Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How I Know I'm Catholic

It has been three months since my women's retreat and (second) return to Catholicism.  I have been dutifully reading Scripture, attending church events, actively participating in Mass, and praying (though this last one leaves much to be desired).  I know that having been away for 18 months, I may need another 15 months of actively being religious in order to feel religious, but as it stands, I'm not convinced.

I wrestled so much with self-labeling during my last time away.  What makes a person Catholic?  I now have the answer.  Two things: the reception of the sacraments of initiation (baptism, confirmation, Eucharist), and self-identifying as Catholic.  Both of these must be present for a person to be Catholic.  Now, they may be practicing, devout, or schismatic or heretical, but Catholic they are nonetheless.

Without the sacraments, a person is at best an aspiring Catholic, someone perhaps going through RCIA in the conversion process.  Or perhaps they are merely aligned spiritually and theologically with Catholicism but do not desire official membership in the church.  On the other hand, someone who has received all the necessary sacraments who no longer self-identifies as Catholic, either because they have switched membership to another faith or abandoned faith all together, cannot be said to be Catholic either.

With this in mind, I do not intend to leave Catholicism again.  That said, I am finding my way - spiritually, morally, and theologically - within the tradition of Catholicism.  I am no longer concerned about what other mortal and sinful Catholics think about my self-identity as Catholic.  I am interested in finding meaning for my life, which I am most comfortable doing from the narrative of Catholicism.  Where I am currently with that is the transition from a literal to a figurative understanding of Catholic teaching, in particular theology.

I learned during my last hiatus that I need religion.  I need a religious identity.  I need a religious community.  I need that guidance, that framework, that foundation.  But I am not interested in checking my reason at the door.  I do believe I must abandon my will in order for Christ to live in me, but this is only done in the minute details of daily discernment, not across the board.  The latter would simply replace my own interpretation of the faith with that of others.  I believe God is more nuanced than that.  God meets us where we are, I keep hearing.  God does not offer mere off-the-rack uniform answers to everyone's questions.  God customizes His plan for each of us.

Moving forward, this is what I have to say about my Catholic identity:  I may question the virgin birth, the literalness of the resurrection and ascension into heaven.  I may take with a grain of salt various miracle stories, both from the time of Jesus and the age of the Church.  I may disagree with some of the social teachings of the Church to varying degrees.  And yet, I am Catholic.

This is what a common, every-day, imperfect yet hopeful Catholic looks like.  Take it or leave it, but if everyone who wastes their breath on condemning my self-labeling as false would instead spend that effort on bettering themselves, they'd be that much closer to the kingdom of God.  Don't worry about the speck in my eye - first remove the plank from your own eye, people!  (Mathew 7:5)  I can't believe I've allowed others to keep me from walking hand in hand with my Maker, on our own terms. This is what works for our relationship.  Be happy that I am still seeking God.  Many others are run straight into the ground with the naysayers and holier-than-thous who miss the entire point of Jesus's ministry.

I think the best thing I can do is start from the beginning.  I'm a newbie.  I'm no theologian, no saint, no biblical scholar.  I'm just a person looking for meaning in my life, hoping to leave the world a bit better than how I found it, and I want to do so with the help of Catholic tradition, ritual, and scholarship.  I'm no better - and no worse - than any other Catholic.

With this statement, I stand convicted of the times I have indeed judged fellow Catholics as not living up to the Catholic ideal, whatever that may be.  I had the certainty of literal faith for a time, but I let it elevate my self-importance.  Now I am reminded that faith is a gift from God, and I am grateful for whatever kind of faith I am given.

Thank you Lord for meeting me where I am.  Always.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Transcendent Interpretation of the Resurrection

When considering Judaism around this time last year, I attended a series of talks at a synagogue. There, I learned about how Jews approach the Torah from various levels of interpretation.  Literal is but one level, and the least important.  It has been hard to try to wean myself off the very literal evangelical interpretation of Christianity.  I so wish my Catholic formation had been more thorough and complete.  But I digress.

I have been stumbling around to find some teaching, some class, some workshop, some video, someone other than me who considers themselves to be Catholic, yet looks at our faith through the eyes of a more spiritual (and hence less literal) lens.

