All posts by Nathan Kennedy

False Greatness and its Remedy

Most of the time I assume myself to be a person falling into the same category Churchill found himself in when dealing with people he didn’t like: “He has all of the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” People rub me the wrong way, and they will continue to do so until the day I die. But at least I try to keep an eye on my own prejudices; that someone rubs me the wrong way might not be a problem with the other person, but a problem with me. Maybe a person’s loudmouthed, snap-to-judgment personality isn’t truly something to despise, rather a facet of their person-hood that deserves all the tolerance and respect as their annoying but harmless mannerisms and inability to manage a working relationship with personal hygiene. A person may be annoying, grating, and obnoxious, but that hardly makes them evil. Thus it makes it even more difficult when, in dealing with a person, that deep unease takes over and, without calculated judgment or malicious intent on my part, I realize that, yes, this person is truly and unmistakably nuts.

What makes this even more difficult is when I come to know a person, have some real understanding of their character, and then I see that most of what they emanate through the grating obnoxiousness is a real and willful striving toward a notion of greatness that lacks a basis in reality. Great a man as he was, for example, Steve Jobs was a bona fide jerk toward those he worked with and who worked for him: he always lived as though he were some exceptional person to whom the rules did not apply. He would park in handicapped spaces because he felt like it; he would be unrestrained and particularly harsh in his criticisms of others. I do not mean to defame an otherwise good man who made real contributions to the world–what I mean to say is that our notions of greatness can become so inhuman, so draconian, and so self-centered that we lose sight of the real importance of life itself.

Contrast this pragmatic, one-dimensional view of greatness with the teachings of Catholic morality and spirituality. If we can put them side-by-side, we can see many similarities and differences, but the most foundational difference between our notions of greatness lies in the places of both charity and humility: the foundation and the keystone of the whole structure, respectively.

Humility and charity. Great men have feared very little, except these two things. Caesar could have embodied all of the great virtues of prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude, but when reminded that he too was a mere mortal prone to mistakes, he lashed out in fury. When the face of charity looked him in the eye and hinted at some sort of reality beyond politics, pragmatics, and power, he had it crucified, and hasn’t stopped since. How delightfully humorous it is, that the humility of a child is enough to make a great man lose himself in fear; how deliciously ironic that the love of a saint can make such “greatness” retreat to the bowels of Hell. No, this is not greatness at all–greatness refuses to associate itself with the petty trifles of the world and the stifling limitations one puts on oneself. If ego, slavery to one’s own opinions (and by extension, enslaving others to your own opinions), fretting over having one’s own way, and treating others as mere accessories in achieving your own vision, goals, and dreams don’t count as petty trifles and stifling limitations, then there’s no such thing as a petty trifle or stifling limitation.

The Christian call to greatness raises us up out of this one-dimensional and inhumanly pragmatic view of greatness and into something truly great, based on Truth and Charity. It calls us to recover the essence of our human nature and to fulfill it. Without humility we can’t know the truth of our nature; without charity, we can’t use it to aspire to anything. Any substitution to either of these is false and will lead to frustration, fruitlessness, and futility.

Humility means that we base our understanding of our nature and worth on what is authentic and true. That means that we do not base our worth on our work or achievements, but on the fundamental openness we have to God and to each other. Nothing else matters.

I find it telling that all the qualities that we associate with an ugliness of person all have to do with an overreaching ego, with a preoccupation with self and an exaltation of one’s own personality. The more you strive for greatness, the more you are to surely lose it, unless you first start by striving for humility.

Do you wish to be great? Then begin by being. Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation. — St. Augustine

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSCN0288.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology. His website isSinging in the Shower.[/author_info] [/author]

The Itinerancy of Our Youth

When I have grown old, I suspect that I will look back at this time in my life and see it as the most existentially challenging chapter to have lived through. It’s not that I’m going through anything particularly grueling—nor that I expect to not face grueling challenges in the future—but that my relationships, personal experiences, and limited amount of insight have each taught me that being a young adult means wrestling with massive forces beyond my comprehension. The perennial questions of “direction” such as vocation, career, what beliefs to accept and ideals to follow all has something to do with it. Usually it means feeling lost. It means facing down lonely and sometimes crippling darkness. Going through this on my own is one thing, but what hurts me the most is seeing other young people I know and am close to dealing with the same things.

Every young adult I know struggles with these questions. For example, last year I found myself taking a very long car ride to nowhere in particular with an old high school friend who was terribly afraid, depressed, and confused because he thought he might be “gay”. One of my closer friends has just completed his master’s degree in organ performance, and struggles with the question of direction and career without any clear job opportunities outside of the church world, along with standing at an impasse regarding dating, relationships, and the prospect of marriage. A former acquaintance of mine battles against his own will and pride because he’s reflexively and anxiously terrified of never amounting to anything, especially after several years of mistakes and setbacks. There’s more, including all of the stories I don’t know. These personal experiences add up to testimonies of shattering loneliness, instances of profound disappointment, and a heart-wrenching litany of bitterness, shame, and sadness.

I have no response, only my own experiences. I have yet to see what lies at the bottom of this abyss, only the experience of having stared long into it. My experience of coming into the Church a few years ago seems for me to be the real catalyst for this. I wish I could give a bright and glowing testimony of coming to know the glory of the Church, coming in amid bursting fireworks and angelic choirs with an overnight, seamless Pauline conversion, but I cannot. Yes, there was joy, unspeakable joy, but it was mostly a time of great confusion, darkness, and loneliness that brought to surface many of the dormant fears I had yet to acknowledge. I still find it fascinating how I could have lived oblivious to my own selfishness for so long, comfortable with being an unreflective jerk. Then my entire life turned upside down—almost all of my closest friendships ended in bitterness (usually through my own fault), my life direction faced a great blow when the problems began to seep into the classroom (again through my own fault), and I struggled and grasped to take advantage of whatever certitudes I possibly could. Clearly this is not the expectation that one has when making such an awesome decision as entering the Church and turning one’s life over to God, but one of the few certainties I could squeeze out of this experience is that God is not a safe God.

