Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas: Metaphors Need Not Apply

I would like to suggest a movie to watch as Christmas day approaches. About a couple years ago I had the opportunity to rent The Nativity. My sole expectation of this movie was to provide a few nice personal spiritual reflections for myself. What I actually received that night was an incredible grace from God that brought me to me knees crying. Before I continue, I would like to preface that The Nativity is clearly not a big budget film so don’t expect anything visually grandiose. This is no Passion of the Christ. The angel Gabriel looked as if he had just come from Saturday Night Fever while apparently not having enough time to grab a quick twenty-first century haircut before delivering a rather important message to Mary. Furthermore, the portrayal of Mary is less than satisfying at times. However, all-in-all this was a great film that I recommend to everyone.

While everything up to the last thirty minutes of the movie was great, I had not shed a tear. It was the last ten minutes of this movie that lead me to my knees. When I saw the birth of our Lord my eyes immediately began to glaze over. I was initially speechless and motionless. Then, IT happened. Like water I somehow found myself taking the path of least resistance to my knees. Something had "unlocked" deep in my soul; a wall had been broken, a dam had been shattered and years of built up tears hemorrhaged from my eyes. I hid my face in the cushions of my couch for I had never felt this vulnerable in front of "no one." Thoughts began surfacing as fast as my tears were running down my face. "What have I done to you? Why have I confined you to abstraction for so many years? Please forgive me! I have wasted so much time pursuing you exclusively as a thought! You were child! You were really a child? This is unbelievable! You were actually a baby? I don't understand!" Thoughts like these continued for what felt like hours. I would have been fully content with this intimate encounter with the humanity of Christ, but our Lord wanted me to go deeper. I was still thinking objectively. I believe Christ wanted to meet me in the inner most sanctum of my heart. He did so and with aggression.

As I mentioned above, thoughts kept pouring through my mind as all this was happening. At one point in time (the analytical side of me) I tried processing my emotions. I was moved to my knees with a deluge of tears and I wanted to know why. I tried rationalizing my emotions. As I tried to activate my mind so as to grasp the origin of this emotional state my mind felt as if it was trapped under a freight train. Moving my mind was like trying to bench press a thousand pounds; the effort was futile leading only to exhaustion. I'm reminded of what Chesterton once said about the logician: "The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.” My head was on the verge of splitting so I submitted to the ecstatic power of God.

I had been holding on too tightly to my mind which was preventing me to go to my heart. As soon as I cut that last intellectually dependent thread I fell rapidly to the inner most dwelling place of my heart. I honestly do not know how it happened but it happened. As if the tears could not flow more quickly from my face, when I reached my own heart my entire body collapsed into futility. This is when my own most intimate and deepest longing was revealed to me! I had realized that the yearning in my heart was not to be forgiven, nor to be called a son, nor to be justified, nor to have a free ticket to heaven. My longest desire was to be touched by God! However, any kind of metaphoric touching would not do. I need God to physically touch me. Then it came to me. Before our Lord incarnation, such desires could only be met through metaphor. It was only at the incarnation that my deepest desires could finally be met. This is when I cried to the point of convulsion. Someday, Jesus will reach out his hand toward each and every one of us and physically touch us!

The reason I say all this is to express the beautiful reality that our longing to be embraced by another can be genuinely and physically met by God. No other religion adequately fulfills the natural and human desires of a human being as does Christianity! As we approach Christmas, may our prayers be filled with thanksgiving for we are incredibly grateful for a loving God who wants to fulfill our most human desires (and super-human desires). Have a blessed Christmas. Praised be Jesus Christ!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Attitudes of Understanding and Doing

As the Nativity of our Lord quickly approaches, we are confronted with a deeply personal question. Have we taken seriously this season of Advent? Have we heeded the Church’s wisdom as she calls us to find a desert so that we may prepare our hearts for the Lord? The desert in this context is referring to repentance, fasting, and introspection. So then, what has our attitude been during this season? If it has been one defined by a constant conversion of the heart then we have run the race well thus far and we only need to finish strong. However, many of us (including myself) may not have responded to this call of preparation as seriously as we would like to have responded. For students, finals can dominate our attention to the point that we feel “forced” to exclude all things not school related. The corporate world is reacting to another business cycle come to an end with an economic future that appears unpredictable and unstable. The pressures from work to capitalize on the remaining days of the 08’ year may be “forcing” many of us to exclude other more “optional” activities so to meet particular seemingly impossible deadlines. Amidst this chaos the Church is reminding us of our true identity: We are not defined by our successes but rather by our sanctity!

We can do next to nothing with our own lives if we do not know who we are. During this season of Advent, what has been our attitude toward understanding more deeply who we are? As Catholics we know we are human beings made in the image and likeness of God. Through our Baptism we know we are also disciples of Jesus Christ with a particular vocation as man or woman. These truths are all very good but have we taken seriously the call to understand who we are as the unique and unrepeatable child of God that each of us is? Have we strived to listen to the voice of the Lord during Mass, or have we become too comfortable with the liturgy to the point of deactivating our minds altogether? Have we listened intently to the Lord only to quickly succumb to the noise of the world thus preventing any real possibility of deep internalization of His voice? It is Christ and only Christ who reveals man as male and female fully to himself or herself! If this is true as we claim it to be, what better way to understand who we are than by reading the life of Jesus Christ. It is never too late to pick up Holy Scripture and begin reading one of the Gospels with the intention to understanding who Jesus is so that we may understand ourselves better! We all desire to give ourselves to another. Jesus provides us the way to do just that. By revealing Himself to us, he reveals our self to our very selves thus opening up new horizons of self-giving love!

