Friday, November 2, 2007

For Them, Life Has Changed, Not Ended

I am having trouble sleeping tonight, so I began thinking about friends, relatives and fellow Dominicans who have died, and whom I pray are with Jesus in glory. I continue to be blessed by their prayers and love, and I thought I might offer a brief litany of thanks to God for them.

Thank you, Lord, for Fr. Bernie, who remembered me and my classmate, Jose, in his daily Mass throughout my formation as a Dominican. He gave me my first priestly stole four years before my ordination, because he knew he would not live to see it. Is it merely a coincidence that Jose and I were the only two from my class of nine who were ordained?

Thank you, Lord, for my lay Dominican sister, Virginia, who kindly accepted my naive invitation to comment on my homilies, and then gave me brutally honest feedback wrapped in love. She had such a great devotion to the saints and to her friends that the saints were her friends, and her friends were encouraged to be saints. Was it merely a coincidence that she went to heaven on the feast of her favorite, St. Aelred, the patron of friends?

Thank you, Lord, for my Dominican sister, Kathleen Rose, whose laughter and love for ministry sustained her as she battled with breast cancer. Was it simply luck that gave us a sunny two days in the 70 degree temperature range on the Oregon coast in December the last time I saw her alive?

Thank you, Lord, for Granny Fones and Nana Simpson, the only grandparents I have any real memories. Granny served the sick in hospitals by cooking for them; she taught me how to play King's Corners, and I loved her easy laugh, and the clicking sounds her dentures made occasionally when she talked. I remember Nana bent in half as she picked dandelions in the yard, doing something to show her gratitude for living with my family for months at a time. She impressed upon me the importance of Scripture at an early age simply by reading her Bible in the blue chair in the living room sunshine.

Thank you for Fr. Antonio, who patiently dealt with my skeptical scientific mind as he taught me the way the ancient Greeks saw the world. I hope I never forget (and someday share) his childlike wonder at the beauty of the God's creation and the inspired creativity of God's human creatures.

I rejoice that for them, life has changed, not ended, and that their love for me is even greater now than it was during their earthly life. I rejoice that through Jesus in the eucharist we are still united, and I hope to be able to see them again, but with a love purified of selfishness, so that I can love them with and in the love of Christ.

For whom are you thankful today, among your brothers and sisters in Christ have gone to their rest? How have they inspired you? How will you remember them - and pray for them - on this feast of All Souls?

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Let me take a stab at this...

I’ve been following the dust-up regarding the word “evangelical” – the conflict between Protestant converts’ varied understandings and experiences of it and the negative images the word conjures in cradle Catholics’ minds, and the concerns about elitism and condescension on the part of those involved in such lay groups.

In my opinion, the best posts framing the issues and answering the questions are here (by Sherry W), here (also by Sherry), and here (Fr. Jim Tucker of Dappled Things), as well as Fr. Mike's post (below) from today.

From my perspective as a participant in the Institute's programs and an avid supporter for many years, I have to say this first regarding the charge of an elitist attitude: No one is trying to turn introverted, shy, prayerfully devoted contemplative cradle Catholics into happy-clappy extroverts who shout “Amen!” back at the priest during his homily and chatter incessantly about their “personal relationship with Jesus” to the person who sits next to them on the bus. No one is trying to turn faithful Catholics into something they’re not. The programs and resources of the Catherine of Siena Institute are not geared toward changing your personality; rather, they are designed to treat your personality, your personal conception and experience of God, and your specific charisms with the greatest of respect and care. Discerning one’s charisms in response to God’s call is a deeply and uniquely personal process, and the Institute’s goal is to equip you intellectually and emotionally to grow into the best you that God designed for you to be.

Though the standards of holiness are the same for us all, because of our unique personalities, holiness looks different on everyone – and this is what we recognize and encourage. Our vision is the diametric opposite of elitism – for how could we measure such a thing? Could we say that St. Thomas Aquinas was a more “intentional” disciple than St. Francis of Assisi, or vice versa? That Mother Theresa was more “evangelical” than St. Teresa of Avila? Taking the analogy of the human body for the Body of Christ, for a moment: Is the eye less important to the function of the body than the spleen? Is your right hand more important than the hormones secreted by your pancreas? Please – anyone who’s ever actually encountered the programs or materials of the Institute can vouch for the fact that charges of spiritual arrogance or elitism are unfounded (except for the unfortunate fact that we all sin personally now and again).

To me, “intentional discipleship” means “things I think about and plan on doing for/with Jesus, and then I do them”. There are no prescribed practices, no celices, no special society prayerbooks. Nothing but the “me” I’ve dedicated to the service of God and my fellow man on planet Earth; the equipment He’s given me in terms of my talents, experiences, and intellect; the resources of the Church and the power infused into my soul by the Sacraments; and my willingness to do the tasks and love the people He sets before me each day. That’s it.

I’ve been reading a book by Fr. Luigi Giussani, the founder of Communion & Liberation, entitled The Journey to Truth Is an Experience. Here’s a quote from his exegesis of Acts 1:12-14 that describes what happens when someone encounters Christ in a personal way, i.e. responds to the kerygma with faith, i.e. has an experience of Jesus Christ that radically alters their view of themselves and their place in the universe:

One who truly discovers and lives the experience of powerlessness and solitude does not remain alone. Only one who has experienced powerlessness to its depths, and hence personal solitude, feels close to others and is easily drawn to them. Like someone lost, without shelter in a storm, he or she feels his or her cry at one with the cries of others, her or her anxiety and expectation at one with the anxieties and expectations of all others.