God is dangerous. In His inscrutable mercy, he stands in and above our lives and continually threatens the status quo. Everything—our relationships, our routines, our comfort and security—stands before God like straw before a great fire. He is willing to upset or to allow the upset of the very structure of our lives when He sees fit. Perhaps we might be like Cain sent off into exile for murdering his brother; perhaps we might be like Abram called into an unknown country for an unseen purpose; perhaps we might be like Job staring into a great and mysterious chasm of suffering that has no hint of meaning. A single human life, when authentic, blends each and every one of these experiences into one life offered to God in union with Christ’s suffering.

The great fear that young adults have in the face of this great and dangerous mercy is that of a life never truly beginning. We find ourselves in a continual wandering, searching for a point of initiation into a realm of safety, certainty, and rest. When I moved back home after coming into the Church, I found myself with this fear—when will my life truly begin? When can I begin to actually move on and build a life for myself? How do I get there, and where am I?

For all of the virtue there is in taking life into one’s own hands and becoming the “self-made man,” the realities of life often refute this as a myth. I’m not strong enough on my own. Without the help of God, I’m not even guaranteed my next breath. In fact, sometimes the worst thing we can do is to take things into our own hands apart from the will of God. Self-determination and responsibility is one thing, and it is healthy and necessary; imprudence and impatience is quite another. Starved of certainty, we cannot grasp at straws—self-willed goals, vain ambition, all of the possible self-made selves that populate our imaginations. I would discover this after attempting a year of diocesan seminary, even after realizing that my true vocation was more apt to lie within a religious order.

I’ve come to suspect that the greatest part of the problem is our expectation for life to “begin” in a definite, clear, and comprehensible way. That’s not how it works—rarely is there a moment that demarcates the end of waiting and the beginning of living. Be careful should one appear, as it’s still vulnerable to the contingencies of life. All of life is wandering; “being alive” doesn’t mean eradicating the open-ended sense of itinerancy and rootless-ness we know as young adults. It means growing into it. We court it as the price of living with the full dignity of a free nature. God doesn’t call us to comfort or security, but to the greatness of a free and totally human response to His love and grace. That’s why God is a dangerous God. Faced with the terrible darkness of the uncertainties of life, we question, and we can never find an answer, because the picture is too big for any of us ever see.

At bottom, I can’t give any answers as to why being a young adult is so hard and grueling. I can’t draw a map of how life works and exactly what itinerary God has to give to each one of us to make us saints. Though I can read the writings of the spiritual theologians and the great mystics, I can’t look forward and say, “This is when and how I will become a saint” or “This is when and how you will become a saint.” I really don’t think that there’s a single moment when that happens. Aristotelian wisdom says, “Call no man happy until he is dead,” not simply because we only find true happiness in Heaven, but because the entirety of life from beginning to end given to God as a free response to His love and grace is the only true measurement of one’s happiness. As a young adult, it’s easy to lose that perspective, that it’s all of life in its totality that is the standard—and that is how I understand the present challenges: I can’t understand them, because I’m not supposed to.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSCN0288.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology. His website is Singing in the Shower.[/author_info] [/author]

Confessions of a Spiritual Insomniac

I’m a chronic insomniac. There’s a lot to that statement beyond my not being able to sleep at night—insights into my temperament and psychological composition, and, if you pay close enough attention, explanations as to why I’m largely sardonic in relation to topics of an over-arching and weighty nature. Really, how is an insomniac supposed to react to an endless barrage of calls to “wake up” because of this or that issue? It’s like telling a fish to take a bath. Believe me, I’ve heard plenty of calls to “wake up” these last few weeks. Google+, Facebook, my inbox, and all of my real-world social interactions seem to revolve around one issue at the moment. Don’t play coy; you know what issue I’m talking about. And immediately before that, there was the public fiasco about that one organization who started having doubts about their long-term steady relationship with that other organization because that other organization was not the kind of organization that that she was hoping he would be, and how after great heartache they ultimately decided it would be best to keep the relationship going for the good of the screaming activist children….You can’t make up a soap opera like that.

We sure do follow these story lines and character arcs quite closely. The issues seem to justify our undivided attention. We are, after all, endeavoring to discuss matters of life and death, justice and injustice, conscience and coercion, and the very foundations of a free society and our place within it. We need few additional reminders to tell us that the stakes are high and life itself is on the line. Rome is burning and we have no time to fiddle around. We’ll write our congressmen, sign petitions, engage in discussions with our peers and online, blog about it, attend protests, spend every online moment reading articles and watching videos about it, and make it as sure as the grass is green that we won’t vote for [insert name of soulless politician here]. But at some point—and this point is different for every person—the issue must be, like every major difficulty in life or plot-thickening suspense-creating device in a daytime serial, handed over in prayer with the abandonment and surrender of knowing that God or the author is in control, and that our power is extremely limited. We, quite simply, need the serenity to accept the things we cannot change.

