith, the truth lies in media res (i.e., "in the middle of things").

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, attributed to Hieronymus Bosch, ca 1500

Two things are axiomatic to any Catholic consideration of who will be saved unto life eternal. First, universalism has been condemned by the Catholic Church as a heresy. Second, without Christ and His Church nobody at all would be saved. To keep this simple and in scope, I take the doctrinal formulation extra Ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation") as simply pointing us to the necessity of the Church for salvation. The Church, even for those saved seemingly apart from her, plays a necessary role in the salvation of any and all who are saved. When we consider that the Church is not limited to those alive on earth at any given time but that it also consists of the souls in purgatory and, more relevant to this matter, the saints in heaven who constantly intercede for us, this makes great sense.

I believe people can be saved in an extraordinary manner, that is, without having explicit faith in Jesus Christ or receiving the sacraments. It's important to note that extraordinary means outside the norm. So this belief should not result in being presumptive about knowing who God will save in this way, lest we become damnably lax. The normative way to salvation is by coming to explicit faith in Christ and receiving the sacraments, particularly Baptism. I do not believe for one moment that people who do not have faith in Christ and who do not belong to the Church, even those who have never had the Gospel preached to them in a compelling manner, are automatically saved. To my mind, this is the main reason why the Church, by her very nature, is missionary, tasked by the Lord Himself to "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that" Jesus has commanded us (Matt 28:19-20). This is part of what we mean when we confess the Church to be "apostolic."

As a faithful Roman Catholic I believe in heaven, purgatory, and hell. Based on my grasp of the Church's teaching and the testimony of the saints, I don't believe hell is empty. Neither do I presume to know who is in hell or who will be in hell. I believe damnation is eternal and unending. I am content to let God, who alone knows all and who alone is both perfect justice and perfect mercy, judge each person. I think perfect justice and perfect mercy, while distinguishable, are bound so tightly together that you can't have one without the other.

When it comes to what happens to anyone after death I make no presumptions either way. I simply commend the dead to God. The only exception to this rule is those who the Church recognizes as venerable, blessed, or as saints. I have known people about whom I could say, "If s/he isn't in heaven there is much hope for the rest of us" and those who I pray God has mercy on their souls. While I hope I am many years from passing from this life into eternity and that by God's grace I will be saved, I am quite certain I fall into the latter category. Hence, I hope that after my passing there are people who implore God on my behalf.

I also believe purgatory to be populated and so I believe in praying for those in purgatory and seeking indulgences on their behalf to help them on their way.

Among Christians I don't think anyone who has reached the age of reason, especially those who have lived into adulthood, can presume that his/her salvation is guaranteed. I certainly do not believe mine is.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Struggling with besetting sins

Do you ever get angry? Sure, we all do and sometimes for good reason. How do you handle your anger? If you're like me, you become angry often, maybe not every, single, day, but several times a week and handle it poorly, letting circumstances control you instead of engaging them for your benefit and that of others.

I think that the vast majority of us experience what are sometimes called "besetting sins." A handy definition of besetting sin is, "one to which on account of your constitution, or circumstance or both, you are peculiarly exposed, and into which you most easily and most frequently fall." So, besetting sins probably arise from both nurture and nature. While all sins rob us of our freedom by causing us to live in a manner that is at odds with the end for which we are created and redeemed, besetting sins do so by enslaving us to patterns of destructive behavior, behavior we engage in without even thinking about it, like a reflex. After awhile we can't even begin to imagine how we might deal with these circumstances any differently. Besetting sins become ingrained patterns of behavior and so require grace and our fervent cooperation with God in overcoming them.

