Thursday, August 28, 2008

Love Is from God

From The Paradise of the Desert Fathers:


The old men used to say, "there is nothing worse than passing judgment."

They said of abba Macarius that he became, as it is written, a god upon earth, because just as God protects the world, so abba Macarius would cover the faults that he saw as though he did not see them, and those which he heard as though he did not hear them.

Abba Pastor said, "Judge not him who is guilty of fornication, if you are chaste, or you will break the law like him. For He who said 'Do not commit fornication' said also 'Do not judge.' "

A brother asked abba Poemen, "If I see my brother sin, is it right to say nothing about it?" The old man replied, "Whenever we cover our brother's sin, God will cover ours; whenever we tell people about our brother's guilt, God will do the same about ours."


A brother in Scetis committed a fault. A council was called to which abba Moses was invited, but he refused to go to it. Then the priest sent someone to him, saying, "Come, for everyone is waiting for you." So he got up and went. He took a leaking jug and filled it with water and carried it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, "What is this, father?" The old man said to them, "My sins run out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I am coming to judge the errors of another." When they heard that, they said no more to the brother but forgave him.

A brother sinned and the priest ordered him to go out of the church; abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, "I, too, am a sinner."

When I first read the Desert Fathers, I kept running up against this teaching. At first, I kept my reservations about it. Milquetoast, I thought. A spade ought to be called a spade. In the course of time, I have begun - and only just begun - to realize that this teaching is, perhaps, central to what it means to me to be Christian. Because a refusal to judge springs out of a heart of love. And a refusal to judge springs out of the recognition of one's own sinfulness before God, one's recognition of one's own forgiveness. And my sin is great. My need for God leaves me breathless before Him, without legs, casts me upon his greater grace and love.

I know less each passing day. I have learned that I don't love well. I would grind my teeth in darkness and utter solitude - that is what is in my heart, and it draws at me constantly. And that is hell. When I first heard the Fatima prayer within the Rosary, I was unsettled by its talk of hell: "O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, bring all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy." I'm not big on hellfire or, for that matter, brimstone. But as I submitted myself to the practice of the Church, I began to realize something about me and about this prayer. When I pray O My Jesus, I am asking Jesus to rescue me not from some eternal damnation that will come one day if I embrace death rather than life, but I am asking him to rescue me from the hell within my heart, that is there each moment of every day, that threatens to engulf me. That is the recognition that I'm coming to understand: Heaven and hell are within my heart.

Neither science nor bad theology makes me doubt God. The thing that makes me doubt God, when I doubt Him, is those who claim Him. Those who would tear down everything and everyone that they might be taller. I read, I listen. I hear such terrible judgments pronounced. I see personhood overrun by ideology and pride. Where is love? There is God. So I must slap my hand over my mouth - because I am that man, that woman, who curses God in my neighbor and who engenders doubt within my own heart and countless others.

People are people. More than that, we are persons. We have such hidden hurts that are run over roughshod by those who ought to, should, must, need to know and behave better. But then, they have their own hurts, their own pain. Love is a better balm than judgment. "Beloved," says the Evangelist, "let us love one another."

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Saturday Night Prayer

This comes from the Liturgy of the Hours and is, in its simplicity, one of my favorite prayers, which I look forward to each Saturday.

"Come to us, Lord, this night, and give us the strength to rise at dawn rejoicing in the resurrection of your Anointed, who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen."

Monday, August 18, 2008


I usually am the first to complain about summers in the South. Too hot. Far too hot. Take last summer, for instance. For over a month the temperatures posted 95°+ without relent. No rain, just the unforgiving, driving heat. Not to mention that on the hottest day, 104°, my A/C was busted because I hadn't been changing the filters. (It takes me a while, but given the proper provocation, even I learn my lesson.)

