Author Archives: Greg Camacho

About Greg Camacho

Greg Camacho is the Media Assistant at the Pilgrim Center of Hope, including projects related to social media and Catholicism Live!. The Pilgrim Log is the blog of the Pilgrim Center of Hope, a Catholic evangelization ministry, providing weekly spiritual reflections to help you journey toward a deeper relationship with Christ. Learn more about the Pilgrim Center of Hope by visiting www.pilgrimcenterofhope.org.

Christianity as Human Story

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“The Burning of the Darkness” by Nicholas Roerich

The late great French intellectual Rene Girard is known for developing an anthropological philosophy around a few key ideas. The most famous of these are the fundamental roles of mimetic desire and scapegoating in all societies.

Mimetic desire is the concept that human beings, aside from natural instincts, learn to desire what we see other people desiring. This idea–that we want what other people want–is not new, but Girard places it at the center of human life, and so reframes the way we understand the working of human relationships, from the interpersonal to the societal.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with Christianity, bear with me. That’s coming up fast. Girard observed that this basic motivation creates competition and rivalry whenever two alike people end up desiring an object that cannot be shared. The tensions that result tend to erupt in violence, which threatens the fabric of communities that depend on peace and stability.

Here’s where Girard’s second basic notion of scapegoating enters. Looking at literature and history from societies around the world, he observed that when tensions threatened to drown communities in their own violence, inevitably and unconsciously, they chose either one person or a particular type of people to transfer their animosities to. In other words, they substituted a scapegoat who would suffer for the collective violence in the hearts.

And because this was an unconscious transfer, the resulting catharsis would be so baffling that it occurred to the people that their violence must have been planned by a divine being. It must have been a kind of sacrifice that the gods were teaching them to repeat, and the ritualization of this violence was believed to serve a social purpose: to keep the peace, to insure rains for their crops, to keep the sun happy, etc.

Likewise, by deeming a certain kind of sacrificial violence as sacred, it made it possible for societies to express their thirst for violence without tearing one another apart. Only one or a few people had to die, and doing so they would “save” everybody from the same fate.

Does this sound familiar yet? You may recall this passage from John’s telling of the Passion of Christ (Jn 11:45-53):

Now many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and said, “What are we going to do? This man is performing many signs. If we leave him alone, all will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing, nor do you consider that it is better for you that one man should die instead of the people, so that the whole nation may not perish.”

Some might read this and think that Rene Girard was an atheist trying to debunk Christianity, or explain it away as just one myth among many similar others. The truth is quite the opposite: Girard was a devout Catholic convert, who saw the genius of Christianity in turning this dark dynamic on its head.

In relationships where mimetic rivalry leads to violence, and especially where the restrictions of society channel violence onto more acceptable victims, the constant delusion is that the recipients of violence somehow deserve their fate. They must have had it coming to them, and they must be punished so that peace–the illusory peace “as the world gives” that Christ disregards (Jn 14:27)–would reign with righteousness restored to the community.

Girard sees this dynamic throughout human societies, from ancient myths to the modern world. In the Bible, however, this delusion of a guilty victim is repeatedly unmasked, leading up to the ultimate revelation of the innocence of scapegoats in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

We see, for example, that jealousy leads Cain to kill his brother Abel. Mimetic desire at work: Cain wanted to please God with his sacrifice, as Abel had pleased God. But where Greek and Roman tragedies end with the hero’s tragic flaw resulting in his demise, Abel is presented as a truly innocent victim. And even Cain, who is guilty of murdering his own brother, is saved by God from mob justice. Despite God’s outrage (“What have you done? Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground!”), the Lord “put a mark on Cain, so that no one would kill him at sight” after banishing him from his home (Gen 4:10,15).

In the story of Job, we see the accusations of guilt on account of his sufferings by his so-called friends. “Reflect now,” Eliphaz says, “what innocent person perishes? Where are the upright destroyed? As I see it, those who plow mischief and sow trouble will reap them,” (Job 4:7-8). But despite wavering under immense grief, Job holds firm to the knowledge of his innocence and fast to his trust in God. In the end, God rewards him with wealth beyond his losses.

There are other biblical stories centered on innocent victims whose faithfulness bears fruit. Joseph, whose brothers sold him into slavery, eventually became a magistrate of Egypt whose gift for prophesy saved many from starvation. When his brothers came to collect grain for their family, it was Judah’s self-sacrificial offer to stay in place of his brother that impressed Joseph, and led to his rewarding the whole lot.

Rather than focusing on punishments as a means to achieve justice–which Girard says is the mask people place on the process of mimetic rivalry and scapegoating–God, through the prophets and ultimately in Christ, says, “If you want to help restore the balance, if you want to bring true peace and reconciliation, be imitators of me. Be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect, merciful as he is merciful. Take up your cross, those obstacles to love, and follow me. I love you. I am not your rival.”

The spotless One who sacrificed himself for our sake and, as Hans von Balthasar said, is so fully alive that he can afford to die, did die so that our self-sacrifices would unfasten our closed selves to receive his divine life. His grace is what opens up the dramas of life, so that they arc toward infinite, eternal life.