Where do we find and receive the grace we need to conquer besetting sins? The sacraments, especially Penance and the Eucharist, to which we have access by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation. Our reception of the grace given us in these sacraments does not work like magic. Could they work that way? Sure, if God wanted them to work like that they could. Sometimes, for reasons known to Him alone, God does will that they work automatically and immediately. We've all heard credible stories of lives immediately and permanently transformed by God's grace through the sacraments and by other means, we can find many such experiences in the lives of the saints. But typically God does not work that way. It is my belief He doesn't usually work like that because our lives matter; experience is the instrument for our truly human journey. God gives us grace to strengthen us and to encourage us. This does not make grace incidental to overcoming besetting sins, it remains vital, but overcoming these sins not a passive endeavor, it requires our full, active, and conscious participation. Penance is there so Christ can pick us up and dust us off as we walk our own via Delarosa.

As a result of committing to overcoming your besetting sin(s) you will suffer. You'll suffer spiritually, psychologically, and sometimes even physically. These sufferings are not God's punishment, but are the natural consequences of your sin. The natural consequences that follow from your sins constitute part of what we call temporal punishments due to sin. The temporal punishments due our sins, while including all natural consequences, are not limited to natural consequences. We need to keep in mind that in the Sacrament of Penance what is remitted is the eternal punishment due our sins merit, namely hell, but not the temporal punishments, which is why, as I have noted before, indulgences are an important spiritual tool, although one very little used today.

In my experience one of the most difficult aspects of grappling with my besetting sins is realizing how much damage I cause by giving myself over to them, how much my behavior damages my relationship with God and with others, especially those closest to me. The more I repent (i.e., turn from my sin) the more aware I am of how damaging they are and the more I suffer for them. This is spiritually painful and can easily become discouraging.

In an effort to be more physically calm, which I hope will help me be more kind, patient, gentle, and understanding, I am currently trying to eliminate caffeine from my diet, from my daily intake. Mind you, by current standards, I am not a big consumer of caffeine. Up until late last week I usually consumed 2-3 cups of coffee in the morning and drank a 12 oz. caffeinated soda maybe 2-3 times a month. I have never imbibed an energy drink. Yesterday was my first whole day with no caffeine. Friday I had one cup of coffee in the morning. Saturday I had half-a-cup of coffee. Rather than being calmer, by Saturday afternoon I was agitated and out of sorts. Sunday was a little better in the morning, but by the afternoon, exacerbated by the heat of a July day, I was physically beaten. I did not have a soda, a coffee, or anything else of the kind. I came home from a picnic, drank some water, took a shower, swallowed some ibuprofen and went to bed. This is called caffeine withdrawal and it's just as real and painful as quitting any other drug.

It was a rough night. As I lay there I did not blame what was happening on God (I rarely do) but accepted it as the price to rid myself of a substance that is not good for me. To best of my ability I united my headache and nausea (which I think was due to the heat and slight dehydration) to the suffering of Christ, pleading with God to accept this paltry offering as reparation for my sins of impatience and anger. I feel okay today. A little tired, but I am doing fine and recovering. By God's grace I weathered last night's storm. It was a storm, but one for which I am grateful.

Two things motivated me to do this. First, I read an article by Pastor Shane Idleman on the negative effects of caffeine. Second, last week, two days after I read Pastor Idleman's article, I noticed my boss was much calmer. I asked him why. He said, "This is my second week without caffeine."