This leads us to our attitude of doing. A couple weeks ago I heard a young child ask his mother, “How do we get to heaven?” The response was a startling, “If we live good lives, we go to heaven.” A sinking feeling overwhelmed me when I heard this response. All I could think of was that this child may one day become another disaffected Catholic simply out of misinformation. How many of us believe that as long as we live decent lives, we are doing well with God. Such an assumption makes a mockery of the cross as it reduces such a horrific reality to an illustration of God’s love. I want nothing to do with a God who must send His son to undergo unbearable pain exclusively for “illustrative purposes.” We must be careful not to hold to the forms of our religion while denying the power of it.

We rejoice in our anticipatory hope of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ! We rejoice because we know that while this mystery of the incarnation communicates to us a reality of what it means to be authentically human, it also provides for us a real transformative power, enabling us to live lives as we were meant to live! Brothers and sisters, we can do NOTHING good without God. Living lives through self-righteousness will only lead to disenchantment and despair. The Christian norm is not one defined by success but rather through the forgiveness of sins. To this end, we are being called to open our hearts to the Lord so that He may heal our rebellious and self-seeking hearts. Responding to Israel’s anxiety as Pharaoh’s army was bearing down on them, Moses says, “The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be still” (Ex. 14.14). Be still this advent season and allow God to fight for you! However, God waits, like our Immaculate Mother, for own personal fiat to God: our yes to God. May we open our hearts to the Lord with integrity and with a singular vision so that we may be reconciled to God and to others. There is no better way to prepare in this fashion than through taking at least one hour a week before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration. It is here that we can truly be still before the Lord, allowing Him to fight for us!

Finally, in typical paradoxical fashion, Christ desires us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect (cf. Mat. 5.48). This is where the power of religion must be embraced alongside its forms otherwise such a command will only lead to despair. We cannot achieve such a high standard, but in Christ—and only in Christ—all things are possible (cf. Mat. 19.26)! We are not called to be still for the sake of being still, but rather for the sake of perfection. It is God who works with us for our salvation if only we open our hearts to Him (cf. Rom. 8.28; Eph. 2.10). Such a truth will never lead us to despair but rather hope toward a continued and deepened conversion. We must always remember that while we strive for perfection/excellence, the norm for the Christian is the forgiven sinner.

May we strive with repentant and open hearts to the Lord this Advent Season. May we fall prostrate before our Lord in silence before the Blessed Sacrament so that He may fight for us. May we read the Gospel so that Christ may reveal ourselves to ourselves. May we deepen our conversion this season in renunciation of those things that keep us from Christ. When Christmas comes, I pray that God will look to each of us and say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master” (Mat. 25.21). May God be Praised!

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Living a Concrete Ideology

A student came up to me last week and told me about a discussion she had with a number of other students after a daily Mass. The question that came up from this discussion was whether or not it was healthy for a man to allow a woman to step in front of him in the communion line if she is not his girlfriend. This may sound like a scrupulous question at the surface but I was taken back by the profound theological and anthropological implications undergirding this question. The student’s ambivalent attitude toward her own opinion to this question expressed, in my opinion, the question’s natural complexity.

Those who expressed a desire to limit when a man should encourage a woman to go in front of him did so for good reasons. For starters, such a noble action could ultimately be a distraction. What if the woman genuinely takes such a gesture as a sign of interest on behalf of the man? I have had similar experiences at coffee shops when a nice girl behind the counter would say things like, “This one is on me.” I quickly found myself no longer interested in the drink which had been superseded by wonderment in her actions. One must admit that such a possibility of miscommunication is probable at times, but is such a “remedy” getting to the heart of the matter?

The problem that must be resolved is not “miscommunication” but rather the heart’s disbelief in disinterested love! While the question at hand may appear scrupulous to many, it points to a broader reality. How many times have we questioned the intention of a good action of another? It almost appears as if we are inclined to look at anything good through a lens of suspicion. In other words, behind many good actions lie selfish ends. Of course, such suspicion does not come out of a vacuum but rather from past experience. These tragic experiences of our past come from the life of concupiscence (meaning our fallen nature’s twisted inclination to be self-seeking). Thus, any action to prevent any miscommunication on behalf of the opposite sex—like the communion question—is a genuine coping mechanism for the life of concupiscence that we live in. However, while coping mechanisms are very good and needed, are we not called to something more?

We are called to the redemption of the body (cf. Rom. 8.23). Without Christ, all love (including friendship) can amount to is the accumulation of pleasures which are extremely volatile and unfulfilling. However, in the beginning it was not so (cf. Mat. 19.8). We are empowered and called in Christ to give and receive disinterested love passionately. If the heart of friendship is in the seeking the good of the other, then anything that impedes such ends must seek redemption in the love of the Lord. If that entails a concrete measure such as “coping mechanism” then so be it, but we MUST remember that we are called from repression to redemption! Coping with our fallen humanity is the equivalent to living on spiritual milk (cf. 1 Cor. 3.2). May we continue to open our hearts to the redeeming love of Christ through his Holy Church. Do not be afraid for He longs to fill us with the beatitude that comes from passionate disinterested love! May God be Praised.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Till’ Death Do Us Part: Vows of Both Love and Lust

I spoke last week about love being the fulfillment of lust. Lust is something we ought not to repress but rather complete with love through the redemption of the body (cf. Rom. 8.23). Our shared fallen humanity has compromised our ability to freely and genuinely see the person in and through the body. Because of this fact we often feel inclined either to indulge in our disordered sexual desires (i.e. animalism/hedonism), or to vehemently oppose them to the extent that we wrongfully conclude that anything associated with the body is bad (i.e. angelism/puritanism). Both attempts to assuage the dilemma of the conscience are antithetical to the Gospel message. The kingdom of God is at hand (cf. Mat. 10.7) and this affords each and every one of us the opportunity to love and even desire to love greatly here and now!