The life of Christ, indeed, is so attractive in its vibrancy and compelling in its breadth, that those who embody the Gospel evangelize by their own depth of life. Their stories are more than tragedies or comedies or morality plays. They’re love in flesh and blood. They’re sacrificial deaths and resurrections. They’re little gospels. They’re little bodies of Christ.

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If you would like to know more about how the saints mirrored Christ, consider joining us for an Afternoon Tea With the Saints at the Pilgrim Center of Hope! Enjoy tea and cookies, and a conversation about St. Josemaria Escriva on June 16th at 2:00 pm. Click here for future dates.

From “Do not touch me,” to Wounded Healer

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Easter Sunday was a little over two weeks ago, but we’re still in the Easter Season. This means you can eat as much candy as humanly, even professionally possible until Pentecost. It also means we still get to savor the triumph of Christ’s Easter resurrection in a liturgically focused way.

The Reaction

That said, there’s one small detail about the Easter narrative that always holds my curiosity until well after the celebrations have ceased. When Mary Magdalene, the first witness of Christ’s resurrection, turned startled toward him outside the tomb, she was understandably overjoyed. She must have thrown her arms around him, because Jesus surprisingly told her, “Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father.”

Do not touch me? From Jesus? Just a few days ago, Mary Magdalene was anointing his head with oil. Christ even rebuked Judas, who objected that the oil should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Why, in the midst of Mary’s exuberance, would Jesus rebuff her touch?

It Takes Time

Jesus offers the explanation, “I have not yet ascended to my Father,” but I wonder if that was only because he thought his wounds would be less sensitive in Heaven. Perhaps his wounds–though glorified in his resurrected body–were still too tender to be touched. In fact, after some time passes, Jesus invites Thomas to place his hand inside his open wounds.

Jesus is fully human as well as fully divine, and it’s human nature to need some time after suffering a trauma for the pain to become less raw. Like Jesus, Christians are called to become wounded healers–people whose wounds become glorified pathways of healing for others. But not right away! Not right after the wound is inflicted. Like Christ, we often need time to process the pain, to manage its lingering effects, to gradually have our experiences take on a deeper meaning that we can then share with others.

If you are suffering from a past or ongoing trauma, consider seeing a Catholic therapist that can help you heal from the damage and turn your wounds over to the Divine Physician. God desires our healing, our joy and our wholeness in Him. CatholicTherapists.com has a useful search engine that can find a professional Catholic counselor near you. To learn more about various topics in relation to Catholicism, visit CatholicismLive.com.

 

 

R.I.P. David Bowie

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Yesterday, I read the morning news with palpable dread: rock legend David Bowie had died.

I was late to love his music, first introduced to Bowie at age 15 via the soundtrack covers in the 2004 Wes Anderson flick, The Life Aquatic. Even cooled by the unclad, mellifluous strumming and voice of Seu Jorge, the essence of Bowie blinked through: searing pain, open-veined longing, and a fearless dazzle in the dark.

After college, I picked Bowie up directly after hearing “Rebel Rebel”. I fell quite flatly for the alien mystique of Ziggy Stardust, one of the alter egos Bowie took up throughout his musical career. There was something rigorously, honestly cool about this man, this character, who could pretend to be from outer space, on a mission to share rock ‘n roll with the waiting coasts of the world. Completely out there. And yet the focus of his music was always other people’s lives. His art expressed the anxieties and flops, and yearnings, of the denizens of Earth.

Immediately after Bowie’s death, praise began to circulate with an emphasis on his out-there-ness. Simcha Fisher at Aleteia admitted that, in fact, Bowie’s extraterrestrial persona was never what she appreciated about his music:

“That voice. Alien? No. It sounded like wood weathered to silver by the ocean; it sounded like steel corroded into intricate designs; it sounded like crazed glass that had cracked but not shattered. Pain and anger and weariness and wit — these are not alien or martian or otherworldly. They are human, and so was he.”

In a world of hackneyed artists, David Bowie’s songs had nothing of the poisonously insipid malaise that makes up so much of mainstream culture. The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano paid tribute to Bowie, calling him artistically rigorous and “never banal”.

The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, tweeted fitting lyrics from Bowie’s song Space Oddity:

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Is it crazy that I find Jesus Christ in this? No. Christ is the most sublime, transcendent. He entered the world from eternity, from glory unfathomable, from the very arms of the Creator–and he became human. “Pain and anger and weariness and wit” – these are things that describe Christ’s life. Shaped in the waters of Mary’s womb, his bones would become pressed to the point just before breaking, for our sake.

For love of us, Christ carried our agony and angst, our nostalgia for a world of seamless joy and peace, and then poured that love out for everyone on the cross. I believe some of that love entered into David Bowie, and made his art possible.

