Category Archives: Life

David “Brought up the Ark”: The Assumption of Mary

Guido Reni (1638-9). Wikimedia Commons.

The ancient Ark of the Covenant that accompanied the Israelites during the Exodus of Egypt until the Babylonian conquest, has long been understood in the mind of the Church as a symbolic type of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Made of wood and gilded in gold, the ancient Ark of the Old Covenant bore the Presence of God in spirit, while in a far more excellent manner, Mary as the Ark of the New Covenant bore within her womb the very Presence of God made flesh in the Person of Jesus the Word Incarnate. This is saying nothing of the extraordinary dwelling which God had made in Mary’s soul which was “full of grace”.

A Central Theme

It is no wonder then, why for the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Lady, a holy day of obligation, both first readings concern the Ark of the Covenant. The vigil Mass, taken from I Chronicles 15, and Mass during the day, from the Book of Revelation (chps. 11 and 12).

The first reading for the Vigil Mass concerns the historical occasion when for the first time David brought the Ark of the Covenant into the city of Jerusalem. The same occasion is described in 2 Samuel 6, painting a broader picture of this festive occasion. We’ll direct our focus to this.

Take 1: Bringing Up the Ark

King David has conquered Jerusalem and has arranged the Levites (the priestly tribe) to process into Jerusalem from the house Abinidab, amidst great jubilation, with the Ark at this stage of the journey being carried along on a “new cart” by a set of oxen. In the words of the Scripture:

“And David and all the house of Israel were making merry before the LORD with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.” (2 Sam 6:5).

Along the way, the oxen stumble, and Abinidab’s son, named Uzzah, stretches out his hand to stop the Ark falling, and as a consequence of breaking a divine command meets his untimely end with a little aid (okay… more than a little aid) from above. There’s no time to go into that now, as that’s an article of its own. Yet feel free to see the relevant footnote.[1]

Anyway… the party kind of dies at this point. Well… sudden deaths as a result of divine smack-downs do tend to have this affect. Hence David gets upset at God — he probably liked the guy … he maybe even had dinner plans that evening with the fella. Oh well. So feeling like God’s being a bit of a kill-joy, he names the place “Perez-uzzah”, meaning “to break…” or “to burst out against Uzzah,” and being fearful of God and His Ark, David decides to hit stall on the procession, choosing to keep the Ark outside of Jerusalem at the House of Obededom.

Obededom’s Place

The Ark remains at the House of Obededom for three months — paralleling the three months the pregnant Virgin Mary stayed at her cousin Elizabeth’s house. When the word reaches David that “The LORD has blessed the household of Obededom and all that belongs to him, because of the ark of God.” (2 Sam 6:12a), he decides to fetch the Ark and bring it into Jerusalem. He is reminded of God’s merciful goodness and doesn’t want to miss out on God’s blessings!

Take 2: Bringing Up the Ark

 “So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing” (2 Sam 6:12b).

The key word is the Hebrew word וַיַּעַל (vay-ya-al)[2] which the RSV translates as “[he] brought up” — with the root word עָלָה (alah) itself meaning “to go up, ascend, climb”.

Allegory Alert!

Much like Spider Man’s spider-sense our Catholic ‘spiritual-sense’ should be tingling at this moment. We have the imagery of the Ark and the language of ‘bringing up’ and ‘ascending’. Here then is an allegorical allusion to Mary’s Assumption. For it was Jesus, the Son of David by royal lineage, and the New and Eternal David in the sense of being the King of heaven and the entire universe, who by His divine power “brought up” the New Ark of the Covenant — the most sacred body and soul of Mary — into the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:2) to be at His side forever. Doing so with the greatest rejoicing — not only Jesus, but all of heaven, the angels and saints, who like the Levites with their cymbals and tambourines, made festivity as this New Ark was assumed into heaven.

David Busts-Some-Moves

The narrative continues to describe how before the Lord present in the Ark, David danced “with all his might” girded with nothing but “a linen ephod” — so that he was nearly naked.

With the phrase “danced… with all his might” one can almost imagine David’s dancing as being nothing short of ecstatic. Such was David’s intense feeling of liberated freedom, a stark (pun intended) contrast with the fear he had before that stopped him from bringing the Ark into Jerusalem.

This serves as a type of the soul in Christ, whose servile fear of God is washed away by the Spirit of God, and who in turn has become a liberated child of God, free in the Spirit, and confident to the point of crying “Abba! Father!” (Rom 8:15).

The role of the Ark in facilitating David’s ecstatic response cannot be stressed enough, since the Lord’s Presence, in the context of the Ark’s ascent towards Jerusalem forms the focal point of the whole narrative. This highlights the important role which Mary plays in the life of the Christian. It is only Mary who can truly bring the confident freedom of the children of God to its full maturation. For she is after all the Mother of Jesus, and thus of God, and in turn of us — the children of God.

