Thursday, December 28, 2017

Go and See the Baby

The Christmas story tells us that God became man. He arrived a baby, to a poor family, on the outskirts of the empire. No one special on the surface. But people recognized something great about him. Wisemen traveled a great distance just to find him. The angel told the shepherds the message we all follow around Christmas: Go and see the baby.

Being at the age where friends are settling down means there’s suddenly babies in my life. While I’m struggling with myself, these people are creating whole new people and keeping those tiny, soft people alive. There’s a je ne sais quoi to their big eyes taking it all in and trying to make sense of the their world.

And the world around them has changed by their presence. The parents, grandparents, and friends are all enthralled by the babies, their personalities, their schedules, their every milestone. And everyone wants to see the baby. Looking at it, holding it, be able to stop it from crying—we feel better about ourselves just by being with the baby.

I always thought it would be cool to be pregnant during Advent. But I never really thought about having a baby during Christmas. I don’t think the shepherds or wisemen were brimming with 20-something female hormones, but they still were enthralled by a baby. And we think it’s because that baby is God. But it’s also because that baby is human. Babies are enthralling: so much potential in such a small, squishy body. So much joy and love around it. It seems contradictory that God would come to us in such a humble way, but really, I can’t imagine any better one.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Quick, Rejoice!

The calendar this year really messed up Advent. With Christmas Day falling on a Monday, the fourth week of Advent gets compressed into 24 hours. There is less time to prepare, and most parties are compressed into one week (which is exhausting this introvert). Lent never pulls tricks like this, even when I could really use the shortened time there.

But then Gaudete Sunday arrived, and it lined up perfectly with the beginning of the O Antiphons. And it made so much sense. The light and joy of the third week is the perfect attitude for the antiphons. They are a joyful worship, and they build up the anticipation to Christmas. It may be a compressed Advent. It may be rushed and exhausting. But it can be joyful too.

Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Bewildered Lamb

While filling the house with candles and lights, the black cloud descended again. It’s the kind of dark that external light doesn’t dissipate. I tried. But in the end, I knew I just had to ride it out. I lit the Advent candles. I normally read scripture with the wreath, but for some reason, I felt compelled to find a daily devotion. And this was the one that popped up first:

“Do you know what it’s like to lose your bearings and be hopelessly adrift in a sea of uncertainty? To be alone, lost, and disoriented without a sense of direction is one of the worst fears we can encounter.” Ok, you have my attention. It went into the parable of the lost sheep.

Now, I’ve always thought that that parable was pretty straightforward: Jesus loves all of us sheep, and he’ll go to any length to gather each and every one of us in. It’s all about the shepherd. But about that sheep that got lost? “Sheep by nature are very social creatures. An isolated sheep can quickly become bewildered, disoriented, and even neurotic. Easy prey for wolves and lions! The shepherd’s grief and anxiety is turned to joy when he finds the lost sheep and restores it to the fold.”

Since I grew up Christian, I never considered myself the lost sheep, and I never considered the condition the sheep was in. Alone, scared, disoriented, in danger. Maybe even neurotic. A sheep cannot save itself. It cannot find its own way back. It has to rely on its shepherd to find it. It can hide or it can bleat out, but mostly, it can only wait to be saved.

I can hide and wallow or I can cry out for help. But I can’t always save myself or fix the present circumstances. Sometimes I just have to wait my shepherd. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Be Alert

The last few weeks of the liturgical year are always difficult for me. The end of the long, long stretch until Advent. Thirty-four weeks of waiting around. We’ve been going through the parables for a while. There’s increasing urgency in the readings. Sheep and goats and virgins’ lamps. Stay awake, get right with God, for he’s coming any moment. It’s true, I know, but I don’t feel the urgency. It starts to sounds like a Baptist altar call. I don’t respond to threats of hell.

But I realize that the problem is me (of course).

The message is urgent, but I bop along in my same routine. Recently I was talking about evangelization with some other people, and how St. Catherine of Sienna prayed for the salvation of others’ souls. And I just don’t. I pray for others and their struggles, but I rarely outright pray for the salvation of their soul. It doesn’t seem like a pressing matter.

And I realized other’s salvation doesn’t seem pressing because mine doesn’t either. I don’t treat my soul’s care with the urgency that I should. I get in routines. I don’t pray. I let weeks pass without confession. I don’t do anything particularly bad, but I don’t do anything particularly good either. I’m waiting out the weeks. I’m daydreaming while listening to the call to stay awake.

The new year begins, and the urgency is still there; it all loops back. He comes to save, in regency and in a manger. The risen king and the incarnate babe. Stay awake, be alert. He is coming. Perhaps the colors and candles will shake me from my slothfulness.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Presentation of Mary

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Mary to the Temple. It’s not a big feast in the Western Church, but I do find it interesting. Mary’s presentation mimic’s the presentation of Samuel and Jesus. It represents her dedication to God. The history of the feast is quite old, although it comes from a story of an apocryphal Gospel, is regarded as a useful, if ahistorical, story of Mary’s childhood.

The Protoevangelium of James is a non-canonical Gospel narrative written around 145 that includes the birth and childhood of Mary. It also supports the perpetual virginity of Mary. The book was condemned as inauthentic by Church councils and by Pope Innocent I. It seems to be regarded as one of many infancy Gospels that were written in the second century as Christians wanted more details about the life of Jesus.

In the book, Anne, Mary’s mother, is likened to Hannah—a devout, barren women who dedicates her child to God. Mary’s parents present her to the temple at age 3, where she is raised until her betrothal to Joseph.

The idea of consecrated temple virgins is not a concept that was widely, if at all, practiced in Judaism at the time. However, there are verses in 1 Samuel and 2 Maccabees that suggest there were such women. It seems to be a mix of a Jewish custom of dedicating firstborn sons to God and Roman customs of temple virgins.

The celebration of the Presentation of Mary began with the celebration of the dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary the New in Jerusalem in 543. It is one of the 12 Great Feasts in the Eastern Church (the Orthodox, who have already begun the Nativity Fast, lessen the fast today). It was added to the Western calendar in 1584.