This summer, however, has been milder and even though I begin sweating the moment I step outdoors (because I'm huge), I've enjoyed it quite a bit. I've enjoyed being outside swinging the boys. I've enjoyed tracking the progress of this year's argiope. I've really enjoyed it. It's hot. It's quiet. It's real. Outside is the opposite of abstraction - where the old table from a long-ago-disappeared Ponderosa restaurant is nearly rotted through. Where ants crawl across my writing page and pill bugs nest under my garden gloves. The mimosa is straining to make it through the month, and all that's left of the argiope, that happy yellow beast that sat with me in my solitude, is an egg sac attached under the overhang of my wooden carport, attached next to the holes drilled with the unnatural precision of carpenter bees. I'm anticipating the spider lilies. But while I wait, I'll be content with hydrangea, lyriope, and crepe myrtles. I do wish the argiope hadn't left so soon. I enjoyed her company.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Nominees at Saddleback

"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."

- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

First things first: While I did not write about his passing, Solzhenitsyn has whispered quietly, in the background of my mind, for many years now. I respect his voice, as one respects the prophetic voice that one finds in the exile, and I also greatly respect his artistry. May he rest in peace and may his memory be eternal.

Now for the potstirring.

Obama and McCain both answered questions from Pastor Rick Warren yesterday at Pastor Warren's church, Saddleback, in California. I found the informal forum last night interesting. It surprised me how well McCain fared with Evangelicals and conservatives - his storytelling worked. Amidst the ensuing hubbub, however, are a couple of points and or questions I'd like to throw out there into the inane ether of the blogosphere.

I liked hearing, and the audience certainly liked hearing, McCain say that he was pro-life and that his presidency would be pro-life. I liked hearing him say that life begins at conception. But what bugs me about McCain, and what I find disingenuous - at best - is that he also supports embryonic stem cell research. I would like to hear him explain himself on that point.

That doesn't mean Senator Obama comes out bright and shiny like a new penny. Some people, including some professional analysts, think Obama was vague in his answers to some of the questions. Now I didn't think he was. I always find Obama thoughtful and intelligent, and he seemed so to me last night. He is also responding to questions the answers of which (his answers) will float with that audience about as well as a lead balloon. It's like talking evolution at Ken Ham's dinner table. It takes some guts. Then again, as I've said before, I like Obama - he comes across easy and reasonable to me. But he didn't say anything new or shocking last night. That doesn't mean I liked his answers concerning those questions. That doesn't mean on those questions I thought his answers better than McCain's.

What disturbed me last night, because it was new, was the question about evil. Pastor Warren asked something along the following lines: Do you believe evil exists? And, if so, what should be done about it? I liked Obama's answer okay in that it covered a variety of evils - with the potential of evil even in our country. McCain, on the other hand, answered from the stump, which I found particularly disturbing. When asked about evil, do you go into a tirade about destroying al Qaeda and bin Laden? Chasing bin Laden to the gates of hell? Which brought to mind the Solzhenitsyn quote. Here it is again:

"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."

I understand these men are running for the presidency. They're not theologians or philosophers. I understand that they equivocate as they deem necessary. They're more concerned with their talking points than with real questions. I don't want it justified or need it explained to me. But evil is far more cunning than Senator McCain gives it credit. And such a simplistic and vehement answer to such a terrible question unnerves me.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

By the Way

We are expecting a baby girl at the end of December.


Yesterday, before Mass (Feast of the Assumption), our oldest was asked if she wanted to be an altar server. We questioned the wisdom of it. But she was interested and our priest and the other altar server said they'd keep track of her. She did great. But there was that one moment.

Next to the chair where our priest sits are three stools for the acolytes. When Sophie first sat down on hers she was expecting a chair back. Yeah. It really happened. She rolled off the stool backward onto the floor. All you could see were her legs kicking back and forth behind the stool as she tried to right herself. It was quite funny, but I kept a straight face and made sure she wasn't embarrassed to tears. When she got up, she was red, but had a grin on her face and took it in stride. She did great, and I was very proud.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Best for Us

"We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be."

- C.S. Lewis

I've only come across this quote recently, and I don't know where it comes from. Is it from one of his books, essays, or letters? If anybody knows the source, I'd be grateful.