The resurrection, for instance.  I've struggled with this, as many people do.  It seems that on the surface, to call myself a Christian, I must accept this one cornerstone of the faith of Jesus.  That He literally died, and then on the third day, He literally came back to life.  And yet, even the New Testament alludes to the fact that while His old body was gone from the tomb, the new body that witnesses came in contact with was somehow different.  Transformed.

In last week's Discovering Christ small group, I offered that I thought the resurrection is important because it provides proof for what Jesus taught about Himself and the Kingdom of God.  But I'm not actually sure I buy it myself.  I'm perfectly happy to accept Jesus's teachings without a literal, physical resurrection.  What's much more resonant with me is a more figurative interpretation instead.

Jesus pre-resurrection lived as we normally do, albeit without sin.  His body was identical to ours in terms of the bodily functions, internal organs, sensations, etc.  Through His crucifixion, He humbled Himself before God to the point of death.  He literally emptied Himself of any remnants of wanting justice, fairness, appreciation, or even just the escape from physical and mental torment.  He distanced Himself from all that was happening to Him, uniting Himself instead with God's ideals of mercy, forgiveness, hope, transcendence.

As the story goes, His old body was never found.  Instead, His followers saw Him again, yet in a new body.  They recognized His personality, something that reminded them so intimately of the Jesus they broke bread with, yet He was not in the same body.  The body He was in did indeed bare the markings of His crucifixion, proof of His having overcome the old.  But his new body did not need to have been the same crucified body in order to have these markings. (Think the stigmata.)

When we dream, we likewise are convinced of having come in contact with some specific person, often seeing them do what we would normally expect a person to do (like eating).... but we often also see them doing things we know are not of this world (like flying). I'm of the opinion that our deceased loved ones do visit us in our dreams, and having had these experiences myself, I find it just as real as any other encounter, just not tied to my physical presence.

Perhaps Jesus's post-resurrection body was/is a sort of hologram.  We know from emerging quantum physics that solid objects that appear perfectly still are actually made up of constantly moving molecules.  We know this as fact from science, and yet our day to day experience insists that the table doesn't move, that there is a definite beginning and end to it.  But on the quantum level, things aren't as black and white at all.

So Jesus appearing to His followers post-resurrection in a dream-like state is something I can actually relate to. Why does this have to make the importance of His resurrection any less than if it were literal?  I am perfectly content knowing and believing that after this life, I will continue on in some form.  I am not at all attached to the idea that I want eternal life in this body.

What's important about the resurrection is that there is life - a transformed life - possible after even the most dire, hopeless, wretched experiences.  Death itself is no barricade to the life that is possible for those who fix their sights on the Divine.

When we get down to it, the resurrection is about hope.  Jesus's entire ministry was about bringing hope to those who felt lost and abandoned by the social system of the day.  Jesus said He came to seek and save the lost, that it was the sick who needed a doctor.  It is the sick - spiritually sick - who needed to hear that they too had hope for a better future.  They are the ones who need to be reassured that no matter what lies they've been fed over the years, they are not destined to be tied to their mistakes.  They are not one and the same with their wrongdoing.  They are more than the mere experiences and actions that have shaped their personality.  They can leave all of that behind and start anew.

This is a free gift, one that God offers to anyone who wants it.  All we have to do is acknowledge that indeed, we are not who we have thought that we are.  That we are children of the light, and that we want to walk in the light of Christ.  Christ, our example, who didn't just teach us this truth through His parables, but Who taught us through His very actions, living out what is important, utterly despising and ignoring that which isn't.  To the death.  Because death is no big deal to one who is enlightened and inspired by the Source of the Universe.  Death is a mere sleep.  Death is simply a passage way.  Death is a birth to eternal life.

Those of us who fear death are attached to this current life.  No matter what we may say, deep down, we aren't convinced of an ongoing consciousness on the other side, so we hold on to the only thing we do know.  But Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God turns everything upside down.  The first will be last and the last will be first.  The sorrowful will be comforted, and the meek shall inherit the Earth.  In a word, life - true life, at its deepest meaning - is not the way the world sees it.

