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The Mug Challenge

Last night one of my sisters posted the following picture to my Facebook feed:

Awesome Mug Image

I was deeply touched at the inherent complement, but immediately dismissed the idea that it was true. “I’m really not that awesome”, I said to my husband; my brain was already cataloging the many ways I had screwed up during the day.
Somewhere in that weird mix of emotions I felt a shift. A voice in my head whispered, “A lot of people say you are awesome. Why don’t you try seeing what they see instead of brushing it off?” I know what those shifts mean for me. It’s the Holy Spirit dropping grace in my brain, and I know not to ignore it. What I’m going to do, then, is take the next 24 hours and make an honest effort to suffocate that negative voice in my head and look at myself from the perspective of that mug picture.

I don’t expect it to be easy. Low self-esteem is a common human condition. It doesn’t care about gender or socio-economic status. It simply wants to eat our souls. Take a moment and think about it: when you get a compliment, is your first reaction to demur? Do you stop to enjoy accomplishments or are you already looking for ways to make it better, to be better. How much do you let the negative opinion of others influence you? I’ve only just realized that on top of my own rigorous self-criticism I’ve allowed myself to be more influenced by the two people in my life who define me by my faults rather than the dozen who embrace me for my strengths, despite my faults. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is ridiculous. Yet we all do it. Sociological studies abound on the disproportionate affect negativity has on people. It takes five muscles to smile and seventeen to frown. Why in the world are we working so hard to frown? This is one area where our body is biological programmed to favor smiling!

I would love for all of you to join me in taking 24 hours to “adopt the mug”. This is not merely an exercise in boosting self-esteem. I’m not encouraging you to throw criticism to the wind and embrace your inner megalomaniac. God is Good (as in the original good that all other good comes from); by embracing what is good in us we acknowledge that we are made in “the image and likeness” of God. It is also opening yourself to God’s love and grace. God loves us beyond our comprehension. Our brains literally cannot imagine the depth of love that He has for us. That is why our friends and family are so important. Through them God whispers His love. Through them, the Holy Spirit lays grace at our feet. Pick it up, and use it!

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Don’t be Fair, be Generous.

Today’s Gospel reading in Matthew (20:1-16) talks about a landowner who hires workers throughout the day to tend to his fields; from dawn to dusk he brings them in. At the end of the day everyone received the same wage, regardless of how long they worked. Envy has the first workers crying foul, to which they are then chastised for their own unfairness in demanding the landowner limit his generosity.

The last round of workers in Matthew at first seem like a bunch of worthless moochers, but Jesus makes it clear that they are of great value. You see, these workers came very close to missing out on a great opportunity, but they made it. Why they almost missed out is irrelevant; they worked, and the work they did earned them their wage. Many sermons focus on the generosity of the land owner in paying equal wages for unequal labor, but the time invested by each group of workers provide another important consideration. Everyone has a chance to offer their work, no matter how late they are in the game. Until the moment of death, each of us can forgive and be forgiven. We can change and accept change in others.

That is why we are to forgive “seventy-seven” times (Mt. 18:22). Rather than meaning a specific amount of faults we are supposed to overlook, “seventy-seven” is Hebrew code-speak for “forever”. There is no end to the offenses we are to forgive from our friends, our family, our co-workers, or our roommates. It’s not fun, and will often feel unrewarding in the moment, but our Catholic faith encourages us to remain in hope; for others and for ourselves. We have access to the same unending forgiveness if we are willing to seek it out. We can’t be afraid to swallow our pride and admit where we fall short, no matter how uncomfortable it feels in the moment. Those workers from Matthew received a wage not only because they were given a chance but also because they accepted that chance.

All of us have opportunities to be generous with our resources, our love, and our forgiveness. We also have many chances to be given these generous gifts. Depending on where you are in your day, or in your life, don’t be afraid to assess who you are, what you can offer, and what you should ask for.

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Let’s Add Some Random Thomism to the Public Debate on Communion for the Divorced and Civilly Remarried Catholics!

When I first heard about the Synods called for this year and next to discuss the pastoral issues surrounding marriage and the family, I squealed with glee a bit on the inside. Maybe out loud, too. Marriage and family life are a topic close to my heart and will probably be the primary study track I pick when I go for my PhD. It’s also a topic that has rarely been addressed in such a comprehensive scope by a large ecclesial body. Ergo, my giddy excitement for all things Synod related.

