Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Wake Up and Hope: It’s Advent

Behind the rather daunting call for penance and self-mortification is hope. After all, when New Year’s Eve arrives, isn’t it hope that drives our laundry list of tough resolutions? For myself, I have gained the “first-year-of-marriage fifteen pounds” but it is hope that will drive my motivation to lose the weight in the future. Without hope, a person cannot have drive, cannot engage the will for the sake of self-mortification because the expected results could never eclipse the immediate sacrifice. It bears repeating: a person of great self-mortification is a person of great hope (or a person of insanity if there is no perceived good end/hope to their self-mortifications).

To be Catholic is to be a person of great self-mortification only because we are a Church of incredible and unimaginable hope! An outsider cannot see this hope and so hastily dismisses any acts of self-denial by the Catholic as purely sadistic. The Church, in her wisdom, regularly reminds us of the meaning of self-denial and urges us not to be persuaded by the lies of the world, being grounded in despair rather than hope.

Believe it or not, Advent is one such liturgical season where the Church reminds us of this particular truth of hope as the foundation for all things sacrificial. During this season of Advent we are called to take on penitential hearts. The Gospel for this Sunday’s Mass speaks precisely of this need for hope in the context of sacrifice (cf. Mk. 13.33-37). Jesus, speaking of His second coming, offers a parable about a man leaving his home and placing his servants in charge until he returns. It is the real hope in the landowner’s return that fuels the servant’s energy to remain alert and watchful until the owner returns. So too, we must maintain vigilance as our own hope awaits its fulfillment.

So then, what is the hope of Advent that undergirds the season’s call for self-mortification? It is the hope in the second coming of Jesus Christ. This is the concrete hope that all things penitential are grounded in. Why then is Advent the season for this particular hope? If the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity could take on flesh while we were in our deepest sins, how much more can we rest in the hope that He would come again now that we have been reconciled by His blood (cf. Rom. 5.6-10). This hope is so real that we may dare call it assurance, assurance of God’s love for each and every one us!

God will never abandon us! He loves us too much for that even to be a consideration. Casting away the last reason of doubt, God becomes man so that man may have the opportunity and privilege to be like God Who is love. It is God’s desire to bestow His glory upon us, to offer us the opportunity to experience perfect happiness/beatitude. If we begin to doubt we only need to look to the cross to witness God’s fidelity. We have a hope and the hope is that all things will be made right one day and that all love will be perfected through God’s infinite mercy. We can rest in confident hope that we are truly children of God.

Advent is a great season to rekindle this hope because it is the season of preparation for the coming of our savior in the flesh. If we could only see all the ramifications of God becoming man then we would fall to our knees being too overwhelmed by God’s sacrificial love for each one of us. To think that God believes in each one of us individually so much that He was willing to bet His own life on it is almost too beautiful to be true, yet it is.

So here we stand in this season of Advent and we are encouraged to ask particular questions: Are we willing to remove everything from our life that keeps us from loving God intimately? Do we believe in ourselves as much as God believes in us? Have we made the adequate preparations to receive the gift of Jesus Christ in our lives? Are we living out of the gifts God has given us for the sake of His kingdom and are we building upon them? Do we believe that the things of this world pale in comparison to God’s love for us? Ultimately, we are being called by the Church to awake from our spiritual slumber and to rekindle within our hearts a new and deeper love for Jesus Christ this season that is based in hope.

This Advent I encourage each and everyone one of us to deepen our hope in the Lord. More than adding a litany of self-mortifications, it may fair better to revaluate the hope that is within us. Where might we find opportunities for growth in hope? If our weakness is in the mind, then it may be time to dive into a book or two that may help to alleviate the frustrations in the mind. If our weakness is in the world of suffering, then it may be a good time to pick up a book and read about the many saints who suffered greatly, or to speak to someone who has been through suffering and come out with even more hope. If our weakness is rooted in our own traumas and failures then it may be a good time this season to bring these memories to Christ, asking Him to reveal where He was in those moments. My prayer for this season is that we see this parish continuing to grow in hope, a hope that will transform this community in the name of Jesus Christ. May God be Praised!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why an Immaculate Conception?

If you have been Catholic all your life, more than likely you have very few qualms concerning the Church’s doctrines (or dogmas for that matter) on Mary the Mother of Jesus. On the other hand, if you’ve spent any time “outside of the Church” Mary may have caused some mild turbulence along the journey home at best or full-fledged engine failure at worst. As for my own journey, Mary was the source of the majority of my frustrations with the Church. I’m simply grateful for God’s grace and patience toward my stubbornness that ultimately led me to a wonderful appreciation for this unique woman who mysteriously and paradoxically imbues both motherhood and virginity without having to reduce the words to metaphors! In other words, she is truly a virgin but she is also truly a biological mother. It does not get much more mysterious than that.