Perhaps Kristen Walker Hatten said it best when she wrote,

We are all creators, because we were made by a Creator, and He made us something like Himself. David Bowie … took his pain and loneliness and … his experience on this planet and made it Art. He made Music. He was a human. He tried to be on this earth in a way that was beautiful and made sense. … This sinner created beauty on earth that wasn’t here before he got here, and he shared it with the whole world, and he let us all see his pain and loneliness and brokenness and weirdness so we would feel a little bit better about ours.

To take a little bit of pressure off us. Was David Bowie a saint? No. But he was a soulful weirdo, a beneficent genius, an incredible showman. He was a child of God who worked tirelessly to give his audience the gift of good music up until the very end. He died of cancer two days after releasing his latest album, Blackstar.

That same day, his wife Iman posted an image to her Instagram with the words, “The struggle is real but so is God.” Indeed. Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace, Starman. Amen.

The Pilgrim Center of Hope works constantly to help those who are seeking the light of Christ, especially those most in need of hope. One way of doing this is by hosting pilgrimages throughout each year, in which pilgrims are immersed in the culture of the historical Church and the lives of the saints. To learn more about our various ministries, visit PilgrimCenterofHope.org.

Beating Culture War Swords Into Plowshares

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Peacekeeper

Bl. Mother Teresa told this story when she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979:

I had the most extraordinary experience with a Hindu family who had eight children. A gentleman came to our house and said: Mother Teresa, there is a family with eight children, they had not eaten for so long – do something. So I took some rice and I went there immediately. And I saw the children – their eyes shinning with hunger – I don’t know if you have ever seen hunger. But I have seen it very often. And she took the rice, she divided the rice, and she went out. When she came back I asked her – where did you go, what did you do? And she gave me a very simple answer: They are hungry also. What struck me most was that she knew – and who are they, a Muslim family – and she knew. I didn’t bring more rice that evening because I wanted them to enjoy the joy of sharing. But there were those children, radiating joy, sharing the joy with their mother because she had the love to give. And you see this is where love begins – at home.

I think of this as I reflect on Simcha Fisher’s article at Aletia, Poor Family! Dear Synod Fathers, the Faithful Sheep Are Suffering, Too. In it, she covers a lot of ground on behalf of the suffering faithful who, obedient though they are, never escape the various crosses that come for us all.

“Last week, I shared “Married to an Angry Man, an open letter to the Synod Fathers, a guest post by Monica More (a pseudonym). Monica does not want an annulment, easy or otherwise. She just wants someone with authority to tell her angry husband that it’s a serious sin to scream and curse at her, to belittle her, to allow his rage at the world to explode inside the walls of their Catholic home.”

Fisher continues,

“Then I got an avalanche of letters from women who are living Monica’s life. They aren’t trapped in some irregular marital situation. They’re just brokenhearted. They want someone to acknowledge that conventional, domestic sins can devastate a family. They want someone to hear their sorrow. Poor families! We can become so caught up in the great cultural and spiritual wars of our era — wars that swirl around avant-garde sins begging for extravagant mercy — that we forget the family back home, the poor family, the ones we’re defending when we go out to fight.

We live among tribes that fight viciously for our attention. Every day there’s another story about how society is so much closer to its collapse, and it’s all those people’s fault; or how the other side will finally be destroyed by some new artifact of the news cycle. The Culture War divides everything up into mutually exclusive sides and constantly demands support in the form of collective outrage.

But while we stare at the television and shake our heads, we are hungry, and our neighbors are hungry. I know this because I’ve been hungry, and I’ve lived with and befriended people who are hungry for understanding, to be known, cared about, affirmed that they are good and worth something. People are hungry for someone to treat them like human beings – whether it means visiting them when they’re in a community home, or talking about the Cowboys and having a beer.

Some people are basically okay, but they’re lonely. Some people are worried about their finances or their children. Others are miserable because their spouse makes life entirely too painful to bear, and refuses to change. So many suffer quietly, without the bonds of family and community to help ease the weight of their cross.

Why? Why is it that a Hindu woman in India can carry some of her first meal in much too long to her Muslim neighbor, while so many families in the U.S. languish in isolated misery? “What struck me most was that she knew,” Mother Teresa said. “[A]nd who are they, a Muslim family – and she knew.”

Perhaps it was because the Hindu woman had fewer distractions in her life. I’m utterly convinced that the Culture Wars are soul-sucking. There are real concerns to have, yes, but when Catholics allow ourselves to be blown about by every gust of manufactured outrage that TV’s talking heads bellow about, we’re submitting to the utter distraction of toxic windbaggery that God is not in.

It’s time to go where politicos dare not tread: the heart of the world in our neighborhood block and the withered branches of our family trees – without an ideological agenda. It’s time to beat our culture war swords into plowshares. Do you know what your neighbors need? If not, try finding out over a barbecue. Or maybe just take a plate of food over because you made too much for your household. Be creative, but not fancy. Be patient and good-natured, forgiving and considerate. If your neighbors are pretty much fine and don’t really need your help, great! Be friendly anyway. It’s not likely they’ll come asking for help when they need it if they don’t know you, and vice versa.

