Lent for Slackers

This is a post for people who tend to be too lax with themselves.  We’ll start by kicking out those of you who don’t belong here.

If you are prone to scruples . . . don’t read this post. Go make an appointment with your pastor for a five-minute consultation.  Write down your plans for Lent, get him to sign off on that, tape your list to your fridge, and DON’T ADD A THING.

You may sprinkle on bits of supererogatory penance on your better Lenten days if the opportunity presents itself, but that’s pure bonus and you have to both (A) congratulate yourself for those days and (B) knock it off if your hot Lenten super days are wearing you down and making it too hard on ordinary days to do the thing you and your pastor agreed would be your thing.

That’s it.  Get out of here.

PS: If your pastor is a totally namby-pamby, flakey-wakey, wishy-washy cuddle puddle who wouldn’t know penance if it scourged him with briars . . . that’s God choosing to really lay it on you this Lent.  When Fr. Laxalot looks at your list of planned prayers and fasting and tells you that what he really needs is for you to smile during the sign of peace as your Lenten act of self-denial, honey you just do that. Tape it to your fridge.

If your life is inherently penitential . . . this post isn’t really for you, either.  But you can take a look, as long as you promise not to scruple.  Otherwise, it’s off to meet with Fr. Laxalot.

Slackers Quit Slacking

So there are people you know who glance at Lent and announce that The Really Important Thing conveniently does not include prayer, penance, and almsgiving.

Now let us agree, the Really Important Thing is you responding to God’s grace and accepting His gift of salvation and all that goes with.  Absolutely.  But you are a timebound meat-creature, so the ethereal glance towards Heaven is not something you are quite ready to sustain.  Your body and soul are inseparably glued together like a PB&J sandwich that’s been sitting on the dash of the car on a summer afternoon; therefore you must do things with your body now if you want to shine up your soul so it can embrace the beatific vision when the time comes.

Let us also acknowledge that if you are bitter, nasty, ungrateful wretch with seven mortal sins you commit before breakfast, you’ve got some rough work to blast through before getting to the fine-tuning.  Do please orient your Lent towards knocking off at least the most egregious outer layer so we can get to the deeper stuff in future years.

Furthermore, let us note that once the big crust of visible nastiness has been mostly brushed away, it’s possible that what we find inside is a festering wound of putrid moral ugliness.  In all likelihood you are so accustomed to the stench you don’t even notice.  Telltale Sign: You create complicated explanations about why your life doesn’t match the things Jesus says to do, but hey that’s okay!  It’s not okay.

Jesus came to save you from your sins, not to explain that drowning in the mire is just fine too.

Prayer, penance, and almsgiving are the physical tools God gives us, by His gift of unfathomable Grace, to help us not want to drown in the mire quite so much.

Prayer

Prayer takes many forms, but Not Praying isn’t one of them.

Please do not tell me that your work is your prayer.  No darling.  Your work is your work.  Your prayer is your prayer.  It may be that your state in life does not allow for the type of prayer you especially prefer or admire, but actual prayer is the thing we’re going for here.  Examples:

  • Prayerfully reading the day’s Mass readings.
  • Attending Mass and praying through it.
  • Adoring the Lord present in the Holy Eucharist.
  • Praying one of the hours of the Divine Office.
  • Prayerfully reading your Bible.
  • Praying the Rosary.  (Tips here.)
  • Praying the Chaplet of Divine Mercy.
  • Praying the Jesus Prayer.
  • Praying some shorter (or longer) prayer that fits the occasion.
  • Setting aside a certain amount of time, alone and unbothered, to become aware of the presence of God and then converse with Him.
  • If you like to write: Prayerfully conversing with God via conversation with Him in a private journal.

There are other ways of course, but you get the idea.

You cannot pray all the prayers.  You must discern and choose.  I am well aware that there are times in life when your work or your vocation or your health does not allow you to pray as fully as you otherwise would.  But if you can read this post, you can definitely pray.

Penance

If you have big sins you’re trying to shed, penance can run two ways.  If your sin is something like using porn or committing slow suicide with your cigarette habit, then this particular Lent you might take on the “penance” of quitting that habit, stat.  It’s actually a gift to yourself, not a punishment, but such gifts can own you for a long while, and one can only do so much at a time.

On the other hand, if your persistent sin is something like wrath, or lust, or gluttony, there’s a point when cold turkey can’t happen.  Once you’ve eliminated the obvious don’t-or-die items, you’re left with a pile of wriggling worms of naughtiness that are constantly evading capture.  Fasting in its various forms, as well as acts of overt self-mortification (cold showers, for example), are the tools that fight sin and save lives.

Conveniently, if you take up such a penance you get a double-bonus: The miracles that are wrought by the combination of prayer and penance will flow both outward towards others and inward towards your soul.

Offering it up.  If your life comes with a significant built-in penance, then a reasonable Lenten resolution is to live out that God-ordained amount of suffering with a prayerful disposition.  This post was not for you, but there you go.

For those of you who are, in contrast, perfectly capable of additional acts of self-denial, don’t delude yourself.  You will not become a nicer person by resolving to be a nicer person.  You will become a more charitable person by training yourself, through self-denial, that it is not necessary to indulge your every whim.

Almsgiving

Sometimes people say, “Rather than giving up something for Lent, you can take up something for Lent.”  Certainly true, but if you are a slacker, you know very well how easily you can turn that observation into a shadow-play of Doing Nothing.