 

Michal—She No Like David’s Groove

Continuing the narrative, we read:

“As the ark of the LORD came into the city of David, Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD; and she despised him in her heart.” (2 Sam 6:16).

Later on in the story we are told how Michal, one of the wives of David, never bore a child until the day of her death. Not all infertility is a literal curse brought about by personal sin by any means! But in this case it was. She was cursed by barrenness, and we are to understand from the Scripture that this happened as a consequence of judging David for his jubilant act of praising God. For in her eyes, this wild dancing went against the civility of David’s royal dignity and offended her own sensibilities, and thus undermined her respect for her husband.

Without True Devotion to Mary: Spiritual Barrenness

The barrenness suffered by Michal, besides illustrating the spiritual consequence of judging others and attributing evil to what is good, serves to demonstrate the spiritual repercussions a lack of Marian devotion and a refusal to honor and welcome Mary and the mystery of the Assumption into our lives can have. Michal wasn’t struck dead, nor was she exiled from the Kingdom of Israel — she was made to be barren. Sure, she was made barren because she judged wrongly, but this only occurred because she wasn’t focused on the Lord and His Presence which was coming into Jerusalem, and this in turn was a result of her failure to reverence and failure to recognize the worth of the Ark of the Covenant. Instead, being hardly captivated by the Ark, she lost sight of God’s Presence, and so came to nit-pick on her husband.

Likewise, a failure to reverence the true Ark of God, Mary the Mother of God — not to worship, but to honour as did Jesus, and as did David in type — may or may not lead one into becoming a terribly judgemental Christian, but it certainly will lead to a relative spiritual barrenness. That is, a barrenness which is not absolute, but relative in the sense of limiting ‘what could be’ compared to if we were devoted to Mary. Such relative spiritual barrenness is an automatic spiritual consequence of failing to welcome with loving fervor the Ark of the New Covenant into one’s life, by way of devotion to Mary.

To put it more simply and in the positive sense, a true devotion to Mary can only make one’s spiritual life more fruitful. In the words of St. Louis De Montfort:

When the Holy Spirit, [Mary’s] spouse, finds Mary in a soul, He hastens there and enters fully into it. He gives Himself generously to that soul according to the place it has given to his spouse. One of the main reasons why the Holy Spirit does not work striking wonders in souls is that He fails to find in them a sufficiently close union with His faithful and inseparable spouse.[3]

With True Devotion to Mary: Spiritual Fruitfulness

On this festive occasion of the Solemnity the ancient example of David spurs us on to increase our love and appreciation of Mary, by which means we can only ever grow deeper in union with God, sinking deeper into His Presence. A Presence which is Fruitfulness Itself, and which actualizes through Mary the Ark of God. For she was chosen to bring forth the fruit of God’s Son in the flesh, and likewise, with the Holy Spirit, Mary’s role extends itself to spiritually bringing forth the fruits of grace within our souls.

Bringing Up the True Ark

Just as Jesus brought up Mary to heaven, assuming her body and soul into the New Jerusalem, may we too, by uniting ourselves by faith with this living reality of the Assumption, the light and hope of every Christian, allow our Lord to bring up this Sacred Ark into the Jerusalem of our souls, households. communities and parishes. For then like Obededom, our exterior homes, but more importantly our interior homes will be blessed, along with all our words and deeds — sanctified by God’s Presence working powerfully through Mary; and like David we will be compelled to interiorly dance in the joyful confidence that we are children of God called to share in the splendor of the Risen Christ which shines most brilliantly in Mary herself.

“So David and all the house of Israel”—Jesus in the Assumption, and His Church figuratively in devotion on this Feast Day— “brought up the ark of the LORD”—the Blessed Virgin Mary— “with shouting, and with the sound of the horn.” (2 Sam 6:15).

 

[1] It may seem harsh, and it clashes with our middle-class “nice” conception of God, however Uzzah simply reaped the automatic consequence of going against the law which forbid anyone except the chosen Levites from handling the Ark. In the same manner, one who goes against the law of aerodynamics in faultily repairing an aeroplane will inevitably lead to the crashing of the aeroplane. God is no more to blame for the latter, than he is for the former. After all, God is good and merciful, and is incapable of doing anything evil, even if by our limited human perspective, it seems to be the contrary. Besides, if — and God only knows — Uzzah did so out of good-will and without really thinking about God’s command, there is no reason to doubt his salvation.

[2] With conjunction “and” included.

[3] Louis de Montfort, True Devotion to Mary, Part I, 36.

This article was originally published on the author’s personal blog (2018), with possible alterations apparent in this edition.

Featured image: Domenico Gargiulo (c. 1609 – c. 1675), David bearing the ark of testament into Jerusalem  / PD-US

Jesus in the Prison

Guest post by T.E.W., a brother in prison until All Souls Day.

Today was a wonderful day. I had an opportunity to speak to the Catholic chaplains, one whose name was Deacon Russ and the other, Mary.