Whether you’re a liberal or conservative, or neither, know that God smiles about this sort of thing. Jesus likes it. Know that this helps bring about the Kingdom of God in the ruinous City of Man, and stores treasure on Earth as it is in Heaven.

“Will few be saved?”

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Illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatory by William Blake

A few weeks ago, someone commented on a video claiming that most of the world will go to Hell and only a relative few will make it to the pearly gates.

As proof, he cited Matthew 7:13-14:

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.

Right out of the gate, it ought to be said that proof-texting is a Fundamentalist thing. Catholics should be wary of citing isolated Scripture verses out of context in order to “prove” a proposition.

Now let’s look at the verse. At first glance, it does seem to support the idea that only a piddling minority will be received into Heaven. It says right there: few! But look again and you’ll notice that nowhere in the verse are either Heaven or Hell mentioned.

It’s easy to read “the road to destruction” and “the road to life” as references to our eternal destination, but it’s not necessary. And it makes less sense when we look at the rest of the gospels and our daily experience.

Every waking hour of every day temptation presents itself, and every sin destructive. Telling a lie distorts the soul. It was only the eating of the forbidden fruit that lost paradise for Adam & Eve and all humanity down the line. The wages of sin is death, every time, to some degree: death to integrity, poison injected into relationships, the sapping of spiritual life. And all have sinned.

We all need grace, and lots of it. But is grace “narrow” and do “few” find it? Not really. It’s everywhere. In fact, a good number of saints have left the world with their last words, “Everything is grace.” If you only pay attention to what makes the world terrible, you’ll be less inclined and less able to see grace around you. And in you. But it’s there, and God gives freely and generously even to those who are undeserving (read: all of us).

So what does Christ mean by “few”?

Some have said that Jesus was in fact referring to Heaven in this verse, but that “few” to humans means something different than it does to God. For if any number of people refuse to enter into eternal life with God, how can the Father of Mercies believe that “enough” entered Heaven?

I like this idea, but I think the verse above means something else. I think Jesus wasn’t calling attention to our eternal fate, but to the possibility of sainthood here on earth.

The saints will always be the minority. Those who lived with heroic virtue and extraordinary holiness at the service of God and neighbor while on earth – they not only know the oceanic breadth of God’s grace and mercy, but the harrowing depth of unity with Christ. Think of Mother Teresa, who spent years in “darkness”, no longer feeling God’s intimacy as she once did, but soldiering on in faithfulness to Christ’s call. Think of how difficult it must be to live when you have surpassed the depth of faith of everyone else around you, save Christ. To suffer and still give joy to others – that’s the narrow road, and those who endure it on Earth and into Heaven, indeed, are relatively few.

But for the rest of humanity, the uncanonizable hoi poloi?

God’s mercy is such that it’s possible to sin and cause destruction – even sin greatly, and cause great destruction – and still be saved. Whether this takes place early in life or late, God’s willingness to take us as we are remains. Even if one is a great sinner, God will do His best to reach them. And even though one may not be an extraordinary saint, it doesn’t mean they’re inclined to fully reject God for all eternity.

Most likely, we’ll need some time sorting out the details in purgatory. St. Paul says:

Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” (1 Corin. 3:11-15)

The saints are the people who “builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble” – and make no mistake, God wants us to try to be saintly, on earth as it is in Heaven. But his mercy is wider than the earth.

Will few be saved?

Ultimately, we don’t know. But a) we don’t have to believe that only a few will be saved; and b) we ought to hope that all will be saved, just as God desires.

Blessed are the Pure of Heart

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“The Eucharist and other people are the two most sacred objects you will ever lay eyes on.” – St. Teresa of Avila

“Christ did not die for the good and the beautiful” – Shusaku Endo

I haven’t identified as “pro-life” since college, not because I disagree with pro-life principles, but because movements give me the jibblies. But pro-lifers are doing good work, and lately I’ve been especially impressed.

Abby Johnson, former Tyler, Texas Planned Parenthood Director, pro-life author, speaker, and founder of And Then There Were None (offering financial, emotional, and legal support for anyone wanting to leave the abortion industry), spoke alongside Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ, leading advocate against the death penalty. They presented at the Consistent Life Ethic Conference in Austin, Texas.

Consistent Life Ethic (CLE) is a term used to describe opposition to abortion, capital punishment, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and unjust war, as forms of violence against the ultimate dignity of the person. Joseph Cardinal Bernadin promoted the idea after the Catholic pacifist Eileen Egan challenged 1970’s pro-lifers to adopt a holistic defense of all human life. “When human life is considered ‘cheap’ or easily expendable in one area, eventually nothing is held as sacred and all lives are in jeopardy,” Cardinal Bernadin told a Portland, Oregon audience.

At the conference in Austin, topics included abortion, racism, feminism, and the death penalty. The latter presentation garnered a low turnout, but it was an applause-worthy effort to get people talking about all of these issues under the same roof.

