Friday, October 28, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 5)

1. The Rite of Welcoming is this Sunday!

2. November begins next week, which means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month again. I tried it last year but didn’t complete it because of a host of personal things. 50,000 words in 30 days. I have a lot of free time at work, so hopefully I’ll do better this year!

3. I feel like I have this great story, but I don’t trust my own writing skills to express it well enough to do it justice. Maybe just pumping out words with help, or maybe it will just make me even more uncertain. I’m definitely my worst critic when it comes to my writing.

4. November also means I should hear back from the school I applied to. I really want working on my second degree next semester. I don’t know what I’ll do with myself if I have to wait until next fall.

5. If I do start school in the spring, I’m thinking of using my spring break to go to Taize, especially if I could get someone to go with me. I get nervous travelling alone. But if I can’t go to Taize, maybe I can find a spiritual retreat within driving range that will work too.

6. I have a list of books I want to read, most of them religious. I’m trying to decide whether to put them on a Christmas list, or just break out the credit card and buy them now. I get impatient when it comes to books.

7. I woke up with Adele’s “Someone Like You” stuck in my head this morning. It’s a pretty depressing song to have stuck in your head while trying to get out bed and it’s still dark outside. But it’s also a really beautiful song.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 6

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.
Part 4 here.
Part 5 here.

6. The Trinity. I have always believed in the Trinity, but I never really experienced it until I started this journey. When I prayed, it was always to God the Father. He felt like a better fit for me. Jesus was the cool dude personality for the evangelical crowd, and the Holy Spirit was for the emotional Pentecostals.

But I’ve learned that to understand God at all, you have to understand all three parts of the Trinity. The Spirit led me to make this change in my life. My prayer life is blossoming. The Spirit opened me up to accepting things that defy my sophomoric logic. Sometimes coincidence is providence. Sometimes an emotion is a reaction to a reality, objective instead of subjective.

And is there any doubt I’ve gotten closer to Christ through Mass? Human and divine. Tangible God. Protestants use the empty cross to represent the risen Christ. And while the Resurrection deserves such central focus, looking at an empty cross or an empty tomb can often just feel empty. Jesus came to earth, where existence is dirty, and gritty, and painful. He suffered for you. He is perpetually hurting when He sees how we make the world an even harder existence than it has to be. He understands pain and persecution and struggle. And He chose to endure it for you. God is beauty. There is beauty in the kind of love that will get ugly and dirty and common. My relationship with Christ stems from that kind of love.

I needed a better relationship with Christ. The Catholic Church has shown me a real Christ to connect to. The Trinity, though fundamental, is a challenging concept. Believing in a Trinity and actually experiencing each person of the Trinity are two different things.

I’m far from the first to compare a relationship with God with a romantic relationship, but the two are so parallel it’s hard not to. (Probably because romantic love is just a microcosm of God’s love). I’ve experienced the infatuation, the uncertainty, the compromise, the humility, the joy, the wanting to tell everyone you know, and the wanting to keep it quiet all to yourself. Understanding God is a creator but also a sacrifice and sanctifier makes Him more complex and more concrete.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Scaring the Hell Out of You

A few years ago, one of the local Lutheran churches put this message on their sign: “Our God is a God of love, not judgment.” The uproar and negative phone calls they received led them to take the message down within three days. What was so outrageous about this message? While it appeared as the standard “God loves everyone, come as you are” message, there was a passive-aggressive tone. That’s because it was late October, which means the Baptist church a few blocks down was putting on Judgment House.

If you haven’t heard of Judgment House (sometimes called Hell House), it’s the Christianized version of a haunted house. It shows teens in typical after-school special situations (pressured to have sex, drink, bully, etc). Then some tragedy strikes, and you follow the ones who didn’t love Jesus to a hot, torturous hell, and the ones who did love Jesus to shiny, happy heaven. At the end, you fill out an information card that asked if you've been saved or not. If you want to give (or re-give) your life to Christ, there are prayer groups waiting to talk to you. They remind me a lot of the medieval morality plays, except the morality plays personified virtues and vices and covered a range of Church teachings. They are similar, though, in that each offers skits about "average Christian" making choices that affect his salvation, showing images of heaven and hell.

