Examiner.com: A fresh look at Catholicism; or, What can be learned by looking.

19 05 2009

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In the Southside of Birmingham, there are two churches which represent two different rites of Catholicism: St. Elias Maronite Catholic Church and St. George Greek Melkite Catholic Church. I have prayed with them in their respective liturgies and have found that I more deeply appreciate the heritage and the tradition which they have brought to the whole Church: the plethora of singing and chanting; the proud use of incense; the bells; the reverence and kissing (not worship) of icons and Scripture; the use of Arabic, Aramaic, and Lebanese languages; the use of all of these sacramentals creates an “atmosphere” of worshiping Someone. Though I am a Roman Catholic, I usually find that I resonate more with the traditions and approaches to Christian life, thought, and prayer of Eastern Catholicism than with that of Roman Catholicism. (This is in no way a denunciation of Roman Catholicism, nor that Eastern Catholicism is “right,” and Roman Catholicism is “wrong.” It is merely an affirmation of my resonance with Eastern Christianity – I find it to be more “home-y”.)

Thinking of these liturgical rituals (as well as Eastern Catholic “thought,” “prayer,” and the many other avenues down which one could travel) leads one to realize that there is a depth to Catholicism of which many of us are unaware (I will be forever-digging, too, it seems). There are thousands of books, teachings, and ways of life from multiple cultures (indeed, continents) which span over 2,000 years. Of the writings which I’ve had the opportunity to encounter so far (both in East and West), most can be described as nothing short of beautiful: adages of holy people and complete works, seemingly-forgotten philosophical, theological, and spiritual treatises, each of which portray how a particular person, in a particular time, and in a particular culture, strives for sanctity, that is, for union with God in this (daily-lived) life. It reminds one that there is something more to being Catholic than what is generally portrayed in the mainstream media (that is, clerical collars and bishops’ mitres mixed with conflict, misunderstandings, fear, scandal, conspiracy, authoritarianism, etc.). 

For example, whenever one hears the word “Catholic,” their mind is (often enough) immediately drawn to teachings, disciplines, and practices which are Catholic, but more accurately, Roman Catholic. That is, the average person, and, oftentimes, the average Catholic, is accustomed to associating Catholicism with its largest “branch”: the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. It is little known, however, that there are nearly 30 more rites in the Catholic Church (including the two found here in Birmingham), and, while held together in the same beliefs under the (unifying) teaching authority of the Pope, have different traditions which grew out of the times and cultures in which they originated. Some of these traditions were begun by the Apostles* themselves and continue very strongly (especially as regards the preservation of their rituals in their respective “Divine Liturgies”).

The question that I have for those who can be so critical of the Church is: how much do they really know about the Catholic Church? Following popular criticisms of Catholicism, it seems, not very much. It is often so many inflamed catchphrases and assumptive labels which usually mean nothing, but do stir some people up (for that’s what they’ve always heard). As Archbishop Fulton Sheen has said, “There are not a hundred people in America who hate the Catholic Church. There are millions of people who hate what they wrongly believe to be the Catholic Church, which is of course, quite a different thing.”

For many critics, it seems, the Church is simply the place which is visited once per week to remain in good standing before the eyes of God, that is, as a bare minimum effort which doesn’t strive to go further into living the mysteries of Christianity. For many others, the Church is simply an instrument of authority through which the masses may be controlled by “old men.”** In both of these cases, the realization that the Catholic Church is not just the Roman Catholic Church (with all of the ideas and [mis]understandings found therein) calls us to appreciate the fact that there is more which is waiting to be discovered in the life of the Christian and of the Church. (More than just those things which are often dismissively and superficially portrayed.) For the former, it speaks of an appreciation and a living of the Christian life from a different perspective, which may serve to deepen their own faith in its daily practice. For the latter also, the distancing from what is perceived to be the “Roman Catholic Church” may provide an opportunity to see the Church in a new light and from a different perspective: away from what is perceived to be “dogmas,” “rules,” and “blind obedience,” and into a fresh look at worship and reverence of the God Whom we believe to have started the Church.