Only one who truly experiences helplessness and solitude stays with other people without self-interest, calculation, or imposition, yet at the same time without “following the crowd” passively, submitting, or becoming a slave of society.

You can claim to be seriously committed to your own human experience only when you sense this community with others, with anyone and everyone, without frontiers or discrimination, for we live our commitment to what is most deeply within us and therefore common to all. You are truly committed to your own human experience when, saying “I”, you live this “I” so simply and profoundly that you feel fraternally bonded to any other person’s “I”. God’s answer will reach only the person committed in such a way.
(Giussani, Fr. L. The Journey to Truth Is an Experience. Quebec City: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006, p. 55-56)

Fr. Giussani’s words take some pondering and unpacking, but what I get from the above passage is this: It’s only through our experience of Jesus Christ, the One Reality, that we can have any sort of healthy bond to our fellow creatures at all. The recognition of our own powerlessness, sinfulness, emptiness, and aloneness without God is what we truly have in common with every other human being, and it’s on this basis that we bond, with the goal of helping one another succeed in apprehending the grace that God offers us and becoming what God intends for us to be. It’s only through the personal recognition of the truth of who God is, and therefore who we are and what our experience means, that we can be knit together in a diverse, complex, yet unified entity that can be a powerful force for good on our planet.

Every Protestant I know would agree with the following statement: The experience of Christ always leads a person to the Christian community. Though some Christians don’t make it into the Catholic Church, they still respond the best they can to Christ’s directives in the Scriptures, not the least of which is “We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:25) Yes, Protestant ecclesiology is different; though they don’t believe in The Church, nearly all believe in a church. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be anything we call a “Protestant denomination”; we would simply encounter individual Christian believers outside the Catholic Church, floating like tiny atoms of light in the midst of the darkness that surrounds us.

I hope this helps to allay the concerns of those who fear a “Protestantization” of the Church, but I don’t know if it will… Comments? Clarifications? Questions? (Coffee?)

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Some thoughts on justifying faith

I sometimes wonder if people who stumble across our blog might wonder just how Catholic it is with all the talk about intentional discipleship and the personal relationship with Jesus. That language often invites rejection from Catholics who fear a "me and Jesus" stance towards faith that disregards the importance of community. I would propose the contrary. Intentional discipleship impels us towards community.

In the 16th century, when the Reformers cried, "justification by faith alone," the bishops at the Council of Trent decreed that only faith that is active in charity and good works (fides formata, i.e., "well-formed faith") possesses any power to justify us (Gal 5:6, 1Cor 13:2). This well-formed faith, which is our response to grace, is what Sherry and I are calling intentional discipleship. The teaching of Trent stated that a faith lacking in charity and good works is dead in the eyes of God and insufficient for justification (James 2:17).

The Church's teaching tells us that the faith which justifies the believer begins with a firm belief in what God has revealed and is intimately linked with a conversion of heart and a desire to live a new life. That new life is characterized by love for others and contrition for one's sins and the adult to seek baptism – or, if already baptized – confession. Both of those aspects of a new life require me to have a regard for and participation in community. Real love is not just a sentiment, but a desire for the good of others that leads to action. Contrition for sin requires that I examine my relationship with others and begin to see how I have harmed them by both actions and the lack of action. Intentional discipleship is anything but, "me and Jesus."

So what does it mean, then, that the lines for confession are so short these days? I suggest it's not just that we've lost a sense of sin, which is definitely a part of the problem. But we've also lost our sense of honest self-awareness as well as a sense of adventure! We may well have also lost the communal aspect of being a person of faith as well. We're complacent and self-satisfied with the way things are – particularly the way WE are - and aren't ready for the radical change to which God invites us.

An article appeared in the Colorado Springs Gazette January 2 that caught my attention. It was entitled, "You're Not That Hot," and reported that researchers have discovered again and again that many people systematically misjudge their competence, virtues, relevance and future actions. We consider ourselves to be smarter, luckier, better looking and more important than we really are. Might as well add "more moral" to that list.

Until we begin to emphasize that faith is the beginning of God's work of transforming us, calling us to a new life, life in its fullness, we will not only see short lines for confession, we'll find a dearth of intentional disciples. The Gospels relate how Peter, Andrew, James and John abandoned their lives as fishermen to follow Jesus. They were literally willing to "live without nets." That's what we must be willing to do, too. By "living without nets" I mean not only the willingness to change careers, if necessary, as those fishermen did, but to live without relying upon the "common sense" attitudes our culture teaches us and our egos crave. We must be willing to abandon ourselves to the teaching of Jesus that remains so counter-cultural and counter-intuitive: loving our enemies; loving our neighbor NOT as we love ourselves, but as Christ has loved us (Jn 13:34); imitating Him who came "to serve, not to be served" (Mt 20:28); forgiving those who offend us. This is not "me and Jesus" faith.

Of course, we cannot do this on our own, but only in cooperation with God's grace. We cannot do this without the support of a rich sacramental life in which we encounter Christ's presence among us. We cannot do this well without the support of other intentional disciples who are on the same difficult, yet joyful journey. Finally, we cannot do this if our lives are not saturated with prayer, including the quiet prayer of contemplation in which we present ourselves to God as we truly are: needy, poor children who depend upon our Father for everything. All of these are integral to the formation of a well-formed, justifying faith.

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