Friday, November 27, 2015

Beware the Devangelization

The accepted dictionary definition of "evangelize" is:

1. To preach the gospel to.
2. To convert to Christianity.
3. To promulgate or promote (a doctrine or idea, for example) enthusiastically.

Now, we know that a large part of our job as Catholics is to evangelize, that is, to bring others to Christ.  The ways and means are up for discussion, often passionate discussion over the course of our Church's history. If you have ever read this blog before, you know the big three evangelization techniques I have seen succeed: evangelize by example, evangelize by service, and evangelize by education.  Unfortunately, something I have seen succeed in recent years is a reverse evangelization -- well-meaning but perhaps not well-catechized Christians, and here I address Catholics in particular, are attempting to evangelize the fallen away of their friends or even family, and instead of preaching the Gospel and converting to Christianity, they end up as the object of a secular evangelization practiced by the person whom THEY were trying to help in the first place! 

The person who is particularly vulnerable to this "devangelization" is typically the one who has an emotional attachment to the person whom (s)he is trying to convert. Parents are possibly most likely to fall into this category when attempting to reconcile their fallen away or lukewarm children back with The Church. They may find themselves ill prepared to counter the slick and aggressive anti-Catholic arguments their child now has at at the ready, and as a sad result, they find themselves compromising, first a little, then a little more, and before they realize a wholesale defeat has taken place, they are the object of definition number three above . . . their teenage or adult child has "enthusiastically promulgated or promoted" the doctrines of secularism, or worse.  

Often, in a noble but destined to fail go at retaining the title of Catholic, the parent will perform a series of incredibly complicated mental and verbal gymnastics to retrofit the newly discovered 
SBNR (spiritual but not religious) or progressive ideas into the 2000 year old teachings of The Church.  It is, of course, unsuccessful, but a lot of damage has been done.  Instead of researching answers to the anti-Catholic challenges and talking to a family priest, the parent simply folds.  It is the easier and quicker path to a superficial family peace, and that feeling of relief is frequently mistaken for the warm fuzzies of finding common ground between two polar opposites.

The truth is this: evangelizing anyone requires that YOU know your stuff.  But evangelizing someone whom you love and whose love you are afraid of losing requires that you beg God for some graces, you have the help of a priest, and you are armed with the weapons of the Holy Spirit.  You have to steel yourself for the inevitable: that the beloved person you are evangelizing is going to present his or her "side" as being superior to Catholicism, or, worse and more insidious, as "different, new, loving" but totally compatible with Catholicism. 

Now we don't to look at this as a battle for the upper hand; this is not a contest for who can be the better fisher of men.  But we are given a divine commission to instruct the ignorant, and that applies full force to family members, especially children whose spiritual formation was entrusted to us from the day of their birth.

How NOT to fall for devangelization? It's analogous to dealing with an addict in the family.  Realize that if you are discussing religion with a loved one who is rebelling against Catholicism, this person may have enthusiasm for her new beliefs that seems TO HER to outweigh yours.  She will also try to use the argument that what is new is better -- that your ideas are antiquated, that this "new way" of following Christ is more loving, more merciful, more in tune with our souls and our changing world.  Educate yourself with knowledge of the history of The Church and the words of the Church Fathers, the great saints, and our holy Popes,so that you are immune to these arguments.  If the addict's mouth is moving, he is lying, and if the fallen away's mouth is moving, she is justifying, equivocating, and is quite likely very personally invested in covering up a secret sin. 

As painful as it is, you also need to recognize that your loved one may utilize some emotional blackmail.  Suddenly their love may seem conditional on YOU accepting their new identity as something other than YOUR definition (read the Church's definition!) of a Catholic.  You shouldn't engage in emotional manipulation, nor should you fall for it.  The truths of The Church speak for themselves, today more than ever before.  Those who stray from The Church rely heavily on pointing to the evils of the modern world as evidence that there either is "no God," or "many roads," when in fact, the evils of this age are a point for the side of the one True Church.  The practical and concrete examples are replete that demonstrate this: in every way that humanity strays from the teachings of Christ as guarded by The Church, economically, familially, sexually, humanity has failed miserably.  

Work on your own faith life.  That is the answer to nine out of ten, no -- make that ten out of ten conundrums faced by the Catholic evangelizer.  Study Scripture and the Catechism and know with every fiber of your being that the truths outlined therein are immutable and unchanging, not to be contradicted nor negotiated down.  If you find yourself backed into a corner and you can't discuss your way out, remember that there is only really one teaching that you must know,  and that is the teaching about authority.  Jesus Christ is all in all.  He is the one and only true Savior of our world, and He is God Himself. And Jesus Christ gave teaching authority to Peter, our first Pope, and He continues to guide the Church today.  If we do not believe this, if we do not KNOW this, then we shouldn't accept the Bible, or any of the teachings or examples of Christ! Either He is King or He isn't.  Either He guides The Church or He doesn't.  So if you are asked a question by an argumentative son or daughter that you don't feel prepared to answer in detail, you can say with confidence: "Because The Church teaches it." No further explanation is required, at least not in the heat of argument. Your confidence (particularly if you can keep your composure and not resort to yelling or emotionalism) will make an impression with your loved one, whether he admits it or not. 

