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Friday, December 14, 2018

A Night Of Rain

It's been raining often here for weeks. I had that semi-serious thought all semi-liberals and liberals have, that if it's raining this much this late into December, we've really done a number on our climate system. This isn't Florida; we have snow here.

Anyway.

While I usually love rain, because it reminds me of the waters of baptism, I'm getting a little sick of it. Last night, I thought it was starting to really get to me, and then I remembered the storms were in my soul. I went to Confession. Admittedly, I went to another priest, because although I can't quite figure out how not to break the heart of God, I didn't want to break Father's heart. Not yesterday.

I had another image for rain that came to mind: tears. Heaven knows I have had enough of those. Rain is a plot device in many stories. Writers got together and decided that "It was a dark and stormy night" is a terribly ham-handed way to start a story, and a sloppy way to convey sadness or foreboding. How'd we let the maker(s) of Blade Runner get away with that?

I'm pretty sure I don't have Seasonal Affective Disorder, but if this keeps up, all bets are off.

When the Scriptures tell us about the times before the Flood, the Lord says plainly, "I am grieved that I have made man on the earth." This of course brings up as many questions as it answers, one of which is, "How does a perfect, simple Being experience this?" And granted that us being told all this in our baby-talk that is human language doesn't possibly exhaust the reality of whatever this means, it is a mystery.

Water, in the mind of the Jewish people who received this story, was more than a bit dangerous and threatening. The sea symbolized destruction, great distance, and the goyim, the Gentile heathen who were not them.

That's part of why "the land" was so prominent: it was a promise from God, and it was not "the water."

Isn't it so that water reveals our vulnerability, our smallness? I was in the rain last night, and I thought about just how pitiable we are. Here one day, and gone the next.

And yet, a great saint says all our sins are but one drop of water, burned up in the consuming fire of God's love.

It is altogether fitting that baptism should be in water, and that it pictures dying, and rising again. Christ, in a way, mocks death in His victory. We will mock it also when we rise, though we die. St. Paul mocks death, saying, "O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?" This will be our song at the last resurrection, much like the song of Miriam, when Israel crossed the Red Sea on dry land, while their pursuers were lost to the waves.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

In Praise Of Bernie Sanders (Again)

One of the things that we have to recognize at a minimum is that "real" socialism--where a central government controls all aspects of economic life--doesn't work. It doesn't work--and is morally defective--partly because it denies the existence of private property as such; that the prudential decisions of what one individual determines, up to and including his material needs, and those of his or her family, are not to be subordinated and denied for the sake of the State and its self-preservation. The first part of that, you'd get wide agreement, I'd imagine. One of the problems of various totalitarian regimes ostensibly devoted to socialism, especially in the last century, is that they acquired enough power that the rights and duties of individuals were ruthlessly crushed, and subsumed. As seems to happen, the regime apparatchiks never seem to struggle to find food, and frankly, a lavish lifestyle. Anyway, numerous people on the "Right" in countries around the world have made plenty of hay out of this.

Left unaddressed of course, is the justice of capitalism, or lack thereof. Since I was born at the end of the Cold War, and I'm an American, I know the strict binary: It's either Soviet communism, or capitalism. We were right, and we're better, because we don't have gulags. It's really that simple, for many people. In reality, though, we have to think abstractly, that is, at the level of principle, to get where I'm going. Is it true that all economic transactions are morally neutral? Is it true that government as such exists, or ought to exist, solely to protect property rights? Is it true that the regulation of severe economic inequalities by government is per se illegitimate? Sorry to barrage you with questions that are actually statements, but my answer to all these questions is "no."

The only person I heard talking in moral terms about wealth, whether its scale or purpose, was Bernie Sanders.

Now, don't get me wrong; he might be leading us incrementally back to the failed experiments of the statist past; I don't know. And the mind of the Catholic Church on this question is nuanced, to say the least. I do know that to say the Doctors and saints and popes would be ambivalent about capitalism is grossly understating the matter. Even if Anthony Esolen isn't ready to accept that. I digress.

Still other people look at the Senator's alleged hypocrisy as reason enough to reject all of what he says. That might be satisfying, but that's not an argument, either.

As for me, I'm a Catholic, obedient to the Magisterium. So I find myself unable to be an obedient American. Americans have "dogmas," too. Problem is, they aren't true.

On a personal note, I have the privilege of seeing what happens when we treat the government--who has primary responsibility for the common good in all its facets--as a necessary evil. We leave people behind. People who have as much dignity and right to exist as anyone else.

By the way, you don't have to vote for Bernie, or anyone else in particular. But we'd better start listening. We can't build a better country until we start rejecting false choices, and articulating better ones.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Clarity Time: You Have No "Church"

I know I shouldn't get frustrated. Evangelicals don't know the mess they're actually in. They can't. The imperatives of Sola Scriptura do what they do. You have to account and explain for the reality of visible Christian division, and conceiving of the church universal as invisible seems to solve the most pressing problem, which is how Christians could be united when their visible communities so obviously aren't. More than the apparent obvious division, which any snarky papist could use simply as a talking point, is the dogmatic uncertainty this push for a false unity tries to hide.