Slacker friends, let’s raise the bar one more: When you take on works of charity, don’t deceive yourself into Not Actually Giving.

If you have money to give, give it.  Give it freely and generously.  If you are the widow in the parable, this post was not for you.  This post is for those of you who so easily persuade yourself you are that widow, when really you’re the guy walking by the money box not even bothering to drop in a few coins.

Almsgiving is the triple whammy:

  • It is an act of self-denial, hence it works like a penance.
  • It teaches you to trust in God, because you are giving up your means of saving yourself.
  • It does some good for the recipient.

Most of us stink at it even more than we stink at fasting, and you know we pretty much stink at fasting, too.  If you are a person with significant wealth, you are far more likely to succeed at prayer and fasting than you are to succeed at almsgiving.

About those Poor People

Let me say a crazy thing, and you stay calm until you’ve read the details: Please don’t take on the works of mercy for Lent.  The corporal and spiritual works of mercy are your duty all year long.

It may well be that since you have no money to give, but you do have physical strength and free time, taking on one of the works of mercy will in fact be your best way of almsgiving.  Furthermore, taking on a work of mercy is often the necessary counterpart to a penance — if you don’t fill the void with something good, you’ll only go and fill it with a fresh vice.  Finally, if you are not currently practicing the works of mercy, or your life has changed so that you are now free to carry out works that were heretofore not open to you, please, take them on!

So it may in fact be best if you take up a work of mercy this Lent.  But slacker friends, do not say to yourself, “Oh yes, I feed the homeless every Lent!” or “Oh yes, I visit the sick every Advent!”  Love of neighbor is not a seasonal activity.  Take note of your spiritual gifts and the opportunities that your state in life allows, and do not shove off your portion of Christian charity on your fellow parishioners.

Chances are you stink at this even worse than you stink at prayer, penance, and almsgiving — and don’t even know it.  Love of neighbor flows from love of God.  Work on the Big Three this Lent, and the works of mercy should be the obvious fruit of your repentance and return to God.

File:Battistero 1.jpg

I searched Wikimedia for “camels” and came up with this.  More Lenten than you might think.  Giusto de’ Menabuoi – Re magi – Battistero del Duomo di Padova, fresco circa 1376 – 1378.

The Solution to the Big Parish Problem

Yesterday I wrote about why ever-expanding parishes are a sign of trouble. This does not mean that a big parish is a bad parish; it means that if a diocese is growing in pewsitters but not in religious vocations, it’s growing spiritual fat, not muscle.  The good news is that stored energy, in the form of pewsitters, can be converted into a healthy Body of Christ just as soon as the head makes up its mind to start doing the things it takes to regain spiritual vigor.

A large parish that is pulling this off right now is St. William’s in Round Rock, Texas.  Over at the blog discussion group, Martina Kreitzer writes:

You should come visit St. William in Round Rock, Texas. We are the largest parish in the diocese with no sign of growing slower. Our post confirmation program retention rate is 4x the national average . . . and our parish faith formation programs (pre-k through high school) are thriving in ways that make our “mega church” work. We are also blessed to be a 100 year old parish in which the founding family still attends (and can often be seen in the trenches of service oriented work). We come from humble beginnings, have a multicultural background, and are rich in heritage – Mexican/Anglo/rich/poor, etc.

You should come talk to our priest, Father Dean Wilhelm, our adult faith formation director Noe Rocha and our high school and middle school youth ministers, Chris Bartlett and Gwen Bartlett (they are brother and sister). They are also co-founders of a mentoring ministry called Next Level Ministry, designed to help youth ministers get the most out of their programs.

Martina is behind the Jesus is Lord program, one of the key elements of St. William’s success, and which you can read about in detail:

Jesus is Lord Series Introduction

Week 1: God’s Love

Week 2: Sin and It’s Consequences

Week 3: Salvation – God’s Solution for Sin

Week 4: Repentance – Recognize and Receive

Confession

Week 5: Holy Spirit – Going from the Seat to the Feet

Prayer Session

Week 6: Jesus is Lord of My Talent

Week 7: Jesus is Lord of My Time

Week 8: Jesus is Lord of My Treasure

Week 9: Jesus is Lord of My Sexuality

Week 10: Intentional Discipleship and Commissioning

Is this program suitable for parishes not quite like St. William’s? Definitely.  It’s being used at Texas A&M’s legendary St. Mary’s Catholic Center, where vocations are flourishing.  You can watch the campus video series here.

What is this “Intentional Discipleship” business?

Back up a second though and notice the title for Week 10 of the Jesus is Lord series.  If you are not familiar with the concept of “Intentional Discipleship” you need to read Sherry Weddell’s excellent books on the topic, Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples.  The first book explains the problem, and the second tells you step-by-step how to solve it.  Book three, Fruitful Discipleship comes out in April 2017.

FID and BPID are both best suited to intermediate-level lay readers. You don’t have to be a genius or on staff at the parish, and both books are eminently readable, but when my own discipleship group read FID, some of the members found the density of the book a little overwhelming.  After you’ve read the book yourself, if you want to communicate and discuss the ideas in Forming Intentional Disciples with a broader audience of parish lay-leaders and future lay-leaders, the free CatholicMom.com study guide for Forming Intentional Disciples provides a snapshot summary of the key ideas and a few discussion questions for each chapter.