I received some Catholic daily devotionals entitled The Word Among Us and Living Faith. I also received a prayer book titled Pray in the Spirit, and Mary is going to bring me a Catholic Bible that I may keep.

While we were speaking, God touched her heart, because she happened to ask whether I would like to receive Holy Communion and I said yes. Mary said that she happened to have two hosts with her, when she usually only visits one inmate who receives Communion!

So while Mary went to ask permission from the guards and clean her hands, I sat and prayed to prepare myself.

I couldn’t believe it, I wept a little at Our Father’s love and the extent He will go to bring His Son to us.

The really amazing part is that they turned up before “Access”, when usually the Catholic chaplains arrive after I go into my cell for “Access”!

Praise God.

____

Editor’s note: Please keep this young man and his fellow prisoners in prayer! He is a new Catholic and is really missing the Mass.

Blessed feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe!

Image: The Passion of the Christ (2004)

Christ models for us how to give everything

The narrative this week serves as a wonderful opening because God is asking us a really important question: “Will you give everything up to Me?”

In the following weeks, the Gospels will build up to the climax of Jesus offering Himself in the form of bread of Life for the world (the end of John 6).

What a wonderful end to the chapter and what a beautiful lesson on love: because Jesus models for us the way we should be responding to the people around us and to our Father in Heaven. He knows that we don’t know how to respond to the question set out in the beginning of this chapter and He knows that we don’t know how to love.

So He shows us (by way of His life and sacrifice in the Eucharist) that we must give everything we have — every fiber of our Being. In this way, John bookends the chapter beautifully with an initial question and an answer that God Himself provides.

The real call to Christian discipleship is this. Can we offer everything to God just like how God has given up His life for us?

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.

Image: PD-US

Making Sense of Suffering

By guest writer Sarah Coffey.

Why do we suffer?

I’ve wrestled with this question and with God for a long, long time. It’s still a struggle sometimes, more often than I’d like to admit.

If God is so good, and if God loves me like He says He does, then WHY do I have to fight a chronic illness? Why do I have to watch my family members suffer? Why did my grandfather have to die a slow death from cancer? Why did my grandmother have to suffer so much with loneliness and illness? Why did her death have to be slow and painful, too?

I’ve never understood suffering. The first time I came face to face with people telling me that suffering is redemptive is when my husband (who was at that time my boyfriend) lost his mother unexpectedly. I read things about suffering. Catholic things. Things written by literal saints.  They told me that suffering — the pain of losing someone, the pain of seeing someone else hurt, and your own hurt be it physical or emotional — can bring you closer to God. It’s redemptive and salvific.

But suffering didn’t do that for me — it didn’t bring me closer to God. Instead, it made me quite frustrated, and even mad at Him.

This was not just a battle I faced every so often, when a big life event like someone becoming sick, hurt, or dying occurred. No, this was something I faced every month for the past several years as I battled the effects of endometriosis and severe PMS (medically diagnosed as PMDD, which goes WAY beyond typical premenstrual mood swings) plaguing me every four weeks and many, many days in between.

Relentless pain, emotional turmoil, and at times, the feeling of being incredibly depressed for days that interrupted almost every facet of my life and relationships. It made me constantly say WHY, God, WHY do I have to deal with this, when you could so easily will it away? Is this fun to you? Am I just not faithful enough, tough enough, strong enough to deal with this, because this sucks so much?

My dislike — no, loathing — of suffering went on until a few months ago when after it looked like just about every feasible medical option for treating the ridiculous effects of this awful illness had been tried and found wanting. That’s when, by God’s grace, I finally relented in my anger and took this struggle to the foot of the Cross. I prayed that if this was a struggle I had to deal with, that God would give me the grace to carry it better. That He would help me understand this Cross and have peace with why I had to carry it. Just as with St. Paul wrote, that God won’t take away the thorn in our side, but He’ll give us the grace to deal with it: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

My answer, my help in understanding this suffering and all others came in the form of a talk by none other than Fulton Sheen.

I watched a clip of him giving a talk, in his lofty, articulate, awesome voice about a time he had a toothache as a child. To paraphrase, he was a young boy and he HATED going to the dentist. But he developed a severe toothache — an abscess, even. He hid it from his father as long as he possibly could to put off going to the dentist, which he HATED and wanted to avoid at all costs. But his father eventually found out. And took him to the dentist.

Now, mind you, this was the dentist’s office in like the early 1900s. So you can imagine the kind of suffering that went on in there when you came in with an abscessed tooth. Fulton Sheen talked about how, as the dentist began to work on fixing his tooth, Sheen became so upset at his father, wondering why he wasn’t helping him, protecting him, sheltering him from this immense suffering of the dentist treating his tooth.

At the time, as a child, it didn’t make sense to him. But his father knew that ultimately, even if he protected his son from this momentary suffering of going to the dentist, which he really hated and didn’t want to do, it would be very bad, would result in even more suffering, and at that point in time could eventually have caused serious illness or death if left untreated.

Fulton Sheen’s father allowed him temporary suffering for his ultimate good.