* For example, the Church was founded in: Constantinople by St. Andrew, Alexandria by St. Mark, and India by St. Thomas. (As I have heard it, Rome had actually sent missionaries to India only to find out that the Church was already in that part of India and thriving.)
** And, of course, there are faithful Catholics.

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Examiner.com: On the singing of birds

10 05 2009

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About a week ago, as I was hesitantly arising from my night of sleep, I heard the birds in the tree outside of my window singing, chirping, and making other mysterious chants to the neighborhood birds. This is a normal occurrence where I live – one that is easily overlooked when going about my daily duties (such as mustering the willingness to get out of the bed). On this particular day, however, I was immediately struck with the realization that these birds are always going about their days with a tune flowing forth from their little beaks. As a matter of fact, I cannot recall a day in my life when birds weren’t making some sort of announcement to the bird community: “Hey, did you guys hear about Fred? Poor guy stood on the wrong power line,” or cooing about the longing for dropped bread. They are always bringing in the day with song, a welcoming of and participation in the adventure which is the new day. Birds, I think (or hope, for some) we would all agree, sing. It’s part of what birds do (and do faithfully).

What struck me even more strongly, however, was the realization that humans, too, were created to sing, and to sing faithfully. This does not necessarily mean vocalizing one’s song (although, as St. Augustine tells us, “he who sings prays twice”), but it does mean that we were created in order to glorify God through who we are (both as humans and as individuals) and what we do. The bird, as a bird, can do nothing other than what it was intended to do (i.e., be a bird and do bird things), and, in so doing, it glorifies (and points us to) our Creator.

We, however, having been endowed with reason and free-will, can choose to not sing. We can ignore, deny, refuse, and, really, deprive ourselves of the dignity which we have been given in having been made in the image of God and restored to His likeness in our imitation of Christ. For it is only when we live our lives in submission to the way in which we were created (i.e., human nature) that we will truly enjoy life as we were always intended to enjoy it: to its fullest. This requires that we engage the whole human person: a “composition” of body and soul. When we live our lives (Christian or not) as if there is no God, we are depriving ourselves of something which is essential to who we are, for we have been created in order to glorify God by our freely-willed actions, as birds glorify God by singing. Realizing, in our daily lives, that we have been created by God frees us to act most fully according to the nature we have been given. It is only when we open ourselves to both the seen and unseen realities (that is, reason and faith) that we are capable of realizing our potential as humans, and of what it means to be human.

The living of life without God, whether because of the belief that material things are all that really exist, or simply because it is “easier” to live life without God (i.e., as one wants), has consequences which are all too apparent in our times: the neglect of human dignity, the elevation of “humanity” as the ultimate good, the unreasonable and emotive “arguments” which are put forth in order to do what one feels he should be able to do. All of these, in their many and various manifestations, point to a loss of the vision of God (at least for the louder and more powerful of our contemporaries; it seems that the majority of average folk retain common sense or otherwise haven’t reasoned themselves into unreasonable positions).

This brings me to my point: what if the birds didn’t sing? How much less enjoyable would a morning of sitting on the porch be? How deprived would the whole of nature be without the songs of birds? (Not to mention the consequences on their species were they unable to communicate with one another.) But isn’t the same true of us? We are the pinnacle of created beings, and are capable of many great things simply because we are human. But, with our “song” removed from our lives and our actions (and from the “theatre” of the world), how much worse is the world? What if we were to act as we were meant to, to glorify God through our actions? How much more glorious and meaningful would our simple daily tasks be? How would these little “songs” resound throughout the world, the community of humanity? How much are we depriving ourselves of the joys of human life because we’re neglecting the way in which we were created?