Unfortunately, the devil is rather cunning. He is fully aware of the Gospel message and he opposes it with every once of being he has. The Evil One is intimately acquainted with the desires of men and women, and it is through this knowledge that he is able to twist the good we seek into an alluring trap. While we can find some refuge in Lucifer’s inability to create, his mastery in twisting the good into seductive evil is alarming!

This is why both love and lust share similar qualities. All Satan can do is imitate that which is from God; it is always a mockery of that which is true, good and beautiful. We know from the previous column that behind love is the free and genuine gift of oneself to another. Such a gift requires sacrifice if love is to be properly expressed as self-donation. If I am to give myself to another, I must first have some kind of self-mastery, for I cannot give that which I do not have. This self-possession comes in a certain sense from a constant desire and willingness to die to oneself in those areas that compromise self-mastery. Thus, the essence of love can be seen as death to self (cf. Jn. 15.13).

In the brilliance of seduction, Satan has finely tweaked love so that it might maintain much of what humanity desires, yet lend itself the opportunity to lead to perdition rather than life! Lust shares many of the same attributes of love only the directional force of love has changed. In other words, lust is simply love turned inward. Rather than seeing the other as inherently worthy of the gift of oneself, we tend to see the other as a gift to oneself!

In this finely constructed twisting of love, lust also lends itself to death. This is part of the mockery of love! While love is the death to self, lust is the death of self. Such a distinction brilliantly articulates the seductive power of Lucifer’s ways! In the phrase “death of self,” Lust expresses itself as a paralyzing force. The connective “of” denotes the passive nature of this vice. Through the expression of lust we quickly begin to lose self-control to the point of being taken captive by its power (cf. 4 Macc. 1.3; Prov. 11.6). Lust leads to enslavement which is death!

On the other hand, the phrase “death to self,” expresses activity/life by the connective “to.” The phrase is deeply theological as it expresses both death and life within the same breath. Fundamental to love is both death and resurrection. When we deny ourselves in the name of self-mastery we are free to give of ourselves genuinely and completely to the other. Love is freedom.

While the distinctions between love and lust may appear subtle, the practical applications of these distinctions are self-evident. We love when are able to make sacrifices that may not accord with our own desires. There may be times in a relationship that you may be called to sacrifice something for the good of another (cf. 1 Cor. 9). Consider such moments a blessing from God Who calls you to love! We have a right to pursue that which is good, but sometimes we must forsake a good for the better! This is the fundamental distinction between love and lust. We cannot do this on our own. It is only through the redemption of the body through Jesus Christ that we will be able to desire the good of another in spite of our own desires. May God be Praised!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Stereograms and the Relationship Between Love and Lust

I have always had a difficult time seeing the image behind a stereogram. You know those pictures that at the surface look like colored static, but “behind” all the seemingly chaotic colors lay a concrete image? I attempted to get behind this grand mystery of the allusive image through a little research. I learned that I was engaging the picture too actively. Instead of staring at the picture intently, I was suppose to relax my eyes and see “through” the picture. With this new information in place, I approached the picture again under full expectation that I would see this hidden treasure. Low and behold, I saw nothing yet once again. Needless to say, I was a little disappointed at my ability to see beyond the surface of these seeming entertaining stereograms.

All this being said, I am quite surprised how closely the human body reflects a stereogram. In the same way the seemingly random colors on a stereogram actually reflect a concrete image to those who have eyes to see, so to does the human body reflect the person beautifully to those who have the eyes to see! Unfortunately, sin has twisted and darkened our ability to see the person reflected in the body perfectly. Instead of relaxing the eyes and seeing “through” the body, we may catch ourselves starring intently at another person with the desire to take that person to ourselves. In other words, we find ourselves starring for the sole reason to feed a passion that has arisen in our own body.

This is the distinction between love and lust. Lust is simply love turned inward. With respect to the stereogram, if we look at the picture too intensely with the purpose to “grasp” the image behind the picture we will never see it; we will simply have to do with looking at random colors. However, if we can train ourselves to relax the eyes so as to receive the picture, thus freeing us to see through the picture, we will find the hidden treasure which is reflected in the seemingly random colors. This is love!

Each of us is called to see through the body so that we may behold what the body is reflecting: a unique person worthy of love! Unfortunately, due to sin, our eyes gravitate toward viewing another through the lens of “grasping” rather than “gifting.” Similar to what I have to do with the stereogram I long to view properly, we must retrain ourselves to see beauty in its entirety. The road to this freedom to love may be long for some, but it is certainly worth it.

Jesus Christ has given His life for us so that we may live life abundantly (cf. Jn. 10.10). He wants was to be able to fulfill our deepest desires to love and to be loved. Christ continually gives Himself to the Church through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass so that those who cling to the Church may love as Christ loved: a passion­-filled love overflowing with a love that is stronger than death. We are called to love greatly, and we have the ability only because we are greatly loved by Jesus Christ. If it hasn’t been considered already, maybe try daily Mass as a way to see the Lord “behind” things that seem like bread and wine.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Reconciling Two Ideologies in Jesus Christ

Growing up as a child, my father would repeat to me over and over again his belief that the overwhelming majority of conflicts between people originated from one initial problem: a lack of communication. This familial mantra had (and continues to have) a profound impact on my life. In fact, one might say that I have become somewhat hypersensitive to “miscommunication” in light of this teaching. Honestly, my nearly OCD attention to communication may have less to do with the “familial mantra” and more to do with the fact that while I was inculcated with this lesson early on in my life, I did not always see it lived out in our own home. While I believe my family did in fact value communication, it was not something always passionately lived out. 