In his post "Caffeine - Friend or Foe? What You Need to Know," Idleman, while acknowledging the benefits of moderation (he is not being absolutist or legalistic), noted:
Since caffeine runs along the same biochemical pathways in the brain as cocaine, opium, and amphetamines, quitting can be a nightmare. My suggestion is to back off day by day until intake is very minimal, and use organic green tea (light caffeine) whenever possible. You’ll be shocked by the results. Granted, the first week to 10-days may be torture, but it will be worth it. The withdrawal symptoms alone reveal the power of this drug
He then notes, without naming names (I am not so shy), that featured prominently on the Starbucks' logo is a siren. Of great interest to me was this:
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders now recognizes caffeine-related disorders such as caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, and caffeine-induced sleep disorder. These can begin with even minimal doses. Increase the amount to 500mg. of caffeine (the amount found in approximately 24 ounces of coffee) and these symptoms are dramatically increased. All this can lead to angry outbursts, panic attacks, severe depression, and extreme irritability. This begs the question, "How many are suffering mentally and physically simply because of poor health—continuing the addiction rather than removing the cause of the problem?" Not in all cases, but in most, depression, anxiety, irritability, and so on, could be severely curtailed if health (spiritual and physical) was a priority
I am certainly not demanding or insinuating that anyone, let alone everyone, should follow suit and quit caffeine altogether. But if you struggle with depression, anxiety, angry outbursts, or irritability it's worth considering. Of course, there are still the behavioral elements with which you need to deal, but at least you're helping yourself. Like the practice of all the spiritual disciplines, practicing some physical discipline is a way that we can fully, actively, and consciously cooperate with God's grace. It can never be pointed out too often, grace builds on nature. It's more than a tragedy that extended fasting and abstinence is no longer a regular part of Christian praxis among Roman Catholics and Protestants.

As we read in the magnificent Letter to the Hebrews, a book of Sacred Scripture too often ignored -
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood (12:1-4)
Given my milieu, I feel compelled to offer this apologetic note: Latter-day Saints observe what they call "the Word of Wisdom, which is found in Section 89 of one of their extra-biblical books that they revere as scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants. The Doctrine and Covenants contains almost exclusively revelations that Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to receive directly from God. As you will see if you read this section the "Word of Wisdom" was not originally given as a commandment. It was later accepted by the Latter-day Saints to be a binding commandment almost 20 years after Smith claimed to receive it.

While the Word of Wisdom prohibits drinking "hot drinks," which is interpreted to mean coffee and tea, but not cocoa, it does not prohibit consuming caffeine. As recently as 2012 the Church authorities clarified this in a news release that "Despite what was reported, the Church revelation spelling out health practices (Doctrine and Covenants 89) does not mention the use of caffeine. The Church’s health guidelines prohibit alcoholic drinks, smoking or chewing of tobacco, and 'hot drinks' — taught by Church leaders to refer specifically to tea and coffee."

Saturday, July 11, 2015

What do you desire? Who do you desire?

Desire is constitutive of our humanity. We all have desires. For the most part, we order our lives so as to get what we desire in the belief that is what will make us happy. It’s a very safe observation that what every human being desires most deeply is to be happy, meaning to be completely fulfilled, to be sated and satisfied. We walk the path of desire seeking that for which we most deeply long. Most of the time, perhaps only after years or decades, you realize that a particular desire is not going to deliver on what it promised when you began pursuing it. Stated simply, these paths are dead ends, or only satisfy briefly and then evaporate. Nonetheless, we can’t help ourselves, we continue to desire. Even should we grow cynical, believing that happiness is unattainable and our desires are nothing but a cruel cosmic, or evolutionary, joke that ultimately show us that our existence itself is dead end, our desire persists.

Today on The Gospel Coalition website I read a post by Matt Smethurst, “20 Quotes from Rosaria Butterfield’s New Book on Sexual identity”. I appreciate Rosaria’s witness so very much. I read her autobiographical account of her conversion - The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert very quickly. One of Mr Smethurst’s 20 quotes is this one:
How do we make an identity out of temptation? By collapsing what you desire with who you are. By collapsing what tempts you or what trips you up with who you will become. . . . God’s revealed purpose for my identity always nails me to his cross
Before proceeding, I want to make it clear that (I think) I agree with her, even while refusing to give up on desire.

I think in making that statement she presumes, rightly, that many of our deepest desires are disordered and have been distorted. We look for love in all the wrong places. This is consistent with my understanding of being a broken person living in a fallen world. What is evil is not having desires. Our disordered and distorted desires are temptations primarily because, by pursuing them, we seek what they will never and can never give us.