For the whole dang parish, Brandon Vogt’s book Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church is an excellent 101 on evangelization and discipleship for the ordinary Catholic.  He offers a video course as well, which I haven’t reviewed but which you may find helpful.

So there you go.  And if all fails, The Catechism of the Catholic has a few pointers as well.

 

There’s a Saint Out to Get You This Year

If you don’t already know who it is, go to the Saint’s Name Generator and let some holy soul pick you for 2017.

 

The first year I tried this, I got St. John Bosco.  It was an obvious.

The next year, St. Matthew.  The need was clear, though I’m not convinced I kept up my end of things.

Last year, St. Andrew.  He works in obscurity, but work he does.

And then there’s this year, 2017.

So about that Rosary thing . . .

If you aren’t already familiar with the story of how I accidentally joined the Legion of Mary, you can read that story here.  An excerpt:

I’d never even heard of the Legion of Mary.  But this lady was fast.  She had my name on those forms in an instant. There’s the x for your signature, here’s a copy of your prayers to say every day, and don’t worry, it’s not a mortal sin if you miss a day, but do keep up with it.

“But I don’t go to this parish,” I told her.

They weren’t picky.

I signed.  And then I had to go home and explain this to my poor husband, a protestant who believed in neither the Blessed Sacrament nor prayers to Mary.  Oops.   Luckily he recognized the swift hand of God in answering my prayers for a better prayer life, and if it made no sense to him personally, who was he to argue with God?

And who am I to argue either?

That was all great until, as I wrote in 2015, things began to get complicated.  It is difficult to pray the Rosary (or any other talking-prayer) when you get light-headed when you talk.  The hagiographers won’t have any work to do with me, because I’m not one of those saints with heroic perseverance.  After a long period of trial and error I finally decided to sub out the Office of Readings if I couldn’t reasonably pray the Rosary, since that’s far easier to pray along with silently.  It’s reading.  They put the word reading right there in the name of it.

(I thought about making myself a rosary to read. Like a slide show or something. But then I didn’t.  I guess I should do that.  And yes, I tried apps and things, but nothing suited.)

So then, as I wrote the other day, I got better again!  Woohoo!  Which means that I transitioned, slightly unaware, from World’s Worst Auxillary Member of the Legion, But She Has an Excuse to WWAML, No Excuse.  I had forgot I could do this thing again.

But you know what?  God didn’t forget, and neither did this other guy.

Enter Rosary, Stage Left; Saint, Stage Right

Two big things happened in the last weeks of December.  I can’t remember which happened first.  One was that in the course of cleaning out the house, I came across the stunningly beautiful rosary that a friend had given me as a gift some years ago.  I used to pull it out for the Easter and Christmas seasons, but I’ve been slack about keeping up with liturgically-timed theme-changes lately, and honestly I had sort of, I’m mortified to admit this, forgotten it.  But it pushed its way in front of my nose before Christmas, you betcha.

Then I forgot it again, because it was still Advent.  I know!  But it gets worse!

Meanwhile, my boss here at the Conspiracy posts that she got St. Andrew for her 2017 saint.  He’s well-used among Conspirators, but still in good shape.  So naturally I had to go compulsively find out who my 2017 saint would be, even though it was still firmly 2016, but you know, Facebook.  Must click the link.

So I go, and I pray briefly, hit the button, get to the screen which tells you to pray, and I pray again.  A Hail Mary this time.  Hit the second button:

St. Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort.

If you are in the Legion of Mary, you are now laughing manically and thinking about wiping up the coffee you just spewed all over your screen.  Sorry about that, maybe you should read the blogs of more reputable members.

The Case of the Unblessed Rosary

So I was officially put on notice.  No shirking in 2017, not for me.

Meanwhile, I again discovered that gorgeous rosary I’d re-forgotten, but had cleverly put on a shelf where I’d stumble across it more reliably.  The second time, I remembered something else: I’d never gone and gotten that rosary blessed.

There are two reasons for its heretofore unblessed state:

(1) My friend who gave it to me is not a Catholic, she’s just an extremely thoughtful and generous person who had this beautiful thing she knew I’d treasure made for me.

(2) At the time I received it, I had no idea rosary-blessing was even a thing.  No one tells you anything when you’re Catholic.  You can go years and years not knowing all kinds of stuff “everyone knows.”   Problem I might rant about another day, but for now, on to the happy ending.

So I’ve got St. Louis M. breathing down my back, a forlorn rosary dying to be put to its proper use, and hey, the year begins with the feast of Mary, Mother of God.

So yes, even though Father was miserable with a cold today at Mass and it pained me to ask him to say one more thing with that throat of his, I totally hauled that rosary out and had it blessed.  And then I went home and used it.  1 down, 364 to go.

Get yourself a saint if you haven’t already.  Happy New Year!

File:Людовик Мария Гриньон де Монфор.jpg
You could do a lot worse than having this man on your case.

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

 

If you read this blog via e-mail or feed reader, or if you have Ad Block ensabled on your browser, FYI: Among our sponsors here at the Catholic Conspiracy are people who make and sell rosaries. If you’re in the market for Catholic or Christian-friendly goods and services, do kindly see if any of our sponsors are offering what you’d hoped to find.  Thanks!

Can a Good Man Sin?