Monday, August 04, 2008

To Be the Fool

In Chesterton's biography of St. Francis of Assisi he says something that takes me off-guard - that Francis was thought a fool and that Francis embraced his being a fool, and redeemed being a fool. Chesterton gives the analogy of digging through the earth, and how halfway through you begin digging up rather than down. I was struck by the similarity of his words and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter as Hester is branded with a symbol of shame and yet, through her godly and wise life, the red A becomes a symbol of something beautiful - not that adultery is beautiful, but that Hester is. She is transformed by it and therefore transcends it. This is what Christ does. He takes a curse (hung on a tree), descends into hell with it, and comes out on the other side with the symbol remade. So that now, I wear a cross around my neck - not as some macabre homage to Roman cruelty, but because the shame has become glory, because night has been made into day.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Offerings for the Cult

Lately, I have done my best not to write much about the differences between Protestantism and Catholicism here as I have both Catholic and Protestant readers. And I've miserably failed friends and family in the past by highlighting those differences. It is not my purpose to offend, just a bad case of overzealousness. Occasionally, however, this blog becomes a release valve for me to blow off steam, because frankly I've got no one with whom I can talk about my Catholic faith and my faith experiences.

So, to be clear, I'm about to blow off some steam. I am upset.

I get tired of the same old lines taught by fundamentalist Evangelicals as facts concerning Catholicism. I understand that this misinformation is not put out there maliciously; I understand that it is genuinely believed by those who speak it. I also understand that it is often propagated and even motivated out of love for us Catholics. Regardless, it is misinformation passed on from soul to soul, generation after generation. Sadly, there are too few who choose to investigate for themselves the claims of the Catholic Church, preferring instead ignorance.

Take this picture as an example. This picture is on the Web site of a young Evangelical woman my wife's family knows who is going to Chile as a missionary. (And I applaud her willingness to serve Christ and others.) Above the picture is the text of Romans 10.14, from the NIV: "How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?" (This is also an excellent example of the milieu out of which I've come, if you're interested - the Grace Brethren Fellowship, among other denominations). The collection box in the picture, clearly a Romish item, has the following Spanish written on it: "Ofrendas para el sostenimiento del culto" and then the poor soul in Latin America does his or her best to translate it for any American or English-speaking visitors and writes, "Offerings for the cult." And that's basically the literal translation of the Spanish. The only problem, and it's a big problem when the picture is bandied about as proof, is that it confirms the misinformation that many Evangelicals already believe about Catholicism, adequately serving their purpose, with little need of further proof. But it says nothing about Catholic belief and only demonstrates how languages work, and how literal translation sometimes does not. The meaning of the phrase is not "Offerings for the cult" (as an Evangelical would understand a cult), but "Offerings for the support of worship" or "Offerings for the support of the worship service." Now in ten minutes I could find a dozen Protestant Web sites with Spanish translations that include the words "del culto" for "worship" or "worship service." I even have a pdf from the foreign missions board of the denomination that is sending out this young woman that contains the following phrase concerning Church planting: "Planificar y llevar a cabo una practica del culto de adoraciĆ³n" or, as my Google Translator gives it, "Planning and carrying out a practice of worship." And yet here is the picture, offering evidence of the error of Catholicism.

Now this young woman is not the object of my annoyance, the misinformation is. It irritates me because the Catholic Church, while her members are certainly imperfect, has openly made known and published what she believes and practices in The Catechism of the Catholic Church, among a multitude of other documents and letters. Open the index of the Catechism, find a topic, and read what the Church teaches about that topic. At least disagree with what we teach, if you must disagree. Anyone with the faintest desire can pick up a copy and find out for oneself whether Catholicism teaches the worship of Mary, for instance. But so many Evangelicals refuse to do so. Why?

