Friday, December 21, 2007

Me? Evangelize?

Merry Christmas, dear readers! This week if you have a little extra time in your Christmas stocking, be sure to join Ebeth at A Catholic Mum Climbing the Pillars, where she has posted the Christmas edition of "Catholic Carnival" this week. Thanks, Ebeth!

“...there is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know him and to talk to others of our friendship with him”. (CDF, "Doctrinal Note on Some Aspects of Evangelization," 7).

Lately I've been thinking about what it means to "evangelize," something we as Catholics are all called to do. As a convert to the faith, it occurs to me that my perspective on this subject may be somewhat different from that of some cradle Catholics.

First, I have experienced firsthand effective evangelization (as opposed to "evangelism," the word most frequently used by Evangelical Christians). My preconceptions and misgivings about the Church crumbled like a proverbial house of cards largely thanks to the dedicated friendships of brothers and sisters in Christ who took to heart the admonition of St. Francis of Assisi: "Preach the Gospel; when necessary, use words."

Ordinary, Extraordinary Grace

Ironically, none of these grace-filled individuals were apologists or catechists. Rather, they were "ordinary" and usually soft-spoken channels of extraordinary grace.

The Catholic college friend who continued to support me in my missionary work (in Senegal) even after she learned that I hesitated to take her money because she wasn't a "real" Christian.

The Catholic mother of a school friend who visited me in the hospital and figured out how to wash my hair for the first time in many weeks.

The Catholic boyfriend (I write about him in greater detail in the March/April issue of "Canticle) whose example made me search out for myself whether Catholics are, in fact, "saved."

I do not write these things to minimize the importance of catechetics and apologetics. Once my heart was open to receive truth, my mind was persuaded by the books and tapes and teachings. Like many converts, I soaked up the eloquence of Scott Hahn, Karl Keating, and (in my case) Sheldon Vanauken. But my heart was wooed and won by the patient, unfailing love of simple humility ... and sheer grace.

And so, I read with interest the Holy Father's recent letter on evangelization, and his acknowledgment that this important work is about much more than imparting dogma. He writes: "... to evangelize does not mean simply to teach a doctrine, but to proclaim Jesus Christ by one’s words and actions, that is, to make oneself an instrument of his presence and action in the world" (CDF, "DNSAE", 2).

Evangelization vs. "Evangelism"

Which brings me to the second half of my reflection on evangelization, namely, my experiences of evangelism (i.e. my efforts to bring others to Christ as an Evangelical Christian).

I had nearly completed my Bible school studies when a certain guest lecturer addressed my class on the importance of "church planting." Soon the idea caught on, and many of my classmates made exalted plans to form teams and go off to the most remote parts of the world to start a church (in most cases, having never started one here at home).

This didn't make sense to me; I had decided my time was better spent by reaching out to local immigrants and teaching them English as a Second Language (ESL). I said as much to one of my professors, who actually patted me on the head and said, "That's OK, Heidi. You go ahead and teach English ... the rest of us will get on with God's work!"

I had been instructed in the finer points of street preaching, door-to-door witnessing, and homiletics. I wasn't afraid to witness to the truth. But it seemed to me that the most effective witness is based not on sheer eloquence alone, but on relationship. And that, I realized, required time. I had listened with an increasing sense of discomfort as classmates (and a few of my teachers) come back from "witnessing," declaring with great pride how they had silenced their opponent with their finely honed arguments. They had stripped away lies and exposed falsehoods, lobbing Bible verses like so many Molotov cocktails. As I listened, however, I wondered: Is the whole point of evangelism to silence opponents, or lead them to Jesus?

When I raised this point, however, they silenced me as well. "Don't you know, Heidi, that while you're teaching nouns and verbs and ladling soup, souls are going to hell every day? Don't you know that, because you have not shared the Gospel as clearly and forcefully as you should, YOU are responsible for their fate?"

Squirming at the possibility that they might be right, I began to take a more direct approach, spending part of each "lesson" trying to persuade people to accept Jesus. The sense of urgency began to border on obsession. What if this was the last time I ever saw these people, and they died that night without ever praying the Sinner's Prayer? Would they one day (at the Judgment Seat) accuse me of not trying hard enough to show them the truth?

There was another problem as well: It began to dawn on me that I had become so preoccupied with the state of other people's souls, I did not give much thought to my own. I had already "accepted Jesus," you see -- and so there was no need to worry about the state of my own soul. I was going to heaven. Gossip ... resentment ... anger ... even lies. None of it mattered, or so I thought; the blood of Jesus covered me.

Years later, I was struck by the fact that no one -- not even the director of the RCIA program -- used an ounce of force to convince me to become Catholic. "Don't worry, Heidi," she consoled me when I confessed a few weeks before the Vigil that I still didn't "feel at peace" about joining them. "If you decide not to enter the Church at this Vigil, God may have other plans for you. Obviously you love God and want to do His will. Relax, and let things unfold a bit more. There is no hurry ... God has all the time in the world."

It was precisely what I needed to hear. The knot in the pit of my stomach unraveled, and I went to my first sacramental confession knowing that -- whatever else happened to me -- God knew my heart belonged to Him.

"...every activity of the Church has an essential evangelizing dimension and must never be separated from the commitment to help all persons to meet Christ in faith, which is the primary objective of evangelization: 'Social issues and the Gospel are inseparable. When we bring people only knowledge, ability, technical competence and tools, we bring them too little'" (CDF, "DNSAE", 2).

Church Girl Runs Home ... to Rome

This is the title of my conversion story, part of which I have already written about here. It has been a little disorienting, at times, to encounter Catholics who -- with all the best intentions -- "defend" Christ and His Church with the same zeal I used to encounter in the Evangelical camp. I have to remind myself that zeal has its place, that truth sometimes does cut like a sword, that the "faith warrior" has an important place in the Kingdom of God.

And yet, there is room for the more cautious among us as well. There is a need for medics as well as soldiers; mothers who nurture as well as fathers who lead. In His Mercy, God has given me a glimpse of certain dangers so I can avoid them. To do that, He led me from church to church -- and at times, even from country to country.

As a "Cross-Cultural Catholic," I depend on God's grace to carry on the work He gives me to do with a measure of humility and prudence, knowing how easy it can be to fall.

"Indeed, since the day of Pentecost, the Church has manifested the universality of her mission, welcoming in Christ the countless riches of peoples from all times and places in human history. Beyond its intrinsic anthropological value, every encounter with another person or culture is capable of revealing potentialities of the Gospel which hitherto may not have been fully explicit and which will enrich the life of Christians and the Church. Thanks to this dynamism, 'tradition, which comes from the Apostles, makes progress in the Church by the help of the Holy Spirit'” (CDF, DNSAE, 6).

Friday, December 14, 2007

Venite Adoremus ...

Yesterday I got a card in the mail from my daughter's religious education teacher, thanking me for inviting her to our church's Advent tea. I was so touched that she would make such a special effort (a lovely handwritten note accompanied the card) to thank me for the invitation. Especially since she goes to so much trouble every week to help my daughter to grow up to know and love God!

Her note reminded me of how little it takes sometimes to be a force for good in another person's life. As Catholics, we are sometimes hesitant to extend an invitation to church to a friend or neighbor. This is one area that comes more readily to converts (at least those from evangelical traditions), who have been on the receiving end of that invitation, and know what a difference that casual invitation can make!

Is there someone in your life God is asking you to reach out to, to show some "spiritual hospitality" to this individual? Perhaps for midnight Mass, or Christmas morning (followed by brunch). Or perhaps it is a softly-spoken word of correction or insight at the holiday table. Sometimes a gentle prompting is all that is needed to return a lost sheep to the safety of the fold!

Monday, December 03, 2007

Death of Evel

This week's Catholic Carnival (#148) is being hosted by Bryan Murdaugh. Stop by and see some of the thought provoking posts that were contributed this week!

Bobby "Evel" Knievel, the 70s icon of daring-do, has died. At 69, he had spent most of his adult life defying death and avoiding the IRS, but in the end Knievel did not prevail ... at least, not with the Grim Reaper.

I didn't know Mr. Knievel, who was a complex figure even to those who knew him well. Last year he "found God" at Robert Schuller's Crystal Cathedral, where the Rev. Schuller, Sr., baptized him after a profession of faith.

This much I do know: To suggest that we can "ride like the devil" for most of our lives with impunity, so long as we pay God a certain amount of lip service before the final credits roll, is a gamble even more foolhardy than Mr. Knievel's ill-fated leap across the Snake River.

Authentic faith gives us courage to walk the purgative, illuminative, and unitive way; step by step, we extricate ourselves by God's grace from the stubborn bits of self that keep us from experiencing the Fatherhood of God in a way that is ... well, childlike.