As the opening day of this year’s Synod draws closer, I’ve noticed the increase in punditry on one of the major concerns for marriage and family life: whether divorced and remarried Catholics (whose divorce is not annulled) should be given a dispensation to receive Holy Communion. Obviously there are those that support the dispensation option and those who don’t. To save you time and a great deal of head-scratching, read Bishop Tobin’s column and Edward Peter’s response. Both are intelligent, respectful, and articulate snapshots of each camp’s argument.

I’ve been troubled, however, by something when it comes to the public discussion about this issue running up to October’s opening of the Synod. It took me quite a while to figure out what it was, but I finally got my brain to cough it up. In all of the articles and op-eds I’ve read so far, there appears to be a complete lack of consideration for what’s known as “vincible ignorance”.

I freely admit that bringing up vincible ignorance is a nerd move, but it’s a bit of arcane exposition that has value to this discussion. According to St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica there are two main kinds of ignorance: invincible and vincible (or voluntary). In general, ignorance is the absence of the knowledge of things which we have a “natural aptitude” to know. We have an obligation to know some of these things, such as the articles of faith, in order to act rightly. Invincible ignorance is the complete inability to access such knowledge. Isolated tribes in the Amazon are a popular example; having no contact with the outside world, they do not have the means to learn about Jesus or his teachings. Ignorance is classified as a sin, but due to the involuntary nature of the tribe’s situation the penalty attributed to sin is commuted. They aren’t held responsible for their ignorance.

Vincible ignorance addresses knowledge of what we are obligated to know that we can acquire through study, but don’t. This is not about knowledge of quantum physics or sewing; if you don’t learn how to grow your own yeast and make bread from it, you will not have to answer for yourself before the pearly gates. It becomes an important consideration when talking about knowing the faith because the articles of faith exist for the express purpose of saving us from eternal death. Ignorance of these articles puts us in mortal danger, so to speak.

It sounds dramatic, but not all sins of vincible ignorance are that serious. Sometimes it is a matter of neglect. Say you live in Delaware. You decide to drive cross-country so you can visit SeaWorld. Somewhere in Nevada you get busted for a traffic violation that you’ve never heard of before. Sure, you didn’t know you were breaking the law, but neither did you check if Nevada regulated traffic in a manner different from Delaware. Most likely you’d get a warning and sent on your way; maybe the traffic cop is particularly grumpy and you get ticketed. Either outcome is justifiable. So it generally goes with vincible ignorance by neglect.

Ignorance by choice, however, is never ok. We simply cannot avoid knowledge in order to evade the responsibilities attached to such knowledge or diminish culpability when we are caught doing something wrong. Again, this does not hold for matters that have no effect on our soul. The Church doesn’t consider ignorance of things like arts and sciences sinful. In matters that touch on, in some way, the eternal trajectory of the soul ignorance becomes harmful. Harm to the soul comes under the heading of sin.

Why, then, is vincible ignorance important to the discussion on communion for the divorced and remarried Catholics? Code of Canon Law 1095. Part of the updated 1983 Code, code 1095 introduces psychological considerations and mental capacity into evaluating the valid sacramentality of a marriage when seeking an annulment. Streamlining the annulment process and removing “cumbersome” impediments to having an annulment approved is one of the most popular suggestions offered publicly by various bishops and pundits. Code 1095 opens the possibility to a significant increase in annulment approvals, and will probably be prominent in the Synod discussion.

There is one problem with that. Code 1095, with the added clause on a person’s psychological state, creates a difficulty in establishing consistent parameters for its application in annulment cases. To my knowledge annulment tribunals across the U.S.A. do not have a rule book that can be consulted to ensure a reasonable consistency of approval or denial based on universal standards. Each member of each tribunal must rely on their prudential judgment to come to a decision, which in turn is based on a certain amount of free interpretation on the nuances of Scripture and canon law. Basically there is no standard that can be applied at this time.

The ambiguity of code 1095 carries a disturbing implication. Failed first marriages can be, and sometimes are, attributed to the psychological immaturity on the part of one or both spouses. This “immaturity” is defined very broadly in many cases. For instance, the “my ex is a psychopath who harasses me on Facebook and prank calls the cops on me” type is one definition of immature. I’m willing to bet its also a common refrain in annulment cases.  An ex who slashes your tires or empties your bank account can be called immature (in addition to whatever expletives you prefer), but to say that this type of behavior nullifies a sacramental character runs on a slippery slope. It strongly implies that adult immaturity (outside of a genuine mental impediment that prohibits adult reasoning capabilities) is an impediment that cannot be reasonably overcome. It could become seen as a form of invincible ignorance. In fact, that line of reasoning has already taken hold in Italy. Married men are claiming their marriages are not sacramentally valid because their mamas have so much influence over them that they were compelled to follow her will over their own. It’s dubbed “mama-ism”, and it’s a thing, evidently.