I know the people who put on these productions mean well. At the least, they want to provide a Christian alternative to Halloween. I always feel a little bad for making fun of them. But the whole production gets under my skin. Inducing fear to create converts just isn’t the right way to bring people to Christ.

People should want to be with God, not just want to avoid hell. It’s like marrying someone just because you are afraid of being alone for the rest of your life. You should marry someone because you love that person, because you can’t imagine anything else but a life with that person, and because being with that person makes you a better you.

Judgment Houses believe you have to break people down to build them back up, that they can only find Jesus when they are emotionally vulnerable. Sometimes being scared is good. It’s scary to realize how much we (humanity in general and individuals) sin and reject God. It’s scary to realize how hard actually living a holy life would be. Fear reminds us that we mess up a lot, that we need to improve ourselves, and that we can’t just assume we can coast through life without struggle. It holds us accountable. But that sort of fear comes from real-life, individual experiences. It’s not fictionalized. It’s not a production designed to stir up and exploit particular emotions. As humans, we’re already broken enough. We don’t need to be frightened into realizing that we sin and need God’s help.

But in the end, Judgment Houses aren’t even a good tool for evangelism: I suspect that if a person decides to go to a Judgment House, he already is a particular type of Christian that believes in this description of hell and salvation. A person that doesn’t believe in God, sin, hell, or heaven probably isn’t going to go to a church looking for a haunted house. And if someone like that does wind up there, the production doesn’t make a case for the existence of these things. It scares believers into wanting to avoid hell above wanting heaven on its own merits and leaves non-believers (and non-fire-and-brimstone Christians) with a bad impression of what salvation is about.

Monday, October 24, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 5

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.
Part 4 here.

5. Views on Afterlife. I’ve already explained how purgatory makes sense to me. Heaven is pure, and even the best of believers might have sins that need to be purged before being capable of existence in heaven. They are still part of the communion of saints, which extends and unites through heaven, purgatory, and earth. It seems so obvious though I had never seen it this way before: Christ’s conquering of death doesn’t just mean we get to go to heaven; it means the veil between this world and the next is ripped open.

Honestly, I’m still trying to figure out praying to saints. Yes, I believe it’s like asking a friend to pray for you, but 1. I normally don’t do that and 2. Why spend time asking for prayer when I could be praying? It feels like an unnecessary step that as a former Protestant, I’m still uncomfortable with. It’s certainly something for me to work on. Yet despite my struggles with it, I think it’s beautiful that departed saints who never knew me on earth love me (and everyone) so much that they look over us and pray for us, and that when I die, I’ll be filled with that kind of caritas.

There is also the beatific vision, being able to directly see God. Being with God in heaven is not the soft picture of sitting on clouds and being dressed in white. It's overwhelming joy at God permeating all your senses. I can't imagine joy comparable to the actual presence of God. It should be the ultimate goal.

What anyone knows about the afterlife is murky, and so much of it is speculation. Some believe nothing happens, but most that believe in an afterlife believe in an existence without suffering and complete joy. Sometimes you have to follow the rules to get in, sometimes you have to be reincarnated multiple times to reach it, but once there, only good exists. Any belief in an afterlife requires faith; most faiths require belief in an afterlife. Because it is such a leap of faith, I don’t like getting hung up on the particulars: What’s heaven like? Can people who have died interact with us? In the final resurrection, what happens to people who were cremated or whose bodies have decomposed? Does hell include physical torture? How long does purgatory last? If we spent all our time on earth tossing around our speculations on the afterlife, we wouldn’t get much done, and we still wouldn’t come to a consensus. Yet I still believe and still strive.

Once you accept a faith, it’s better to not overanalyze or fear the tiny details of the afterlife. (Though it is important to study and understand the theology.) It’s much better to strive to be worthy of grace. That’s the best way to receive it.