And it sort of clicked after I listened to this story. God doesn’t enjoy watching us suffer no more than Fulton Sheen’s father enjoyed watching his little boy writhe in pain in the dentist’s chair. For Fulton Sheen, his father allowed suffering because it was for the good of his ultimate health. For us, God allows suffering because it’s for the good of our souls.

When I heard suffering presented in this way, I was able to finally pray, Lord I don’t like this suffering. In fact, I HATE IT. But if this is for the betterment of my soul, I trust in you, I trust that you, the loving Father that you are, know what is best for me, and that you’ll give me the grace to bear it.

It became so much easier to carry that cross.

Peter Kreeft wrote, in Spiritual Direction from St. Thomas Aquinas, that “Nothing more powerfully helps us to bear pain than the realization that God wills it.” And I can say that in my own life I have experienced that this is true.

Not more fun — as the struggle was and still is definitely there. And I. don’t. like. it. But seeing it as something God allows for my ultimate good — something that can help me grow in faith for the sake of my eternal salvation — helped make me less bitter and more at peace.

I was challenged again by this as I watched my grandmother suffer in her last few weeks of life. And in watching my family members suffer, too, as they experienced her suffering at her side. Those questions crept back: Why, God, why do you allow her to suffer so much? Why can’t you just take the pain away?

But I am not God. So I don’t know why these things happen. But He does know why. And His ways are higher than mine. And just as Christ’s suffering led to the resurrection and the promise of eternal life, God allows our suffering to bear the fruit of our redemption — even though we probably can’t see it now or even until after our own death.

Our sufferings here on Earth make sense if we trust that there is something after this earthly life. If there’s nothing after that, then suffering means nothing. It is just endless pain and sadness and sorrow and heartbreak. But if there is something beyond this, as Jesus promised and as the Church teaches, then our suffering has so much meaning. Because God wills it for sake of our eternal salvation.

Peter Kreeft also wrote, “… God in His wisdom wills that we suffer because He sees that we need it for our own deepest, truest, most lasting good, or the good of someone else.” For our own deepest, truest, and most lasting good. May this truth help us to take suffering to the cross, and say Lord, use this to mold my heart even more into Yours so that I may spend eternity with You.

_____

Originally published at Sarah Coffey.

Sarah Coffey is a convert to Catholicism who enjoys delving into Church history and the Theology of the Body. She is blessed with a wonderful family, husband, and a cat named Stella (as in “Ave Maris Stella”, of course).

The Fig Tree: Our call to bear light to the world.

The gospel reading about Jesus cursing the fig tree befuddles me at best, leaves me disoriented at worst.

WHY DID JESUS CURSE THE FIG TREE?!?
“Poor tree”, we chime in.

But let’s not look at this too literally. Mark was careful to mention that the tree was alive (healthy) but not bearing fruit. But really… who can blame it? It wasn’t the season for figs!

However, look carefully: the before-and-after of the fig tree serves as bookends to the cleansing of the Temple in Mark’s gospel. This juxtaposition is a clue.

Could it be that the fig tree is a representation of Israel — a chosen people called to be a light to the world?
In the eyes of God, Israel MUST produce fruit, in season and out of season — only because of the extraordinary grace that was given to them!

Cleansing of the Temple, El Greco (1591)
Cleansing of the Temple, El Greco (1591)

Shortly after Jesus cursed this fruitless fig tree, He went in to clean out the Temple. A real BOSS Jesus was, for it was not the job of a nobody to chase people out of the Temple; that was the High Priest’s job!

Similarly, we called to be healthy trees and produce fruit regardless of our circumstance. But are we (Temples of the H.S.) plagued with sin just like how the Temple was a messy marketplace that made no room for worshiping God?
Do we know what is holding us back from producing fruit all year round?
Do we blame our circumstances (the season of life) that we are in and say: “It’s a really rough time in my life, how can I possibly bear fruit?”

In many ways, we’ve been given the grace to bear fruit all year round. We have access to the sacraments and the sacramental grace that the Eucharist provides us every day!

When was the last time you allowed Jesus — the real boss! — into your holy temple (your soul and body!) to clean you out?
When was the last time you went for Confession?
Or Communion?

Let us remember that God wants to be with us, and that when we cooperate with His graces, we too can bear fruit and be a light for others even in our sufferings, because God is the source of all things good.

He will use us even when we’re “out-of-season”; all we’ve to do is to let Jesus IN to clean us OUT so that we can bear fruit!

___

Originally posted at Catholic Rambles.
Images: PD-US

Christian Discipleship

How do we become a Disciple of Christ? This is one of the greatest questions to ask.

Leonard Porter’s rendition of Jesus taking up His cross for the Stations of the Cross commissioned by the Church of Christ the King in New Vernon, New Jersey.

Firstly, the etymology of the word ‘Disciple’ referred to the people who used to study under great Rabbis and Teachers in the past. Thus, the essence of Discipleship means, ‘to become like the Master’.