Lying awake at night on a consistent basis since childhood teaches me a lot about that serenity. My insomnia arises from one of two mechanisms: one is having racing thoughts related to any particular anxiety or circumstance, and the other is hitting my creative and productive peak after sundown. The former is like trying to sleep in a burning building; the latter is like trying to sleep with a screaming infant in the other room. In either case, I feel compelled to move, to act, to change things, to get things done. I need to write another page or stanza while I have this section finally figured out, to fix that awkward chord progression with this bright new idea, or to read a book that’s been vying for my attention. On the flip side, I need to mend a friendship before it breaks, to apologize to someone for a snide remark I made that hurt them (but they didn’t say anything so I didn’t notice it at the time and just now realized it), or to figure out what I’m going to do about this particular problem or that specific issue. I can’t do anything, so why do I worry? I tell myself that it’s because I want to actually fix the problem, and that it’s irresponsible of me not do anything about it. Not being able to do anything about it, I somehow think that worrying is necessary, or somehow more just. At bottom, however, the root of all this unrest is the compulsion to act devoid of any available course of action. I must attend to the issue at hand, and that issue is sleeping.

Each night during the Office of Compline, the Church prays, “Protect us, Lord, as we stay awake; watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep rest in his peace.” The nightly ritual of prayer and sleep contains within it a humble, implicit realization that each night of sleep is a rehearsal for death. We must approach it with the tranquil realization that God presides over the course of our life when we least have control—when we are most dormant, facile, and incapacitated. Death is the ultimate incapacitation, and sleep is the incapacitation built into our lives to prepare us for that final step into death. In the same way that the moment of death requires a surrender to the loving mercy of God, sleep is a nightly mechanism that makes it possible for us to continually pray, “I surrender”.

The danger of constant anxiety, of constant compulsion to act even when absent a suitable ability to act, betrays the truest need of the human heart when faced with the stresses and evils of a fallen world. Amid our constant calls of “Wake up!” and “Don’t just stand there, do something!”, we miss the very real call to peace given to us by the very Gospel itself. Imagine the inner peace needed to see an evil, to know the compulsion to address it, while saying to yourself, “This is not the time or the place. I am ill equipped and incompetent here. God will provide.” God called David to slay the giant Goliath, but he also refused to settle the money dispute between two brothers, and at another point answered the Pharisees and Sadducees with “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s”. No, we don’t turn a blind eye. We don’t fall into inaction and complacency. We simply refuse to fall into the trap of saying that all that’s needed is action. “Sleep child, for tomorrow is a new day.” “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

Since a great bulk of our worries and anxieties seem to process from the public square these days, we must realize more deeply than ever that we can never do one bit of good at bringing the world to peace if we ourselves are not at peace. Really, I could analyze these weighty matters of great consequence without end. I could discuss the Church’s teaching on the primacy of conscience and what it truly means; I could analyze the structure of this filthy, rotten system that perpetuates injustice in countless forms; I could weigh the moral implications of voting for Candidate R, D, L, or X or conscientiously abstaining from voting altogether; I could compare and contrast Catholic pacifism with Just War Teaching and find a position somewhere within either of them; I could offer a critique of modernity, the nation-state, and Liberal Democracy and what it means for the Church to be “resident aliens” within them. Neither of these topics would do one bit of good for us or for the world, though, if not engaged with peacefully, in the tranquility and serenity of a heart made calm through the love of and trust in God. That’s the great challenge of our revolution, making peace break out first in ourselves, and second in each and every individual heart.

But let us once again hold to mind, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render unto God the things that are God’s.” The specific question was of taxation, but within his response, Christ sheds light on every question of Church and State relations that will ever arise. When Caesar oversteps his bounds and assumes the things that are God’s, and he pompously asserts his weight and authority over these matters like a bratty child declaring himself the king of the sandbox, what recourse do we have to this injustice? Yes, we act. We do what is in our power to seek justice, and we do so without compromise and without ambiguity. But to Mr. King O’ the Sandbox, we can simply carry on life as usual, deaf and disobedient to his arrogations, and if we have to, point a mocking finger and ask, “Who made you King?”

Who indeed?

[Image courtesy of ewanr at photoree.com]

What I Learned by Going as a Hipster

This took a lot of courage.

THE MORNING’S PRESENTATION in my histology class having ended, I commenced donning the entirety of my costume for the rest of the day. Presenting on meningitis while dressed like a hipster, while being delightfully ironic, might not have led to my best performance. Sliding the knit hat into a sufficiently slouched position onto my head, the thought occurred to me that the sounds emanating from the nearby stall were nowhere near as disgusting as what gradually took shape in the mirror.

I don’t recall the precise moment when the overwhelming sense of ridiculousness set in, but sometime between removing my sweater from over the too-tight v-neck t-shirt—which revealed the extent of my few-too-many pounds—and putting on the thick-rimmed clear sunglasses, I began to have second thoughts. Looking back, it might have been the facial hair modifications that signaled the first vestiges of doubt. I’ve done some stupid things in my life, like self-attempting haircuts and going with the blond highlight look while in high school—heck, my first semester of college I dyed my hair black and topped it off with red highlights!—but I have never before that day felt so very stupid.

I headed for the door and realized that I was shaking. Halloween is supposed to be about fear, and so we dress up in costumes of vampires, ghosts, zombies, and monsters of all stripes. To that list, I now add hipsters. The one day of the year when we can stare down the fear of death and mock it is Halloween—and yet, not all fear is the fear of death. My fear of hipsterism—or of becoming a hipster—is a fear related to something more elusive. Usually the sight of a knit hat wearing, bicycle riding, steely-eyed and sardonic hipster who talks way too much about things you’ve never heard of elicits reactions of annoyance, disdain, and, in the better of us, pity. Before I in my hipster costume hit the light of day, it occurred to me that much of my own disdain originated from fear. That day, the fear became more personal. I was afraid more specifically of being seen as a hipster, of being someone or something entirely different. More mundanely, I was afraid of being embarrassed. Some combination of the bare chin and the sausage casing-tight shirt over a hefty gut ensured that I felt totally naked.