Many Christians go through life presuming on the mercy of God. This is the single most damnable flaw of "sola fidae": Those who think they have found a spiritual loophole in God's system of cosmic justice. They don't worry about the long-term effects of pride, or greed, or even lust; they can point to a place and time when they prayed the "Sinner's Prayer," they trust their name has been written in the Lamb's Book of Life in indelible ink. But Jesus warns ...

"Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? And in thy name have cast out devils? And in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I NEVER KNEW YOU: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matt 7:20-23)

Read that again. Now, who in their right mind would prophesy and exorcise demons and even minister in the name of Christ, who did not also sincerely believed himself (or herself) to be a Christian? Does this sound like someone unfamiliar with the Scriptures? Like someone who has never responded to an altar call?

God never intended any of us to be a spiritual Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, this tale of spiritual isolationism is found again and again in Church history -- both ancient and present day, up to and including church hoppers and shoppers. All of them "feel led" or believe "God told me" to put their own souls in spiritual jeopardy, never considering the possibility that the still, small voice to which they were listening might have malevolent intentions. For centuries men and women have twisted the Scriptures to fit their preconceived agendas; they "felt led" ... all the way to hell.

Which is why Jesus did not leave us with a book ... but with a body of believers who were entrusted to pass His message on to others. He knew a book could be misinterpreted and misconstrued (even with the very best of intentions), and that His Holy Spirit could keep the sheep safe only so long as they stayed in the fold. "I am the Good Shepherd..."

In his new encyclical, Spe Salvi, the Holy Father instructs the faithful on the hidden realities behind the sacrament of Baptism, the rite by which all believers are united in saving faith:

[Baptism] is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for hte one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child -- eternal life. Faith is the substance of hope. But then the question arises: do we really want this -- to live eternally? Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment. Spe Salvi 10

Do the absolute claims of Christ and His Church make you uncomfortable? Do not put too much store in your own "feelings," or blame the tuggings of your own preconceived ideas of how God operates on the Holy Spirit. Jesus never said that the narrow way would be easy or well-lit. (Though He did promise respite for those weary of the struggle.) Instead He calls us to be soldiers, giving us weapons equal to the battle. He fortifies us with sacraments of initiation and healing, and sends us out to do battle -- first, within ourselves.

As we enter this Advent season, let us always keep in mind that the enemy's greatest trick is one of distraction. So long as our eyes are on the perceived "enemy," he is free to work all kinds of mischief in us. The subtle (or not so subtle) spiritual pride that causes us to look down on a brother or sister in Christ, the feelings of anger and offense at some perceived slight, the "busyness" that keeps us from choosing the work God most wants us to accomplish.

One of my spiritual mothers, Amy Carmichael, wrote a lovely hymn that expresses it so well (to the tune "Faith of Our Fathers":

From Prayer That Asks

From prayer that asks that I may be
Sheltered from winds that beat on Thee,
From fainting when I should aspire,
From faltering when I should climb higher.
From all that dims Thy Calvary,
O Lamb of God, deliver me!

From subtle love of softening things
From easy choices, weakenings
Not thus are spirits fortified
Not this way went Thy Crucified
From silken self, O Captain, free
Thy soldier who would follow Thee.

Give me the love that leads the way,
The faith that nothing can dismay,
The hope no disappointments tire,
The passion that would burn like fire!
Let me not sink to be a clod;
Make me Thy fuel, O Flame of God.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Woman Behind the Man ... Mrs. Carol Paul

I recently came upon this essay written by Dr. Ron Paul's wife, and wanted to share it with those who are interested in learning a bit more about the background of this impressive presidential candidate. She's every bit as impressive as her husband -- sounds like ideal First Lady material!

Catholics for Ron Paul ... a flicker of hope in the dismal American Political Landscape.

Recently my interest was piqued by a group I encountered who have found what appears to be a presidential candidate faithful Catholics can vote for with enthusiasm. "Catholics for Ron Paul." are enthusiastically endorsing this straight-talking bundle of integrity, Dr. Congressman Ron Paul, as someone to take note of for a variety of reasons (not the least of which is he might give the Grand Old State of Texas reason to hold its head high again):

* He has an uncompromisingly pro-life record, having himself delivered more than 4000 children in his obstetric career, many of them for little or no pay (he won't take Medicaid). That alone is reason to make a hefty donation to his campaign, which you may do by clicking here.

* He is best known in Washington for his reluctance to spend a dime of taxpayer's money on anything not expressly provided for in the U.S. Constitution (he has refused both the "cadillac" medical plan to which those on Capital Hill are entitled and the standard, unbelievably generous retirement package to which he is also entitled on the grounds that a public servant should not live better than his constituents). As you might imagine, this has not made him exceedingly popular among career politicians ... but to those of us who have watched with growing dismay as the current administration continues to spend money we don't have, to fight for "democracy" in countries that do not appear to be wildly excited about the idea while our own people are struggling to stay afloat, this guy is a breath of fresh air.

* He is a staunch advocate of subsidiarity, a principle of Catholic social justice that indicates that problems are best handled by those closest to it who have been given the power to exact necessary change. For example, this post at CRP discusses how the press has twisted Paul's stand on prostitution, which is that it should be removed from Federal control and handed back to individual states. (This is similar to what would happen to the "right to abortion" in the event Roe v. Wade is overturned.)

* Barring a miracle (one we would all do well to work together for), the truth is that right now Congressman Paul has a hard battle ahead of him to make it anywhere near the White House (he ran on the Libertarian ticket once before and garnered less than a half a million votes). However, he is absolutely a candidate we could (and perhaps should) vote for with a clear conscience. Paul's book A Foreign Policy of Freedom is a startlingly insightful and timely read for anyone wondering how the heck we are ever going to extricate ourselves from the Middle-Eastern Mess. I'd like to offer a few examples here for your general edification:

"The responsibility of the administration and Congress is to promote security for our nation and to seek peace and harmony with all nations. Pursuing a policy of free trade with all and not giving aid to allies or potential adversaries would do more to enhance peace and properity than any attempt to guarantee borders in the Middle East or anywhere else" (1983, p. 22-23)

"Thousands of men and women have come and gone here ... except for the few, most go unnoticed and remain nameless in the pages of history, as I'm sure I will be. The few who are remembered are those who were able to grab the reins of power and, for the most part, use that power to the detriment of the nation. We must remember achieving power is never the goal sought by a truly free society. Dissipation of power is the objective of those who love liberty" (p.40).

"We pay for bridges and harbors throughout the world and neglect our own. If we feel compulsion to spend and waste money, it would make more sense at least to waste it at home. We build highways around the world, raise gasoline taxes here, and routinely dodge potholes on our own highways. Why do we cut funding for day care centers and Head Start programs before cutting aid to the Communists, Socialists, and international bankers?" (p.47).

"The idea that support for the troops once they are engaged means we must continue the operation, no matter how ill-advised, and perpetuate a conflict that makes no sense is what President Clinton is depending on..." (1997, regarding Bosnian conflict, p.61).

"We urge the Catholics and Protestants to talk to each other; we urge the Israelis and Palestinians to talk to each other. Even at the height of the Cold War, when the Soviet Union had missiles pointed at us from 90 miles away in Cuba, we solved the dispute through dialogue and diplomacy. Why is it, in this post-Cold War era, that the United States seems to turn first to the military to solve its foreign policy problems? Is diplomacy dead?" (2001, in opposition to the U.S. House Resolution on Iraq, p.183).

"Excessive meddling in the internal affairs of other nations and involving ourselves in every conflict around the globe has not endeared the U.S. to the oppressed of the world. ... To dismiss terrorism as the result of Muslims hating us because we're rich and free is one of the greatest foreign-policy frauds ever perpetuated on the American people" (2003, p.244-45)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

In Memoriam: Jane Denton, wife of Senator Jeremiah Denton, Jr.

This post is featured at Catholic Carnival #147, hosted this week by Jay at "Living Catholicism." To check out other quality Catholic writing, click here.

While I don't typically publish other people's work here, I received this in the mail today from Judy at and wanted to pass it along as an example of how Catholics can and do make a difference in public life. Please say a prayer for Jane and her whole family.

In Thanksgiving for Jane Denton
by Judy McCloskey

On Thanksgiving Day (22Nov2007), after suffering a heart attack, surgery, and postop complications, Mrs. Jane Denton, wife of Senator Jeremiah Denton, passed away. Jane married Jeremiah the day he graduated from the US Naval Academy on 06June1946. Together, they had seven children. Nineteen years and one month into their marriage, her husband’s plane was shot down over enemy lines during the Vietnam War. Then Captain Jeremiah Denton spent the next eight years in a communist POW camp, four of those years spent in solitary confinement.

