Wednesday, March 19, 2014

If I Could Buy The World A Book: Top Five List and Review Of Devin Rose's Latest

I'm so excited this week about Devin Rose's newest book The Protestant's Dilemma, excited in a way that I honestly didn't think I could muster again after my passion for his first book If Protestantism is True.  Both, in my opinion, are must reads, but the format and fullness of Dilemma are really perfected and so I'd have to say, if pressed, that it would make my top five books to have the entire world's population read if I could.  

Narrowing down to five is difficult for a normal person.  For someone like this blogger, who has books falling out of every corner of her closet and night table, her car and her kitchen pantry (don't judge me), it's a real brain tester.  To clarify, this is not a list of my five FAVORITE books, which would mix secular and religious and could NEVER EVER be narrowed down to five, but rather a list of the five books that if I could have every poo pooing progressive, every lonely soul, every lukewarm sleepwalker, every sourpussed pseudo-saint, every sullen teenager and every lonely senior citizen read, I would.  Because these five books provide a foundation firm enough to build a spiritual life upon, a life that is a journey with Jesus and TO Jesus.  

First and foremost (sorry, you knew it was going to happen) would be the Douay Rheims Bible.  I know there are easier Bibles to understand, but the beauty of the language here forces me to put it at number one.  To me, the DR is THE definitive Catholic Bible.  If you or someone you know needs a more accessible Bible, then by all means, believe me when I say that getting any Catholic (complete!) Bible into their hands is more important than WHICH ONE.  But if I had my druthers, (and I do because it's my list! Ha!), it's Douay Rheims.  The Scriptures are to be engraved on our hearts, friends.  Please never forget that -- we never stop needing that. We never outgrow the need for our Bibles!  

Second is (and yes, I know I'm looking pretty predictable here) the Catechism of The Catholic Church.  Yes, the 756 page one.  If the person you're sending books to or if YOU cannot commit to a book this long, read it in small snippets, or if you must, substitute Youcat or a more accessible Catechism.  But really, friends, for the full landscape of the teachings of The Church, with Scriptural and Encyclical cross references, there is nothing like the CCC. I have said many times in this space and on radio and TV interviews that the Catechism is what pushed me over the edge.  Its beauty and TRUTH are undeniable, unfightable, and timeless.  It's a masterpiece made by God's own hand as He guided those who compiled it for the edification of His Mystical Body.

A good part of the reason I favor the Douay Rheims in spite of some complaints I've fielded that it's hard to understand is that my third book takes care of that objection.  It's You Can Understand The Bible by Peter Kreeft.  No list would be a list without Kreeft on it.  He's simply the premier apologist and speaker out there, and if I could sit at a table with him and Dr. J. Budzisewski, Father Robert Barron and Mark Shea, well, I'd probably just remain silent the whole time and absorb the wisdom, wit, and holiness of these men. Kreeft's Bible commentary is a book by book exegesis that is written by a lover.  He loves his Bible.  He KNOWS his Bible, and he wants you to be empowered by knowing it too.  The title is key.  It's an answer to a complaint or frustration, "But I can't understand the Bible."  Oh, yes, you can.  Trust me that Kreeft lays it out in a way that is one hundred percent faithful to the Magisterium, sensible, and radiating the message of love that is the Bible from every single line. 

If you know anyone who is an atheist, agnostic, lost, or  just really, really badly catechized even to the point of not knowing basic Christian tenets, or if you know (or are!) someone who simply needs a spiritual kick in the pants, then I have to insist on the forever classic, Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  I don't care who or where you are . . . this book will change some part of your life when you read it.  If I know someone who is an angry atheist or an intellect worshipper, or has any kind of chip on her shoulder, this is the first book I think of recommending.  Even before the Bible, because that person will not READ the Bible, at least not with an open mind.  But give them the Bible WITH the Lewis book, because when they get about a quarter of the way through, they will want to pick up that Bible and start peeking at the love note God left them. 

Last and replacing his older book is Devin Rose's The Protestant's Dilemma.  What made me go so ga-ga over this book is the simplicity of his premise.  Rose has the gentleness of a monk, but he also has the real man's audacity to say: Protestantism is an impossible equation.  It doesn't make sense.  It doesn't compute.  If you want to argue with him or me, you have to read his book to do so.  You can't come with canned arguments, because about twenty pages into the book, he has already crushed all of those, all with a gracious smile and a clear and comprehensible style, and you will be left looking for your back up arguments.  Which he will crush in the rest of the book.  Now be clear on this: Devin and I LOVE our separated brethren.  However, if I am Catholic, which I am, to the back teeth, and I've found this amazing thing, I want you to have it too, otherwise I couldn't possibly say with any level of honesty that I love you.  And I do love you.  Did you know that? So to bring the recipient (in the case of my list, every person in the entire world!) into the FULLNESS of the faith, then yes, this book is the equivalent of Atticus Finch's closing argument in To Kill A Mockingbird.  