I do not know Fr. Frank Pavone, but I have friends who hold him in high regard.  There can be no questioning the sincerity of his devotion to the cause of ending abortion.  I agree with the sentiment that we who are pro-life are not vocal enough in our opposition to the massive slaughter taking place in our country.  While it is evident that I disagree with Fr. Pavone concerning certain tactics, I am not one to confuse squeamishness with righteousness.

Zeal can at times cloud our judgement.  I am an expert in rash behavior, and the decision to place a deceased infant on his chapel’s altar was, I firmly hope, an act of miscalculated passion.

It was certainly a sin.

Have you been to confession lately?  Fr. Pavone is human, and like you, he is capable of sinning.  Like you, he is capable of acting in willful disregard of the law of God.  He’s also, like you, capable of acting in culpable ignorance.  We who view from the outside cannot know the state of Fr. Pavone’s soul; we can, however, inform our consciences to the point that we can perceive when an objectively sinful act has been committed.

Now it is likely that in his tactics Fr. Pavone sinned against the virtues of prudence and temperance; certainly his bishops have found it so. For the remainder of this essay I’m setting that aside, already dealt with extensively elsewhere.  We are going to look only at the sin against the cardinal virtue of justice.  Did Fr. Pavone give God His due?

What is the Purpose of the Altar?

In our spiritual lives we often invoke the image of the sacred altar.  We speak of uniting our sufferings with Christ on the Cross, and Christ in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.  When we offer up a Mass for a given intention, we might say that we placed that intention on the altar.  You’ll often notice when you attend Mass that the priest will have a card right there on the altar reminding him of the intention for that Mass.

Thus we can understand how someone — anyone — might have the natural instinct to place some significant object on the altar in an act of devotion and offering.

To avoid sin, however, requires obedience to supernatural instincts.

The altar of the Mass is the place where heaven meets earth.  We who enter a Catholic church are entering the Holy of Holies.  We are people who, at the moment of the Consecration, see God and live. We are so used to this sacred privilege that we forget how unspeakably privileged we are.  The daily duty of caring for the parish church can create an over-familiarity with sacred things, to the point that we  start to forget they are honest-to-God sacred.

Our Strength is in the Lord

Time and again in the Old Testament, we see the Lord do valorous deeds for the people of Israel.  That miraculous action didn’t end with the Incarnation: We can cite miracle after miracle in the long history of the saints down to our present day.  These miracles are not mere emotional adjustments.  God acts in the physical and social world, at times miraculously delivering physical healing, political victory, and military protection.

These miracles happen not on our schedule but on God’s.  They also follow a pattern, and it’s a pattern that illuminates the nature of Fr. Pavone’s error.  Step 1: We turn to God for His miraculous provision.  We acknowledge our complete dependence on God’s saving hand, and abandon ourselves entirely to His divine will.  Our help is the Lord who made heaven and earthStep 2: God intervenes for the good of His people when and how He pleases.

In so doing, we often experience the Lord’s sacred paradox.  We put our trust in the Lord, not in chariots and horses — only to turn around and see the Lord using chariots and horses to deliver us.  The order of the operation is the hinge on which the whole of salvation rests.

In the beginning there was God, and then He made heaven and earth.  The sacred altar belongs to that First thing.  It is a holy place set aside for the Presence of God in the shockingly same way God Is, outside of all time and space.

Righting the Sacred Order

God wills the protection of all innocent lives.  He wills an end to abortion.  It is the desire of God that men would freely act to end this atrocity.  It cannot but be the desire of God to come to our assistance in the work of protecting and defending the most vulnerable among us.  These facts are incontrovertible.

But there is another incontrovertible fact: The altar is reserved to divine worship and nothing else.

We must charitably assume that Fr. Pavone’s recent actions were motivated by a sincere desire to serve God.  All the same, he committed an act of sacrilege.  We can defend him with mercy, for who among us is not also a wretched sinner, but we can’t defend his action with approval.  To do so would require contortions along the lines of proposing that first God made heaven and earth, and then the next day He Is.

No no no.  It must always be the other way around.  It is unable to be otherwise.

The objective gravity of Fr. Pavone’s sin was in putting a second thing first.  He failed to remember the supreme sacredness of the altar.

You have probably done that once or twice, if only in thought if not in word or deed.  You may have heard about, if not witnessed yourself, reprehensible violations along these lines committed by clergy and others who ought to know better.  We humans are woefully fallible.

Mercy and Reparation

Fortunately, there are remedies.  Begin by forming your conscience as to the sacredness of the altar of the Sacrifice of the Mass.  If you do not live in a parish where the sacred altar is treated with due reverence, make a pilgrimage to a place where it is.  Lex orandi lex credendi.

Then proceed with prayer and fasting for the reparation of every rent in the sacred relationship between God and man.  Contemplate our Lord’s mercy on us sinners.  One of the missions of Priests for Life is bringing healing to those who, knowingly or unknowingly, committed a grave offense against God and man in the act of abortion.  As it is for abortion, so it is for every sin: No one who desires to repent is beyond the reach of the Lord’s infinite mercy.

Related Links:

Life and Death Decisions Made Beneath the Pedestal

The other week when I posted my rant-o-rama about the misuse of the label “amazing,” John Hathaway went right to work at the blog discussion group pulling out of me the what’s really going on here??  We managed to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time, and below I’m going to explain what I think is the biggest, most deadly part of going around thinking other people are “amazing.”