Secondly, a Disciple of Christ requires one to be interiorly conformed to the Father’s Will. To be like Christ. How though? Answer: A RELATIONSHIP. The most fundamental criteria which everything rests on. If we think about it, being in a real relationship always entitles one to RIGHTS and RESPONSIBILITY.

1) RIGHTS: Being in a relationship with Christ gives one rights. Yes, we can ‘appeal’ to God to help us whenever we need Him. And we should all the time.

2) RESPONSIBILITY: Being in a relationship with Christ also requires us to grow responsibly. If not, why bother at all? For example, we must pray, mortify ourselves, go for mass and confession, etc. Again, not just exteriorly, but interiorly. Being truly present in heart, mind and soul.

3) CONSISTENCY: Inevitably, a Disciple of Christ must have consistency. This word is derived from the Biblical Word ‘Faithfulness’ or ‘Steadfastness’. A Faithful Disciple will always consistently persevere.

Back to the concept of a Relationship: Ultimately, when we say we want to be a Disciple of Christ, we are telling God, “We honor Your Holy Covenant.”

We are to be obedient to ALL the commandments and teachings of Jesus, not cherry-pick them. Only then, would we ‘remain in His love’, as He commanded us.

Do you still want to be a Disciple of Christ? If yes, are you cooperating with His Grace to grow responsibly and consistently?

___

Originally posted on Instagram.

Repairing the Broken

“Jesus showed himself to his disciples, and after they had eaten he said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these others do?’ He answered, ‘Yes Lord, you know I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’” (John 21:15)

Have you ever had to repair a spoiled phone? How do you know it is repaired? Is it when it can be switched on or after it has sent and received a message? I think probably the latter — for it is one thing to have a glowing brick and another to have a working phone.

Christ’s Charge to Peter, Raphael (1515-1516)

Today we see how Jesus encounters and fixes a broken relationship. St. Peter, who had denied Jesus thrice, was a broken man — for though he could function, go fishing, eat and talk, yet he probably could not bring himself to speak to nor dare to hear what Christ had to say.

And so we see Jesus come and repair the broken relationship — acknowledging him by name, asking him a question, listening to his response and tasking him with a mission — feed His Sheep.

The question for us is; which broken relationship do I need to fix? How is my relationship with Jesus? How can I improve it?

___

Originally published on Instagram during Paschaltide.
Images: PD-US

Imitating the Gaze of Jesus

I used to be (and unfortunately, still am at times) a rather obnoxious Catholic. Fueled by my enthusiasm for Truth — and wanting affirmation of my knowledge — I would loudly proclaim Church teachings urgently, so that other people would no longer live in error. Particularly in a culture of moral relativism and a “do what makes you happy” environment, wanting to immediately step onto a doctrine-blasting soapbox seemed like a good thing to me. Yet, the more I examined my life, heart, and ever-abundant pride, the more I realized that I was going about evangelization in the wrong manner. As I began to read Scriptures more and more, I began to really notice how Jesus interacts with other people.

“Jesus went around to all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned,* like sheep without a shepherd.” ~Matt 9:35-36

Jesus’ heart was moved with pity. In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus encounters a rich young man, we learn that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mk 10:21). Time and time again, we see that Jesus is moved with love, and pity for the people he meets-and he lets this compassion flow into the interactions he has. He looks at these men and women intently and listens to them. 

As I reflect on the actions of Jesus, I feel challenged. Even when people were living in sin, he didn’t immediately jump onto a moral high horse. First, he looked upon them with love. In our current culture, Jesus’ approach may not seem to initially be challenging — after all, we are living in an age that is all about acceptance and affirmation. “Just love people for who they are and accept them” is a common refrain.  How dare we criticize sinful actions! After all, aren’t we supposed to be like Jesus, who looked on others with love?

Yet, while Jesus looked on people with love, compassion, and pity, he never affirmed the sinful choices and lifestyles that pushed people away from God. The story of the woman who was caught in adultery (recorded in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel) is fairly well-known and loved, so let’s look at that for a moment. When Jesus encounters this woman, does he say “Woman, I just want to love and accept you; you need to do what makes you feel happy“? No, he does not. Instead, Jesus says: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11). He looks upon the woman, loves her, listens to her, and invites her to become transformed and change her life. 

This is what really challenges me as I reflect on the words and actions of Jesus.  It would be fairly easy for me to, upon meeting another person, jump into an attitude of “I will preach doctrine at you because you’re living in sin and I know better.” I’ve done this far too many times as I’ve sought to fuel my pride and be known as the person who was instrumental in another individual’s conversion. It would also be convenient to fall onto the other end of the spectrum and embrace the all-too-common attitude of moral relativism that’s sweeping our culture.