I say all this because I have become increasingly aware of the ideological polarity between the generations that surround me and the “baby-boomer” generations. On one end of the spectrum lay the belief that life is preeminently lived through duty, obligation, and responsibility. On the other end of the spectrum lay the conviction that life is all about living according to one’s own desires and passions. One generation gravitates toward the objective measure of happiness in exclusion to the subjective, while the other embraces the subjective reality of life in exclusion to the objective. While this is an over-simplification of the generational differences, I believe the general conclusions are accurate.

Both generational ideologies are inadequate and are in need of redemption. In the process of excluding the subjective for the objective, the older generations have potentially diminished their ability to have genuine self-knowledge, inhibiting their ability to communicate themselves deeply, freely, and lovingly. Such relationships have a tendency to be stable but passionless. On the other hand, the younger generations have whole-heartedly embraced the subjective in rejection of the objective. This is the generation of “self-help” books which call the individual into deep introspection and self-knowledge.  Unfortunately, while full of passion, many relationships are incredibly unstable going through multiple breakups. The rejection of the objective has led to consumer-based relationships which is ultimately unfulfilling.

All of this may sound rather dismal and depressing, but there is GREAT news! St. Paul always would acknowledge the problem before proclaiming the solution from the rooftops. The problem has been articulated and now we await the solution which is here if only we are willing to receive it. We have been wrestling with the deeply personal problem between what we ought to do and what we actually feel like doing. However, in the beginning, it was NOT so (cf. Mat. 19.8). Our passions and the truth of our humanity were originally perfectly integrated, and Christ has come in the flesh to reintegrate our fleshly desires with the truth of our humanity.

Christianity is not some pie-in-the-sky dream, but rather a here-and-now reality of transformation. Christ desires to redeem our passions so that we may be free to love passionately all that is true, good, and beautiful. The ideologies above are genuine but inadequate solutions to the problem of our humanity. It is only in Christ that we will be able to be loved and to love others as we were created to love; passionately and with complete self-donation! The more we find ourselves before the Blessed Sacrament, the more this dream will become a reality. May God be Praised!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Why Fall Outreach is Critically Important

A few months after becoming involved with the Newman Center at the University of Nebraska, I heard a startling statistic. Apparently a study had been done in the late 1990’s about incoming Catholic students to the university. The poll discovered that nearly 3 out of 4 Catholic students abandoned their faith before the end of their freshman year! Thankfully, due to a large increase in financial, physical, and spiritual support (not to mention a wonderful priest) Lincoln’s NewmanCenter now has over 2,000 registered students at the Newman Center!

While I’m thankful for my days at Lincoln, I’m even more thankful for the gift of serving St. Thomas Aquinas and its campus ministry. Many of you may be unaware that Catholics all around the state and even nation have heard and continue to hear about the campus ministry efforts of St. Thomas. Of course, we are not doing what we are doing to be recognized, but such attention is a sign of God’s active hand here. Thank you all for making this past year’s outreach so fruitful!

While last year was a successful year, we have increased our efforts significantly for outreach this year. Many of you may be aware of the signup sheet in the vestibule of the church for fall outreach support. I ask you to please prayerfully consider becoming a volunteer this fall. The first two to three weeks of the academic year are the most critical for our ministry. It only takes a couple weeks for the newly realized freedom of freshman to be consumed with spiritually, psychologically, and physically damaging lifestyles. Our hope is to saturate the campus with a Catholic presence, and to have daily activities to invite them to. It is not in apologetic debate that we will win them over, but rather in a community of hospitality that actively and genuinely expresses itself in respect, love, and selflessness.

A national survey revealed that among all Catholics who considered themselves “inactive,” 52 percent said they would welcome a warm invitation to a parish. If the statistic holds true for CU, then if we could offer a genuine invitation to each Catholic CU student (guessing there are around 6,000 to 7,000 Catholic students at CU), we could have an increase of over 3,000 students to St. Tom’s almost overnight! Such a statistic sounds incomprehensible and it is without the help of the parish.

I recognize that not all of us feel called to pound the pavement of CU. Fortunately, we have many needs that may be better suited toward your gifts. Our daily BBQ’s at the Catholic Student Center will require many volunteers for setup, cooking, greeting, cleanup, etc. In addition, we need help with cookie making for the student gift-bags for those living in the dorm. That’s a LOT of cookies! As the campus ministry team finalizes the events, more areas of volunteer opportunities will become available.

I pray the remaining weeks of your summer are a peace-filled one, and I look forward to seeing many of you on August 17th at our volunteer Mass & BBQ May God be Praised!

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Marriage and Celibacy: Reflecting Images

Transcending all my classes at Denver Seminary was the phrase, “already but not yet.” In a sense, the student could forget all else, but “already but not yet” was too critical to escape the mind and lips of the Christian. We know that redemption has been offered to us as a gift from God through the blood of Jesus Christ (cr. Jn. 3.16). The second person of the blessed trinity took on flesh so that the entire human being both body and soul could be restored into its original integrity. In other words, Christ has come so that we may love and be loved as we were created to love! This truth of the Gospel message articulates the “already” of the phrase already but not yet.