But first, a few side issues that deserve some resolution:

  • We quickly agreed on the usual explanation for surly bloggers: I was being cranky.
  • I do concede that the word “amazing” has shifted to take on a second, diluted meaning of generally “nice” or “good.” I’ll spare you a long talk about how we already had words that meant those things.  (To wit: nice and good are still around.)
  • Furthermore, I generally don’t care if other people have the odd shoddy linguistic habit — don’t we all?  If you’re itching for a fight, you’ll get more fervor out of me if you bring up the Oxford Comma.

(Yes!  Even though I am a convicted comma abuser!  We pundits would have nothing to do all day if we sat around waiting for our holiness to arrive before we opened our mouths.)

Now, on to the Pedestal of Death.

Superman is Amazing

Let’s talk about Superman.  He stops speeding bullets.  He leaps tall buildings in a single bound.  He’s the guy you look for when you need something done that ordinary people just can’t do.  He’s called “amazing” because he does things you and I never could.

Ordinary people of course are “amazing” in the sense that we are each the precious and intricate handiwork of God.  Spend half an hour learning about the things we’ve discovered to date about, say, the way a human nerve cell functions, and you’ll be rightly amazed.  Furthermore, our loved ones bring all kinds of invaluable gifts to the world simply by being themselves.  Despite my cantankerous headline the other day, your children are in fact amazing even when all they’re doing is drooling over their baby food.  There’s that.

But sometimes we call someone “amazing” not out of simple wonder at the marvel of human worth and dignity, but more in the Superman-sense of amazing.  We have gotten to where certain classes of people who happen to be doing hard things are given the Superman label.

Doing this isn’t just over-enthusiasm.  Such labeling actually causes humans to die.

Hard Things Don’t Require Superman

Life is hard.  Humans — all of us — are called to do hard things.

When somebody is dealing with some tremendous difficulty, they aren’t being Superman. They are experiencing human life.

Lately though, our society has gotten that idea that difficulties are only for Very Special People.  We consider suffering to be the sole province of amazing superheros, and do all that we can to excuse everyone else — people who are “like us.”

If you have a baby with an adverse prenatal diagnosis and you don’t choose to abort that baby, people call you “amazing.”  Only special superhero people can do that; ordinary people would have to abort, because they just can’t take it the way Amazing SuperParents can.

Thus it follows that if you happen to be raising a child with a serious illness or disability, or you happen to be such a person yourself, surely you are “amazing” for experiencing such a life.

If you reach a point where your family member’s illness or disability becomes overwhelming, you’re “amazing” if you continue to care for that person rather than opting to go ahead and put the sufferer to death.  If you yourself are the one directly suffering and you choose not to commit suicide, again you are “amazing” for enduring what “ordinary” people just couldn’t do.

No! No! No!

Not Killing Innocent People is an Ordinary Person’s Job

There’s just nothing “amazing” about not committing murder.  Ordinary old you is a person who is called to man-up and do your best to muddle through difficult circumstances.

Some people endure their hardships with admirable fortitude and good grace, while others of us aren’t winning any prizes for Sufferer of the Year.  But all of us, by mere dint of our humanity, should anticipate the time when we, too, will bear our share of hardship.  We don’t have to seek it out; it will find us.

When it comes, we will not be Amazing Supermen.  We’ll feel the sting of the bullet and the penetrating wound and the leaking of life from our bodies in an unstoppable river of blood.  Suffering hurts.  Suffering is difficult.  Suffering eventually robs you of this mortal life.

Death by Admiration

The going expression is that if you put someone on a pedestal you’ll see their clay feet, but I don’t think that’s the gravest risk anymore. Anymore, the pedestal is where we put people we want to admire from a safe distance.  If you keep far enough back from someone who’s working through a difficult part of life, and you squint so you don’t see the messy parts, you can convince yourself you’re looking at Superman.

You can say to yourself, “I could never do that.  I’m not Superman like that person is.”

You can say to other people, “I don’t expect you to do that difficult thing, because if you’re not Superman it’ll be just too hard for you.”

You can say, “Well, they are the ones who chose not to abort or euthanize — if they’re having a hard time, it’s not my fault they tried to act like Superman.”

These are lies.  The people you know who are doing hard things right now? They are ordinary people.

If you admire someone’s fortitude or good grace, don’t say, “Wow you are so amazing!” as if your friend were from another planet, possessing super-human attributes.  Rather, say, “Wow. When my time comes to face some similar trial, I hope I’ll have learned enough from your example to be able to do you proud.”

File:1527-Kalender Celebi Rebellion-Suleymanname.jpg

By Matrakci Nasuh [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

On Meeting the Rich Young Man

This past Monday the Gospel was from the story of the Rich Young Man. We read it this year in Mark chapter 10, but you can find the account in Matthew 19 and Luke 18.

A week in, I still want to write about it, so I will.

MK 10:17-27
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

A lot of people are recorded in the Gospels asking our Lord questions, or asking Him for other stuff. The first thing I notice here is what the question is: What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Now it’s possible that the man is just trying trip Jesus up or start an argument. But there’s evidence to follow that this is the thing he wants to know. Asking this is commendable, because I think a lot of us just don’t even care about the question or the answer. We assume we already know the answer – whether eternal life is possible, and if so, what it’s like and how we obtain it. But here’s someone who isn’t presuming.

Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.

This initial answer has obvious rhetorical bearing on the fact that Jesus is God. But for we mere humans, the question of goodness comes around at the end, back to the question of eternal life.

Our Lord proceeds to lay out what goodness looks like:

You know the commandments:

You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
you shall not defraud;
honor your father and your mother.”

Now here’s this shocking answer that I don’t think shocks enough:

He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.”

How many people can you say this about? Some, I’m sure. But most of us? I don’t think so.

Jesus, looking at him, loved him

Catch that? I infer from this exchange a series things:

  1. The man was telling the truth. He really had been keeping the commandments.
  2. He knew that it wasn’t enough. That’s why he approached Jesus and asked the question: He’d been keeping the commandments, and was stirred by a sense that there was something greater for him. That being satisfied with his (impressive) observance of the law was not the way to eternal happiness.
  3. Jesus isn’t about to go all table-flipping. What follows isn’t a rebuke. It’s the next thing. Here’s someone who wants the next thing!

and [Jesus] said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

So this is the next thing. The man’s reaction isn’t all zip-a-dee-doo-dah:

At that statement, his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

This is the moment when people love to hate the rich young man. But really? Have you done this? Have you done something close to this? Because if you’ve freely given up everything you owned and all your security and all your safety, you’re in rare company. You probably don’t read this blog, and you probably do know that it’s a big thing.

I don’t mean it was taken from you. I mean you gave it up freely.

Everything?

Even the women who followed Jesus and supported the disciples from their wealth didn’t give up everything – hence that wealth. The Apostles still had their livelihood to turn back to. After Jesus died, they went back to fishing.

I would hazard that most serious Christians disciples whom I know personally are already feeling the pinch just by taking a bit of risk, or choosing to live a little more simply, or choosing to give a little more generously.

Now think about the man’s reaction from another angle: Why did his face fall?

Because the man took Jesus at his word.

He didn’t convert the command in his head to something less – something easier to live with. Nor did he take it to mean, “Here’s a suggestion, but you might have other ideas and those could work too.”

The Gospels tell us the man went away sad, but we don’t know what decision he made. What we do know is that when he left, he was actually wrestling with the decision. He was taking it seriously. He was counting the cost.

It’s really easy to follow Jesus when you’ve got nothing to lose. It’s a lot harder to convert when it means necessarily giving up things you’re not sure you can live without, or not sure you want to.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God!”

This comment should scare you. You probably have things left to lose.

The disciples were amazed at his words.

So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?”

Even the disciples had things left to lose, at that point. Eventually they’d get down to nothing, but that was later.

Meanwhile, back to that question of goodness:

Jesus looked at them and said, “For men it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”

Sooner or later, we reach the limits of our human perfection. Some of us are sufficiently bad that we hit the wall early and hard. Some, like the rich young man, have to be squeezed to find out where the faults lie.

Christianity isn’t the worship of our human goodness. It’s the worship of the Goodness that comes to rescue us when ours is fresh out.

File:ChineseJesus.jpg

Artwork: Chinese depiction of Jesus and the rich man (Mark 10) – 1879, Beijing, China [Public Domain] via Wikimedia.

Book Review: Getting the Marriage Conversation Right

(There’s a book review coming at the bottom of this, but I need to lay out some preliminary matter first.  And this is a post concerning sex.  Not for children.)

To be Catholic is to be aware of a long list of my own faults.  Let’s review a few of them:  I goof off too much (not just on the internet, everywhere).  I lack patience for the most trivial of inconveniences.  When I’m irritated, I use my verbal powers for evil and not good.  I spend way too much money on myself, and far too little on the poor.  I procrastinate.  On any given day, there’s a decent chance I spent the time I meant to spend praying (not an exorbitant quantity) doing some other more entertaining and entirely optional thing.  For those who are familiar with the Little Flower, we could safely describe me as the Little Weed.  The anti-Therese.

And that’s just my public sins.  For every one you see on the kitchen floor, there’s a hundred more in the walls. If Therese is one of our few Doctors of Church, I’m guaranteed a spot among the vast number of Patients of the Church.

So be it.  Some people talk about so-called “Catholic Guilt”, and those people are invariably the ones who missed out — in whole or in part — on the real deal: Catholic Mercy.  If I don’t crumble in despair at the state of my soul  (and yes, actually despair is one of my sins as well), it’s because there’s hope for me.  Not hope that I’m going to wake up one morning suddenly meriting Heaven.  But because Someone Else has gone ahead and opened Heaven for me.  He loves me with His whole being, and will do anything — anything — to give me an shot at eternal happiness, mine only for the asking.  And not just me — He loves everybody that way.

My experience with evangelization is that few of us are converted because we suddenly discover how wretched we are, and thus desire to jump into the cosmic shower.  Quite the opposite: We long to know God, and having been drawn to Him, we begin to see, bit by bit, what life in Heaven looks like.  And what kind of baggage we’ll be leaving at the door when we get there.  Some things we drop like an old stinky garbage bag, in a flash of horrified understanding. Other things we keep stuffed in our pockets, sure they are part of us, or sure that these are little treasures we can sneak through eternal security . . . and it is only late in this life, or at the beginning of the next, that we catch on to the fact that, oops, we’ve been running around with the spiritual equivalent of a moldy rotten banana shoved in that coat pocket.