So yes the resurrection is the cornerstone of our faith, because when understood correctly, it gives us what nothing else on Earth can - it gives us hope.  And with hope, all things are possible.  With hope, we can stop living "up to" human expectations, and take our rightful place at the feet of Jesus, our mentor and savior, the one who took onto Himself all of our garbage and dirty laundry, so that He could reveal what was underneath.  He wants us to be like Him.  He wants us to be united with Him the way He is united with the Father.  And He showed us that it is possible, no matter what the naysayers may say.  He is the way to the Father.  He is the truth of freedom and peace and joy. He is the life of hope.

There is need of only one thing, Jesus told Martha when she complained about her sister who wasn't helping her around the house.  Mary was at the feet of Jesus, learning from Him how to live a life of hope, how to abandon the cares of this world, how to fix her gaze on her savior.

I used to ask, what did Jesus save me from?  I mean, sin, I get it.  But I just always believed that if God is all-merciful, He loves me even in my sin.  Not that He is OK with me continuing down that path of resistance, but I honestly never feared hell.  I never thought of myself as a saint, but I didn't think that was necessary.  As long as I believed I wasn't going to hell, I had no real reason for religion.

Except that now I understand.  God wants so much more for me and my life than what I have given myself credit for!  It's not enough for God to simply keep me out of the proverbial hell.  He wants me at His side!  He wants to share His wisdom with me!  He wants to give me His peace!  He wants me to have true freedom and real joy, both in this life and forevermore!  And the only reason I know that is because Jesus came to show me that this was the case.  Therefore, my potential transcendence from mediocrity to spiritual greatness, to a life of peace and joy, is only available thanks to Jesus.  In this sense, Jesus saved me from myself.  He saves me from my negativity, from my complacency, from my despair.  He saved me in order for me to put my gifts to good use.  He wants me to work with Him to build up His Kingdom.

There is a John Lennon song, Imagine, that says, "imagine all the people living life in peace".  I've always loved that song.  I did get tripped up by the lyrics, "imagine there's no heaven.... and no religion too".  But now I see that religion is a mere social convention, a human tool to help us navigate the spiritual world.  It's actually not necessary.  Union with God is possible without rites and rituals, dogmas and creeds.  But most people do need those, and so I wouldn't necessarily throw out religion.  But as John Lennon says, "imagine" - a world where people are living a Christ-like life even without religion.

Jesus didn't hold fast to His own religion; He transcended it!  My goal in life should not be to be a good Catholic, or even a good Christian.  My goal should be a life patterned on the life of Jesus.  And that means attention to detail, an ongoing examination of every thought and word and deed and omission.  This purpose-driven life cannot be replaced with mere creeds or rites.  Following Jesus means discerning God's purpose for our lives, every single day.  This is praying without ceasing. This is the one thing that is necessary.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Lectio Divina Gospel of Luke

Below are the verses that jumped out at me over the past month or so of time spent with the Word of God in the Gospel of Luke.  Underneath, I list the parts of these verses that resonated with me in particular, and then I try to make sense of the conversation that is unfolding between God and me.

Luke 1:4 "So that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received."
Luke 2:35 "So that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed."
Luke 3:8 "Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance."
Luke 4:36 "They were all amazed and said to one another, 'What is there about his word?  For with authority and power [Jesus] commands the unclean spirits, and they come out."
Luke 5:5 "Master, we have worked hard all night and have caught nothing, but at your command, I will lower the nets."
Luke 6:40 "No disciple is superior to the teacher, but when fully trained, every disciple will be like [the] teacher."
Luke 7:24 "What did you go out to the desert to see?"
Luke 8:10 "[Jesus] answered, 'Knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God has been granted to you.'"
Luke 9:23 "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me."
Luke 10:41-42 "You are anxious and worried about many things.  There is need of only one thing."
Luke 11:33 "No one who lights a lamp hides it or places it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp stand so that those who enter might see the light."
Luke 12:8 "Everyone who acknowledges me before others the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God."
Luke 13:24 "Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough."
Luke 14:11 "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
Luke 15:7 "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance."
Luke 16:13 "No servant can serve two masters.  He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon."
Luke 17:5 "And the Apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith'."
Luke 18:1 "Then [Jesus] told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary."
Luke 19:10 "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost."
Luke 19:46 [Jesus said] to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be a house of prayer.'"
Luke 20:36 They can no longer die, for they are like angels; ad they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.
Luke 21:38 And all the people would get up early each morning to listen to Him in the temple area.
Luke 22:41 After withdrawing about a stone's throw from them and kneeling, He prayed.
Luke 23:42 "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Luke 24:45 Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.