Mary’s Immaculate Conception is a particular doctrine that receives a large amount of criticism among non-Catholic Christians. The doctrine states that Mary, by a singular Grace through the merits of Jesus Christ, was preserved from all sin from the moment of her conception. Such a belief, to begin with, appears to be at odds with Scripture since the sacred text explicitly denotes that everyone has fallen short of the Glory of God, all have sinned and are unrighteous (cf. Rom. 3.10-11). Even if the Scriptures weren’t as explicit, the very notion that Mary received a unique and “singular” Grace smacks of arbitrary favoritism. What use to be a “Good God” now resembles my high school music teacher who would give out solos only to the ones he was “close to” and I hated that! Finally, at the end of the day who cares about some “immaculate conception.” The belief offers the Christian the same amount of theological and spiritual insight as my immaculately receding hairline.

These objections, while overstated, are valid and good for those who genuinely object for the sake of truth. Limited text-space prevents me from treating all three objections in this column (meaning there will be more columns to come on this subject). I would, however, like to offer a reflection that may begin to resolve the last two objections: that such a doctrine smacks of divine favoritism and that nothing theologically or spiritually insightful can be mined from this doctrine. The reflection begins with a Scriptural examination of the effects of God’s “Glory” on humanity.

The Glory of the Lord appears to be a painful experience. Even the holiest of men were unable to withstand God’s presence without buckling to his knees with his face in the dirt. The prophet Ezekiel was one such man who had the privilege of coming into proximity to God’s Glory (although still veiled) on a number of occasions. Apparently the sheer sight of God was too much to take causing the prophet to buckle under the weight of God’s majesty, which is an all-consuming fire (cf. Ez. 3.23; 43.2-3; 44:4). Interestingly, even objects considered sacred due to their association with God could not be touched without the consequence of immediate death (cf. 2 Sam. 6.6). Clearly, the closer one approaches the very nature of God the more one’s life may feel as if it hangs in the balance. This has nothing to do with God’s wrath and everything to do with how that which IS LOVE draws closer to that which has been tainted by sin. Nothing impure can enter Heaven not because “those are the rules” but rather because such a situation could not occur without some kind of spiritual “big bang” that does not end well for the one approaching the throne of God tainted by sin (cf. Rev. 1.17; 21.27).

Such a reflection may offer us some insight to the reason behind the Immaculate Conception. Mary’s sinlessness was not for her own sake but for the sake of the Incarnation. One can only speculate what would happen to a woman under the law of sin if she were to conceive God himself within her womb! If the Old (and New) Testament examples are any indication then we can be confident that it would have not fared well for salvation history. If objects considered sacred by mere association with God have the power to lead to the death of a sinful man, how much more deadly would the situation be of an object who happens to be divinity Himself!

St. Paul reminds us of the importance of receiving communion in a state of Grace. The Apostle writes Corinth exhorting them to approach the Holy Eucharist in a worthy manner. The evidence of his accusation is in Paul’s explanation of sudden deaths within the community of the faithful. Particular Christians were approaching the Eucharist without proper discernment and it apparently had led to physical deaths within the community (cf. 1 Cor. 11.23-26). Communion is not unlike Mary’s conception and if receiving the Eucharist unworthily can lead to such things as death, then it may be inferred with confidence that an immaculate conception seems quite fitting in light of the future fruit of her womb.

Christ, as a faithful Jew, would have obeyed the Ten Commandments perfectly. One such commandment would have been to honor his father and mother. Again, it seems quite fitting that Jesus would have honored his own mother by blessing her through her immaculate conception. Rather than divine favoritism, it is not unreasonable to believe that the Immaculate Conception was necessary for the sake of the incarnation and it is quite fitting to believe that Christ would have honored His mother in a way that only a redeeming God could do.