Though I am not advocating that the world is doomed or hopeless, nor that there are no “songs” already being sung, I am convinced that were we to regain the openness to the reality and presence of God, the human family would begin to flourish (individually, communally, and globally) because of our humility. For we must first see what is true before we can order our lives according to those truths, as the bird “knows” its place and sings its song as it was created to do.





Examiner.com: On the carrying of one’s cross (in one’s pocket)

10 05 2009

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Almost a year ago now, I was given a small crucifix from a friend in Mexico. I had been searching for one to carry around with me as a reminder of Christ’s presence and the work which He has accomplished (and continues to accomplish) in my life and in the life of the world. It’s old, only about three inches long, the cross and corpus are made of the same metal, and it’s very light; it’s very convenient to carry my cross in my pocket.

This brings me to the question: “What does it mean to carry one’s cross?” Christ has told us in many ways that we must pick up our crosses daily in order to be in Him, in order to merit life in abundance in this world and in the world to come. But what does this mean in the practicalities of our day-to-day lives? What does this mean to the person who sits in the chair receiving chemotherapy? For the loved one who sits in the waiting room? For the doctors and nurses who administer these treatments? What does it mean for the person who stays at home and cleans up the dishes and takes care of the clothes? For the person who goes to work – day in and day out – carrying out what can become a monotonous routine?

It seems that the carrying of the cross, and (consequently, what makes the load of the cross “light”) is the vision of Christ throughout our lives – whether we are going through tough or “normal” times. For it is only in the vision of Christ, the vision of God, that we are able to take in the larger context of what it means to exist as a part of Christ’s body, as one of His children. In the vision of Christ, the God Who became man, we will become simultaneously aware of the larger body that exists with (and independent of) us, as well as take those events which we are facing in the light of eternity, rather than seeing only what is in front of us. For if we see things solely in the light of (or, rather, in the darkness of) ourselves without the illumination of Christ, then we will be all the more inclined to make them more important than they really are. The cross will be a heavy burden, unbearable even, when not taken up in Christ; boredom, depression, anger, anxiety: all of these terrible deprivations of human life can gain a strong grounding in our lives, eventually sucking the life (which comes from Christ) out of life.

“But,” you may ask, “what does the little pocket crucifix have to do with this?” The pocket crucifix (read: object or devotion which brings your vision to God) is a sacramental. It is a tangible reminder of eternity. It is something that I can see, touch, smell, etc.; it engages my humanity to look beyond mere appearance and think of (reflect on, be grateful for) what it signifies. It brings my mind in touch with the redemption of Christ and the blessings which flow therefrom: the words and actions of Christ, the lives of the saints, the freedom He has won, the virtue which He calls me to, the truth that I am His child. With each turn towards God, we will become gradually (surprisingly?) aware that God is, in reality, still looking at us. In fact, His gaze never ceased. His love is continuously pouring down on us; we must first see and receive in order to spread this same love, in order to carry this cross.





The Sacraments of Initiation in the Council of Trent

3 01 2009
The Sacraments of Initiation in the Council of Trent THUMB

The title of this paper turned out to be a little misleading. I was assigned this topic by my professor, and when I asked if he could recommend any sources off of the top of his head, he replied, “the Council documents would be a good place to start.” Hah. So, I did. I had also recently read Hilaire Belloc’s How the Reformation Happened, which had given me more insight into the developments which had occurred during this period of history. I soon realized that it would be impossible (and less interesting) to write this paper without taking into account the historical context.