While the Church regards the Protoevangelium of James as apocryphal, she views the story of Mary’s presentation has a sign of her lifelong fidelity to God. The day is also Pro Orantibus Day, a day of prayer for cloistered communities, who dedicate their lives to God “in prayer, silence, and concealment.” 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

St. Gertrude the Great

St. Gertrude the Great was born on Epiphany, 1256 in what is now Germany. She was raised in a monastery, where she received a thorough education. At 25, she began to have visions. She devoted herself to prayer and her writings focused more on spiritual than academic matter.

She wrote a large portion of A Herald of Divine Love (other parts written by her peers). She also wrote her own Spiritual Exercises. It included prayers for various liturgies and feast days throughout the year. St. Francis de Sales used her prayers, and they have been popular throughout Europe for centuries.

She is one of the earliest known devotees to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She had a vision of Christ’s heart, pouring forth like a redemptive fountain from the wound in his side.

One of her most popular prayers is for those in purgatory. She is one of few saints (and to my knowledge the only women) with the title “Great.” She died in 1302. Her feast day is November 16. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

500: Common Places and Confession

Introduction to 500 series

Philip Melanchthon was an academic who Luther recruited to the University of Wittenberg to teach Greek. He became critical of the traditional, scholastic theology being taught in universities at the time. In 1519 he began lecturing on the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letters. He was transferred to the theology department.

He defended Luther’s positions on the papacy while Luther was at Wartburg Castle. In 1521 he published Loci Communes. It outlines his thoughts on Christian doctrine from the Epistle to the Romans. Luther said, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is no better book.” It is considered the first book of Lutheran systematic theology and grandfathered Protestant scholasticism.

But perhaps his strongest influence was in the Augsburg Confession, written in 1530, outlining the doctrine of the Protestant Reformation. Emperor Charles V had called on the German princes to submit their religious convictions in an effort to establish political unity in the empire and rally a united support against Turkish invasion. The document contains 21 theses of Lutheran belief and 7 antitheses against the Church.

The Lutheran princes agreed to a military alliance with Charles V; any city or state that gave official assent to the Augsburg Confession could be admitted into the alliance. It solidified Protestant theology as a political player in Europe. The English translation of the Confession was read and assented to by King Henry VIII of England. The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican Church were strongly influenced by the Confession.  In 1540, Melanchthon revised the Confession; the revised edition, called the Variata, was signed by John Calvin. Most Lutherans held to the “unaltered” edition.

The Augsburg Confession and the league did not truly settle the tension between Charles V and the Lutheran princes. The Schmalkaldic War took place 1546-1547. In September 1555, Charles V and the Schmalkaldic League (signers of the Confession) signed the Peace of Augsburg. The treaty legally divided the Holy Roman Empire and established cuius region, eius religio (“whose realm, his religion”) This allowed rulers to choose Lutheranism or Catholicism as their state religion. Citizens who held different beliefs were given a grace period to freely emigrate to a state holding to the other religion. There were a few mixed cities, where Lutheranism had been practiced since the 1520s but the city’s ruler was Catholic; certain princes and knights were given exemptions. 

For the most part, the Augsburg Confession was a success of modern negotiating. It balanced the rights of Catholic and Lutheran rulers and also considered the welfare of the subjects under them. However, it only recognized one Protestant doctrine, Lutheranism; thus, other Protestant sects that were rising still had no political power. But that would soon be challenged as well.

Friday, November 10, 2017

500: The Peasants Protest Too

Luther’s writings were being spread rapidly throughout literate Europe and gaining followers among academics and German nobles. At the same time, his views were being spread orally among the illiterate. They reached rural areas where communities already had loose catechesis and heretical ideas had nominally been practiced for years (see the result of the Plague). In 1521, three men later called the “Zwickau Prophets” arrived in Wittenberg. They preached that their authority came from the Holy Spirit, not Scripture or the Church. They rejected infant baptism and warned of a coming apocalypse.

Although their views differed wildly from Luther’s, they gained favor with some of Luther’s peers, including Andreas Karlstadt. On Christmas Day 1521, Karlstadt celebrated his first “communion service” in which he wore secular clothes, used German instead of Latin, rejected confession as a prerequisite for communion, and purged all references of sacrifice from the Mass. Luther eventually returned to Wittenberg in order to preach against the “fanatics.”

Karlstadt continued to grow more radical; he got rid of images and music in churches, got married, and rejected infant baptism. He denied the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Politically, the Zwickau Prophets preached an ideal Christian commonwealth, with commodities shared and all men held equal. These ideas were gaining traction among German peasants, who revolted against the aristocracy in the German Peasants’ War of 1524-1525. While all the complex causes and influences in the war are still subject to debate, I think it is clear that the individualism and anti-institutionalism expressed in the growing new religious movements inspired people to seek political change, and vice versa. If the Church is oppressive, then isn’t the king oppressive too? If each man is equal in political power, then isn’t his Biblical interpretations equal too? In both cases, the rural populace wants to be left alone and not told what to do.

Variations of this sort of religious movement popped up across Germany, Switzerland, Moravia, and the Low Countries. There are various pastors from the late 1520s and early 1530s who developed somewhat similar iconoclastic, credo-baptist, pacifist doctrines. The Swiss Brethren were one of the larger of these groups. In 1527 the Swiss Brethren published a confession of faith outline among other things adult-only baptism, symbolic Lord’s Supper, separation from worldly matters, and nonviolence. The belief that baptism of infants was invalid was a large competent of this group, and thus they begin “re-baptizing” adults, earning the name “Anabaptist” (“to baptize again”). Of course, other Christian groups did not recognize these second baptisms as valid. One of these leaders, Felix Manz, was executed by Protestants by way of drowning—a signal of their disapproval of “re-baptisms.”