A year after his capture, during a recorded propaganda campaign forcing POWs to confess to humane treatment under threat of brutal torture – Capt Denton blinked, using Morse code to communicate: TORTURE. His taped interrogation having reached America, intelligence recognized and understood: US prisoners in Vietnam were in fact being tortured. A 1½ minute excerpt can be viewed at the National Archives website:

While Jerry was captive and tortured, Jane remained strong in her Catholic faith, prayerfully and steadfastly devoted to the souls on her spiritual radar. Jane worked tirelessly raising their children and became an activist for POW and MIA families. She helped found the National League of Families of Prisoners of War and Missing in Action, credited with contributing to the ultimate release of her husband and numerous other POWs. Jerry was finally released, authored “When Hell Was in Session”, retired as Admiral, elected Senator of Alabama, and founded the ADM Jeremiah Denton Foundation, dedicated to keeping America “one nation under God.”

In 1985, then Secretary of the Navy invited Mrs. Jane Denton to sponsor the USS Mobile Bay. The ship was commissioned in Mobile, AL, hometown to both Jerry and Jane Denton. The Naval Historical Society explains “When a woman accepts the invitation to sponsor a new ship, she has agreed to stand as the central figure in an event with a heritage reaching backward into the dim recesses of recorded history…. The tradition, meaning, and spiritual overtones remain constant. The vast size, power, and unpredictability of the sea must certainly have awed the first sailors to venture far from shore. Instinctively, they would seek divine protection for themselves and their craft….”

Understanding well her sponsorship role, in September 2002, one year after 9/11 when “her ship” prepared to deploy to Afghanistan, Jane Maury Denton, urged Mobile residents and others "to remember the ship and the crew in their prayers."

"My pleasure at receiving the honor is multiplied by my love for the Navy, my concern for our national defense, and my pride in having a fine ship named for Mobile Bay," Jane once said.

Jane’s children are living testimony to her vocation as an iconic military wife, mother and patriot. “She was the most faithful, selfless and dedicated wife and mother," says Michael Denton.

"She never stopped giving," says William.

Jane will be sorely missed, but long remembered as an exemplary Catholic Navy wife. Perhaps God called her on Thanksgiving Day as a reminder of the gift Jane is. For military wives looking for an example to emulate, there is Mrs. Jane Denton. Ask her now to intercede for you. Nothing will stop this woman of grace from giving completely of herself, in this life or the next.

Judy McCloskey writes from her home in the Arlington Diocese. She is the founder of Catholics in the Military.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Partnership of Love

Last night was the annual Cana Dinner, a time for couples to reconnect with each other and with members of the faith community over good food, a bit of wine, and a turn on the dance floor. Craig and I usually dust off the steps we learned at the U of M Ballroom Dance Club … but since my back has been a little on the hinky side, we content ourselves with a slow swing instead of a flashy cha-cha-cha.

This time the speaker was Steve Ray, who talked with us about “Men, Sex, and Heaven.” He explained that while husbands seek out sex – with or without romance and commitment – wives crave romance. Understanding this basic difference between the sexes does not come naturally to many couples. And yet it is a vital component of the kind of “oneness” God intended us to enjoy in the sacrament of matrimony.

Later, as I contemplated the message that evening, I wondered if this kind of mutuality had an application to the spiritual life as well, particularly with regard to the Mass. As Christ offers himself to us in the sacrament of the Eucharist, is there a corresponding yearning for intimacy on the part of the Bride?

As a convert to the faith, I grew up believing that God wanted a warm and intimate relationship with me. I did not know about the Eucharist, but I had been taught to cling to the Word, to study it closely for the personal messages God had for me each day. God and I spent hours together, me at the piano singing out into the dark, trusting that there was One who heard, and was pleased by my love offering. I was part of a “church family” that I depended upon for instruction and support. But ultimately it was that one-on-one intimacy cultivated through prayer and simple obedience.

When I was confirmed, I was overjoyed to be able to receive Jesus in the Eucharist at last. I was also delighted to be a part of the universal Body of Christ, the true unity that Jesus always intended for his Church. And yet, some of my fellow Catholics puzzled me:

The guy who would huff impatiently when someone tried to greet him before Mass … or when Mass went longer than the proscribed hour.

The self-appointed liturgy critic who spends twenty minutes after each Mass complaining about the music not being “Catholic” enough.

“Devout” Catholics so intent on worshipping the King of Kings with reverence and awe, they seem to forget that this King is also Father, Son, Spirit … and the great Lover of our souls.

I had to wonder: Was there some kind of deliberate “distancing” at work here? While I had come to recognize the deception of being guided solely by “feelings” in spiritual matters, it occurred to me that it was possible to go to the opposite extreme as well. Guided solely by the obligations and duties of “practicing” the faith, one could spend a lifetime in polite “worship” without ever having an encounter with the living Lord.

What a tragedy.

Just as a marriage is about more than a license – and far more than a perpetual teenage crush – faith must be more than going through the motions. Sometimes a Bride needs a little “romance.” A sense that God is listening, that he cares. And so, it was with a sense of great relief that I read this passage from the Catechism:

1108 In every liturgical action the Holy Spirit is sent in order to bring us into communion with Christ and so to form his Body. The Holy Spirit is like the sap of the Father's vine which bears fruit on its branches.[26] The most intimate cooperation of the Holy Spirit and the Church is achieved in the liturgy. The Spirit who is the Spirit of communion, abides indefectibly in the Church. For this reason the Church is the great sacrament of divine communion which gathers God's scattered children together. Communion with the Holy Trinity and fraternal communion are inseparably the fruit of the Spirit in the liturgy.[27]

The nature of communion, of worship, is supposed to be a life giving “intimate cooperation” between the Spirit and the Bride – and, by extension, involve real communion between each of the members. We are to enter in to the mystery, not holding back any part of ourselves out of a misguided sense of propriety.

This is the fiat of the Bride, responding with joy to her Groom.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Cultivating "The Heart of a Saint" (Bert Ghezzi, Word Among Us)

I blame my mother. She named me "Heidi" after the charming Alpine maiden in Johanna Spyri's classic novel, not realizing the name means "battle maiden." And I've been living up to the moniker ever since. I tend to leave strong impressions -- and form even stronger ones.

I am also a pragmatist. The publishing industry is, first and foremost, about building relationships. Therefore, prudence dictated that I find a way to get along even with those people who do not naturally appeal to me.

Fortunately, I had a mentor in Bert Ghezzi, who has exceptional people skills; he taught me how to find the good even in the most challenging of personalities.

This was key to getting along with dislikeable people: finding something good to appreciate. Learn financial planning from the miser, self-discipline from the hardnosed, patience with the flaky, and discretion from the sneaky. It was also Bert who taught me that each personal strength has a less-desirable "flip side." Instead of resisting someone's bossiness, for example, I can appreciate her organizational skills. So often the characteristics we most dislike in others are qualities we struggle with ourselves.

Loving the Unlovable ... by Example

Thanks to Bert, I learned two failproof ways to get along with difficult people: pray for them, and show kindness to them. By praying for that person, the negative emotional energy lifts and is replaced with an extraordinary sense of peace. And by looking for ways to show kindness to him or her, the walls between us are broken down, brick by brick.

In his book, "The Heart of a Saint," author Bert Ghezzi quotes St. John Baptist de la Salle (d.1719), who said:

"Decide never to speak of the failings of others, nor to reprimand them, no matter how serious they seem to you. When you see someone fall into some fault, call to mind the gospel saying, 'You can see the splinter in your brother's eye, but you cannot see the beam in your own.' (see Matthew 7:3).
Throughout the rest of the book, Bert recounts with warm, tantalizing detail the stories of holy men and women who embodied these and other important ways to grow closer to God. From the community orientation of St. Angela Merici, to the evangelistic zeal of Pope John Paul II and the holy perseverance of St. Jane de Chantal, each of these holy heroes teach us another aspect of living the Christian life with security and confidence.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Secret of the Sycamore

From today's first reading, from the book of Wisdom ...
Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook people's sins that they may repent. ...

Have you ever stopped to think about how many difficult people you encounter in the span of a single week? The self-righteous, the proud, the self-involved, the unbelievably obtuse?

Have you ever stopped to consider how much of your mental and emotional energy is spent trying to change, exhort, or educate people determined to wallow in their blissful ignorance? Who seem not the least bit grateful ... some seem even a bit put out ... when you take it upon yourself to point out the error of their ways?

Today's first reading offers a bit of useful perspective. "You have mercy on all ... and overlook people's sins that they may repent." God -- the most powerful being in the entire universe -- does not force people along the path of transformation at gunpoint, or even an irrefutible blast of rhetoric.

No, His methods are infinitely more effective. His are the ways of irresistible love.