It seems to me the problem with our desires is that they lead us to seek fulfillment in other human beings, in things, or experiences, none which can bear the weight of our need. I will readily admit, as almost every honest man should, that, while heterosexual, my sexual desires are often disordered. I don’t lust after a person, but for what I want that person to do for me and to me. All I have to do, really, to snap out of it is ask myelf, "Then what?" Our ultimate desire is not for a what, but for a who, a person: "Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring."

The axis around which the entire teaching, or method, of Msgr Luigi Giussani revolves is that the human heart is a desire for God, a longing for infinite and eternal Love. Our true desire doesn't collapse into our identity, but reveals us to ourselves. So, rather than repudiate desire, we need to be ruthlessly honest about what it is we really want. Once we have some inkling that what we long for is infinite and eternal we are no longer willing to settle for cheap substitutes, for what will never and can never satisfy.

God only wills and seeks to bring about what is good for us. God does this by working providentially through the circumstances of our lives; grace builds on nature. So we must be open to God's grace and when we recognize it not merely cooperate with it, but pursue it with everything we have. But what might this look like? It depends on your circumstances. Here is something I found recently, relevant to the subject at hand, that I think makes it more concrete: "How the Gospel ended My Same Sex Relationship."

God's decrees are not arbitrary. He gives them only not only to help us, but to complete us. God - who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit- created us, redeemed us (justified us, assuming we've accepted His free gift of redemption by faith), and now wants to sanctify us. God desires us to attain "to the extent of the full stature of Christ, so that we may no longer be infants, tossed by waves and swept along by every wind of teaching arising from human trickery, from their cunning in the interests of deceitful scheming" (Eph 4:13-14). Rosaria is absolutely correct, this cannot occur without honesty or without a struggle, which is the pain of forsaking the ephemeral for the lasting. Jesus, I trust in You.

Friday, July 10, 2015

"Dawn comes steady enough..."

In this world nothing last forever, least of all life, mortal life, that is...

Yesterday I learned that Billy Zoom the legendary guitarist for one of my favorite punk bands, X, has been diagnosed with bladder cancer. He successfully battled prostate cancer previously.

A GoFundMe campaign has been launched to help Zoom with the cost of his medical treatment: Help Billy Zoom Kick Cancers Butt. The effort has already raised close to $43,000. So, the call goes out to all punk rockers to help if you can. As the band said in a statement posted on their website: "Please keep Billy in your prayers and send some positive energy his way! Donating a few bucks will take away some of his financial stress and worry. And it's the punk rock thing to do." That last sentence may sound odd to anyone not familiar with punk rock, but if punk is/was ever about anything at all it is about solidarity.

In addition to Zoom, I have three personal friends who are currently battling various forms of cancer. I am grateful that, despite my seemingly natural and effortless leanings towards despair, that I have hope.

It's been years since I posted a X song as the Friday traditio, but who else could perform the task today? So, off their 1982 album Under the Big Black Sun is "The Have Nots"

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

At the movies: 'Inside Out'

One of the best things about participating in Notre Dame Center for Liturgy's annual Symposium last month was meeting and getting to know the Center's Director, Dr Tim O'Malley, and Assistant Director, Carolyn Pirtle. The Center has a blog (now added to my "Blogs I Like" list)- Oblation: Liturgy and Life. It is Carolyn's most recent post on their blog that prompted this post.

A week ago Sunday I took my family to see the Pixar movie Inside Out. It is one of three films I want to see in theater with my wife and children during this hot season. I wanted to see the movie, but not being a Disney fan (Pixar is now owned by Disney), my expectations were not very high. To me Disney movies, on the whole, are gaudy, predictable, and didactic- the same 2 or 3 stories told over and over in ever less imaginative ways. But I'll be honest, I was amazed by Inside Out. Carolyn's post "All of the Feels: The Joy of 'Inside Out'" captures well a few of my own thoughts about the movie. It offers me much more worth considering.