I think the Anabaptist beginnings share a lot in common with the Awakenings that would spring up over the centuries and with the Pentecostal movement in the early twentieth century. The people outside of the academic circles and noble elites did not care much about complicated doctrines or edicts. They felt religion, and the zeitgeist valued appeals of individual emotion and rejection of foreign institutions.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

500: Protesters become Protestant

Although Charles V had banned Luther’s writings throughout the Holy Roman Empire, Lutheranism was still gaining followers, and German princes were not enforcing the bans. At the Diet of Speyer in 1526, the princes officially professed their Lutheran faith. With Turkish invasion threatening, the empire could not risk alienating the heretical princes. It was decided that the matter of religion would be settled at a later time, and that in the interim, the princes should “rule, and believe as it may hope and trust to answer before God and his imperial Majesty.” While Charles V had no intention of granting religious freedom to Lutherans, (Charles V did not attend the diet, nor did he sign or oppose the edict from it), the princes took this vague instruction to “follow their conscience” and continue their Lutheran reforms, now with a claim of political credibility.

In 1529, there was another Diet of Speyer, again to deal with the issues of Turkish invasion and rising religious rebellion. The Catholic representatives sought to clarify that the princes could not choose what religious reforms took place. Ferdinand (later Ferdinand I), representing Charles V, condemned the princes’ interpretation and reiterated that the Holy Roman Empire was Catholic. This diet forbade any reforms on the threat of imperial ban and upheld the Edict of Worms. It also clarified that fringe reform movements, like Zwinglianism and Anabaptism, could be punished by death.

The Lutheran representatives, seeing their movement delegitimized, entered a legal protest on April 25, 1529. Six princes and 14 representatives of Imperial Free Cities protested the measures of the Diet of Speyer which they saw as contrary to their beliefs and to the decisions made at the first Diet of Speyer. They asked for a judgment overturning the majority decision of the diet. From this protest came the word “Protestant.” 

Protestantism now commonly refers to all Western Christian branches that are not Catholic or Orthodox. The branches of Protestantism are so varied, it seemed pointless at times to put them under a single term. Yet they all still branch from splitting from the Catholic Church. They may not formally protest the Diet of Speyer, but they are still sects that arose from protest.  

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The Three Churches at Allhallowstide

All Saints and All Souls seem so similar; one is about the souls now in heaven and one is about souls who will hopefully make it there. They are mushed together in Allhallowstide. However, they are quite separate. For the Church Militant, we are to recognize the differences between the Church Triumphant and the Church Suffering and respond accordingly.

All Saints is a joyous feast, honoring the canonized saints whose names we know but also all the other saints, the non-canonized, the forgotten. They too have finished the race and share in God’s glory. They too want us to join them and offer their prayers for us. So All Saints is a time for us to acknowledge them, and to ask them for our prayers.

All Souls is not a feast. The liturgical color for the day is actually black, for while we don purple in times of penance for our own souls, black is the color of mourning for others. The Church Suffering is just that—suffering. But it is a purifying pain. They need our prayers. We pray for God’s mercy on them. We hope that in turn, when they reach the beatific vision, that they will pray for us. So on All Souls we mourn our losses, remember our passed loved ones, and pray for them.

Together the days really demonstrate the entire Church—Triumphant, Suffering, and Militant—working together and praying for one another. Death is not an end. We are the victors.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

500: The Levy Breaks

After Luther posted his 95 theses for debate, several copies were made and distributed among German intellectuals. In January of 1518, the theses were translated from Latin into German. Within two weeks, it spread throughout Germany. Within two months, it spread throughout Europe. Foreign students came to Wittenburg to hear Luther; he published several commentaries over the next two years on books of the Bible—his concepts of justification, predestination, and the solas developed further during this time.

Meanwhile, the archbishop of Mainz had not responded to the theses; rather, he forwarded them on to Rome. Pope Leo X was not one to rush a hasty response. He sent papal theologians and envoys to inquire. A Dominican theologian Mazzolini drafted heresy charges against Luther. It was agreed to that Luther could be tried in Augsburg in October 1518. The questioning was regarding the issue of the pope’s right to issue indulgences. The papal legate had instructions to arrest Luther if he did not recant, but Luther fled the city instead.

In January 1519 in Saxony, Luther made some concessions to the papal nuncio. However, Johann Eck wanted Luther’s doctrine to be made public and exposed as heretical. Johann Eck was a Catholic theologian who regarded Luther as a new Hussite. In the summer of that year, he staged debates between himself and Andreas Karlstadt, a Luther defender. The latter debates were between Eck and Luther. Luther was superior in education and skill. Yet Eck did succeed in proving that Luther did hold some opinions held by heretic Hussites and that he believed some councils to be errant. Theologians at the University of Leipzig declared Eck the victor.  

Eck tried to get the Elector Frederick of Saxony to burn Luther’s works. In 1519 alone, he published eight writings against the Lutheran movement. While he had support from Rome and in some universities, he failed to gather much support in Germany, where many theologians and noblemen were siding with Luther. In 1520, he met with Pope Leo X, who praised his work, but still had not taken decisive action regarding Luther.  

After explaining the situation to the pope, Eck returned to Germany with the papal bull Exsurge Domine charging that 41 propositions of Luther were erroneous or heretical. He thought this would finally quash the Lutheran movement as well as the humanists. However, he was met with insults and protests that prevented him from publically reading the bull. He had to flee both Saxony and Freiberg.

The papal bull Exsurge Domine in June 1520 declared that Luther had 60 days to recant 41 statements found in his writings or risk excommunication. The papal nuncio tried to broker a deal, but it fell apart. Luther burned the bull at Wittenberg on December 10. On January 3, 1521, Pope Leo X formally excommunicated him.

The Church had declared him a heretic, but it was now the local, secular state’s problem to deal with him. On April 18, 1521, Luther was ordered to appear before The Diet of Worms—a general assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, with Emperor Charles V presiding. The issue was regarding the enforcement of the ban of Luther’s theses. Eck represented the Empire. Luther stated that he could no longer trust the pope or the councils and could interpret Scripture on his own. Eck argued that many heretics held to their interpretations of Scripture as well.