Especially interesting was that the feminism talk was given by Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa and Kristen Walker Hatten of New Wave Feminists, a group of pro-life and good humored feminists whose work I’ve come to admire more and more.

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Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa, left; Kristen Walkter Hatten, right.

Another proud moment: not long ago I opened Facebook to see this conversation from a pro-life friend, two days after a woman was arrested for throwing a molotov cocktail at a group keeping vigil in front of an Austin Planned Parenthood.

LConvo

My friends, this is exactly the way that Christ flips the world upside down.

Christ Overturning the Money Changer's Table - Stanley Spencer (1921)

Christ Overturning the Money Changer’s Table – Stanley Spencer (1921)

Of course, I can hear the objections. Let her get angry if she wants to! The world will always hate those who stand up for the Truth, but how is she going to learn the Truth if you don’t tell her! More than giving her toothpaste, love means teaching people the Truth even if they’ll get mad. She may just think some pro-choice people sent her the money.

There are problems with this way of thinking.

First, have you ever received a gift that wasn’t really a gift? Your friend buys you a stick of deodorant, and you’re like, Oh, how thoughtful. It’s like that, especially if for some reason you were someone violently opposed to deodorant.

Second, Christ didn’t say, “Love your enemies so that you might win them over or convert them.” He said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you . . . [your heavenly Father] makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. . . . So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:43-48).

Kindness, mercy, love of enemies are all part of the truth, part of the “light of the world”. They don’t need to be attached to another message in order to scatter the darkness, and indeed, shining too much light on someone who’s lived under lacquered skies can be too unsettling to be much help. Yes, Christ “told it like it is” when push came to shove, but that’s not a license for Christians to SHOVE SHOVE SHOVE because maybe it’ll help.

Third, if she doesn’t know pro-lifers sent her money, so what? We can’t fastidiously ensure every single scattered seed takes root in the way we see fit. Such an approach is not only doomed to fail, it’s terrible for our own spiritual health. Our own hearts are knotted with good intentions and bad intentions, wounds and selfishness, and charades that only God sees through. Other people’s hearts are ever more shrouded in mystery. Yes, the world is in bad shape, and we are called to do our part. But only God sees clearly, only God is the source of all grace, and because of our limitations, we must seek to imitate God’s respect for human freedom.

Freedom is what dignifies us and enables us to live as temples of the Holy Spirit, and we are not to bring our own schemes into the temples of our Father. We must learn how to love while respecting their freedom – not always an easy task. When we persist in trying to change people when they’re cornered and have no choice, we aren’t reflecting God. Instead, we come across looking like terrible sea lions.

Terrible Sea Lion

Maybe in a year the woman who threw a molotov cocktail will still be pro-choice. Maybe she’ll die pro-choice. But she’ll receive mercy in prison, and that’s reason enough. Hopefully too, she’ll be more predisposed to receive mercy on the last day. And in the mean time, you know, find less reasons to firebomb people.

Scatter and move on. The rest is God’s business.

You’ll notice that these reasons are for both parties: the gift giver and the receiver. This is because every single person is a living image and likeness of God.We are brothers and sisters to Christ. We are equals in the eyes of the Lamb of God. What one person needs to receive, another person needs to give. That’s another foundation corner of the consistent life ethic: we need each other. No matter what sins we’re guilty of, we need each other.

Pray that God will give us a pure heart to see this.

“Beatitude 6 – Consciousness” – Stanley Spencer
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (in other people).
Matthew 5:8

The Catholicism of Creation

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During Friday Mass at my private middle school, the choir occasionally instructed us from the green Gather hymnal thusly:

The heavens are telling the glory of God, / and all creation is shouting for joy! / Come dance in the forest, come play in the field! / And sing, sing to the glory of the Lord!

It was a bit much to ask from young boys in their first throes of puberty, but the Marty Haugen-leaning taste of our choir director prevailed against this fact and others, such as that Americans had changed a great deal since the 60s, and were much less inclined to be seen dancing in forests. What’s stuck with me over time, though, is that first line, which is adapted from Psalm 19, the “Psalm of the Sun”:

The heavens declare the glory of God; the firmament proclaims the works of his hands. Day unto day pours forth speech; night unto night whispers knowledge.

It occurs to me that, if Christ is Catholic (as Hans Urs von Balthasar noted, he is), and if “[a]ll things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be”, then Creation must have some sort of Catholicism. Amen, amen, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race” (Jn 1:3-4).

Creation harbors a sort of protoevangelium, or primitive gospel. Paul tells us, “Ever since the creation of the world his (God’s) eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made” (Rom 1:20). How so? Well, “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator” (Wis 13:5). As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
crushed
(from “God’s Grandeur”)

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GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
(“Pied Beauty”)



Flower
When perceiving something beautiful, the natural thing is to want to thank somebody, even if imperceptibly. But nature is not all sunshine and dewdrops, of course. Animals eat each other. Some insects enslave and zombify each other. The jewel wasp, for example, stings a cockroach with venom that blocks it’s escape instinct neurotransmitters, then leads it back to a burrow by the antlers where it deposits an egg in its abdomen, and then leaves before closing the burrow entrance with pebbles.