"Inside Out," Carolyn observed, "invites young-at-heart viewers to ponder questions like: What does it mean to remember? What does it mean to forget? What does it mean to feel things deeply? What does it mean allow our behavior to be ruled entirely by our emotions, and how can this effect the people we care about? I don't want to steal her thunder and so I will simply direct you (again) to her post.

I also read Eve Tushnet's review for The American Conservative, "Feeling Down on 'Inside Out.'" Some of her critical points are quite valid. In particular she was spot-on with her observation about Riley, the 12 year-old girl inside of whose psyche the movie plays out in response to what is going on in her life, namely her family's re-location from Minnesota to San Francisco:
In general I found it hard to believe that a child had reached that age with so few awful memories, persistent shames, or sins. We visit her subconscious and the great lurking fears there are broccoli and the vacuum cleaner. She’s eleven. I led a charmed life as a child, and I had accumulated more Dostoyevskyan angst by age six than this kid seems to harbor at twice that
But I think it's important to keep in mind who likely comprised the movie's target audience.

Eve did go on to note Inside Out "moves from happy memories to an emphasis on bittersweet ones. It strongly hints that all memories eventually become bittersweet. There’s even a moment toward the end where Joy, not Sadness, turns a memory blue: That’s a haunting, beautifully simple way of conveying a complex psychological truth."

As Christians we put a lot of emphasis on "the heart." This is something we take away from reading Scripture. The heart is certainly embedded deeply in Roman Catholic spirituality. Hence, we should not be hesitant to see the need to pursue emotional intelligence. Our emotions, our affectivity, certainly must come into play in our spiritual life. Why? Because, as Christians, the very heart of our faith is our relationship with Jesus Christ. At the heart of Carolyn's piece is a wonderful New Testament reflection on what it means to have joy.

In the car on our way home from the movie theater I asked the question, "So what did you think of the movie?" Our six year-old son, who we affectionately call the Snack, piped in with "At first I thought Sadness was useless, but she actually turned out to be quite important."

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Live prophetically

Readings: Ezk 2:2-5; Ps 121:1-4; 2 Cor 12:7-10; Mark 6:1-6

You'd think with one of my three favorite passages from the New Testament apart from the Gospels (2 Cor 12:7-10- the other two are Romans 12:1-2 and Phil 2:3-11) as one of the readings for today it would be easier to post a reflection on our readings for this Fourteenth Sunday if Ordinary Time, but it is not.

It is important to note in our passage from 2 Corinthians that Paul actually quotes our risen Lord as saying to him, "power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor 12:9). Do we believe this? Do we live this way? Are we ready to live lovingly and joyfully contra mundi, not expecting to be lauded, let alone supported, or even understood? While living for the One who made us and redeemed us is the path to sanctification (i.e. becoming "like" Him) is an utterly good, truthful, and when done in the correct spirit (the spirit borne of authentic love for God and neighbor), beautiful way to live, it requires great courage, great faith, and deep hope in the One who was not well-received in his hometown of Nazareth upon His return.

Flannery O'Connor once averred, "You shall know the truth and the truth will make you odd." These days the truth will make you more than odd, it will often and increasingly make you an object of opprobrium. While being a disciple of Jesus does not necessarily make this any easier, it makes it understandable. Preceding the words "power is made perfect in weakness" in the Apostle's citation of the risen Lord are these words: "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor 12:9).

You want to be "prophetic"? Our current cultural, social, and political climate gives us a prime opportunity to be prophetic. This is not just true with regard to bearing witness to the truth about marriage being the conjugal union of a man and a woman- though this may be the prime and most readily available way right now to be prophetic in virtually any Western milieu- it is true about economic justice both at home and abroad (everyone should care about the plight of Greece, a classic case of the strong oppressing the weak), matters of race, as well as war and peace. For those of us who live in the U.S., Independence Day weekend strikes me as a wonderful opportunity to reflect deeply on these things and speak prophetic words and to live prophetic lives precisely because we love our country and our fellow citizens. We must be relentless because the God who loves us is relentless. Our relentlessness is not coercive, brutal, or mean-spirited, even when our witness is not well-received. True charity is the fruit of hope, which is the flower of faith.