When I became Catholic I discovered that nearly everything I had heard about the Catholic Church in my adult life had been a lie. Nearly everything. One layer of misinformation lithified on top of the next. So I hear how desperately Catholics need evangelizing. I see Foxe's Book of Martyrs, anti-Catholic propaganda at its best, held in high regard (the pot calling the kettle a murderer - to mix my idiom). I listen to a sermon series by John MacArthur and there is not maybe 5 percent of the things he says about the Catholic Church that are true. I hear mockery and derision, and I hear all kinds of accusations, such as "unbiblical" and "apostasy" and "cult." It's exhausting. If anyone has the authority to accuse another of heresy, it isn't a denomination that has yet to see its 100th birthday, or even a schism that hasn't reached its 500th. And it's even more wearisome because as soon as I try to correct someone's misinformation, they want the channel changed. They say they don't want to discuss it. They say that I'm not going to change their mind so there's no sense in bothering to discuss it. They say they already know what the Catholic Church believes, and that I'm the one with the misinformation. They say that I'm argumentative and just want to be proven right, to win an argument. They fire off an accusation and then withdraw, guerrilla like, absolutely refusing to talk about the subject. And it upsets me. If they have the temerity to make an accusation, direct or indirect, they'd better have the courage for the conversation. Isn't that only fair?

Some of what I've heard in the past has been in response to my own overzealousness, my excitement upon converting to Catholicism. And I understand that kind of push back. So I'm trying to learn to be quiet. Yet even when I try to be quiet, the accusations are made. And I have never believed, nor do I still, that it is right to allow what is good to be spoken of as evil.

The Catholic Church has its problems. But being unorthodox is not one of them. Teaching the worship of Mary or idols or saints is not one of them. Having priests or bishops who don't believe what they profess may, on the other hand, be an ongoing issue. But then Protestant denominations have their share of the same kinds of leaders. Generally having a poorly catechized laity may be one of the problems facing the Catholic Church. But still the Church stands. Still the Church teaches and passes on the faith faithfully.

There is no room as brothers and sisters to accuse and withdraw, accuse and withdraw. At best, it is uncharitable. And what gain is there in holding so tightly to an assertion or belief that you are even unwilling or unable to look at?

I am not always gentle or fair or charitable - I've recognized and confessed some of those very failings here. I am in need of God's mercy, every moment - that is my position before God. I need him. But I must also say that the differences (and similarities) between Catholicism and Protestantism must be understood fairly and truly by each of us. We can't afford tolerance (i.e. acceptance as being equally true or valid) differing truths as Christians. We are called to be one. One. We are called to assent when we are called to faith, to submission and obedience. And to splinter or to start your own church community or to break off from your brothers and sisters in schism is to sin against charity - we are called to love one another. And to remain in disunity when you are convinced that Christ desires unity is also sin. The popular thinking of "I'm OK, you're OK" doesn't work in our faith. We need one another too badly. Catholics need their Protestant brothers and sisters. Protestants need their Catholic brothers and sisters, and they also need their mother, the Catholic Church. (We also, of course, both of us, need our Orthodox brothers and sisters.)

I mess up. I judge too quickly. I speak too quickly. I am not quiet enough or humble enough. I do not love enough. I do not treat with the proper respect those to whom my respect is owed. And I am under obligation to all of you. All of these things are true of me. This is also true: I love the Catholic Church. I believe that she is the Church established by Christ, and that Christ and the Church are the whole Christ. I believe that the first century Church was Catholic even if only as a seed, and that those first Christians believed in and taught the Real Presence, the Mystery of Christ, in the Eucharist, and believed in the necessity of regeneration through water (Baptism) and spirit (Faith). And I know, am beginning to know, the exceeding riches that the Church offers our world. I only wish you knew them too. I love my friends and family who remain Evangelical. I respect your faith and your journey. I trust God's work in your lives. He pours his grace out on you and rejoices in your friendship as you rejoice in his. But God is not alone. He is in the midst of a great company: Blessed Mary, the Apostles, the saints, and the angels surround him and worship him. They intercede for us and pray for our salvation. God wants his people to be one people. He wants us to share in communion with him and with one another. Come home.