So, borrowing from Belloc’s brilliant ability to get to the heart of the problem, I discuss the underlying problems which led the Reformers’ to act as they did; the rejection of authority because of the poor choices and behavior of some of the members of the Church, which led them in the only direction they could possibly go: to sola fide and sola Scriptura, which (as we continue to see in our own day) has as its fruit numerous “popes” and “magisteriums.” That is, because there is no longer a central authority preserving the unity of the Church in and through the Chair of Peter, we now have a multitude of “popes” and “magisteriums” handing on their version of Christianity, their interpretation of Scripture, as the “true” interpretation. This rejection of authority and necessary turn towards justification by faith alone through the individual’s interpretation of Scripture is the foundation of the rest of Protestantism. Everything Protestant rests on the above mentioned points. This will underly the rest of my arguments in this paper, from the Protestants’ positions on the Sacraments of Initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist), to the Church’s response in the Council of Trent as deliberately attacking these fundamental positions.

Although I was not terribly excited to be assigned a topic (he did give us chance to change it), this turned out to be an enlightening paper which gave me the opportunity to improve my understanding of the Reformation.

This was written in my third semester of theology at Notre Dame Seminary for The Sacraments of Initiation.





The Search for Intimacy in the Celibate Life

2 01 2009

The Search for Intimacy in the Celibate Life THUMB

A big part of my discernment in seminary was about the issue of intimacy and how it is lived out. I wasn’t for sure what I was going to write about for this class, but since: this topic had been so prevalent in my discernment, we were going through John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, and I like to write about things I’m interested in, I decided to dig into this topic and see what I could come up with. I enjoyed the research and I learned a lot about intimacy, especially through John Paul II’s beautiful work on the spousal meaning of the body.

In the paper, I look at what intimacy means, especially as viewed through its relation to the spousal meaning of the body, then I discuss the manner in which intimacy is lived out in the married life (i.e., total, exclusive gift of self to an-other), and I close by moving into how intimacy is lived in the celibate life (i.e., total gift of self to an-Other and others), finding some very interesting parallels between the two ways of life.

This was written in my third semester of theology at Notre Dame Seminary for Human Sexuality and the States of Life.





An (unexpected) change in course…

5 12 2008

After three and a half years of discerning my vocation to the priesthood, I have decided that this semester will be my last. This is not exactly the decision that I had thought I was going to make when I first entered the seminary. Upon entering (and for at least the first two years after that), I was pretty definite that after the 6 years of formation, I was going to be a Roman Catholic priest. But, that is not how things have ended up happening.

It has been an interesting road to travel down. I have learned many things, not only about myself, but also about God and philosophy and theology and other people. I have had the opportunity to make some good friends and to see a part of the Church that I had never known to exist before I entered. I can say, without a doubt, that I am excited about the future of our Church because of the quality of men whom I’ve had the privilege to meet in my time here. I am honored to have spent the past three and a half years with these guys and in this environment. God has really blessed me and revealed to me in a very awe-inspiring way the abundance of His intimate love and concern for me. He has always heard my prayers, and always answers them, even if I have no clue about how He is working in me. As I said, I thought I was going to be a priest – but God brought me here and taught me about His greatness and His complete mastery over creation; no matter the bigness of my problems, nor the problems that occur in the world – God is joyfully present and completely in control, even if we cannot see it. It’s both amazing and humbling to see how He works through our cooperation with Him – it stretches the heights of my imagination, and does not cease to inspire true fear (reverence) in me.

So, now, onto the reasons. Like I’ve already said a few times, if you’d asked me at least through my first two years whether I was going to be a priest, the answer would’ve been a “yes” without hesitation. But, there has often been a sense of not “fitting in,” even if I didn’t realize why this was so; and still I journeyed on to ordination in 2011. Before 2008, though, this began to be a continuing presence, to the point that I was often just not at peace with myself, others, nor God – but I still couldn’t put my finger on it. Some of it certainly stemmed from problems other than just discernment, but that has also been a part of my own growth here at the seminary (I, nor others, who are in seminary are perfect upon entrance, arrival, nor exit).