By no means does this column intend to prove the Immaculate Conception. Rather, the purpose is to illustrate its reasonability in light of Scripture. The next columns will examine this doctrine more directly, mining the Scriptural and historical texts to look for evidence of an Immaculate Conception. Until then, May God be Praised!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Ebb and Flow of Love

Life is dramatic. Rarely do we find ourselves resting peacefully on tranquil waters, gazing into the glassy reflection of the beauty before us. Seldom does life afford us the opportunity “to be” without interruption. Life is something that ebbs and flows. As the birthdays accumulate, we gradually come to see that the changing of life’s seasons is not to be seen as a threat to our peace but rather an opportunity for growth and self-abandonment. The turbulent waters never bestow restlessness or sin in our lives but rather reveal the darkest recesses of our heart that has gone unnoticed or ignored for far too long. I’m reminded of a great quote by C.S. Lewis: “On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is … If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man: it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am.”

The transitions and stresses of life are indispensable for the pursuit of happiness. It requires little effort to perceive the joys of life as a contribution to personal beatitude, but it is much more difficult to perceive the opportunities of joy in the turbulent waters of life. Excluding grave evils, the “ebbs” of life awaken us to our humanity. It is in these moments that we rediscover our self, for better or worse, against that of the world. It is precisely in the dissonance of life’s evils that we see ourselves NOT as a passive agent to life’s circumstances but rather as an active force that contributes to the world by asserting one’s own ‘I’ onto the world. This is precisely what it means to be human and this is something we must be reminded of often. To be human does not mean simply to receive what the world hands us. To be human is to actively assert one’s own self onto the world to make a unique and unrepeatable contribution to the world.

These ebbs of life are painful because they threaten our self-possession. These dark moments are dark precisely because they attempt to steal what is so dear to us: ourselves. Such circumstances present a crossroads by which we can either allow ourselves to be swallowed up by the pain or venture down the road of self-rediscovery. Like the rats in the cellar, the pains of life reveal that which has held us captive for far too long. It is up to us to choose whether we reclaim the cellar for ourselves or to assimilate our lives around the life of the rats.

Like life, love has its own ebb and flow but this is often something under appreciated at best and down right loathed at worst. A healthy love relationship (i.e. dating/courtship or marriage) requires two fundamental callings: a call to be united to the other and a call to remain distinctive persons within this unity. The late John Paul II termed this a relationship that embraces unity-in-distinction. Unity without distinction is assimilation (i.e. doormat syndrome) while distinction without unity is mutual appropriation (i.e. using someone merely as a means for one’s own gratification). The work of love resides directly in the pursuit of these two dimensions and it is where we discover the catalyst for the ebb and flow of love.

When I speak of the “ebb and flow” of love I refer to a particular dynamic of relationships that manifest a continuous drawing closer (flow) to one another with a subsequent drawing back (ebb) from one another. While the reasons for why one would draw near to another in love is self-evident, the reasons why one would “draw back” from the other for the sake of love is not as self-evident. One cannot deny the fact that such a distancing can be a legitimate threat to love and so should be treated as just that. On the other hand, one ought to recognize a well and needed good in such a distancing if it is done for the right reasons.

Like the ebbs of life, the ebbs of love afford us the opportunity to rediscover our self independently of our beloved. This opportunity is NOT for its own sake but rather for the sake of love. Reduced to a quest for autonomy, such opportunities quickly turn from a means of greater intimacy to a threat of love. The drawing back from one another provides a rich terrain for self-rediscovery. This reawakening (or deepening) of the ‘I’ independent of the ‘thou’ enriches the opportunity for genuine unity which is nothing more than an expression of mutual self-gift. The more one is self-aware (i.e. self-rediscovery) the more one is able to give oneself to the other. Hence, the ebb and flow of love.

Pursuing a life of self-rediscovery within a relationship can be achieved in both healthy and harmful ways. One must always seriously discern whether or not such an activity is for the good of the relationship. For instance, a married man may suddenly desire to take a spontaneous three-week trip with “the guys” to Hawaii but is such a trip good for the marriage? While the value of independence is good for the sake of love, this value must always serve love. In other words, while the value of independence must never be compromised, how one prefers to express this must always find compromise since it serves a very particular love who is your beloved. A three-week vacation may not be prudent but maybe a well-planned ahead weekend camping trip nearby might by.

As alluded above, same-sex friendships are one of the most valuable ways to maintain and enrich one’s own self. Countless are the times I have witnessed “new love” abandon all friendships through the impulse to spend every waken moment together. Such negligence only leads to problems down the road. Assimilation impinges upon the relationship which ultimately turns one person into a carbon-copy of the other. It is only a matter of time before the radically compliant partner explodes through months/years of resentment. May we all strive to cultivate and maintain healthy and holy same-sex friendships both for their own sake and for the sake of your current or future beloved! In the end, may we all journey well down the path of self-rediscovery for the sake of love; for the sake of self-gift. May God be Praised!