Well, that's my list, and my fantasy.  If I could bundle these five books together and get them to every person in the entire world, that would be, as my son would say, "Awesome, awesome, awesome!"  How you can help me is to give one or five of these to someone you know in whom you see a need.  Or to yourself if you sense a hole in yourself that isn't being filled.  Maybe you have read these, or skimmed them, or a few of them, but you've been remiss in keeping up with revisiting.  Choose NOW to do that, please.  Spiritiual reading is so key to our eternal lives!  Feeding our hearts and intellects properly is something I see missing in the lives of so many friends and loved ones.  Everything else comes first -- the looks, the food, the drink, the workout, the job, the movies, the shows, the songs, the games, the sports, the drama, the waiting, the wishing, the wallowing.  Nowhere in that schedule is a block of time for reading the words that will make this life Heaven all the way to Heaven?  Nowhere is there fifteen minutes in the day?  

I had a thought as I was reading Devin's book.  I don't know him in real life, but I know he's a busy Dad with a busy wife and active kids.  Still and all, he found the time and the focus to write what I'm going to call here a watershed book in Christian apologetics in its simplicity, directness, and charitable tone.  Before we even crack open Protestant's Dilemma, we can learn THAT lesson from Devin Rose -- to take the time for things spiritual.  Because not just in the end, friends, but in the beginning and middle too, things of the soul are really the only things that count. And the only things that stay. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Last Minute Lent

If you still haven't decided what is beneficial and appropriate for you to fast for Lent, you're not alone.  For most of us, the really inspired ideas are pretty rare. It's easy to turn Lent into a diet, or a way to boast publicly of doing without something pleasurable.  I don't know if we need to identify what the world tells us are common temptations and excesses so much as we need to identify our walls.  What are the obstacles we've constructed that keep us at a safe distance from Jesus?  Those are the things that, for Lent and forever after, need to go. 

For the most part, they will be our pet sins -- the things we let slip under our sin radar because we like these sins and they're not as obvious or gory as the sins someone else commits.  Complaining, for example, or listening to gossip, even if you don't share the gossip you've heard.  If you have been watching a television show or listening to music that you know is really not appropriate, Lent is the perfect time to live without it.  Give it up and see what Jesus puts in its place.  Vanity is another huge area to explore for Lent -- for us ladies, it's almost certain that we can fast something related to our physical appearance, whether it be cosmetics, hair color, nail polish, checking the mirror, or making unnecessary purchases of clothing and/or cosmetics.  

A lot of pet sins are held in the tongue: criticism, profanity, whining, passive-aggressiveness, degrading one's spouse or children, hollering or losing one's temper, laughing at inappropriate jokes, inserting my opinion where it's really not needed (like where it's simply redundant/chiming in).  Try for the entire period of Lent to only say things that will build others up and bring them closer to Jesus.  If you are shy or embarrassed about discussing your faith, Lent is an ideal time to go out on a limb and fast your reticence.  Speak out openly and assertively about God's Law and the Natural Law, and how they save lives and souls.  Speak about Jesus' suffering and how it touches you.  Ask someone where he or she is in the spiritual journey and try to act as a human bridge to the next level. 

Also look for the those things we mock or point up in others. They are generally a variation or protection of our own thorns.  By this I mean, that if I find myself becoming aggravated by a certain kind of person, or a certain behavior and I am fixating on it to the point where it's taking up a lot of my time and thought and even prayer, then it could just be that I'm projecting or protecting.  Projecting my own dissatisfaction or insecurity, or protecting my own sin.  If I see myself becoming annoyed with cafeteria Catholics, annoyed to the point of checking charity at the door, maybe it's not righteous indignation.  Maybe it's that I know there is a teaching THAT I AM secretly ignoring or defying.  And that creates an insecurity in me that only feels soothed when I am shouting so loudly at someone else that I can't hear my own telltale heart under the floorboards. 

Lent is a gift.  It's a not-very-long period of time when we can really test our skills at mortification.  At the beginning of Lent, I can look in the mirror and say, "Okay, kid, let's see what you can do."  Some Lenten sacrifices are more stellar than others, and end up producing much greater fruit.  Some fall on their faces very quickly, and if that occurs, I suggest quickly replacing with something else, so as to stay in the race and not lose momentum. 

There is a Gospel song I could listen to all day and night . . . in it, the words repeat, "Oh, Lord, please remove these thorns."  It refers, of course, to thorns in the flesh, ranging from physical illness to addictions to demonically influenced behaviors.  The song goes on to plaintively beg God to help pull out the thorns because they are hindering spiritual progress.  THIS is our motivation for Lent, not to show we can do it, not to be able to have a really good mortification to share with others, but to move ahead in the marathon, move closer and closer to Jesus.  We do that by shedding weight, dropping baggage.  Food, vanity, smugness, judgment, licentiousness, a roaming eye, a bad habit, a good comeback that we keep inside instead of letting it go on our chosen target.  If you do Lent right, you will feel deprivation, yes, but you will also feel Jesus fill in the blanks with something new and interesting. He will teach you about yourself and your place in the world.  He will teach you that it's not worth it to have the extra donut, the extra pair of jeans, the last word, the peek at the dirty channel, or the Pharisaical high, because after you come down from these, you are squinting to see Jesus' face, instead of being close enough to look Him in the eye. 