The Edict of Worms declared Luther an outlaw and banned his writings. It was made a crime for anyone in Germany to give him food or shelter. He could be killed without legal consequence. However, he found refuge in Wartburg Castle. His writings continued to spread.

While he failed to stop the flood of Lutheran fervor in Germany, Eck contributed greatly to the Catholic Reformation in his works attacking the flaws and heresies in the new doctrines. He worked closely with Protestants in understanding and counter-arguing their theologies and the Protestant Revolution rolled on.

Friday, October 20, 2017

To Hell with It

Recently, I was trying to find a quote about the Eucharist—one that contained all the majesty and mystery of the sacrament, that emphasized the absurd truth of it, that would rattle Protestant definitions and lead them home. Something akin to Tolkien’s: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament…There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death.”

But then I came across one that stripped away prose and got to the heart of the matter. Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. [Mary McCarthy] said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”

It was all the defense I was capable of. I so often struggle for words and explanations. I want the sound the defense—to know the philosophy and metaphysics, the teachings of the fathers, the logic, the history, the theology. I want to be able to hold and win debate. But I can’t. I’m not well-versed or well-prepared or well-spoken. But it is important to defend; it is the pinnacle of Christian worship. If it’s a symbol, then most Christians are misguided idolaters; if it’s truly Christ, then it the height of earthly experience.

So maybe I’m not the one to debate. Just stand my ground, even if my voice shakes.

'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.'

Monday, October 16, 2017

Sun Day (part 3)

On the day of the solar eclipse, special glasses were a must. You couldn’t look directly at the sun. It was so bright that you couldn’t see the moon inching its way into its path until a moment before totality. Just a slimmer of sun still lit up the sky and hurt your eyes.

So we were warned, over and over, don’t look at the sun during the eclipse. It’s tempting, but it will hurt. Yet with the glasses, everything else was blacked out. The sun was a tiny, orange ball—the moon, a tinier, black spot, slowing eating away at it. There was a heavy filter between my eyes and the spheres, but it was the only way I could possibly witness them.

A few days later, I was driving to church. Normally, driving east, the sun is right in my face. But this morning was particularly foggy. I turned a corner which normally blasts me with bright light. But the fog was thick. I looked up, and I could see the dull, white ball of the sun. It wasn’t blinding me like normal. The fog allowed me to look directly at it.

I don’t see the sun that often. I see sunlight, obviously. I see daytime. I see the colors of sunrises and sunsets. I see rooms lit up by natural light pouring in windows. I see reflections and shadows. But the sun itself is too bright, too powerful. That fireball is millions of miles away yet feels dangerous close. Looking at it will hurt me. I need a filter.

We all know where this is going, right? The face of God is too much for meek humans to handle. We can’t look directly at him. Life on earth is sustained by him. We see the light all around, but we cannot see him directly. But through a fog, we somehow see him clearer. Through others—their actions, their hearts, their intercessions—we can gaze closer than we could with a naked eye.

The eclipse made me think about the sun much more than I normally do. It’s so prominent that I don’t actually think about that often. But there it is, routinely, giving heat and light, bouncing and reflecting, sometimes dancing. Sometimes it takes a moon or a fog for me to realize how much I love it. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Sun Day (part 2)

The solar eclipse was touted as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and for many, it was. There is a solar eclipse every 18 months or so, but the timing and placement make it rare to catch more than a couple of times. It is a natural occurrence, but it feels miraculous. I was surprised that more dooms-dayers hadn’t picked August 21 as a sign or start of the end times (but some did).

There are mentions of eclipses in the Bible. And strangely, one doesn’t make natural sense. “It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’; and when He had said this He breathed His last.” (Luke 23:44-46). First, the darkness lasted three hours, not three minutes like a usual eclipse. And secondly, there shouldn’t be an eclipse at all. Christ died during Passover, which is dictated by a lunar calendar; it falls on a full moon. Solar eclipses can only occur during a new moon.

Different manuscripts of the Luke use different Greek words, including “eskotisthe ho helios” ("the sun was darkened") and “tou heliou eklipontos” ("the sun's light failed" or "the sun was in eclipse"). So it’s clear that darkness fell, like an eclipse, but that this wasn’t a natural occurrence. Something miraculous was going on.

The same at Fatima. Today is the 100th anniversary of the sixth apparition at Fatima, commonly called the Miracle of the Sun. Thousands had descended to the field to see Mary appear as promised. The eyewitness accounts attempt to describe what they saw—the breaking of the clouds, the changes of color, the movement which defied their understanding. Even rural farmers know how the sun works. The sun doesn’t dance. Or rather, the earth doesn’t shift from its rotation. Something miraculous was going on. It’s not going to fit into the scientific explanation. God creates the rules of physics. He keeps them in motion. And he can supersede them. That’s the nature of the miraculous.

What am I to make of Fatima? I am not obligated to believe it. I am not obligated to disbelieve it. I am not inclined to discount what the witnesses claim. I don’t put too much emphasis on its meaning or warnings. But I accept it as proof that our God is not a clockwork god. He can and will intervene in his creation.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Sun Day (part 1)

Back in August, solar eclipse fever swept the country, especially those of us living in the arching band of totality. Schools and businesses closed, tourists poured into farms and small towns, a pair of cardboard glasses become a hot commodity. It seems silly and over-hyped, but it also seemed worth it. It was a fun, fantastical distraction, a natural occurrence we humans couldn’t control. For all our modernity and avoidance of nature, we still stopped to look at the sun.

In 1878, people rush west to see a solar eclipse. Eclipse fever got caught up in scientific advancement and Manifest Destiny of the time. Even back in New York, which only had a partial eclipse, the Herald reported: “Portly bankers about to start for home paused on their office steps and turned their eyes above the money making world; merchants stood in the doorways of their busy stores, alternately consulting the face of their watches and the face of the sky; clerks and messengers, hurrying along the crowded streets, ceased to knock and jostle one another and with upturned faces and a blissful forgetfulness of business stood gazing all in one direction, while shop girls, escaping from the toilsome factory, caught a [momentary] glimpse of the heavens above and stalwart policemen stood boldly by frightened French nurses and their infant charges.”