Ridiculous, right? If that’s the thought these bullied Italian men make you think, then you already utilize the principle of vincible ignorance.

I will say again that I think what I’ve just laid out offers some benefit to the bishop’s coming discussions at the Synods, at least from a  technical standpoint. But what about the calls from Pope Francis and many bishops to approach the divorced and civilly remarried Catholics with mercy and compassion? Without mercy and compassion all we’d have is a technical standpoint.  Might as well call ourselves Pharisees. Mercy, which is the genuine distress at the suffering of another, is an essential feature of Christian discipleship. It’s an essential feature of Christ, to be more specific. To be merciful is to be like Christ.

Ultimately the mercy of Christ is what brings me around to the technicalities like the principle of vincible ignorance. Christ admits openly that the path of mercy is difficult to hear and hard to follow. At the same time Christ, in His mercy, did everything He could do to get everyone on that path. Salvation is bought for all by the Cross. Christ’s mercy is both specific and broad; technical and expansive. I have no idea how to turn that into practical solutions for the pastoral care of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. I certainly don’t envy the bishops in their task of discernment. But I hope that, when the Synod gets under way next month, the bishops will find the way to keep Catholics on the narrow way without closing the entrance.

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Shadows and Light

Before a meeting with my pastor, I stopped in the chapel to collect myself and enjoy a few minutes of peace. I sat in the second pew on the right side, which gave me a angled view of the crucifix above the altar. I gazed at the image of Jesus, taking in the particulars of his face, his posture (limp but not sagging, head bowed slightly), and the flow of the cloth around his hips. I didn’t realize I was doing this until my gaze moved to the crucifix’s shadow and I was startled into attention. 

You see, the cloth covering Jesus has a portion of it that rises up and ripples out, like it is being lifted by a strong wind. But in the shadow crucifix, the cloth transforms into a coiled snake that is squeezing the life out of Christ. Shadow Jesus sags farther down the cross, and it appears that his head hangs lower. Even the crossbeam appears to be turning downward, as if the weight of the snake is too much for it to bear. 

I’m not going to lie: the shadow crucifix freaked me the hell out. At the same time, I felt a little knock on my brain telling me to get my wheels spinning. As I looked back and forth from the real crucifix to the shadow crucifix I had a profound (and profoundly “duh”) moment of clarity: sin is a shadow that warps reality and tries to weigh you down. Literally, it is the basket that wants to carry you into Hell. 

What reality is the real crucifix giving us? For one, that life is colorful and beautifully crafted by someone with great skill. Looking beyond the surface, we can also see that true love is real. True love may leave us limp, but it doesn’t drag us down. Neither will true love cause our heads to hang low in defeat; instead we will bow in acknowledgement of the greatest gift known to man. Also part of reality is the existence of suffering. Horrible and painful things will happen, but even in the midst of these times color and light need not fade. 

So what does the shadow crucifix reveal? Sin is dark, and works without precision or definition. In fact, its job is to obfuscate all definition from reality. Sin keeps us from being able to distinguish what is what. To the observer, what is straight becomes bent. Cloth becomes the obnoxious anaconda in a bad J.Lo movie. You get the idea, but allow me one more.

If you haven’t read C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, do yourself a favor and read it. It is amazing. I read it for the first time a few months ago, and still can’t stop thinking about it. It is the story of a man allowed to see the process souls take in moving from Purgatory into either Heaven or Hell. At one point a beautiful, saintly soul arrives and comes upon the soul of her husband. This man, Frank, is one soul split into two personas: a small dwarf and a tall, thin man. The dwarf Frank drags the tall man behind him by a heavy chain. The tall man is described as “theatrical”. During their conversation with the beautiful soul, the dwarf Frank is eventually consumed by the dramatic negativity of the tall man he has been dragging around. Before he disappears, the beautiful soul begs the dwarf to “stop”: “Stop what?” “Using pity, other people’s pity, in the wrong way. We have all done it a bit on earth, you know. Pity was meant to be a spur that drives joy to help misery. But it can be used the wrong way round. It can be used for a kind of blackmailing. Those who choose misery can hold joy up to ransom, by pity…Did you think joy was created to live always under that threat? Always defenseless against those who would rather be miserable than have their self-will crossed?”

Welcome to the world of darkness, where no good deed goes unpunished! In fact, there is no such thing as a good deed, because everyone has an ulterior motive; if you let them, people will just screw you out of everything!