Nature can be ruthless, unruly and undependable. “It’s not for no reason that Christ called Satan the Prince of this world,” observed Simone Weil, and human hearts aren’t the only things that death touched when it entered. But that whole sentence Weil refers to is, “Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out” (Jn 12:31), and just a few verses earlier Jesus uses this poignant nature metaphor:

Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.

If even nature was thrown into a warp by the sin of our first parents, the redemption of Christ will extend literally to the ends of the earth. “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them” (Isa. 11:6). Paul’s “O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55) will apply to the redemption of man as well as the ant-decapitating, honey bee mind-controlling phorid fly. In the mean time, closeness to nature provides Catholics with a God-given description of our faith. In “The May Magnificat”, Hopkins compares Mary to Spring:

All things rising, all things sizing
Mary sees, sympathizing
With that world of good,
Nature’s motherhood

Czeslaw Milosz saw this implied familiarity between nature and faith when he wrote his trio of poems on “Faith”, “Hope” and “Love”. The last one goes:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills–
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.
Then he wants to use himself and things
So that they stand in the glow of ripeness.
It doesn’t matter whether he knows what he serves:



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Stand in the glow of ripeness. That is, in the light of beauty, goodness and truth; in their full incarnation. That’s as good a definition of holiness as any. That’s an excellent description of evangelization, in my opinion. While we wait for nature’s odd couples to settle their differences, we can wonder at, and participate in, the flux of death and resurrection that ripples out across the universe, encompassing grains of wheat and white dwarf stars, from the center of the Cross – indeed, the heart of the Church. So let’s occasionally break free from the four walls, the flourescent light, the manicured lawns, and keep up with our old Mother Earth, visiting her from time to time.

For,
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with
ah! bright wings.
(from “God’s Grandeur”)
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Feast of the Baptism of the Lord

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A few Friday nights ago saw me with a couple of friends at Culver’s a sort of cross between Dairy Queen and Carl’s Jr. and the new Heaven and new Earth, specifically the new Wisconsin. The menu features “ButterBurgers”, frozen custards and concretes, and fried cheese curds. They offer a freebee “daily flavor” of frozen desserts, which is really a combination of syrups and mix-ins rather than a single flavor, in addition to your choice of candies or cookies or whatever you may want to add. Yes, it was my idea to go.

In some of the circles I travel in, the conversation always turns to spirituality at some point. So I wasn’t surprised when we rounded the corner from Niagara Falls to a light chat about spiritual growth. My friend to the left, I’ll call him Ray, had been to the falls as a seminarian in New York, before deciding to return to his native Texas. He said he had been too young to make that decision for life; he wanted to stay open for a while. Now he is in love and taking a second glance at college.

To my right, our mutual friend, I’ll call him John, talked about his life with addiction. He no longer felt gripped by the physiological craving and mental obsession that had plagued him and plunged him into chaos. He thanked God for helping him through his ongoing recovery. We nodded and laughed, and continued making small talk of the more ridiculous decisions we’d all made.

But the longer we stayed, the more I noticed a nervous, restless affect sprouting in John’s appearance. He was more eager to share from his own experience, strength and hope than Ray and I. His insistence on telling his story and wisdom-won was more than we invited by our own relaxed demeanors.

He reminded me of my younger self, all gung-ho passion and opinion and roiling impatience. Back then, I was much worse than being a little emphatic. Sometimes I’m still this way, but life has worn many of the harder edges of my prematurity into good ol’ nubular immaturity.

John said that now that he has some recovery under his belt, he notices the difference between someone who’s “egoistical” and someone who’s “spiritual” by the way they talk. Which set off a small alarm in me.

Early convert’s mistake, I thought. And isn’t it? As Catholic author and speaker Simcha Fisher has said:

“The human heart is a strange and tangled jungle of motivations and desires. We keep things hidden even from ourselves, and only God knows who is guilty and who is only wounded.”

Initial conversion, whether explicitly religious or to a better way in general, often makes temporary zealots of people. It’s like taking off sunglasses after wearing them for so long you’d forgotten how vivid the world really is. Do you see this tree? Look at it! Oh my gosh, the leaves are so green, not yellowish brown at all! PEOPLE, STOP STARING AT YOUR PHONES!

Which is good. Never begrudge the enthusiasm of a convert. But people tend to make the mistake of embracing a sublime new life by tamping their perspectives with fresh, wonderful, incomplete knowledge. We resist the mellowing and chock-full gradualness of life, which always requires responsibility for keener discernment and deeper relationships.

This is rooted in both ignorance and fear. Ignorance of some aspect(s) of the Gospel. Fear, for example, of “backsliding” into the bad old ways, or of not doing our conversion right and therefore being a failure. Old insecurities and selfish desires have yet to be worked through. We’ve only begun to take up our cross, but now we have something to help us feel better.