The eclipse started slow. Without glasses, one couldn’t see the small moon starting to cover the massive star. But it gradually grew darker, like a coming storm, or twilight in late summer, a grayish yellow tint, distorting the color palate. Sunset arrived, in 360°. The cicadas began their ritual. Sun snakes weaved across the pavement, light twisting and bending to make the eight minute journey to earth. In a moment before totality, a diamond ring appeared in the sky, the then band with a bulb of brilliant shimmer. For a few minutes, we were transfixed, looking into the sky (sans glasses at this point), at the wisps of the corona, at the unusual sight that indicated the usual routine of the movement of the spheres. And then the moment passed, and the sky lightened, and the birds began their morning songs, and the world moved on.

I rarely think about how life on this planet is sustained by a giant fireball millions of miles away. Throw on some spf and sunglasses and it’s rarely an issue. But watching 5% of it still light up the sky, seeing its luminous corona glimmer, feeling its heat retreat and return, reminded me just how powerful it is.

Our universe works to exacting precision. It demonstrates God’s massive power and attention to detail. We are so finite in scale, yet God’s love for us is immense. We were created to know him and marvel at his creation.

“For he gave me sound knowledge of what exists, that I might know the structure of the universe and the force of its elements, the beginning and the end and the midpoint of times, the changes in the sun’s course and the variations of the seasons, cycles of years, positions of stars, natures of living things, tempers of beasts, powers of the winds and thoughts of human beings, uses of plants and virtues of roots—Whatever is hidden or plain I learned, for Wisdom, the artisan of all, taught me” (Wis. 7:17-22).

Monday, October 2, 2017

By My Side

I don’t know what my guardian angel looks like. I don’t know his name (though I do give him a masculine gender for language convenience). The whole concept of angels interacting in our world still feels foreign and bizarre to me. I like to avoid things I don’t understand.

Angel is the title of particular created spirits. They are God’s messengers. They are non-corporeal, personal, and immortal. The Catechism explains, “From its beginning until death, human life is surrounded by their watchful care and intercession. Beside each believer stands an angel as protector and shepherd leading him to life. Already here on earth the Christian life shares by faith in the blessed company of angels and men united in God” (CCC 336).

Lately, I’ve begun acknowledging and leaning on my guardian angel. When I had no one to reach out to, it was comforting knowing that I had my own, individual guardian watching over me, wanting the very best for me. When I felt attacked, it was comforting knowing that I wasn’t battling evil alone.

My angel knows God’s love and will for me. His purpose is to care for me and get me to heaven. And goodness knows I could use the help. His choice to serve God is unwavering, unlike human free will. He does so much work that I don’t realize or acknowledge.

Today is the Feast of the Guardian Angels. So, thank you, Angel. Keep up the good fight.

Friday, September 29, 2017

The Dogma Lives Loudly

When law professor Amy Coney Barrett faced her Senate confirmation hearing to serve on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, it was not just her legal philosophy or her qualifications that were questioned. Her Catholicism itself was under question, with strong implications that her being Catholic should disqualify her from serving as a judge.

Senator Durbin asked Barrett if she considered herself an “orthodox Catholic” and if she considered Catholics who didn’t follow Church teachings to be Catholic. What this had to do with her qualifications as a judge, I can’t imagine. Senator Feinstein dealt the resounding quote though, when she said, “I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

American Catholics aren’t unfamiliar with anti-Catholic sentiments and religious litmus tests, wrapped up in concern that one is more beholden to Rome than Washington. JFK toured the country trying to quell such fears when he ran for president. But in this case, Senator Feinstein was so blinded by her secular idealism that she did not recognize the compliment she paid Barrett.

What orthodox Catholic would not be honored to be told that the dogma lived loudly within her? Is that not a goal of this life, to be so steeped in the faith, so aligned with the will of God, that it shines through our every word and action? It was wonderful to see “the dogma lives loudly within you” become the Catholic equivalent of “nevertheless, she persisted.”

Dogma is a word often used with disdain. Dusty, old rules written hundreds of years ago. Words cluttering up the faith. Rigid. Close-minded. Arrogant. “It’s a relationship, not a religion.” But dogma is just the official principles of faith and morals. It’s the code by which we live. Without some form of dogma, our morality and philosophy are nothing more than whims, easily malleable and manipulable.

To have the dogma alive in us is to breathing expressions of the faith, to be the salt, to be the light. When I think of people within whom the dogma lives loudly, I think of Father Stanley Rother. I think of Dorothy Day. I think of St. John Paul II. I think of people who are passionate for their love of Christ and whose passion spills over into loving the world.  It is not shameful or concerning to have a moral code and live up to it. I strive for the insult: “the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you.”

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Down on One Knee

Traditionally, when a man proposes, he gets down on one knee in front of woman and offers her a ring. It’s a sign of respect, of devotion, of humility as he awaits her answer. In the Western Church, genuflection (which means kneeling) is typically expressed by bending down on one knee. It is a sign of respect to a superior; it has meant such since Alexander the Great’s time. In the Church, it is a sign of respect to God, present in the Blessed Sacrament. The whole body acknowledges the presence of God. 

In sports, players go down on one knee when another player is injured. As medics and coaches go on the field to tend to the injured, the rest of the players remain silent, on one knee, as a sign of respect and concern to their injured peer. It also signals to the spectators that there is a serious incident on the field and that they too should be concerned and quiet. 

So when Colin Kaepernick, a professional football player who lived a fairly privileged life, started to realize the systemic racism and injustice in the country, he began feeling uncomfortable standing hand-over-heart for the National Anthem at each game. To him, it felt like a mockery to claim that America was one way when it was really another. So he sat. And then he knelt. And others followed suit. He took a knee, a sign of respect but also a signal that there is a serious incident going on that demands own concern.

