May my exploration of faith be a blessing to others.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Time to Stop Worshiping My "god"

It's Ash Wednesday. Lent is here! I woke up excited but unfocused. For days, I've been thinking about what my Lenten observation should be. What should I "give up" in order to show my penitence and love for God? I heard others talking about chocolate or sugar or sodas, etc., etc. Nothing sounded right.

Finally, it struck me: I would "take on" something instead. I would get back on my stationary bike after having suffered an injury to my left hip and a different injury to my right knee. Bilateral pain would not stop me from getting back on the bike. Congratulations on your penance, I told myself. So, this morning, I got back on the bike and my knee immediately started screaming, "Just what do you think you are doing!?!" So, I slowed down. Way down. I didn't know the machine could move that slowly. Then, as I usually do while pedaling, I started my morning meditation. I did my usual reading from The Catholic Company's daily email and did my usual morning prayers. But, as part of my Lenten bike riding, I had promised more time. I had to find another meditation...

The irony of my pre-Lenten search for the right observance is that I never asked God about it. I thought about what I should I do. I talked to others about it. I read about it. I never once prayed about it. After all, praying isn't just about asking, it's also about listening, and listening is something I am really an expert of not doing. In fact, God had been talking to me all along. Then, last night while standing in line at our parish's annual Mardi Gras pancake supper, an old damaged nerve starting shooting fire up and down my left leg. Listen, God said, you know the right thing to do.

But, I'm used to ignoring that nerve pain just like I'm used to ignoring God. Like I said, I'm an expert.

As I sat there on that bike, very slowly pushing one pedal then the other with no more prayers left on my Prayer List app, I finally listened: you know what you have to do. I clicked on Google and typed "Catholic diet plan." You see, I have struggled with eating disorders for more than 30 years. I've joined groups, followed diets, sought counseling. I've actually even prayed about it for short moments in time. Every day, all day, I am reminded of it. And the consequences of it are reflected in the state of my body. That knee and that hip would likely have healed by now if they weren't constantly bearing the weight of two grown people. That nerve damage was likely caused by pressure that the weight placed on that nerve. Every problem I have is exacerbated by my "unhealthy relationship" with food. More often than not, food is the remedy I apply to my problems, my stresses, my joys. Food has been my answer more often than God. Food has been my false god and it has failed me every single time.

This morning's Google search led me to an interview in America Magazine with Dr. Jennifer Nolan. Having struggled with weight loss herself, she developed a Bible-inspired diet that worked for her and wrote a book about it. While I don't think her diet plan is the true answer to my search, her words will help to guide me on my way. As a professional counselor to people with addictions, she framed the eating issue this way, "As a formerly overweight person, I know firsthand that obesity is a poverty of spirit. Mother Teresa said that the greatest poverty is to feel unwanted, and obesity can certainly give a person that feeling. I know--I felt it many times. To me, food was all about consolation, reward and celebration. When food is the center of your life, it is a meager substitute for God."

At last, I heard the message I had read days and days ago: for Lent, you should surrender whatever it is that is getting in the way of your relationship with God. I had known for years that I was abusing food. I even knew that it was spiritually wrong, but I had refused to acknowledge it as sin. In that moment this morning, I finally realized that I was breaking the Commandment to have no other gods. I have always failed to conquer my eating disorders and failed to lose weight because I was depending on a false god: food.

I don't know what it means yet to surrender my eating disorders for Lent (and beyond) but I know how to find the answer. This time, I'm going to pray. And, this time, I'm actually going to listen.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Catechism: Prologue III-VI The Who and Why

By U.S. Marine Corps Photo by Sgt Paul L. Anstine II
via Wikimedia Commons
If you want to understand the Catholic faith, then the Catechism is for you. Although it is primarily intended for those who are responsible for teaching the faith to others, everyone is encouraged to study it as a comprehensive guide to deeper understanding. It draws upon the sacred scriptures of the Bible, as well as the writings and teachings of the Church fathers and the magisterium (the Pope and the Bishops).