The looks from my peers made it worth it though. Laughs, good-natured jeers, expressions of stunned silence. A good friend said of me at first sight, “Oh [expletive], I hope you can feel the hate radiating off of me right now.” Another, as I stood in the Catholic Student Center kitchen drinking a glass of water, said hello and tried to welcome me to the CSC until she realized that it was just me. For all my fear and nervousness, it sure was a lot of fun.

At least it was, until I had to go to my next class. Walking out of that bathroom was one thing, but walking out of the front doors of the Catholic Student Center was another. Inside I was among friends, acquaintances, and people who were in on the joke. Outside, I had no guarantees. Certainly some people would get the joke, but the vast majority of people I did not know, who did not know that what they saw was a costume and not a lifestyle, these people would really think that I was an overweight hipster.

I have a confession to make that might come as obvious by now: I worry too much about what other people think of me. I hate being embarrassed. My usual style of dress—polos, collared shirts, sporty sweaters, and plain jeans—might be considered by some as “conservative,” “preppy”. In truth I rarely buy clothes not on clearance racks and have been known to wear clothing I’ve had since high school, providing it still fits. But presenting myself well—not slouchy, not frumpy, well groomed and presentable is something that, here in the South, is simply a sign of good manners and respect. To dress myself as semi-barbarous idiot seemed to be something very anti-social and maladjusted. Stupid as I felt, I asked myself constantly that day “What would bring a person to present themselves like this day in and day out without a hint of embarrassment?”

The longer the day went on, the more I understood the weight of this question. I had, whether I fully intended to or not, put myself in the position of walking a day in a hipster’s white canvas slip-on shoes, of seeing through his thick-rimmed Ben Folds lenses. Some hint of the interior attitudes of such a person came to me as I walked the campus past the sneers of the down-home cowboy types, and even the visible disdain of some of the faculty. While the easy temptation is to conclude that some people just don’t care how others see them, I realized that for those whose styles represented this hodgepodge of subcultural fashions with none of its substance, there is a deep and pre-existent sense of not belonging to the larger culture.

Yeah, I know, “Duh,” that’s obvious. But I think it’s also deeper than we tend to imagine. For a generation living in a particularly shallow, material-driven, consumeristic, and deeply dissatisfied culture, the hipster is something of the sentinel of the no-man’s-land between frustrated passion and quiet despair. They know, on some non-verbal level at least, exactly what is wrong, but have no idea of what is right. The same can be said of every counter-culture, of every disaffected person, whether hipster or beatnik, punk or hippie. Sneer as I might, and heap my disdain in righteous libations as I have been accustomed, an uneasy realization would eventually take hold through this experiment.

What can Christ offer to those very disaffected with this culture? How can Christ meet these souls in their angst and provide them with that ground, that deep and personally compelling identity to help negotiate that terrible no-man’s-land? When the name of Christ Himself becomes an object that, like any other thing to a hipster, can only be appreciated through a sense of irony, this is a task of evangelization requiring the abandonment of disdain and caustic attitudes.

Hipsterism, along with most other forms of counter-culturalism, is like a stutter. It develops in its initial stages for reasons not fully understood, but the way it becomes overriding is by being treated harshly. Getting impatient with a stuttering child is bound only to make it worse, but a deeper patience on the part of those dealing with it and by those afflicted by it is essential. By sneering at counter-culture and asserting the dominant paradigm, the insecurities within that give rise to outrageous behaviors and fashions assert themselves ever more strongly, and the behaviors and fashions become ever more outrageous. Counter-culture feeds off the dominant culture in the way a furnace feeds off a bellows, and the harder the bellows blows, the brighter and hotter the furnace.

What Christ offers is far different. Christ doesn’t see a person and think, “Hipster,” “Punk,” “Beatnik,” or “Hippie,” but instead, sees and person and knows their name. He sees the true self, the one hidden from our view by the outrageousness presented to our senses. While we are apt to shout at the stutter, or to blow the bellows, Christ simply ignores it. That’s right—to Christ, all that matters is His beloved, made in His image, and He refuses to give the false image the satisfaction of even being recognized. It has no right to exist. When Christ encounters the outcast sinners in the Gospels, His treatment of them is in speaking to that inner sanctum of authenticity and reality, where the heart longs for Christ but distracts itself from this longing through sin. When a person identifies with the false image, he feels threatened, discarded, and ignored—but through Christ he comes to learn to identify with Christ Himself, the true image.

For us, this is a difficult realization. I for one struggle with the tension between the false image and the true image, between the deep, inner longing and the distractions that take my attention away from the void. For those living in such a way that this condition exists without being known, without the acceptance of hope, this can only move me toward empathy and a deeper patience. Treating a stutterer harshly does no one any good, whether the stutter is verbal or spiritual. All of us have this stutter as a part of our lives in some way—we might just not dress accordingly.

Perhaps we actually have an advantage here. The Church is at once culture, subculture, and counter-culture, and how one sees the Church accordingly is very telling of that person’s relationship to the Church. The Church has a mission that will always, no matter how accepted it she in the wider culture, ensure that she has a counter-cultural side. Catholic teaching on human dignity, on living a life based on deeper things than shallow consumerism, on the infinite and unimaginable love God has for each and every individual are all things that the Church has to offer in an authentically counter-cultural way. The Church is able to say, “We have something for you that, chances are, few people have actually heard of. We have something to give you that answers your fears of living an unremarkable life, of living a life buried in impersonal coldness robbed of dignity and identity. We have something to give you that grants you the freedom to pour out your entire nature as an individual into something expansive, meaningful, and, difficult though it is, very fulfilling. You can reclaim your soul from the impersonal forces in our world and offer it to something far from impersonal, far from crushing. You can be in on the greatest irony ever offered, the irony of God becoming man. And yes, you can still listen to the Fleet Foxes, though you will have to give up those skinny boy capris.” (Okay, so that last one is my own thing.)