In January of 2008, while in Washington D.C., for the March for Life, one of my best friends at seminary disclosed that he was considering leaving the seminary at the end of the semester. I was completely shocked. He, of any person that I knew in the seminary, would have made a great priest (in my estimation). (As a side note, this same person was a great blessing in my growth in the seminary in many ways: very human, a clear thinker, well-balanced and -rounded, and apparently secure in who he was.) But, as he revealed his reasonings why he was considering leaving, I was simultaneously taken aback because I had been experiencing the same things, and even revealed that it may have been my last semester as well (simply just to take some time off). This put the bug in my ear: maybe you’re not called to be a priest. First time that that thought had really ever come into my mind. (If there’s anything I’d like to offer to those who are in discernment, it would be this: don’t close your ears, God may still be talking.)

And then discernment really began. I considered the possibility, brought it to my spiritual director, and just sort of let it stay in the background of my mind: “maybe you’re not.” As the semester came to a close, I began to feel as if I were called to the married life and the tension of “not fitting” began to ease; pieces were starting to come together. At the last Mass of the semester, after receiving the Eucharist, I was (a bit out of nowhere) at peace with the thought of that being my last semester, my last Mass at Notre Dame. But, not wanting to act rashly, and certainly not having talked to my spiritual director, I kept the path and went to Mexico for the summer as had been planned. I wanted to just put the whole “seminarian thing” out of my mind for the summer, and just be. Making this decision brought me to a peace which is hard to explain in words, but has been consistent in my conversations with people who I’ve talked to about it (and is the reason I have now decided to leave): life just flows … it fits me.

But the discernment didn’t stop there. Even though I intended to put it off for the summer, it got extremely intense, especially towards the end of the summer. I’d keep going back and forth with all of the questions; I’d answer questions that were pertinent to my discernment at the time, and then more would come. “What if?” and “I wonder what this meant?” and “I wonder what this means?” and “What is God trying to tell me?” “Am I the cause of this movement, or is God?” It was a very difficult situation to find myself in, especially when I was for so long sure that I was going to be a priest. It was because of this, I think, that guilt hit hard. “Maybe I’ve been slack, not trying hard enough, and that’s why things are going this way. Maybe you’re just focusing too much on what you want and not what God wants.” This is, I think, a bit of a dichotomy which I created (which I will deal with at the end of this post).

As the summer came to a close, I became more certain that my vocation was to the married life, but I kept going back and forth with my questioning: one part of the day I would have convinced myself about marriage, the next part I had convinced myself about priesthood. Back and forth and back and forth. It’s an extremely difficult place to find oneself in…you are constantly torn between a fundamental decision about who you are, and it just makes daily life that much more difficult when you don’t know which way to go. I’m 100% certain that Satan and his minions were having a good-old time helping me into this situation and doing their best to keep me in it, as well as try to convince me that it was just me involved in the confusion (i.e., that they had no hand in it, that they didn’t/don’t exist). But, from the beginning of my more intense questioning God was telling me to trust in Him through my difficulties, which lead me to the point in which I tried to stay for the whole of the fall semester: I have to get this off of my mind, and just live with God as His child, trusting that I will know eventually. Doing this (rather unsuccessfully many times), allowed me to come to a point of freedom and peace about the decision which was before me.

I think that it’s important to mention at this point (especially for those in discernment) that I think that it’s necessary to reevaluate the importance which we can be tempted to place on ourselves (especially in light of the culture in which we live and the shortage of priests). I do not say this simply as a projection, but in unison with observations in my years in seminary, as well as conversations which I have had over those years. I mean, it is definitely an important vocation, and the need for good and holy priests is certainly there, but I think that the temptation can sometimes be to a sort of implicit messiah-complex, where the seminarian or priest is the savior, and not Christ, Who is the Messiah and does the saving. I think that the role of the seminarian/priest can be taken out of its proper place and God is implicitly lost. It’s an issue of seeing one’s insignificance in relation to God, that He does not need us, that He chooses us and chooses to work through us. I do not at all think that it is the intention of any seminarian to replace God, but if he doesn’t keep himself in check then this could very well be the fruit. Now, I say all of that because of something which a professor told me last week: “It’s all too common that a person thinks that the decision to enter or leave the seminary is an irrevocable one,” which says a lot more than rests on the surface. The aspect of it which I want to emphasize is that it is necessary to see, as best and often as is possible, our littleness in the big scheme of things because of the vastness of God and His complete mastery over creation. In addition to this, I think it can also help us to reform our concept and living of “time,” which in this case (and especially in our culture), strives for efficiency, rather than a “wasting of time” with God. (For an excellent reflection of our littleness, I recommend Hilaire Belloc’s The Path to Rome – you will see what I mean when you get to the end.)

