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!