Ok, that last bit is in jest, but you get the idea. Sin does not allow any room for joy, or peace, or even reason. The worst part is that, for most of us, it works very slowly, like air leaking out of a tiny hole in a balloon. At first, it doesn’t seem like anything is wrong. Over time the sins get bigger and/or more frequent while happiness is harder to hold on to. By the end happiness is found in five minute bursts every other month. 

Thankfully a shadow is just a shadow. We have bigger and more beautiful things to gaze at; things that we can see and touch and know every detail of it’s magnificence. As long as we keep our gaze on the real crucifix, on God’s true love, we will be able to pass through the shadows just fine.

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What does a (Catholic) Christian taste like?

I promise you this is not a post about the early Church being accused of cannibalism. Because that’s gross. 

Rather, a number of news headlines caught my attention yesterday that tie in to a question that I’ve frequently discussed with my husband. That question: what makes a Catholic a Catholic? In the first article we have the words of Pope Francis during Sunday’s Angelus. In a nutshell, he cautions us to be in the world but not of the world, or else “the salt will lose it’s flavor”. What is the flavor he speaks of? I bet you are already listing in your head a number of things that give Catholics “flavor”, but bear with me a minute.

The other article I saw yesterday is about an incident in China where a subway full of people flee a foreigner who fainted. A number of reasons were given in defense of the exodus; xenophobia is the one that caught my attention. You see, I’m currently reading a book about the mission of the China Jesuits. It’s fascinating, because the story reads like an adventure novel. Plus, I’m a freak about history. What I didn’t realize is how difficult it was for the Jesuits to set up a stable operation in China. It took them almost 50 years to get rolling, mainly because the Chinese were hard nuts to crack. From what I understand foreigners were only allowed on a limited visitor basis (primarily for trade reasons), and were expelled after trading season concluded. In order to make any connections whatsoever Matteo Ricci first had to become reasonably fluent in the native language; after, the adoption of the literati attire and hair style helped the missionaries blend in. What really got the attention of the Chinese intellectuals was the Jesuits’ commanding knowledge of the sciences, mathematics, and Eastern philosophy. This knowledge gave the Jesuits their in, and they used it to subtly introduce Catholic doctrine. The manner in which the Jesuits employed this integration caused all sorts of controversy, and it plagued them during the entire missionary effort in China. 

I don’t believe that the Chinese people involved in the subway incident acted out of xenophobia any more than those encountered by the Jesuits; I’m pretty sure the answer to both is much more complex. But what gets me is rooted in action: the actions of the fleeing passengers and the actions of the Jesuits in winning the favor of the literati. Obviously the subway passengers are being excoriated for not helping the injured man. The China Jesuits were repeatedly accused of obfuscating Catholic doctrine to make it fit with Eastern philosophy. In other words, the Jesuits were sacrificing Christian flavor to gain Chinese acceptance, and they paid the price for it. 

Let’s go back to that mental list you were making earlier. I can’t read your mind, so I don’t know what exactly you were thinking, but it probably involved actions that transcend the “Christian” label: helping the poor, feeding the hungry. If we go a little more strictly “Christian” we can add bible study, prayer, and communal worship services. I’m sure the list can go on. But what really distinguishes a Catholic? What is our flavor? I think the answer lies in the increasingly frequent exhortation by Pope Francis to “encounter” Christ, to have a deep relationship with Him.

Catholics profess, in the Sacrifice of the Mass, an encounter with the substantial form of Christ. We are not celebrating a memory, but a present, physical reality. And that reality wreaks beautiful havoc on our lives. The New Testament is one story after another about people encountering Jesus and being transformed. Through this encounter (some more physically proximate but all in a state of permanence) human lives are radically altered, and it shows in their actions. The same applies to us. The reality of tasting like a Catholic is as much in the way we think, the way we see, and the way we hear as it is the way we act. Essentially it is in how much we let Christ transform us versus how much we try to fit Christ where we want Him.

Are Catholics inherently better than other Christians at this? Absolutely not. We do have the Sacraments, which are the best aids to transformation in the business, hands down. That being said, there are ecclesial communities that do things in a way that we need to pay closer attention to (and, thankfully we are!). But, as Pope Francis is always pointing out, if you call yourself Christian, it is your encounter with Christ that flavors you. It takes a lot of work, and no small amount of time, but if we give everything we have and are to that encounter–be it in the Sacraments or our everyday moments–we will find ourselves flavored with the saints. And that’s pretty darn tasty.