Jesus embodied this force of love throughout His earthly ministry. In today's Gospel, He un-trees the diminuitive Zaccheus with a message of staggering import: "Hey, c'mon down. Guess who's coming to your house for dinner tonight?"

As a woman, my sympathies are with Mrs. Zaccheus, who must have fainted dead away to find 13 extra guests on her doorstep for dinner that night. If she was anything like my mother, she would have kept her mouth shut and put another pan of biscuits in the oven.

Zaccheus, of course, had his mind on other things. This was a man determined to Make Amends. To his neighbors and less charitable business associates, he was a "sinner," a "play-a" determined to make his first million -- and ingratiate himself to the powers that be -- by stealing food out of the mouths of his own people.

But Jesus saw something different. He saw a man determined to make things right. He saw a man who was willing to make himself look ridiculous ... so long as he got to see the Nazarene.

It's a question worth considering: Just what am I willing to do in order to see Jesus truly?

Am I willing to look ridiculous in the eyes of my friends and family?

Am I willing to venture along a path that I never thought I'd go?

Am I willing to release from judgment those who scorn me, simply because I have a different perspective?

Am I willing to relinquish everything I hold most dear, so long as I get to see Jesus?

"Yes, Lord. Won't you come in and stay at my house today?"

Thursday, November 01, 2007

For All the Saints

Please join me today at "Mommy Monsters" for my tribute to All Saints Day.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Catholic Carnival #141 Is Up!

Matthew at "Be the Dad" has posted the latest Catholic Carnival here. Be sure to check it out!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Summer in Senegal

The heat of the day was still steaming in waves off the sand as the plane descended, touching down upon the Senegalese countryside. I was barely twenty, and was about to begin a year of internship at a mission school. By day I taught ESL and helped as I could around the school. Nights and weekends I studied French, explored the city, and became active at the mission church, Mission Uni Mondial (United World Mission).

The leadership of the small cement-block chapel had within the past few years transitioned from mission to national control. Pastor Jose and his wife Frans-Lise, along with the associate Pastor Timothy, had been asking God to send them someone who could play the electronic keyboard for worship services. It seemed that I was to be the answer to that prayer.

And in a funny way, they were the answer to mine as well. Six college students -- two women from Nigeria, plus four men from Chad, Cote d'Ivoire, Togo, and Camaroon -- made up the rest of the band, and together we traveled out in the bush from time to time for evangelistic concerts. (I couldn't say much, but managed to keep up with the driving percussion section.) The songs themselves were French translations of the hymns I knew by heart ... though they sounded nothing like the reverent vespers I sang as a child. A full percussion section drove the strings and bass, with vocalists swaying and carrying the tune with a high-pitched falsetto that initially grated on my ears ... and I'm sure would have assaulted the sensibilities of the original composers. But it was the sound of Africa, plain and simple.


That year was one of the most formative experiences of my life. Later, I majored in international studies and communications, and came to understand some of the sociological nuances of cross-cultural relations. I learned first-hand how deeply held convictions can be shaken to the core when confronted with those who do not share the same assumptions. Even more significant, I learned how cultural biases color religious sensibilities. While Jesus came to save the whole world, each culture tends to interpret that message through the lens of their collective experience.

For example, shortly after I made friends with these college students it came to my attention that each of them were able to attend the University of Dakar because their respective countries had fronted the money for their education with the understanding that they would return and work off their debt in service -- those who had received a medical degree would work for a government clinic, those who had studied foreign languages in the diplomatic corp, and so on. I also saw that, at least in Senegal, manual labor was considered demeaning, and so it was often the women who were forced to support their families through domestic service. This inequity bothered me. Weren't the men ashamed to force their wives to tie their children to their backs and scrub floors on hands and knees, while they lounged at home?

I was commenting on this to my new friends, who happened to be at my home one evening for dinner (I introduced them to the wonders of spaghetti). "Tell me, Rene," I said to the one who was usually most amiable and patient with my linguistic faux pas. "What is it that motivates you to study so hard and try to better your situation, when you will be forced to support a large number of idle relatives, many of whom are perfectly capable of working but refuse?"

He looked at me sharply, and hesitated. I could see he was trying to give me the benefit of the doubt ... but could not find the basis for it. Finally, he sputtered, "How can you call yourself a Christian and be unwilling to take care of your own family? I've never heard of such a thing!"

How I wished at that moment I could slurp my words back into my mouth as readily as those noodles. I was grateful when someone else turned the conversation, leaving me to ponder what I had just learned.

L'Estranger... Encore!

Fast forward a decade or so, and I found myself on the edge of bridging yet another cultural divide -- this one even more complex than what I had experienced in Senegal because it involved changing not just cultures but allegiances. Intellectually I was confident that I was making the right choice; emotionally, I was back on the plane, looking out the window at the unfamiliar landscape as I prepared to walk away from everything that was familiar and safe. It was the right thing to do ... still, I lingered at the edge of my seat, a lump in my throat. And in the stillness, I remembered the haunting little melody based on Psalm 23 that had become especially dear to me while tinkling the ivories out in the African bush.

L’Eternel est mon Berger ! De rien je ne manque;

L'Eternel est mon Berger, de rien je ne manquerai....

(The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing I need.

The Eternal One is my Shepherd, there is nothing more I want.)

And so, today when I came across this rendition of the "Our Father," sung by Father HoLung and the Missionaries of Charity, I understood that the images of the exuberant singing, and of the joyful procession all the way up to the altar would be disturbing to some.

But when I read of this priest's work among the poor and marginalized, I couldn't help it. I just had to sing along. (For those who are interested, here is more about the Missionaries to the Poor. Here is also a link from EWTN on a related story.)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lambs Among Wolves

“I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals;and greet no one along the way.Into whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this household.’ If a peaceful person lives there, your peace will rest on him;but if not, it will return to you….”

From today’s Gospel reading: Luke 10:1-9

In both readings today, we are reminded that those who teach the faith will experience resistance … and that this resistance may come from an unexpected corner: from those who already profess belief. In the first reading (from 2 Timothy 4:10-16), we read that “Alexander the coppersmith” resisted the teaching of the Apostle Paul with such eloquence that he lured others away from the faith as well. In the words of St. Paul, the coppersmith “did me great harm.”

Why would Alexander – or anyone else, for that matter – be so presumptuous? Why didn’t he recognize and submit to St. Paul’s apostolic authority? Clearly, the man had his own “agenda,” his own sphere of influence he was determined to defend.

The human story is full of such political intrigue: alliances and power struggles, battles fought with words intended to wound or destroy not only the opponent’s argument, but his or her reputation as well. We get the sense that there were times when even the Apostle Paul experienced this kind of betrayal … “At my first defense no one appeared on my behalf, but everyone deserted me!”

How painful this must have been for Paul, to experience this kind of betrayal! Calling for his parchments (written documents) and papyrus scrolls, he set about conveying his teachings through a more lasting method: writing them down. By this response, the apostle teaches by example an important spiritual principle: Sometimes God leads His people by opening doors … other times, by allowing obstacles to be placed in the path so that we choose a different door.

Pathways of Charity

In the Gospel, the Lord warns that He sends His followers “like lambs among wolves.” Indirectly He also hints at “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” those who tear down and divide the flock from within. He offers away that His children can recognize like-minded souls: the mutual exchange of peace. Love lived out in humble service.

This has practical applications for us. In our efforts to “defend the faith,” do we couch our arguments hoping others will admire our well-polished intellect? Or do we harbor a shameful tendency to build up our own reputations at the expense of other believers – or, worse, those who are still searching for the fullness of the truth?

Do we practice humility, recognizing that when all is said and done we are primarily students, not teachers? Do we eagerly search for (and pick apart) minor flaws in another’s viewpoint, instead of trying to learn from another’s insights?

Is our highest priority being faithful to the task God has given us, or are we preoccupied with our reward—whether financial, emotional, or relational? (A fellow blogger reminded me of this recently, wisely advising me to focus on writing quality content, and trust God to get that word into the right hands.)

“Knowledge puffs up; love grows up.” Our first parents were separated from God because they chose to eat from the “tree of knowledge of good and bad” (Gen 2:17), choosing the desire to be like God over the desire to know God. And so, as St. Paul reminds us, the surest pathway to sanctity … is charity.

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, (love) is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails. If there are prophecies, they will be brought to nothing; if tongues, they will cease; if knowledge, it will be brought to nothing. For we know partially and we prophesy partially, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things. At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:4-12

Friday, October 12, 2007

Healing Thoughts

One of my greatest pleasures as a parent has been teaching my children the little songs my mother taught me. She never did it by halves -- her songs always had energetic hand and body movements, and dramatic intonations. There was no mumbling into a hymnbook; we sang each word ... as if we meant it. (What a concept.)