Lent is an adventure, a microcosm of the bigger adventure that is Catholicism.  They are both about obedience, smallness, and service.  Neither is about taking, winning, or the flesh.  

There used to be a saying; maybe there still is.  "If it feels good, do it." This was or is the motto of a society that is constantly seeking adventure via the body and the first layers of the mind.  Initial gratification and earthly victory are the gods of that quasi-religion.  I say we modify that for Lent, my friends.  "If it feels holy, do it."  And flip it: "If it doesn't feel holy, don't do it." Strip yourself down and privately examine your conscience and your interior life.  What are your thorns?  Oh, now you see them.  I see mine.  And they're not a pretty sight.

Remove those thorns and run home to God. Adventure takes place in the soul -- not the groin or the wallet or the telephone or the water cooler.  Not by gambling with the health of your brain and body, not with listening to lascivious details of someone else's life, and not by tearing down someone else's relationship with Christ or His Church in order to relive, medicate, or work out your own spiritual hang ups. 

Use Lent to knock down the walls between you and Jesus so He can see you and you can see Him.  Use Lent to rip out the thorns, and approach Jesus boldly to ask Him for what you really desire. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I'm In The Olympics

Of course I'm not, really.  I'm probably one of the least athletic people I know.  But I love the Olympics, in a love-hate kind of way.  The hate part isn't really "hate," but I do end up feeling like there is a risk of an over-emphasis on one's body, and that the soul can be  ignored when athletics are one's main pursuit.  However I've loved the Olympics since I was a little girl.  I have always loved watching people do things that I can't do -- it's fascinating to me.  How wonderful it is that someone can possess that talent and have the drive to match it.  That's a combination that wins, in life and in sport, and in spiritual combat.  

Watching a preview from Sochi, I heard an Olympic competitor say "Suffering is a skill."  The phrase embedded itself in my ear, then my mind.  I'm a pretty forgetful gal, especially after forty, so the fact that I woke up still pondering those words told me that I had to interpret what they meant in my life, and in the life of every Catholic.  Suffering means something to Catholics.  It's not a puzzlement or a punishment like it is for certain ecclesial communities or other belief systems.  And while my sufferings, when compared to those I observe far and wide, look pretty tiny, some of them have brought me quite literally to the ground.  So I think about why I've come out the other side of these events and time periods closer to Jesus, and why now, at 44, the suffering of others hurts me more than my OWN suffering, and I realize there indeed is, as that young skier said, a skill to suffering, or at least a skill in dealing with suffering.  It begins with recognizing what suffering is, how temporary its nature is, and how powerful it can be when we don't  attempt to compete against our suffering alone.  

We all know the basics of suffering if we are Catholics: join our sufferings with those of Christ, with the sorrows and sufferings of His Mother, and of course, offer our sufferings up for those in Purgatory, or for the pains and battles of others.  These should be automatic and constant practices for us. The skill of suffering, what will make me an Olympic level Catholic, is this: to focus not on myself even at the exact apex of my suffering.  That is the moment, the climax, when union with Jesus is most possible and most profitable.  We can't waste that time on self-pity or panic.  In my sufferings, I need to ask Him what to do, whom to think of, where to put my pain.  Where does this pain go today, Lord? Picture Jesus' face and ask Him: what do we do now?  How do I cross the finish line?  How do I push past the wall of pain that I've hit?  What is my next turn, my next jump, my next move? 

An answer will come.  And not just for that moment, but for your whole existence from that point in time onward.  You will find that you are thinking of life in different ways.  It's not a race or a contest that you want to win to lord over others, but it is a team sport.  We are all working together, just so many of us don't know it.  What a cold thing my suffering used to be.  I would hold it inside like a hard diamond, like a little treasure.  How could I think about anyone else when I was suffering so?  But there is such liberation and such hidden reward in thinking not of oneself in suffering but of others -- and of Jesus.  

Emptying myself out is not a one time, singular practice.  After the suffering has passed and the seas are calm, some remnant, some gift, is there, something left by Jesus.  I've earned a medal, and it's a sense of acceptance.  It's a liberty from selfishness.  It's waking up and thinking of ten different people before I think of myself.   It's processing each and every moment of time in a new way.  Not "What's in this for me?" But "Why am I here in this moment?  FOR WHOM am I here in this moment and in this place?"  I learn, exquisitely, to wait.  To wait for my coaching, my orders, my strategy.  How am I to be a blessing?  A lesson?  A pair of arms?  An ear?  A Catechism?  Tell me, Lord.  I am empty now; the suffering has emptied me . . .  so refill me.  The Olympic event, pushing myself to the limit has emptied me . . . so give me some of You, Lord, so I can get back in there, back in the pool, back on the track, back on the mountain.  I live to fight again, fight for someone's rights, or someone's peace. Or even someone's life. 