Remember, never stop praying.  Pray over your loved one, pray with your loved one, and if at all possible, try to get that loved one to  Adoration.  Sitting in the presence of Jesus makes it much more difficult to disobey Him! His love is irresistible! 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Only Good Catholic

Driving my kids home from school on one of our faster moving country roads, I was stopped short by a dog wandering stupidly around the yellow lines.  I couldn't get out of the car to help because my son has a life-threatening allergy, so my frustration mounted as I realized that until someone else came along, I was now responsible for this creature's safety simply because I happened upon him at this moment in time.  I rolled down my window and attempted conversation, to no avail.  "Go away, boy! Get off the road!" I honked my horn.  I couldn't even inch my own vehicle up to try to demonstrate that this is what cars DO around here, because a good part of the time he was in my blind spot or right near my tires. "Dopey dog! I'm trying to save your life!" I felt tears threatening.  Finally a truck came in the opposite direction.  I beseeched the other driver to help and explained why my son's allergy precluded me from doing so.  The driver looked indifferent, and almost annoyed by the burden I was attempting to foist on to him.  My voice and probably my face became more pleading.  I hoped my emotion would show through.  "I have to get somewhere . . . " he started rolling ahead a bit.  "Please! Just get the dog off the road; bring him up to the man walking a ways back . . . anything.  I can't.  He'll get hit!" The driver knew it was true.  The road isn't very trafficked, nor policed, so it's a fast way to get where you need to go. 

I don't know what happened after I drove away.  My kids reassured Mom, as they are wont to do, that I had done everything possible under the circumstances.  Still, I felt the familiar pangs of conscience.  "What I have done, and what I have failed to do." Out loud, to them, I merely said, "It's the owner's fault.  A dog belongs on a leash. A beautiful animal like that." I trailed off.  I wasn't making sense anymore, even to myself.  This wasn't Queens.  This is rural Ohio, and farm people let their dogs and cats run amok.  

All my life I've encountered creatures run amok, it seems, and all hungry for something or someone.  I collect stray animals and stray people. I listen to strangers in the store. I keep a vault of secrets. I lend an ear, I lend money, I lend my heart.  I'm so often left with the question: "Did I do enough?" And the burning hot frustration that I had while evangelizing the dog on that country road is an all too familiar sensation as well.  "Why won't you listen to me? I'm trying to help you! I'm trying to save your life, dummy! Stop what you're doing and do what I tell you to do!" 

Is that reaction making helping others all about me? Is my heart so selfish? Maybe.  I have to learn to trust God to do the heavy lifting.  I have to learn to trust others in the same way I trusted the other driver that afternoon.  "He'll help the dog; he seemed like a nice man."  It's what I told my kids, but I only half believed the words as they came out of my mouth.  They were half whistling in the dark.  

The thing that's tempting as a Catholic is getting ahead of yourself.  We want to get everyone to Heaven, and we know that The Church is the way, so we want to get them in there pronto, and by any means necessary.  Time may be short.  There is an urgency, especially in these secular times, in a country so materially wealthy and educated but in such loathsome and egregious spiritual poverty.  We tend to raise our voices a little frantically, don't we? "Hey, dopey! I'm trying to save your soul! Get out of the mess you're in and do what I'm doing!" But the immediate hunger that the person we encounter may be one for food, or cash, or a punching bag.  Do we take care of the physical needs, those lowest on Maslow's hierarchy, before we address what WE know to be the "only thing that is needed?" 

"Society", for want of a less hackneyed term, may be answering that question for us.  It's telling us to shut up and hand over the material aid, just be quiet about it. In 2015 America, the only good Catholic is a bad Catholic.  They want our money, our hospitals, our foster homes, even our Pope.  What they DON'T want is our doctrine. Hey, even a broad swath of self-identifying Catholics don't want the doctrine -- they want the baptism, the First Holy Communion, and the big wedding. Every other day is a secular day, and you better keep your sappy, judgmental, archaic religious ya ya out of it. Sound familiar?  If you've been evangelizing anywhere in "real life" or online or even in your own neighborhood, it should.  But listen, this secularized society is just people.  They all need hope and they all need healing and they all need Heaven. 

Knowing that truth puts us ahead of the game. The dog might think that a romp on the double yellow line looks good right now, or he may just be confused and thirsty.  His immediate need was to get off the road, and I had to work with someone else, and have a little faith, and suffer a little, to help get him there. At the end of the day, I had to be satisfied with an unknown outcome.  Sometimes in evangelization we have to settle for the unknown outcome.  It's a lot like being a classroom teacher, or a parent.  We in the business of the human services may not see results for literally decades, if ever.  

What we can't afford is to let an opportunity for encounter go by without speaking the Truth, even if it seems to fall on willfully deaf ears.  No one will cross my path without knowing what I am and WHY.  Sure, I'll help you out, but you're going to remember that it was a Catholic who did the helping, not to give me credit or for me to look holy, or for me to FEEL holy, and not even for me to fulfill the Great Commission! You're going to remember I'm Catholic so someday when you are hungry for hope and healing and you're ready to get out of the road and come to safety, you will REMEMBER where the source of all real help is: the Church, WHO the source of all real help and hope is: JESUS, and why your hunger still isn't satiated, because you still haven't filled it with surrender, obedience, and the Eucharist.  

"There's a difference between being a nice person and being a doormat," someone once cautioned me.  Now I repeat that maxim to my kids, as they collect strays and give away what is dear to them, and pray for others, and shake their heads at the badness they see in the world around them.  I want them to tread carefully, to not get taken advantage of, but I have to teach them to help the hungry, no matter how obstinate or nasty or in denial the hungry are.  

I'm a bad Catholic, because I'm too comfortable.  Jesus told me to be perfect, and I'm not.  Jesus told me to be a fisher of men, but my bait doesn't always work.  Still, I'm driving down that untrafficked road, fast, so fast,  yelling at the deaf, trying to set aside my pride to trust my fellow drivers, trying to keep my kids and my husband safe, and always asking, "Did I do enough, Lord?" 

Why does the question haunt so? Because I know the only good Catholic is a saint. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Guest Post by Corey Grimley: A basis for Pope Francis’ “Healthy Decentralization” and embracing a “Synodal Church” is found in Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book, GOD OR NOTHING.