Friday, October 21, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 4)

1.Congrats on surviving the end of the world!

Remember Harold Camping who predicted the end of the world in 1994 and again this May? Well, along with his May 2011 judgment day prediction, he predicted that the world would come to an end by October 21, 2011. So far as I can tell, it hasn’t happened. And with it almost October 22 in New Zealand, I think we’re safe.

2. On Tuesday, it was 83 degrees; on Wednesday, it was in the 40s with snow flurries on the mountains. Oh, Tennessee weather. I wish it would just get cold and stay cold. It’s unorganized to have flip-flops and winter coats out at the same time. And I’m definitely ready for winter coat weather.

3. I miss carving pumpkins with the Presbyterian Student Association and dressing up for costume parties in college. I do not miss seeing an abundance of girls using Halloween as a night to dress as slutty as possible. As explained in the oh-so-quotable Mean Girls: "In Girl World, Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress up like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it." The only Halloween tradition I’m observing this year is watching Hocus Pocus. And maybe Mean Girls.

4. I had heard that the phrase Hocus Pocus came from a Latin church phrase, and that conversation came up again this week. The version I heard was that in the big medieval churches, lay people who didn’t know Latin and couldn’t see the altar from way in the back, would wait until they heard, “Hoc est corpus meum” (“This is my body”) as the signal to go up to receive the Eucharist. From the back of the church, the phrase sounded like “Hocus Pocus” and the phrase got associated with the consecration of the Eucharist and then later, secular supernatural works. There’s no knowing how much of this version is true, but I’ll give it points for believability. The phrase is also thought to be rooted in a Norse language or Welsh. But it seems reasonable that people who didn’t speak Latin yet heard it in church every week would 1. corrupt a phrase since they didn’t know the correct one to begin with and 2. believe the Latin language contained “magic words.”

5. More baking this weekend! Moist Swiss chocolate birthday cupcakes and White Russian cupcakes with KahlĂșa icing.

6. Random fact: if a White Russian is made using skim milk instead of cream, it’s called an Anna Kournikova. If it’s made with goat milk, it’s called a White Canadian.

7. My almost-91-year-old granddad has decided to sell his house and move into an apartment. He has lived in that house since the mid-1950’s, so it’s pretty hard on him to leave. I’m glad he’s making the choice to do it now, instead of waiting until he can’t take care of himself and is forced to move, but I’m still sad that this is going to be a big transition for him. Lots of trips up there to help clean out the house are in my immediate future.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 4

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith.
Part 1 here.
Parts 2 and 3 here.

4. Views on Life. I’ve always considered myself pro-life, even back when my view was, “Well, sometimes abortion might be alright for other people, but I could never get one.” But why was I so sure I never could get one? Because it would feel like killing a baby. Eventually I came around and realized it was killing a baby. No one says “Sometimes murder might be alright for other people, but I could never murder.” No. Society should step in and prevent murders. Suddenly I find myself an ardent pro-lifer, something the Catholic Christians and evangelical Christians can agree on.

But the Church is not just anti-abortion. She is also against the death penalty. Absolutely lock up criminals, but don’t let them turn our society into murderers, especially when there is always the possibility the person being killed is innocent. The point of prison is to keep a criminal from hurting society. As long as prison is preventing a criminal from being able to harm others, there is no need kill another person just to get a sense of revenge.

The Church’s views on life directly affect the Church’s views on sex. I remember being in my dorm room trying to explain to an ex-boyfriend the actual reasons Christians wait until marriage to have sex. "God wants us to" wasn't cutting it, and the best I could come up with was “You shouldn’t have sex unless you are prepared for the consequence of children.” Even when I believed in contraception, I still believed sex was fundamentally about producing children. It doesn’t take a college biology class to know sex=children, but our culture has distanced itself from this obvious fact. Marriage is the framework for producing and raising children. (This is also why the Church condemns homosexual relationships. She is not bigoted toward homosexuals; it’s that homosexual sex deviates from the biological purpose of sex.)