This past weekend, it escalated, with dozens of players and others, including a franchise owner and a singer of the National Anthem, taking a knee. As far as protests go, this is about as mild-mannered as you can imagine. No chanting, no inflammatory language, no blocking streets, no occupying private property. And yet, people were outraged, calling the protesters un-American, seditious, thugs, disrespectful. There were demands that the players be fined, that they lose their jobs, that they be forced to stand for the anthem. 

Now, the NFL can very much dictate if they allow their players to kneel on the field or not. It’s their field, their uniforms, and their time. As a private company, they have that control. That’s why Colin Kaepernick isn’t working this season. But when dozens of players join in the peaceful protest (and when the act brings much attention to the league, especially when people tune in to see who’s kneeling or not), the NFL is also very much in their right to let it happen. And people can freely boycott or not based on the NFL’s decisions.

The First Amendment allows for peaceful protest. The very foundation of the country supports citizens bringing their concerns to the public forum and petitioning the government for redress of grievances. Freedom of speech is in place to protect minority or unpopular speech. You don’t have to like what others say, you don’t have to like that they are saying it. But you can’t restrict them from doing so. 

In the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected students’ rights to not salute the American flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance. The Court ruling read: “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of option, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

What I’ve found so interesting in the “take a knee” protests are the vitriol, distain, and accusations heaped onto the protesters. The flag and the anthem have, in many’s minds, to represent the military, which subsequently, can never be wrong nor disrespected in any form. So an issue about racism becomes an issue about veterans. A conversation about injustice becomes a conversation about patriotism. A sign of concern becomes a sign of disrespect. A peaceful protest becomes an act of sedition. 

The post 9/11 patriotism was beautiful but dangerous. We can together as a country, we were all in this together. There is a demand that we maintain a solitary mindset of blind patriotism, that anything less is unacceptable. But that itself is un-American. America promotes free speech, free assembly, the right to petition; North Korea is where blind obedience is demanded. In the Barnette case, Justice Jackson wrote, “Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

The “take a knee” protest is about as peaceful—as passive—as a protest can be. But it’s still not submissive enough for some people. Just as college students weren’t submissive enough when they sat down to lunch at Woolworth’s. Just as Rosa Parks wasn’t submissive enough when she remained in her seat on the bus. Just as Tommie Smith and John Carlos weren’t submissive enough when they lifted their fists on the Olympic podium. Anything less than total capitulation is never enough for some authorities. And that’s the mindset Colin Kaepernick wanted to fight against. Every voice saying the players should just stand up, shut up, and play are proving him right. There is an injury on the field. Show your respect. Pay attention.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

History is written by the winners, they say. But that’s not entirely true. Living in the South proves that. The Lost Cause narrative sustained, even if it’s not the national narrative. There are still Rebel flags and monuments to Jackson and Lee and reenactments of Confederate victories. The reasons why these persist are varied, and yes, many of those reasons are rooted in racism. The war was lost, the cause was wrong, but no one wants to say that their boys died in vain. Losers write history too.

How historical times or events are remembered and interpreted say more about the current times than those of the past. How interpretation of the past shows how we want to connect the present to some larger narrative. We want our times to make sense. We want to connect to moments of victory or morality or innovation. We want assurances that we are moving humanity the way it ought. So we fit our values and missions into the larger historical context. We align past heroes to ourselves, obscuring context. And when the stories don’t fit, they get reinterpreted or replaced entirely.

After the Civil War, President Johnson pardoned the Confederates. This was so that Southerners would not be punished by Northerners thus continuing the division. Rather, Confederates were reabsorbed as Americans, accepting the union and the label of American. That’s why in the South, the Confederacy is often remembered as part of America—Americans fighting Americans, i.e., a civil war. The regional memory is different than the national memory, and the fight over statues is really a fight over the story. Every group wants their story told, their memory validated. Collective memory is at the core of a group’s identity. It is worth fighting for. So the struggle to dictate the story can lead to violence and destruction.

Whether the statues should stay or go should be debated. Personally, I think there are cases for some to stay and some to go, and it would have to be determined on a case by case basis, factoring in the intent when it was erected and the community’s past and present situations. Baltimore city government decided to remove its statues before they became foci of conflict. And they had a point. The statues have become tangible beacons of the division of narratives.  Letting a frenzied mob tear down or vandalize property legitimizes chaos; it allows emotional outbursts to win over civil social discourse. Politics becomes not about rationalized ideology but about brute force.

Iconoclasts seek to erase history. They want to distance themselves from a dark past and create a new utopia, free of any tainting, residual influence. They want to purify themselves by sanitizing the landscape. In doing so, they disregard the past, destroy art, damage buildings, desecrate burial grounds.

We see iconoclasm in ISIS blowing up ancient sites, smashing some of Christianity’s oldest churches and even Muslim holy places to dust. We see it in the Red Guard destroying the Four Olds during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During the French Revolution, the heads of the statues of Notre Dame were decapitated, and the cathedral became a Temple of Reason.

In the sixteenth century, the iconoclastic Protestants smashed stained glass and statues and threw out relics.  This was beyond a reformation; it was obliteration. The Church, her art, and her contributions were sought out to be erased. Along with political power, the iconoclasts wanted control over the community memory, to shape history as they wanted.

There are narratives that are truer and more just than others. There are reasons to remove images that represent oppression. But we must be careful from becoming iconoclasts, from believing that a purified landscape and erased history will lead to a pure, new society. There are no pure societies. There is nothing new under the sun.

In 1984, George Orwell says, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Floating Together

With the flooding in Texas, I’ve seen images of floating masses of fire ants. When fire ants sense danger, particularly flooding, they start linking together. They form a mass, with the vulnerable eggs, larvae, and queen bundled in the center. The wax on their bodies helps them float. Members rotate from below the water line to above so they don’t drown. They can float this way for weeks, until they find dry land.

It’s a terrifying but fascinating image. A single ant cannot possibly withstand a hurricane and massive floods. But together, the colony can survive. They see each other through, they protect their vulnerable, and they take turns bearing the most difficult task.