I went on this quasi-tangent because realizing my place before God was an important factor in my discernment, one which, when I began to incorporate it into my life, helped me to come to peace with my place and God’s ability to “get on without me,” if you will. From this realization (which I will always be in need of realizing) and the place of freedom and peace to which God has brought me, I have decided the way in which I have. The vocation to the priesthood is beautiful and is definitely worthy of aspiration – but, in my lived experience of my time in seminary (which is not limited solely to the seminary itself), I have come to discern that the vocation does not fit who I am, who God created me to be. And this is important. God wants me (quoting a priest who holds the highest of my admiration) to “be who I be,” for that’s why He created me – to “be who I be” and to allow Him to manifest Himself through “who I be,” for we all manifest a different aspect of God’s infinite-ness. (Realizing this helped me to deal with the “dichotomy” which I mentioned earlier.) In addition to this, something else popped into my head a few days ago (when I finally decided to stand by my decision), and that is something which I learned in philosophy which is crucial to Catholic thought. Grace builds on nature. In “being who I be” and not trying to “be who I don’t be,” God is most effectively able to work through me, because His grace builds on who He created me to be (for you more philosophical/theological folks: not that His grace wouldn’t be available if I were to become a priest, but that, normally, His grace builds up and brings to perfection what He intended through His creating it).

Being able to come to this position has been a long and arduous one (probably more so because of my own anxieties), but the results have been worth the struggle. I was able to grow closer to God and more aware of myself because of this increasing closeness. It is indeed a great gift to be able to “waste time” with God in discernment. Entering the seminary has been, thus far, one of the best (though not easiest) decisions of my life. Leaving it will be tough as well, but I believe it to be the right decision (despite my own fears and preoccupations). I am and will remain thankful for the rest of my life for this opportunity; like I said earlier, God does not forget a prayer, even if it doesn’t come about like you would want or imagine. He has taught me a lot in my time here (imagine the possibilities if I weren’t so hard-headed ;), and I now go back from whence I came to continue to “waste time” with God, and to see what lies in store for me in the future. In gratitude to Him, I will go about “being who I be” as His child, striving to live my life to its fullest in (and because of) Him Who loves me.

May we keep our focus on that Love which embraces us at all times as we strive to enter into that Kingdom which has no end.

Please pray for me during my transition, especially that I may be protected from the “snares of the devil.” If you would like to talk to me about any of this or would like me to pray for you, simply ask. I will pray for all of you.

God bless.





Leisure

21 08 2008

Leisure THUMB

To summarize, if I can remember it well enough myself: there has been a reversal in the “thrust” of modern man, a thrust towards work for work’s sake, to the point that all that is worthy in all aspects of life is work and there is now an almost impossibility for modern man to be at rest (in any sense of the word) – which is what the natural “thrust” is for him, anyway.

And so, I search for what it means to be at leisure, and how it is that man is truly to be at leisure: which (as you will see if you read it) is almost to my surprise that man finds true leisure only when his gaze is fixed on God. It is this – and this only – which allows man the opportunity to truly be at peace, and, consequently, at leisure, in his life.

This is probably my favorite paper which I have written since having been at NDS, both in content and in discovery.

This was written in my second semester of theology at Notre Dame Seminary for Foundations of Moral Theology II.