Saturday, August 30, 2014

Judging a Jesus by his Cover

[originally written July 18]

The first time I went to Mass I couldn’t look at the crucifix. It just seemed so…visual. Not particularly gruesome, but not pretty either, and certainly not something I wanted to gaze upon for an hour. But as I began attending Mass regularly, I couldn’t stop looking. It was so…visual, after all. Clearly the crucifix, large, front and center, was the main focus. I had to look. This wasn’t about beauty after all; it was about truth. Christ suffered, is still suffering, for us. I understood why Catholics would use crucifixes over empty crosses.

I’m still a stickler for beauty. There are a lot of ugly, 1970s-modern churches about. When I visit a new church, I do judge it on its appearance. A pretty space helps me focus, helps me worship. An ugly space distracts me, and I just try to keep my eyes closed. A resurrect-ifix instead of a crucifix is a solid sign that I disapprove of a church’s d├ęcor.  What good is the victory sans suffering? I’ll look to the crucifix style with a judgmental eye, determining if its aid or hindrance. So I still stare at crucifixes sometimes, but not in the way I once did. I was right that truth is more important than beauty, but I was wrong that a crucifix, a representation of Christ, is the central focus.

Now that I can receive the Eucharist, I gaze upon the tabernacle. It never matters if it’s beautiful or not; it holds Christ. Here is the central focus: the living God, not a representation. My focus falls there and the flickering red light that tells me I’m in the physical presence of Christ. I am in sacred space, gazing upon the Holy. I never really notice what a tabernacle looks like. I can always see through the exterior; I know what’s really there. The truth overshadows the beauty. Or rather, the truth makes all things beautiful.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Wait, Where's My Rosary?

by Elisabetta Sirani

I’ve never been part of the Mary fangirl camp. I think Mary is beautiful and powerful and awesome, but I’ve never felt a particular connection to her. Marion theology was one of the last things I came to accept about the Church. I have trouble connecting with the saints, a holdover of my Protestantism. People often introduce saint intersession thusly: “You’d ask a friend to pray for you, so why not ask the same of a saint in heaven?” Only, I don’t ask people to pray for me, so it all feels a bit odd. I had come to terms with Mary with the assurance that she always wants to point to her son, so if all the Marion stuff (prayers, visions, consecrations, etc) distracted me, I could simply ignore it with her understanding. 

Only I couldn’t ignore it this summer. I did a daily rosary with my team, I led the girls’ group in Hail Marys, and I actually taught the rosary class three times a day. And I could teach it sincerely. I’m pretty sure I said, “Wait, where’s my rosary?” only eight or nine times a day. But the summer of Mary did not bring my any closer to her. If anything, I got burnt out; it just all seemed a bit much. The rosary is a lot of Hail Marys, and I’d much rather spend the time doing the chaplet of divine mercy. I can see where the criticisms of saint veneration become accusations of worship to outsiders, because some people do seem to put more time and energy into their patron saint (Mary in particular) than to God. 

I’ve tried to get into this aspect of religion. I’ve been studying various saints, and I find them inspirational and great role models. I’ve even asked for their prayers more and more. But then there are days like the past two Fridays (the Assumption of Mary into heaven and the Coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven). I’ll go to church because I’m supposed to, but I’m just not into it. Frankly, it’s just not that important to me on the inspirational or devotional level. I’m starting to love some saints, but Mary still eludes me. 

I still maintain that I shouldn’t feel pressured to focus on Mary more; I should let whatever we have develop naturally. I don’t have to force this devotion on my myself. I don’t want to get so caught up or frustrated over it that I lose sight of Christ. My devotions should be about where I am in my path, who is helping me most at the time, and what is drawing me closest to him. With summer gone, I can put away the rosary for a while.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

20 Books for (roughly) 20 Years

My mom challenged me to list 10 books that have impacted my life. I cheated and worked in an extra 10. It got a little too lengthy for Facebook, so I’m posting here. Here we go! (I tried to list these in the order I read them.)

Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (shout out to one of my author-birthday-buddies!): This was the first real series I remember being obsessed with. I just realized I never technically read this series because Mom read them to me. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery is a close second in the series-about-plucky-girl category.

A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver by E. L. Konigsburg: Eleanor of Aquitaine in heaven waits for Henry II to be delivered from purgatory. While doing so, different people from her past relate her story. Weirdest set-up for a children’s book biography ever, but so good. Inspired me to be Eleanor for Night of Nobles in sixth grade. Upon rereads, made me think about story framing, viewpoint, and oddly, purgatory. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler gets second place in the Konigsburg category. 

The Chocolate War by Robert Cromier: People are damaged and mean to each other. This book introduced me to Cromier’s books, which I flew through in late middle school. They were all kind of heavy and depressing. They taught me that stories didn’t always have reliable protagonists or happy endings (but could have lots of Catholic imagery). No real second place in this category, although I would suggest sequel After the Chocolate War for the full story. 