The Church is pro-life from the willingness of a couple to produce and raise children before the child is conceived, to the right of that child to live from conception to birth, to taking care of the needy throughout life, to making sure a government doesn’t kill it’s own citizens, even the most horrendous of criminals. I think if people understood the Church's comprehensive view of life, then even if they disagreed, they'd be able to see pro-lifers as not sexist bigots but sincerely concerned citizens.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

So, Why Catholic? parts 2 and 3

This is a continuation on the reasons I've accepted the Catholic faith. Part 1 here.

2. Not Sola Scriptura. I didn’t come from a background that believed the Bible was inerrant, but still, it was all we had. There were guidelines of what you had to believe to be a Christian (Jesus’ resurrection, the Trinity), but beyond that, it was really up to debate because each person was able to interpret the Bible for themselves. I appreciated the flexibility and the emphasis on studying and gaining knowledge so you can best interpret the faith for yourself. But too much freedom leads to relativity, picking-and-choosing, and a lack of accountability.

I can’t believe that Christianity is supposed to be made up of two billion autonomous individuals; we’re supposed to be one church. The Bible is a collection of complex books. Even people who study it for a living disagree. When it’s the only core of the faith, it leaves room for division. The Bible never claims to be the all-end-all of Christian faith. If it was: what did the Christians believe before the Bible was officially compiled? What did Christians believe in a time when most were illiterate and books were expensive and rare? Why did Protestants throw out some of the Old Testament books?

Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is very important. But without a unified way to approach and interpret the Bible, it’s a confusing mess. Which parts are literal and which parts are symbolic? Which laws are just for pre-Jesus Jews and which still apply? I think Luther meant well in saying, “Let’s just go back to only what the Bible says.” but without a context and a structure around the Bible, various interpretations on major theological issues arise, which leads to the ever-splinting branches of Protestantism.

3. Tradition. This is sort of the second part of #2. If there should be more authority than just the Bible, what is it? Answer: tradition. This is not just doing something because it has always been done that way (though I know many both outside and inside the Church probably think it is). Tradition unifies all believers from the earliest church until now; we’re all working on this salvation thing together.

Tradition provides a context for Biblical interpretation and reasons for why we do what we do. It’s not always apparent on the surface, but there really is a reason for everything. It takes constant education to keep digging deeper, but the more you learn, the more you understand the significance of each tradition and belief in the Church. In most cases, tradition gets you to focus on what’s important: God. The Church must have known about ADHD back in the first century, because she has set up rules and routines to help you calm down, set aside your petty distractions, and focus on knowing and worshipping God. Maybe some people can consistently deeply experience God without the structure, but humans usually need boundaries. The boundaries and the structure and the rules are loving, not rigid. Tradition has proven these are the best methods in helping the most people be the best Christians they can. No need to flail about trying to build a religion on your own; tried and true methods already available.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

So, Why Catholic? part 1

“So why Catholic?” my dad asked. “Why not Episcopal?” He made it sound like it was my choice, like I was just picking out a church with a higher liturgy. There was never a moment when I decided to look for another church. And there was never a moment when I lined up all the Christian denominations and chose one. The Catholic Church called me. I just said yes.

Still, once I get past the fact that my transition was rooted in “the Spirit drew me,” there are seven legitimate reasons I’ve accepted Catholicism. I thought I could easily list them in one post, but I've decided to spread them out. Let's start with the most obvious:

1.Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. This is a big one for me, but not something that’s easy to explain to Protestants. Bread and wine as symbols makes sense, and symbols are still powerful. To them, there just isn't a need to make more out of communion than that. Except that there is so, so much more. I believe in transubstantiation. It’s not something I can debate because the two reasons I believe it are emotional and subjective, but they are still true.

The first reason is at Christmas Eve service in 2008, some powerful shift happened when I took communion; I could sense that the bread was much more than a symbol. There was a gravity to this whole situation. I can’t say that the bread was transubstantiated, but I do think it was the Spirit’s first push to pay extra attention to this sacrament. It took me a few years to realize that if I believe there is more to this than bread and wine, I better do something about it.