One of my favorites was about a wise man and a foolish man, who each built a house. The wise man built his house on the rock ... whereas the foolish one built on sand. You may remember what happened next ...

The rains came down and the floods came up.
The rains came down and the floods came up.
The rains came down and the floods came up.
But the house on the rock stood FIRM! (the sandy one went SMASH!)

Poor foolish man. He started with a dreamy seaside retreat, and wound up with an expensive pile of tooth picks.

The song concluded, "Soooo... build your house on the Lord Jesus Christ... and the blessings will come down (as the prayers go up)."

It wasn't until many years later that I realized that the song always ended prematurely. We never sang about the house "built on the Lord Jesus Christ" being subjected to those pesky rains and floods. It was as if we couldn't bring ourselves to admit that, sooner or later, the rains and floods always come. Even for those who build their life "on the Lord Jesus Christ."

There was a time when I thought that being a Christian meant that I would always get the happy ending to every story, so long as I followed Christ. I'm not sure where that idea came from, since I had witnessed terrible suffering. One case in particular made a lasting impression.

My mother's dear friend, Aunt Rosemary, contracted ALS in her mid-thirties. This vivacious, gentle lady went from chasing butterflies with us to smiling from her wheelchair ... to lying in bed, painfully spelling out each word with blinks of her eye.

Once night my mother met my father at the door in tears. That morning in Bible study (which was held at Rosemary's house), one woman felt "led" to pray for healing for Rosemary. The group gathered around the woman in the wheelchair, and waited expectantly for her to leap up. When nothing happened, they all sat around and discussed what might be keeping God from answering their prayer.

Finally, someone got a "word from the Lord": The reason Rosemary wasn't healed was because she had unconfessed sin in her life. At this point in the story, mom started crying again as she told my father what had happened. "It was like a flock of chickens, picking at the weak one! All of them gathered around her, and started questioning her. What was she hiding? Was she angry with God? Was she harboring doubts about Him? I didn't know what to do. They made Rosemary cry ... but they never did find out what the sin was."

It wasn't long before women started dropping out of the study. It was too hard to reconcile their belief in a loving, benevolent, healing God ... with what was happening to their friend.

Years later, I took a graduate course on the sacraments, and asked the priest whether he had ever healed someone through the sacrament of anointing. "Physical healing? No ... I don't think so," Father admitted. This flabbergasted me, since I had witnessed (and one time actually experienced) faith healing, through the laying-on of hands in charismatic churches. Why didn't the anointing of the sick work the same way, if Christ intended it to be a sacrament of healing?

The priest didn't say anything at first. He closed his eyes and let his chin sag to his chest, and stood there for quite some time -- praying for inspiration, I think. Finally, he said,

"Physical healing is not the most important way God heals people. It is at best a temporary 'fix.' Those who were healed by Christ Himself ... even Lazarus, raised from the dead ... they died sooner or later. As Catholics we believe that suffering is not without purpose. No, the greatest healing is not physical, but spiritual.

"Those who receive the anointing of the sick are reconciled with God, and strengthened spiritually for whatever might lie ahead. For some, it is more suffering. For others, it is the cessation of all suffering -- through death. Jesus used physical healing as a sign, to draw the people to Him so they would hear what He wanted to teach them. The healing did not last -- but that life was changed forever by the transforming power of faith."
In today's Gospel, we read of an encounter between Jesus and the crowd, who claimed that the source of Jesus' power was devilish, evil. Jesus replied,

“Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste
and house will fall against house.
And if Satan is divided against himself,
how will his kingdom stand?....
But if it is by the finger of God that I drive out demons,
then the Kingdom of God has come upon you." Luke 11:15-26
It was never Jesus' ability to work miracles that was in question, but the source of His power. For us, the question is not "Does God heal people today?" Of course He does, often through people -- whether through doctors using conventional medicine, priests administering the sacraments, or even "faith healers."

No, the question is not, "Does God want to heal me?" but "How am I most in need of healing?"

Or perhaps more to the point, "What will do my soul the most good?" Our bodies will not last forever. It is the state of our souls that must concern us most. And so, we need to avail ourselves of every means God has provided in the sacraments of healing -- Eucharist, reconciliation, and anointing -- to keep that which will never die in good working order.

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. But only say the word, and I shall be healed."

Friday, October 05, 2007

"Amazing Grace" ... Is It Really?

Sarah was a little over two years old when we took her to the baptism of her cousin, whose family is Lutheran. We arrived late, and managed to find two seats in the back by crawling over the laps of two pinch-lipped elderly matrons, who clearly disapproved of our being there at all.

The sermon that day went a little long, and Sarah quickly grew bored. We passed her back and forth for a few minutes, feeding her Cheerios and turning pages of board-books. One of them contained a large picture of Jesus, and when we reached that page, Sarah found her voice.

“Ama-sing gwace, ah ee ah ah…” she began. I hushed her. She grew louder. “Ah wah ha ha, la dah, dah, dah…” As I hastily gathered our things to make a speedy retreat, Sarah got in her big finish. “Wah spine, hah how I-meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

I thought the old ladies’ eyes were going to pop out of their sockets. I was just glad to get my daily dose of humiliation out of the way so early in the day. (Hah.)

Amazing Grace … for Catholics

While some Catholics denounce the propriety of singing songs like “Amazing Grace” in a Catholic Mass, discounting them as “unsingable” or “Protestant,” there is another way of looking at this. In a nutshell, many of these songs -- Amazing Grace among them -- take on fresh meaning once the full light of faith shines upon them.

While this isn’t true for converts from all denominations, I grew up in a church in which hymn singing was a highly “formative” occupation, theologically speaking (that and “Bible drills” in Sunday school). As a result, these songs are an important part of my spiritual heritage. Indeed, these hymns frequently express truths about life and faith in God that can enrich Catholic communities as much as Protestant ones.

The question we need to ask ourselves is not whether a particular song is “Protestant,” but whether the ideas it expresses are true. We know that, by virtue of their baptism, all Christians are part of the Body of Christ (though some are united imperfectly). Even those who have not embraced the fullness of the faith are capable of capturing a glimpse of the spiritual life that Catholic Christians do well to consider for themselves. Because of their love for the Word of God, and their familiarity with it, Protestant hymns are saturated with themes and metaphors from the Bible. This is the source of power to transform the human soul.
Not "Is It Protestant," but "Is It TRUE?"

The greatest error of the Protestant Reformation -- the error that is at the root of all theological error -- was spiritual and intellectual pride. This pride prevented them from submitting to the authority of Rome and the teaching of the Fathers. For many converts, conversion takes place only after this kind of pride is systematically dismantled, returning us to a childlike state of acceptance and humility as we journey toward the Vigil.

Speaking only for myself, it was when I was in this childlike state that the hymns of the faith of my childhood took on new meaning.

“T'is grace that taught my heart to fear,
and grace that fear relieved.”

As I progressed through RCIA, I came to understand that grace is not dependent on feelings, or even on our awareness of it being present. That is, the graces of baptism of the infant operate in that young soul (and continues to operate into adulthood) regardless of whether there appears to be any change.

As we grow older and deeper in faith, however, there are times when we are more cognizant of how that grace operates within us. It is this grace that enables us to mature in faith. It is grace that illuminates the intellect, and teaches us about God's power and his mercy (fearful heart vs. relieved heart). And in that transforming process, we realize what a gift God’s grace is.
“How precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”

Believe it or not, this is a line that I sang with even greater fervor after I became Catholic. It was God's grace -- nothing more, nothing less -- that enlightened my mind and heart to receive the fullness of the truth, and to believe that the Catholic Church was truly the Church founded by Christ. It took more than simple intellectual reflection. It required a paradigm shift of the will and the heart. It took a true leap of faith.

My friends, intellectual and spiritual pride that blinded me for so long ... even though I had followed God all my life, it took a supernatural work of grace to unstop my spiritual ears and remove the blinders.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found, t'was blind but now I see.”

Unfortunately, this spiritual and intellectual pride afflicts Christians on both sides of the church divide. It is this kind of affliction that keeps some Catholics from experiencing all the joy and life God wants to give them. Joy (as opposed to "emotionalism") rooted in truth, and watered with humility and faith.

Thank God that in His wisdom, He provided the means to remove this pride at the root, in the sacrament of reconciliation.

So next time you hear the song, go ahead and sing about that Amazing Grace!

P.S. In one of my discussion groups, someone pointed out that the word "wretch" like me is a reference to the Calvinist belief in total depravity. Here was my reply:

"Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." Believing this -- that we cannot save ourselves, and that we need the saving graces of the work of Christ (which we believe are imparted through the teachings and sacraments of the Church) -- does not make us Calvinists. It makes us Christian.