Certainty of the teachings
thoughts of many hearts
evidence of your repentance
with authority and power [Jesus] commands
but at your command, I will
when fully trained, every disciple will be like [the] teacher
What did you go [...] to see
Knowledge [...] has been granted to you
deny himself and take up his cross daily
There is need of only one thing
so that those who enter might see the light
acknowledges me before others
strive to enter through the narrow gate
one who humbles himself will be exalted
joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
no servant can serve two masters [...] You cannot serve God and mammon.
Increase our faith.
pray always without becoming weary
For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save
My house shall be a house of prayer
hey are the ones who will rise
Get up early each morning to listen to Him
Kneeling, He prayed
Jesus, remember me
He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.

Luke's gospel hasn't been as clear to me as was Mark's.  I do see the Lord trying to offer me the wisdom and understanding that I am seeking in terms of the spiritual life, and hinting at how to receive it.  To show proof of my repentance, I am to do what Jesus commands, seek Him in the desert (retreat), deny myself and take up my cross daily, acknowledge Him before others, strive to enter through the narrow gate, humble myself, choose between God and whatever else is taking the focus away from Him, and pray a lot!

In return, the Lord is offering me the certainty that His teachings are true and will reveal the thoughts of many hearts, that He has the authority and power to command unclean spirits even, that He is willing to train me as His disciple, that I can receive the knowledge of the mysteries of the Kingdom of God, that I can be an instrument of His grace for others to see the light, that I can be assured of the joy in heaven over my repentance, that my faith can and will increase, because Jesus came to seek and to save me from the lost state I am in.

It seems to me that for now, I am being told to stay the course and trust God to reveal Himself and His ongoing plan for me in His own time.  I am not to make demands on God before agreeing to commit to Him.  I have to sit in my discomfort and await God's next move.

There was a beautiful prayer in a little red book, Hearts Ablaze-Praying with Jesuits, that talked about just this.  But in my minimalist fervor coupled with my time away from the Church, I gave away that book.  I guess life is full of regrets, big and small, but God - Jesus covers it all.  As He says in Luke 10:42, "There is need of only one thing."  Curiously, He says this to Martha, who was complaining to the Lord about her sister Mary.  This was the theme on my women's retreat that brought me back into the fold.

There is need of only one thing.

What is that one thing?

Faith?  Prayer?  Repentance?

That is what I hope will be revealed to me in the second half of Luke's gospel.  All three are needed, I know, but which is the foundation?

I initially divided this post into two parts (hence two quotes from Luke 19), because the second part started with the Passion Narrative.  My questions from above were immediately answered as I began to take notes for the remaining verses.  The one thing needed is prayer!  Everything else flows from a life of prayer.  Faith comes from a life of prayer.  Repentance is the result of a prayerful attitude towards God. Virtues come from daily prayer.  Joy and peace come from prayer.  How does one have faith without prayer?!  Who repents for their wrongdoings without first spending time in prayer, where they are convicted of their sin?  At least prayer makes it easier and more obvious to repent.

And so I am convicted to spend more time in prayer.  I honestly don't really think of my time in Lectio Divina as prayer.  Or maybe prayer-lite.  It's reading, so it's enjoyable to me, and it easily becomes an intellect activity.  But at a recent church talk I also realized I wasn't incorporating an aspect of Lectio Divina that I should've.  Namely, I haven't been using my time with Scriptures as an opportunity to enter into the story in a contemplative manner.  So as I begin with the next gospel, I shall do so.