Instead of these extreme approaches, I’m trying to imitate what Jesus does — and this is hard for me. I’m holding my tongue more and first listening to the stories of the people I meet. I’m seeking to encounter others with an open heart. I’m trying to walk into conversations without the expectation that I’ll convince another person of a certain teaching or doctrine. I’m trying to slow myself down and actually form relationships and build bridges of communication with other people. I’m striving to be more open to the Holy Spirit, and while I don’t back down from my convictions, I’m seeking to gaze at other men and women with God’s love and compassion.

I often fail at this. Sometimes, I should be quicker to speak up about my beliefs, but I’m silent. Other times, I should probably remain silent instead of speaking up in a rather harsh manner! I’m an imperfect evangelizer, but I’ll keep praying and try to let God use me in whatever small ways he can.

Photo Credit: “People” by MabelAmber via Pixabay, CCO Public Domain. 

Falling Away and Coming Home

There has been no shortage of critiques levied at the Catholic Church in recent decades. Plenty to attack, after all.

I grew up with neighbors who discovered the local Calvary Chapel and became “born again.” They had always sneered at my Catholic faith, but this “rebirth” brought with it an eagerness to challenge this ignorant little kid about why we were cannibals and engaged in “idol-worship” — i.e. Mary, the Saints — you know the drill.

Later, as the Church was rocked by scandal, Catholic-bashing reached new heights in the media; I mean, what else could they do with such low-hanging fruit?

I kept wondering, won’t the Church have to dial back its rules just to survive all this? Won’t it need to ease up a bit if it’s going to emerge from these trials intact? Maybe relax the rules a little regarding pre-marital and extra-marital sex, divorce and annulments? Abortion, even? To convey how far at sea I was, I really believed it would . . . and part of me thought it should.

How absolutely adrift I was.

Like many of those raised Catholic, I had indeed drifted. But unlike many, my falling away had nothing to do with the sex abuse scandals that would soon impact the Church. Instead, I rationalized my passivity and absence by pointing at the failings of priests and what I interpreted as the Church’s preoccupation with wealth. My distaste fixated on priests who seemed to have missed the lessons on humility — who appeared to make the mass about themselves, who aggrandized themselves by selling cassettes of their every homily and smiled like unctuous salesmen — in short, who seemed more show than substance.

Suffice it to say, if you want a reason to stop attending Catholic mass, you tend to find it. I had watched several older siblings pull this off already, citing “phony” priests, “Puritanism,” and the ever-popular critique, “hypocrisy.” Oh yeah, I found plenty of that, too. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I could find hypocrisy everywhere — in every human institution or organization, and because I am human, in myself too — though that was the last realization in the chain. It always seems to be.

When we’re young, we want so much for the world to be the idyllic place we thought it was, and we hold fiercely to that ideal. As a result, we also hold our elders — parents, teachers, older siblings, adults around us or in the larger world — to an impossibly high standard of righteousness. And if they happen to be representatives of a religion, an even higher standard of perfection. As we move into our teenage years, we begin to sense the inevitable disillusionment, and we hone our critical blade to a razor’s edge. But why?

It starts with the fact that teenagers feel everything more acutely, including hurt. We see weakness, sin or foible, and it hurts us beyond repair. It shatters our illusions — our world — the one we previously thought was perfect. Disillusionment causes hurt, and as teenagers, our natural defense mechanism to ward off that hurt is to allow religious folks no room for flaws and failings — and we shield ourselves with scorn. It’s a loss like any death, and even at that age we experience the entire cycle — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance — but acceptance usually just becomes cynicism. And later, apathy.

The critical step for me was not merely a religious maturation, but an evolving understanding of myself — my motivations and attitudes — and an understanding of our universal human nature. More simply, I got more honest with myself about why I was doing what I was doing, and what I wasn’t doing. Eventually, this led to exploring a number of other faith congregations because I wasn’t yet ready to absolve Catholicism. It wasn’t until I felt something lacking in every other faith, which I would come to realize as the sacraments, that I knew I had to find my way back.

In time, I understood what I was doing and why — that I had been applying an impossible standard of righteousness to a human institution. Which isn’t to say I was letting off the hook sexual abusers or those who had allowed them to thrive. That was a different matter to me, outside of my experience, although it may have added to my detachment. But through what I can only assume was Grace, I grew to separate the human failings from the actual tenets and doctrines of the Faith.

As a result, I stopped blaming the Catholic Faith for the behaviors and attitudes of its representatives. Mostly, I realized that failings like hypocrisy are part of the universal human experience, failings we can’t avoid no matter how hard we try. I realized how easy it is to find flaws in representatives of any institution, organization, political or religious group — and therefore how easy it is to attribute those faults to the whole.

Partly what helped me was my experience as a public high school English teacher: I could hold up many teachers as arguments against public education, completely ignoring the system and its attributes distinct from its human elements. Same goes for law enforcement, the medical establishment, environmental groups, and even civil rights causes. Anywhere you have humans involved, you have flawed institutions. That’s just part of this messy existence we have — at least within any social group. Perhaps this is what drives certain individuals completely off the grid and away from all society. And even then, do they escape their human failings? I doubt it.