Nicole, thank you for asking me to write a guest blog post regarding our recent discussions.  On October 17, 2015, at the close of the recent Synod of Bishops, the Holy Father told the Synod Fathers that "the spirit of episcopal collegiality [remember this word] has not yet been fully realized. … As I have asserted, in a synodal Church 'it is not opportune that the Pope replace the local episcopates in the discernment of all the problems that present themselves in their territories.' In this sense, I feel the necessity to proceed in a healthy 'decentralization.'"  This statement by Pope Francis received immediate criticism, which argued that the “progressive Pope Francis” is now trying to undermine the unifying authority of Rome and the Papacy. 

Some Catholic groups quickly pointed out that Cardinal Francis Arinze, one of the very respected, conservative, African prelates, expressed concern if such a “decentralization” would mean that a “national bishops’ conference in one country [] would approve something, which, in another conference, would be seen as sin. … National bishops’ conferences are important and should have a clear role, but I don’t think it should include these areas.  It looks dangerously like nationalizing right and wrong.”

We are left with the question, “is the very idea of ‘healthy decentralization’ something in direct conflict with the authority of Rome?”  It appears that an answer may be found in a new book that George Weigel reported was very popular among the Synod Fathers:  “Cardinal Robert Sarah’s God or Nothing is the talk of the town — Rome — at the moment,” Weigel said.  Robert Royal, the editor of the Catholic Thing, told the National Catholic Register on October 7, 2015, during the Synod, that “Virtually everyone I know has been very impressed with [God or Nothing], so much so that many are already thinking [Cardinal Sarah’s] a prominent papabile at the next conclave,”.  

See It is important to note that Pope Francis obviously thinks quite a lot about the conservative Cardinal Sarah, as the Pope appointed him Prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments (one of the nine Roman Curia Prefects) in 2014.
So what does this very popular book among the Synod Fathers (maybe Pope Francis too?), written by a very respected, conservative Cardinal, have to say about “healthy decentralization” and a “Synodal Church”.  Quite a bit actually. 

In God or Nothing (“GN”), the interviewer, Nicolas Diat, on page 109 asks Cardinal Sarah, “Some commentators speak up often, calling for a new and authentic application of collegiality [there’s that word again] in the Church.  How do you see this problem?
In response, Cardinal Sarah begins by explaining that “[i]n the Church there has always been a willingness to consult with one another at the hierarchical level to examine important questions with a view to arriving at a common position of the bishops.”  Sarah goes on to explain that “[n]ecessary collegial consultation therefore does not abolish the autonomy and responsibility of the bishop in his own diocese [read:  healthy decentralization].  No one should feel obliged or forced by the collegial decision of the episcopate … .  Each bishop is responsible before God for the way in which he fulfills his episcopal responsibilities toward the flock that the Holy Spirit has entrusted to his protection.”  GN, p. 110.

“Synods, which are a highly successful form of implementing collegiality, are great moments in the life of the Church [read:  synodal church].  But the various forums must not demobilize the bishops or give them the sense that their powers of evaluation are diminished. … Pope Francis would like to increase collegiality, and I think that he is right.  Roman centrality has made important achievements possible, but it can also lead to a form of sclerosis.  For if the bishop’s responsibility is weakened, there is a problem of trust. [again, read:  healthy decentralization]”  GN, pp. 110-111.  Emphasis added.
After emphasizing the responsibility and autonomy of the bishops in their own dioceses, Cardinal Sarah, in differentiating between healthy versus unhealthy decentralization, goes on to explain that “Rome absolutely must keep the management of the apostolate as a whole. … [W]e would commit a grave sin against the unity of the Body of Christ and of the doctrine of the Church by giving episcopal conferences any authority or decision-making ability concerning doctrinal, disciplinary, or moral questions.” [See Cardinal Arinze comments, above]  Cardinal Sarah then quoted Pope Pius XII’s statements of November 2, 1954 regarding maintaining governmental uniformity among the bishops via “frequent communion with this Apostolic See [Rome].  … “Pius XII concluded: ‘This union and harmonious communication with the Holy See arises, not from a kind of desire to centralize and unify everything, but by divine right and by reason of an essential element of the constitution of the Church of Christ. …”  GN, p. 111.  Emphasis added.  What is implied is that the “centralization of everything” could “lead to a form of sclerosis,” as discussed above.

“[Pope Francis’] desire to foster synodal reflection is a fortunate initiative.  Indeed, the synod should become a new Emmaus experience during which the heart of the Church is burning with the fire of the Scriptures.”  GN, p. 112.  Amen.

As I was reading pages 110 – 112 of GN it struck me that maybe Pope Francis wasn’t left out when copies of GN were distributed to the Synod Fathers…?  If GN was (is) as popular among the Fathers as Weigel reported, when they heard the Pope’s statements of “healthy decentralization”, they may have thought quickly to these passages from GN and how both Pope Francis and Cardinal Sarah appear to share certain opinions regarding what valid reform can look like in the life of the Church.  

Thank you for asking me to provide this observation.  The observation was just one of the myriad of little things that make me love how hard our Church leaders work to make us a stronger Body of Christ.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Please Mind My Own Business

Fraternal correction is defined as the admonishing of one's neighbor with the purpose of reforming him, or, if possible, preventing his sinful indulgence in the first place.  The very idea of this makes America 2015 ™ cringe, because even to most Christians, those who are responsible for fraternally correcting each other, the concept of evaluating the behavior of another person is absolutely taboo if not wholly laughable.  How did we get here? Tons of hypocritical fraternal correction? Maybe, but I doubt it.  Because even if you are a moral zero, the truth is still the truth.  It doesn't care whose mouth it comes from. I should still recognize it as the truth.  The ten commandments recited by any mouth are the same words, and I need to heed them regardless of the identity of the messenger at the moment. 