The second occurs when I attend Mass now. Normally when I pray, I can feel my prayer going out to God. That is, I can feel my words leaving me and going to Him, but not going in any particular direction because God is everywhere. But at Mass, once the priest has consecrated the Eucharist (and not before), my prayers suddenly feel more person-to-person. They are going straight, the way words do when you are talking to a person across the room. I'm not directing my prayers differently; the difference just happens. So it’s not my intention that caused this shift, because it kinda freaked me out the first time it happened.

Just to be clear, transubstantiation isn't transformation. It is Christ, but under the appearence of bread and wine. I like to think of it as the opposite of a tree: A tree changes appearence throughout the seasons. If one didn't know better, he would think a springtime tree of branches and white buds was different than an autumn tree shrouded in big orange and red leaves. Though it looks like two different things, it's still a tree. With the Eucharist, at first it looks like bread and wine, and later it looks like bread and wine, but at some point the substance of it changed from that of bread and wine to Christ.

Friday, October 14, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 3)

1. I haven’t been writing much this week, and I really want to get back into the swing of things next week. For someone who considers herself a writer, I have certainly not been in the writing mood much lately.

2. One of the reasons I haven’t been writing is that the director of RCIA gave me my own copy of the Catechism and I’ve been engrossed in that. Yay!

3. Even though I get bored a lot at work, I’m also grateful for all the free time to read. There are a lot of positives in my life right now, or maybe I’m just starting to see it that way.

4. I’m putting together a plan for losing serious weight this winter. I’m already dreading the holiday food. It gets me every time.

5. Other than that, I’m super looking forward to the holidays already, even though there is still over a month until Thanksgiving. I’m especially looking forward to celebrating Advent in the Catholic Church, new mass and all.

6. I really want to go to the local haunted corn maze this weekend, but I’m having trouble rounding up people to go. Corn mazes are definitely a group activity.

7. Exactly what am I supposed to be commemorating this month? October is “National (insert a bazillion causes here) Month.” It’s hard to keep track, and even harder to get support for your monthly cause of choice, when there are dozens of causes vying for everyone’s support.

This month’s list includes, but not limited to:
  • National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month

  • National Book Month

  • National Breast Cancer Awareness Month

  • Filipino-American History Month

  • LGBT History Month

  • Italian-American History Month

  • National Bullying Prevention Month

  • National Domestic Violence Awareness Month

  • National Pizza Month (Yes, that's really a thing. Oh, America.)

Friday, October 7, 2011

7 Quick Takes Friday (vol. 2)

1. I’m reading the Gospel of St. Mark. It’s not my favorite Gospel (that would be John), but it’s good to reread it. I had forgotten how much Jesus tells his disciples about things to come, but then instructs them not to say anything yet. What exactly did he tell them? Did he lay it all out, exactly what they needed to do, or did he speak in more parables? I like to assume he laid it out straight, because the Gospels mention quite a bit how the disciples and other followers (even though they were trying) never really understood what Jesus was trying to say when he used metaphors.

2. Speaking of parables, I’m thinking of doing an article series on original sin, except I’m beginning to realize how little I understand the Garden of Eden story. I mean, I get the gist, but there can be a lot of nuance to the story as well. I’m a sucker for a great metaphor, but it’s frustrating to feel like you’re not in on the full explanation. That’s probably how the disciples felt listening to Jesus’ parables all the time. It would be so much easier to just be a literalist: there were the first two people created on the sixth day, and then a serpent messed things up.

3. Wouldn’t a literalist be looking for an earthly garden guarded by angels and have a BIG hatred of snakes? The lack of people (who claim the Genesis story literally) going on expeditions for the Garden or trying to rid the world of snakes tells me they aren’t as literal as they think. Which is good. Faith should be strong enough to withstand some metaphors and some inclusion of reason and science.