It is true that John Newton was a Calvinist, and it may be that Calvinists put a particular mental spin on it as they sing (with regard to total depravity). We don't share that theological perspective ... but for all the reasons I've already written, the song itself is a powerful testimony to God's goodness. It's sad that Newton didn't come to understand the full truth of God's amazing grace in his lifetime. But the song itself is not problematic.

In the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." Newton saw "darkly" and "partly" because he was detached from the fullness of the truth, entrusted to the Catholic Church.

For all the reasons I've already mentioned, I sing the song with greater fervor -- not less -- because I have experienced that grace in ways Newton never did. And when we all get to heaven ... oh, what a chorus THAT will be!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Lunch with Elisabeth Elliot: Reprised

I stumbled on this exchange on "The Kid Sister of Blessed Imelda" by chance tonight, and thought I should follow up a little more visible (e.g. on my own blog) regarding the article I wrote about my lunch with Elisabeth Elliot, many years ago now. Here's the link to the article (which also appeared on Catholic Exchange.)

Most people who make the journey to the Church in relative anonymity (myself included) experience a certain amount of pressure from family and friends who neither understand nor approve of the change. It is difficult enough handling this as a private citizen … how much more as such a public figure?

For many people (especially Protestants who cannot imagine such a thing), the temptation will be strong to simply discount what I wrote out of a sense of loyalty and respect for Elisabeth. Indeed, more than once now I have wondered if I showed her the respect I should have by revealing this exchange the way that I did — not because it was untrue, but because I now realize that her interest in “things Catholic” was apparently not as commonly known as I had thought it was. (For those who are interested in reading a different take on her beliefs, here's another article -- this one in a Baptist publication -- I recently encountered. Not nearly as flattering to her, but there it is.)

While I cannot deny that the exchange took place as I said it did, it would grieve me deeply if anyone perceived it as a smudge on this dear woman’s character. She is among the bravest and most devoted of Christian women. If I had it to do over again, I would have concealed her identity better — out of respect for her privacy. Of course, one cannot unring a bell.

I urge readers to consider that the spiritual journey God has prepared for each of us is oftentimes a hidden and intensely private one. Elisabeth is now in the twilight of her life, and has been walking with the Lord faithfully since her earliest years.
In the end, it is not about whether one side or the other can claim her for themselves. It is all about whether, before God, she was faithful to the light she was given. Not by our standards — but by His.

The Catholic Church has always taught that there are those outside the visible parameters of the Church who are united by virtue of baptism into the same Body of Christ. Whether or not Elisabeth ever enters into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, she is a true daughter of God. She is not a coward … nor is she the kind of woman to speak idle words she did not mean. (Several have asked me if she was “just being kind.” Anyone who knew Elisabeth even casually would know better.)

Someday in heaven, when denominational affiliations and petty arguments have long since ceased to matter, when we are all perfected and perfectly united as God intended from the beginning, I hope we can all sit down with Elisabeth and have a cup of tea with her, and ask her to recount the final chapter of her faith journey. I think we will all be amazed … and humbled … by what she has to say.

Myself included.

Catholic Carnival #139 Is Up!

Please stop by and visit "Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering." Sarah has just finished her usual excellent job of compiling the best and freshest of Catholic blogging into one highly readable and enjoyable e-zine.

Monday, September 24, 2007

"He's the truth..." Why Evangelical Theology Fails

The other night MSNBC ran a story about Pentecostal bishop Carlton Pearson, whose "gospel of inclusion" got him in hot water with the Evangelical community of Tulsa, OK -- and barred from his alma mater, Oral Roberts University (where he attended, but did not graduate).

According to Pearson, the gates of heaven are open to everyone, including Satan himself. Hell is not a destination in the afterlife but a metaphor for the painful situations of our own making in this life. According to Pearson, Satan himself could be reconciled with God if he simply said he was sorry for having "competed" with God.

On the program, the response to Pearson's "revelation" was sobering: Shortly after his "revelation" was made public, he lost his church, his congregation, and his status in the Christian community. “People don’t follow preachers as much as they follow popularity," the downfallen preacher observed. "I always knew that. And as soon as I quit preaching what was popular, the people were gone. But I didn’t expect them to leave so fast.”

Ironically, it was the Episcopaleans -- a group that is about as far removed as possible from the Pentecostals in Christian ideology and culture -- who gave him a second chance. Tulsa's most prominent Episcopal church, Trinity, gave Pearson and what is left of his congregation the use of their facilities. (I guess with all the other doctrinal and disciplinary shenanigans that have been going on of late, the idea of hell being a metaphor is irresistable.)

Now, the good "bishop" did have a few faithful follow him to his new digs. One quote in particular -- by Julia Nowlin, a member of his congregation since 1991 -- gave me pause:

"He's [Pearson's] the truth and I'm sticking to the truth because the truth will set you free."

"Protestant Theology": A Study in Self-Promotion

This story is a sad one ... it's never a happy day when thousands of people are spiritually disillusioned, or faith communities demolished. Some souls never recover from such a shock, and become hardened to all truth.

Fortunately, this kind of thing has the opposite effect on some people. Kristine Franklin and her family had one such "happy ending" ... It led them into the arms of Mother Church -- after being Protestant (anti-Catholic) missionaries to Guatemala for many years. You can read the story here.

The point that both these stories illustrate (one negatively, the other positively) is that it is impossible to remain theologically on track without being willing to subject yourself to a higher disinterested, historic, and objective authority.

Appealing to the Bible alone -- or any other document that requires interpretation, for that matter -- is insufficient simply because interpretation is inherently subjective.

Appealing to the spiritual authority of a single person (either oneself or one's pastor) is insufficient; the perspective of any single individual lacks historicity -- that is, rooted in a particular time and situation -- and colored by that individual's subjective experiences and motives (hence, not disinterested).

Because the Catholic faith is founded on the original revelation of Christ to His apostles, which He instructed them to pass on to others, it has historic presidence with objective origins.

Because the teaching and interpreting authority of Christian doctrine has been entrusted to those with a familiarity and respect for the theological "stream" that runs from that original source to the present time (an objective source of knowledge), and who have responsibility both to lead (a diocese in the case of a bishop, a parish in the case of a pastor) and follow (the continuous teaching of those in union with the pope in the first case, and the authority of the Magisterium in the second), those teachings are safeguarded from inappropriate personal agendas or "slants" that make these teachings truly disinterested. (The truth is transforming, rather than transformed; it changes the person who hears it, rather than being stretched and pulled to suit individual desires and preconceptions.)

What Is Truth?

When truth is interpreted by contemporary, subjective, and "interested" individuals, heresy results. We see this happen over and over in Church history. The first seven centuries of Church history is replete examples of men (usually) who went off on some theological tangent ... and councils that met to respond to those missteps, to set the course of the Church aright.

For example, in response to the erroneous ideas of men such as Arius to Nestorius to Marcion, the Church Fathers developed the great Christological and Trinitarian dogmas -- including, in 432, the Council of Ephesus that declared Mary the Theotokos, the "Mother of God."

As a Protestant, I often fell into the temptation of expecting that all truth would automatically line up with what I already believed to be true, based on my own subjective interpretation of Scripture. What I failed to consider was that my own interpretation might not be the right one. That is, just because an idea doesn't "fit" within my own parameters of truth doesn't necessarily mean that it isn't true ... It could mean that I need to adjust my own understanding.

This revelation was difficult to swallow at first. It required that I make a "paradigm shift" of the will -- choosing to suspend judgment, and consider that it could be my own course that might be in need of redirection. It is this paradigm shift of the will -- a laying down of my own authority, and a submission to a higher one -- that is at the heart of most true conversion. It is painful. It is difficult.

It is also necessary. Knowledge alone cannot touch the heart and transform it unless the will is also moved. We cannot afford to suspend all judgment -- after all, many of the heretics of the early Church truly believed that they had received a special insight from God, and chose to die rather than renounce that message. However, we cannot make ourselves the final authority. To the extent that we are willing to humble ourselves and submit to the higher authority of the Church -- a disinterested authority that is objectively and historically based -- we can trust that the Holy Spirit will lead us on the path of truth.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Check out this post on Catholic Carnival #136 ...

On this week's Carnival (#136) I came across this entry by RNW (Red-Necked Woman) that warmed my heart ... Here's the link!

Next week I will be hosting the Carnival at Mommy Monsters.; the theme is "Parenting 101: Things I've Learned from My Kids." Please send me your posts: hsaxton(at)ChristianWord(dot)com. For information about the Carnival, click here.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

If God Loves Me, Why Do I Hurt So Much?

Catholic Carnival is now up! As usual, Sarah at "Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering" was a real sport as she captured the ups and "downs" of Catholic thought in the (virtual) universe this week. To read Carnival #136, click here.