Warnings of the wages of sin in today's first world are seen as disrespectful, antiquated, invasive, rude, uncool, judgmental, self-righteous and self-congratulatory.  They are almost never viewed, by the majority, as what they are intended to be: borne of love, or what they are commanded by God to be: a spiritual work of mercy. 

I'm fairly certain that fraternal correction gets a bad rap because no one wants to stop sinning, not because of a long history of fraternal correction gone awry.  The West praises and extols the open minded, open mouthed, enlightened, and progressive.  Consent is the singular litmus test for the inherent good of a human act. The only sin is to call something a sin. In this climate, the ultimate deference you can tribute to someone is to respect their choice, regardless of how destructive the consequences, respect their lifestyle, no matter how counter to the Gospel it screams.

The thing is, we do have to honor the conscience of our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we do have an obligation to stop tinkering in the lives of the unchurched if they tell us to bugger off.  But atheist Penn Jillette once observed that he had no patience for non-preaching Christians, because they were essentially watching him stand in the way of a speeding train, that is, if they really believed what they claimed to. So faced with these two poles, what does a well-intentioned Catholic do?

Maybe the answer is for each of us to make a statement about how we would receive fraternal correction, rather than writing and discussing how we would GIVE it.  So here's mine: I don't want to trade in Jesus for earthly popularity.  I don't want to trade in the Saints for street cred.  I don't want the mind of the Church replaced with the mind of the prevailing social trends.  I don't want to look to Eckhart Tolle or Oprah Winfrey or the Dalai Lama or Joel Osteen.  I don't want to evolve -- I'm fine with the 2000 year old unchanged and unchanging teachings of the Church founded by Jesus Christ.  I don't want to keep pace with the world.  Have you SEEN the world? 

So if you ever see my boat veering off the Tiber, or if I ever indicate to you whether by word or by action that I am any less committed to Christ, His one holy and apostolic Church, the Pope and the Bishops, Mary the Blessed Mother, the angels and Saints, and the deposit of faith protected by The Church, DON'T MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.  Mind MY business. Fraternally correct me.  Take me out to the woodshed. Warn me of the oncoming train. Push me out of the way, even if you break my arm or my pride in the process.  Even if you break our friendship in the process.  I beseech you and I demand it of you as it is your duty as a fellow Christian to protect me. 

Admonish me.  Rebuke me. Come to me with the Bible in one hand and the Catechism in the other.  Save me.  I may not say these words in the moment, so I am saying them now.  Correct me, my brother or sister, because the stakes are no less than my eternal soul.

If you feel similarly to me, please share this statement with me and with others.  

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Marriage Mirrors

My daughter is eleven, and she is putting together a wedding scrapbook.  This is something I never would have done at her age or any age.  Tom and I dated for SEVEN YEARS before getting married, and I was frightened of marriage, or, to put a finer point on it, frightened of divorce.  My parents were divorced, and several of my friends were going through the separations or divorces of THEIR parents.  The friends I had who were marrying didn't seem terribly happy, and a few of them were downright miserable or divorcing after only a few years of being married.  

Now my husband and I are in our mid to late forties, and we have been married for fourteen years.  The landscape around us has not improved.  We still know a minority of happy, fair, functioning marriages, and we are hearing news every week, it seems, of a new divorce, or a narrative from a friend about an extremely imperiled marriage.  We know a few long married folk who are basically putting their heads down and plowing through until death because they promised to, despite feeling completely regretful of their choice of spouse. 

I'm not exactly a marital advice-giver.  It's dangerous territory.  I also always feel like I'm cheating a bit because I think the quality of my marriage is largely due to my husband being a wonderful person.  I can give advice, but I can't give you him.  So there's that.  What I can do is observe and describe what I see around me, and hopefully learn from it by holding my marriage up to these mirrors and making sure the images don't match.  Maybe you can, too.

In at least two marriages I want to look at here, the wives seem to dislike their husbands intensely.  I'm talking eye rolls and groans at every word the guy says, every joke he tells, every parenting move he makes, any plans he suggests.  It's the total opposite of what you want your marriage to be--your spouse should be your best friend, a person who makes you laugh, whom you find interesting, whose company you enjoy.  I think what happened in these two cases was that the people dated for a while, then looked around and said, "Well, what's next? I guess we get married." There appears to be almost no common ground for married couples like this.  It's amazing that they even got together in the first place.  It's almost as if they were thrown together by someone who didn't know either one of them.  The wives don't "get" the husbands, what makes them tick, and the husbands seem intimidated by their wives.  The husbands' strategy becomes conflict avoidance. One man we know medicates with alcohol, another simply lives a life inside his own head, another trips over himself to appease the domineering woman.  This lack of respect paired with an apparent mismatch is a dreadful example for children, who look to their parents' marriage for an exemplar of what the entire Sacrament and institution should operate like.  A boy who sees his father bullied may grow up to be a bully himself, or become emotionally unavailable in order to avoid a commitment.  A girl whose mother egregiously disrespects Dad may grow up thinking men are useless buffoons, or she may look for a partner "tougher" than Dad is, and end up overshooting and getting hitched to a controlling man herself.  

Another phenomenon we have seen in the marital relationships around us is the old fashioned midlife crisis.  Today it's a 50/50 proposition--the woman is just as likely as her hubby to be struck by midlife lightning.  Suddenly married life is dull and unfulfilling and the grass just HAS to be greener on the other side. Often there is an urgent need to remake oneself and start over, leaving the starter spouse behind.  This is especially sad because it's probably so easily remedied.  If you reach a point in your marriage where you're feeling unattractive, afraid to die, like you missed out, or just plain bored, remember this little adage: the grass is greener where you water it. Cultivate the relationship you have before you start fantasizing about a new one.  Your spouse is your history, your other half, your very flesh.  If you're feeling a deficit of ANYTHING, he or she wants to know about it.  Together, you find a way to get past it, and the couples we know who have done this are better on the other end. 