We also recognize that even though we have been baptized into Christ’s death, have received His real body and blood through the Eucharist, and have been sealed with the Holy Spirit through confirmation, we still do not always love the way we desire to love. As St. Paul beautifully confesses, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7.15). What St. Paul humbly expresses reflects the “not yet” element of the phrase. While salvation in Christ is offered to each and every person here and now, its full effects will not be felt until He comes again. Our king has conquered death and is currently standing before the throne of God in heaven, continually offering supplications of Himself for all the sins committed in the world (cf. Heb. 8.1-3; 9:11-14). However, he will come back to us one day to fully inaugurate His kingdom He established upon the cross. This is a cursory reflection of what lies behind the theological phrase, already but not yet.

The point of application is in the inner integrity of the tension in the phrase already but not yet. Both the already and the not yet must be retained for the Gospel to maintain its salvific potency. A Christian who solely focuses on the “already” is doomed to scrupulosity, becoming a slave to the external law from which we were freed from in Christ. On the other hand, the Christian who restricts the faith to “not yet” rejects the salvific power of the cross for humanity resulting in an existential crisis. We can never be better than we are since we will always be a product of our fallen nature says the “not yet” Christian. The “both/and” Christian understands that there is real power in the cross for healing, but is still fully aware of his/her disordered desires that remain even after conversion.

The most concrete reality of this phrase is made manifest in the relationship between marriage and celibacy. Like already but not yet, marriage and celibacy must be held closely together for the power of the Gospel to be made manifest. In fact, marriage expresses the not yet of the kingdom of heaven while celibacy expresses the already of Christ’s inaugurated kingdom. In the truth and personal beauty of marriage, we image the inner life of the Trinity and the marriage of Christ and His Church through our intimate true communion of persons. In this image, we have hope that the sacrament of marriage will one day be fulfilled when are fully lifted up into the eternal exchange of love within the Trinity. Thus, marriage expresses the not yet of the kingdom, but a hopeful not yet!

On the other hand, celibacy in a sense bypasses the sacrament of marriage to taste more immediately that which marriage beautifully and mysteriously points toward. In the renunciation of conjugal love, celibacy in fact reveals the inner truth and divine direction of the conjugal act which is complete gift of self from God to man and man’s complete gift of self to God! Thus, a Christian who discerns one’s vocation in complete exclusion of celibacy risks reducing the sacrament of marriage to an end rather than a means to complete and eternal communion with God. Marriage is no longer a sacred bond which expresses God’s own love, but rather simply something a couple does when they like each other “enough.” On the other hand, a Christian who discerns celibacy in complete exclusion of marriage risks scrupulosity and its negative effects because they have lost the image of the hope that stands before them; the hope of being raptured with God’s divine love!

It is safe to conclude then that a proper understanding and appreciation of marriage is most fully met with a proper understanding and appreciation of celibacy (and vice versa). In and through celibacy, marriage is seen to be a sacred place whereby a male and female can give of themselves completely and entirely without reservation thus imaging the unseen divine exchange of love within the Trinity. In addition, the reflection of marriage in the mirror of priestly celibacy expresses not only a call to physical fatherhood and motherhood through gift of self, but also spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. We are called to teach our children the faith.

We are blessed at St. Toms to have such wonderful priests who joyfully embrace their vocation. I pray that everyone who has embraced the vocation of marriage may look to strengthen their marriages even more through the lens of celibacy which has been graciously presented to us through Father Kevin and Father Peter. Their sacrifice lends us the opportunity to perfect our weaknesses! In the same way, may the wonderful marriages of St. Tom’s continue to transform and strengthen their priestly vocation. May God be praised!

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A Theology of the Body

Just over a month ago I had the privilege to take a six day crash-course entitled “Theology of the Body” (TOB). TOB was a working title John Paul II gave to his first major catechetical project of his pontificate which recently has been published as a second edition entitled “Man and Woman He Created Them.” I had informally familiarized myself with the subject in the past through lectures and web articles so I had an idea what I was getting into. What I didn’t know was how this class would change nearly everything in the way I think, act, and even perceive. I believe it is safe to conclude that TOB has changed my life, is changing my life, and will continue to change my life indefinitely!

John Paul’s monumental work reflects on over 1000 verses of Scripture, seeking to show that Scripture adequately portrays the human condition and directs each and every person to genuine human fulfillment. In other words, this late great pope goes to vast and beautiful lengths to show convincingly that Christianity and Christianity alone fulfills the deepest desires of a person’s heart. Christianity does not pit spirituality against physicality, but rather brings them together so intimately that they become inseparable. We need not look any further than the mystery of the incarnation for evidence of such a claim.

This theology of the body is arguably the greatest message to a world that has lost the original meaning and value of the body. To many, the body has been reduced to a means of self-gratification, and something that is fully distinguishable from the “person behind the body.” What we do with and through the body does not affect the person behind the body, proclaims the world. It is not that the world has communicated too much about the body, but that the world has communicated too little about the body deems John Paul II. It is this message that is needed more than ever! There is good news in Jesus Christ and it lies in a proper theological understanding of the body.