I invite you to take your sufferings to Jesus and be prostrate before him so He can increase your skill level.  Let Him excise from you what is not needed, and replace it with the muscle and the endurance required to become an Olympic level Christian.  You will be pushed to your limit, and then you will receive a laurel, a crown of peace.  You will feel something that is overpowering and unique: a painful ecstasy of selflessness, a love of "the other" that is so deep and freeing that you will not at first recognize it.  You may fear you will get lost in it.  But hold tight to Jesus' hand -- this coach will never give you more than you can handle.  Remember that He is perfect, and His love for you is perfect.  His ownership of you and handling of you must then naturally also be perfect.  Nothing He allows to happen to you while you are in active pursuit of His will can be less than perfect.  But you must be in active pursuit.  You must be suited up and ready to run.  

"No one wins the Olympic gold from the couch," my Dad once joked.  And no one reaches the level of intimacy with Jesus that he or she desires by simply running the hamster wheel of this world, pursuing earthly honors and kudos, physical pleasures, entitlements labeled as "rights," revenge, or any of the offerings of the devil.  Decide today which team you will walk on to the field with, and decide if you want to go all the way, if you really love Jesus' immaculate heart enough to go for the gold.  

Monday, December 30, 2013

To See or Not to See

“I was never more hated than when I tried to be honest. Or when, even as just now I've tried to articulate exactly what I felt to be the truth.” 

       Christmas flows into 2014, and the busy-ness of the worldly life pulls us away from our true center.  These times when we are to be most spiritually on fire and aware, our nerves tingling with the intense love of Christ and the miracle of our very existence, we can be at our laziest, our deafest and blindest.  What a trick of the Foe, eh?  He presents us with shiny distractions that have every appearance of existing as part and parcel of our Holy Day, but he turns them inside out and turns our eyes away from the lover of our souls.  Oh, to be shrewd to his tricks in the new year!  Let this be our prayer.  

       I find New Year's resolutions to be at worst tedious and insincere, and at best added pressure on people who are already feeling enormous pressure from a dozen forces a day.  I seek humility, that most elusive of qualities, in 2014, and I seek Truth in all things.  I also pray in 2014 to see, to really see what is before me and what the world and the Foe are trying to hide from me.  And to connect all these: to have the humility to empty myself of the need to be liked and approved, to share the Truth that I see, even as doing so becomes increasingly more perilous.  

       There is peril and there is peril.  Americans don't face much in the way of grave peril when sharing the Gospel.  But we do face social and possibly professional peril, familial peril, and no small measure of distress as we watch ourselves rejected and dismissed as holy rollers, judgmental religious nuts, idealists, ideologues, Jesus Freaks, dinosaurs, uneducated rubes, Bible clingers, and hypocrites.  How does a person face such outright and widely promoted labeling?  How do we resist caving into the temptation to "go along to get along"?  The Catholic body of teaching, if adhered to strictly, is bound, without any shade of doubt, to clash violently  with the paradigms of our modern media, our families, and our co-workers.  

       I've written before about the near impossibility of belonging to a political party if one is truly Catholic.  That's because I've been buffeted on both sides, even when trying my level best to "speak the truth in love."  Speak on the death penalty and watch the narrowing eyes, or watch the comments pile up on Facebook.  Speak on abortion and watch that first group smile with approval while another group rises up to condemn you as a misogynist, an antiquarian, and wish a venereal disease on you.  

       "But I see!" you cry.  How can you not speak of what you see?  If you take your blinders off, if you see Christ in each person, if you love each person as you are called to love him or her, then you have a holy obligation to share the Truth!  What a conundrum. What a lonely life it can be.  And how we can be accused of pride when in fact what we are doing is attempting invisibility, to eradicate ourselves and let Jesus fill us up with His law and His authentic love.  That authentic love HATES sin.  Yes, a paradox.  Surely you've heard of them.  Modern thought doesn't like them.  We are commanded to hate what is evil.  We are commanded to warn our brother of the oncoming truck before it runs him down.  And as we warn him, we are pelted with stones from our ostensibly tolerant society.

       So: a self-examination.  Are we speaking the Truth for the right reasons?  Are we representing Christ or are we representing a political ideology?  Are we defending the Holy Mother or are we defending our pride in our own traditions?  Are we sharing truth to save souls or sharing truth to earn our way in to Heaven?  Are we warning our brothers and sisters about their sin in order to set them firmly on the road to earthly peace and eternal bliss, or are we obsessed with being right and being PROVEN right, which is the OPPOSITE and ENEMY of humility?  I guarantee you that if your interior motivations are "off" by one degree, you will be unsuccessful in sharing the Truth with anyone.  No one has been won to the Truth by being called names or told he was too uneducated to speak about Jesus.  No one has converted her heart because you called her a whore or trumpeted your own record of chastity.  So before you read on, know this: if you in your heart do not truly love your neighbor as you love yourself, you have to go back on the game board to the beginning square.  Start over; do not pass go, do not collect any souls.  You need to refuel with the unconditional love of Christ before you can share it with anyone else.  Prideful evangelization is an oxymoron.  Repeat: prideful evangelization is an oxymoron. 

       What a year this has been.  I don't think I've ever read or heard such a combination of vitriol and moral laxity in all my years on earth.  There is virtually no escape from the demonic twins of pride and gluttony.  Compounding that, there is a ceiling of sexual depravity over all of us, and it prevents us from looking above to our Heavenly Father, who taught us in our hearts how our bodies and souls are to be rightly ordered.  We have reached a day when, if you say aloud that you believe it is harmful and unnatural to insert a sexual organ into the back end of the digestive system, you are immediately and irretrievably stamped with a scarlet letter.  You are a brainwashed hater.  You are not one of us, they say.  Because you see.