Leticia Adams, Round Rock blogger at Ramblings of a Crazy Face, host of a Real Life Radio show bearing the same name, and self-described “hot mess convert who loves Jesus”, said of her neophyte blunders:

I was just walking around as if life was great and acting so “high and mighty” as I’ve been told, as I arrogantly proclaimed how my life was so wonderful because I knew all the rules and was following them while other people suffered because they weren’t following them. When the hard times started coming I had the nerve to look at Jesus on the Cross and accuse Him of abandoning me when I was “doing everything right”. No I wasn’t. I was doing it all to impress everyone around me. Maybe even to impress myself. I wrapped myself in every single political cause that I could and made it my life’s mission to be outspoken about them all even if it meant losing close friends, because if they left then I could add that to my persecuted complex while patting myself on the back for being such a good Catholic.

On her radio show, she’s commented that she initially pushed (and pushed and pushed) her newfound faith on her family. Her husband eventually complained that he felt he couldn’t be himself around her. Her oldest son recently told her that he’s an atheist, which she sees in part due to her using religion to control him (at the time wanting her family to measure up to other Catholics’ perceived expectations).

At Culver’s, I was reminded of this quote by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Eventually, we learn that our cross only partially consists of everyone else’s failures to do things right, to love us enough. Mostly it’s bearing our own sinfulness, being brought to our knees again and again, becoming dependent upon God rather than being self-sufficient, and yielding to a narrow road for ourselves. There are times for teaching and correcting others, sure. Parents have the responsibility to raise children in the truth. Spouses and singles have the responsibility to love in the truth. With children, sometimes a little nagging is required.

But the truth should not be used to effect submission. When the latter is habitually done out of fear or laziness or the desire for us to be loved, it injects the poisonous aspect of domination into relationships. Because so many people are codependent, seeking unhealthy relief from past wounds, it may take a long time to realize that trying to control others is a sort of spiritual and psychological violence.

We need grace! We need the Holy Spirit. And we need the help of others who can teach us to live from a place of greater wholeness and love.

Leticia (I’ve talked to her a few times on Facebook and via email) is learning to love, support, and appreciate her family with the grace of God. The Catholic faith has taught her not to use them to satisfy her own needs, just as it teaches all of us to love humbly, and helps us to find healing. That’s the fruit of the Good News right there.

Which reminds me of last Sunday’s readings:

not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth;
the coastlands will wait for his teaching.
(Isaiah 42:2-4)

For just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
and do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
so shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
my word shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
(Isaiah 55:10-11)

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“Die Taufe”, Adi Holzer.

Advent, Beauty, and Salvation

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Immaculate Conception

“Immaculate Conception,” Matthew Alderman

In his book Spiritual Passages, the late Fr. Benedict Groeschel, OFM Cap, (may he rest in ambrosial peace), notes that people tend to be attracted to God by way of four transcendental values: beauty, truth, goodness, and unity. Everyone naturally delights in these, but each is oriented toward God with different emphases on each value.

Some find peace most of all in God’s ability to draw all things to himself (unity), while others are taken primarily by the authenticity of God as Truth, etc. But Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of the foremost influential theologians of the last century, theorized that every person is first drawn to God as Beauty. Perhaps this is why St. Augustine wrote of his adult conversion, praying, “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new”.

Whether we’re admiring a stunning piece of religious artwork, listening to a Tom Waits song, or holding a baby, beauty is the foundation of fascination. “Before the beautiful,” von Balthasar wrote, “no, not really before but within the beautiful—the whole person quivers. He not only ‘finds’ the beautiful moving; rather, he experiences himself as being moved and possessed by it.”

Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said (and several popes have quoted him) that “Beauty will save the world.”

Advent is here, the season of candlelit waiting. Christ rests in the warm darkness of Mary’s womb, and we try to keep indoors for long and chilly evenings. Christ was nourished by Mary’s body, protected by his mother and Joseph, who waited upon the Lord’s providence.

As dusk narrows our focus, let’s make repeated attempts to recognize beauty. And by that, I don’t mean trying to enjoy saccharine holiday specials and cloying artwork. I mean seeking out things that make faith both sweet and credible; that create a desire for other things that are good, pure, and intimate; that offer a space for us to rest, be healed, and challenged.

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“Second Dream of St. Joseph,” Daniel Mitsui

Contemplating beauty is not optional. Without it, we can’t be saved.

But if we train ourselves to ponder beauty, we can become the Church led by a Child (and a Dove), under the tender care of his Mother.

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“Mother of Turfan,” Nikolai Roerich

Who Would Want to Live in a Ghetto?

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“Alley”, Jacek Yerka (2004)

Here at the Pilgrim Center of Hope, I do a number of things, including screening telephone calls for our weekly show, Catholicism Live!. (That means if you called and weren’t given time to talk about your question or comment, you can blame me. Please send all hate mail to media@pilgrimcenteroffakeaddress.com)

Last week, we had a show about pornography, it’s toxicity, and tools for attaining freedom if you are one of the many men and women trapped in the grip of porn addiction.