4. I bought Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales last weekend. I’ve read part of it before, but I’m excited to read my own copy. Of the parts I've already read, his instruction and explainations are still relevant on how to approach and apply faith today. Besides, Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists and writers, and he converted a bunch of Calvinists, so how could I not love him?

5. I’m looking forward to a weekend alone at home to stay in my sweats and do some cooking, embroidering, cleaning, and watching movies. The cooking, embroidering, cleaning part makes me sound much more domestic than I really am. But I do like a weekend where I can stay in the house alone and revel in my inner-introvert.

6. I’m in a bread-baking mood, even though I’ve never done it. I vaguely remember my mom doing it ages ago, but it still feels like unfamiliar territory to me. I’ll probably just go buy bread at the Mennonite store instead.

7. Apparently I missed the Occupy Wall Street demonstration going on until yesterday. While there seems to be various reasons why people are out there, the general idea of “greed is bad, especially when greed trumps caring about people” sounds good to me. I don’t want to get too political, but I do support the protestors who want to shine a light on a system that values money over people or community. I don’t think there will be any actual change, but good for them to stand up and say, “I don’t agree with this.” That’s what the rights of assembly and petition are all about.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Getting Cleaned Up for Heaven

Even before I ever considered joining the Catholic Church, I liked the concept of purgatory. I liked it in the way that it just made sense to me. Heaven is pure. And even through baptism, profession of faith, and confession of sin, humans are still stained. There lingers the sins we forget to consider sins, the desire to sin, the inclination of temptations, the unhealthy attachments to earthly things. It only makes sense we have to go through some cleansing process to enter heaven. It seems more unbelievable to me that some die in a state of grace and get to bypass purgatory and go straight to heaven. We are so undeserving of that gift, but it’s there. God’s always trying to help us get there.

We were talking about purgatory in RCIA last week, and one man said, “I think I’ll go to purgatory.” “Why is that?” “I have a guilty soul.” I have a guilty soul too. I feel bad about something I’ve done even if it was an accident and even if I have long been forgiven by whomever I wronged. The bad feeling lingers. I don’t feel clean. I want to know there is some place to purge all the dirty humanness. I want to be cleaned up for heaven. T. S. Eliot wrote, “human kind/ Cannot bear very much reality.” I think purgatory both purges believers of any lingering sin or guilt and forges them to be capable of existing in such a pure place as heaven.

It’s a beautiful and sensible concept. Of course, the particulars aren’t too pretty. There is punishment and pain, pain upon the soul for which I cannot find an adequate comparison. But there is not hopelessness. There is the communion of saints praying for those in purgatory. And I believe God is still there, watching over them. Purgatory isn’t Lesser Hell. In hell, there is no hope. But purgatory offers hope, a goal. All those in purgatory will one day be united with God. Purgatory is temporal. I think any true believer who wants to be united with God yet recognizes failings would use his/her free will to enter purgatory, just as everyone has the choice to reject God and go to hell. We accept that heaven is worth the punishment and pain.

I don’t know if purgatory exists in time like earth or out of time like heaven. I don’t know how we can know whether someone is still in purgatory or heaven. Even though I think I’m going to have to make a stop in purgatory first, I don’t think of it as necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I shouldn’t think about it much at all, and focus on just being the best Christian I can be, letting the chips fall where they may later.

I’m starting to figure out that for any theological idea I have, there is a saint that said it better. So I’ll conclude with a quote from the Treatise on Purgatory by St. Catherine of Genoa:

When I look at God, I see no gate to Paradise, and yet because God is all mercy he who wills enters there. God stands before us with open arms to receive us into His glory. But well I see the divine essence to be of such purity, greater far than can be imagined, that the soul in which there is even the least note of imperfection would rather cast itself into a thousand Hells than find itself thus stained in the presence of the Divine Majesty. Therefore the soul, understanding that Purgatory has been ordained to take away those stains, casts itself therein, and seems to itself to have found great mercy in that it can rid itself there of the impediment which is the stain of sin.