       We have a new Pope to shepherd us, and his invisibility is inspiring.  People of all stripes can look past him and see Jesus.  It's miraculous.  It's what we need, and the Holy Spirit knew it when He guided that Conclave!  And yet there is a backlash against him.  Catholics who have decided they know better than the Holy Spirit have our orthodox, loving, humble Pope Francis on probation.  If you love Francis, you betray the previous popes, or you are an unread simpleton who simply doesn't know your history! You are not one of us, they say.  Because you see. 

       You have a friend whose life is in a downward spiral.  Money, alcohol, drugs, casual sex, and sarcasm are the waters he swims in daily.  You try to throw a lifeline, from Scripture, or from the Saints, or just from your own heart, simply spoken, "I'm worried about you, friend."  In a matter of seconds,  you are cast out from his inner circle.  You are judgmental, a Pollyanna, a limited thinker, backwards, provincial, a nutcase with a Bible and no guts to live life in the moment. You are not one of us, he says.  Because you see.

       So there is your choice for 2014.  To see or not to see.  Not seeing is easier.  I won't lie to you about that.  Everyone will like you if you agree with what everyone is saying all the time.  But if you start pointing out truths, even in love, even in invisibility, you will be mocked and even hated.  Then there is the work involved.  Because you must constantly be renewing and reperforming that examination of conscience I spoke about earlier.  You must be daily checking that your invisibility is your top priority.  Every morning the prayer is to be filled with Jesus and emptied of you.  Not easy.  But if you aren't up to it one day or one month, then don't try to evangelize.  You will fail spectacularly.  

       I choose to see in 2014.  I choose to see myself as a sinner and ask for mercy daily.  I choose to ask Christ daily to make Nicole invisible and to put Jesus in her place.  I choose to speak the Truth in charity when it is called for. I choose to examine my conscience daily.  I choose to open myself to the rebuke and fraternal correction of other Christians so that I can be assured that pride is not creeping into my plans and my words.  I choose to see every person and love every person as I see my own children: this means loving them unconditionally and praying for them daily, and caring enough about their souls to share the Gospel with them -- Jesus' very real and current existence and action in this world, God's perfect Law for our lives, and the Holy Spirit's gifts within them.  Will you join me in this resolution?  It's not just for 2014; it's for eternity. 


Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Fred Who Tricked Me

Well, his name isn't really Fred, but when I'm telling a real story about real people and maybe the people don't come out sounding too good, I like to make up a pseudonym.  I just think it's the decent thing to do.  I'm writing about Fred because he's an example of really bad, I mean epically bad evangelization.  Also, if I may say, and you may disagree, the sort of successful way I tried to handle it, and how there weren't any great machinations on my part, just giving him what I had to give. 

After I appeared on the show The Journey Home, I received a few phone calls, eMails, and even letters in the mail.  Mostly I got Facebook requests and private messages.  Some of the feedback was positive and some was negative -- I expected that.  Fred pulled a fast one, though, and I fell for it.  He private messaged me on Facebook asking me, "I was wondering, Nicole, how did you finally get past the barrier of the teaching on the Eucharist being the Real and True Body and Blood of Jesus?"  He framed it in a way that conveyed to me that he, Fred, was a seeker,  investigating Catholicism.  And that this was his final hurdle.  I practically salivated.  I could reel him in!  All I had to do was talk about the beauty, the intimacy, the perfection, the everythingness of the Eucharist.  I had PLENTY to say and I said it all to him in a return message.  I put my heart into my response, including some very personal revelations and supernatural experiences I had while praying before the Blessed Sacrament.  

That's when Fred got me.  His return message was a hateful diatribe, full of mockery of men and women religious, their "pointy hats," and their robes.  He drew extended metaphors between the Catholic Church and the Jehovah's Witnesses and how we were all damned to Hell.  He didn't express concern for my soul; rather, he questioned again and again how I could be so Scripturally stupid as to fall for the ruse of the Real Presence.  

Now I was in a quandary.  He had taken me off guard, for sure.  I felt a little foolish, played, and hurt.  But I had to decide if answering him was casting pearls at swine or my responsibility as a Catholic Christian.  I decided to keep up the correspondence.  This went on for WEEKS.  Everything I wrote was footnoted with sources both Scriptural and from the Catechism.  Everything he wrote was footnoted with Scripture and previous letters he had written to other Catholics he considered "prominent" like bloggers and television personalities from EWTN.  I almost got scared for a few days; had I let a madman into my life?  Still, I persisted in trying to take a twofold approach: calm him down and gain his trust.  If he could stop using ALL CAPS TO MAKE HIS POINTS and cease the ad hominem, we could get somewhere.  I tried to portray myself pretty realistically, a mom, a school teacher, and, most importantly, someone who was already Protestant for forty years so was not likely to go back there, particularly at the urgings of a very angry man who seemed to devote most of his time NOT to the service of others, NOT to study and prayers, but to seeking out converts, specifically ones he had taken the time to watch on EWTN,  to Catholicism and torturing them. 