When we get past the charges of hypocrisy, most critiques express that the Catholic Church demands too much, and that these demands put it out of touch with people today: premarital and extramarital sex, birth control, practicing the sacraments regularly, and so on. The tenets are simply too hard to follow, we complain.

And to some extent, I empathized with these frustrations. Like many people, I looked at the Church’s doctrines and thought they were too rigid, too unrealistic and impractical in today’s world, harboring the belief that some day there would become an “American Catholic Church” — one that is more forgiving or tolerant — of sexual laxity, of sacramental laziness and so on. I began to see priests who seemed more liberal in their interpretation of doctrine, who seemed less offended by divorce and pre-marital sex. I thought it almost inevitable that they would rise up; I pictured scores of priests standing up to the Vatican and saying, “We go this way instead!” Clearly, I had a ways yet to go toward wisdom and maturity.

But then something happened. Over the years, as society continued toward greater laxity and moral relativism — more accepting of gay marriage, LBGTQ openness in general across the board, more accepting of divorce and abortion — the Church, under the leadership of the Pope, stood tall and unyielding in its stance against these trends. And I thought — wow — this just might be the only moral constant in the world. I had to respect that . . . and I also had to wonder why.

But to pursue that question, I flipped it on its head, asking, why not? Is there a chance that what we might be confused about what we actually want? — which led to other questions: What would it mean if this actually happened? Would we really wish our faith to be any less than what the Church has proscribed? Would we really want a Church that changes with society’s whims and vacillating moral standards? Would we want the Pope to come out and say, “Young people will not remain celibate, and so we are revising our moral teaching to say that it’s o.k. to live together, to have sex with multiple partners before marrying”? Would we then want to go about the practice of our faith the next day with this new understanding of what morality means? Really? I sort of doubt it.

No, in this way we are like children: we want clear boundaries and standards to strive toward, even if we know they are nearly impossible to meet. We want to know someone or something cares about our striving to become the very best and purest versions of ourselves — even if we aren’t strong enough to fully achieve that version. We want to know someone believes we have the potential, at least.

We don’t really want a Pope, a Church and a God who say to us, “It’s o.k. that you are weak and needy – I understand that you are less than capable of spiritual greatness; don’t worry — you have no hope of being moral, so don’t beat yourself up over it. We’ll be waiting here for you no matter how mediocre and flaccid your efforts are to be decent.” And perhaps that is the essence of Free Will as taught by the Catholic Church — that our God and our Church believe in our potential for spiritual perfection and respect our ability to strive toward it.

In short, I stopped criticizing the Faith when I realized the Church was setting a standard we should aspire to. And following quickly on the heels of this understanding was the realization that this is precisely what a church should do; it’s just that most do not.

As teachers and parents, my wife and I have unfortunately seen that few parents lay down expectations for civil behavior and then hold their children accountable for those standards. Likewise, few religions parent their faithful with expectations and accountability. Instead, they temper their message and go with the flow, gauging the mood of their congregation and keeping an eye toward membership. They seem to focus entirely on the compassion and love, without the expectation to become a better, more Christ-like version of ourselves.

So then, is the Catholic Church expecting us to meet these exceedingly high standards? Well, it’s a bit like parenting, isn’t it? The standards are set, knowing there will be failings, but also that forgiveness will be granted with compassion and love so that we might rise and try again . . . and again.

There’s an honesty in that, and that’s what brought me home.

Sicario, Excitement and Paying Your Dues

Recently a trailer for the movie “Sicario: Day of the Soldado” came across my Facebook feed. It was not a typical trailer. Typically a movie trailer shows clips from the movie with pulse-pounding soundtrack, and possibly a deep, gravelly, middle-aged male voice-over. This trailer had scenes from the movie, but it had explanatory subtitles explaining how the movie related to real-life drug wars. It explained that the movie demonstrated how cartels bring a complicated reality to south and central America, and that the violence that erupts between them is more like a guerrilla war, or even a conventional war, than it is like U.S. gang violence. When that violence spills over onto American soil two of the movie’s characters (who I gather were adversaries in the first film) will join forces to “start a war.” My assumption is that they were trying to aggravate violence south of the border in hopes that it would either draw the violence away from U.S. soil, or provide a reason for U.S. forces to engage in the war outside the U.S.

I don’t have much taste for war movies, or even crime movies, anymore, so up until now the trailer was disquieting but not particularly memorable. But it was the last line that really got me thinking. The final scene of the trailer had the words, “Come experience the excitement in theaters.”

Seriously? That’s what this is about?

I mean, I knew that’s what this was about. It’s an action film, designed to be exciting and to convince people to spend money to experience that excitement, ultimately in order to make money for the directors, producers, actors, investors, etc. Money is the goal, sex and violence sell. Of course they want you to come and experience the excitement.

I just didn’t expect them to be so… bald about it. So obvious.