One of the most important things about the Catechism is that it is intended to be read and understood in its entirety. The Prologue says that it is an "organic whole." Everything within it is inseparable from everything else, and each article of faith should be understood within the context of every other article. This emphasis on "context", to me, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Catholicism. The Church specifically warns against "cherry picking" scripture verses, for example. You cannot simply draw a single verse from the Bible and use it define your faith or your worldview. Rather, you must understand that verse within the context of the rest of that book of the Bible; when, where and why it was written; how it relates to the rest of the Bible; and within the wisdom we (as the Church) have gained over the millennia of studying it. To this end, the Catechism also provides a lot of reference for further reading and study, whether referring to other parts of the Catechism, the Bible itself, or other writings of the Church.

By I, Jfreyre
via Wikimedia Commons
Beyond that, the Prologue also explains that the Catechism actually can't be "all things to all people." In Section 6 Paragraph 24, it clarifies, "By design, this Catechism does not set out to provide the adaptation of doctrinal presentations and catechetical methods required by the differences of culture, age, spiritual maturity, social and ecclesial condition among all of those to whom it is addressed." In other words, these various contexts will have an impact on each reader's understanding and that those who teach the Catechism must adapt their instruction according to the spiritual maturity of the student. These "necessary adaptations" enable the Church to be "all things to all people," as we are instructed to do in the Bible.

Finally, the Prologue reminds us, as St. Paul, does that above all of this is charity: "The whole concern of doctrine and its teaching must be directed to the love that never that anyone can see that all the works of perfect Christian virtue spring from love and have no other objective than to arrive at love."

Access the Catechism online.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Cathechism: Prologue II What is catechesis?

In honor of today's celebration of 

King: stained glass from 
San Sebastian 

hurch in Porto Alegre, Brazil.

By Eugenio Hansen via Wikimedia Commons
One thing you will quickly learn about the Catholic Church is that is still likes to hang on to its Latin and Greek roots. So, it is not surprising to encounter words that you may never have seen or heard anywhere else. One of these is, perhaps, "catechesis." It is a Greek word adopted into Late Latin and then later adapted into Middle English. Today, it basically means religious instruction, particularly of people before they are initiated into the faith. As with most ancient terms that are still in use, it originally meant something related, but more specific: to speak or even more specifically to teach orally.

Fortunately for us, we have more learning modes at our disposal, so we don't have to sit for hours and days and weeks learning by listening. However, our ability to listen closely and pay attention to what we are learning is likely less sharp. Nevertheless, the purpose of the Catechism, therefore, is to teach us everything we need to know about Catholic teachings. And, I do mean EVERYTHING. If you can't find the answer to your Catholic question in the Catechism, you probably have not spent much time looking for it.

Section II of the Prologue explains that "Catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church's life. Not only her geographical extension and numerical increase, but even more her inner growth and correspondence with God's plan..." It states that although the following are not formally identified with catechesis, it is tied to the Church's mission to:

  • proclaim the Gospel and to arouse faith,
  • examine the reasons for our beliefs,
  • experience Christian living,
  • celebrate the sacraments,
  • integrate members into the ecclesial community, and
  • carry out apostolic and missionary witness.
Section II also allows that the Catechism is not wholly inflexible. Although it draws strongly upon scripture, it also welcomes learned and inspired thought over time. "Periods of renewal," it states, expand our understanding and provide "intense moments" of learning. To this end, it mentions the writings of the various church "fathers" and specifically names four of the declared "Doctors of the Church": St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ambroise and St. Augustine, who added to our understanding during the early centuries following the life of Christ. The Prologue, also states that the councils of the Church have also added to this learning. specifically citing the 16th century Council of Trent and the 20th century Second Vatican Council.

For me, all of this means that we have had (and likely will continue to have) an imperfect understanding of God and scripture. God is unchanging, but our understanding of him has continued to grow in fullness. To borrow the common anti-Church phrase of a few centuries ago, we become more enlightened, the more we study, the more we pray, the more we attempt to live as Christ told us to live. 