1984 by George Orwell: Went from pessimist Cromier into dystopian literature in early high school. 1984 is by far my favorite dystopian piece because of its use of language. I’ve read this multiple times, and each time it makes me paranoid about the world around me for a couple of weeks. Plus, it has my favorite ending line. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood gets second place in the dystopian category. 

Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis: This book made me look at the larger implications of theology and introduced me to a deeper level of faith. I began reading a lot more religious writings, church history, theology, and philosophy. It also sparked my C. S. Lewis phase of late high school/ early college. The Great Divorce gets second place in the Lewis category. 

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: This book made me make an exception to my British-bias. Hey, Americans can write too! Fitzgerald really captures the Lost Generation and paints an over-saturated picture of unsettled young adults searching for meaning in an upturned society. This Side of Paradise gets second place in the Fitzgerald category. 

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (shout out to another of my author-birthday-buddies!): Contains some of my favorite opening and closing lines. Contains a revolution in between. Finally got through it and realized that classics are called that for a reason. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen gets second place in the classics category. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K Rowling: It was awesome being the perfect age to grow up with this series. The final installment came out the summer I graduated high school, and there was such a sense of contentment in seeing how it all ended. Plus, parts of the seventh book got pretty heavy with the religious imagery. This series also made me want to write. Tales of Beedle the Bard also by Rowling gets second place in the children’s-books-really-for-adults category. 

The Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot: I was made to read through this set of poems in a workshop setting in Honors British Lit my freshman year. My sophomore year, I student taught in the class and looked forward to the workshop all term. The more I sit with them, the more powerful they become. The rose and the fire are one. Beautiful imagery that makes you think through a religious mystic's eye. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday gets second place in the poetry category. 

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway: This book impacted me by how much I just generally liked it. I had to read it for a class less semester. I wouldn’t have read Hemingway on my own, and I wasn’t expecting to like him, but I loved his writing style, and his characters reminded me a lot of Fitzgerald’s (Lost Gen expats). So I’m trying to be more open with my reading options now. Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs gets second place in the pleasantly-surprised category. 

Themes: Seems to be religious imagery, strong prose, and depressing endings. That sounds about right. I still have no idea what my favorite book is.

Monday, August 25, 2014

St. Philip Neri

St. Philip Neri was born in Florence in 1515. He received an education from Dominican friars. He first worked for his uncle, but then followed the call to be a missionary. Although he was called to mission work, he did not know where he should go. He reportedly asked the pope if he should go to the West Indies or the East Indies. The pope replied, “Rome is your Indies.” Philip stayed in Rome, calling for people to have real encounters with Christ and live out their faith. He became known as the Apostle of Rome. 

On the eve of Pentecost in 1544, he was praying when a ball of fire appeared before him, entered through his mouth. He felt it settle in his heart. His heart remained swollen, and he experienced palpitations when under the influence of spiritual emotion. Because of this experience, he is sometimes depicted with a ball of fire.

In 1548, Philip founded a confraternity to minister to pilgrims and the sick in Rome. A few years later, he became a priest. In 1556, he founded the Oratory, which housed lectures, readings, prayers, hymns, and religious discussions. Part of the Oratory’s goal was to give young people a wholesome alternative to night life. At Carnival, Philip organized a pilgrimage to the Seven Churches to keep the young too busy and too tired to be tempted by the partying. 

What I like best about Philip’s story is that he felt called but didn’t know where to go or what to do. I feel like that sometimes—I want to make a difference, but I get stalled on the where and how. I also like that he witnessed in a Christian area. I imagine that it is difficult to mission to Christians because the nominally religious think they already know the faith so it can be harder to teach them the depth and beauty. A stay-at-home missionary has its own dangers and challenges.  

Philip died on May 25, 1595, the Feast of Corpus Christi that year. He is the patron of Rome (no small feat for Roman Catholic saints).

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My Baptism (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Vatican II)

[Originally written July 18]

When I was first thinking about the Catholic Church, there was one sticking point that would have kept me from joining. It wasn’t transubstantiation, or confession, or Marion theology. It was baptism. While I hadn’t given much particular thought to what baptism does as a sacrament, I still held is as important. I was strongly paedo-baptist. I held my baptism as sacred and would not accept any discrediting of my baptism, even from the Catholic Church. I would align with my baptism before any other theological beliefs. Even though I believed in the real presence and longed for the Eucharist, I wasn’t joining a church that didn’t acknowledge that I was baptized. 

Fortunately, in her great wisdom, the Church agrees with me. My baptism was acknowledged as a proper and valid baptism, and I joined the Church not as a convert but as a Christian reaching full communion. It’s an important distinction to make. Although I talk about my conversion or refer to myself as a convert, that word is inappropriate for me. I was a Christian, as a four-month-old baptizee and as a twenty-two-year-old Presbyterian, and I am a Christian now, as a twenty-five-year-old Catholic. My understanding of Christ and his Church has evolved, but I’ve never been not-Christian. I feel complete now as a Catholic, but that isn’t a denial of what I previously held; Catholicism is the continuation and fulfillment of what I learned about Christ in a Protestant background. 