Well, the thing took a turn for the worse.  My words had an odd effect on him.  The kinder and more patient I was, the more I indulged his questions without rancor and merely with information and dispassionate honesty, the more outraged he became.  It was driving him crazy that he wasn't driving me crazy.  But now I faced another problem: I wasn't helping him.  To make him madder was not my goal.  I started to see how unproductive our exchanges were for him, but for me they were  a great brushing up on my faith!  I can't say any of his questions really challenged me; he didn't throw anything at me we all haven't heard a million times before from our anti-Catholic Aunt Betty.  But I did spend time in The Word and in The Catechism, and that is always time well spent. Finally, I chose to end the relationship, if you can call it that.  I simply told him that I thought his time would be better spent, as would mine, in service to others, than in going back and forth in an exercise that I assured him would NEVER result in my regressing to Protestantism in any form whatsoever.  I even gave examples of things we could BOTH do in service to our fellow man that were not exclusive to either his non-denominational/Baptist leaning theology nor my Catholicism.  And that was the last I ever heard from him.  

What did I learn from Fred (not his real name)?  What can you learn? I've often thought of him since, and wondered what on earth happened to him to make him loathe the idea of the Catholic Church and to cling so doggedly to impressions of it that were utterly false, based in nothing but his own conjecture and a twisting of cherry-picked Scripture.  He laughed at my notion of reading the early Church Fathers.  He laughed at infallibility, yet his own personal, private interpretation of Scripture was, to him, patently infallible.  The whole thing left me feeling cold for a while.  I had done nothing to help him.  Or had I?  I would like to think that I planted a seed, a very tiny one, and if it was not anything strictly "theological," maybe it was de facto theological, because I as a Catholic never stooped to any words below the dignity of my faith nor did I ever say anything to attempt to chew away at his dignity as a man or even a Christian. I like to think that he can at least say now that one Catholic he met was kind and patient.  How can he go on believing the religion is evil if he finds even one adherent who is not?  After all, if we cannot be a good advertisement for Catholicism, the least we can do is avoid being a bad one. Had I lost my temper with him, had I cussed or practiced one-upmanship, then I would have only been fulfilling the caricature he already had of me.  If I refused to waste my time finding him answers, he would have been able to walk away and call me a dupe who fell under the spell of the smells and bells.  At the very least, he has to say that I studied and read in order to provide thoughtful, researched answers to his questions and accusations.  I don't  know what else I learned from Fred.  I hope Fred isn't rabidly anti-Catholic anymore, but he probably is.  There was a lot of ego there, and that's a powerful drug.  Maybe there was ego in it for me in the beginning, too! ; I was eager to  produce a convert from my appearance on a television show.  Certainly, if that was part of my motivation, it was a spectacular failure.  But I held my own. And I wasn't delivered to the temptation to nastiness.  I have to believe, and I do believe, that the Holy Spirit is solely and completely responsible for that.  

So, will you pray for Fred?  Don't worry; God knows his real name. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ten Tips To Help You Stay a Sane and Effective Catholic

Just diving right in:

1. Do not get your news and information about your religion, your Church, your Pope, or anything even remotely related to any of the aforementioned, from secular mainstream media, whether televised, in print, or online.  They are not with us, and they are not neutral.  They are against us.  Moreover, they do not bother to fact-check.  They do not possess even a rudimentary knowledge of Catholicism, and if you are shaky on your own faith, they can actually make you think something is true when it's really silly, misstated, out of context, or downright fictional.  Remember, remember, the condom debacle of Pope Emeritus Benedict if you need an illustration of this tip. 

2. Do not live your life in a "Protestant versus Catholic" dynamic.  If you are, you are actively protesting Protestants, which makes you a protestant of sorts yourself.  You want to help a Protestant?  Recognize him or her as a brother or sister in Christ.  Answer any and all questions charitably and clearly. But do not engage in pages long or days long grudge matches about denominations versus Catholicism.  NO ONE benefits.  No one converts through prideful, protracted screeds.

3. Be this guy: the one in the parable who says, "God have mercy on me, a sinner."  Be that guy every day.  Be the woman who just attempted to touch the fringe of Jesus' garment.  Realize how sinful and small you can be, and don't get too high on yourself because you have a lot of book knowledge about church buildings, or music, or the doctors of The Church. It's extremely important to study those things, and God loves it when we immerse ourselves in them, yes, yes, yes.  BUT don't get so far up your own skirt that you think you're the queen of the Catholics and everyone else is so fortunate to benefit from your learnedness.  Holy rusticity.  Remember that phrase.  

4. Pray for other people.  Intercessory prayer works.  It works for them and it works for you, to keep your mind off of your own defeats and victories.  Pray especially for those who annoy you.  They may annoy you because they remind you of your own deficiencies.  Or they may annoy you because they are TRYING to annoy you, and if they are doing that, then maybe they are like those boys in sixth grade who push you on the ground at recess because they secretly like you and don't know what to do about it.  They need attention.  Give it to them in spades. Kill 'em with kindness.  And give them that gift that keeps on giving: intercessory prayer. 