The promo for this episode got thirteen shares on Facebook. Thirteen! But you know who didn’t share the promo?

The one lady who called in during the show.

I know this because I talked with her for a few minutes, and she vented her spleen about just how terrible it was that we were trying to educate the public about pornography and help for those mired in addiction.

Couldn’t we talk about something else?, she wanted to know.
There’s so much beauty in the faith and rich history of the Church, it would be better to tell others about those things, she asserted.
Do we really think someone who views pornography would listen anyway?, she posed.
And what if a child was listening and, you know, getting ideas!
, she fretted.

Maybe she has that last point; we could have put a disclaimer. But it was clear from the conversation that she just thought the subject was disgusting and didn’t want to be made uncomfortable. Nevermind mercy, forget hope – she just didn’t want to deal with the ‘ew’ factor!

Well, let me tell you: all sin is ugly. All sin. And there will always be particular kinds of sins that bother us more than others, often for good reasons. There is wisdom in being disturbed. But repugnance is no reason to draw up the Church’s lifeboats while casting an eye-roll.

There was one other comment this woman made that I found particularly revealing: she complained that our program had replaced the EWTN program on the Crusades. That, she asserted, is the kind of thing people should be learning about. We need to be able to defend our faith against the secular media, after all, and misinformation about the Crusades is always being used against the Church. In other words, why worry about sinners who are already lost? We need to defend ourselves!

No, people. This is exactly the wrong attitude, the un-Christlike attitude, and its ironic to worry about being misunderstood while advocating ignorance of others who need our help. I bring this up not because this woman has kept me up at night, but because I’m reminded of this episode as I read some of the feedback on the bishops’ recent document, Relatio post disceptationem, the result of a week of discussion at the ongoing Synod on the Family in Rome.

Much ink has been spilt over the emphasis on what’s called the “law of gradualness” – a long established, common sense rule of pastoral theology which encourages pastors to keep in mind that people grow into spiritual life gradually, rather than all at once.

The bishops have voiced a desire to ponder whether we have failed to create a welcoming atmosphere in the Church for people in “irregular unions” (homosexuals, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, cohabitating couples), and whether keeping the “law of gradualness” in mind would allow Church leaders to seek out, walk beside, and love mercifully such people even while they are not living in full communion with the Church.

Here is one beautiful section of the document:

21. The Gospel of the family, while it shines in the witness of many families who live coherently their fidelity to the sacrament, with their mature fruits of authentic daily sanctity, must also nurture those seeds that are yet to mature, and must care for those trees that have dried up and wish not to be neglected.

22. In this respect, a new dimension of today’s family pastoral consists of accepting the reality of civil marriage and also cohabitation, taking into account the due differences. Indeed, when a union reaches a notable level of stability through a public bond, is characterized by deep affection, responsibility with regard to offspring, and capacity to withstand tests, it may be seen as a germ to be accompanied in development towards the sacrament of marriage. Very often, however, cohabitation is established not with a view to a possible future marriage, but rather without any intention of establishing an institutionally-recognized relationship.

23. Imitating Jesus’ merciful gaze, the Church must accompany her most fragile sons and daughters, marked by wounded and lost love, with attention and care, restoring trust and hope to them like the light of a beacon in a port, or a torch carried among the people to light the way for those who are lost or find themselves in the midst of the storm.

25. …The Church has to carry this out with the tenderness of a mother and the clarity of a teacher (cf. Eph 4,15), in fidelity to the merciful kenosi of Christ. The truth is incarnated in human fragility not to condemn it, but to cure it.

Many Catholics in the public sphere have praised this unified shift in tone from the bishops. While there are challenges and open questions left to be carefully contemplated (as always), it is clearly addressing issues with due consideration, that have been seen as needing this kind of attention for a long time.

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Refreshment at the city’s fountain of Taorimina. Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1846)

But not all are happy with the document. Many Catholics, in fact, are downright panicky. Consider these comments gleaned from Facebook:

“The truth is that if it’s approval people want, there are many other better places to find it. The Church’s role should simply be to proclaim the truth. Those who have ears will hear and God will build His Church.”

“Having just attended a retreat on the family, and restoring family life, I got a very clear perspective on the family, and how broken the family is in our society, and how fundamental the family is to our society. This synod, if it persists in the homosexual context, will completely break what the family is.”

“Jesus called a spade a spade way more than anybody else in the Bible. The results of the questionnaire sent out last year should have the Fathers of the Church scared for their eternal lives having allowed so many people to not only fall into but also to embrace grave sin. Their response: to focus on the positive aspects of the sinful choices Catholics have embraced.”

Do you see the same defensive irony in these comments as the lady who called into last week’s show? On the one hand, the Kingdom of God deserves to flourish, to have its truth understood and its rich splendor appreciated; and on the other hand, the Kingdom of God is as poor as a ghetto, so if the doors were opened, the roof would likely come tumbling down.

One of these views is correct, and here’s a hint: who would want to live in a ghetto?

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Rainbow, New York City. John French Sloan (1912)