The last and maybe most essential element that unhappily marrieds miss is the spiritual one.  We are creatures of a living God, and He provides us with a whole host of graces to help us stay contentedly wed until death do us part.  But if you start living two separate spiritual lives, and there is no union there, a real rift can and will develop.  For Catholic families, this translates to weekly Mass attendance, together, going to confession TOGETHER, prayer TOGETHER, and talking about the things of Heaven together! What is your marital conversation about? Make a quick pie chart.  Is it about fifty percent kids, thirty percent money, and twenty percent food and television? Make some time to talk about the biggies: Who is God to us? What do we think Heaven will be like? How are we going to help each other get there? How do you pray? Will you pray for me? 

Looking back, I wish I were the kind of little girl who had a wedding binder like my daughter does.  It shows me that she sees marriage as a beautiful and exciting thing.  She's not just into the wedding day -- she wants to BE married, be a wife and hopefully a mom.  She doesn't carry any of that toxic and paralyzing fear of commitment that I did.  And when I talk to her about weddings and marriage and what it's like to be a married woman, it gives me a chance to appreciate anew what I have.  I can tell her with certainty that I would marry her Daddy all over again, not because we are better than anyone else, or more virtuous, but because we truly have become one.  To love is to will the good of the other, and if we are both living out that definition of love to the best of our ability, then we can never stray too far off of God's path for us.  

If you are in an unhappy marriage right now, turn to your spouse and really look at him or her.  What did you fall in love with those years ago when you just KNEW this was "the one?" This is the same person.  Ladies, talk to your groom.  Men, talk to your bride.  Remember our definition of love: willing the good of the other. Before you jump to all the ways your spouse isn't loving you, answer the question -- are you loving your spouse? Hold your marriage up to these three "mirrors" and if you see any speck of similarity, rub it out.  Christ makes all things new, and He can give you a renewed marriage if you let Him into your home and into your hearts. 

Friday, June 5, 2015


Having my phone fixed a few weeks ago, I had some spare time to walk around by myself in a shopping center I usually don't patronize.  I used to really enjoy shopping -- it was a frequent pastime for me and my mom.  Now, without her, the bloom is off the rose.  Sometimes it's only a painful reminder that she isn't here to do these mundane things with me.  I walked into a high end store that she used to enjoy poking around in; to me, it was rather distasteful.  Overpriced cotton tee shirts sat in piles next to rustic looking wooden boxes and coffee mugs.  Everything had a contrived shabbiness.  I made a cursory examination of the racks of clothing and the tchotchkes, and then walked out, pushing the impossibly heavy door, tears burning my eyes.  

After my mother's illness and death, the entire world around me changed.  Suddenly everything was an assault on my senses, both the ugly and the sublime. Babies were more beautiful and miraculous, and more urgent reminders that I wanted more children.  Cruelty between people was unbearable to watch, and almost drove me to accost people in public and tell them how to parent or how NOT to treat their own parents.  The common thread was my new and almost completely empty identity.  My grief counselor explained: once you individuate from your mother, you 're going to do and say some things that surprise you. She was right. Slowly we pried me out of the semi-comfortable shell of grief. She helped give me my wings, but cautioned me about flying too high and too far.  

The temptation one faces after a great loss is to immediately fill in the hole with absolutely anything that is in arm's reach.  Any old addictions might likely rear their heads.  Material possessions might become more important, an easy and socially acceptable way to distract.  In any event, everything disappoints, which is rightly so, because only God satisfies, and only union with Him can begin to salve a wound as open and infected as the one a grieving or damaged person has. 

What we have to be tremendously cautious about is becoming obsessed with our own scars.  This can manifest in perseverating on our sob stories, our addictions, our illnesses, our past sins. Even when the events are long ago gone, we crawl back into the dark chasm of memory, talking about shades and shadows and calling it catharsis, when it's really just self-referential licking of wounds. I realized in grief therapy that I was hanging on to my grief for a payoff: it was keeping my mother alive, even if it was in her most awful incarnation -- the withering cancer patient.  The better way to remember her was as the nurturing and riotous woman she was for the first thirty-six years of my life, not the victim she became in the last year of hers.  

I am often sorely tempted to fall into a new abyss now with my chronic illnesses -- how easy it is to sit and feel sorry for myself! To review the humiliating tests I've been subjected to, to read more and more accounts of fellow sufferers.  A healthy amount of investigation and sharing is good; drowning in the culture of these diseasesis bad.  

Do you do this with any of your wounds? Do you delve back into your past or dive down into the basement of your addictions and weaknesses? Do you turn these things around in your mind, looking at every angle, mourning the injuries caused or congratulating yourself smugly for surviving? Again, a healthy dialogue is a good; a constant inner monologue is bad. 

The remedy to this interior wheel-spinning was and is found in a devotion to and contemplation on the wounds of Christ.  When I first entered RCIA, it was a devotion I felt mildly uncomfortable with--concentrating on each wound, two in the hands, two in the feet, one in His side. . . I shrunk back from looking at them.  Then I realized why. Because I inflicted them.  We all did.  With my sins of omission and commission, I struck the blows and drove in the nails.  No small wonder that I wanted to avert my gaze.  Now I feel compelled to share with anyone who will listen that this devotion, this contemplation and reflection of His wounds, can bring us closer to Jesus than we ever imagined, AND have the double benefit of cutting down our own selfish and punishing concentration on our OWN sorrows.  There are many websites, books, pamphlets, and blogs that detail and educate about the wounds of our Savior.  Resources are never in short supply for the Catholic who wants to dig into his or her faith! If you find any that are or have been particularly valuable to you, I would love for you to share them with me and other readers.