I’ve got rotten bananas in my pocket. (Usually only spiritually, though there was that one time I waited a month to clean out my tote bag . . . ick.)  But if your argument consists of, “Jen, you stink!” my response is, “Um, why yes, I do.”

I hate the topic of Gay Marriage.

Hate it.  Let me count the ways:

1) Because I know that the people who favor gay marriage do so for entirely understandable reasons.

2) Because I’m not an idiot.  I’ve known plenty of folks who favor same-sex unions, and who are, put simply, better people than me.  And they’re far and away better people than some of our rotten-to-the-core unrepentant clergy who’ve spent decades hiding despicable offenses.

3) The division concerning gay marriage doesn’t have its roots in questions about homosexuality.  For the last fifty years, the going cultural norm has been that whatever I desire, sexually, should be acted upon.  That marriage vows are no vow at all.  That children and marriage have nothing to do with one another.  That children have no particular need to be raised in a home with their mother and father.  That any parent-type figure will do just fine.

An aside: People have a hard time accepting that adopted children feel a genuine grief concerning their biological parents.  That very illusion — that your parents were unable to care for you, but hey, you have nothing to cry about — feeds into the destruction of marriage.  Something my dad said to me very plainly when he remarried after my mother’s death — I knew it, but he was absolutely right to lay it on the table  — was, “Your stepmother is not a replacement for your mother.”

It is a beautiful and wonderful thing when some loving person can step in and fill some portion of the blank left by the loss of loved one.  But it doesn’t erase the loss.  Acknowledging the loss makes it possible to delight in the sheer gift of this new and full and lively relationship, because we can accept it on its own terms, not pretend it is the other gift now gone.

4) A significant portion of the so-called Christian world doesn’t even acknowledge the horror of abortion.  An even larger chunk, including many people whose genuine faith in Christ I don’t doubt for a moment, think sterilization and contraception are AOK — desirable even.  And I don’t want to contemplate the numbers in the Church who approve or encourage the sin against purity we used to discreetly but emphatically call “self-abuse”.  Before you start citing the ancient Jewish law concerning homosexual acts, review the details concerning Onan, eh?  Struck dead on the spot?  Actions speak louder than words.  Disapproved.

5) I know that condemnation is the way of the world.  To ask for so-called “mercy” in the wider world is to heap condemnation upon yourself.  So I know that for many people dear to me, if I ever say, “Well, actually this one thing you’re doing is wrong,” those people I love will hear my words as code for, “Actually I hate you and I was just faking nice.”  Which isn’t true.  See my sins above — faking nice is not one of my virtues.

So to discuss gay marriage, at all, is to be accused of hatred.  I can discuss contraception, and people just think I’m a little daft.  I don’t mind that.  But I dislike the fact that to open this topic is to have a number of people I respect, admire, and count as friends, be tempted to assume the worst about me.  Well, the worst about me lies elsewhere.

[For the record: People hate you just as much if you talk about modesty in any specific terms.  Which I will be doing at NewEvangelizers.com in a couple weeks.  I’m racking up the voodoo rays this month.]

On to the Book Review

Getting the Marriage Conversation Right: A Guide for Effective Dialogue by William B. May is a short, readable booklet, written for a Catholic audience who wants to defend the sacrament of marriage, but suffer from poor rhetoric.  The assumption is that you the reader agree with the Catholic teaching, but perhaps you articulate it poorly.  You may even be currently basing your arguments on any number of details that simply aren’t Catholic.

Or you may be a Catholic who wants to follow Church teaching, but doesn’t understand why the bishops are so adamant about not allowing civil unions as a peaceful live-and-let-live alternative.

There is a single refrain that explains the disconnect between reality and popular culture.  The going definition of marriage in our society is this:

“Marriage is the public recognition of a committed relationship between two adults for their fulfillment”.

And let me observe right now: If this is your definition, it is logical to accept gay marriage.  Trouble being, that’s not what marriage is.  It is what civil marriage has become.  But it’s not what it is supposed to be.  Here’s the Real Ale definition of marriage, the one the Church is trying to defend, too little too late:

“Marriage unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union.”

This is the radical reality that animates the entirety of Christian thought on marriage and sexuality.  Each child has a need to be raised by his mother and father.

Sometimes bad things happen — death, or serious sins such as an abusive parent, or a rapist father — that make this need impossible to fulfill.  When that happens, we have no choice but to go with the next best thing, whether it be single parenting, or remarriage, or adoption.  The next best thing, in the context of a response to tragedy, becomes the very picture of self-giving love.  Anyone who steps into fill the void for a child who is unable to be reared by both his mother and his father?  A true hero.

We live in a fallen world, and marriage faces countless obstacles.  Getting the Marriage Conversation Right addresses each of these difficulties in turn, and explains how we are to understand a proper response to _______ problem.  The book repeatedly admonishes us to avoid the temptation to condemnation, and maintains a thoroughly Catholic — that is, merciful — response to the many problems that individuals may face.

No hate-spewing.  No tsk-tsking.  No “they deserve what they get”.  None of that.

Who Should Read This Book?

The audience is those who accept, or wish to more fully accept, Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage.  If you aren’t interested in being convinced, you won’t find this book convincing. It’s a book of explanations for why the Church teaches as she does, and how to effectively communicate that teaching to others.

The reading level is all-adults.  The tone is conversational and the word count is short and to-the-point.  This is an excellent resource for a parish study group.