Here was my contribution:

The snow fell – first gently, then with greater urgency – as I turned my car towards home. Having all but flunked out of my first semester of college (my newfound social life had taken its inevitable toll), I took my parents advice and got a job until I figured out what I was going to do with my life. Clearly, engineering school was not “it.”

The gently rolling hills of northern New Jersey have a few steep stretches, including one mile-long incline I had to navigate downhill on the last leg of my journey. As I neared that section of road, I almost stopped at my boyfriend’s house. But we’d recently had a falling out, so I took a deep breath and kept driving.

The last thing I remember was the flash of a yellow light, warning of the blind signal ahead. It said nothing about the solid sheet of black ice – or the poorly banked road that would send my skidding vehicle into oncoming traffic.

Choices of a Lifetime

It’s one of the great ironies of the human condition, that the amount of time spent pondering a decision is seldom proportionate to its long-term significance. The special dress you spent weeks finding, altering, and accessorizing is but a page in some dusty scrapbook. One impulsive passionate interlude, on the other hand, can have life-long repercussions.

My car accident might have been prevented had I made any number of small decisions a bit differently: not going in to work that day, or deciding to stop at my friend’s house. I would have been spared a great deal of suffering (at least the physical variety). But I didn’t – and to this day I carry the scars of those choices on my body: tracks along my legs and abdomen, spinal arthritis, disk rupture, and pinched sciatica. And yet, God sometimes allows His children to suffer terribly … in order to draw them as close as possible to Himself.

I was hospitalized for more than a month. During that time, my romantic entanglement was abruptly severed (he found out my injuries were serious enough that I might not be able to have children). Fortunately, I had the steady support of another friend, who assured me that any man who deserved me would find the scars beautiful, “Because those scars are a part of your story, part of what makes you … you.”

I took great comfort in those words, and in the realization that – for all that I had suffered – it had been a small price to pay. God had my undivided attention for the first time in my life. Clearly, He had spared my life for a reason, and I wanted to know what that reason was. I didn’t know what His plan for my life would be, but it had to be an improvement on what I had done with it so far.

Wounded … or Scarred?

A year after the accident, the pin that had been set in my left femur worked its way loose, and began to dig into my hip joint. Since the pin no longer served a useful purpose, I was scheduled for surgery to have it removed. Unfortunately, I had to wait a week for an opening. A week of lying in bed and trying not to move.

Two days before the surgery, I was visited by one of the church elders and his wife, who came to pray for me. They believed that God wanted to heal me not through the hands of a surgeon, but through prayer. Not seeing a graceful way out of it, I grudgingly let them put their hands on my leg and pray – and was amazed when, a few seconds later, I was able to get up and jump around the room. (The pin was removed anyway.)

I should have been thrilled, but I wasn’t. That night I gave God a good talking to. Why had He seen fit to heal my leg in this unconventional fashion, when I was going to have the problem fixed in a few days anyway? Why would He bother with such a trifle when He had not healed my sister’s cancer or my Aunt Rosemary’s ALS? Why would He use “faith healing” to fix my leg, when all over the world people were dying from injury and disease far worse than mine, without any medical assistance?

There was no immediate celestial response, no zap of lightning for my ingratitude. Through the years, I’ve come to recognize that this is the way God often operates. The mystery is part of His charm. He can handle our questions, though the answers are sometimes years in the telling. He has the answers, of course – and He knows when we will best be able to receive them.

It wasn’t until years later, when I first heard of the Incarnation Principle (that God initiates contact with the human race through the sensible world) that I began to understand what had happened to me. God had not shifted that pin merely to spare me a few more days of physical pain. Rather, He wanted to remind me that I could trust Him to tend to me – on His terms, and not on mine – as a loving father cares for his children.

Have You No Scars?

Whether our wounds are physical, emotional, or spiritual, the principle remains the same: God uses the painful consequences of our actions to draw us into deeper relationship with Himself. As we endure the pain and the scars begin to form, those marks can become a source of bitterness … or thankfulness.

If in our pain we choose to pull away from God (either because we think He’s abandoned us, or because we are trying to punish ourselves), our scars become a constant reminder of our own failings and weaknesses. However, if we let ourselves draw close to God – in prayer and through the sacraments – He tends to our wounds and teaches us important lessons that we could not learn any other way.

When this happens, He does not remove the scars entirely; the pain may stay with us for a lifetime. However, these marks no longer accuse us, no longer have any power to determine our future course. They have been transformed into reminders of God’s providence and mercy. And with these scars, we are turned a little more perfectly into the image of the One who was wounded for our sins, and the sins of the whole world.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Do you ever feel invisible?

If so ... come on over to "Mommy Monsters." I posted something there just for you today!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Deadly Words

Today in Catholic Exchange is an article about Auschwitz. I visited the death camp in the summer of 1992 along with a group of Polish and American college students (we were touring southern Poland doing Christian concerts). When we got to the camp, the Polish students refused to go inside -- they waited in the bus while the rest of us went in. When we asked them about it, there was suddenly an insurmountable language barrier between us.

While the Germans ran the camp, the people immediately outside the gates were Polish, not German. Some did resist, and were themselves exterminated. Others grew wealthy by cooperating. Still others fled. It's a comforting thought, I suppose, to tell ourselves that if we were in that situation, we would not have turned a blind eye, that we would have paid with our lives, if necessary, to resist such a monstrous evil.

Ironically, it is the cold, metallic words inscribed in the entrance gate that gives us the best possible advice for how we can eliminate the necessity of abortion in a single generation. Arbeit macht frei: work makes freedom.

What are we doing today -- individually and as a society -- besides talking? I recently read of one Catholic man who promised an unwed mother that he would pay for her expenses for her pregnancy and delivery, and continue the payments for the first two years of the child's life, so she would have time to get back on her feet and be able to support herself and her child. How many of us would make that kind of sacrifice? Or how many would say, as Blessed Teresa often did, "Give the child to me. I will take care of him for you."

It is this kind of witness, this kind of sacrifice, that will make the abortion mills obsolete. We must give more than words. We must give ourselves.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

What Should We Call Him?

Today at Catholic Exchange there was a heated exchange about a Dutch bishop who suggested that (within the context of Muslim/Christian dialogue) Christians refer to God as "Allah." This got me thinking about the complexities of cross-cultural communication (my college major was International Studies and Communications). One of the most basic principles of cross-cultural communications is "define your terms." Therefore, the basic consideration is: Whatever we call Him, are we both referring to the same God?

In Nostra Aetate (par 3), the Church acknowledges that "The Church has also a high regard for Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth..." A bit later, the text says, "The sacred Council now ... urges that a sincere effort be made to achieve mutual understanding; for the benefit of all men, let them persevere and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values."

Unless I'm missing something, this sounds to me as though the Church acknowledges that Muslims, Jews, and Catholics all worship the one true God (though of course our understanding of the Trinitarian nature of God is unique to Christianity). But if all three religions worship the one true God, how is calling God "Allah" within the context of Muslim/Christian dialogue, different from translating Catholic concepts into Protestant "language" in the process of evangelization?

It's important to keep in mind that the particular configuration of letters that represents the Holy One varies from culture to culture even among Christian peoples. Language is culturally distinct — "Gott," "Dieu," "Dios," "G_D," "YHWH." Defining terms, on the other hand, is a crucial part of cross-cultural communication. And in this case, for reasons mentioned in the article, we must make the most of our commonalities where we can find them.

"And His name shall be called 'Wonderful, Counselor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace...'" He calls Himself: "I AM."

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Prayer for Minneapolis

Let's remember tonight all those whose lives were touched by the tragic collapse of the bridge over I-35 in Minneapolis this afternoon. At present, there are six known fatalities.

Our Lady of Sorrows, Oh, dear Queen of Peace,
Your children are calling out into the night
For comfort, for healing, for wisdom, in grief
Pray for us, stay with us, till God's untimely grace
Rains down in torrents from heaven.
Our brothers and sisters are suffering,
Let our hearts break with theirs ... and with yours.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Catholic Carnival #130

Ready for the fair, everyone? Don't forget to check out the latest Catholic Carnival, hosted by Sarah at Snoring Scholar.

Thanks, Sarah, for putting such creativity into this week's carnival! It was great fun to read.

Women in Art

Mary Kochan at sent me this link to a video entitled "Women in Art." What impressed me most ... besides the breathtaking variety of shapes and forms God created us ... is the fact that, even as they change, their gaze remains steadily on the viewer.

It reminds me of an old hymn I used to sing as a kid:

I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free
For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.

No matter what our circumstances, the loving gaze of our Divine Keeper never wavers.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

New on Catholic Exchange!