For me, looking at the wounds of Jesus means gazing upon His beautiful face first.  Then, the crown of thorns. Then on to the five wounds themselves.  Take some time to think about and pray on each one.  Don't pull back if you feel uncomfortable or sad -- think about what He did for you, about the love He has for all of us, that He endured this for your soul and mine! To enable your soul to be cleansed, His flesh took the unspeakable blows that appeared to defeat Him.  But there is no defeat in Christ.  By His stripes, we are healed.  No need to relive our past sins.  No need to think in circles about the object of our addiction.  No need to look upon ourselves as objects of pity or arrogantly stare at ourselves as survivors of trauma.  We did none of it! Only God's grace brought us out of the pit! Don't turn around and stare back.  Don't be Lot's wife. Instead, look only in to the bloody wounds of Jesus, your beloved.  Yes, you will feel pain, guilt, shame, and regret.  Don't stay there in those feelings too long -- turn it all into love for Jesus, gratitude to Him for the ultimate sacrifice, and a new resolve.  

What is the essence of that resolve? To begin again, with sincerity and humility, with the risk of living at odds with "the world," to face each day with a determination to avoid the occasion of sin. To never take lightly or wink away a sin that He was whipped and beaten for, tortured and humiliated for.  Look forward -- to what He has awaiting you in Heaven.  Look up -- at the infinite love He offers you today and every day in the Eucharist. There is one and only one purpose to life: to become a saint. The saints knew how to tolerate their own wounds gracefully, how to turn solitude into praise instead of self-indulgent isolation, how to love Jesus well, and obey Him with focus and consistency.  Can I go and do likewise? Am I able? No, not on my own, but with the graces obtained in the Sacraments, and with my willingness, I can stop staring into the void and start squinting out of these unaccustomed eyes to see a glimpse of what He has prepared for me.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Beauty Will Draw Them In

I have heard it frequently said that we must evangelize through beauty, and I wholeheartedly agree. My definition of beauty is a broad one.  Actually, beauty has been of great interest to me since I was a child.  I have always been able to see beauty in everyone, some feature, some sign, some unnamed energy even.  Have you ever looked at the face of an elderly person and seen someone more beautiful than a painted runway model?  Have you ever encountered a difficult person and somehow despite their seemingly purposeful mission to hurt you, you have seen a salvific beauty there? Beauty is truth, and truth beauty.  We should meditate on these words often.  Creating interest in the Catholic life is something we all want to do, and I'm grateful that God has provided us so many and various beautiful helps.  If these earthly things are but a minuscule foretaste of Heaven, then we are in for unspeakable ecstasy if we are blessed someday to see the Beatific Vision. 

This is what most Catholics and even many seculars mean when they refer to the beauty of The Catholic Church.  Soaring Cathedral ceilings, the unspeakable beauty of The Mass, the pageantry that our Lord fully present in the Eucharist deserves.  Few people can resist the smells, sounds, and vibrations in the air that are experienced during the Mass.  If you don't find this beautiful, you may not like Heaven very much, since the Bible and Tradition tells us that Heaven will be nonstop worship of God. The Mass, in a very real way, is Heaven on earth. And to think, you can have it every single day, no matter where you are in this world. 

I can think of few things as beautiful as serving others.  This is what we were conceived for -- to help, hold, feed, wash, instruct, and love the other. 

Our Blessed Mother is beauty personified.  No one knows exactly what she looked like on earth or now, as Queen of Heaven.  In my heart and my dreams she appears as a healer, a mother, a friend, sometimes very young and sometimes, her face etched with pain. 

The sorrow of Mary has its own tragic beauty.  Anyone who has mourned a loved one, or suffered deeply in any way, should cling to Mary.  She is not a distant icon.  She is as close to you as you allow her to be, beloved Mama of the boy Jesus, the woman who carried Jesus inside of her for nine months, felt his kicking inside of her, and finally watched him slowly die on a cross.  She can take your pain, too, and share the burden of it with you.  Hers is not a superficial beauty, but a supernatural one. 

Life is beautiful.  FIghting for life is our mission as the Body of Christ, because one of the tenets of our faith is that every life has dignity and beauty.  The least among us is not always a beautiful child awaiting adoption.  Sometimes the least among us is what the secular world calls a blob, or a parasite, or a "product of conception." To us, this life is beautiful, because God made it and endowed it with His presence from the second of fertilization. 

Laughter is beautiful.  God wants us to be joyful, silly and easily fascinated like little children.  Many of us are just about beaten down with pressures and pains.  If we can show the world joy in spite of that, then truly we are witnesses of Christ's redemptive love. 

Peace is beautiful.  Keeping silent instead of having the last word.  Protecting someone else when it will reduce your own popularity to do so.  Nurture peace in your own heart instead of discord, competitiveness, and jealousy. 

So many times, what the world calls ugly is really beautiful.  Beauty, as we have heard ad infinitum, is in the eye of the beholder.  This is true in the Catholic life.  As the beholder, you have the opportunity, the responsibility, and the God-given gift to see beauty where others are limited to only seeing deformity, disability, weakness, and imperfection.  The secular world has fooled itself in to believing that beauty is something that man can make! How silly and prideful we are! How arrogant!  How fervently you should pray that your eye can see the beauty of the all knowing, all powerful God's hand in every creature rejected by this dark, cynical, materialistic world. 