Many of our saints, including both those formally sanctified by the Church and many who are unknown to us, have come closer to a full and complete understanding than others of us. As imperfect people, however, the best we can do is to strive to learn and to grow in understanding and mercy. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the work of 21 centuries of the brightest minds, the most inspired saints, serious scholars, prayerful priests and religious devotees. Throughout these millennia they have worked collaboratively across time and geography to bring us the best understanding that we can have at this moment. The Catechism brings all of it together for us. So, if you are sincere in your faith, you must, of course, read the Bible, but you should also study the Catechism and read the wisdom gathered through the ages. 

The Church fathers and mothers of yesterday and today are speaking to us; it is our duty then to listen and to learn.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Becoming Catholic: No Time Like the Present

By Maioremlaetitiam2 via Wikimedia Commons
This is the time of year, when most Catholic parishes--at least in the United State--begin to form an RCIA group. As I've written before, the Catholic Church encourages non-Catholics to convert, but they don't always make it terribly easy to find out how to do this. The very term "RCIA" meant absolutely nothing to me the first few dozen times I heard it or saw it. The initials stand for "Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults," a phrase that didn't seem any clearer. So, when of the first things I did after I completed my own initiation was to join my parish's communications ministry and successfully advocate for the "RCIA" link on our home page to be changed to "Become a Catholic." Much better.

The RCIA process is intended to enable the individual to explore and truly understand the teachings, beliefs, mission, and function of the Catholic Church as well as the individual's responsibilities to God and to others and his or her own role within the parish and community. Unlike other denominations in which I have participated, the Catholic Church takes conversion very seriously. No other church I ever joined, ever asked me to participate in a single discussion about doctrine, liturgy or anything. They simply asked whether I wanted to join the church, I said "yes," and that was that.

Joining the Catholic Church is more complex, and I think that is a very good thing. The process of this "rite of initiation" takes prayer and discernment. It asks you to consider if this truly is the path you wish to follow. This is true with every rite of the Church. For instance, one meeting with the officiating clergyman will ever be sufficient before a Catholic wedding. This is serious. The Church takes it seriously and it expects you to take it seriously, too.

Having said that, the process is not difficult. I found it to be very rewarding. In my own parish, RCIA is led by a dedicated, loving and amusing Franciscan Sister assisted by an older married couple whose attention and care is warm and friendly. Each RCIA participant selects an established (and observant) Catholic as his or her sponsor, and the sponsors also attend the meetings, events and ceremonies whenever they are able. It enables the "newbies" to build connections with each other and with the "old" Catholics in a truly supportive environment. You can ask questions and express your ideas without feeling anxious that you might sound dumb or that you might be judged in some way.

Most of the time, the RCIA group meets weekly beginning in late summer or early fall through Easter. Individuals are also encouraged to attend Mass weekly and to find other ways to participate in parish life. As time and your understanding progress, you will be invited to participate in various rites like being presented to your Bishop and to your own Parish. In my Parish, we have three English-language Masses each weekend, so our RCIA participants are invited to come to each Mass to be formally presented to and prayer over by the congregation.

Along the way, if you decide that you don't want to continue, you may stop at any point. Likewise, you are welcome to return. Most of the participants complete RCIA and receive their first Eucharist during Holy Week around Easter, but others take longer to make their final commitment. I have found the U.S. Church to be fairly flexible in helping devoted RCIA candidates (or "catechumens") reach their goals even in extenuating circumstances. For instance, one college-age woman from our parish, took her RCIA instruction in another part of the country where she was attending university, but she was permitted to return to her home parish to celebrate her confirmation there.

If you think you might be interested in exploring Catholicism, even if you don't know whether you wish to convert or not, now is a great time to seek out the person in your local parish who is responsible for RCIA. Find out what is involved and start down that path. It is never too early or too late.

For instance, several years ago, an older lady in my parish asked our priest when RCIA would be starting. She had attended mass at our church for decades. Her children and grandchildren had attended the local Catholic schools. The priest knew her and her family fairly well. "Oh," he asked, "Do you know someone who would like to join the Church?"