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSCN0288.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology. His website isSinging in the Shower.[/author_info] [/author]

To be human, be Catholic

I WANT TO BET YOU that if you took a really good, hard, honest, and inscrutable look at your own heart, you would come to the conclusion that you were made to be Catholic. I say this with certainty, because the truth of the matter is that you really were made to be Catholic. Now before you start getting all huffy and accusatory–something about me being “closed minded” or “un-ecumenical” or “triumphalistic”–let me assure you that I have none of these motivations in mind. Rather, my logic is quite simple, and if my premises are true, then my conclusion must necessarily follow.

My first premise is that you are human, created in the image and likeness of God, heir to an essentially and wonderfully good nature but somehow fallen, and whose greatest desire, either implicit or explicit, is to enjoy the eternal beatitude of God in Heaven with all of the [unfallen] angels and saints. No, I’m not saying that the desire proves the existence, nor that the desire alone is enough to attain it. I’m merely saying that you have the desire–the desire for absolute, perfect, and eternal happiness. And you do–it’s all in Aristotle, if you don’t believe me.

My second premise is that the Catholic faith most fully, most truly, and most consistently reveals what it means to be human. I don’t expect everybody to agree with this, but I do hope that everyone at least be open to it should this, after all, prove to be the case. I myself accept this premise, based on my own experience and based on reason (neither of which, I imagine, would be enough if taken merely on its own). Reason alone might not outright prove this premise true, but it certainly doesn’t disprove it. And should you ever come to hold this premise, then you will see how the conclusion necessarily follows.

My conclusion is that every human being was made to be one in heart, mind, and soul with the living communion subsisting within the Catholic Church. If you are human, then you must, by nature, be the most fully, most authentically, most perfectly human as you can possibly be. Anything else, and you fall short of your nature. Funny it is, how the human person is the only being in the universe capable of falling short of his own nature! But if he is–if you are–to be fulfilled in nature, then being Catholic is the only way to do so.

The problem with the way we think about our human nature and the Church’s teaching is that we somehow see the sacramental, dogmatic, and devotional life of the Church as being separate from the fulness of human reality. We think we can be sufficiently human without these things–in a secular world, independent of all the so-called “shackles” of Church dogma, “oppression,” “patriarchy,” and all the other bogey-man buzzwords that so get us moderns shaking in our boots. But the truth of the matter is that secular modern culture is a front-running candidate for the most inhuman of all structures, the most idiotically oppressive, patriarchal, and barbaric of all cultures to have ever existed! If cultures of the past forced man to think only about the hereafter and the things above, then our culture forces man to think only about the present and the things below. If ancient cultures robbed the masses of their livelihoods, then our present culture robs the masses of that one so-very-human quality we all seek: their very reason for living. Let us not compare, then, to see who has the heavier crime; let us instead see how to offer to man both his livelihood AND his reason for living.

Only in the light of the Church’s life–her teachings, her sacraments, her tradition, her prayer, and her morality, all things animated by the One Spirit that breathes life into her body–can a human being ever make sense of all of the things in our world and say, “Now it all makes sense! Now I see the purpose of it!” Only then can a person look at his job, his family, his fortunes and misfortunes, his desires, sufferings, failings, winnings, experiences, joys, sorrows, everything, and really be able to say, “This, after all, is what makes me human!” It’s not that the Church answers every question for you. It’s not that faith in Christ through the Church will suddenly make everything appear simple, to the point, easy, or even understandable. What it does do is that it gives you a ground for your identity, a place to say, “This is who I am, because this is where I stand.” Difficult as such a position may be, it is the only position that will stand firm through anything you could ever imagine in life. It also happens to be the only position that has the solidity of actually being true.

And, I offer, the converse is also true: that if you want to be truly Catholic, you must start by being truly human. If we could fulfill our human natures on our own, we would have no need of the Catholic faith, because it is the Catholic faith that teaches us how to walk, how to talk, how to think in the ways of Christ. She is a good mother who wants to see her children flourish, and if we pretend to be anything other than human, or if we start by denying our fundamental humanity, we will miss the point.

We need not look to any form of “humanism” that imagines the human person as being somehow separate from the eternal truths of the Catholic faith. Catholicism is the only true humanism there is, and because of human nature and its profound dependence on God, the only humanism truly possible. While you hunger, while you thirst, while you seek that which “you-know-not-what,” your desires alone will only lead you into frustrations and futility if you do not turn them over to He for whom you long.

You were made for the Church, and the Church was made for you.

Image courtesy of CatholicAdvocate.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://www.ignitumtoday.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/DSCN0288.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Nathan Kennedy is a 25-year old student living in Amarillo, Texas, who converted to the Catholic Church in 2008. He is currently involved in vocational discernment to the religious life, and his hobbies include music composition, reading science fiction, spending time outdoors, and learning biology. His website is Singing in the Shower.[/author_info] [/author]

Phantom Limbs

When I was 10, I caught a feature on the Discovery Channel about a young man who, after losing his arm in a motorcycle accident, felt pain where his hand used to be. It’s not that the stump hurt, but that he actually felt as if his hand, which was gone, hurt as if it was still there. When his arm came off, his hand was in a closed-fist position; the sensations he perceived were of his fingernails growing into the skin in the palm of his hand. They showed a “map” drawn by a neuroscientist of the places on the brain that control different parts of the body. This helped the doctor to determine a course of treatment to alleviate the perception of pain in the amputated arm: by stimulating facial nerves, and by cognitively focusing on “unclenching” his fist, placing his good arm in a mirror box. (Much of this I would only recall after studying cognitive neuroscience and the contributions of Vilayanur Ramachandran.)