There was probably no more prophetic papal act in recent times than Bl. Pope Paul VI's promulgation of Humanae vitae. A prophet does not necessarily, or even even usually, call down God's wrath on people. Prophets do not typically see into the future like a fortune-teller. A prophet is one God uses to call His people back to fidelity to the covenant. What the prophet usually does is simply point out the natural consequences of refusal to heed the prophetic message.

As we see in our first reading from the Book of Ezekiel, it is no business of the prophet whether the ones to whom s/he is sent pay heed to or reject the inspired message, which is never something new, novel, or simply made up. Primarily, the way to assess the authenticity of any claimed prophecy is by its continuity with what God previously revealed, keeping in mind that all God had to reveal culminated with the coming of His only begotten Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ (Gal 4:4-5), who established His Church on the rock foundation of faith as expressed by Peter on the road to Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-20). The sole business of the prophet is to bear witness to the message with which God has entrusted him/her.

As Catholics we often reduce our sacramental language to so much flowery rhetoric. For instance, we often hear that when we were baptized we were constituted members of Christ's royal, priestly, and prophetic people. In fact, according to the Rite of Baptism, after an infant or child who has not yet reached the age of reason is baptized and just prior to being anointed with sacred Chrism (looking forward to Confirmation), the celebrant says, "As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as members of his body, sharing everlasting life." What does this mean?

If you desire God's kingdom you must seek to make it a present reality by living in this odd way. But you can't expect to receive an earthly reward and this must not make you bitter, or rob you of your joy. The joy of the Lord is my strength.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Benedict Option crystallized and distilled

With gratitude to my friend, who is truly a companion, Fred, on this U.S. Independence Day all I am offering is this from Bishop Massimo Camisasca, who is a member of the Priestly Fraternity of St Charles Borromeo and bishop of of the Diocese of Reggio Emilia-Guastalla, Italy:
St. Benedict's goal was neither to save the Roman Empire nor to create a Europe. He simply understood that the essence of Christianity lies in free persons who come together to give their whole lives for the sake of the truest thing that ever happened to them
St Benedict

My liberty, my freedom, as a human being was not won or granted by any man, woman, or group of people, save One. It is Him I follow. Nobody can validly infer from this that I don't love my country. I do, very much. By a not-so-strange convergence, St Benedict's feast day is 11 July.

Come to think of it, there is one more thing I'd like to add. It is from Dante's Paradisio. The Pilgrim is speaking to Clemence, wife of Charles Martel:
Ah, souls deceived, devoid of piety, who turn your hearts away from the True Good, raising your haughty heads towards empty things! (Canto IX, lines 10-12- Mark Musa's translation)

Friday, July 3, 2015

Doubting Thomas and Christian experience

Today is the Feast of St Thomas the Apostle. He's better known as "Doubting Thomas."

It's always disturbing to me when Christians and non-Christians alike reduce being a Christian to moralism and then gauge the "Christianity" of themselves and/or others by how well their life/lives conform to a rigorous set of moral prescriptions and proscriptions. I wholly agree that our Lord sets the bar impossibly high, insisting that act and intention align to do what is good and avoid what is evil. Our intention cannot be so we can earn merit in order to go to heaven. Try as you might, you'll miss the mark. If you're anything like me, you won't even come close to hitting it. Rather what we do, or refrain from doing, must flow from a genuine love of God and of neighbor.