Evangelize through beauty?  Yes! But don't put beauty in the one box that you are comfortable with at this point in your spiritual journey.  Let Christ show you, through His words and through humble receiving of the Eucharist, how very near to you true beauty is, and how far above you you have convinced yourself it resides. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Prodigal You Love -- Review of the book by Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP

Before I moved to Ohio and began my conversion process, I knew more fallen away Catholics than active, adherent ones.  Catholicism in New York City and the surrounding suburbs appeared to be strictly a childhood religion that people abandoned as soon as they left the restaurant after their Confirmation party.  A good number of Catholics I knew still wanted very much to marry in the Catholic Church and have their own children receive the Sacraments therein, but weekly Mass was OUT of the question, too big of a demand on their time and their wallets. They resented the offering plate heartily, and disagreed with many of the Church's teachings, especially those that Protestant ecclesial communities have long since caved on like abortion, contraception, and extramarital sexual relations.  

Noble's book, The Prodigal You Love, deftly weaves the author's own spiritual journey to the fullness of the faith with an instruction manual on how to invite your own friends and family  members back to Catholicism without being too heavy handed, nor so passive that you seem not to care a whit for their souls.  

One theme Noble covers that I see almost every day is the Catholic challenge to the fallacy that one's religious beliefs must needs fly out the window once a certain level of education is reached.  The false choice here is: you can be an intellectual or you can be religious.  Pick one.  This is so obviously inane to anyone who knows the history of the Church, her contributions and the contributions of her members to science, to art, even down to the initial model of the university.  But many laypeople and secularists buy into this, and the poorly catechized Catholic may begin to feel self-conscious when her religious faith is seen as the only stumbling block in a room full of serious and sophisticated, politically correct folks attempting to justify the latest aberration of the natural law. The fact of the matter is that if you know the WHY behind the Church teaching, you need never feel awkward amongst ANY group of people, regardless of how progressive and anti-Catholic they show themselves to be. 

What do both "sides" need to find, according to Noble?  Humility.  She writes:
"Humility is a virtue that is not afraid to play in the dirt.  The very word derives from the Latin word for dirt or soil, humus. . . humility speaks regularly to God, as one would with a friends, but also sees clearly that God is above human understanding. . . Everyone has dirty toes; the humble person is just aware of it." So Noble suggests that we approach our loved ones with humility if we ever hope to get a response in kind.  If the friend or relative feels like you are simply saying "My way is right and yours is wrong," he or she is likely to have a less than gracious response.  Author Theresa Noble states, "We need to become humble because our false selves do not know how to evangelize; they are too busy focusing on themselves!" 

One of Noble's most intriguing formulas is, "Establish trust, attract, then challenge." Now how many of us have that completely backwards in our attempts to evangelize? I know I see it on an almost daily basis! Armchair apologists are starting with the "challenge" and it is NEVER received well by the person they are seeking to evangelize! How could it be? How will you draw someone into The Church if you seem as arrogant and intolerant as the world does? Then you are no different from the world, so what is attractive about you and your religion? Remember: Jesus is attractive.  He is love. He is beauty.  If you are being rejected, you are not showing enough of Jesus; you are showing yourself.

Noble tells us from experience that if a fallen away Catholic is very much into New Ageism, secularism, Eastern practices, or a charismatic Christian community, they may not have ears to hear you because they believe they are being "fulfilled" where they are.  Until the novelty wears off, you must be patient.  Noble says, "We have a responsibility to share with our loved ones the beauty of salvation within The Church, wherever they may be in their spiritual journey.  We do this with words if possible, but sometimes we are called to communicate it in other ways, namely by the witness of our lives . . . our faith speaks when WE live it to the fullest, when we abandon ourselves to God's plan." 

I loved Noble's book because she touched on the theme of unconditional love, which is a constant thread in my writing and in my life.  Having lost my mother and suffering from complicated grief syndrome, I wasn't quite sure why I wasn't getting any better.  What I was missing was the unconditional love my mother offered me, and I didn't think anyone else did. Noble points out that the people we are trying to evangelize must see our sincerely unconditional love. "If our love for others is contingent rather than unconditional, it will most likely lead to a breakdown in our relationship with that person. The root of the difficulty often lies in a lack of respect for the free will of the person we love . . . . shown through manipulation, by ceasing contact as a kind of punishment, or showing constant displeasure with the person, believing our disapproval will change him or her.  When we fall into manipulative tactics, we can be sure that this typically ineffective behavior grows out of a desire to control another person, which does not come from love. . . although it can certainly be said that God doggedly pursues our souls, he does so in complete respect for our free will."

The most poignant and important section of the book for me is the one on prayer (and in fact, Noble provides an addendum with some beautiful, key prayers  at the end of the book).  She establishes that prayer DOES make a difference, and is an essential part of evangelization, perhaps the cornerstone of it!  Here Noble recalls C.S. Lewis' idea that God created us so that we would be able to make things happen through both physical and spiritual action, or prayer.  "When we pray," Noble writes, "we are opening a door for grace.  We can count on this reality, just like we can count on opening an unlocked door if we push it open."

In the past, I have reviewed and recommended several books for the seeker.  But if you are looking for a book to aid you in evangelizing someone who is NOT seeking right now, but to whom you would love to give the gift of the fullness of the faith as manifested exclusively in the Catholic Church, then this book is a necessary tool for you.  Noble's style is friendly and readable, but extremely well-researched.  Parts of the book serve as an ideal examination of conscience, one in which we must participate before we go about the business of trying to get ourselves involved in someone else's spiritual life!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Lemons and Moons, or "How to Love"

When my grief counselor asked me to explain why I felt the loss of my mother so acutely, I couldn't come up with my own language for it.  It was all so natural and obvious to me.  She was my mother! But not everyone has a mother like my mother, I learned, so first we had to define and discuss the relationship, and then we could delve into the ramifications of its earthly end.  My therapist asked me to describe the relationship dynamic in one sentence.  Still, the words would not, could not, be my own.   I gave her an old saying I remembered; maybe it was Chinese--I didn't recall.  But it fit: "My mother gave me the moon; I had asked for a lemon." 