5. Try not to compare yourself to other Catholics.  You are you.  There is only one you.  You have a singular vocation that no one else in the entire universe, from the beginning of time, can fulfill.  Work on doing THAT well, not worrying about being a better  __________ than _______________.  It will never happen. 

6. Replace your wishbone with a backbone.  Stop wishing that your parish was more this or that.  Stop wishing that people would stop saying mean things about the Pope.  Instead, take action.  Get involved at your local parish level.  Feed the local hungry.  Talk about the Pope to people and say true, wonderful things before they even get a chance to say what they heard on MSNBC. Get a little bit of courage, just a little, and your evangelizing will improve.  Sometimes I'll give a longer answer than someone wanted when they ask a question about Catholicism.  But you know what?  It's a true, accessible, verifiable answer.  I plant a seed, and then offer to tell them more if and when they want to know.  Sometimes they look at me crooked.  But hey, I'm 44 years old and I taught high school for eight years. So a yucky face doesn't scare me. 

7. Spend time with Jesus.  And by that I mean, the Blessed Sacrament.  Sit with Him.  If you do this and you don't feel something, if you don't get results, I will eat my hat. 

8. Know when to kick the dust off  your feet.  If you are evangelizing someone and that person is either calling you names, or seems to be feeling WORSE about Catholicism than when you started, you aren't the person to do the job.  Not everyone has to like you.  Walk away, pray, and then maybe someday, as Bill Murray says in What About Bob?, you can call back and try to reconnect. 

9. Give Everything.  Huh?  Yes.  Give money to the poor until your husband makes that wincing face that means he's not so sure you're not drunk.  Give hugs to people who don't look so clean.  Give compliments to people who already act like they think they're fabulous, because the truth is they are the most insecure.  Give an ear to someone whose story is boring, repetitive, and you can't really solve the problem therein anyway.  Give a smile to EVERYONE.  I smile at everybody, and sometimes they will quite literally return my smile with a dirty look. So what?  Maybe they are in physical pain.  Maybe they are getting divorced.  Maybe they have been hurt by so many people that they don't even trust the simple gesture of a smile from a fellow human being.  The response doesn't negate the rightness and goodness of my act.  Remember that: the response doesn't negate the rightness and goodness of my act. 

10.  Appreciate your Catholic identity.  Don't take it for granted.  You are fortunate, blessed, chosen, graced, and just plain supposed to be Catholic.  Don't just sit there feeling like being Catholic is like having curly hair or being Italian.  It's an amazing thing to belong to this universal, beautiful, eternal Church that is pre-denominational, that does more for charitable causes than any other organization in the world, and that welcomes ALL people from everywhere in whatever state they are in, to meet Jesus here, get to know Him, and consider staying a while, or, hopefully, forever.  

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How to be Right All The Time

Back in my other life, when I was a full time high school English teacher, I had a lot of good stories.  Almost daily something funny or tragic would happen, because I was working with two highly dramatic and unpredictable groups: teenagers and teachers.  Throw in parents paying high property taxes and administrators protecting their car allowances, and you had a rip roaring time.  I started my career in a district with no contract.  Almost immediately I was walking the picket line and wearing black on Fridays.  My enthusiasm for my new career wrestled in my heart with my desire to stick it to the man and win a decent pay rate for the veteran teachers who had been in this fight for as long as I had been alive.  When Union drama wasn't the order of the day, parent drama was.  Invariably around report card time, there was a mother or father up in my face yelling at me about how I kept Precious out of MIT by failing her.  The happiest moments of teaching, honestly, were with my kids.  Just me and my kids -- talking about literature, laughing, sometimes even crying.  

It was very difficult not to verbally slay the students when they would talk back.  I have a facility for language and a pretty wide vocabulary, and I learned to restrain that quite a bit. Those kids really  believed they had the art of debate down pat.  In truth, they were very privileged, unworldly, not very well-read, and had poorly formed consciences.  Their idea of argument was generally emotion-based.  Only when I taught 13 AP did I encounter any semblance of real argument, and that was a pleasure.  Still, I learned so much from my kids when they felt passionate enough to raise their hands and express a grievance.  I remember a day one of my boys raised his hand wearily, and asked, "Why do you and our parents tell us not to do drugs, but then we come to school and we study these poems written by guys who were on opium?"  Well, let me tell you, friends of the blog, it was hard not to laugh, or slap the kid on the back.  At least he was thinking.  I told him, "Kev, if I were only allowed to teach you the writings of perfect people, it would be a very short day and a very quiet building." The class laughed, and a pretty decent discussion ensued.  One thing I tried to express to my students was that I was no better than they were, and probably no smarter.  But with thirty of us in the room, one person had to be the leader or they would be chaos, and since I was the only one with the degree in English, well, it followed that the person should NOT be one of them. They always  accepted that.  