It’s fascinating (not only because it’s an interesting phenomenon, but also because it shows what a strange child I was). Imagine losing a part of yourself and still perceiving sensations from it–an arm, a leg, a tooth, an eye, anything. You know it’s gone. Everyone knows it’s gone. It’s dead, never to come back–but it still haunts you, as if it somehow remains a part of you. This phenomenon is known as “Phantom Limb.”

The human memory works a lot like this. We have entire portions of our life–good, bad, anything in between–that, when cut off from ourselves, teem with sensations, pains, and desires. I left Austin, Texas, after three years at a university, and that entire period of my life, though gone, continues to exert phantom sensations in my desires, identity, and sense of self. It was an extremely formative period in my life, charged with difficulties, new experiences, personal mistakes, relationships, strong emotions, and eventually, at the end, a conversion to a new faith. When I decided to move back to Amarillo, it was like an amputation: that entire period had to be “cut off” in order for me to move forward.

In a curious custom, Jewish tradition prescribes a burial for severed limbs of people still alive. There is to be a customary kaddish (or, ritual burying, accompanied by mourning) for legs, arms, or appendages separated from the body. If at all possible, the appendage is to be buried with the rest of the body when a person dies. Likewise, the human memory longs for an integrity, a completeness and overarching background for one’s life. When sudden changes occur in our lives, either through our decisions or through rough circumstance, we long for continuity with our present self and our old self. If we do not mourn what we lost, we cannot put our experiences in the past and move forward.

In the Christian life and struggle for ongoing conversion, this operates on a number of levels. First, there is a human level in which our human losses–deaths, lost relationships, emotional upheavals, and the like–cries out for our attention in restoring to wholeness. Coping with loss, grieving, and the continual process of handling it are universal to the human experience. But specifically Christian is the experience of following Christ’s command, “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away (Mt. 5:30).” Our ascetical practices demand that we part with those parts of our selves, those parts of our lives, and those parts of our experiences that deter our Christian discipleship. Those areas in our lives that posit real obstacles to loving others–traumatic memories, disordered attachments, hurts, regrets, resentment, selfishness, bad habits, etc.–are parts of ourselves that, through baptism and Christian conversion, are cast from ourselves, but continue to teem with perceptions that are but phantoms.

There are times in our lives when entire portions–indeed, entire “selves” we have constructed and identified with–prove diseased and rotten, and like a gangrenous limb must succumb to amputation. So much of what we think makes us ourselves, from our way of living to our personal tastes and preferences, all constitute, if not idols, then attachments that keep us from defining ourselves according to what truly matters: God’s love. And often we find ourselves longing for those things we’ve left behind for the sake of Christ, or through life circumstances.

How do we live with these phantoms? How do we live when our memories and our perceptions desire a unity that is not apparent, when in fact it seems like we’ve cut off large pieces of ourselves? I think St. John of the Cross offers us some indispensable insights into the spiritual life. Often these “phantom selves” retained by our memories, and our current desire to live the Christian life, taken together creates an impasse that we, on our own, cannot overcome. These are the moments in our live when God helps by infusing Hope into our souls–Hope being an anchoring in God’s goodness, and an expectation of receiving his promises by knowing God’s goodness. Hope is not “wishful thinking,” but a courageous act in actively, authentically choosing the joy of the Christian life. It is the will to live, the will move forward, the will to be anchored in God no matter the cost. It is through Hope that the fragmentation of ourselves that we experiences because of our memories will find healing and peace.

One of the most helpful devotions in attaining this healing is St. Igatius of Loyola’s Suscipe, offered in his Spiritual Exercises. In it, one offers one’s entire memory, will, desires, and affections to God and asks simply to be filled with God alone. This is what Hope is. This is how we ask for it. If you suffer from the phantom limbs of sorrow, anger, resentment, mourning, desire, temptations, and misplaced nostalgia for things that no longer exist in your life, or things were cast off through your baptism, this prayer is for you.

First Point. This is to recall to mind the blessings of creation and redemption, and the special favors I have received.

I will ponder with great affection how much God our Lord has done for me, and how much He has given me of what He possesses, and finally, how much, as far as He can, the same Lord desires to give Himself to me according to His divine decrees.

Then I will reflect upon myself, and consider, according to all reason and justice, what I ought to offer the Divine Majesty, that is, all I possess and myself with it. Thus, as one would who is moved by great feeling, I will make this offering of myself:

‘Receive, O Lord, all my liberty. Take my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. Whatsoever I have or hold, You have given me; I give it all back to You and surrender it wholly to be governed by your will. Give me only your love and your grace, and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.’

(Spiritual Exercises, #234)

Want to Change the World? Start by Changing Your Heart


This quote by St. Josemaria Escriva is one that challenges me often:

You are constantly talking about the need to change and reform things. Good…REFORM YOURSELF! For you need it badly, and already you will have begun the great reform.

In the meantime, I shall not be putting to much in your proclamations of reform. — “The Furrow,” p. 636

It is easy to look into the life of this great saint and to see the battles he fought, and then to see this quote as applying to these circumstances. He lived through the Spanish Civil War under Franco, and worked tirelessly to see to the foundation, formation, and sanctification of the prelature he founded, Opus Dei. Yet, no matter how extraordinary these struggles or his personal sanctity may seem to us, let us not forget the chief insight granted to us by St. Josemaria: the life of sanctity can only mature and take hold in a true, deep, and stable way in and through the ordinary means of an ordinary life.