Friday, May 06, 2011

The Education of Love and Puzzles

(*So its been a little too long since my last column. Marriage happened! :-))

Throughout human history, culture has been grounded upon religious systems. The more civilizations clung to religion as its cultural manna, the more these respective civilizations would be, well, civilized. On the other hand, as these civilizations began to part ways with their religious heritage they inevitably began their journey toward extinction. Without a foundation, no structure can ever last!

No great civilization has been left unscathed by what we would call secularization today and the West is no exception. With our foundation uprooted, we have been forced to replace it with something less “foundational.” Media or what others may call “pop culture” has become the new foundation by which we interpret reality and instill values. It is a feeble foundation but it is a foundation nonetheless.

This “new” worldview offers us a message that is contrary to the “old regime.” The religious ideologies of yesterday appeared to squelch our freedom and particularly our freedom to love. This new ideology broke the shackles of “religious oppression” by offering a new freedom called radical autonomy. No longer was man called to deny his passions but rather was “empowered” to have unrestricted access to them. In the end, love was reduced to a human experience or an outlet for erotic compulsions. In other words, the transmission of love went from inward out to outward in; getting rather than giving.

Unsurprisingly, the new ideology’s greatest advocate has been Hollywood. Autonomy is the new virtue whereby all things are subservient. Murder can look “cool” as long as it is in the name of autonomy. If a character was forced to kill someone then we look at is as sad but in the name of autonomy it is acceptable. Love is the same way. As long as there are no responsibilities placed upon the relationship then it is a love story. If responsibility is called for it must be a self-induced responsibility since radical autonomy is the foundation for “true love.”

The influential power of the Hollywood love story has led to the demise of real love. The movies say “love just happens to you” but this simply is not so. Love “happens to you” in the same way weight loss does. Weight loss is not primarily an experience but rather an action. Similarly, love is not primarily an experience but rather an action. In other words, love must be educated.

The call for love to be educated can be seen through the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle. Each person enters a relationship with a number of puzzle pieces. Just like a real puzzle, each piece contains both “tabs” and “recesses.” These reflect our unique needs (recesses) and our unique gifts (tabs). Childish love reflects that of actual children with puzzles in that they often believe that any piece will join together with another as long as you pound hard enough. Others may even go as far as to trim their favorite piece so as to properly lock into a random piece. Mature love or educated love on the other hand recognizes that not any “tab” will lock with any “recess” and that compromising the integrity of a piece will only lead to an unstable and unrecognizable picture.

Like the child’s puzzle composed of loosely locked pieces, childish love will not survive long. Such love hangs on by a thread with only the slightest agitation needed for its demise. This love is the “gospel” of our culture. It is a love that says, “I’ll determine what you need. How dare you tell me to love you this way! You are never grateful for all I ever do for you!” This love is based on radical autonomy which ignores the unique needs of the other which ultimately denies the value of the person before you.

Slightly more mature but nonetheless incredibly irrational is the approach to trim one’s own pieces to lock into random pieces. While slightly more stable, it is nonetheless very fragile. This love is not as immediately unstable but is ultimately a time bomb waiting to explode. It is a life of complaint love which is not so much love as it is assimilation (i.e. doormat syndrome). In the end, one person is full of resentment due to a life full of compromises and self-neglect. In the same way the pieces lose their original value, so to does the compliant person. When the make-shift puzzle is finally finished the reality overwhelms them with the fact that the picture looks nothing like what was promised before the puzzle was opened. One must be cautious not to place the sole blame on the complaint person in the relationship as it take two for the compliant behavior: One who is the compliant and the other who is the enabler.

Finally, mature love recognizes that not any tab will lock with any recess. This is a difficult truth to put into practice. It requires a deep self-awareness so that one can distinguish between what is actually a gift/solution (tab) to another and what is really a need (recess) cloaked in the form of a gift/solution. Countless are the times where I have tried to fulfill a need by offering what I think is a “solution” only to find myself pounding a solution that does not fit the contours of the need. I have been accused of “not listening” when I could recall the exact conversation AND give one heck of a solution. It is only now that I realize the statement behind the statement. I was not listening to the particular need, which did NOT need a logical solution but rather a hug and a sympathetic ear.

Love must be educated. When we are acutely aware of the contours of the other’s puzzle pieces we are offered the opportunity to love in truth, the truth of the person before us. We are then empowered to fulfill needs according to the deepest needs of the other. Piece by piece we slowly contribute to the picture by maintaining our own integrity as well us upholding the genuine integrity of the other. Only in this particular pursuit of love (i.e. Christian love) will we come away with a picture that defies logic in that the total will always surpass the sum of its individual parts in truth and beauty. May God be Praised!