"Yes," she said, "I would." In all those years of active participation, she was the only member of her family who was not Catholic. But, at Easter 2013, she stood beside me as we made our profession of faith together.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Catechism: Prologue I 2-3: Sharing the Good News

Via Wikimedia Commons
From my earliest youth, I can remember songs with lyrics like, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel and, lo, I am with you always," and Jesus' recruitment of Simon Peter and his brother Andrew to lay down their fishing nets to that he could make them "fishers of men." We also frequently sang the children's ditty, "This Little Light of Mine," in which we kids promised not to "hide it under a bushel" (although we didn't know what a bushel was) and not to "let Satan blow it out" with accompanying hand gestures. Perhaps these songs and ideas have stuck with me so well because I also spent many years of my childhood in a fundamentalist domination that was strongly dedicated to sending Christian missionaries overseas. The lives of MKs (missionaries' kids) were often depicted for us, and missionaries visiting home frequently spoke at our church, sharing photos of the schools they had built and the kids they had fed and stories of facing down great dangers to bring the light of Christ to these remote, exotic and usually unfortunate peoples.

So, I have known for a long time, that one of the major responsibilities of a Christian is to share God with others. At times, I thought that meant I should be a missionary, too. Then, as a young teen, I participated in the musical, Surrender, about teens learning how to serve God. One of the characters sings, "I'd rather go to Africa, than Lakewood High, because being a believer isn't cool." It was eye-opening, the challenge of sharing my belief with others doesn't have to be full of life-threatening confrontations with head hunters or warring tribes; sometimes (often, usually) being a testimony to the people who are already part of my own world is scary enough.

The fact that the Catholic Catechism addresses this mission to share God's love with others so early in its pages has great significance, I believe. The only instruction that comes before it is to know and love God yourself. Once you've started that process, your next responsibility is to spread the "Good News" as so many faiths state it. But, here's the thing: these steps are not sequential. You cannot wait until you fully understand everything about God before you begin to let your light shine. Indeed, if you did, you would be under that proverbial bushel for your entire life. Most Christian faiths (indeed most religions of any kind) have a call for believers to proselytize. You are not permitted to perceive the truth and keep others in the darkness of ignorance.

How to do you do that? I suspect this exploration of the Catechism will help to explain how to share the Good News, and we shall seek to understand this process as we go. This year, Pope Francis has called all Catholics to observe a Jubilee of Mercy. The Jubilee prayer offers a succinct answer: "Let the Church [i.e. all Catholics] be your visible face in the world." When people see us, they should see God. We must strive always to live what we believe in order to demonstrate God's love and mercy. Not only do we represent God in this way, but we also serve God, as Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 25, "in so far as you did this to one of the least of these, you did it to me." (In that particular verse, he is talking about helping others, but he also elaborates later that the reverse is true. To neglect others or to actively harm them, is also a sin against God.)

But here is the biggest secret: you don't necessarily have to "go out of your way" to do this. Sure, many are called to serve God in the remotest corners of the globe, or in prisons, or in war zones, or in the poorest neighborhoods of our cities. The rest of us are called to use the talents that God has given us to serve him where we are. There are already people in your world today and people you will encounter tomorrow and next week and next year, who will benefit from your "testimony." While you may have the opportunity to actually speak about Christ to them or give them a Bible or a Crucifix, most of the time, the simplest act of kindness, mercy and love can be a trigger to encourage someone else to seek the peace and joy that you have. Conversely, there are few things more harmful to our mission, than Christians behaving poorly. (Ever been cutoff in traffic by a car with a "Jesus loves you" bumper sticker.)

It may not always feel comfortable to pray before a meal in public. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. It may not always be convenient to help someone who is clearly lost or clearly struggling to carry something. That doesn't mean you should just pass them by. It may not always be easy to offer praise or comfort instead of criticism. That doesn't mean you are free to speak those sharp words that may come to mind.

Beyond that, you should seek ways to use your talents for God. He endowed each of us with individual personalities and abilities because He has need of these different skill sets. I hope I am never called upon to clear debris and weeds from the church yard or a neighborhood park. The kind of chore is not in any way part of my inclination or skill set and it sets me up for allergic reactions. (That doesn't mean I should always avoid this kind of service...) Since I was three years old, however, I have had a passion for reading and writing and for seeking to know and understand things. I have no doubt that these natural inclinations are part of God's plan for my service. When I completed the rite of initiation, I prayed for God to show me how to serve Him. His answer came very quickly, and I launched this blog that day.