Beginning this fall, I will be teaching Theology of Body at the Catholic Student Center on Monday evenings. If you are interested in learning more about this theological tour-de-force, please email me and I will keep you updated as the first class approaches. If you are not sure if this would be something you’d be interested in, I would encourage you to continue reading these blogs as many of them have been and will continue to be infused with Theology of the Body.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Seeking the Unrepeatable in Another

What would the world be like if “misunderstandings” ceased to exist? What if every person you met understood you completely upon meeting you? Taking this a radical step further, what if everyone loved you in that understanding? Do we not feel at the core of our being a deep-seated desire to be understood as we are? Unfortunately, perceptions of others do not unmistakably mirror the desires of our heart. The “noise” of the world and the distortions of life that we have experienced collide with our desires and wreaks havoc with them, often times leaving a fundamental part of who we are unrecognizable to the other.

While this portrait may appear somewhat grim, it does not need to be. There is good news! Behind the desire to be understood is the profound longing to be loved “unrepeatedly.” Each one of us is a unique person created from the infinite loving wisdom of God. We are unique and unrepeatable. This unrepeatable dimension to each human being is literally chiseled into our bodies down to the seemingly irrelevant thumb print. Our bodies bear witness to the unrepeatable person, extending an invitation to be loved in a similarly unique and unrepeatable way. Unfortunately, Original Sin has darkened the body’s ability to proclaim the unrepeatable person by proposing to us that there is a disconnect between our spiritual and sensual self. Herein lay the origin of the conflict between the world and the desires of human nature.

However, in the beginning it was not so! Adam saw Eve and immediately proclaimed, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen. 2. 23-24). In 21st century language Adam is saying, “From the moment you created me Lord I have felt some kind of void, a desire to be understood. You blessed me with all the animals in the world, but even after naming them the void remained; they were different than me for they could not understand me. The very physicality of my body visually proclaims the deepest desires of my heart; the desire for complete personal communion. Alas, this desire is fulfilled in this woman who stands before me. I see immediately stamped upon her body the unrepeatable person which differs from all creation. It is this unique woman whom I love and desire to serve!”

Adam could look at Eve with perfect integrity! This is what is meant in Genesis 2.25 when Scripture speaks of Adam and Eve being naked without shame. Our first two parents were able to unhesitatingly and always see the unique, unrepeatable person in the body of the other.

We also know that such perfect integrity did not last long. Seven verses later we hear after The Fall, “. . .and they knew they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves aprons” (Gen. 3.7). After taking action to serve themselves rather than serve their God, something fundamentally changed within Adam and Eve’s relationship. They could remember the prior integrity of the body revealing the person, but now they felt something very different; enough to the point of clothing themselves due to the new experience of shame. Adam no longer viewed Eve as an unrepeatable subject to prize, but rather a repeatable object to be utilized for his own satisfaction! This is what we have inherited from our first parents. As St. Paul bone-chillingly cries, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death” (Rom. 7.24).

“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7.25)! Notice how St. Paul places these dramatic verses back-to-back. Yes, we are wretched indeed. I want to love perfectly but I fall short. Thinking exclusively in terms of our fallen nature, we are left with only two options: First, we can simply succumb to our distorted desires believing that this will be the best we can ever be. Second, we could just repress the desire. Unfortunately such repression becomes a sleeping giant waiting to be released in terrible ways. But to the Christian there is a third way, and it is a beautiful way! God took on a human body so that the human body may be lifted into and participate in the eternal exchange of divine love which is perfect eros (passion) and agape (will). God has extended us a gift! He has lovingly offered us a way to love the other freely and without distortion; to see the unrepeatable person in the body of another!

An important question remains. How do we tap into this divine gift? The gift is preeminently offered to each and every one of us through the sacramental life of the Church. In the sacrament of baptism we are placed into the perfect body of Christ. Through the Holy Eucharist we receive the body of Christ which strengthens and heals our own bodies. Through frequent confession we rely on the fact that the redemption of our own bodies is not by our own accord! The battle has been fought and won; we need only to receive the gift of redemption. I pray that each of us will be able to find time each day to stand still before the Lord. To open our hearts to Him who is the exclusive healer of our distorted desires. If we can muster the strength to remove that fig leaf from ourselves before God, by the Grace of God we may one day be able to see the unrepeatable of the other with our own eyes as Adam beheld Eve! How beautiful that day will be!

The Power of Testimony

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to give a testimony concerning God’s work in my life to nearly 100 students and parishioners from St. Tom’s. Although I knew I would be giving this talk over a month before the event, I did not begin preparing until three days prior. My initial thought was that “testimony preparation” could be something done at the last minute since it requires absolutely no research. While a visit to the local library was clearly not in order (assuming that no one has written a biography of me yet), it did require a prolonged examination of the soul that, after reflection, took much more energy than any long day at the library. It is true that my past encompasses many joys but it is also deeply imbued with sorrows and regrets. I was forced to look at both sides of the introspective coin so as to present an authentic portrayal of my journey to faith in Jesus Christ. Amidst this reflection, two illuminating thoughts came to me that I would like to share with you.

The first revolves around the very nature of my reflection. As the final preparations were made to my testimony I felt an increased sense of “self-existence.” I realized that my past was not a self-enclosed reality, but rather a reality that was and still is intimately tied to who and where I am today. Due to the demands of the present, I have spent little to no time reflecting upon my past over the previous few years. Being confronted with it now, my mind was opened to the reality that who I was is as much a part of who I am now. Only upon death, by the grace of God, will my past, present, and future conflate to one eternal present in heaven. In other words, I will be completely me! All the joys of my life will be re-experienced but on an infinite level. All the sorrows and regrets will be redeemed by the blood of Christ, and transformed into infinite joys.