For every problem I have, I should turn to prayer.  For every frustration, prayer.  For every disappointment, prayer.  For every doubt, prayer.  For every sorrow, prayer.  For every pain, prayer.
But also, for every reminder of grace, I should turn to God in thanksgiving prayer.  For every day, prayer.  For every encounter with a kind person, prayer.  For every moment spent with my daughter, prayer.  For every conversation had with my husband, prayer.  For every time I find a redeeming quality in someone, myself included, prayer.  Pray without ceasing - St. Paul said that for a reason, eh?  It's the narrow gate that Jesus spoke of, isn't it?

Let us pray...

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Idealism and Regret

We anguished over whom to choose as Maya's godparents for a long time.  We hurt my mother's feelings by not choosing her or any other family members.  We chose a long time friend who had proven to love Catholicism and was happy to discuss her faith - something we wanted for Maya, someone to go to for faith questions as she grew up.  We also chose a new friend from church, a secular Franciscan.  He was super Catholic, involved in all the causes we cared about.  He was also ethnically Latino, and it was important for me that Maya have a non-White godparent.

And yet, soon after her baptism, I began to doubt and regret our decision.  I had consulted various people and researched how people choose their kids' godparents.  I didn't want it to be an honor.  I wanted someone who we felt was qualified to provide a strong faith foundation and to hold us accountable for raising our daughter Catholic.  And yet, the first thing to go was contact with the godfather.  Once we moved out of state, in spite of repeat attempts to contact him, send photos, remember him on father's day, getting a text back was a toss up.  He did manage to attend Maya's first birthday party, which was held near all of our old friends and relatives.  I thought there was hope yet.  But there's been no contact with him since.  He's assured us of his daily prayers for his goddaughter, and as a secular Franciscan, I believe him.  But I was hoping for their relationship to be more practical, more earthly than just spiritual remembrance.

Maya's godmother also turned out to have a different view of her role than we did.  Her goddaughter was not invited to her wedding.  Both Alex and I were in the wedding - I as a bridesmaid and Alex as an usher, but Maya just wasn't supposed to show up.  Only family kids, she said.  Two issues with that - one, I assumed being her goddaughter, she counted as family, but apparently not.  And two, she was only 8 months old, so wouldn't be running around or eating any of their food.  I was forced to pry myself away from my daughter for the first time and leave her with my sister-in-law in the hotel as I attended the wedding.  And now that Maya's godmother had a baby of her own, we were looking forward to being at said baby's baptism.  Only we just got word that it may be "family only".  

As for accountability - Alex and I must hold each other accountable.  Neither of the godparents were there when I left the church during my postpartum period.  One was too absent to even know I was suffering a crisis of faith, and the other - in spite of knowing - did not do or say anything to help ensure that her goddaughter was still being raised in the faith.

I am pissed at myself for trying to idealize what the godparent role is supposed to be.  I wanted better godparents than Alex and I had.  I wanted involved godparents, additional people who would be "like family".  I wanted to extend Maya's circle of love and influence, especially when it comes to faith.  But instead, I ended up building an awkward wall between me and my mother, and having dashed expectations with both of Maya's godparents.

My godparents were my maternal grandfather, on whose behalf my grandmother always bought gifts and remembered special occasions, and my mom's sister.  My grandfather/godfather happened to be visiting us in the US when I was confirmed, and so I chose him as my sponsor.  But it was a matter of convenience, since we didn't know other Catholics.  My aunt/godmother told me after my wedding that her job as godmother was now done.  As if she had done anything in regards to my faith formation.  She didn't even attend my wedding.

I wanted better for Maya.  But it looks like it was a pipe dream.  I meant well, yet sometimes the best of intentions do not make up for the rotten impact of a decision.

As we consider the possibility of adding another child to our family, my number one concern is having to choose godparents yet again!  I'm pretty much at a point where I will just leave the decision up to Alex and hope for the best.  No matter what I decide, I no longer believe that I can ensure that my kids have certain relationships with certain people.  I suppose we can call it a lesson learned and move on.  I suppose that's the only thing we can do.  Dwelling on regret isn't going to change what is. 

What's important is that Maya was baptized and is being raised in Christ's one, holy, and apostolic catholic church, something that always was and always will be the sole right and responsibility of her parents.