The reality is this: Christians under the paradigm of Sola Scriptura do not agree on major points of dogma and Christian practice.

Just exactly how will you have a coherent Christian answer to any question?

Some people within smaller "conservative" communities are doing yeoman work, rediscovering natural law, ancient creeds, and all manner of things, and for that, I'm grateful. I'll save you time in this argument: all those things you're rediscovering are Catholic things. For all the rhetorical flourishes about the Reformers not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the Church of Rome is the baby.

At this point, an objection is raised: "You're divided, too!" And that's true. But we also have a notion of free will, that in fact, the Church has solemnly defined its teaching, and Catholics are choosing to dissent. It's not intrinsic to the paradigm itself. The "Church" as you define it can't define anything, because it doesn't actually exist. When someone says, "The church should do better on..." or even, "We the church as the Body of Christ should..." only the speaker knows what the referent "church" is supposed to be. Even if two or three people agree notionally that it is "all those who name Christ as Lord and Savior," exactly how is that to be accomplished? As a side issue, isn't it exhausting, having to answer for every person who claims to be a Christian? No wonder all these people are frustrated with the "Church"! What else could you be?

I'll say it again: Pretty much every single person who returns "home" to the Catholic Church started by asking, "What is the Church?"

It's not a mystery why the shortest flight back as it were, is through sexual ethics. There are plenty of people who have decided that Jesus doesn't care about that stuff. Still others, of course, naturally ask, "Why would God change His mind about this?" (He wouldn't.) You gonna tell Nadia Bolz-Weber she's betrayed Christ on sexual ethics? "Who died and made you Pope?"

That's why my other inquiring question was, "How do I know what I know, with respect to Christ, and the gospel?" Or, "Where does dogma come from?"

I get it, brethren. Submitting to the pope is not going to be easy. We know; we lived through all of them. But how much more can you lose, before you can't recognize Christianity anymore?

Monday, December 10, 2018

Restore The Years

People often joke, and are flippant about so-called "trigger warnings." I'm not going to do that. In fact, I'm giving you one now. This post may be hard to read, for all manner of reasons. If you can't make it through, I understand.

I have had a lot of opportunities to reflect upon death the past few months. I think one of the more difficult aspects of death, besides losing a particular person whom you love, is being reminded of all the others you have lost. We can be told a thousand times, "It really wasn't your fault," and we know the right answer; we can even say it. And still we find ourselves saying, "Did I do enough so that they knew how much I loved them?" The fragility of life confronts us ironically with our complacency, the knowledge that in many ways, we take our days for granted, as though they will never end.

In another context, I identify strongly with Will Hunting, the brilliant, haunted, abused working-class kid from Boston, played on film by Matt Damon. There he is, talking with Robin Williams' character. The psychologist tells him repeatedly, "It's not your fault." "I know," he replies. But you see moments later, he understands, but he has nowhere to go with his grief. He goes into the therapist's arms, sobbing. It's not really an answer, but then, if he doesn't let go, he may well turn that grief in on himself.

In one way, it's absolutely absurd to say that religion helps us cope with death, and with the world as it is. My friend James from high school is still dead. Alive one day, and gone the next. It was 21 years ago, and I think of him most days. He was really hurting inside, but he was funny and kind. Always helpful. I never would have made it out of high school without him. I wish I'd known him better! Truthfully, I took him for granted. You look to the sky and say, "Am I going to be whole again? Will we get that back?" Every tear, every thought, says those words. And as you get closer into the circle of your loved ones, those words echo louder. There is a reason why people toss around the word, "senseless" all the time, because death truly is. There are gradations of tragedy and unfairness, but you don't have to look far to see or hear about something that, for all appearances, is completely outrageous.

I can't really blame folks for the question, "Where is the all-powerful, good God?" If we dare to answer, we can only say, "There is something better on the other side." I should hope so! Fathoming worse is sometimes difficult. My pious soul can't handle being angry at God, but there is something comforting about the person who does. When God answers from the whirlwind, the person might be humbled, but he will still be. My read of the Scriptures is surely a picture of an enigmatic God, with ways I don't begin to understand, but insofar as I'm able to know "goodness," He is that. On the other hand, He doesn't see fit to spare us this trouble and sadness. I don't need to make sense of it; I need to get through it. When people make a mistake, it's this one. A tough balance to strike, to be sure.