This insight is by no means original to him–Sts. Francis de Sales and Therese of Liseux, for example, came before him. St. Josemaria’s contribution is in bringing this insight to the most technologically, politically, and socially dynamic century yet to be seen in human history. The 20th Century was a century of “greatness,” however prodigious or terrible. Never before had so many people taken an active role in politics at once global, regional, reactionary, and revolutionary; never before had so many people grasped for power or clutched greedily to it. In the midst of this century of “greatness,” human nature had yet to change. The wisdom taught and lived by those both great and small in centuries preceding remained valid, even if more scandalous than ever. This is why Providence granted us the wisdom, sanctity, and witness of St. Josemaria Escriva, referred to by John Paul II at his canonization as “the saint of ordinary life.”

The Church teaches that an individual should remain loyal to his social ties: family, community, country, Church, and that of these, the most basic functional unit is the family. Therefore, a high premium exists on an “ordinary” life, a life of “hidden holiness.” Yet, simple human nature would look at the way the Church teaches “ordinary” holiness as being a mechanism of social control, as a way of keeping the masses in line in order to direct their behavior more manipulatively. In an individualistic age where the global community plays a more important role, and where human opportunities have expanded dramatically, this seems like an affront to personal potential. “Don’t step out of line!” is what our culture hears, with its constant background chorus of, “Make something of yourself!” and “Go out and change the world!” In other words, in our culture, we can no longer distinguish between ambition and magnanimity: between the desire for personal gain, and for the desire for authentic and personal greatness.

Within this teaching, we find a surprising and paradoxical truth: authentic greatness depends on the ordinariness of life, whereas ambition is degrading, and a most dehumanizing form of slavery. While Marxism, Socialism, and also the far-right ideologies saw in Catholic morality a subjugating form of social control (the Marxists wanted to overthrow it; the Fascists and National Socialists wanted to supplant it), the Catholic social vision–morality and all–represents the truest form of human freedom imaginable in this life.

St. Josemaria’s wisdom counts on this as being true. It also has a range of application that goes far beyond the great “political” contexts where we could so easily restrict it. Being the saint of ordinary life, this piece of wisdom must also have an ordinary life application, one with which, I think, we can all relate.

What is “reform,” after all? Beyond its political usage, where do we see need of “reform” in our lives? Perhaps we see it in our workplaces, in our schools, our jobs, our families; I know several people who see it in their parish communities and in the Church as a whole. When we see the need for reform, we more often than not have in mind what is truly termed “revolution”: instead of wanting to change something from within, we want to change it from without. Maybe if the bishop sacked Father Flannel and gave us an orthodox priest, we would all be better off; likewise, if only that annoying coworker would get herself in trouble and be moved to a different department or…you know. Thus we rail against, and embitter ourselves needlessly over the things over which we have no control.

Ah, but we do have some level of control! I have control over the one thing that is most rightfully mine, most given to my faculties of stewardship and responsibility: my own heart.

I am to understand that the problem is not liberals destroying the Church, or fussy ultra-conservatives making life miserable for the rest of us, but pure and simply that I am not as holy as I need to be. While political maneuvering may be tearing the country or the globe apart, my own sin is tearing the Body of Christ apart. Though my parish may be afflicted with a heterodox priest (thankfully, I do not have that problem–in fact, I love my priest!), as long as I still sin, I am still a part of the problem.

This does not mean that we cannot take measures to remedy human evils when and where we see them–in fact, such is a requirement. But do we not understand the expansive liberation and freedom that such a perspective gives us? No longer am I bound by the actions of another; no longer does the sin of another give me cause to fall into the sins of wrath, hatred, or any such vices. No matter how terrible things may be politically, or within the community, family, workplace, or even parish, I have not lost control of that over which I am the most responsible and accountable.

I believe the man who said the following while discussing stewardship to be a truly great man: “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters is also trustworthy in great ones; and the person who is dishonest in very small matters is also dishonest in great ones” (Luke 16:10).

If you desire greatness, do not change the things outside of you. Do not seek to reform the outside world. Work, instead, to change the only thing you can, and in so doing, you will have a greater impact on the world than you can imagine. The world will change, not through vast political or religious movements, nor through a mass reorganization and change in the current powers, but heart by heart, life by life. Be a part of this change, for you have already been given the power to do so.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

How to Save the Galaxy Without Leaving Home

Not to brag or anything, but I can make the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs. Not only that, but I have unambiguously proven my superhuman tactical genius at an elite orbital battle school, in which I obliterated an entire planet and the Formic race with a single strike. Heck, I once helped the Kwisatz Haderach of the planet Arrakis overthrow an entire empire merely by taking over the production of a spice! And that doesn’t even hold a candle to the time when I single-handedly saved the Captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise from being assimilated into the Borg, thus sparing Earth the doom of being stuck with four seasons of Captain Riker. It’s all par for the course because, as you know, I am prone to soaring through outer space, ray gun in fist, with gorgeous brunette Space Princess-Babes in my brawny arms.