Of course, these gifts are given to us, barring we do not abandon Christ and His Holy Church. This is why our actions are all the more important to a Christian. To a member of the Body of Christ, every decision made is literally a self-defining moment. It is only by the graces afforded to us by God that we can make good and fruitful decisions, thus expanding our spiritual vessel to receive even more graces. I am much more aware now of the consequences of my actions, and I have become even more dependent on God for His infinite mercy in my life!

The second thought elaborates on a truth stated above. Life inevitably throws sorrows and regrets our way. While having hope that such tragedies will ultimately be redeemed in Heaven, what about now? Is God actively involved in healing psychological, emotional, and spiritual wounds at the present moment? If my testimony holds any persuasion, then the answer is yes!

The turning point in my journey of faith revolves around a rather rocky breakup during college. Brook and I had been dating for just over a year when the unexpected breakup occurred. I quickly spiraled into a significant depression. I loathed God for His “indiscretion” regarding my life.

While I would never go back to relive the emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain that occurred during this breakup, I’m incredibly thankful for it. This event ultimately became God’s megaphone to rouse me from my spiritual slumber. If it wasn’t for this valley in my life, I would have never experienced the peaks of freedom in Christ. If it wasn’t for the breakup, I might never become Christian. If it wasn’t for this breakup, I don’t think I would have become the Catholic I am now. And if it wasn’t for this breakup, my father would not have rededicated himself to the Catholic Church ultimately giving his life in service as a deacon. The joys that rest upon this hurtful event are nearly endless. I must also add that Brook was baptized and received into full communion with Catholic Church because of this event.

While life is difficult at times, God always remains good. I pray that amidst the valleys in our own lives, we would remain steadfast in God’s love, knowing that He does in fact have a beautiful plan for each and everyone one of our lives (cf. Jer. 29.11-14).

I Pray Thee: A Defense for the Intercession of the Saints

One of my favorite bands has a song called “All My Heroes.” In this song the chorus goes like this: “You took away all my heroes. You shoved away, you threw away all my heroes, and now I can’t seem to find my way back home. You threw away . . .”. I cannot help but to think of my days as an Evangelical when I hear this song. As I have stated in my previous columns, I’m incredibly grateful for my days as an Evangelical as they prepared me for God’s ultimate call to come home to the Roman Catholic Church. However, as I reflect on those days I am saddened for the lack of devotion I gave to the great saints of the past (and present). It is in the midst of this sadness that the words from this song become my own. I look to the “Evangelical Matt,” and I ask him with quivered voice, “Why did you throw away your heroes?”

I could imagine myself responding boldly in a number of ways: “1) I have only one ‘hero,’ and his name is Jesus Christ. 2) Such veneration of these heroes of yours is spoken of nowhere in Scripture! 3) In fact, going to saints for mediation is anti-biblical because Scripture is clear that there is only ONE mediator and that is Jesus Christ (cf. 1 Tim. 2.5)! 4) Finally, by praying to saints you worship them, and worship is restricted for God alone!”

These four brief arguments can be quite compelling to many Catholics. Unfortunately, their power of persuasion has less to do with the veracity of the claims, and more to do with a lack of proper Catholic catechesis. So then, is it in fact true that Catholics worship the saints when they pray to them, engage in anti-biblical doctrines, and place the saints on par with the saving merits of Jesus Christ? The answer is an obvious no!

One of the most common objections from evangelicals revolves around the belief that praying is equivalent to worship. Such an association is a gross exaggeration of the biblical text. Like English, Greek can have many different words meaning roughly the same thing. Whether I tell you I went running or jogging today, the meaning is nearly identical. Similarly, Greek has at least six different uses for “prayer” which can be found in the New Testament. Some uses are strictly for petitions between men and God (i.e. proseukomai), while other forms are used for petitions between people (i.e. deomai). However, both mean to pray (or petition which is what pray means). The only difference is in the object of the petition: some petitions have as their object other people while some have as their object God. For instance, the eunuch in Acts 8, after hearing on Old Testament prophecy of Jesus from Philip, responds, “About whom, pray, does the prophet say this . . .” (vs. 34, RSV, emphasis mine). Notice how the eunuch “petitions” Philip for an answer and what is the word chosen? Yes, to pray! Prayer is not reduced to a function of worship, but rather its primary use is as an expression of petition which can have as its object both human and divine. Thus, Catholicism has not (nor ever) blurred the line between Creator and creature. She remains in full integrity with Holy Scripture (as always)!

Another objection stated above deals with the primacy of Jesus Christ for salvation and how the intercession of saints allegedly compromises that primacy. Many non-Catholics will quote 1 Tim. 2.5 as their “proof” for this argument. After all, the verse is clear that Jesus Christ is the sole mediator between God and man. How do we Catholics make sense of such a “threatening” scriptural text? That answer is quite simple really. First, if Jesus Christ is truly the sole mediator in all respects between God and man then what do we make of such scriptural texts as Mt. 5.44, Lk. 6.28, and Acts 8.15 when we are called to pray for others? Isn’t praying for others precisely a function of being a mediator between a particular person and God? Do not both Catholics and Protestants alike ask others to pray for them? What then is 1 Timothy speaking of when the text speaks of Christ’s exclusive role as mediator? To answer this we must make the distinction between a mediator for salvation and a mediator of salvation. There is only one mediator for salvation, and that is Jesus Christ. There is no other name in which man can be saved (cf. Acts. 4.12). However, there are many mediators of salvation. In other words, while there is only one name in which humanity can be saved, there are many names that can bring “other names” to the “one name” who is Christ our Lord. Again, intercessory prayer does not diminish the primacy of Christ. Yes, we have one “Hero” for our salvation, but we have many heroes who have lived the life in the One Hero and who have become our witnesses to hope!