I'm happy to announce that my name has been added as a columnist on the Catholic Exchange website. My review of The Girls Who Went Away will appear August 9. Feel free to jump in to the "exchange"! Blessings-- Heidi

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Power of a Name: Review of "Girls Who Went Away" (Penguin)

It took us three years to adopt our two foster children; our first official act as their parents was to have them baptized, so they could be a part of God’s family, too. As we got ready for the big day, we explained that they would each have new names on their baptism certificates (and, a bit later, on their newly issued birth certificates).

“Why do I get a new name?” Christopher wanted to know.

“You’re getting two new names, actually,” I told him. “We kept your first name to honor your birth family; your middle name will be ‘Robert,’ like your dad’s; and your last name will be ‘Saxton’ because you’re a part of our family now.”
Clearly this answer didn't satisfy him. I tried a different approach. “Christopher, do you know that my name changed when I became a part of your dad’s family?”
“It did?” his expression brightened. I nodded.
“And did you know that in the Bible, there are lots of examples where God changed someone’s name when he or she became part of God’s family, or agreed to do a special job for God? Abram became ‘Abraham.’ His wife Sarai became ‘Sarah.’ Jesus’ special friend Simon became ‘Peter,’ our first pope. The apostle Paul’s first name was ‘Saul.’ Each of these people had a special job to do … and each one got a new name to show that something was different about them now.”

It wasn’t until a month later, at their older sister’s baptism, that I realized what an impression this made. As the priest poured water over the little girl’s forehead, my kids leaped up and shouted, “Hurray! Our sister has a new name today!”

The priest turned, startled, then smiled. “Yes, she does. Her name is ‘Christian.’ Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all of us were so excited about it!”

Forever Families

Names are important: “Mom,” “Dad,” “Grandpa,” “Nana.” These words are powerful by association, particularly in the hearts of children. And so when it came time for us to “name ourselves” for our children, we put considerable thought to this as well. Christopher and Sarah already had already lost one set of parents; they also had two siblings that were being adopted by other families, and yet our kids were still very much attached to them. How were we going to communicate the permanent and exclusive nature of our family unit?

And so, we became Christopher and Sarah’s “forever family.” It wasn’t until much later that I discovered how much fire this appellation draws in adoption circles, since the biological bond is equally permanent even when a child is raised by someone else.
This was powerfully illustrated in Ann Fessler’s tribute to birthmothers, The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade (Penguin Press, 2006). The stories in this book reminded me that, no matter what circumstances are that led to a child being placed for adoption, and no matter how young the children were when the adoption occurred, there is a primal connection that can never be completely severed. “Mother” has been forever etched upon their hearts.

“Victim” Souls?

In TGWWA, Fessler vividly portrays what the adoption process was like forty years ago. She captures the horrific plight of the girls shipped off to “maternity homes.” We meet pushy social workers, unfeeling parents, and absentee boyfriends. The author attributes the numbers of out-of-wedlock births to a “lack of information” on one hand, and a “lack of options” on the other. (Rather than, say, a disregard for the consequences of extra-marital sex).
Adoptive parents (and adult adoptees) who read this book will find it easy to empathize with these struggling, suffering women. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel as though the book told only half the story. There was not a single story of a woman who recognized that, painful as it was, adoption was absolutely the best choice for her child. Nor do many acknowledge the debt of gratitude owed to the people who parented her child day and night; several seem to gloss over the sacrifices made for their child in their eagerness to reclaim the title of “mother.”

Most importantly, these stories illustrate more clearly than any chastity lecture ever could why the unitive and procreative aspects of sexuality cannot be separated without harming the individuals involved, and causing a great deal of anguish for all concerned. This was illustrated most poignantly by “Madeline,” who said (p.243):
I always felt like there was a huge scale and that I could never balance it. I held myself responsible [for losing my daughter]. I wanted to keep this baby. I felt powerless to keep this baby. I wanted it to be over. I wanted to go back to being a normal person. I wanted the baby out of my life. I wanted the baby. I didn’t want the baby. I think it’s that ambivalence that is so hard for people to look at and admit. People will say, “Oh, I wanted my baby with all my heart, and they took my baby from me.” And they turn themselves into a victim. Anything you get yourself into a situation like this, you have to see where you are partially responsible for it. It’s a two-way thing. I’ve been in a lot of situations like that. I’ve been in situations where it seems as though I’m the victim but in reality I’m part of the equation.
This book amply demonstrates that, even in purely secular terms, the "right" to engage in sex cannot be divorced from the responsibilities associated with it -- both to one's partner and to any life that comes from that union. However, because an authentic Catholic worldview – which reserves sexual expression to married couples on moral grounds as well as sociological ones – is missing from the book, adoption is portrayed as an unduly harsh punishment inflicted on a girl (most often by her own family), rather than a truly loving and unselfish choice made by two people who take responsibility for their actions, and who do what is necessary to give their child the stable, loving home every child deserves.

The Family Factor

In Donum Vitae (“The Gift of Life,” 1987), the Church affirms the right of every child “to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents” (par 3.) While these rights are explained in the context of the Church’s opposition to surrogate motherhood, these fundamental human rights apply equally to any child conceived (willingly or unwittingly) outside the bonds of marriage.

When this occurs, it is the child – not the woman, as Fessler contends – who bears the “full emotional weight of circumstances” caused by the parents’ actions, since the child is deprived of these rights long before he is born. Sadly, the author is too busy assigning blame on society in general and the girls’ parents in particular to consider the ramifications of the abortion “solution” hinted at in the subtitle of the book through the story of “Nancy I” (p.53).
[E]verytime I hear stories … about the recurring trauma of abortion, I want to say, “You don’t have a clue.” I’ve experienced both and I’d have an abortion any day of the week before I would ever have another adoption – or lose a kid in the woods, which is basically what it is. You know your child is out there somewhere, you just don’t know where.
This statement, perhaps more than any other in the book, reveals the fundamental flaw in the feminist position on sexual expression as a “right,” contraception as a “convenience,” and pregnancy as a “condition” to be cured rather than a gift to be cherished.

Is Single Parenthood the Answer?

This question is one that I’ve considered at close range. One thing is certain: It would be a mistake to suggest that one "solution" can be applied across the board. Each "triad" of birth family, child, and adoptive family is unique.

Having said that, some aspects of single parenthood are seen again and again. I’m related by birth or marriage to three women who have had children out of wedlock. In each case, these women decided to raise their babies on their own (with considerable assistance from grandparents).

Two years later, one of these women became pregnant a second time; this time she attempted to place the child for adoption. The biological father, whose violent criminal record did not stop a judge from granting him sole custody over the Christian couple who had been chosen as the adoptive parents, thwarted her plan.

Unfortunately, the story does not end there. Of these three women, two quickly married men who were not their child’s biological father. Both men mistreated the children; one abused both his wife and her child. (He sued for custody to get back at the mother for leaving him, even though he was not related biologically to the child, and he very nearly succeeded in obtaining custody of her daughter because she had no medical records or police reports to confirm the abuse she and her daughter had endured.)

It is an unfortunate reality that many young women who become pregnant out of wedlock are not ready to be mothers, and are ill prepared to face the challenges of motherhood. This plays out in a variety of ways, with grandparents often caught in a no-win situation. Having offered to help their daughter raise her child, they find themselves in the uncomfortable place of feeling responsible for the child without having the power to make decisions on the child’s behalf. “I’m the mother,” their daughter reminds them … refusing to relinquish any of her “rights,” no matter how much suffering her bad choices cause both her parents and her child.

And so, the parents keep supporting, keep paying, and keep quiet … afraid that if they alienate their daughter, they may lose their grandchild as well. “At least the baby is here, where we know he’s safe,” they tell each other.

It is this pressure that kept the parents of the third unwed mother in my extended family from “pressuring” their daughter into marrying the baby’s father. Despite the fact that they live together and share expenses, she just isn’t sure he’s “Mr. Right.” And so once again, the rights of the baby – to be raised in the loving embrace of both parents, within a permanent family unit – are sacrificed. For now he has his mother’s name … and we pray that, once he is old enough to understand the reason why his father left, that name will be enough.
Parenthood is inherently a life of self-sacrifice. There is no getting around it. Whether that sacrifice entails the death of a dream, or just a full night's sleep, the self-donation required in order to raise a child and turn him or her into a responsible citizen of the world is nothing short of breathtaking. I'm not sure I would have had the courage to become a parent had I known ahead of time how difficult it was going to be.
In the end, however, it's not about the sacrifice of the parent, but the needs of the child. No matter what the circumstances are that a child is brought into the world, the moment his life begins the paramount question is not, "What do I want?" but, "What does this child need?" Not "What is convenient?" but "What is in my child's best interest?"
What this book shows most clearly is that what is in the child's best interest has very little to do with what makes the parent feel good. That too is the nature of parenthood. Convenience and personal happiness is often the standard by which our culture makes decisions ... but faith urges us to embrace a higher calling.