This is how the Church should work. By working together, we accomplish collectively what we can’t do alone. We protect and care for our most vulnerable. And at times, the individual has to suffer. When underwater, it’s difficult to remember the collective purpose; you’re just afraid of drowning and panic. But if the group is working together, then they won’t let you drown; you’ll be lifted up above the water line. Another will take on the sufferings when you can’t, just as you took on sufferings for the betterment of another.

We are a living, shifting body. That’s how we’ll ride out the flood. 

Thursday, August 31, 2017

St. Raymond Nonnatus

St. Raymond was born in 1204 in Catalonia via caesarian, thus earning him the name Nonnatus (“not born”). His mother died in childbirth. As a youth, he watched his family’s sheep. He joined the new Mercedarian order, which had been founded to ransom Christians from the Moors in North Africa, and was trained by the founder, St. Peter Nolasco.

He ransomed hundreds of Christians until he got to Tunis, where his money ran out. So he offered himself as a hostage for 28 captive Christians. He began preaching to his guards. The Moors allegedly bored a hole through his lips and padlocked his mouth shut to prevent him from preaching. He was ransomed and returned to Spain in 1239. He died at the Castle of Cardona in 1240 and was buried in the chapel he prayed at as a child.

Locks are placed at his altar representing prayer requests to end gossip, rumors, and false testimonies. He is the patron of the falsely accused and the confidentiality of confession. He is also the patron of expectant mothers, newborns, obstetricians, and midwives. His feast day is August 31. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

St. Eulalia

Eulalia of Merida
St. Eulalia of Barcelona was a young martyr who died under the persecution from Diocletian in the fourth century. The thirteen-year-old refused to renounce her faith and was subjugated to a series of tortures including being rolled in a barrel with glass stuck into it, having her breasts cut off, crucifixion, and decapitation.

There is debate as to whether St. Eulalia of Barcelona is the same as St. Eulaia of Merida. Both legends are of a young teen girl in Iberia who suffered a series of tortures under Diocletian's reign. Both had doves appear at their deaths.

I learned about St. Eulalia as Barcelona experienced a terror attack yesterday. More than a dozen people died from an attack by North African Muslims. One portrait of her has her lying in the streets during her tortures. It’s a serene scene for one of martyrdom.

She was buried in Barcelona. In 713 during the Moorish invasion, the body was hidden (recovered in 878). In 1339, she was relocated to the crypt of the new cathedral which also bore her name, Cathedral de Santa Eulalia in Barcelona. She is the city’s patron, and her feast day in February 12. 

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Words Don't Do

Last weekend I watched along with the rest of the country as violence erupted in Charlottesville. It was sad, but not surprising. In a way, it felt overdue. White supremacists and neo-Nazis chanting “blood and soil” and “the Jews will not replace us,” rallying around vestiges of the Lost Cause, literally carrying torches and swastikas. It was surreal but familiar. Anarchists and fascists fill the plots of books from 100 years ago. But now they are also on the streets.

There is a lot of anger, a lot of absolutism, a lot of whataboutism, and a lot of false equivalences. There is no moment of respite. It just keeps mounting. It is difficult to imagine a peaceful solution. This is what happens when competing ideologies run out of negotiating space. Fundamental ideas clash so hard that they turn into actual clashes.

There have been those criticizing others for not speaking out publicly or not getting physically involved. I am probably viewed as complacently silent because I haven’t typed “Nazis are bad” on facebook. But I don’t think social media activism is real activism. I’m alert, and I’m willing to jump in and help at my micro/local level, and I hope I have the courage to do the right thing. Evil must be confronted. Evil must be condemned. But we must also not allow it to overtake our lives and fill us with hatred. We have to continue on living and loving. 

Monday was the feast of St. Maximillian Kolbe. He was a prisoner of Auschwitz and offered to take the place of a father set to be tortured and killed. During a weekend of such bigotry and anger, it seemed appropriate to recall the ideology that led to places like Auschwitz. Racism, nationalism, anti-Semistism, sexism, a belief that ends justify means—they all divide and dehumanize and have no place in civilized discourse.

St. Maximillian Kolbe had a deep devotion to Mary. His last words were “Ave, Maria.” How fitting that his feast day leads into the Feast of the Assumption. And what more can be said? How many times does one shout condemnation into the void? How many times does one tweet “thoughts and prayers” to the latest victims? How many times will history repeat itself? Ave, Maria. Ora pro nobis.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Enduring the Pain

Suffering is a two-edged sword, and it often hurts like one. It is universally experienced in one form or another and yet massively misunderstand. It stands as an impediment, to our health, our happiness, our best selves, our securest beliefs. How can I go on when I’m in pain? How can God be loving and allow suffering? Just, why?

It’s part of the human condition; it’s part of the fallen world; it can unite us closer to Christ. All true statements that don’t mean much when someone is actually in distress. They just want the pain to stop, and the philosophizing about it can come after.

Today’s society sees no ambiguity in pain: it is bad. You have the right to never suffer. Drink, eat, fuck, shop—find the distraction that works best. Take pain medication. Take more. Have the doctor assist you in your suicide. The world is too painful. It would have been better if you had never had to suffer at all. It would be better if that child never has to suffer. It would be better if the disabled were gone instead of suffering. It would be better if their caregivers were free of their burdens. A better world has no suffering, but it seems to have a lot of death.

The idea of pain-free life actually diminishes life, because then life that is not pain-free seems inadequate and futile. St. John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae, “In a social and cultural context which makes it more difficult to face and accept suffering, the temptation becomes all the greater to resolve the problem of suffering by eliminating it at the root, by hastening death so that it occurs at the moment considered most suitable.”

The cases for abortion or euthanasia makes compelling emotional arguments. People are in pain and distress; they are suffering. Of course their choice is understandable. You wouldn’t want to suffer in their place, would you? Life is hard enough; why make it harder?

