Tag Archives: reversion

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.

A Journey Home

By guest writer Louis Felix Figueroa.

My body was strung out on the couch and pain filled every part of me. This was the changing point of my life. I had thoroughly been a product of modern society, relativistic, an adherent to indifferentism, a modernist in many respects. Many until this point had regarded me as a very understanding guy, compassionate, knowledgeable of the world. In reality, I knew nothing. I was arrogant, filled with pride, and though I had love it was incomplete. I had to be completely humbled to realize my true identity and see the greatness of God who created me.

As a child, I learned like most Catholics through Sunday school. I had been baptized at birth, received First Communion, but I wasn’t instructed much beyond that. I can remember having a deep love for God, but I wasn’t taken to Church very often and I was exposed to the occult. My parents practised Santería, a practise as a child that I abhorred, but this would be my entrance into the world of the occult and my confusion about religion. As I grew up, my parents left Santería; however, my father avoided church like the plague and my mother, fearful of saints from her exposure to Santería, rejected Catholicism for what would seem like ages. I still had a love for God and would walk into the neighborhood Church on weekdays on my way home from school and pray, but I never attended Mass on Sunday. I never went to confession; in fact, I began to know less and less of my professed religion.

At the age of 13, I left home and attended school in a town in Connecticut. It was a big change from my hometown of Bronx, New York. I still felt some connection with God and prayed quite often, but wandered further and further from Him, as I had no real foundation. I took what I had learned in school and constantly applied it to my life. I was fortunate enough to have a host family with whom I stayed with on occasion and they would include me in their church-going activities. It was marvelously wonderful to be exposed to the Bible, but I had no clear or definitive understanding of it. I became ambiguous about homosexuality, premarital sex, masturbation, and many other sensitive topics. I also saw God as a method to obtain things and no longer my close friend whom I had known in my childhood. Times were becoming darker.

As I went through my high school years, I became more deeply involved in the occult, though there was always a voice trying to keep me away. I remember, looking back now, something telling me that this was all wrong. I was stubborn to say the least. I wasn’t a malevolent fellow and wished no one any evil, as best as I could remember I was just horribly confused. I practiced tarot cards, and I guess you could say that there were things which were around which gave me answers to the questions I wanted answered. That is putting it simply.

I eventually joined the United States armed forces. The branch is not important. It was here that I became more familiar with aspects of Wicca and Satanism. There were actually servicemen and women who practiced both, and no, I was not a Satanist. However, I had become vastly interested in Wicca. At the same time, I was becoming an excellent soldier. I excelled in many aspect of war fighting and leading. Slowly, but surely, I began to develop a sort of hubris about me. I felt there was a power that controlled something, but I became further from it. Years had passed and I began to look at myself and I didn’t like what I had become. I was kind at times, but I could flip a coin and become utterly ruthless. What I found more disturbing was that I longed to cause damage. I had less and less peace in my life and a voice could be heard very faintly. This voice told me to turn to God, but I was too powerful or so I thought.

My life began to slowly unravel and I sought respite. I didn’t trust Christianity, yet! I began to read works by the Dalai Lama and about different aspects of Buddhism, but something deep down told me that I wasn’t supposed to give up Christ. I know it doesn’t quite make sense, but this was how things were happening. I began to hang out with Protestant friends and attended services with them, but I wasn’t convinced or moved. I felt like it was more acting than anything. They were kind to have shared their faith with me, but it would have impressed me more if they had been living it. I had some Catholic friends whom I associated with and they brought me to Mass. As I went to the Mass, I was distressed. I said to myself: “I am Catholic? I know nothing of my religion!” Still, I hadn’t been motivated enough to do anything solid, except read the Bible on occasion.

It was toward the end of my military service that I said to myself, I have to change. I have to find God. I have to go back to the Catholic Church. The voice in me was yelling now; it was no longer a whisper. Yet, I was still obstinate. I came home from service and was contemplating entering Special Forces and in the midst of this I was struck ill. In my illness, my mind was made clear. It was like an intimate conversation with God. I knew then that I could not return to what had help make me what I was, but had to become something new. I started to read and read and read. Every book that read was inexplicably linked to the next without my intention and before I knew it, I was reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Code of Canon Law. I was digesting the Bible and swallowing books on the saints and I just could not stop. I was like starving child eating a long overdue meal. Then the moment of truth came, the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Over 18 years of sins upon my chest to offer to my Lord with sincere contrition. It wasn’t too long after this that I considered the priesthood, but one step had to be completed first. I was finally confirmed at the age of 24. However, I did not become a priest. I found my vocation was to be a husband, but this was not a decision that was taken lightly; rather I fought with myself for almost 3 years. Nevertheless, I now strive to serve in any way that I can.

I can honestly say that my life finally has light in it. The world makes sense and my place is understood, as is the infinite mercy of my Lord. Many who knew me as a soldier and know me now would say that they don’t know me. I am not the same person.  I was still the guy they had known who would listen to the multitude of their problems for hours on end, but my approach toward helping them resolve their problems had changed. I looked deeper than the superficial considerations that I had previously focused upon. I now understood that there was more to the world, and what I had once held to be true held partial to no validity. They could see that I loved, but my love extends further now. They don’t understand my view of the world and why I reject so much of what modern society holds true now. My only reason is that Divine Truth demands it, and once you see it you can never go back to darkness.