That really was it in a nutshell -- the overgiving, the extra mile, the details of my life and my feelings and my health that never slipped her mind.  Any need I had became a need SHE wanted to see fulfilled, and then some. My mother knew how to talk to me -- never with yelling or impatience -- that makes me simply shut down like a computer in sleep mode -- but always from her heart, and WITH her heart, not with her own expectations of her own needs as an ulterior motive.  

It occurs to one that this is a Christlike love, always based in truth, always exactly what we need exactly when we need it, and always more than we could ever imagine.  So many of us are trudging through life just hoping to leave here with a lemon, and Jesus wants to give us the moon.  

My mother's possessions were increasingly meaningless to her after she reached her late fifties.  If I admired something of hers, a piece of jewelry or a blouse, she'd ask, "You want it?" I would protest, but she would often force it on me.  There was no property line between "hers" and "mine" on her map.  I don't think I could even begin to understand that until I met my husband, and I learned that I could give that kind of love, too, not just revel in receiving it.   Parenthood should bring us there, should be the tutorial on selfless, BIG love.  For most parents I think it is.  For some, sadly, it's not, and selflessness remains a foreign concept and an untried practice. 

The truth is, we Catholics are ALL called to love each other in this way.  And learning THAT is where the sin of presumption crumbles and falls to the ground.  Any thought you have that you are a straight shot to Heaven because of earthly displays of reverence, numbers of Rosaries prayed, adherence to moral laws, observance of holy days, just flies out the window when you ask yourself to answer with brutal and complete candor:  Whom do I love? REALLY love?  My husband and children? A few friends? Siblings? Even the tax collectors and Pharisees do that much! And HOW am I loving them? Conditionally? That is not love--that is loving the way they make me feel, loving what they can do for me and how they can enhance my life. 

Do you offer unconditional love to all your brothers and sisters in Christ?  To every person who bears the Imago Dei? Do you recognize the dignity and the lovableness of every single person around you, every beautiful sacred soul you encounter during your day? How on earth can we achieve this? Maybe we can't on earth, you answer.  This side of Heaven, I'll never love my ex-wife, you say.  I'll never love the men on death row.  I'll never love a member of ISIS. I'll never love an active homosexual, parading around in blatant disobedience to God.  I'll never love an anti-Catholic bigot. Maybe in Heaven I can do that, but not here, not without God perfecting my soul first! But we are called to be perfect, as our Father is perfect.  Can't achieve that with strangers? Okay . . . 

Do you even offer unconditional love to your spouse and children? Your parents? Your siblings and closest friends? How would they answer that question?  Do they feel that your love is unconditional and over the top? Do they feel that your love is spilling over the brim of their cup, showing them the heart of Jesus that YOU embody as a Catholic? 

On my first night of RCIA, I was so ready and eager that I was practically jumping out of my skin.  I had my notebook and pen, my Bible, my Catechism.  We assembled at the long conference table and prayed.  Then, after we all introduced ourselves and gave a little background, Sister began the first "lesson." On a piece of paper, we were to answer the question: "Who is God?" I looked around the table, waiting for the rest of my group to have a reaction.  Who is God?  What kind of question is that? I'm here for the Catholic stuff! I know the basics already! I've read the entire Bible! Twice! Come on, let's get to the saints and the incense and the blood and guts of the theology! I'm ready!

But I wasn't ready.  Sister Ann Marie and Father Tom showed me that in short order.  To undergo "conversion," was not just a matter of signing my name and changing my title. It was about learning what love is.  To correct the errors of Protestantism, we didn't look at a chart showing the differences, what was lopped off after the Reformation, and how many denominations exist today, no--we had to go right to the root.  "Who do you say I am?" Who is God?  You say you want to serve God?  Who is this God you want to serve? Shouldn't you know? Do you know God as well as you know your spouse? The gal you're dating? Your best friend?  Do you understand that "God is love" is not simply a maxim written on posters in Christian schools all over the country?  This is the God, the only God, Being itself.  In fact, I think the statement has more impact in reverse: "Love is God." All good things are God.  All goods are from God and of God.  Any good you see in anyone, even if that person has committed many evil acts, is of God.  There is something of God in that person, and that person automatically gets love from God's followers.  That's the rule.  That's Catholicism.  

So if my neighbor asks me for a lemon, he should get the moon.  It all sounds beautiful, you say, until your neighbor is a hostile fellow who is quite possibly mad and perverted, and you wouldn't hand him a lemon with a ten foot pole over an eight foot fence, no less give him "the moon," whatever that means. Life, lived on the average Tuesday, with its many challenges and cheats, disappointments and drama, seems somehow like an unfair testing ground for this "love" stuff.  It seems more like a battlefield than a lovefest.  Well, that's appropriate, because we are all in a battle, every day of our lives, but it's not a battle against each other, it's a battle FOR each other.  To save souls, not to win against them. To do better by our neighbor, not to do better THAN our neighbor. 

The mistake we make is the mistake I made that first night of RCIA. We want to do what we see as the "big" stuff, the heavy lifting of Catholicism, defending dogma with our super bionic knowledge of Ludwig Ott, chairing five different committees at our parish, or, God forbid, but yes, we have all seen it, looking down on all the right people.  The practice of religion is much more elementary, as God Himself has told us: caring for widows and orphans.  And not just by slipping a check into an envelope.  That's the lemon.  The moon is when you go to your neighbor's mailbox and put an unsigned "thinking of you" card in it, and  a few flowers from your garden. 

Flowers for your enemy? Yes and no. The flowers are for God, and from God.  Give more than you can bear to give -- and you will be refilled over and over again.  

Then ask God for the moon, and see what happens.  Wow.  Get back to me with what He does next, because, my friend, it will be nothing short of miraculous.