That God allows suffering is one of the hardest parts of the faith for many to accept. Wouldn’t an all-loving, all-powerful God make pain stop? The answer is that the world is broken; it causes pain. By allowing us freewill, God allows pain to continue. But pain and suffering can be used to bring about good. They draw us closer to God and to one another. When you understand suffering, you understand the need for people to be loved. In pain, you stand with Christ in his passion, with the martyrs in their last moments, with all others who are hurting.

God does not want us to suffering; he does not delight in pain. But he is pleased in our endurance in faith. He is pleased with the hope we hold. He is pleased by the love and compassion we express. Pain is our weakness; the endurance of it is our strength.

Society fears pain so much that it lashes out, promoting addictive drugs or behaviors—to the point of promoting death. Rather, we as a society should help one another endure the pain. True mercy is holding the hand of one hurting, not throwing them away. True dignity loves a person, no matter their circumstance. When one is in turmoil, it sometimes takes several others to help her endure. That’s the importance of community.

"All the science of the Saints is included in these two things: To do, and to suffer. And whoever had done these two things best, has made himself most saintly." -St. Francis de Sales

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Burnt Offerings

Nagasaki was a small fishing village until the arrival of the Portuguese in Japan. It grew into a major port with strong influences by Portuguese sailors and Jesuit missionaries. In 1580, the city became a Jesuit colony. Japanese Christians who were being persecuted in other regions sought shelter in Nagasaki. It was called the Rome of Japan. Although there were growing efforts to quash Western/Christian influence, southern Japan continued to be openly Christian. Franciscan and Augustinian missionaries also made their way to the region.

In 1614, Catholicism was banned and the missionaries forced out of Japan. Many Christians fled or were martyred. Christianity went underground for centuries, until missionaries returned in the late nineteenth century. In 1890, Nagasaki got its first bishop, the Catholic population in the diocese doubled. By the twentieth century, Nagasaki was once again the center of Japanese Catholicism. Of course, the city is often known for something else.

Yesterday, the president responded to North Korean bluster by threatening “fire and fury, like world has never seen.” But the world has already seen pretty egregious fire and fury, so what was his threat? How far is he willing to go? Seventy-two years ago today, the U.S. dropped its second nuclear weapon over Nagasaki (the first being dropped over Hiroshima three days earlier). The events ushered in a new era – humanity now had the ability to obliterate itself. And it became a question of whether we were willing to.

In the intervening years, it has been a testament to humanity that while the number of counties with nuclear capabilities has grown, no one as resorted to use of nuclear weapons again. But the threat lingers, and quick-trigger mechanisms and narcissistic leaders make the threat feels real.

Recently, I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, which follows the rebuilding of the world after nuclear destruction—right up to the next nuclear destruction. While the book offers the hope of the persistence of the faithful, it also articulates the despairing that humans don’t learn from their mistakes. They repeat the same threats and violence. Sin is uncreative. So of course the Cold War talk of nuclear annihilation crops up again on the anniversary of the first nuclear bombings.

In particular, the Christian community of Japan suffered from the bombings. The Urakami neighborhood of Nagasaki was the epicenter of Catholicism in the city; it was also the epicenter of the atomic blast. Of the 12,000 Catholics in the Urakami district, 8,500 were killed, including those worshipping in the cathedral, which was the largest Christian structure in the Asian-Pacific until that day. The Japanese could not understand why Westerners would harm civilians who practiced a shared (Western) faith.

Dr. Takashi Nagai was a resident of Nagasaki. He said, “…It was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on the altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?” On August 15, 1549, St. Francis Xavier arrived in Nagasaki. On August 15, 1945, Japan surrendered WWII. Dr. Nagai interpreted the end of the war coming on the Feast of the Assumption as a divine message. But did anybody hear it? Or does the cycle of violence just start again?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Good for the Body, Good for the Soul

This week is NFP (natural family planning) week, coinciding with the anniversary of the release of Humanae Vitae. I don’t often think about NFP, as I’m unmarried. But I do like to bring it into conversations when birth control is brought up, just tiny reminders that there are options not found in pharmacy aisles. As someone who doesn’t practice it I don’t feel like it’s my place to sell it.

However, as a Catholic, I do take issue with how it’s often pitched as “Catholic birth control,” a loophole allowed by the Church to get the same result. As with so many things, intent matters. One must be open to life, even if there are serious financial or medical reasons to space out births. Procreation must always be a component of the sexual act, even if the act does not result in a pregnancy.

However, putting aside the philosophy for the moment, an interesting thing is happening: NFP has started to gain admirers outside of devoted Catholic circles. Women have started to see the dangers in hormonal methods (mood swings, masking underlying health problems, and increased risk of blood clots, cancer, and stroke). That, along with the cost, has led some to seek more natural birth control methods which don’t treat a functional female body as something that needs a medical cure. NFP relies on a woman (and her partner) paying attention to her body. She learns to recognize the signs of fertility and make decisions accordingly.

NFP can be used to achieve or postpone pregnancy. Its use to achieve pregnancy is gaining use among couples who have been on hormonal birth control for years and then decide to have a child. Going off hormonal birth control can create big emotional and physical changes. Learning to know her body’s natural signs helps process those adjustments. 

Technology is making natural methods easier to track and more and more accurate per woman. Recently, a Swedish nuclear physicist made the news when her fertility app, Natural Cycles, was approved by the European Union as a certified method of birth control. Modern NFP methods are 99.6% effective when used correctly. Although I’ll admit, correct use is harder to come by when it rests on each individual’s dedication to tracking and subsequent decision making. But no one is claiming it’s the easy method. 

NFP also destigmatizes fertility. Birth control isn’t a matter that the woman “takes care of.” The couple engages in conversation about tracking and when it is/isn’t good for them to be intimate. Morality and consequence and desire are all open to discussion, and commitment to practicing NFP is a mutual endeavor. 

I think it’s interesting—and good—that NFP is gaining more attention outside of a religious context, because it is so much more than “Catholic birth control.” It encourages respect for the body and respect between individuals.