It’s easy to point out the major differences in catholic-orthodox belief and Protestant belief, because there are some very major differences. But it’s important to realize that both sides still fit under the Christian umbrella. There are major similarities as well. Trinitarianism, Christ dying for our salvation, and belief in the Resurrection are shared across Christian lines. While I find error in Protestant theology and believe the Catholic Church has the fullness of truth, I would never deny that Protestants are Christian. I pray for the unification of schismatic and heretical fractures, and I hope all Christians (and all people really) find the fullness of truth. 

I think that hope is what led to a lot of the ecumenical language of Vatican II. I have a love/hate relationship with Vatican II. The hate part is really directed at the “spirit of Vatican II” and the interpretations of the council that seem to go far beyond what the council actually said. The “spirit of Vatican II” says form and function doesn’t matter as much, as long as God is present. Think holding hands during the Our Father. Think stripped down churches. Think happy-clappy worship songs and liturgical dancing. Think clown masses. Basically, the “spirit of Vatican II” takes all the history and beauty out of the Church in an effort to make it hip and personalized. If I wanted to find Jesus at a rock concert/ coffee shop, I would have just become evangelical. 

Fortunately, the actual documents of Vatican II don’t diminish history or beauty. The council got a lot done, including calling for greater emphasis on scripture, restoring the permanent deaconate, and renewing the liturgy of the mass, the liturgy of the hours, and the liturgical calendar. This was not to diminish or change what existed before the council, but to revitalize the Church and make the laity greater participants in their faith. Another result of Vatican II was the reinstitution of the baptismal catechumenate. This meant a formation process (RCIA) for adults seeking baptism and Church membership. 

Since the fracturing of the many Protestant sects, Catholics were not sure what to do about baptized Protestants that sought to join the Church. Protestantism was a heresy, so were Protestant baptisms valid? Did Protestants need to be rebaptized? There was a formula in place for conditional baptism. This was done if the baptism status of a person was unsure. That person could be baptized with a caveat (“If you are not already baptized, then I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”). In many places, particularly the South, conditional baptisms had become the de facto formula for Protestants joining the Church. Protestants and the unbaptized were treated pretty much the same. Vatican II stressed the importance of points of unity between Christian sects. All Trinitarian baptisms are valid baptisms. Protestants are Christians, even if they are missing key theological points. Therefore, Protestants seeking communion with the Church must be treated differently than non-Christians joining the Church. For small parishes in particular, they might still be in the same faith formation class as the unbaptized and receive confirmation at Easter Vigil. But it is only in appearance that the two groups look the same. Baptism is a sacrament; it makes a difference. The relationship between Catholic and Protestant is still unsure. At least with the Orthodox, we know we are in schism, but with Protestants it’s more complicated. For the most part it seems that the movements are heretical but the people within the movements aren’t necessarily heretics. So Protestants are Christians who are missing the fullness of faith, but Christians nonetheless. And a baptism (done properly) is accepted as valid. 

I don’t remember my baptism, so maybe it’s strange that it means so much to me that the Church acknowledges it. It’s as if I have this little ball of grace entrusted to me, and I have to hold onto it. When people dismiss it (credo-baptists), that just makes me hold on tighter.

Monday, August 18, 2014

St. Maximilian Kolbe

Often, when I think of saints, I have picturesque images of medieval religious or heroic images of early Church martyrs. But it's important to look at rather recent saints as well, to remember that saints-in-the-making are all around. St. Maximilian Kolbe was born in 1894 in Poland, which at the time was part of the Russian Empire. As a child, Kolbe had a strong vision of Mary. She was holding two crowns, one white and the other red. She asked him if he was willing to accept either crown; the white stood for purity and the red for martyrdom. He responded that he would accept both. 

He became a Franciscan in 1911 and studied theology, math, and physics in Rome. He organized a movement called the Militia Immaculata (Army of Mary) which would work for the conversion of enemies of the Church through the intercession of Mary. Kolbe was ordained a priest in 1918. In 1930, he  traveled to Japan and India building monasteries. In 1936, he returned to Poland. He was arrested by the Nazis in 1939 and 1941. Following his second arrest, he was sent to Auschwitz. That July, three prisoners escaped the concentration camp. In response, ten men were chosen to be killed through starvation in an underground bunker. Kolbe offered to take the place of another man, who was a husband and father. The men suffered two weeks of starvation, thirst, and neglect. Kolbe led songs and prayed with his fellow prisoners. He was the last remaining of the ten men, and the guards publicly killed him with an injection of carbolic acid. He was cremated on August 15, the feast of the Assumption of Mary.

St. Maximilian Kolbe has been called a “martyr of charity.” His feast day is August 14. He is the patron of prisoners, drug addicts, and political prisoners.