Friday, October 08, 2010

To Use or To Be Used: That is the Wrong Question

A student comes to me visibly hurt. She explains the unrest she has been experiencing over the past few weeks. For her, the pain is a symptom of her “selfishness” which acts as an abrasive agent to the wound. You see, the young student is striving to saturate every dimension of her life with the Gospel, including relationships. She recognizes in the core of her being that genuine relationships must exclude “using” the other for one’s own pleasure. In “using” someone, one treats the other like a consumer product which goes against the dignity of every person. We all experience free-will which is part of our human nature. When someone treats another person merely as a means to an end, the person using the other denies the other person’s freedom by “enslaving” him or her to their desires! Human experience ratifies this claim over and over through the experience of shame that arises when a person is the recipient of objectification. We are never meant to be merely a satisfaction to someone else’s pleasures; we are so much more than this!

It may seem good to conclude that this particular student has a mature grasp of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and how it ought to influence relationships. If that is true, why the unsettled soul and visibly manifested hurt? She has correctly turned away from the hedonistic lifestyle, so we must look at exactly what she has turned toward to understand the source of her pain.

I was most interested in her self-evaluation of being “selfish.” When I asked her to comment on her feelings she responded she was having a difficult time disregarding her own needs/wants for the sake of “the good of the other.” When I asked her to give an example, she immediately spoke about a particular friend who was constantly “needing help” but that this friend would never be there for her in times of need. Instead of talking to her friend about this, she simply suppressed the “negative feelings” calling them selfish and sinful since a Christian “ought to give without asking for return.” It was at this moment that I discovered the source of her pain. The source of pain was not due to the Gospel being lived out in her life, but rather from living a distorted view of the Gospel commonly referred to as radical altruism.

Radical altruism is a belief that one ought to deny one’s own values and pleasures for the sake of the good of the other. While this sounds Christian at first glance, it is as deadly of a belief as hedonism. All one needs to do is look to Peter Singer, an “ethicist” at Princeton University, to recognize this danger. For Mr. Singer, the idea that an individual would push his or her own personal value systems and beliefs on to a suffering person is outlandish. For Singer, the solution is simple: sometimes you should kill the suffering person and end their misery and don’t worry about what you think about it.

While Peter Singer may be an extreme example of radical altruism, it is an example nonetheless and it illustrates the pitfalls of such a belief. Thankfully the young student had not taken her radical altruism that far. Rather, the source of her pain came from allowing herself to be used by others. The irony of it all was that she established relationships with others that expressed the very thing she denied: that no person may be an object of use … except for herself apparently!

If hedonism and radical altruism both lead to the same grave end (a person being used), then is there any alternative? The answer is yes! The wisdom of the Church has maintained a philosophy that has given birth to the most passionate people in the world and the most giving people in the world. We typically call these people saints. They neither live a life of hedonism nor feel compelled to suppress the desires of their heart for the sake of the good of the other.

The late John Paul II has given this philosophy of life a name: The Personalistic Norm. In short, this norm speaks of the need for each relationship to subordinate the value of ones own pleasures to the value of the person you are in relationship with. John Paul is adamant to note that this does not mean to eradicate ones own pleasure, but to subordinate them. In other words, while the value of pleasure is real and good, those pleasure should not exceed (in value) the value of the actual person in front of you. Once that happens, the relationship risks turning into a relationship of utility (or mutual utility).

This is precisely what Christ speaks of when He speaks of the life He is about to offer for the sins of world. He does not offer His life merely for the good of the world, but rather He offers his life to the world feely and in accordance with the desires of His own heart (cf. Jn 10.17-18). How often do we ignore our own desires for the “sake of the good of the other” or how many times do we listen to our own desires over that of the needs of the others? Both experiences are twisted and in need of redemption.

How often do we, like the student I spoke with, give to the point where we are on the verge of breaking? This is a sign of a life lived in radical altruism. How often do we consume to the point that we feel like we no longer have control over our own life? This is a sign of a life lived in hedonism. Ideally we are called to seek the good of the other in such a way that it is always in accordance with the desires of our own heart. Such an integrated life is rarely perfectly expressed but we must always strive to at least appreciate the value of the person more so than our own pleasures. Only through a life submitted to Christ and His Holy Church will we be able to experience the life we were created to live; a life that perfectly integrates our passions and our love and respect for every person we meet. May God be Praised!