This is one way in which I can let the light shine through me, and I pray for His inspiration as I draft each post. As the song from the popular rock opera Godspell says:
"You are the light of the world. You are the light of the world. But the tallest candlestick ain't much good without a wick. You've got to live right to be the light of world."


Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cathechism: Prologue I.1 To Know and Love God

Part 2 in my continuing exploration of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd edition

I. The Life of Man--To Know and Love God
1. God, infinitely perfect and blessed in himself, in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength. He calls together all men, scattered and divided by sin, into the unity of his family, the Church. To accomplish this, when the fullness of time had come, God sent his son as Redeemer and Savior. In his Son and through him, he invites men to become, in the Holy Spirit, his adopted children and thus heirs of his blessed life.

The Creation of Adam, from the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo
via Wikipedia Commons
As most Christians know, in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the night and the day, and the birds and the fishes, and all the creatures. And, then he created man (which in our modern understanding means "humans," not just dudes). This is how the Bible starts--at the very beginning, which isn't "the" beginning at all since God is infinite and is always existing. This is merely the beginning of us humans. God created man the Catechism says out of "sheer goodness." Of all of his creations, man is the only with free will, and this enables us to choose to love God or not.

In trying to answer the question, "Why did God create man?", it would be easy to anthropomorphize him. Genesis says that God created us in his own image, and we intend to interpret that in a fairly literal sense. More specifically, we translate this statement with transitive powers: if man is like God then God is like man. Most Western religions even depict God looking like a human, albeit a generally older, wiser man (of course!) That makes it even easier to assign human emotions and motivations to Him. In different parts of scripture, He is characterized as jealous, angry, loving, compassionate, peaceful, faithful, gracious, merciful, wrathful, etc. etc. (Frankly, putting all of these adjectives together makes me think of the characteristics assigned to the pantheon of Greek and Roman gods or of other polytheistic religions.)

From there it is easy to suppose that God made man from some need to be loved or worshiped by someone who had a choice rather than just the angels. In this part of the Prologue, we see that God wants us to be close to him and to be unified with each other. Every Catholic question-and-answer site recites that man is intended to "know, love and serve" God. This answer leaves me feeling like a young child when I drove my parents crazy asking, "Why? Why? Why?" I accept that I am supposed to know, love and serve God. I really believe that is a given. But WHY does he want us to know, love and serve him? Through all of my searching and inquiries, there always seems to be another "why." We are always thirsty for the truth behind the truth. We always believe there is more to the story. But, just as our parents often ran out of responses to our incessant questioning, maybe the best answer for now is simply, "because."

I am made in the image of God, but I don't think that means I look like him. I cannot fully comprehend the nature of God and perhaps it is also equally as difficult to understand the nature of man. I have sometimes wondered if the way we are like God is that we exist in "three persons" too: mind, heart and soul--or as in the Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The fact that the Trinity is also referenced right here in the beginning of the Catechism makes that wonder even stronger. These three are united; God longs for us to be united with each other and in him. Many religions and philosophers throughout the ages and across cultures have some kind of unity at the core of their beliefs: we are all one. Sometimes these theories of one-ness include not just humanity and deities but animals, plants, minerals and the entire cosmos.

This first statement of the Catechism calls our attention to our need to be reconciled to God and with God. It is the central tenet of our faith. We may always have a surface-level understanding of God and his desires for us, but we must strive always to know, love and serve him. Perhaps even as we transition from this physical world, we may not know all of the whys, but I must trust God enough to let the answer be, "because."

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Making the Sign of the Cross via Wikimedia Commons
You can always tell when a movie character is supposed to be Catholic: at some point or another, he will make the Sign of the Cross. For those raised outside of this tradition, it was certainly a foreign act, which we perceived somewhere along the scale of silly and useless to exotic and interesting.