Finally, we come to the objection that the veneration of and praying to saints is nowhere to be found in Scripture. It is good to begin such a contentious topic as this with a definition of terms. Equivocation, using a word with two or more definitions with an implicit intent to deceive, is at the center of most failed arguments. For the sake of this column, we only need to clarify ‘veneration.’ Webster’s definition of ‘veneration’ is “respect or awe inspired by the dignity, wisdom, dedication, or talent of a person.” Knowing that all dignity, wisdom, and talent have for their origin in God, I find it an unthinkable travesty to deny or diminish the fruits of God’s work in human lives through a rejection of devotion to the great saints of the past and present.

As for a Scriptural example of veneration, did not St. Paul exhort the Philippian community to imitate himself (cf. Php. 3.15)? This exhortation is all the more shocking when one realizes that the apostle had only verses earlier wrote a beautiful Christological hymn (cf. Php. 2.5-11). Such a poetic masterpiece would have been the ideal opportunity to exhort the community to imitate Christ. Instead, St. Paul continues to write about himself in light of the Christological hymn, only after that does he call for an imitation; an imitation of himself (cf. Php. 3.1-16). Did St. Paul usurp the glory and honor due only to God through a self-aggrandizement? By no means! Imitating Christ is the ideal, but Christ’s perfection is due to his own person, not by grace. On the other hand, St. Paul’s spiritual mastery is due to grace. By imitating the saints we do not threaten God’s glory, but rather concretize or ground it existentially in human life.

We must now look at the Biblical evidence for the saints being alive, very near to use, able to actually hear us, and a powerful intercessory advocate for salvation. The Sadducees were a Jewish sect that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. One day, the sect challenged Christ’s teaching on the resurrection (cf. Mt. 22.23-33). In response, Jesus quoted Exodus 3:6 which spoke of Yahweh being the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (cf. vs. 32). The apologetic force of this quotation was due to God’s use of the present tense when referring to the three greatly venerated figures. God is still (not was) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob even centuries after their death. Thus, they are still very much alive! How much more are the saints of Christ alive since Christ has destroyed death.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews takes the life of the deceased saints a step further. In chapter eleven, the faith of the great Old Testament “saints” is praised, drawn out for encouragement to the community. Exactly how these righteous men and women are to be an encouragement is not explained until chapter twelve. Here we see that we are never alone. Yes, God is always with us, but it is never simply “He and I.” Rather, the saints surround us continuously as a “cloud of witness”, supporting and encouraging us as we finish strong in the name of our Lord (cf. Heb. 12.1).

Can these saints hear us? The answer to that lay in chapters four and five of the Book of Revelation. These chapters paint two beautiful but very different portraits of liturgical worship, and what divides these two liturgical settings is the Christ event. Chapter four is rich in Temple imagery. Worship is given to God but in a way that may appear awkward to some readers. The angels of heaven are singing with only silence coming from earth below (cf. Rev. 4.8-11). There is a divide between heaven and earth. However, in chapter five, liturgical worship takes an enormous leap forward. The great chasm between heaven and earth has been destroyed through the cross of Jesus Christ. The worship of God continues. Now, however, heaven and earth sing glory to God in unison (cf. Rev. 5.13-14)! The saints in heaven can hear us clearly so we ought to ask them to intercede on our behalf.

Why ought we ask them to intercede for us? Because the righteous person’s prayer has incredible power (cf. Jms. 5.18). Who is more righteous than the saints in heaven? Pray and pray hard. Pray to these holy men and women who have fought the good fight and have come out victorious! Pray to the great saints of the Church for intercession, and pray with confidence that your prayer will be received before the throne of God with purity and persuasion!

I would like to end with a brief story from my own life regarding a saintly hero who had found me long before I had found him. Whether this event happened weeks preceding or proceeding my reversion is unknown to me nor does it matter. What I do know is that my heart was burning for Christ and his Church at the time.

It was midway through the spring semester of 2000. I had finished classes for the day so I headed home for some downtime. Like most students, downtime means TV. I threw my bag on my bed and proceeded to the living room for some mindless amusement. Unfortunately, afternoon viewing is filled with Soap Operas and Court TV. I found myself peddling through the channels over and over again, clicking the remote endlessly so as to “beat some time.” Just before falling into a mind-numbing trance, an image caught my eye on the TV. The image was of a man, but not any ordinary man. I recognized him, but how since I had never seen him in my life? I remember distinctly hearing in my head, “Oh, I know him. He is responsible for me reversion.” The thought came to me entirely void of emotion and as a simple “matter of fact.” Intrigued by this thought of mine, I decided to find out who this man was. Less than a minute into the show I hear the words, “Blessed Padre Pio was . . .”. I had no idea what blessed meant nor was I formally acquainted with a Padre Pio. The only thing I was convinced of was that Padre Pio knew me quite well, and it was time for me to get formally acquainted with my long ignored spiritual father.

It was a year after this event before I began reading about Padre Pio, and it was then that I first learned that this heroic saint had chosen “spiritual sons” to dedicate his life to in prayer. In fact this has always been a unique charism of his. I’m incredibly humbled by St. Padre Pio’s dedication to me. I know not why, for I am truly unworthy. Maybe that is the reason why. I simply need his prayers otherwise I will fade away into the bankrupt temptations of this world. After all, I am here today because of St. Pio. I pray that each of us discovers the saints who are pursuing us intensely for the greater Glory of God. St. Padre Pio, Pray for Us!