Loving God and our neighbor, while distinguishable, are inextricably bound together. So bound together are they that we read in Sacred Scripture: "If anyone says, 'I love God,' but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:20). See what I mean? If I ask myself how often does what I do, or refrain from doing, rise to this standard I am bound to be disappointed by the honest answer. But then I am not really all that holy, which is why I need help. I don't write that in an attempt to be charmingly self-deprecating. It's true. I am not very holy. I am not very righteous, which makes the times I am self-righteous all the more ironic.

The point of the above digression is simple: in Jesus' apostles, or, as they are denoted in St John's Gospel, His 12 closest disciples, we do not find 12 guys who have it all figured out, who have their act together, who have their path to God's kingdom greased so they can easily slide along it. Jesus chose flawed, broken people because there weren't any other kind of people to choose. Even so, I often wonder, weren't there better people around to choose? Looking at it from a moralistic perspective, I am pretty sure there were better people. From a divine perspective, the answer is - Jesus chose the right guys. Jesus came to reveal God to us fully. I don't believe for one minute that Jesus chose Judas because His mental checklist, like that of a casting director, required Him to choose a betrayer. But that would be a digression beyond the scope of this reflection, but worth deep consideration and meditation (see Andy Freeman's take on Judas here and here).

Doubting Thomas, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1308-1311

And so, Thomas...

When Christians, myself included, read the Gospels we're prone to romanticize it beyond belief. Reading the Gospels this side of Christ's resurrection makes it very difficult for us to understand how disappointed and even disillusioned Jesus' disciples were after His death. WTF? I am sure doesn't begin to express what they were feeling. I believe my own experience, which is the only one I have, confirms Thomas' experience, which is that disappointment and disillusionment constitute the starting point of grace.

George Carlin, who became and remained a disillusioned Catholic most of his life, once said, "Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist." But isn't it our idealism that gets us into trouble in the first place? I mean, there is the world as I would like it to be and the world as I experience it. If I live life this way every day I have a huge chasm to bridge every day. I'll be honest, many days I choose to live this way. I'll be brutally honest, those days suck.

The answer to this truth about human existence is not to look at the world through rose-colored glasses, but through the eyes of faith. As with our tendency to reduce being Christian to being "moral," we all too often think that to see ourselves, other people, and the world through the eyes of faith is the same as putting on rose-colored glasses. No! Faith requires us to see ourselves, others, and our circumstances for exactly what they are. At least for me, the power of the writings of Joris Karl Huysmans, Flannery O'Connor, and Walker Percy lies in the fact that each in their own way show us just this. But for a Christian to leave it at that (i.e., seeing everything for what it is) is also to reduce reality. It is a failure to engage reality according to all the factors that constitute the world.

"The world," what an expression! What is "the world"? I take my cue from the very beginning of Wittgenstein's Tractatus: "The world is all that is the case."

Faith requires an object. You can't have faith in faith. There is no point in having faith in fate, which is both arbitrary and indifferent towards you. The cornerstone of faith in Christ is His resurrection from the dead, which "is the case." This is why it is so vital to have a personal encounter with the risen Lord. It is not enough to have just one encounter with Him. We need to encounter Him over and over, daily, if you're up to it. Where does this encounter happen? It happens in the ordinary circumstances of daily life. He meets us in our need via our acknowledged neediness. This is why C.S. Lewis wrote, "Relying on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done." Sometimes I find this simple statement frightening and discouraging (see "Beginning anew each day is a grace"). As He did with doubting Thomas, Jesus shows us time and again that the path to the Father's house runs straight through disappointment and disillusionment. How else can we break through to what is real? Eugene Peterson put it this way: "Our faith develops out of the most difficult aspects of our existence, not the easiest."

Our traditio is Rich Mullins' "Surely God is With Us," the demo tape version of the album we was working on prior to being unexpectedly killed in an auto accident way back in 1997. Has it been that long? Damn.

Year B Third Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 3:13-15.17-19; Ps 4:2.4.7-9; 1 John 2:1-5a; Luke 24:25-48 “You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus tells his incredulous...