I got many winces and twisted faces when I would tell people at cocktail parties or at church or what have you what I did for a living.  They didn't understand why a young woman would want to teach teenagers.  Wouldn't it be easier for me to deal with little ones?  No, I reasoned, because the bigger kids had better bladder control.  The truth is I really like teenagers.   It's SUCH a hard time of life, and a lot of people, MOST people, simply DON'T like teenagers.  But when you get to know them, they have a lot in there.  They're just caught between being cute and being like you, a grown up.  They don't have a steady gig, an act, a real personality just yet.  So they try on different faces and voices.  Sometimes the girls would want to be like me.  I discouraged that.  I'd tell them, "Look in the mirror and see who is behind your eyes.  See who's really in there.  She's you, not me.  It's my job to help HER find HER voice, not parrot mine."  

I told them light things, airy, silly things, that they would often write on the end of the year evaluation as the most memorable.  For example, I'd tell them that if they felt sad, or violent, or like hurting themselves, to go look in the mirror (again) and make silly faces.  Like really funny silly faces, like when they were kids.  Then come back and tell me the next day that you  didn't laugh.  It worked every time.  They would come to me, even the crudest and toughest ones, "Motsch, it worked . . . I laughed my ass off," or, "I didn't drink last night . . . I wanted to, but I did that faces thing, and I was laughing and I called my friend, and then it was time for bed." 

A lot of people who find out what my career was think that teenagers would be a population bent on rebelling and arguing all day long.  I didn't find that to be the case.  I find adults way more tedious.  Adults have a strange and powerful addiction to the sureness about how right they are. They don't care if they lose everything as long as they can have the precious and coveted last word.  Me, I don't care much about the last word.  Go ahead, have the last word.  I'd rather have the true word. The kind word.  I'd rather say something that edified someone than say something that cut someone deeply enough that he or she simply slinks away from the conversation.  That's not winning the debate -- that's pride.  That's the devil.  Particularly in theological debate, our goal should never be "the last word" or "winning."  There are no winners and losers in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Only sinners who cooperated with grace somehow.  

How on earth is a Catholic Mom in her forties going to win over a staunch pro-choice atheist in his twenties?  Well, how did that young teacher of almost twenty years ago win over the kid who, on the first day of school, announced: "Just to let you know, if you fail me, I'm gonna have to kill ya." How did I break his spirit, get the last word, win him over to my ideology, score points on him, get him in a full Nelson?  I didn't.  I told him on day one, "Well, you probably don't want to kill me because your jail sentence lasts a lot longer than the year this class will take."  Day by day, forty-two minute period by forty-two minute period, I showed him who I was.  Before I asked him to reveal HIMSELF, and make himself vulnerable, I made myself vulnerable.  I told my kids about my life.  When I got pregnant, I announced to my first period class that I may have to run out of the room with nausea.  They watched my belly grow, and I let them all touch it, showed them the sonogram pictures, let them suggest names.  I remember a tough boy, a boy who could take apart a car and put it back together, but who was hopeless with a Shakespearian sonnet, hugging me goodbye before my maternity leave.  "I don't want to hug you too tight and hurt the baby," he said in my ear.  I choked up immediately.  "Don't worry; I'll miss you too." I said.  When we parted, there were tears in his eyes.  

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Those we would change we must first love." If we cannot hold to this maxim while evangelizing, we are indeed doomed to fail.  We can walk away feeling right, like our liturgical preferences are the best, and we are superior for never having been divorced, and tight jeans are a ticket to Hell, and we will, in our own minds, have won.  But we will have lost the soul of the person we are trying to evangelize.  Because we will have shown no vulnerability.  If I were all intellect and no heart during my teaching career, it would have been an epic failure, instead of the amazing eight year span of smile-inducing memories it is.  Did they learn Shakespeare?  I don't know.  Some did, and some didn't.  You tell me.  They heard it.  They were listening to me; I know that.  They knew that I knew my material and that I wanted them to enjoy it and be better for it if they possibly could.  I wanted to GIVE them something, not take something away from them and put it up on my shelf like a trophy.

Teaching teenagers is analogous to the "New Evangelization" in many ways.  There are endless challenges, nobody really seems to want to do it, and no one has figured out the perfect formula for HOW to establish a high success rate.  And both are a work of heart and soul long before a work of mind and intellect.  In both pursuits, knowledge of content area needs to be impeccable, but we do not wear that expertise like a gaudy set of pearls or a luxury vehicle.  We slowly reveal it, as the recipient is ready for it, bit by bit, and if we are sincere, it will show.  

Oh, and the last thing: teenagers, as I have been quoted as saying many times, have very finely honed bullsh*t detectors.  I think the same is true for non-believers, agnostics, fallen aways, lukewarms, militant atheists, or anyone we are trying to evangelize.  If you are in it for "the win," or for "the last word," they will see right through you.  And recoil.  Do I want to be right all the time?  Yeah, I do . . . right with God.  Right in my actions, right in my words, and able to look RIGHT in the mirror.  

Those end of the year evaluations I was referring to earlier?  Here are my three most memorable ones.  On the evaluation form, I had a fill in sentence that read, "This year, I learned  ______________.   Well, the worst one I ever got said, "This year, I learned what it's like to have a bitch for an English teacher." The funniest one?  "This year, I learned the international hand signal for "I'm choking." The best one I ever got? "This year, I learned that it feels better to pass without cheating."