I went down to the lowest parts of the mountains: the bars of the earth have shut me up for ever: and Thou wilt bring up my life from corruption, O Lord, my God. When my soul was in distress within me, I remembered the Lord: that my prayer may come to Thee, unto the holy temple. They that in vain observe vanities, forsake their own mercy. But I with the voice of praise will sacrifice to Thee: I will pay whatsoever I have vowed for my salvation to the Lord.
(Jonah 2:7-10)

I live each day now and I am grateful. There is much more to my life than what I have shared, but sometimes we must endure that ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ and it is through the humbling of ourselves that we truly begin that conversation with God. My ignorance, my arrogance, me… I kept myself from God. I thank God for all I have been through, much of which I will probably never pen, but I am most grateful for God humbling Himself so much as to talk to me. It has been partly through this that I have begun to ponder how great His love really is.

Deo Gratias.

____

Louis Figueroa is a father and a husband. He sees everything in life as pointing to something greater than himself. He is a cancer survivor, and suffers from a rare neurological illness, but sees that all things are opportunities to live our faith.

Spiritual Lessons with Elisabeth Leseur

I first encountered Servant of God Elisabeth Leseur about five years ago when I was towards the beginning stages of my spiritual dry spell. The Magnificat had included a reflection of hers that reads:

“Those who seem to be spiritually dead are not always those least accessible to the divine Word; when wood is dead, it needs only a spark to set it afire.”

These words spoke very loudly to me, like a loud voice in a once silent room. At the time, I felt like that dead wood, searching for that spark, and reading her words set me on a journey of discovering a new saintly friend.

ElisabethFelixLeseur
Elisabeth and Felix Leseur

Elisabeth Leseur was born in 1866 in Paris to a wealthy French Catholic family. She had hepatitis as a child, and it recurred throughout her life. In 1887, she met Dr. Felix Leseur, also from an affluent, Catholic family, and they were married in 1889. However, shortly before they were married, she discovered that her husband-to-be was no longer a practicing Catholic. Felix was an outspoken atheist, and he would bring these anti-religious attacks against Elisabeth. Prompted by her husband’s confrontations, she probed deeper into her own faith, and she experienced a profound religious conversion at the age of 32.  At that moment, she saw that her biggest task in life was to pray for her husband’s conversion while remaining patient with his criticism of her faith. She took all of this in stride throughout her marriage, bearing her cross silently, only to share her sufferings with her diary and with those she had a spiritual correspondence through letters. She wrote in her diary:

“We pray, suffer, and labor unaware of the consequence of our action and prayers. God makes them serve his plan; gradually, they take effect, winning one soul, then another.”

This was not the end of her inner suffering, though.  Elisabeth experienced profound spiritual darkness at times during her marriage and felt deep loneliness from being isolated for her faith in her marriage and feeling apart from God. When she did write about her struggles in her diary, her entries are filled with longing for God, to feel his spark again. Despite the darkness she felt, she often saw the good that God would bring out of her suffering, and the peace she felt in discovering God each time anew:

“It is surprising to see how much spiritual progress we make in times of aridity, when no conscious joy of any kind unites our souls with God. It is then indeed God himself whom we love, and not his consolations; and whatever we do then, requiring constant effort and appeals for grace, is indeed duty in all its starkness. Then, when the dusty road is over and the way becomes easier, we are astonished to see how far we have come; sometimes we arrive at a gentle resting place, in peace, near the heart of God.”

In addition to her interior suffering, Elisabeth suffered from many physical afflictions. She and her husband also bore the cross of infertility, never to have children. In 1907, she became so ill that she was forced to live a highly sedentary life, directing her affairs from a chaise lounge in her home. Despite these sufferings, she didn’t let this stop her. She was quite intelligent and wrote on political and women’s issues for the time.  She also had a great love for the poor and was active in a lot of charity work, although this greatly deteriorated as her health declined. In 1911, she received radiation for a malignant tumor, and while she initially recovered, she passed away from cancer in 1914.

But her story doesn’t end there. After her death, her husband found a note by her addressed to himself that prophesied about his conversion and him becoming a priest. She said:

“I shall die before you.
And when I am dead,
you will be converted;
and when you are converted,
you will become a religious.
You will be Father Leseur.”

In order to prove his wife wrong, Felix went to Lourdes to expose it as fake, but instead he experienced his own religious conversion. He read and re-read her diary, and was finally made aware of the holy woman with whom he had spent so many years. He wrote of his conversion:

“And so from her Journal I perceived clearly the inner meaning of Elisabeth’s existence, so grand in its humility. I came to appreciate the splendor of the faith of which I had seen such wonderful effects. The eyes of my soul were opened. I turned toward God, who called to me. I confessed my faults to a priest and was reconciled to the Church.”