Helpful for Outsiders?

If you are in favor of same-sex unions, will this book help you understand the other side?  A lot depends on your mentality.  This is an unabashed defense of the Catholic teaching, written by and for those who want to agree with it.  There is no effort to create, within the book, an apologetic geared towards the worthy opponent. Yes, if you read the booklet with a desire to understand, in the spirit of true dialogue, why people oppose same-sex unions, you will in fact learn why people oppose same-sex unions.

But if it’s going to make your blood boil to see anyone lay out a defense of a position you abhor, then yeah, it’s going to make your blood boil.  No way around it.

Summary: Good book.  Short, readable, gets straight to the heart of the matter.  This is the first title I’ve read on this topic, and it does a good job at what it does.  For those who oppose same-sex unions, but don’t really know why, or how to explain their position, this book makes a good start.

Boilerplate:This review was written as part of the Catholic book reviewer program from The Catholic Company. Visit The Catholic Company to find more information on Getting the Marriage Conversation Right. The Catholic Company is the best resource for all your seasonal needs such as First Communion gifts as well as ideas and gifts for the special papal Year of Faith.

Gregory the Great Academy – Marketing Genius

Just arrived in the mail from the monks at Clear Creek Monastery, a free CD and this pitch for Gregory Great the Academy:

I was recently talking to a mother of two SGA graduates.  As her sons transitioned to college, she marveled at their development of character . . . Once, during his first home break from SGA, she asked her oldest son to help her with the laundry.  Without any comment or complaint, her son proceeded to gather up the laundry in the house and clean his own room as well.

Inferior schools talk about college acceptance rates.  Before you put down your tuition deposit, ask the questions that really count.

Theology of the Body Conference, Simpsonville, SC July 6th & 7th

Why is Church teaching worth standing up for?  I’d be remiss if  I didn’t tell you about the Theology of the Body Conference in upstate SC this summer – July 6th & 7th.  I won’t make it out this year — I’ll be home attending a wedding, yay! — but I was able to go to Family Honor’s TOTB conference in 2002, and it was top notch.  Speakers this year include Janet Smith & Ray Guarendi . . . you can’t go far wrong with talent like that.  Check it out.

Hey and if you ever wondered where my header and sidebar photos came from . . . yeah, upstate SC has a few little secrets in those mountains.  Good place.

Faith and Morals: Willful “Confusion”

Via The Pulpit I discovered this great article at Catholic Lane on the morality of genetic enhancements: “Catholic Confusion on Enhancements” which is worth a read.  I’d never considered the question one way or another (we have no genes we are particularly keen to improve — want of ambition, as always), and now I know.  It’s not confusing at all — the Catholic teaching comes down to the old standby, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

But the cries of, “But I just . . . can’t . . . figure this out . . .” are so familiar.  It’s the line used to justify ignoring all the most obnoxious moral principles:

  • Torture: I can’t tell whether I’m really torturing someone or not — I guess I’ll just keep at it.
  • Theft: Is taking this one small thing really theft? Who knows — just don’t tell anyone and it’ll be okay.
  • Lying: Is it really a lie, or am I just being deceptive?  Well it’s a good cause, so why worry?

You might also recall willful confusion was used back in the day for abortion — is this really a baby? — but now everyone knows it’s a baby, we just don’t worry about the very little ones no one much wants, that would be absurd.  Like worrying about little white lies and tax evasion and torturing people who surely deserved it anyway.

The most entertaining sort of pseudo-confusion is about NFP. Seriously, I kid you not, people will say with a straight face things like:

  • “I don’t understand how NFP and contraception are different.”  Um, the part about not having sex, maybe?
  • “But what’s the difference between using chemicals or latex to prevent conception, versus using time to prevent it?” I think if you can’t tell the difference between sex and abstinence . . . you’re doing it wrong.

These are excuses.  No one who is serious about avoiding immoral genetic manipulation, or torture, or theft, or lying, or contraception, asks these questions.

Excuses are different from honest inquiry.  When people are really trying to find out answers, they act differently.  Honest inquirers ask precise questions: Not, “I can’t know whether taking office supplies is stealing, I’ll help myself to this case of pencils,” but “Is it okay to make personal phone calls from the office phone?  I’ll e-mail the new boss and find out what the policy is.” And then are prepared to accept difficult answers: If the policy is no personal calls, I’ll wait and call later.

Excuses are different from honest mistakes.  A very, very common honest mistake is believing that the withdrawal method is a legitimate and morally acceptable form of NFP.  It isn’t.  But between some going jokes (now dated, but these things persist), the fact that no artificial devices or chemicals are involved, and the the insidious feeling that anything with as low an effectiveness rating as the rhythm method* must be okay, people get the wrong idea.

The answer is no — a very rough approximation of Catholic sexual morality would be more along the lines of “Don’t start what you aren’t gonna finish.”  The difference between the honest mistake and faux “confusion” is that the honest man might grumble about being corrected, but he won’t sit there acting like he can’t tell the difference between select body parts and a hole in the ground.

*Withdrawal and the Rhythm Method are both somewhat effective for avoiding pregnancy, though I wouldn’t want to bet on them myself.  The one is immoral, the other is not.  History buff though I am, when it comes to having babies, or not having them, give me nice shiny modern NFP over the quaint forbears any day.