The death of my father was a huge moment in my life. In some ways, it's the event that defines me. I have found healing in odd places. Interstellar was a 2014 film that helped. The noble Matthew McConaughey plays "Coop," a retired astronaut, recently widowed, with 2 kids. He's especially close to his daughter "Murph" (Murphy) a tomboy scientist much like himself. Coop is pressed back into service in the hope of saving humanity. He knows he'll likely miss most of her life, even if he does return. In the course of relating to her wisdom gleaned from his dying wife, he says, "We're just here to be memories for our children." It's the emotional heart of the film, and it lands like an Ali knockout punch. I understand this. I know what it's like to be the child of a memory, to subsist in a sense on the love of a father I barely knew. There is no way Mr. McConaughey could know what that meant. As I simply shook in my seat at the end, I realized that grief and healing were co-mingled. Joy and suffering. It truly seemed like the words of wisdom could have been my father's words to me. There is no accounting for taste, and feel free to hate it, but I'm thankful every single day for that story, and all those who helped it to be told.

Love is stronger than death. It's a lesson we know, but often forget. Not sentiment, or at least, not only that, but some power of Being that refutes death itself. It must have been Love that raised Christ from the dead. Therefore, the Father is Love itself. To live and to touch someone in a positive way may not save your soul by itself, but it can get close, or so it seems. If we did what we know to do, we might all get closer to the purpose of our lives, without a big arduous philosophical to-do. What is kindness, but the seeds of enduring love?

It's too simple to say, "Cherish your loved ones, because you never know" though that is true. We have to live as though everything we are will become one moment. Heaven is an abiding eternal moment of enduring Love. The tears will not be wiped away here. Absolutely, they are not. The best we can do is reflect the love we have received. With any mercy, our sadness here will be a passing shadow or cloud, when Love swallows up this world we know. Or, we could live in the darkness of our wounds. We could share the darkness. We could decide to turn the sorrow into rage. Not only to shake our fist at the whirlwind, but to be a whirlwind that destroys all semblance of joy or peace to be found here. We have known those who have done this. We shouldn't allow ourselves to become like this. Let's grieve in hope, a hope that lives on our solidarity with one another.

I don't know Todd Rundgren, mind you. He wrote a song called, "Love Is The Answer" in or about 1977. It became an Adult Contemporary hit for the duo of England Dan and John Ford Coley in 1979. Frankly though, Rundgren's version with his band Utopia is the best one. Anyway, it's a song about death, meaning, and love. I know Rundgren has some Christian experience, though he's probably mixing it syncretistically with other things. I tell you, I'm encouraged every time I hear it.

There is something about suffering that testifies to wholeness. What is suffering, but an awareness of a lack that should not be? Therefore, to suffer is to bear witness to evil, whether physical or moral. To bear up under it is to be a living refutation of it. Joy does not erase the suffering, but we are a conduit of joy, when we refuse to be subsumed. I can't tell you exactly how this is accomplished, but to speak of our sorrows and our loves is one way to begin.

In this way, "celebrations of life" get a bad rap, though we should pray in the face of death. If sin were not real and a problem, we would not need forgiveness. We are not saints simply by existing. On the other hand, the most unhelpful, unloving person you know could probably coax a serviceable eulogy out of someone. That's a testimony to what we are, and what we're meant to be.

We can't make a meaning out of this sorrow and death, but we might be able to find it, with God's help. Or to make a start, through the tears.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

My Yoke Is Easy

Some people find it very difficult to go to Mass. Other than the logistics of having a disability, I never have. Jesus said, "And after I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to my myself." The Church teaches us that at the offertory, this is when we prepare to offer ourselves and our lives in union with Christ. And especially when the celebrant prays, "Through him, with him, in him..."

In a typical morning offering, we pray, "O Lord, I offer You all my prayers, joys, works, and sufferings [in union with Christ offered in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass]."

Everything flows from Calvary, from the cross of Christ.

Not as though it isn't finished, but indeed, because it is. Jesus wants to bring the power of His Cross, indeed, His whole paschal mystery, into every corner of our lives. This is why we celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass over and over. The petition of the Our Father, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done" is a recognition that we have yet to experience "It is finished!" in so many ways. Hope is to keep desiring this, for ourselves, and all who are dear to us.

The Mass wears grooves in your soul. The Eucharistic prayers especially strike me as a definitive stand against "the world, the flesh, and the devil." Exorcisms get all the press, but the fundamental ordering of the universe that is the Mass is the reality that I understand.

There is no possible way I'd have gotten through this year without the Mass. Sooner or later, the sorrow of life has to go somewhere. People get weird, sick, and sad when they try to make meaning out of this life by themselves. Are you kidding? Sometimes,--Lord, have mercy!--they even give up.

But perhaps it seems like another burden to carry. One thing keeps me going. I see Our Lord on the cross. I see Our Lady keeping watch. And St. John, the beloved disciple, is there. Somehow, I know that I never have cried, I never have lost anything or anyone, without them there. If that's crazy, I'll take it. The "sanity" of this world has no power against that.