If this all sounds too fantastic for you, where have you been since you were a child? Were you not told that you can “reach for the stars” and that your only limitations were your own expectations? I remember looking up to the night sky as a child, taking in those peculiar little spots of light dancing oodles of light years away, and wondering what it would be like if I could take a trip to all those distant worlds. When I was six, the object I most coveted was a light saber. I was sure that the technology used by the Power Rangers to teleport using their communicators could in fact exist! Indeed, I wanted to be the one to invent it. Earth just couldn’t hold me! Perhaps I was older than I should have been before I realized that none of this stuff was actually real, or even possible for that matter. Much of it had to do with becoming a teenager and discovering an alien race much more strange and alluring than anything I’d ever read about: girls. That, and I discovered a world much more hostile and dystopic than even Tolkien’s Mordor: the “real” one.

In short, I started to become a man, and yea, I put away that childish thirst for high adventure and the impossible. Winning the esteem of alien races gave way to winning the affections of that one pretty girl (or at least attempting to), and even that soon gave way to contemplating the cosmic mystery of how to balance a checkbook. I came to realize that the only great adventures to be had would only take place in some fantastic future, leaving me to simply run the rat race and live vicariously through works of fiction.

And then I became Catholic.

All of the sudden, the most grotesque space monsters I ever could have encountered seemed like dust bunnies compared to the ravenous beasts of human sin. What is the Rancor compared to Pride? What are the giant sandworms of Arrakis compared to Lust? Oh, how much would I rather deal with the Daleks than deal with my own sin—to be thrown into the Sarlac than thrown into Gehenna! Conversely, how pale does the planet Pandora look in comparison to the Heavenly Jerusalem? How boring is the face on Mars compared to the face of God? Instead of traveling to the Planet of Two Suns, how much I would rather be right here and come to love the Son! Really, the problem with “reaching for the stars” is not that you’re reaching too high, but that you’re reaching too low.

It really does seem strange that so much of this fiction takes place in times far ahead of our own, in centuries or even millennia beyond this present age. We seem to intuit that the greatest adventures and the highest wonder we will ever experience have yet to come, and looking forward helps us to anticipate it and to bring some part of it to right now. Yet if we stop for one moment and examine our expectations, our promises, and our beliefs, we will begin to realize that, beyond our hope, the greatest adventure does not begin sometime outside of our ability to experience it, but it actually begins here, now, in this life, on this planet. What the fantastic Space Operas, beautiful alien worlds, and awe-inspiring technologies hint at are actual, deep, and partially known realities that we knew most clearly as children. The world really can’t hold us, and our imaginations relentlessly intimate this fact as we tell our stories set in space, alternate worlds, and even places like Middle Earth.

But in order to experience this adventure, there’s a catch: we must live as fully as we can right now, in this present moment. As much as the allure of outer space and distant worlds may draw in our imaginations, none of their imagined beauty and appeal can compare to the utmost importance of the actual moment at hand. Perhaps, instead of distant planets or galactic adventures, we imagine ourselves more content with a better job, a fulfilling relationship—marriage, for example—or having completed a college degree, or living a life traveling the globe and making a name for one’s self. None of these are bad, but insofar as each of these things exists only as a future prospect, none of these things deserves the full investment of your aspiration and attention as does this one, all-important moment.

Why is this?

The great 17th-Century spiritual master Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade, SJ astutely claimed that the best, greatest, and most important thing that will ever happen to you is precisely what is happening to you. There is nothing we can look to for our peace other than the will of God, especially as it inhabits this moment. If you are now single, and find your life’s vocation to be marriage, then what that means for you is that God’s will in your current single state will have you grow toward marriage. It is the same with any vocation really—the priesthood, the religious life, anything. God may be calling you to be married someday, or to be a priest or religious, but right now, He is calling you to seek Him as a single person.

Forget crossing the 70,000-light year Delta Quadrant to come back home—this is hard! Sometimes moving forward in our lives may seem as difficult and impossible as doing such a thing. But how do you expect to find God in your future vocation if you can’t find God now? If you can’t find Him now and here, you won’t find Him then or there. God has given you only this moment, and if you do not seek Him with it, you never will. If you do not see in this moment the great, epic, adventurous, and exciting journey you long for in your stories, you will never truly know any adventure at all. If you do not bloom where you are planted, you will never bloom.

The promise of such great story telling of any kind—science fiction just happens to be among my favorites—is in revealing to us the greatness of our this-moment struggles. Our struggles against sin, our efforts to unite our will to God’s, our day-to-day battles with prayer, loving those around us, and not using our own choice of words to the incompetent desk clerks that possess an inordinate amount of influence over our emotions, each and every one carry the weight, dignity, and difficulty of even the loftiest travails accomplished by space heroes. We really are out of this world, but not in a way that our stories would have us literally think. We are out of this world in the realest and fullest sense as can be possible, and our stories are only vague shadows of this reality.

Chesterton once proclaimed, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Correlatively, science fiction stories are also more than true—not because they tell us that other worlds exist, but because they tell us that other worlds can be explored.

You know, once I think about it, I realize I am a little short for a storm trooper. There’s no way on this side of the Gamma Quadrant that I ever could be a good friend with a Ferenge. And though it would be awesome to have blue, glowing eyes and ultra-cool mind powers, being lethally addicted to a mysterious spice might not be all it’s cracked up to be. But I can still save the galaxy, travel at faster-than-light speeds, and finally make that technological breakthrough that will have me communicate and teleport with a wrist watch-like device; I can overthrow the evil empires in my own heart with the child-like humility of a race of Ewoks and cross the vast distances of spiritual space to get me back home again, and I can do this all right here, right now, with all the excitement and adventure of the most fantastic of all space operas. Someday, God willing, I will have closed this chapter on the Final Frontier, and have found at last that one world that holds within itself all the wonder and excitement I longed for as a child: the New Heaven and the New Earth.

In the meantime, anyone know where I can get a good light saber?

 

Hi! My name is Nathan Kennedy, and I blog here!