Making the Sign of the Cross is common among the various Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches. Albeit some cross themselves left to right (like the Roman Catholics) while others go right to left (like the Eastern Orthodox). Some Protestants (like Episcopalians, Methodists and Lutherans) also use the Sign, but it is much more closely associated with the older Christian faiths and is used more regularly among their followers.

Whether you have a Bishop or Priest bless you with the Sign of the Cross or you cross yourself, the act is what the Church calls a "sacramental." This means that it is a symbolic action that serves as a means of receiving sanctifying grace. In simple, everyday terms it is a reminder of all you have professed to believe--I've seen it referred to as a "mini Nicene Creed"--that can be used as both a blessing and a prayer.

For Catholics and some others, it is used throughout the worship service and the Mass. Most Catholics will cross themselves with Holy Water upon entering the Church and again, while genuflecting, before taking a seat in recognition of the physical presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The Celebrant will use the Sign of the Cross to bless the congregation several times throughout the Mass, especially at the end of prayers. The congregants will mirror this action by crossing themselves. They will also make a smaller Sign of the Cross over their foreheads, lips and hearts before the reading of the Gospel and will cross themselves after receiving the Host. After the Mass, most will genuflect and cross themselves before leaving their seat and one final time with Holy Water before exiting the Church.

By adriatikus via Wikimedia Commons
But what does all this arm waving mean? Like all sacramentals, the Sign of the Cross is steeped in tradition and symbolic meanings. The proper way to do it is with the first two fingers and thumb extended and touching each other represents the Trinity, while the last two fingers touching the palm signifies the dual nature of Christ as both God and Man. The movement from the forehead across the heart and down to the stomach and then from one shoulder to the other is also packed with meaning: a consecration of our minds, hearts and actions to God while tracing the ultimate symbol of Christ's sacrifice, the cross.

Of course, you don't have to be in Church to use the Sign of the Cross. Catholics are encouraged to use it to dedicate their actions to God, as a blessing on people and objects (like meals!), and as a protection against evil (since the Devil hates the Cross). So you can use it in your own prayers and at the beginning of any activity whether that's starting a new project at work, cooking dinner or playing a game of tennis. As one person posted on Catholic Answers Forum"Good gravy, when is it NOT appropriate?!?"

In my daily life, I also use it as I pray for others. I have established "reminder" cues to encourage myself to pray for the well-being of others. So, I cross myself to invoke the protection and blessing of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit when I pass a hospital or hospice where people are suffering; when I hear a siren indicating that people are in danger; when I see someone stopped by the police so that each side of that interaction may be safe; when I see a young parent walking with children that they may have all of the necessities of life; and when I see a disabled vehicle or an accident so that those impacted will be safe and will have the ability to bear the financial burden of the incident.

My Cradle-Catholic husband crosses himself at similar moments and he also uses the Sign of the Cross when passing any Catholic Church. Just as many Catholics cross themselves upon entering the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, many like my husband pause to recognize that they know the Sacrament is nearby. He will also cross himself near cemeteries to pray for the dead, especially his own parents, and to solicit their intercession on behalf of those still here.

The sacramentals and symbols of the Catholic Church are a great part of the Church's attraction for me. By using the Sign of the Cross, I am not only going one step further than just thinking good thoughts for others, I am also providing a visible sign to those who may see me. Whether in a restaurant, in my car, or on the street, the Sign of the Cross can be a powerful reminder to others that we all should draw closer to God.

For more about this topic, I recommend:

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1235 The sign of the cross, on the threshold of the celebration, marks with the imprint of Christ the one who is going to belong to him and signifies the grace of the redemption Christ won for us by his cross. 

1671 Among sacramentals blessings (of persons, meals, objects, and places) come first. Every blessing praises God and prays for his gifts. In Christ, Christians are blessed by God the Father "with every spiritual blessing."177 This is why the Church imparts blessings by invoking the name of Jesus, usually while making the holy sign of the cross of Christ. 

2157 The Christian begins his day, his prayers, and his activities with the Sign of the Cross: "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." The baptized person dedicates the day to the glory of God and calls on the Savior's grace which lets him act in the Spirit as a child of the Father. The sign of the cross strengthens us in temptations and difficulties.