And her prophesy did come true. In 1919, Felix became a Dominican novice and was ordained a priest in 1923. For the next 27 years, he spent much of his priestly vocation speaking about his wife’s spiritual writings, and he constantly looked to her for guidance, writing: “Elisabeth had led me to the truth, and even today, in my inmost being, I continue to feel her guiding my steps to a more perfect union with God.”  He shared her holiness with the world by publishing her diary, and he was an instrumental part in opening the cause for her canonization in 1934.

There is so much to admire about Elisabeth, and I pray that she is canonized someday. She is a role model and provides us with many spiritual lessons, just from her life and death. She was a laywoman, and she shows especially those of us who do not have a call to the religious life how to live a holy life through our lay vocations (although her spiritual guidance is also incredibly appropriate for priests and religious). She was faithful to her marriage, despite the attacks she endured (and despite how it sounds, she and Felix loved each other very much). She teaches us how to bear with those who persecute us, especially those who we love, by being patient with them and praying for their conversion all while living an interior spiritual life. And with her holiness, she struggled in her faith as so many of us do, and while she experienced profound spiritual darkness, she never gave up on God. She saw the good He worked in her life through her suffering, and she offered up her sufferings for others, even to the point of offering her own death.

“It is not pride, is it, to call myself your friend, one you have called, your chosen friend? I see the traces of your love everywhere, the divine call everywhere, my vocation everywhere. You made use of trials, suffering, and illness to make me completely yours and to make me holy, first drawing me to you solely by your action within me. You have done everything. Now complete your work; make me holy according to your will; use me for others, for my beloved ones, for all your interests; use me for your greater glory, and let all be done in silence and in an intimate encounter between us alone. From the depths of my being and my misery I say, ‘Lord, what will you have me do? Speak, your servant listens; I am the handmaid of the Lord; I come, Father, ready to do your will’ (Luke 1:38).”

Quenching thirsts

During His travels, Jesus came to Samaria and sat by the stone wall of a simple well. He asked a woman there for a drink, which was confusing for the woman because of the tension between their nationalities.

Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4: 10).

He proceeded to show her how much He knew about her, though she thought Him to be a stranger. God revealed Jesus as the Messiah to this flawed, yet attentive woman.

Source: Middle East Pictures

Jesus came to me in this way many times in my life, but I was inattentive and failed to draw Him a drink.

Two summers ago, I was in a strange city, commuting ninety minutes a day instead of socializing, surrounding myself with bad influences, and concentrating my conversations on selfishness and politics. I was the devil’s playground, complete with a dry, thirsty sandbox.

For the first time in my life, I started to wonder about the very existence of God. I started to doubt it. I was doubting Him.

Deep in depression, by the grace of God, another question washed over me: Had I been duped? What about my two decades of belief? Was I finally un-stupid?

My resounding answer was, “No!” yet the doubt remained.

Was I an idiot my entire life prior to that summer?

“No!” I answered again.

I had not been duped and neither were my parents, Godparents, or grandparents. All of the most loving, best people I knew were Christians, most Catholics.

I decided I needed to reclaim myself and my faith.

My fasting week

Crucifix? Check. Scapular? Check. Earphones plugged into Christian music? Check. Pretending to be tired and sick so as to avoid unnecessary conversation at my internship? Check.

My cleansing week was an attempt to bombard myself with Christian media and reconnect with the prayer I had begun to doubt. Push, push, push, I was going to give it a full week if it killed me. Something told me not to surrender.

On Thursday night of that week, I was watching Fireproof as part of my Christian-stuffing.

All of a sudden, at a mundane part of the movie, the Holy Spirit moved something in me.

“Jesus is waiting for me,” I thought.

He needed only for me to make the decision to let Him bear me. I needed to give up my yoke and give myself to Him.

Before the third millisecond of this thought process, I was clinging to my scapular, laying in the fetal position, and heaving through wet sobs.

Relinquish control. Give of myself to the One who was patient and excitedly waiting for me.

I reduced (advanced) myself to the state of a child once more. I saw myself as a helpless rag-doll in Jesus’ arms, giving up my controlling greed, and letting Him take my weight while I sobbed in gratitude.

This quenched my thirst and lit me on fire to learn more about my relationship with the Holy Trinity.

One of the most humbling lessons I’ve learned over the last two years is that there is no such thing as faith autopilot. Through the countless mistakes I made and the innumerable lessons learned, I finally accepted that a faith journey relies on trust and a good listening heart.

“The Lord has a plan for each of us, he calls us each by name. Our task is to learn how to listen, to perceive his call, to be courageous and faithful in following him, and when all is said and done, to be found trustworthy servants who have used well the gifts given us.” -Pope Benedict XVI, Sept. 11, 2006

God guided me to Him through the mediums of mistakes, doubts, and obedience. Though I run into dry spells and writer’s block along the way, I hope that contributing to the sound of the Catholic Christian voice on the Internet can be helpful to God’s plan.

As a woman at the well, I pray that I offer Jesus a drink, listen to Him as He reveals details about who I am, and follow Him when He tells me how to use my life in His Messianic mission.