Essentially the movie makers are selling an experience of adrenaline. In that sense they are no different than the makers of Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, Battleground, Halo, or any of a thousand combat related video games. They are trying to simulate the excitement of combat in a marketable package, i.e. a package that involves no risk of bodily injury or death, no heat, dust, sweat, boredom, no training, no discipline, no obedience, no separation from family…

… see where I am going with this?

I will not deny that war is exciting. Having spent some time in war myself, I acknowledge that some of the most exciting moments of my life have occurred in war, formed of the level of adrenaline, focus, clarity and just sheer aliveness that, for most people not saints, only occurs when your life is in jeopardy. I will go further and say that a young man could do worse than make a career of pursuing that excitement. It is not excitement that I am against, it is cheap thrills.

Violence, like sex, excites because it is a matter of life and death. We were made for life and death, for real struggle, real investment, real risk and real growth. That is, we were made to fight real bad guys to rescue real good guys (both physically and spiritually). We were also made to make real love that forms real relationships and real babies. There is a proper place for both sex and violence in art, namely to illustrate the truth of these realities and to inform our choices about them in the real world.

The problem with video games and action movies is not that they are realistic and exciting, but that they are not real. When you go to a movie theater to watch people get killed on the big screen you invest nothing of yourself. You feel the rush and roller-coaster, and you may even have a significant emotional event, but when that experience is over you have not changed. You are still the same person you were before the movie. You may have a new appreciation of some topical issue of the day, you may be emotionally moved, you may have had a spiritual epiphany, but unless that mental and emotional reaction is translated into decision, and from decision to action, and from action to habit, it has not changed you.

It is necessary to bear this in mind when watching war movies. If you want to experience the excitement of a firefight, or of fighting a fire, or of digging up IED’s, then pursue that. Join the military, or the police force, or the fire department. Suffer through basic training, put in thousands of hours at the gym, thousands of miles on your feet, training-for-ruck-marches-imagethousands of rounds on the range. Obey the orders of those appointed over you, deny your own inclinations, place yourself at the service of your team. Learn to be faithful in little things. Make your bunk, sweep your floor, scrub the platoon’s toilets. Do maintenance on your vehicles and equipment, take pride in them. Endure the boredom of sitting in a firing position all night, or of driving down dusty roads 12 hours a day. Accept the banality of having to answer to idiots and power-trippers who are in charge of you only because they have been in a few months longer. Miss your chance for a “real” fight time and time again, and still keep showing up to work, putting in your time, taking pride in your performance. Volunteer for harder, more difficult assignments, accept greater responsibility.

Sooner or later you may get your chance to enjoy the adrenaline rush. Or maybe you won’t. But if you pay your dues for enough years you will gain something better. You will learn that excitement is not an end, but a byproduct. It is something that happens when you are engaged in meaningful work, because meaningful work in this world is always risky, but you will not pursue the excitement anymore, you will pursue the meaning.

This is something you will not get from action movies or video games. You can only get it from life.

Images: PD-US

Learning to Love

Jesus said to his disciples:
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.
If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” (John 15:9-10)

Have you ever had a friend who amazed you at how selfless or giving they were? Until you met their parents and then it all became clear?

Either their parents are clearly their role models, or else it is clear that they never want to be like their parents and have chosen a different path — a path of love.

In this Gospel, we hear where Christ learnt how to love: from Our Heavenly Father.

We however, sometimes get it wrong and learn how to love from the world. A world that teaches us to “Take an eye for an eye, turn your heart into stone”.

Let us reflect then: from whom did I learn to love? What was the act/acts that proved it? How have I kept my Heavenly Father’s commandments?

The Last Shall Be First

Mark 10:28-31

This Gospel passage continues from where the rich youth rejected our Lord’s counsel to cast away his riches and thus, went away sorrowful. It is in this context that the Apostles began to inquire of THEIR reward for they had ALREADY fulfilled this precept of leaving everything behind.

However, Jesus replies with a general answer. He instructs the Apostles to prefer the Glory of God over the things of this world. Finally, He closes the discourse by telling them the famous verse which all Catholics love: “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.” (Mk 10:31)

From a human perspective, this may seem daunting, illogical and unfair. Even in the depths of my heart, I do ponder why this must be so. How is it fair that the last will become first? (The sin of envy is a very ugly sin.)

The fundamental principle to remember is that God’s ways are DIFFERENT from ours. If we can’t accept this, then we do not understand a thing about True Christianity. The heart of Mark 10:31 is God’s generosity. It’s about the way God deals with us and the way He asks us to deal with each other. The last will be first.

The world’s view is the exact opposite. The world loves winners and has no time for losers. The brightest student gets the scholarship while the weakest goes to work in McDonald’s. The world doesn’t have time for those who are last. Jesus invites us through today’s Gospel to ask ourselves: shall we act in the way the world does?

With God, there are no losers. Remember that He loves us all equally. Whether we choose to accept that love though, will always be our choice alone.

___

Originally posted on Instagram.
Image: PD-US